Month: September 2012

Markets in everything

Remember “Murderer’s Park”?  Wasn’t that Walter Block’s idea?  Here is the summary of a new service:

It is Las Vegas’s latest thrill: absolute beginners flying aerobatic planes in aerial dogfights

The dogfighting sequences cost $999 and up, and the full story is here (FT$).  Other links and ads for the service are here.  I would have expected this first in New Zealand.

Should there be required labeling of GMOs?

Here is one on-the-mark take (of many):

…there have been more than 300 independent medical studies on the health and safety of genetically modified foods. The World Health Organization, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association and many others have reached the same determination that foods made using GM ingredients are safe, and in fact are substantially equivalent to conventional alternatives. As a result, the FDA does not require labels on foods with genetically modified ingredients because it acknowledges they may mislead consumers into thinking there could be adverse health effects, which has no basis in scientific evidence.

Or try the National Academy of Sciences from 2010:

Many U.S. farmers who grow genetically engineered (GE) crops are realizing substantial economic and environmental benefits — such as lower production costs, fewer pest problems, reduced use of pesticides, and better yields — compared with conventional crops, says a new report from the National Research Council.

Here is a good NYT summary Op-Ed on that report.  There is not the scientific evidence for Mark Bittman’s recent evaluation that:

G.M.O.’s, to date, have neither become a panacea — far from it — nor created Frankenfoods, though by most estimates the evidence is far more damning than it is supportive.

It’s the tag there that is problematic.  He doesn’t offer a citation, nor has he in past columns offered convincing material to back this evaluation (you can read here for a somewhat more detailed account from Bittman; it simply minimizes benefits and does not support “by most estimates the evidence is far more damning than it is supportive”).  This earlier critique of Bittman is on the mark on virtually every point.

The standards of evidence being applied here are extremely weak.  In that last Bittman link he wrote that:

…The surge in suicides among Indian farmers has been attributed by some, at least in part, to G.E. crops…

The link is to a sensationalistic Daily Mail (tabloid) story, yet that gets translated into “has been attributed by some.”  In that story, the suicides were caused by indebtedness and supposedly the debts were in part caused by a desire by farmers to buy GMO crops.  In comparable terms one could write that anything one spends money on could cause suicide through the medium of indebtedness.

By the way, the Wikipedia treatment gives some more detailed citations suggesting that GMO crops are not a significant cause of farmer suicides in India.  The most careful study of the matter reports this:

We first show that there is no evidence in available data of a “resurgence” of farmer suicides in India in the last five years. Second, we find that Bt cotton technology has been very effective overall in India. However, the context in which Bt cotton was introduced has generated disappointing results in some particular districts and seasons. Third, our analysis clearly shows that Bt cotton is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for the occurrence of farmer suicides. In contrast, many other factors have likely played a prominent role.

I would in fact be more supportive of the GMO labeling idea if renowned food writers such as Bittman, and many others including left-wing economists, would come out and boldly proclaim the science about GMOs to their readers.  Too often the tendency is to use a “I’ll try not to say anything literally incorrect, while insinuating there are big problems” method of scoring points against big agriculture.  (Another common trope is to switch the discussion to “distribution” and to suggest, either explicitly or implicitly, that a net benefit technology such as GMOs is somehow unnecessary or undesirable; dare I utter the words “mood affiliation“?)  GMO labeling is the one issue which has gained legal traction, so critics of “Big Ag” just can’t bring themselves to give it up.

Bittman’s whole column is about GMOs, but he gets at the important point only in his final sentence:

[With better information] We’d be able to make saner choices, and those choices would greatly affect Big Food’s ability to freely use genetically manipulated materials, an almost unlimited assortment of drugs and inhumane and environmentally destructive animal-production methods.

Overuse of antibiotics and animal treatment (both cruelty and environmental issues) — now those are two very real problems, backed by overwhelming scientific evidence.  The fact that the California referendum is instead about GMOs — which have overwhelming scientific evidence for net benefit and minimal risks — is the real scandal.

It’s time that our most renowned food writers woke up to that difference.  In the meantime, they are doing both us and themselves a deep disservice.

From a loyal MR reader

I read through the Heckman debate. He does what he always does. One response is terrible (quality of early intervention doesn’t matter, just do a lot of it) but most of them make decent points. Carol Dweck hints at the problem of writing people off.

No one considers neurodiversity. No one considers that many successful people take big risks, follow their impulses, fail to comply, have bad habits, and otherwise misbehave. Heckman himself may be an example.

Update from Emory University — no more economics Ph.d?

The university will suspend admissions to Spanish and economics graduate programs so leaders there can redefine the missions, Forman said. Emory also will suspend admissions to the Institute for Liberal Arts so it can be restructured.

The changes will begin at the end of this academic year and finish by the end of the 2016-17 academic year. About 20 staff positions will be cut over the next five years, officials said.

Savings from the changes will be re-invested into existing programs and growing areas, such as neurosciences, contemporary China studies and digital and new media studies, Emory officials said.

Here is more.  By one account, Emory had moved into the top 50 in economics.  For the pointer I thank Michael Hammock.

World hunger: the problem left behind

Here is my new New York Times column, about the tall task involved in doubling world food output by 2050:

The green revolution has slowed since the early 1990s, and it has become harder to bolster crop yields, as I have discussed in my book, “An Economist Gets Lunch.” And recent research by Dani Rodrik, a professor of international political economy at Harvard, indicates that agricultural productivity improvements are among the hardest to transmit from one nation to another.


In a recent address, Michael Lipton, an economist and research professor at Sussex University in Britain, offered a sobering look at Africa’s agricultural productivity. He suggests that Rwanda and Ghana are gaining, but that most of the continent is not. Production and calorie intake per capita don’t seem to be higher today than they were in the early 1960s. It remains an issue how Africa’s growing population will be fed.


There is no shortage of writing — often from a locavore point of view — in support of more organic methods of farming, for both developed and developing countries. These opinions recognize that current farming methods bring serious environmental problems involving water supplies, fertilizer runoff and energy use. Yet organic farming typically involves smaller yields — 5 to 34 percent lower, as estimated in a recent study in the journal Nature, depending on the crop and the context. For all the virtues of organic approaches, it’s hard to see how global food problems can be solved by starting with a cut in yields. Claims in this area are often based on wishful thinking rather than a hard-nosed sense of what’s practical.

I can’t stress that last sentence enough, and I find it amazing what passes for a good pro-organic argument in this area.

There is also an excellent recent essay by Jeremy Grantham on agriculture (pdf), too pessimistic in my view but still more right than wrong.  For an interesting look at why future gains from GMOs may be limited, at least in the short run, read R. Ford Denison’s Darwinian Agriculture.  Nature already has done a lot of the optimization.

The bottom line is this: right now agriculture is a laggard sector — in part due to state interventions — and this is not totally unrelated to recent headlines about unrest in the Middle East.

Catholic markets in everything not all magazines are folding

With exorcism booming in Poland, Roman Catholic priests have joined forces with a publisher to launch what they claim is the world’s first monthly magazine focused exclusively on chasing out the devil.

“The rise in the number or exorcists from four to more than 120 over the course of 15 years in Poland is telling,” Father Aleksander Posacki, a professor of philosophy, theology and leading demonologist and exorcist told reporters in Warsaw at the Monday launch of the Egzorcysta monthly.

Ironically, he attributed the rise in demonic possessions in what remains one of Europe’s most devoutly Catholic nations partly to the switch from atheist communism to free market capitalism in 1989.

“It’s indirectly due to changes in the system: capitalism creates more opportunities to do business in the area of occultism. Fortune telling has even been categorised as employment for taxation,” Posacki told AFP.

Here is more, via Bookslut.

Ice cream shadow banking markets in everything

State banking officials want to put the freeze on the owner of an ice-cream parlor who opened a community-bank alternative that pays interest in the form of gift cards for ice cream, waffles and coffee.

Ethan Clay, 31 years old, opened Whalebone Café Bank seven months ago in his shop, Oh Yeah!, a year and a half after he was hit with $1,600 in overdraft fees from a local bank where his account was overdrawn by a series of checks.

Mr. Clay says he wants to offer an alternative banking experience, and has accepted small deposits and made small loans. He claims he isn’t subject to banking rules because his operation is a gift-card savings account.

“It’s a strange case, we don’t have the authority to go close an ice-cream store,” said Ed Novak, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Banking. “But we are going to do something. You can’t mess with people’s money.”

The article is here, here is Philip Wallach’s new paper (pdf) on whether we need a new Glass-Steagall.

Can Bernanke precommit?

The most visible effort to clip the Fed’s wings is a bill introduced in the House of Representatives by Kevin Brady, a Republican from Texas, who is vice-chair of the Joint Economic Committee of Congress. His bill would limit the central bank’s mandate to inflation, not employment, and restrict its monetary policy operations to short-term Treasury securities.

Were his bill now law, Mr Brady told the Financial Times, “the Fed would not be able to embark on this third round of quantitative easing”. He said the bill had taken off faster than he had hoped and already had 48 co-sponsors in Congress. “Everyone, whether they agree or not, believes it is the right time to have this discussion.”

And Mitt Romney speaks up for gerontocratic deflation:

“The value of your savings goes down. People who are living on fixed incomes don’t see much interest income any more. And the value of the dollar goes down, and the risk for long-term inflation goes up.”

The full FT story is here.

Elephants all the way down?

Michael Rosenwald reports:

And so it has come to this: Cameras that monitor speed cameras.

This is 100 percent “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” crazy. But true. It has to be true: My brain is not sophisticated enough to create something so meta and surreal from scratch.

WTOP’S Ari Ashe is reporting that Prince George’s County is mounting cameras to monitor its traffic cameras.

The rickshaw was (possibly) invented by a Westerner

The rickshaw was invented in 1868 by John Goble, an American missionary living in Tokyo.

The source is Frank Dikötter, Things Modern: Material Culture and Everyday Life in China, which is also a good book.  Wikipedia offers a more complex story about the possible inventors, with some candidates for the inventor being Japanese.  In any case, I had thought of it as a more ancient device than it turns out to be.