Month: January 2012

Can Greece now leave the eurozone?

Meg Greene writes:

I have long thought that the troika would cut Greece loose and let it default and exit the eurozone once eurozone banks had been sufficiently firewalled. Perhaps this aggressive proposal by Germany is one of the unintended consequences of the ECB’s three year long term refinancing operation (LTRO). If eurozone banks have as much access to cheap, three-year ECB funding as their collateral allows, perhaps Germany and the troika have decided that eurozone banks can survive a Greek default. Greece is clearly insolvent and must leave the eurozone to eventually return to growth. The German proposal may have accelerated the inevitable.

I recall someone on Twitter noting that if Greek leaders turned fiscal sovereignty over to Brussels, the relevant parties would end up hanged for treason, or something like that.  I’ll predict against that outcome.  Angus adds comment.  The general point here is that apparent progress also makes it easier for parts of the Eurozone to unravel.  In this context what counts as “good news” or “bad news” can be quite tricky.

The medicine that is Dutch

It took a tall ladder and weeks of training, but an elephant at Amsterdam’s Artis Zoo has become the first of her species in Europe to be fitted with a contact lens.

Win Thida, a 45-year-old Asian elephant, suffered a scratched cornea during a tussle with another elephant. Her eye started watering and she had trouble keeping it open, so the zoo called in veterinarian Anne-Marie Verbruggen.

Verbruggen had experience fitting horses with contacts, but it was her first attempt on an elephant.

“The main difficulty was her height,” Verbruggen told the Irish Times. “Elephants can’t lie down for long before their immense weight impairs their breathing, so I used a ladder to get close enough. It wasn’t ideal, but it worked. She seemed happier straight away.”

The elephant had to be anaesthetized in a standing position, and she and Verbruggen trained daily for weeks to prepare her for the operation. The procedure took less than an hour. Protected by the lens, the elephant’s cornea should now be able to heal.

Here is (not much) more.

Very good sentences

There is an irony here: one of the criticisms of Mitt Romney’s record at Bain Capital is that private equity firms put unhealthy amounts of leverage on the firms they acquire in order to exploit the favorable tax treatment of debt. The Buffett Rule would make that strategy even more attractive.

That is from Josh Barro, there is commentary from Reihan here, and the original Barro post is here.

*The Age of Austerity*

That is the new book by Thomas Byrne Edsall, here is my WaPo review.  Overall I thought his treatment was not deep enough, and that too frequently he substituted caricature for insight.  Here is one excerpt from my piece:

I wished for more discussion of the elderly. The two biggest government programs — Medicare and Social Security — are almost exclusively for them, with a significant chunk of Medicaid going to the elderly as well. By about 2030, America as a whole will have the age structure currently found in Florida. That means the elderly, who vote at above-average rates, are very likely to keep winning political battles. The real question about our fiscal future is not Republicans vs. Democrats but rather whether any coalition can limit benefits to older people. It is already unlikely that the Republicans will gut Medicare or Social Security or get very far in trying. The last major expansion of Medicare came under the Bush administration, and, despite the tough talk of Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan, the Republicans are unable to enact fundamental Medicare cost control because they are too dependent on the white elderly vote.

There is a Matt Yglesias review here.  Here is a WSJ review.

The economics of role-playing games

Here is an excellent and varied article on that topic, by Ryan Dancey.  Excerpt:

The more segmented those brains became, the weaker the overall social network was. Every new game system, and every new variant to those systems, subdivided that network further, making it weaker. Between 1993 and 1999, the social network of the TRPG players had become seriously frayed. Even if you just looked at the network of Dungeons & Dragons players you could see this effect: People self-segmented into groups playing Basic D&D, 1st Edition, 2nd Edition, and within 2nd Edition into various Campaign Settings that had become their own game variants. The effect on the market was that it became increasingly hard to make and sell something that had enough players in common that it would earn back its costs of development and production.

We looked around the industry and saw the same problem at virtually every company that had become successful: White Wolf had 5 World of Darkness games which were all slightly different, surrounded by a more diffuse constellation of games somewhat related to the Storyteller system but designed to be mutually incompatible. FASA had 4 games, none of which shared anything in common. Palladium & Steve Jackson Games both had “house systems” that they tried to use across their entire product lines, but they had ended up with the “Campaign Setting” issue that was bedeviling TSR; the variant rules at the edges of their games were creating independent game networks despite the shared DNA of the core. And we knew that inside every one of those companies they were seeing the same financial information we were seeing: Each new release was selling fewer and fewer copies, and in response, the companies were increasing the pace of releases trying to sustain planned revenues by volume of titles, not by volume of units. And it was killing everyone.

…My opinion is that the hobby gaming industry is going to transform into a very small niche business. It will cater primarily to an aging group of players who have made TRPGs their lifetime hobbies. As those players age, they’ll need less and less support in the form of commercially produced products. They will instead seek out community support tools to help them remain in touch with their hobby even as the social network they’re directly connected to becomes ever more frayed.

The piece is interesting throughout, and for the pointer I thank Will Koenig.

*Little Serow*

Imagine northeastern Thai street food, Issan style, combined with the quality ingredients and overall standards of fine dining.  Right now it’s the best place in DC by a long ways and the best place this area has had in a long time.  The tastes are sharp, hot, sour, pungent, musty, and occasionally sweet.  The level of heat can be high.  You cannot choose your food.  Every course was a knockout, only $45 for a seven-course menu, no substitutions.  There’s nowhere else like it.  It is right next to Komi, and brought to you by the same people.  Remarkably, the cook is Greek-American and not Thai.  Could it be the best Thai place on the East coast?

Their website and menu is here.  Here is a Sietsema reviewDon Rockwell says it may be the best new restaurant in the U.S. this year; there is more from Don here.  A must.  No reservations, so you must show up before opening at 5:30 or wait two hours to get in.

“How deserving are the poor?”

Next Wednesday night, Bryan Caplan will debate Karl Smith on that topic at GMU.  For background, here is a relevant short essay by Karl.

From the perspective of “common sense morality,” the poor, in wealthy countries at least, are responsible for quite a bit of their difficulties.  I believe Bryan stresses this factor, although I am less sure how he treats common sense morality when he disagrees with it.

Yet other perspectives must be brought to bear.  There is determinism, at differing levels, ranging from “it’s tough to come from a broken home” to “lead poisoning is bad for you” to “what if the universe is a frozen four-dimensional Einsteinian/Parmenidean block of space-time?”  (Ethics does look different when you are traveling at the speed of light.)

There is the view that desert simply is not very relevant for a lot of our choices.  We still may wish to aid the undeserving.  Matt Yglesias adds relevant comment.

What about utility?  Corrupt societies are inefficient, frustrating, and infuriating, but is more meritocracy utility-enhancing at all margins?  I doubt it.  Chess is a relative meritocracy, with clear standards for performance and achievement, but I am not sure that chess players as a whole are happier for this.  Some ambiguity in one’s level of achievement can be socially useful and somewhat of a relief at the personal level.  Life in a sheer meritocracy would be psychologically oppressive.

What about multiple equilibria and self-fulfilling prophecies (pdf, very interesting paper at first glance I have not read it yet)?

The goal of discussions of desert is to improve on common sense morality, without straying so far from it that the proposed reforms are unworkable or unsustainable.  Views on merit and desert are also incentives, and they must slot into *someone’s* common sense morality if they are to be applied and carried forward.

In this area, it is easy to stomp on the views of other people.  It is harder to synthesize these factors, and others, in a way that is defensible or even explicable in terms of a coherent approach.  Where does the commensurability across the different factors come from?  How much room or slack does common sense morality give us to operate at all?

What if we turned out not to deserve meritocracy?  What would then be the meritocratic thing to do?

The Innovation Nation versus the Warfare-Welfare State

We like to think of ourselves as an innovation nation but our government is a warfare-welfare state. To build an economy for the 21st century we need to increase the rate of innovation and to do that we need to put innovation at the center of our national vision. Innovation, however, is not a priority of our massive federal government.

Nearly two-thirds of the U.S. federal budget, $2.2 trillion annually, is spent on just the four biggest warfare and welfare programs, Medicaid, Medicare, Defense and Social Security. In contrast the National Institutes of Health, which funds medical research, spends $31 billion annually, and the National Science Foundation spends just $7 billion.

That’s me writing at The Atlantic drawing on Launching the Innovation Renaissance. Here is one more bit:

Our ancestors were bold and industrious–they built a significant portion of our energy and road infrastructure more than half a century ago. It would be almost impossible to build that system today. Could we build the Hoover Dam today? We have the technology but do we have the will? Unfortunately, we cannot rely on the infrastructure of our past to travel to our future. Airports, an electricity smart grid that doesn’t throw millions into the dark every few years, ubiquitous Wi-Fi — these are among the important infrastructures of the 21st century, and they are caught in the regulatory thicket.

Putting innovation at the center of the national vision is not simply about spending more, it’s about how we approach all problems. Read the whole thing for more discussion of regulation and other issues.

I have a longstanding sympathy for dirt

Kevin Outterson writes of “Hand Sanitizers as Agent Orange”:

Over at CommonHealth, Aayesha rounds up the literature on the limits of hand sanitizers, but fails to mention the collateral damage to the skin microbiome. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers kill many bacteria, viruses and fungi, but they don’t selectively target pathogens. They kill a wide swath of the microbial life on your hands, including little-understood non-pathogenic species. For an ecological analogy, think of using Agent Orange to kill a couple weeds.

A good introduction to the skin microbiome is a recent article in Nature Reviews Microbiology by Elizabeth A. Grice and Julia A. Segre (9, 244-253 (Apr. 2011)). From the abstract:

“The skin is the human body’s largest organ, colonized by a diverse milieu of microorganisms, most of which are harmless or even beneficial to their host. Colonization is driven by the ecology of the skin surface, which is highly variable depending on topographical location, endogenous host factors and exogenous environmental factors. The cutaneous innate and adaptive immune responses can modulate the skin microbiota, but the microbiota also functions in educating the immune system.”

As I’ve said before, our relationship with microbes should also be evaluated as an ecological issue. Completely germ-free environments are not necessarily the goal.

Cell phone taxes and the tragedy of the anticommons

Why are cell phone taxes so high? In the United States we tax cell phones more than beer. The usual explanations for high taxes, negative externalities and low elasticity of demand don’t seem to apply to cell phones. Our colleagues Thomas Stratmann and Matt Mitchell offer an answer based in political economy.

…no single politician does choose to tax them that much. Instead, the high taxes that we pay on our cell phones are the sum of lots of little taxes imposed by several different political entities. Consider, for example, the tax bill of a typical New Yorker. It includes a federal USF fee, four state taxes, five city taxes, and a local 9-1-1 fee. Each of these is relatively small, but when you add it all up, the combined rate is over 22 percent.

…The mobile service tax base appears to suffer from a tragedy of the anticommons…numerous overlapping tax authorities seek to obtain revenues through wireless-service taxation, and this may lead to overexploitation of the tax base.

…We use state-level data from three years to examine the possible economic, demographic, and political factors that might explain the variation in these rates. We find that wireless tax rates increase with the number of overlapping tax bases.

Hat tip: Neighborhood Effects.