Month: May 2009


First, I agree with Will Wilkinson that a seasteading community would likely evolve back to non-libertarian political visions. 

Second and more fundamentally, I am for the seasteading idea.  There are today many oil derricks, owned and run by energyl companies.  There are many cruise ships, with more or less autonomous legal governance.  More and bigger cruise ships would be better and if some of them moved more slowly that would be fine too.  But when I step on to a cruise ship (well, actually that's the sort of thing I don't do; personally I hate cruise ships), I don't feel I am moving from an inferior political order to a superior political order.

I've wondered whether I should retire on to a cruise ship of the future, but I'm not attracted per se by the "politics" I would get there.  I would expect more freedom in the Lockean sense but less of the positive freedom that comes from living in a larger, more diverse, and yes also a more stupid society.  I wouldn't live on the Mensa cruise ship either.  I'll take some of the stupidity of modern society (the landlubbing version) to get the diversity and the greater number of open niche spaces and free possibilities. 

On a smaller scale, I live under different kinds of corporate, non-profit and university governance all the time.  That's great, but I don't view their totalized extension as my preferred utopian path.

I'd like people to be smarter, more thoughtful, more tolerant, and more loving of liberty, yet in ways which do not drain away the diversity of the United States, which I feel is the best available foundation to build upon.  No matter how good a seasteading charter may sound, any given venture just can't be that credible until it has succeeded for a very long time.  History and precedent matter and by the way have you checked in on Estonia lately

Addendum: Here is Alex on seasteading.

Robin Goldstein is excellent

He writes to me:

Also wanted to let you know that I've just started a new blog, "Blind Taste" (,
which covers the food and wine worlds from an edgy, unusual
 perspective that draws from neuroscience, economics, and, of course,
gonzo journalism.

If you will recall, he is one of the guys who wrote the paper about pâté and dog food.  Robin Goldstein and I once sat down over pescado saltado to compare notes on D.C. (and global) food and, while you cannot take me as speaking for him in any formal sense, we agreed to an astonishing degree.  Here is his critique of molecular gastronomy.

More health care cost fallacies

This comes from Robert Reich but you will find it all over the place:

Social Security is a tiny problem. Medicare is a terrible one, but the
problem is not really Medicare; it's quickly rising health-care costs.

You would think it is hard to resist the fiscal conservatives' core argument — X is slated to grow a lot in cost, therefore we have at least one reason to spend less on X — but such resistance is becoming a growth industry.

There are two simple points in response.  First, it matters whether a given expenditure shows up on the balance sheet of the government or not.  It matters for the incentives of our government, for its credit rating, for future marginal rates of taxation, and ultimately for the future of the health care (or other) sector.

Second, if Medicare were less generous, much less would be spent on health care.  Now you might think that would be a bad result and that of course a debate worth having.  But the mere fact that you favor some amount of Medicare does not lower the cost burden of the amount you favor.  If your preferred policy induces say "40 percent more of health care costs," you can't put all the blame on the preexisting level or path of health care costs.  You also have to accept responsibility for the 40 percent boost or whatever the increment is.

Defining Fat Down

Americans are more overweight than ever but Burke, Heiland and Nadler find:

…that the probability of self-classifying as overweight is significantly
lower on average in the more recent survey, for both men and women, controlling
for objective weight status and other factors….The shifts in self classification are not explained by differences between
surveys in body fatness or waist circumference, nor by shifting demographics. We
interpret the findings as evidence of a generational shift in social norms
related to body weight, and propose various mechanisms to explain such a shift,
including: (1) higher average adult BMI and adult obesity rates in the later
survey cohort, (2) higher childhood obesity rates in the later survey cohort,
and (3) public education campaigns promoting healthy body image. The welfare
implications of the observed trends in self-classification are mixed.

The decline of chewing

According to Gail Civille, in the past Americans typically chewed a mouthful of food as many as twenty-five times before it was ready to be swallowed; now the average American chews only ten times.

That is from David Kessler's The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite.  This is a good book even if you've already read seven prior books on exactly the same topic.  It's the best applied study in behavioral economics to date.  I do object, however, to how the author aggregates fat, salt, and sugar, as if they were equally bad for you.

Via John Nye, here is a good article on how French baguettes are succumbing to the global trend for softer foods:

Bakers say that they are merely responding to market forces,
determined by the growing proportion of customers who demand a baguette
pas trop cuite (not too cooked). They argue that they cannot
impose a crunchy surface on a society that has grown accustomed to the
notion that food should melt in the mouth .

Mr Kaplan is appalled. “The question is: do the French care any
more, do they care about taste? When you eat their tomatoes, their
carrots and their merlotised wine, you start to wonder. Are they not
collaborating in their own cultural demise?”

…According to Kaplan, bakers are cutting cooking time – usually
between 18 and 22 minutes at 250C to 260C – by 60 seconds or more in
search of a less crusty crust.

The upshot is the loss of the Maillard reaction, a chemical process
occurring at high temperatures and leading to browning and crispiness,
that Kaplan says is vital to the production of a good loaf.

Here is Alex's earlier post on the declining quality of French bread.

Why is there an IQ test for many contest winners?

Bob Baxley, a soon-to-be-loyal MR reader, asks me the following question:

In considering entering in an online drawing for a bicycle, I read the complete rules. The contest is billed as a random drawing of those entered. But what struck me is that "Before being declared a winner, the selected entrant must first correctly answer, unaided, a time-limited, arithmetical, skill-testing question."(

Curious about the occurrence of this rule in other contests, I Googled this long phrase and it turns out it is very common in contest drawings: ("correctly+answer,+unaided,+a+time-limited,+arithmetical,+skill-testing+question."&btnG=Search).  Shorter snippets of this phrase return even more Google hits.

Any thoughts on why this stipulation is listed in the rules?

Maybe his contest is offering up this question to me.  But I cannot answer it unaided.  Help!

The health care costs budget fallacy

Today's report is this:

The financial outlook for Medicare and Social Security
has significantly worsened, as the bad economy and mounting job losses
have pushed both programs years closer to insolvency, according to a
grim report issued Tuesday by the Obama administration.

Maybe you once argued that "Social Security is fine," but dollars are fungible and the budget must be judged as a whole.  The consumption tax is coming, I am sorry to say.

I'm seeing nascent signs of a new (but actually old) fallacy, namely that since health care costs can (will?) crush the budget, we don't have to worry so much about other expenditures.  The mental story runs something like this: "if we don't cure health care cost inflation, it doesn't matter; if we do cure health care cost inflation, we can afford it."  That's exactly the kind of false mental framing that behavioral economics identifies as irrational in other settings.

Here is some stupid TV.

Elsewhere, Richard Posner makes many concessions.  I do not disagree; it's a mistake to think that a political movement can be very smart, especially after extended years in power.

The law of one price?

Jason Kottke informs us:

Ticket prices at the new Yankee Stadium are so high that if a New
Yorker wants to watch a Mariners/Yankees game from the best seats, it would be a lot cheaper to fly to Seattle, stay in a nice hotel, eat fancy dinners, and see two games.

Was it not Mises who said that the purchasing power of money is the same everywhere?  Some of the price differential will come from the greater value of the business connection in New York.  And maybe those seats are really good.

Elsewhere from, here is a post on breeding rats to be better stock traders.

Mauritania fact of the day

Women in Mauritania who press charges for sexual assault face the risk
of jail time because of poorly defined laws and stigma that criminalise
victims rather than offenders, according to a local UN-funded

Here is the storyThe twittering of RachelStrohm is actually the best "Africa blog" I've seen, ever.  (I very much like Chris Blattman but I would describe his blogging as broader than that.)  Her blog blog is here.  Her Google profile is here.

Medical care without third party payment: the autism example

It's a common claim that health care would be more efficient and cheaper if not for third party payment.  Sometimes, yes, but often these claims are overstated, especially when the link between treatment and improvement is murky. 

To consider one example, for the most part autism-related services are not covered by private health insurance.  Government aid is often scarce as well.  Also in Canada medical benefits for autism-related services are quite limited.  So when it comes to autism, this is a fee for service setting for the most part.

And what does this world look like?

1. Services are not especially cheap nor do they seem to be falling in price. 

2. Market participants are not well informed about what works.  Many parents of autistic children pursue hopeless treatments or unvalidated or even refuted theories.  Some of the treatments, such as chelation, are harmful in many cases and yield no benefits.

3. There is lots of innovation — in terms of advertised methods of treatment — but it is unclear, to say the least, what percentage of these innovations succeeds.  Very often it is parents "buying hope."

The point is not that insurance coverage would solve all these problems.  Third party coverage would slant the relative prices toward more mainstream treatments and away from the fads; how good or bad this would be depends on your point of view as to what brings better (worse) outcomes. 

Overall I don't view the autism example as a good selling point for the view that third party payment is the basic problem behind U.S. health care.  Nor do I see critics of third party payment citing autism services as a model example for their ideas.  (By the way, it is an open question how much autism should be an education issue and how much it should be a health care issue; de facto it is often a health care issue but this should not be taken for granted.)

Another lesson is this: the more emotional the issue, the less effective any health care system will be.  Policy discussions of "health care" often require more disaggregation.

Addendum: There is, by the way, a movement afoot to require that private insurance cover some autism-related services, such as ABA.  Given the costs of the treatment, and the unclear link between treatment and results, I would be curious to hear if "universal coverage" advocates would include this in their ideal public policy.  I would say they should admit that any notion of "universal coverage" is value-laden rather than purely descriptive.

New issue of Econ Journal Watch

Find it here.  The contents are described as follows:

Occupational Misfeasance of Labor Textbooks: Frank
Stephenson and Erin Wendt report that textbooks neglect occupational

Do Economists
Believe American Democracy Is Working?
A new survey by William
Davis and Robert Figgins indicates that Democratic, Republican, and
Libertarian economists are all of but little faith.

Adam Smith’s Invisible
Hand–Is That All There Is?
Gavin Kennedy argues that it was
just a casual metaphor; Dan Klein dissents.

Guns and Crime, Round 2: Carlisle Moody and Thomas
Marvell rejoin, and Ian Ayres and John Donohue reply.

Intellectual Hazard:
97 quotations about our wanton ways.