Month: August 2014

Assorted links

Paul Krugman on libertarian fantasies

He writes:

…the cost of bureaucracy is in general vastly overestimated. Compensation of workers accounts for only around 6 percent of non defense federal spending, and only a fraction of that compensation goes to people you could reasonably call bureaucrats.

And what Konczal says about welfare is also true, although harder to quantify, for regulation. For sure there are wasteful and unnecessary government regulations — but not nearly as many as libertarians want to believe. When, for example, meddling bureaucrats tell you what you can and can’t have in your dishwashing detergent, it turns out that there’s a very good reason. America in 2014 is not India under the License Raj.

In other words, libertarianism is a crusade against problems we don’t have, or at least not to the extent the libertarians want to imagine.

And:

And what all this means in turn is that libertarianism does not offer a workable policy agenda. I don’t mean that I dislike the agenda, which is a separate issue; I mean that if we should somehow end up with libertarian government, it would quickly find itself unable to fulfill any of its promises.

You can read his further points here.  In fact I agree with many of Krugman’s observations in what I thought was overall a useful post.  It’s just that I think a lot of other viewpoints are living in a fantasy world too.

That said, Krugman grossly underestimates the costs of government regulation.  For one thing, government regulations are a major obstacle to the infrastructure improvements which Krugman is so keen on.  To use Krugman’s own pick of the cherry, he wrote another post defending the DMV for its on-line service and reasonable wait times.  It was not always so, but on top of that let’s not forget the Virginia DMV just tried to put Uber and other ride-sharing services out of business (Krugman himself wrote rapturously about Uber a few weeks ago and how it held out the promise of a society with diminished car ownership in some locales.  I say bring it on.)  Fortunately the regulators were temporarily overriden in this case, although they may reemerge as an obstacle in a subsequent bargain.  More generally, taxi license and medallion requirements are a disgrace in many places, and who is in charge of that?  Typically the DMV.

You might also ask whether DMVs underregulate where they ought to regulate more.  The number of road deaths in the United States each year is so high as to be scandalous.  I am not sure how much this problem can be pinned on the DMV (how easy is it to get very bad drivers off the road through legal/constitutional means?), but still it is hard to argue that in absolute terms these agencies are overseeing a successful regime of road safety.

Animals suffer under food nationalism

The more than 6,000 animals in Russia’s largest zoo have been caught up in the worst fight between Russia and the West since the Cold War. A wide-ranging ban on Western food announced this week by the Kremlin has forced a sudden diet change for creatures that eat newly forbidden fruit.

The sanctions against meat, fish, fruits and vegetables from the United States, the European Union and other Western countries were intended to strike a counterblow to nations that have hit Russia over its role in Ukraine’s roiling insurgency. But the measures will also have an impact on stomachs at the zoo.

The sea lions crack open Norwegian shellfish. The cranes peck at Latvian herring. The orangutans snack on Dutch bell peppers. Now the venerable Moscow Zoo needs to find politically acceptable substitutes to satisfy finicky animal palates.

“They don’t like Russian food,” zoo spokeswoman Anna Kachurovskaya said. “They’re extremely attached to what they like, so it’s a hard question for us.

The penguins still live in a Cobdenite world:

The penguins eat fish from Argentina — whose food sales to Russia have not been blocked and are politically in the clear.

But the Ramsey rules are relevant for some of the primates:

Orangutans, gorillas and monkeys are particularly finicky eaters at the zoo, but Kachurovskaya said they would eventually adapt.

“In the wild, they eat what they have, not what they want,” she said.

The story is here.

Assorted links

Thwarted jetpack markets in everything

This time Newport Beach, CA is the villain, or the guardian of public safety, depending on your point of view:

While demand for such thrill rides seems limitless, the supply has been curtailed by the Newport Beach City Council. Alarmed by noise complaints and safety concerns, the council approved a six-month moratorium on new jetpack businesses this summer, dashing the hopes of several would-be operators. The move has left Jetpack America as the only oceanfront flight school in town for now, cornering the market on what some see as an ever-expanding audience, thanks in large part to video clips posted online and Internet deals that lure new customers to the shores of Newport Beach, an idyllic setting less than 50 miles southeast of Los Angeles.

The devices cost $10k (formerly 100k), they push you 40 feet up, and you can go 30 mph.  You can still do it in New Jersey, Delaware, and Florida, though further regulations are coming.  How is this for a good sentence?:

The jetpack universe is small, but growing.

The full story is here, by Jennifer Medina, interesting throughout.

Which of the world’s languages are due to disappear?

Economist David Clingingsmith has a 2013 paper on this topic (pdf).  It seems that languages are stable at a lower margin of speaking community than I would have expected:

Scholars have long conjectured that the return to knowing a language increases with the number of speakers. Recent work argues that long-run economic and political integration accentuate this advantage, leading larger languages to increase their population share. I show that, to the contrary, language size and growth are uncorrelated for languages with 35,000 speakers. I incorporate this finding into an evolutionary model of language population dynamics. The model’s steady-state follows a power law and precisely fits the size distribution of the 1,900 languages with 35,000 speakers. Simulations suggest the extinction of 40% of languages with < 35,000 speakers within 100 years.

You will find other interesting papers by Clingingsmith here.

Facts about birds

…despite the putrid menu vultures favor, their excrement is sterile. In fact, letting the waste run down their legs can clean off germs from the gore; it’s their version of freshening up with a moist towelette after a barbecue. Tiny bee hummingbirds are so small you could mail 16 of them for the price of a single stamp. Robins can navigate with the right eye alone, but not the left. Albatrosses, who spend 95 percent of their lives over open ocean, are thought to be able to shut down half their brains while continuing to fly at 40 m.p.h. For blackcap warblers, the direction of migration is clearly innate, so crossbreeding a group of blackcaps who flew south for fall migration with a group that oriented westward resulted in offspring who flew in a southwesterly direction.

That is from this Vicki Constantine Croke review of two new bird books.

What is the implied MRS for dead vs. kidnapped Israeli soldiers?

If a captive soldier is known to be in a certain vehicle, Mr. Amidror said, it is permissible to fire a tank shell toward the engine of the car. “You for sure risk the life of the soldier, but you don’t intend to kill him,” he said.

Asked whether it was morally acceptable to risk a soldier’s life in this way, Mr. Amidror said: “You know, war is very controversial. Soldiers have to know there are many risks in the battlefield, and this is one of them.”

That is for Israeli soldiers and it is called the Hannibal Procedure more generally.  The subtext is that an Israeli soldier captured by the enemy can end up being traded for a thousand or more imprisoned Palestinians.  The persistence of the kidnapped state for the soldier may create an intolerable situation for the Israeli public, more than would seem to be the case for a deceased soldier, and arguably it damages morale for future soldiers to a greater extent.

Not everyone likes the Hannibal Procedure:

“The procedure is morally flawed,” said Emanuel Gross of Haifa University, an expert in military law and a former military judge. “We have no right to risk the life of a soldier only to avoid the payment for his return from captivity.”

Instead, Mr. Gross said, Israel ought to stand more firmly against the inflated demands of the captors.

I wonder how the opinion of the median soldier or soldier-to-be on this policy compares to the opinion of the median Israeli citizen.  Our philosopher readers will also note the connection of this debate to the longstanding conundrums over whether a person ceasing to exist can be said to harm that person, a topic discussed by Derek Parfit among others.

The full story is here, interesting throughout.

Who are the Yazidis?

Their supreme being is known as Yasdan. He is considered to be on such an elevated level that he cannot be worshipped directly. He is considered a passive force, the Creator of the world, not the preserver. Seven great spirits emanate from him of which the greatest is the Peacock Angel known as Malak Taus – active executor of the divine will. The peacock in early Christianity was a symbol of immortality, because its flesh does not appear to decay. Malak Taus is considered God’s alter ego, inseparable from Him, and to that extent Yazidism is monotheistic.

There is more here, interesting throughout.

John Cochrane on inequality and growth

Though he is quite polemic, too polemic I would say, he is largely correct:

Oh please. Yes, the problem with America is… our darn national thriftiness?

Anyway, can’t we do better than spewing some half-remembered undergraduate course from the mid 1970s in which a sleepy professor with long hair and bell bottoms pushed around IS LM curves and talked about “demand” and “marginal propensity to consume” a lot? Didn’t Milton Friedman demolish the whole concept of “marginal propensity to consume” 70 years ago? Is this it for the connection between inequality and growth?

Most of all, if the reason that inequality is bad for growth is that it leads to insufficient consumption and lack of demand, then that can easily be addressed in the same Keynesian framework with lots of stimulus spending. If you play the game, it seems to me you have to play by the rules. Even if you accept the diagnosis, then you do not accept the conclusion that very high — and very distorting — taxes and transfers are the best remedy. Unless… you really don’t believe the mechanism, or the connection to growth, and this is all rhetoric in favor of taxation for other reasons. It is interesting how the diagnoses seem to follow the prescription.

There is more here, polemic throughout, on the recent S&P study, which doesn’t seem to hold up.

China project of the day

China will construct a “Chinese Christian theology” suitable for the country, state media reported on Thursday, as both the number of believers and tensions with the authorities are on the rise.

China has between 23 million and 40 million Protestants, accounting for 1.7 to 2.9 per cent of the total population, the state-run China Daily said, citing figures given at a seminar in Shanghai.

About 500,000 people are baptised as Protestants every year, it added.

There is more here, via the excellent Mark Thorson.  It should be noted that this story can be given a number of different interpretations.  Here is a related article.