Month: April 2008

Ain’t My America

The author is Bill Kauffman and the subtitle is The Long, Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle-American Anti-Imperialism.  Here is one excerpt:

Above all, they feared empire, whose properties were enumerated well by the doubly pen-named Garet Garrett: novelist, exponent of free enterprise and individualism, and a once-reliable if unspectacular stable horse for the Saturday Evening Post.  Writing in 1953, he set down a quintet of imperial requisites.

1. The executive power of the government shall be dominant.

2. Domestic policy becomes subordinate to foreign policy.

3. Ascendancy of the military mind to such a point at last that the civilian mind is intimidated.

4. A system of satellite nations.

5. A complex of vaunting and fear.

He could have listed this too.  In my view this book goes wrong by failing to consider that the right-wing, anti-militarist tradition was wrong on some pretty critical cases.  Nonetheless if you are looking for a well-informed, well-written, and up-to-date book on that tradition, consider this your go-to source.

Non-profit prediction markets

At Bet2give, an online electronic prediction market, anyone can “bet”
real money on the outcome of these events but with a twist – the
“winnings” go to a charity of the person’s choice.

Here is the full article, and here is  One of the "problems" with prediction markets is that they are zero-sum investments and traders cannot on average hope to come out ahead.  So why trade?  If only people really "in the know" trade liquidity will be low.  If too many "betting for fun" fools trade, the prices don’t mean that much.  You might get the right mix of informed and uninformed but who knows?  So the idea of doing these in charitable form might make some sense.

Why are gun owners so happy?

Arthur Brooks reports:

Who are all these gun owners? Are they the uneducated poor, left
behind? It turns out they have the same level of formal education as
nongun owners, on average. Furthermore, they earn 32% more per year
than nonowners. Americans with guns are neither a small nor downtrodden

Nor are they "bitter." In 2006, 36% of gun owners said they were "very
happy," while 9% were "not too happy." Meanwhile, only 30% of people
without guns were very happy, and 16% were not too happy.

In 1996, gun owners spent about 15% less of their time than nonowners
feeling "outraged at something somebody had done." It’s easy enough in
certain precincts to caricature armed Americans as an angry and
miserable fringe group. But it just isn’t true. The data say that the
people in the approximately 40 million American households with guns
are generally happier than those people in households that don’t have

The gun-owning happiness gap exists on both sides of the political
aisle. Gun-owning Republicans are more likely than nonowning
Republicans to be very happy (46% to 37%). Democrats with guns are
slightly likelier than Democrats without guns to be very happy as well
(32% to 29%). Similarly, holding income constant, one still finds that
gun owners are happiest.

By the way, if you are curious, I have never even touched a gun.

Addendum: Arthur has a new (and very good) book out, Gross National Happiness.

A trip to El Bulli

Air Genius Gary Leff crossed the Atlantic for one purpose alone and now the voyage is blogged, gripping throughout.  My favorite passage is this:

Two women walked in ahead of us, they had been meandering around the
grounds and then presented themselves (in sweatshirts and tennis shoes)
and asked to be seated for dinner… without reservations. They were
turned away in an exceptionally polite way.

Good Letter, Wrong Address

Mark Thoma has an An Open Letter to ABC about the Presidential Debate signed by Brad DeLong, Kevin Drum, Henry Farrell, Eric Alterman and many others. 

The debate was
a revolting descent into tabloid journalism and a gross disservice to Americans
concerned about the great issues facing the nation and the world….
For 53 minutes, we heard no question about public policy from either
moderator. ABC seemed less interested in provoking serious discussion than in
trying to generate cheap shot sound-bites for later rebroadcast. The questions
asked by Mr. Stephanopoulos and Mr. Gibson were a disgrace…

I agree.  The only thing the signatories got wrong was where to send the letter.  The letter should have been addressed to the American public.  After all, this debate, which came in the flurry of all the tabloid journalism of the past several weeks, was the most-watched of the 2008
presidential campaign.  The public got what it wanted.

The Horse the Wheel and Language

The tribes Europeans encountered in their colonial ventures in Africa, South Asia, the Pacific, and the Americas were at first assumed to have existed for a long time.  They often claimed antiquity for themselves.  But many tribes are now believed to have been transient political communities of the historical moment.  Like the Ojibwa, some might have crystallized only after contact with European agents who wanted to deal with bounded groups to facilitate the negotiation of territorial treaties.  And the same critical attitude toward bounded tribal territories is applied to European history.  Ancient European tribal identities — Celt, Scythians, Cimbri, Teoton, and Pict — are now frequently seen as convenient names for chamelon-like political alliances that had no true ethnic identity, or as brief ethnic phenomena that were unable to persist for any length of time, or even as entirely imaginary later inventions.

That is from David W. Anthony’s The Horse The Wheel and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppe Shaped the Modern World.  In particular this book focuses on the origin of the Indo-European language group and the relationship between archeology and linguistics.  He is also skeptical of Jared Diamond’s well-known thesis that early Europe had much diffusion of innovation in the East-West direction.  Recommended.

Climate solutions and carbon dividends

Peter Barnes, Climate Solutions: A Citizen’s Guide is the full title.  This simple book is written in the form of punchlines and cartoons but it’s still one of the more insightful treatments of the topic.  He is skeptical of a carbon tax:

A carbon tax will never be high enough to do the job.

A low carbon tax would create the illusion of action without changing business as usual.

His alternative proposal has four steps:

1. Carbon cap is gradually lowered 80% by 2050.

2. Carbon permits are auctioned.

3. Clean energy becomes competitive.

4. You get an equal share in the form of permit income.

The "carbon dividends" of course are intended to make the tax politically palatable.  Naturally I am worried by the idea of revenue addiction, not to mention the general practice of redistributing income from business to citizens simply because it is popular to do so.  It might feel pretty good at first but we don’t want to encourage Chavez-like behavior on the part of our government.

A broader question is whether the carbon dividends in fact make the citizenry better off.  First there is the question of the incidence of the initial carbon tax, which of course falls on individuals one way or another.  Second, does just sending people money, collectively, make the populace better off?  Aggregate demand effects aside, will the fiscal stimulus make the citizenry as a whole better off?  No.  Will printing up more money and sending it to everyone, even if that is popular, make people better off?  No.

(As an aside, does the Humean quantity theory experiment redistribute wealth from corporations — which don’t sleep on pillows and thus cannot wake up in the morning to "more money" — to individuals, who do sleep on pillows?  Or is the corporate veil fully pierced?  Just wondering…)

I fear versions of this idea whose (possible) popularity rests on tricking voters.  Being pro-science also means being pro-economic science. 

The general point remains that most discussions of global warming focus on prices and technologies alone, without incorporating realistic models of politics.  By the way, if you think John McCain is a straight talker, try this for yikes

The countercyclical asset

Sorry, but the problem has become worse and I have to blog this again:

In Haiti, where three-quarters of the population earns less than $2
a day and one in five children is chronically malnourished, the one
business booming amid all the gloom is the selling of patties made of
mud, oil and sugar, typically consumed only by the most destitute.

“It’s salty and it has butter and you don’t know you’re eating dirt,”
said Olwich Louis Jeune, 24, who has taken to eating them more often in
recent months. “It makes your stomach quiet down.”

Netflix pricing

It looks kind of screwy; 3 movies at a time is $16.99 a month but 8 movies at a time is $47.99 a month.  After three movies, the average cost of a rental (see the link for the numbers) is either flat or rising.  Why go for the 8 movies deal instead of setting up separate accounts and queues, thereby saving money?  Why is Netflix encouraging everyone to do the 3 movies a month version of the plan?  Why are there no quantity discounts past the 3 movies a month margin?  (And, by the way, aren’t there still lower prices for newbies, at least for a while?)

I suspect this is one of those pricing models that traps a small number of overenthusiastic patrons into paying more, keep a few others away from overgorging on old Jackie Chan films and then quitting prematurely, and de facto gives most customers a pretty flat pricing structure.  Transparency is sacrificed but does anyone really care?

The pointer is from Angus Hedrick.

The safety of elevators

Nonetheless, elevators are extraordinarily safe–far safer than cars, to
say nothing of other forms of vertical transport. Escalators are scary.
Statistics are elusive…but the claim, routinely advanced by elevator professionals,
that elevators are ten times as safe as escalators seems to arise from
fifteen-year-old numbers showing that, while there are roughly twenty
times as many elevators as escalators, there are only a third more
elevator accidents. An average of twenty-six people die in (or on)
elevators in the United States every year, but most of these are people
being paid to work on them. That may still seem like a lot, until you
consider that that many die in automobiles every five hours. In New
York City, home to fifty-eight thousand elevators, there are eleven
billion elevator trips a year–thirty million every day–and yet hardly
more than two dozen passengers get banged up enough to seek medical
attention. The Otis Elevator Company, the world’s oldest and biggest
elevator manufacturer, claims that its products carry the equivalent of
the world’s population every five days.

And I like this passage:

Two things make tall buildings possible: the steel frame and the safety
elevator. The elevator, underrated and overlooked, is to the city what
paper is to reading and gunpowder is to war. Without the elevator,
there would be no verticality, no density, and, without these, none of
the urban advantages of energy efficiency, economic productivity, and
cultural ferment.

Here is the article, interesting throughout.