Another reason for vouchers

After a few parents complained that their children might be ridiculed for not making the list [of honor-roll students], lawyers for the Nashville school system warned that state privacy laws forbid releasing any academic information, good or bad, without permission….As a result, all Nashville schools have stopped posting honor rolls, and some are also considering a ban on hanging good work in the hallways…”

Principal Steven Baum “thinks spelling bees and other publicly graded events are leftovers from the days of ranking and sorting students” and says “I discourage competitive games at school. They just don’t fit my worldview of what a school should be.” (From the Wash. Post)

Supporting MR

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Risk Regulation

The Economist has a nice survey on risk. Here’s one chart on the cost per life saved of various regulations. Bottom line: the cost per life saved of many regulations is absurdly high and we are often required to buy more safety than we want. John Morrall, whose study the Economist bases its figures on finds that almost half of the regulations that he studied do not pass a cost-benefit test.

Thanks to Zev Safran for the pointer.


The organ shortage is worse than you think

In 2002, 6609 people died while on the waiting list for an organ transplant. This figure, widely quoted in the media, is an underestimate of the number of deaths due to the shortage because it only counts those who die while literally on the waiting list. In 2002, however, 1844 patients were removed from the list before they died because they became too sick to undergo a transplant. It’s likely that most of these patients die soon after being removed from the list so adding these patients to the tally increases the number of deaths caused by the shortage by some 28 percent. In addition, many people who could benefit from an organ transplant are never placed on the waiting list in the first place and when these people die their deaths are not counted as a cost of the shortage but they surely are.

For some solutions to the shortage see my earlier post, Dollars for Donors.

The New Financial Order

Like John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman before him, Robert Shiller is that rare economist who uses economic theory to design new and better ways of doing things. I highly recommend his book, The New Financial Order. (Indeed, I hope that Shiller will one day receive a Nobel prize for his work in economic design.) For some time, I’ve also been wanting to recommend The Atlantic magazine. This month’s issue is superb and includes the best piece on the state of the American economy that I have read (the link will take you to the online version but the magazine itself contains a number of useful charts and much else – buy it!). From that piece comes this quote on Shiller’s work:

A more radical variation on this concept comes from Robert Shiller, an economist at Yale, who believes that continuing financial-market innovations may soon enable private insurers to offer “livelihood insurance” that could protect workers from potential declines in their occupations (though not against an individual worker’s underperformance within a flourishing field). Similar products might insure against the eventual devaluation of specific academic degrees in the United States (such as those in software engineering or Russian language), or even against declines in the performance of the U.S. economy as a whole, relative to the rest of the world. (As Shiller notes, the fact that the past century was a good one for America does not necessarily mean that the next one will be.) Collectively, these products might lessen the large and arguably increasing risks inherent in the U.S. capitalist system.

These are bold ideas; it may be hard at first to wrap one’s mind around them. And it is perhaps ironic that financial markets–which are regarded by many people as amoral if not immoral–might ultimately solve some of the problems that socialist and utopian thinkers have been trying for centuries to address. But as improbable as livelihood insurance may sound, advances in data collection, data analysis, and financial-risk theory are lowering the technical barriers to such a system. Government action could help the creation of livelihood insurance on a large scale. Part of the government’s role would be technical–for instance setting the standards for the collection and sharing of personal income data that are necessary if livelihood insurance is to work. But two equally important tasks would be the articulation of a new vision of society–one where people are protected against the unexpected shocks that accompany rapid economic change–and the promotion of financial-services products that can sustain that vision. Without large markets covering a wide range of occupations, carriers offering livelihood insurance might have difficulty hedging their risk sufficiently.

Addendum: Robert Shiller’s homepage has lots of useful information.

Could a little poison be a good thing?

Evidence is building for hormesis, the theory that suggests that moderate doses of bad things like radiation and toxins can improve health. Interestingly, much of the evidence has been around for a long time but it has been ignored because the focus was on proving the harm that toxins can cause and because low-dose effects are, by their nature, harder to identify so positive effects at low doses were typically discounted. Edward J. Calabrese of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, however, has collected thousands of already published examples and is conducting original research of his own into hormesis. Other researchers are beginning to take notice. Hormesis is controversial, however, as you might imagine from this bombshell:

Calabrese suspects that in many cases, the benefits of hormesis may occur at levels higher than the recommended safe doses for humans.

Hormesis is a similar idea to the hygiene hypothesis (more here) which asserts that “reduced microbial exposure because of increased sanitation and cleaner lifestyles has facilitated the rise in asthma and allergic disease in the Western world.” (The mechanisms of the two effects appear quite different, however.)

Free Chong

Conservatives argue that gun manufacturers and sellers should not be held liable for selling a gun which is later used in a crime. I agree but where are the conservative defenders of Tommy Chong? Chong, one half of the gonzo film duo, Cheech & Chong, is currently serving a 9 month prison term for selling “drug paraphernalia” over the internet. That’s right, Chong is in jail not for selling drugs but for selling items that are perfectly legal like pipes and rolling paper – similar items are sold everyday alongside tobacco but because of Chong’s reputation as a drug-user his items were ruled illegal.

Chong is the only defendant in a series of such raids to receive jail time and it is clear that one of the reasons Federal prosecutors went after him is because his movies make fun of law-enforcement.

In Canada, the quality of mercy is strained

Loni Wells has required 8 ½ hours of dialysis every day since her kidney failed completely in February of 2000. After a publicity effort by her father, 36 complete strangers offered to fly to Edmonton to donate to her one of their kidneys. But, writes Adam Young,

[when] these potential matches contacted the local branch office of the Stalinist medical system in Canada, their benevolence was brushed away….The transplant monopoly, however, insists living donors be either family or close friends.

“There has to be an emotional bond, a close relationship to proceed to any further steps,” explained Ed Greenberg of Capital Health in Edmonton.

What an arrogant bastard. How dare this bureaucratic peon sit in judgment on the quality of mercy?

Hayek and the Reconstruction of Germany

At first, the U.S. POW camps for captured Germans were dominated by Nazi’s who threatened and even killed anti-Nazi “traitors.” But as American thoughts turned to the post World-War II era the camps were cleaned up and a reeducation plan was begun. In other countries, this might have been a euphemism for torture and forced labor but in the U.S. camps it meant libraries filled with books that the Nazi’s had banned and open discussion sessions led by professors from Harvard, Brown, Cornell and elsewhere. The story is told in The Washington Post Magazine article, Learning Freedom in Captivity.

Here is one interesting quote:

By mid-1944, new leadership had been installed at Concordia and many of the worst Nazis had been removed. Concordia’s canteens and library were filled with books that had been banned by the Nazis. Treichl read and reread the American bestseller The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek, which detailed the flaws in socialism and contrasted it with democracy.

Treichl went on to become head of Austria’s largest bank and honorary president of the Austrian Red Cross. To this day he has kept his beloved copy of The Road To Serfdom.

I find this story heart-warming and a fascinating tidbit of history but it also troubles me. What are we to make of a reeducation camp with The Road to Serfdom as text? Clearly, we cannot dismiss such a thing as a contradiction in terms because apparently it did some good. More broadly, Hayek warns against the hubris of social engineering – yet what was the post WWII reconstruction of Germany and Japan but social engineering on a grand scale? How do these lessons apply to Iraq? Could we fail in Iraq precisely because we do not have the power to reeducate?

Hubble to die

At first, I was merely uninspired by President Bush’s plan to resend men to the moon and then on to Mars (Here are better ideas from MR readers). Now I am upset and saddened. The Hubble telescope is one of the great achievements of the recent space program, especially after the amazing in-space eyeglass repair job. Data from the Hubble have helped us to understand the universe in all its awesomeness and yet the Hubble will now die an early death because of the budget shift.

Here is Hubble’s picture of the eye of Sauron:


Just kidding about the last one, it’s MyCn18, a young planetary nebula, the glowing relic of a dying, Sun-like star.

This is the Cartwheel Galaxy, located 500 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Sculptor.


Here are two galaxies, NGC 2207, is on the left and IC 2163 on the right that are slowly colliding.


Here are more Hubble pictures.

Kristoff on sweatshops

In a hard-hitting NYTimes op-ed, Nicholas Kristoff writes:

I’d like to invite Richard Gephardt and the other Democratic candidates to come here to Cambodia and discuss trade policy with scavengers like Nhep Chanda, who spends her days rooting through filth in the city dump….Here in Cambodia factory jobs are in such demand that workers usually have to bribe a factory insider with a month’s salary just to get hired.

Along the Bassac River, construction workers told me they wanted factory jobs because the work would be so much safer than clambering up scaffolding without safety harnesses. Some also said sweatshop jobs would be preferable because they would mean a lot less sweat. (Westerners call them “sweatshops,” but they offer one of the few third world jobs that doesn’t involve constant sweat.)…

The Democratic Party has been pro-trade since Franklin Roosevelt, and President Bill Clinton in particular tugged the party to embrace the realities of trade. Now the party may be retreating toward protectionism under the guise of labor standards.

That would hurt American consumers. But it would be particularly devastating for laborers in the poorest parts of the world. For the fundamental problem in the poor countries of Africa and Asia is not that sweatshops exploit too many workers; it’s that they don’t exploit enough.

Be sure and look at Kristoff’s heartbreaking audio-slide show, the Realities of Labor available at the above link, halfway down the right hand side. Hat tip to Life, Liberty, and Property.

Empire and Capital Flows

Brad DeLong laments that international capital in the late twentieth century did not flow to poorer countries the way it did in the late 19th century. Tyler comments here.

The key point that I think Brad and Tyler both miss is that in the late 19th century a lot of the capital was flowing within the structure of the British Empire. Whatever its faults (and there were many), the Empire did provide investors with the rational expectation that their property would not be expropriated. More broadly, the capital flows of the 19th century were accompanied by flows of intellectual capital – in the form of the rule of law and similar institutions. Japan and the East Asian tigers show that it is possible for a country to adopt these institutions without the imposition of Empire but it is not easy.

The Winners of the MR Challenge

As expected, President Bush’s plan for a moon base and eventual trip to Mars failed to ignite. MR readers have some better ideas.

Honorable mention goes to Roger Meiners for suggesting that a moon base is a good idea so long as Congress and the President must occupy it. Now I am inspired!

Third place goes to Chris Rasch for brain freezing. Chris Rasch writes “I believe that reversible cryopreservation of the human brain could be developed. Remarkable advances have already been made on a shoestring budget. Such a technology would allow people dying today to halt the dying process until technology can advance to the point that we can cure their disease or repair their injuries. I would wager that, for a mere billion dollars, which is far more than has probably been spent on cryobiology during the entire existence of the field, we could have effectively unbounded lifespans. We could then use those extra years to pursue all of the other goals that other submitters may send to you.”

Here is a good, short summary of cryonics and you can sign up to have you brain (or more) frozen here.

I like the cryonics idea and have thought seriously about signing up (believe it or not, one of my colleagues (not Tyler) has already done so). The reason the idea takes third place is that we don’t see a big private demand for cryonics and the public is more likely to think this idea crazy than inspiring.

Second place goes to Nick Shultz for suggesting that we “provide potable water for everyone on the planet.” A number of other ideas were also motivated by the goal of alleviating abject third-world poverty. I think these ideas are inspiring but am unsure whether we can deliver on them given that so many of the problems of the third world have to do with poor governance. My suggestion would be to work on something related but more under our own control. We could do far worse, for example, than following Bill Gates’s lead and put a billion or so into the Malaria Vaccine Initiative.

First place goes to David Wood and Robin Hanson both of whom suggested a space elevator. At first, the space elevator idea seems impossible, even absurd. The idea is to string a cable some 62,000 miles long from a spot on the equator up into outerspace. Wouldn’t it fall down? No, recall that a sateillite some 22,000 miles up is in geosynchronous orbit. The space elevator would extend enough past this point so that gravity at the lower end and centripetal acceleration at the far end would keep the cable under tension. Once the cable is strung, reaching outerspace is as simple as Jack climbing the beanstock.

The most difficult part of the space elevator is finding a material strong enough to carry a load yet light enough not to collapse under its own weight – a short time ago there was no such material but today it’s believed that carbon nanotubes could do the job (nano-technology more generally was another favourite of MR readers and this proposal would advance that cause.)

A space elevator is a game-changer because it dramatically lowers the cost of putting payloads into space. Moreover, once you have one elevator it becomes much easier to get a second. In contrast, rockets are always going to be expensive because you have to carry a lot of fuel just to lift the fuel and sitting on top of 4 million pounds of explosive is always going to be dangerous. The space elevator would provide a permanent access point to the stars and it can be had for less than 100 billion. Going up anyone?

More on the space elevator idea here and here.