Month: January 2010

Words of wisdom

You could construct a whole blog of mishnah on Scott Sumner, but no, I cannot link to every post he writes.  Nonetheless I especially liked this passage:

If our banking system absorbs trillions in losses you can be sure the government will step in, regardless of whether we have big banks or small banks.  And if our banking system isn’t in crisis, then FDIC is perfectly capable of handling an isolated bankruptcy, even at a large bank.  In any case, I can’t imagine a future where the US doesn’t have any large banks, but Europe, China, Japan and Canada have lots of large banks.  Can you?  Wouldn’t it make more sense to try to prevent the banking system from suffering trillions in losses after a bubble bursts, perhaps by requiring sizable downpayments?

But then I read that the FHA is about to set much tougher standards for FHA mortgages–they plan to require borrowers with a 590 credit score to put down at least 3.5% downpayments.  As Tyler Cowen recently argued, you knew Congress wasn’t serious about global warming when they refused to make Americans pay more for gasoline.  And I would add that you can be sure that the populists who want to “re-regulate the banking system” aren’t serious when all they can do is talk about 3.5% downpayments for bad credit risks.  It is so much more fun to bash big banks.

Free Hearing

Who gets the right to free speech is a status marker and disputes over this right a status game, so argues Robin Hanson:

The usual rationale for “free speech,” which seems persuasive, is that in the long run we as a society learn more via an open competition for the best ideas, where anyone can try to persuade us as best they can, and listeners are free to choose what to hear. Yet that concept would best be called “free hearing” – a freedom to hear and evaluate any case presented, based on any criteria you like (including cost).

“Free hearing” would apply not just to hearing from adult citizens in good standing, but also to hearing from children, convicts, corporations, robots, foreigners, or demons. We wouldn’t argue if corporations have a right to speak, but rather if we have a right to hear what corporations have to say.

But in fact we have “free speech,” a right only enjoyed by adult citizens in good standing, a right we jealously guard, wondering if corporations etc. “deserve” it. This right seems more a status marker, like the right to vote, than a way to promote idea competition – that whole competition story seems more an ex post rationalization than the real cause for our concern. Which is why support for “free speech” is often paper thin, fluctuating with the status of proposed speakers.

There are other explanations for our focus on free speech rather than free hearing such as it’s the speech makers who are easiest to punish and control (being so many smaller in number than the speech hearers) but Robin’s point remains characteristically insightful.

Haiti fact (?) of the day

Is it possible that now almost eight percent of Haiti's population consists of orphaned children?  Reliable data are hard to come by but this one estimate suggests it might be true.  (Current living population is maybe 9.5 million (?), with the number of orphans estimated at 750,000.)  It is also the case that the Haitian government seems reluctant to let these children be adopted abroad, in part because it is difficult to tell which children are truly orphaned.

Addendum: Here is one estimate.

Markets in everything

At first I thought this was a joke and perhaps it is still just a marketing ploy.  Nonetheless it seems to exist:

If requested, a willing staff-member at two of the chain's London hotels and one in the northern English city of Manchester will dress in an all-in-one fleece sleeper suit before slipping between the sheets.

"The new Holiday Inn bed warmers service is a bit like having a giant hot water bottle in your bed," Holiday Inn spokeswoman Jane Bednall said in an emailed statement to Reuters.

The bed-warmer is equipped with a thermometer to measure the bed's required temperature of 20 degrees Celsius (68 Fahrenheit).

Holiday Inn said the warmer would be fully dressed and leave the bed before the guest occupied it. They could not confirm if the warmer would shower first, but said hair would be covered.

Florence Eavis, Holiday Inn spokeswoman told Reuters that the "innovative" bed-warming method was a response to Britain's recent cold weather and marked the launch of 3,200 new Holiday Inns worldwide.

She could not explain why the beds were not being warmed by hot water bottles or electric-blankets, but admitted the human method was quirky.

Holiday Inn are promoting the service with the help of sleep-expert Chris Idzikowski, director of the Edinburgh Sleep Center, who said the idea could help people sleep.

The link is here and another version of the story is here.  I thank Amit Varma and Craig Stroup for the pointers.

How signals work on the dance floor

Here is some new research:

The results showed that women gave the highest attractiveness ratings to men with the highest levels of prenatal testosterone. The men with the lowest testosterone in turn got the lowest attractiveness ratings. "Men can communicate their testosterone levels through the way they dance," Lovatt told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "And women understand it — without noticing it."

In women, the link between dancing style and testosterone levels were similar — but the reaction of men was just the opposite. Dancers with high levels of testosterone moved more parts of their body, with their movements being somewhat uncoordinated, while those with lower testosterone made more subtle movements, especially with their hips. The male students found the latter style most appealing…

The men who got the female students hot under the collar danced with large movements which were "complexly coordinated." But it's a fine line between hot and not, however: Those men who made big moves but who were less coordinated came across as dominant alpha males — and were unlikely to win women's hearts. The researchers also found that the size and complexity of the dance moves decreased in parallel with testosterone levels.

The full story is here and the article is interesting throughout.  This bit on the researcher caught my eye:

Lovatt knows his subject matter well — he himself was a professional dancer until the age of 26. He performed in musicals in large venues around England and also worked on cruise ships. The thought of an academic career barely entered his head at the time. He wasn't even able to read until he was 23, having left school without any qualifications. When he looked at a page in a book, "all I saw was a big black block."

Speech Balloons

Here from Maya Sen are speech balloons illustrating the importance of various words from the majority and then dissenting/concurring opinions in Citizens United v. FEC (more frequently used words are larger). It's interesting to me that just looking at the balloons I can tell which side was more concerned with the Constitution and which side was more concerned with a particular view of the ideal polity.

KennedyStevensSee Bainbridge for a much more complete roundup of the issues.

The “health care betrayal” and Waxman-Markey

If there's one lesson from the health care debacle, it is that Waxman-Markey was and is a dead end.  Many of us objected to the bill on the grounds that it supports a lot of phony offsets for twenty years, imposes lots of costs and regulation in the meantime, and then never really does much to help climate change, given the difficulties of political precommitment.  I believe that people with these objections, such as myself, were viewed as "obstructionists" by many or as people who were simply looking for an excuse not to support the bill.  But the idea that Congress was just playing around, and had no real will to address the problem, should now be much, much more credible.  For all the talk about Waxman-Markey as a "framework," I see plenty of reasons — all the more now — to think Congress never meant to follow through.

The advantage of a carbon tax is that it forces Congress (and others) to demonstrate a certain amount of seriousness up front.  A good rule of thumb for a climate change bill is whether a representative voting for it can and will say: "This will raise the price of gasoline in the next six months and that's the whole point."

Megan McArdle predicted all along, even after Ben Nelson folded, that the health care bill will fail because Congress isn't very interested in enacting unpopular policies.  That's very good prophecy.  It's no accident that she also is skeptical of Waxman-Markey, for reasons related to those expressed above.

I believe the health care debacle should cause all of us to rethink our positions on preferred paths, sequences, and strategies.  No matter what your opinion of the health care bill, it's not a pretty picture.

Education in Haiti

…education is the single most important determinant of an individual’s potential to escape poverty in Haiti. The non-state sector has been crucial in making this progress despite formidable economic and political constraints. The Haitian state’s role in primary education is uniquely low from a global perspective. Of the world’s poorest countries, Haiti is the only one in which more than 50 percent of children are enrolled in non-state schools. The country has a total of 14,424 private schools and 1,240 public schools. Non-state schools therefore comprise 92 percent of all schools, the vast majority of which do not receive public subsidies. Some 82 percent of all primary and secondary school students attend private, fee-based schools…Public schools are mainly in urban areas.

The source document is here.  People, how do you interpret those figures?  I see a few possible takes:

1. Private sector education works well, because they are high returns to receiving it.  The problem is on the demand side.

2. Private sector education doesn't work well, because it is prevalent and yet most of the country is not well-educated.

3. Haiti is a mess, in part, because education isn't much subsidized by the state.

4. Whatever causes a weak interest in publicly subsidized schooling also makes private education less than effective.

5. Private education doesn't work well at low levels of income, especially when educational expenditures compete against spending on survival.

6. Private education maybe doesn't actually bring such high returns, once you adjust for unobserved heterogeneity.

What do you think?

“Why is there so little money in U.S. politics?”

That's the title of a famous paper by Stephen Ansolabehere, John de Figueireido, and James Snyder.  The abstract of the non-gated version (other versions here) reads as follows:

Thirty years ago, Gordon Tullock posed a provocative puzzle: considering the value of public policies at stake and the reputed influence of campaign contributions in policy-making, why is there so little money in U.S. politics? In this paper, we argue that campaign contributions are not a form of policy-buying, but are rather a form of political participation and consumption. We summarize the data on campaign spending, and show through our descriptive statistics and our econometric analysis that individuals, not special interests, are the main source of campaign contributions. Moreover, we demonstrate that campaign giving is a normal good, dependent upon income, and campaign contributions as a percent of GDP have not risen appreciably in over 100 years – if anything, they have probably fallen. We then show that only one in four studies from the previous literature support the popular notion that contributions buy legislators' votes. Finally, we illustrate that when one controls for unobserved constituent and legislator effects, there is little relationship between money and legislator votes. Thus, the question is not why there is so little money politics, but rather why organized interests give at all. We conclude by offering potential answers to this question.

The bottom line is that today's Supreme Court decision probably matters less than you think.  You should see my Twitter feed.

A simple theory of political jobs, with respect to the health care debate

Political jobs would be torture for most people.  You have no freedom.  You are underpaid and over-bugged.  You lose a lot of your privacy.  You have to stop writing emails or saying what you think.  You don't get to read many good books or go for many quiet walks.  It's hard to be a non-conformist.  And so on.

Yet it's really hard to get top political jobs.  So who gets them?  People who truly, deeply love the power.

Plus "doing what the voters want" very often feels like, or can be described as, "doing the right thing."

So what happens when those people perceive their power as threatened?  You see it.

One implication is that paying politicians more, and giving them more privacy, would lead to less craven behavior.  (Although I personally don't like the current bill, the D. refusal to pass it is sheer cowardice.)  There would then be less selection for the "power addiction" and perhaps more principled behavior.