Month: January 2012

The median wage figure and the health care costs figure

The U.S. median wage for 2010 was $26,363.

The average health care insurance premium today is over $15,000 and by 2021 it may be headed to $32,000 or so (admittedly that estimate is based on extrapolation).

Therein lies the problem.

To oversimplify a bit, treat the wage as the economic value produced by the median individual.  This will be most on target for individuals who do not receive health care benefits through their current jobs.

Again to oversimplify, treat the health care costs as the economic value needed to produce or maintain the modern individual.  (Or rather as part of those costs.)  Of course not everyone requires health care in a given year, but societal norms for health care treat these expenditures as if they were necessary, if only morally necessary.

Another relevant comparison is “median income for those who do not have employer-supplied coverage” vs. “future insurance costs for those same individuals.”  I have not seen such numbers, but the median income of this group is lower, though the stipulation probably is selecting for younger individuals with lower potential insurance premia.

In any case, we will have increasing numbers of individuals for whom the economic value needed to maintain them exceeds the economic value they produce.  I don’t mean elderly people on life support, I mean able-bodied, working-age individuals.  This will make it increasingly hard to implement “health care egalitarianism.”

Here is how health care premia rose 63% over the last seven years.  In the very last year, however, health care as a percentage of gdp did not rise at all, mostly because a weak economy and higher co-pays cut back on utilitzation.  That is the most obvious way our health care cost crisis could end up being solved, though of course it is probably not the best way.  We cannot expect it to last whenever substantial economic growth picks up again.

Eventually, p = 0 catches up to you

Especially if it is a product consumers wish to bring home:

In Fairfax, officials more than doubled the inventory of e-book copies from 2010 to 2011, to more than 10,000, but demand for the books tripled in that time. Now the average wait time is three weeks. Of course, there can also be lengthy waits for hardcover and paperback books, although those waits are usually for current bestsellers while older titles are generally available.

By contrast, on a typical day, about 80 to 85 percent of the system’s e-books are checked out, said Elizabeth Rhodes, the collection services coordinator for the Fairfax library system. But after the holidays, when many people received e-readers, 98 percent of the collection was spoken for.

Here is more.

Assorted Movie Reviews

Warhorse – stilted acting, cliche ridden in word and image and without a single honest emotion. Some people will love it.

Mission Impossible -Ghost Protocol – proves that Tom Cruise can still deliver the goods and director Brad Bird is bankable for live action even if his animated greats (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) had more plot and humanity. Great scenes on the Burj Khalifa (esp. in IMAX). Drags on in a peculiar effort to connect with story elements from the previous MI that no one cares about or remembers. For plot reasons, the final scene should have been in San Francisco not Seattle.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Overall, Daniel Craig doesn’t James Bond it, although at times one wonders whether he is just pretending to be scared. Rooney Mara is good although I prefer Noomi Rapace who was both tougher and more beautiful, as the moment required. Fincher is the better director and the supporting cast is excellent. Lisbeth Salander rings strong in my imagination and I would watch more adaptations.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – excellent performance from Gary Oldman as Smiley. At something like 8 minutes in I realized that the lead character had yet to speak. It was good but I defy anyone to make a great movie from the Le Carre book, too much is interior. How many viewers will know, let alone appreciate, that many people once did prefer communism for aesthetic reasons?

The Descendants – George Clooney has limited emotional range but it suits him in this role where part of the point is that his character is too boring, methodical, and unemotional for his thrill-seeking wife (why did these two ever marry?) and his now needy children. Excellent performances from Robert Forster and supporting cast and a plot that is involved without being contrived. The contrast between external paradise and internal misery was delightfully disconcerting.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – started out strong but by the time it ended I hated it. Every element of the movie is manipulative; 9/11 is used as a prop (like using 9/11 to sell life-insurance), the parents are perfect even when the story demands imperfection and the kid is weirdly unlikable. Finally, the movie has a happy ending, which made me sad.

The culture that is Japan markets in everything

Uguisu no Fun’s main effect – that being bleaching and exfoliating the skin – is a result of Guanine, a naturally occurring enzyme found in nightingale droppings. Kabuki actors and high-ranking geisha girls have always prized it as the best way to remove their heavy makeup while leaving their high-priced skin smooth and supple.

The link with photos is here and for the pointer I thank Scott Rogers.

Why the European downgrades matter

From Robert Peston:

Perhaps more importantly, and at the risk of repeating myself, the downgrades increase the dependence of the big banks on finance from the European Central Bank – and for the economic recovery of the eurozone, that’s a very bad thing.

The less that banks are able to raise funds in a normal commercial way, the more they’re dependent on a central bank, the more reluctant they are to lend to the wider economy – and given the massive dependence of the eurozone economy on finance provided by banks, that leads to a reduction of economic activity, a reinforcement of recessionary conditions…

..the downgraded Italian and French governments would be seen to be less financially capable of bailing out Italian and French banks in a crisis, so other creditors would be shouldering more risk…

So even if the downgrades don’t lead to default by a nation or a bank, they make it much harder for the banks – and in a way the whole eurozone – to get off life support.

…That creates a damaging negative feedback loop (less lending means asset price falls, more bankruptcies, bigger losses for banks, and even less lending by capital-constrained banks) which makes it all the harder for the eurozone to break free of its cycle of decline.

And, as I said in my earlier note, the downgrades also make it harder for the eurozone to establish a proper circuit breaker – in the form of a giant bailout fund – to protect other sovereign creditors in the event that today’s impasse in Greek debt talks lead to a Greek default.

Here is a useful and only slightly overstated summary of where things stand:

The entire eurozone banking system can be seen to have been nationalised – or at least the funding of banks has been nationalised, even if their ownership hasn’t been transferred to taxpayers.

Addendum: Here are some comments from RBS.

Should computers have their own websites?

I think so, if not now very soon:

Websites designed to be read by computers rather than humans could make it easier to share and use data says Stephen Wolfram, creator of “computational knowledge engine” Wolfram Alpha. Writing in a blog post, he suggests that “.data” should join the likes of .com, .org and .net as a new top-level domain (TLD) for organisations to share data in a standard from, creating a “data web” that would run in parallel with the ordinary web.

Under Wolfram’s scheme, a website like would be accompanied by A human visitor to would just see a list of publicly available databases, but a computer would be able to access and interact with the data itself.

Of course, this kind of data sharing is already possible thanks to application programming interfaces (APIs), the software instructions published by many web services that allow programmers to combine data in creative ways, such as plotting Twitter updates on a Google map. Each organisation’s API is different though, which can make them hard to use. Wolfram’s proposal would put data in a standard location and format, making it easier to access.

For the pointer I thank Michelle Dawson.

Feijoada request

That is a request from Gil, it reads “Feijoada.”

I recommend investing in a supply of farinha, also known as manioc flour, it will hold until the ants find it.  African, Brazilian, and sometimes Latin groceries sell it.  From bottom to top on the plate, the simple recipe is white rice (cooked until it is still slightly moist rather than fully dry), Goya black beans (heated), orange slices (cold), steamed shredded collard greens, and the farinha sprinkled on top.  It is one of my favorite vegetarian meals and it shows that the meat in the feijoada is actually the worst part.

Assorted links

1. Thomas Quasthoff to retire from singing.

2. High MP animals.

3. Why is Mexico losing its war on drugs?  And how well is Colombia doing these days?

4. The dangers of mental substitution, and if you wish to read optimism about the eurozone (pdf).

5. Superheroes and intergenerational mobility.

6. Update on claims about the new cold fusion; if nothing else this is worth reporting in expected value terms.

Will the era of conspicuous consumption wind down?

Rick Bookstaber writes:

And one notable area of consumption that by definition differentiates the classes, that of conspicuous consumption, is going by the wayside. Yes, I believe we are seeing the twilight of the era of conspicuous consumption. Not that Gucci and Chanel are going to go out of business, but for most people that sort of status statement is increasingly becoming irrelevant. No matter what you are wearing and driving, a far better picture of you and your status is just a few clicks away. You don’t have to drive a Ferrari to let everyone know you are rich and successful. If you are driving a Ferrari, what it will convey is that you – who as everyone who cares to Google you knows is running a hedge fund and is worth tons of money – must like a Ferrari.

Of course in Silicon Valley, the conspicuous consumption norm is already relatively weak among the wealthy, at least as that norm was traditionally understood.  Yet you can think of a web company itself as the new “conspicuous” — “look at what I’ve done!”

*The Sounding of the Whale*

For now, suffice it to say that a kind of tragedy haunts the story of whale biology in the first half of the twentieth century: the science that developed between 1910 and 1940 for the purpose of protecting whale populations from excessive exploitation by whalers became, along the way, a science so deeply entangled with the whaling industry — dependent upon it, bound to it, acculturated to its physical labor, and finally, constituted on its operations — as to become, finally, nothing less than an obstacle to many conservation policies.  It was a reasonably complete science of whales but was ultimately incapable of realizing the aims of its founders: checking the progressive destruction of the world’s large cetaceans.

That is from D. Graham Burnett’s very impressive The Sounding of the Whale: Science and Cetaceans in the Twentieth Century.  Here is a NYT review, and here is a WSJ review.  It could be the most detailed study of a commons problem ever written, with plenty on the corruption of science along the way.

Fred Smalkin has two questions

This is great. I have two requests (for Tyler or anyone who may have some answers):

1. Could you address the idea of preference preferences? It strikes me that psychoactive drugs alter one’s utility function. Can that be modeled, or does that put you in non-linear-dynamical-system territory that doesn’t admit functions as we know them?

2. Am I being overly simplistic in this stripped-down political model? It seems to me that ideal welfare would measure your lifetime productivity at birth and then compensate you to the extent that it falls below $X. Obviously this comes at some cost, but it seems to me that a consequence of Arrow’s impossibility theorem is that there’s no political solution to choosing X (and how the cost of X would be distributed).

Thanks to Tyler and all who can shed some light!

When it comes to meta-preferences, it is usually acceptable to assume convergence through a fixed point theorem.  So whether I have a preference for a preference for a preference, etc. comes to a coherent finish and we can speak meaningfully of meta-preferences.  That said, I don’t see why we should always favor the meta-preference over the (“baser”) preference.  “Wanting to listen to Top 40” is not obviously a worse preference than “wishing I enjoyed opera more.”

The second question refers to a longstanding debate in optimum taxation theory.  There are a few reasons why we don’t grant transfers contingent on ability alone.  First, we may find the outcomes of privately accepted gambles unacceptable and wish to grant aid to the losers.  Second, there is sometimes a higher social rate of return from investing more money in the skilled.  A final question is why we make so many transfers near or at the end of life and so few, relatively speaking, at the beginning of life.  Obviously the elderly vote at a high rate but I don’t think it is just that.  There is a more general intuition that the elderly deserve the aid and the young do not to an equal extent.  That intuition is a big obstacle to fiscal balance.