Category: Current Affairs

Global warming update

Fungi under the snow may contribute significantly to CO2 levels, according to this Washington Post article (brief registration required). Here is one bit:

“We’re living in a world where global warming is a constant threat, but in fact we have relatively little knowledge of what the inputs and outputs are for CO2.” said Steven Miller, a mycologist, or fungus specialist, at the University of Wyoming.”

Here is another:

“…global warming models can no longer ignore fungi in snowy regions and seasons as they have, scientists said – especially because about 40 percent of Earth’s landmass is covered with snow for at least part of the year.”

I am not one of those economists who wishes that global warming would go away, and simply assumes that science is on my side, or reads the evidence selectively. And of course items such as this can be cause for either optimism or pessimism, what if fungi under the snow contribute to a crisis rather than easing it? Still, Bush was not crazy to refuse to go along with Kyoto.

The mind of Paul Krugman

Here is an interview with Paul Krugman, talking for the left-wing audience of LiberalOasis and thus, believe it or not, less restrained than usual. Here is one revealing bit, talking about the United States post-9/11: “I felt for a little while there like I was all alone, [that] they’re all mad but me.”

He also uses the phrase “My finest hour” is a non-ironic way, when speaking of the California energy crisis.

He talks about his new book The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century as well. I will offer some comments once my copy arrives.

Blogging for profit?

Companies used to fire their employee bloggers. Now some of them are discovering that blogging is the “ultimate customer intimacy tool.” Imagine chatting with your customers on a regular basis, telling them what the product means for their lives, informing them of new developments, and having them visit you [your site] every day. Who knows, it might even supplant some telemarketing. Here is the link. And see this recent discussion of how blog names matter and signal the nature of content.

Induced innovation in prisons

This fascinating article from Wired illustrates how prisoners make the best of their environments by inventing new contraptions.

“Locked in a California prison, Angelo needs a cup of coffee. Bad. But electric heaters used to make instant joe are contraband in jail. So his cellmate combines the metal tabs from a notebook binder with a couple of melted toothbrushes and some rubber bands.

Soon, Angelo is sipping Folgers.

The jury-rigged heater is one of nearly 80 improvised items Angelo meticulously diagrams in a new book, Prisoners’ Inventions [check out this fascinating link, which offers diagrams of the inventions and further description]. Working with the Chicago-based art group Temporary Services, Angelo (not his real name) shows how inmates fashion dice from sugar water and toilet paper, dry bologna jerky on jail-house light fixtures, turn hot sauce bottles into shower heads and make grilled cheese sandwiches on prison desks.”

One individual from Temporary Services notes that in the movies, “prisoners only create things to escape, get high or kill each other.”

The whole thing reminds me of Soviet engineers.

Will Vouchers Split the Democratic Party?

The debate so far Tyler 1, Alex 1, Tyler 2.

Let me take Tyler’s weakest point first. He writes, “Imagine politicians upping the voucher amount and coverage to win votes each election cycle…” What like education spending is not a political issue today? In fact, over the past several decades we have doubled real per-capita spending on schooling with zero increase in productivity. It’s possible that government would set an education voucher at too high an amount (but let’s get it above zero before we worry about this!) but at least we will get something for our money.

Defining an acceptable school is a legitimate issue but one that we already face today with private schools, charter schools, and home schooling. I see no reason why private schools under a voucher system could not be regulated as private schools are today. Private schools do face some minimal regulations including hours and some content requirements but I don’t think these have been a significant constraint. Some private schools will undoubtedly teach nonsense but Tyler seems to forget that Ebonics, to give just one example, was a creature of the public schools not the private schools.

I will agree, however, that current voucher plans are typically terrible. Existing vouchers are often limited to poor students and sometimes just to poor students in “failing” schools, the voucher amounts are typically low and to add insult to injury it is often illegal to add-on to the voucher amount (a type of price control). Finally, nowhere near enough students are suported. The DC plan, for example, is aimed at some 2,000 students in a school system of 66,000.

I recommend John Merrifield’s School Choices: True and False as an antidote to this kind of limited thinking. Merrifield’s bottom line is that we need a system under which the government in no way discriminate against parents who send their children to private schools.

Can you find a Republican on the MIT faculty?

I am not a Republican, but the results from articles of this kind, from David Horowitz’s Center for the Study of Popular Culture, disturb me. In America the number of registered Democrats and Republicans, over time, is roughly equal. The same cannot be said for university faculty. The most Republican school these researchers had in their sample was Northwestern, which still had a 4-1 ratio in favor of Democrats. The aggregate ratio was about 10-1, with the school sample included the entire Ivy League and Berkeley. Brown had a 30-1 ratio in favor of the Democrats. They couldn’t find a registered Republican at MIT, Williams, Oberlin, or Haverford. They found 3 registered Republicans among the administrators of the Ivy League.

Kiwi watch: Can New Zealand fly again?

Read this interview with Roger Douglass, former New Zealand finance minister and the initiator of New Zealand’s market reforms, which now have stalled for a decade.

Douglass tells us: “Government spending on welfare, retirement income, health and education has now reached $8,000 per New Zealander and $24,000 per household per year [that is Kiwi dollars, take 55 American cents as a ballpark figure for the time period in question]”. At the same time the quality of these services has not been rising. Douglass proposes tax credits for these services instead, combined with market provision on the supply side.

Unlike with vouchers (see Alex’s previous post on vouchers), the state would not have to define what constitutes an acceptable education or social service. This is a significant advantage of Douglass’s notion of tax credit. On the other hand, the reform institutes the equivalent of a negative income tax or guaranteed annual income. A welfare payment that is automatic and easy to collect has bad incentive effects and runs the risk of becoming a new middle class entitlement, increased before every election.

Douglass describes “believability” as the biggest obstacle to reform. Given that a large change would be in the offing, most New Zealanders simply would not believe that they would receive equal or greater quality services for the same or lower net price.

Russian rebound

David Warsh offers a good, balanced piece, with good links, on Russia’s recent economic performance, seven percent growth last year, a bright spot in Europe. A third of Muscovites earn a normal European wage.

I visited Moscow last month, it seemed poorer to me than Mexico City. Even more worrisome, there was a noticeable apathy about politics, only the Mafias seem to care. My wife is Russian, so I had good chances to meet and talk with other Russians, a select group no doubt, but even they had little passion to work for political improvement.

Stay tuned. And don’t ask about the provinces.

When is word of mouth important?

I have found some data on the relative importance of word of mouth for various purchases and choices. The first number in each category is what percent of respondents say they rely on other people, as one of the three best sources of information in a given area. The second number is the percent relying primarily on advertising:

Restaurants: 83, 35 (word of mouth is huge, by the way check out my ethnic dining guide)

Places to visit: 71, 33

Prescription drugs to try: 71, 21 (the prevalence of word of mouth here surprised me, do men really boast to other men about the effectiveness of Viagra? Or do women spread the word?)

Movies to see: 61, 67 (this time I am surprised that advertising is so effective, I guess that is why they spend $30 million marketing the average Hollywood movie)

Videos to rent or buy: 59, 45

Retirement planning: 58, 9

Clothes to buy: 50, 59

Finding a new job: 47, 54 (I am surprised that ads are so potent here)

Computer equipment: 40, 18

Web sites to visit: 37, 12

From the new book The Influentials, by Ed Keller and Jon Berry. The book is about the ten percent of the American population that (supposedly) tells the other ninety percent what to do, I assume that bloggers fall into the former category. The material is a bit fluffy, still unlike many marketing books it does have useful facts and figures. By the way, we are told that word of mouth is important for books too, although there is no single simple figure to cite.

Our shrinking arms industry?

The Washington Post reports on our shrinking arms industry:

A few numbers tell the story…the aerospace-defense industry workforce shriveled from 1.3 million in 1989 to 689,000 at the end of 2002, roughly the number employed in 1953…Between 2002 and 2008 nearly half of the industry’s workforce…will be eligible for retirement…universities are churning out few replacements.

Overall military spending is up, but only for 2003 has the weapons procurement allocation gone up. Here is a piece on the beginnings of the downward trajectory in some categories of spending.

But I don’t buy the Post’s account as stated. Procurement more generally is up across the agencies and stable within DOD, see this recent GAO report. In fact it appears that “A few numbers” do not tell the story. For the DOD, information technology accounts for 46 percent of the procurement total over the last five years. We are spending to make weapons smarter, not spending less on weapons. Not to mention that ship spending has risen 128 percent, again over the last five years. Aircraft spending is up 42 percent.

In part we simply like the weapons we have, and thus we are building more of them, or upgrading their quality. And since we are investing in information technology, it is hard to argue we are mortgaging our future. If we are underspending in any areas, look toward Iraqi reconstruction and intelligence, two areas where our failures have been obvious.

The psychology of defeat — hope for Iraqi reconstruction?

Here is a money quote from The Culture of Defeat by Wolfgang Schivelbusch:

“Losers who have completed the first stage of reaction to defeat – surprise, dismay, disbelief, and the search for scapegoats – begin to examine their history for the deeper reasons behind their failure. Forced to admit that they took a wrong turn somewhere, they try to ascertain where they strayed from the true path.” (p.69)

It gets better: “…conquered societies…strive to emulate the victors…” (from the inner flap).

There are some good examples: France after the Franco-Prussian War, Germany and Japan after World War II, parts of Germany after the invasion of Napoleon, or Russia after the 1905 war with Japan. Attaturk and Turkey, following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Or Argentina after the Falklands. But I can think of exceptions. Did losing territory cause Peru to mimic Chilean organization? Did it do much for Bolivia? Poland has lost many wars, but fortunately stuck to its course rather than emulating the Russians.

What about contemporary Iraq? Here is a good review of Schivelbusch that raises the right questions. In any case reading his book made me more optimistic, though I would still like a comparative study of the successes and failures. Thorough defeat appears to be one key for later success. Schivelbusch suggests that allowing for a certain feverish insanity — including crazed dancing — after the defeat, might be another.

African food scandal

Zambia, Lesotho, Malawi, Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe — not exactly marvels of good nutrition — have been destroying food shipments from America. Why? This will sound like a sick joke, but they are afraid of genetically-modified foods. These countries have now expressed official opposition to American food entering their country, at a time when almost 3 million Zambians, to cite just one example, desperately need food aid.

There is another villain in the story, namely some of the European nations. The Africans fear that if they accept genetically-modified foods, the seeds will mix with their current crops. Europe will then be reluctant to import African foodstuffs. By the way, Greenpeace opposes the food shipments as well.

Peter Pringle offers a good survey of the debates on genetically-modified foodstuffs.

Even the Christians Can’t Agree

Lew Rockwell complains that the version of the Ten Commandments that Alabama Judge Moore chose for his 5,300 pound monument is “a sectarian one promoted by Calvinist and fundamentalist Protestants, but rejected by Catholics, Lutherans, and Episcopalians. (The difference has to do with whether the first commandment should be split into two parts to seem to justify iconoclasm.)”

The Right argues that the first amendment is all about defending atheism when, as Rockwell’s comment illustrates, it’s really about defending the religionists from themselves.