Month: July 2012

Price inflation in Syria

…as the conversation deepened and tea flowed, he spoke of prices. Mr. Hamed leads a battalion near Aleppo. The demand for weapons on his turf is so high, and supplies are so short, he said, that he has had to pay more than $4 for a single rifle or machine-gun cartridge. A Kalashnikov assault rifle, he said, costs $2,000 or more.

In the history of conflict, these are high prices…

What will the supply elasticity be?

…full RPG-7 systems (a reusable launcher with two or three high-explosive antitank rounds) cost more than $2,000, and each replacement grenade costs $500. PK machine guns, another common firearm, cost $6,000 to $7,000. No modern infantry rifle is available for less than $900. Some cost several times that. Thus, arming three riflemen, a machine gunner and a man with a rocket-propelled grenade could easily cost a commander more than $10,000 — not counting ammunition.

Because of lack of ammunition, they are using M-16s as sticks, not guns.  Here is much more, interesting throughout.  For the pointer I thank Peter Somerville on Twitter.

How hot did you say it was?

In fact, the actual trends in temperatures had nothing to do with how people perceived them. If you graphed the predictive power of people’s perceptions against the actual temperatures, the resulting line was flat—it showed no trend at all. In the statistical model, the actual weather had little impact on people’s perception of recent temperatures. Education continued to have a positive impact on whether they got it right, but its magnitude was dwarfed by the influences of political affiliation and cultural beliefs.

And those cultural affiliations had about the effect you’d expect. Individualists, who often object to environmental regulations as an infringement on their freedoms, tended to think the temperatures hadn’t gone up in their area, regardless of whether they had. Strong egalitarians, in contrast, tended to believe the temperatures had gone up.

The same does not hold for perceptions of droughts and floods.  The full story is here, the underlying paper is here, and for the pointers I thank Michael Rosenwald and Scott Duke Kominers.

The culture that is Shanghai

Louis Vuitton is courting China’s wealthy with one-of-a-kind shoes and bags it is branding as unique works of art to reclaim its exclusive cachet in the luxury market.

The French luxury brand, a unit of LVMH (LVMH.PA), is set to open its largest China store in Shanghai on Saturday, complete with a gilded spiral staircase and an invitation-only private floor where big spenders can get their hair done while dreaming up designs for custom bags.

“The made-to-order concept is the ultimate luxury,” Louis Vuitton Chief Executive Yves Carcelle told Reuters during a tour of the store, which the company calls a “maison”.

Here is more, via Daniel Lippman.

Thiel v. Schmidt

Peter Thiel, taking the pessimistic view, and Eric Schmidt of Google, taking the optimistic view, both made good points in their debate over technology but Thiel had the knockout punch:

PETER THIEL: …Google is a great company.  It has 30,000 people, or 20,000, whatever the number is.  They have pretty safe jobs.  On the other hand, Google also has 30, 40, 50 billion in cash.  It has no idea how to invest that money in technology effectively.  So, it prefers getting zero percent interest from Mr. Bernanke, effectively the cash sort of gets burned away over time through inflation, because there are no ideas that Google has how to spend money.

ERIC SCHMIDT: [talks about globalization]

The moderator repeats Thiel’s point:

ADAM LASHINSKY:  You have $50 billion at Google, why don’t you spend it on doing more in tech, or are you out of ideas?  And I think Google does more than most companies.  You’re trying to do things with self-driving cars and supposedly with asteroid mining, although maybe that’s just part of the propaganda ministry.  And you’re doing more than Microsoft, or Apple, or a lot of these other companies.  Amazon is the only one, in my mind, of the big tech companies that’s actually reinvesting all its money, that has enough of a vision of the future that they’re actually able to reinvest all their profits.

ERIC SCHMIDT:  They make less profit than Google does.

PETER THIEL:  But, if we’re living in an accelerating technological world, and you have zero percent interest rates in the background, you should be able to invest all of your money in things that will return it many times over, and the fact that you’re out of ideas, maybe it’s a political problem, the government has outlawed things.  But, it still is a problem.

ADAM LASHINSKY:  I’m going to go to the audience very soon, but I want you to have the opportunity to address your quality of investments, Eric.

ERIC SCHMIDT:  I think I’ll just let his statement stand.

ADAM LASHINSKY:  You don’t want to address the cash horde that your company does not have the creativity to spend, to invest?

ERIC SCHMIDT:  What you discover in running these companies is that there are limits that are not cash.  There are limits of recruiting, limits of real estate, regulatory limits as Peter points out.  There are many, many such limits.  And anything that we can do to reduce those limits is a good idea.

PETER THIEL:  But, then the intellectually honest thing to do would be to say that Google is no longer a technology company, that it’s basically ‑‑ it’s a search engine.  The search technology was developed a decade ago.  It’s a bet that there will be no one else who will come up with a better search technology.  So, you invest in Google, because you’re betting against technological innovation in search.  And it’s like a bank that generates enormous cash flows every year, but you can’t issue a dividend, because the day you take that $30 billion and send it back to people you’re admitting that you’re no longer a technology company.  That’s why Microsoft can’t return its money.  That’s why all these companies are building up hordes of cash, because they don’t know what to do with it, but they don’t want to admit they’re no longer tech companies.

ADAM LASHINSKY:  Briefly, and then we’re going to go to the audience.

ERIC SCHMIDT:  So, the brief rebuttal is, Chrome is now the number one browser in the world.

In my mind, the revealed preference of our technological leaders is the best and most depressing argument for the great stagnation.

Clifford Whinston on driverless cars

Here is one good point of many:

Driverless cars don’t need the same wide lanes, which would allow highway authorities to reconfigure roads to allow travel speeds to be raised during peak travel periods. All that is needed would be illuminated lane dividers that can increase the number of lanes available. Driverless cars could take advantage of the extra lane capacity to reduce congestion and delays.

Another design flaw is that highways have been built in terms of width and thickness to accommodate both cars and trucks. The smaller volume of trucks should be handled with one or two wide lanes with a road surface about a foot thick, to withstand trucks’ weight and axle pressure. But the much larger volume of cars—which apply much less axle pressure that damages pavement—need more and narrower lanes that are only a few inches thick.

Building highways that separate cars and trucks by directing them to lanes with the appropriate thickness would save taxpayers a bundle. It would also favor the technology of driverless cars because they would not have to distinguish between cars and trucks and to adjust speeds and positions accordingly.

The full piece is here.

*Savage Continent*

That is the new book by Keith Lowe, with the subtitle Europe in the Aftermath of World War II.  Excerpt:

The number of sexual relationships that took place between European women and Germans during the war is quite staggering.  In Norway as many of 10 percent of women aged between fifteen and thirty had German boyfriends during the war.  If the statistics on the number of children born to German soldiers are anything to go by, this was by no means unusual…

Resistance movements in occupied countries came up with all kinds of excuses for the behaviour of their women and girls.  They characterized women who slept with Germans as ignorant, poor, even mentally defective.  They claimed that women were raped, or that they only slept with Germans out of economic necessity.  While this was undoubtedly the case for some, recent surveys show that women who slept with German soldiers came from all classes and all walks of life.  On the whole European women slept with Germans not because they were forced to, or because their own men were absent, or because they needed money or food — but simply because they found the strong, “knightly” image of the German soldiers intensely attractive, especially compared to the weakened impression they had of their own menfolk.  In Denmark, for example, wartime pollsters were shocked to discover that 51 per cent of Danish women openly admitted to finding German men more attractive than their own compatriots.

Nowhere was this need more keenly felt than in France…

You can buy the book here.

Reversal of fortune markets in everything

Cote, a 56-year-old drywall finisher from Ogunquit, Maine, has found that with a little dye on his eyebrows and in his hair, he looks a lot like the Republican presidential candidate.

Cote starred as Romney in the “Rombo” ad paid for by the Rick Santorum campaign, and played him in a yet-to-be-aired reality TV show in which presidential impersonators live in a house together. (Fake Sarah Palin created drama by mistaking sleeping pills for allergy medication.)

Now, with the general election campaign just ahead, Cote is hoping to land gigs at corporate events, commercial shoots and TV shows that have meant big paydays for a lucky few candidate impersonators. He said he had already booked some “top secret” photo shoots that will have him on magazine covers and California billboards this summer.

It’s a strange place to be for Cote, who didn’t go to college, doesn’t have a savings account and is divorced — all traits that distinguish him from the erudite, wealthy and long-married 65-year-old Romney.

And yet there is competition:

Cote’s voice is higher than Romney’s, and he has a heavy New England accent. Then there’s the competition: With the race heating up, more wannabe Romneys are popping up, many with professional training in acting.

“This is going to be a challenge,” said Dustin Gold, Cote’s manager. “We’re taking a drywaller, trying to turn him into a country club guy.”

I wonder if it works the other way around.  The article is interesting throughout, including the photo and video, and for the pointer I thank Daniel Lippman.

Econ Memes

Art Carden has created a page of econ-related memes. Here is one of my favorites:

The Most Interesting Man In The World


Firefighters Don’t Fight Fires

Over the past 35 years, the number of fires in the United States has fallen by more than 40% while the number of career firefighters has increased by more than 40% (data).

(N.B. Volunteer firefighters were mostly pushed out of the big cities in the late 19th century but there are a surprising number who remain in rural areas and small towns; in fact, more in total than career firefighters. The number of volunteers has been roughly constant and almost all of them operate within small towns of less than 25,000. Thus, you can take the above as approximating towns and cities of more than 25,000.)

The decline of demand has created a problem for firefighters. What Fred McChesney wrote some 10 years ago is even more true today:

Taxpayers are unlikely to support budget increases for fire departments if they see firemen lolling about the firehouse. So cities have created new, highly visible jobs for their firemen. The Wall Street Journal reported recently, “In Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami, for example, 90% of the emergency calls to firehouses are to accompany ambulances to the scene of auto accidents and other medical emergencies. Elsewhere, to keep their employees busy, fire departments have expanded into neighborhood beautification, gang intervention, substitute-teaching and other downtime pursuits.” In the Illinois township where I live, the fire department drives its trucks to accompany all medical emergency vehicles, then directs traffic around the ambulance—a task which, however valuable, seemingly does not require a hook-and-ladder.

Here’s some data. Note that medical calls dwarf fire calls. Twenty five years ago false alarms were half the number of fires, today false alarms significantly exceed the number of fires.

According to Nightline it costs $3,500 every time a fire truck pulls out of a fire station in Washington, DC (25 calls in a 24 hour shift is not uncommon so this adds up quickly).  Moreover, most of the time the call is not for a fire but for a minor medical problem. In many cities, both fire trucks and ambulances respond to the same calls. The paramedics do a great job but it is hard to believe that this is an efficient way to deliver medical care and transportation. A few locales have experimented with more rational systems. For example:

For calls that are not a life or death, Eastside Fire and Rescue stations [in WA state] will no longer send out a fire truck but instead an SUV with one certified medic firefighter.

Sounds obvious, but it’s hard to negotiate with heroes especially when they are unionized with strong featherbedding contracts.

David Brooks continues to be on a roll

Here is his latest column, excerpt:

This shift of focus has been audacious. Over the years of his presidency, Obama has not been a critic of globalization. There’s no real evidence that, when he’s off the campaign trail, he has any problem with outsourcing and offshoring. He has lavishly praised people like Steve Jobs who were prominent practitioners. He has hired people like Jeffrey Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric, whose company embodies the upsides of globalization. His economic advisers have generally touted the benefits of globalization even as they worked to help those who are hurt by its downsides.

But, politically, this aggressive tactic has worked. It has shifted the focus of the race from being about big government, which Obama represents, to being about capitalism, which Romney represents.

Do read the whole thing.