Month: September 2008

You can stop worrying

Martin Feldstein and John Taylor reassure us:

And by maintaining strong control over the growth of government spending, Mr. McCain will bring the budget into balance. His long record of fighting against excessive government spending, his plans to veto earmarks and reverse the spending binge of the past few years, and his strong commitment to balancing the budget can make this goal a reality.

Here is the full article, hat tip to Greg Mankiw.

This article claims that goldfish are as smart as mice.

Good Money

At the dawn of the industrial revolution as workers left the fields and moved to industrial employment the demand for a means of payment increased dramatically.  Workers, once paid in kind, needed to be paid in a medium they could use to buy the necessities of life.  Small-tender bank notes, however, were illegal and in Great Britain the production of coin was monopolized by the Royal Mint which failed to provide enough high quality coin to meet the demands of workers and business.  Silver coin, despite the efforts of Sir Isaac Newton, was overvalued and fled the country.  Gold was too expensive to make coins suitable for workingmen and the Mint could not or would not produce high-quality copper coins.

Good Money is George Selgin’s explanation of how enterprising button makers solved what Sargent and Velde called The Big Problem of Small Change thereby making the industrial revolution possible.  Selgin is a monetary theorist so you might expect a dry account of monetary history but the mint-battle between Matthew Boulton, whom Wired once named the ultimate CEO, and copper-king Thomas Williams propels the story forward. If you can imagine, Good Money is something of a cross between Friedman and Schwartz’s A Monetary History of the United States (although not as broad in scope) and a business epic like Barbarians at the Gate.   I also liked how Selgin draws on newspapers, novels, limericks and tavern songs to illustrate the problems and events of the time.  This bard was both a good economist (he has Gresham’s Law!) and public choice scholar.

‘Tis Gold buys Votes, or they’d have swarmed ere now,
Copper serves only for the meaner Sort of People
Copper never goes at Court
And since on Shilling can full Twelve Pence weight,
Silver is better in Germany
‘Tis true the Vulgar seek it, What of that?
They are not Statesmen,-let the Vulgar wait.

The money problem influenced and was influenced by all of the major events of the day so Good Money is also an economic and political history of the industrial revolution.  Here’s an interesting tidbit. Company stores were not so much a way for firms to rip off employees (why not just pay them less?) but were rather a means of economizing on coin.  Selgin shows how the shortage of coin sheds light on a number of other otherwise peculiar business practices. 

What lessons can be drawn from the history of private coinage?  Private money circulated only if it was voluntarily accepted as a means payment.  Thus the primary problem faced by private firms was how to create trust and credibility.  To encourage circulation, for example, issuers promised to redeem their tokens in gold (which the Royal Mint did not).  In turn, the promise to redeem gave producers an incentive to make their coins difficult to counterfeit, which they did by making the coins beautiful – numismatists will appreciate the full-color illustrations of the private coinage produced by Boulton and his rivals – as well as technologically advanced. 

Today, the big problem of small change is no longer such a big problem, although shortages of wanted coin continue to occur sporadically around the world (e.g. here and here) as well as surpluses of unwanted coin.  Nevertheless, the basic problems of private coinage were trust and credibility.  Modern issuers of digital cash face the same problems and thus Selgin’s history is a valuable reminder about the scope and potential of alternative monetary institutions.

Full Disclosure: I was enthusiastic about Good Money when I read it in manuscript which is why it is published by the University of Michigan Press and co-published by the Independent Institute where I am director of research (n.b. you can buy Good Money at the previous link at a small discount to the Amazon price).

Mirrors as a means of reducing (increasing?) bias

People exhibit less prejudice when they’re in the presence of a mirror, Dutch researchers have shown. Carina Wiekens
and Diederik Stapel said this effect occurs because mirrors make us
more aware of our public appearance, and therefore remind us of the
need to fall in line with social norms.

Here is more.  Perhaps I have seen too many vampire movies, but in general I am of the opinion that mirrors have a real influence on our behavior.

Dealing with Darwin

A man who knows he has this allele, she added, might be able to use the
knowledge to ignore tugs of restlessness he might feel in his marriage:
"You can say, ‘Oh, it is just my DNA, and I am going to ignore it.’ "

…Fisher [an academic researcher], who described herself as a romantic, said she would not reject
a potential mate who has two copies of the risky allele. She paused,
then added: "But I might not start a joint bank account with them for
the first few years."

Here is the full story.  Maybe they should put that on a T-shirt: "Oh, it is just my DNA, and I am going to ignore it."

Assorted links

1. Anarchism and Justice, by Roy A. Childs, or at least part of it.  Here is more related material, all via David Boaz.

2. Joe Nocera on The Wall Street Journal.

3. Peter Leeson guest blogs for Freakonomics; I very much like his first post on UFOs.

4. New "ideas blog" at NYT; a nice try and it may get better but it still lacks a voice.

5. Bus reform in Santiago: a sad story.

6. Is commitment-phobia genetic?

Sorry people, I can’t resist

Which means I’ve been arguing this with Natasha.  But I’d like to point out: a) none of the commentators know the actual circumstances behind Bristol’s pregnancy, b) it’s unlikely the father was actually forced to marry Bristol; maybe he thought it was the right thing to do, c) I am very glad they are having the baby, noting that I do also favor birth control, d) There is and should be a general rule to treat candidates’ children with the utmost respect, e) I fully understand that John McCain needs to read Adam Smith on the division of labor, overconfidence, and also wise decision-making, f) when an attractive woman is criticized by less attractive men, large segments of the public respond accordingly, g) Obama is wise to say nothing about this, h) Palin should not be required to document every claim she makes about her personal life and it is little short of outrageous to demand gynecological information from her, and, most of all i) without families like this our nation would have no chance of affording the social welfare programs proposed by the Democratic Party.

I love the United States of America.

Addendum: Hail Kevin Drum, but read his commentators.

The Minnesota Somali autism puzzle

Somali students comprise only 6 percent of the Minneapolis school
system, but one-quarter of the children in the city’s early childhood
autism programs. Health officials are baffled.

Here is more.  Here is a follow-up story.  Oddly Somali families in Sweden call autism "the Swedish disease."  There hasn’t been thimerosal in vaccines for some time plus that would not explain the higher incidence of autism among these groups of Somali children.  It also seems that the Somali kids have especially severe cases of autism.

So what is the environmental trigger?  A combined lack of sunlight and vitamin D activation is the only real hypothesis I can find

Mother’s testosterone levels, if high, can influence a male child to
extreme maturational delay. (A child’s maturation rate is set at six
weeks before birth.) If the mother has immigrated from an equatorial
region with consistent diurnal light cycles of 30% to a relatively
extreme northern climate, the influence of light on the pineal gland
influencing testosterone levels can dramatically skew mothers
testosterone. The question is, do the Minnesota Somali autistic
children’s birthday’s congregate in certain seasons. If so, this
hypothesis becomes more likely. See,

Yet even that sounds screwy to me (at least it’s testable), noting that if you pursue the links you will not find mainstream science at the end of the tunnel.  But the independent appearance of the phenomenon in Sweden and Minneapolis suggests it isn’t just a statistical fluke.  And the numerous Somali immigrants in Virginia don’t seem to have the same problems. 

Here are some further readings.  Here is a speculation that autism rates are higher in immigrant communities more generally.  Addendum: Here is more on Sweden.

My Favorite Things Alaska

All this attention is being devoted to Alaska, so I thought I should do my own evaluation.  Note in advance that politicians don’t usually make these lists, they’re not "favorite" enough for me.  And enough about her for now anyway (though I’ll note in passing, in response to Andrew Sullivan and others, that if voters want to like her, they’ll simply refuse to see McCain in the properly cynical light); but no more comments on this issue for now as I want the blogosphere back!

1. Novel, set in: Jack London’s Call of the Wild or White Fang are the obvious choices.  Did you know that London’s fiction was very widely read in the former Soviet Union?

2. Music: There’s Jewel and Bette Midler and maybe you’re all wondering which one I will pick.  But the excellent Kevin Johansen, also associated with Buenos Aires I might add, is the proverbial rabbit from the hat.  Ha! 

3. Movie, set in: Both Never Cry Wolf and Grizzly Man are very good; the former had a lead character named Tyler before the name became fashionable.  And isn’t Nanook of the North set in Alaska?  Into the Wild is another pick and I doubt if I have exhausted the list.

4. Basketball player: Carlos Boozer is from Juneau.

5. Sculpture: Alaska is probably #1 in the entire United States once you consider the indigenous peoples.  The best works are from the 1950s and 60s and they are not always attributable.  My personal favorite is Thomassie Annanok but of course that is a matter of taste.  Ingo Hessel’s book on Inuit Art is a favorite of mine, noting that it focuses more on Canada than Alaska.

6. Other arts: The Tlingit (some of whom live in Canada) have excellent totem poles, boxes, and carvings.  The Haida are another rich artistic tradition.

7. Novel, set in: Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is the obvious pick plus I hear The Cloud Atlas (The Liam Callanan book, not the David Mitchell one, which is very good but not connected to Alaska) is good.

8. Travel book, set in: Jonathan Raban’s Passage to Juneau: A Sea and its Meanings is lovely.  I’ve never read John Muir’s Travels in Alaska but it is likely a contender.

9. Blogger: Hail Ben Muse of Alaska, advocate of free trade!

The bottom line: It relies too much on "set in," but overall the list is better than I had been expecting.  Sadly, Alaska is the one American state I have yet to visit.