Category: Current Affairs

Most Amish kids have cell phones

At least once they turn sixteen, or so I learned from the recent DVD release The Devil’s Playground, a 77-minute award-winning documentary, which I rented at my local Hollywood video. An Amish ritual called “rumspringa” (“running around,” note that the link shows, among other things, Amish youth drinking beer) allows youths to sample the previously forbidden delights of the outside world to their heart’s content. At this age Amish youth start having wild parties (organized by cell phone), premarital sex, and often hard drugs as well. The Amish elders believe that the youth must be allowed to sow their wild oats, if they are ever to become good Amish later. One Amazon.com reviewer wrote:

I was not prepared to see a trailer full of Amish teens drugged up to their eyeballs right on Amish land. The Amish Rumspringa teens careen around and throw such wild parties that people come from all over America to attend. Apparently, it is well known (except by me) that “Amish kids have the best parties.”

Ninety percent of Amish youth later decide to join the church and give up such wanton ways. Never before in history has a higher percentage of the Amish remained in the fold.

Organ trafficking

I learned the following today:

1. Most sales of body organs involve kidneys.

2. Patients who receive a kidney from a living donor have a much better chance of surviving.

3. In the developing world the going rate for a kidney is between $1000 and $2000.

4. In the Philippines there is essentially a free market in bodily organs. The “grey market” is growing rapidly in many countries.

5. Two different studies suggest that kidney sellers do not benefit in the long run. Most sellers pay off debts with the money, and end up back in debt, their acts of desperation do not succeed. Many end up with long-run health problems, or can no longer perform heavy labor.

From this week’s New York Review of Books (electronic subscription required), “The Organ Market,” by Sheila and David Rothman. The authors are involved with an “organ watch” movement, which seeks to stop organ sales abuses.

My take: I can believe the “behavioral irrationality” argument that most kidney sellers do not benefit very much, if at all. But the Rothman piece never tries to estimate how many lives are saved by the practice. Furthermore, many of the selling “victims” might have performed some other desperate act instead. So the organ selling idea, although repugnant to many people, in my mind remains in the running as a serious policy proposal.

There is a moral hazard problem, namely hospitals and doctors may take kidneys from people when they shouldn’t. Or a hospital or doctor may let a patient die, to harvest the kidneys. Are more lives lost through the moral hazard problem than are saved through the kidney sales? I doubt it. Do the kidney buyers benefit more than the kidney sellers lose? Probably.

Utilitarian calculations are not the only value at stake here, but so far they point toward allowing organ sales. The best argument against is to cite the likelihood of accompanying rights violations, which are real, and claim that such a factor outweighs the utilitarian benefits of the practice.

Addendum: On point number two, the authors write: “patients who receive an organ from a living donor have far better prospects than those who receive an organ from a cadaver.” Co-blogger Alex sends me the following link, which shows a correlation of about ten percentage points more of survival, if you receive an organ from a living donor, the causal relationship may be weaker, given the differing ages of various recipients. Alex wonders if allowing kidney demanders to “buy from the dead” would reduce the problems of sale from the living. This is a good point, but I am not sure it eliminates the basic problem. First, sales from the dead may not displace sales from the living; I cannot determine whether the Philippines (not to mention other locales) restricts sales from the dead but it is not obvious that such differential restrictions exist. Second, many of the buyers are relatively wealthy. If a “live kidney” raises the chance of survival by only a single percentage point, they may still pay for that, which would continue to prop up the market in kidneys from the living. Kidney middlemen may find it easier, and more profitable, to buy from the living for a thousand or two, rather than pursue cadavers, where the quality of the kidney is presumably harder to determine.

Kissing Cousins (More)

A John Tierney article in today’s NYTimes argues that the Iraqi tradition of cousin marriage and consequent clan loyalties make it difficult to establish democracy. (See Tyler’s earlier post for a map and some other links.) Most interesting claim is that the Western taboo against cousin marriage was promoted by the church explicitly in order to reduce loyalty to the clan and promote universal love. Key quote:

Cousin marriage was once the norm throughout the world, but it became taboo in Europe after a long campaign by the Roman Catholic Church. Theologians like St. Augustine and St. Thomas argued that the practice promoted family loyalties at the expense of universal love and social harmony. Eliminating it was seen as a way to reduce clan warfare and promote loyalty to larger social institutions – like the church.

By the way, recent genetic research indicates that cousin marriage does not lead to dramatically higher abnormalities in children.

Wal-Mart Facts

Wal-Mart is the largest company in the world, measured by sales, $245 billion last year.

McKinsey estimates that one-eighth of the productivity gains of the late 1990s came from Wal-Mart.

Its $12 billion of imports from China account for a tenth of total U.S. imports from China.

It is estimated that Wal-Mart saved U.S. customers $20 billion last year.

82% percent of American households made a purchase at a Wal-Mart last year.

On the darker side, it pays lower wages and “censors” music and magazines.

And do you worry about monopoly or monopsony power? In this context I don’t, frankly, except for the cultural/censoring issue, but still it is worth noting that Wal-Mart’s U.S. market share of consumer staples could hit 50% by the end of the decade.

From Business Week , which has a long cover article, “Is Wal-Mart Too Powerful?”

Here are two more facts:

1. It is the biggest employer in 21 states, with more people in uniform than the U.S. Army

2. Every year the company loses $2 billion in theft, this “enterprise” alone would rank #694 on the Fortune 1000.

From Straybulletins.com.

How have newspapers changed since the early 1960s?

1. They devote more space to news, about twice as much.

2. Hard news gets lower priority for space. Business coverage, sports, and special features have all risen in relative prominence, business coverage doubling in percentage terms.

3. Front pages are much more local in their orientation. Foreign stories are down from 20 percent to 5 percent.

4. Female bylines have increased from 7 to 29 percent.

5. Stories are longer.

6. Papers print more letters to the editor.

And what about overall feel?

Papers of the 1960s seem naively trusting of government, shamelessly boosterish, unembarrassedly hokey, and obliging. There was apparently no bottom to the threshold for local news and photos. Writing was matter of fact, and stories were surprisingly often not attributed at all, simply passing along an unquestioned, quasi-official sense of things. The worldview seemed white, male, middle-aged, and middle-class, a comfortable and confident Optimist Club bonhomie. With it came a noblesse oblige sense of purpose. A paper was inextricably woven into its community, a self-anointed major player almost preening with pride and duty.

From a 1999 study by Carl Sessions Stepp, recently republished in Breach of Faith: A Crisis of Coverage in the Age of Corporate Newspapering.

Addendum: Bruce Bartlett adds: “You neglected to note that over the same period, newspaper circulation fell like a rock. Perhaps people would read more papers if they were more like those in the ’60s.”

OPEC, Iraq and Taxes

OPEC unexpectedly announced a cutback in production today. I wonder if the administration tacitly encouraged the cutback? At the very least, I suspect that they are secretly pleased. The increase in oil prices will mean greater funds for rebuilding Iraq – funds that the administration is having difficulty getting Congress to approve. Unlike a tax, the increase in oil prices does not require Congressional approval.

What caused the London power blackout?

Today’s Financial Times offers an interesting Op-Ed (registration and subscription required), here are two bottom lines:

First, since the 1990s the rate of investment in the British electricity grid has nearly doubled.

Second, British electricity is more reliable than ever before:

The halcyon days when ‘things were better’ never existed. Since privatisation, the number of power cuts has fallen by 10 per cent and the duration of those cuts has fallen by nearly a third.

OK, the author is Callum McCarthy, chief energy regulator in the UK, and he presumably has a vested interest in defending the status quo. And I don’t understand his convoluted take on overcapacity and price history, as I read McCarthy he is committed to both high and low prices at the same time, these equivocations make me more skeptical about his conclusions. Still, his perspective deserves wider circulation.

Smuggling amongst the Amish

“A smuggling ring operated for several months in Ohio’s largest Amish community, transporting hundreds of illegal immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala, investigators said.” So notes Cnn.com. It says something about the power of good institutions that it still makes economic sense to smuggle workers into a community that limits its use of modern technology.

One man’s vice…

Here is a new blog devoted to the economics of public policy for the vices, namely the regulation of drugs, gambling, and prostitution, see vicesquad.blogspot.com. I am reading a bit in here, but overall the perspective rings sympathetic toward various methods of legalization or decriminalization. Click here if you wish to read about the attempt of Los Angeles to ban lap dancing.

Here is the blogmeister’s self-description: “My name is Jim Leitzel and I am an economist and co-chair of the public policy concentration in the undergraduate college at the University of Chicago. For the past five years I have taught a course on vice policy, and I have recently started to write a secondary text for the class.”

Thanks for Peter Boettke for the pointer.

The Eric Rasmusen controversy

Eric Rasmusen of Indiana University has long been well-known as an excellent microeconomist. I taught from his Games and Information for many years, I still have his article “Stock Banks and Mutual Banks” on my Industrial Organization reading list.

Lately Rasmusen has been the center of much controversy. Usually I like to summarize the links I use, however briefly. But in this case I am not sure how to explain events without offending anybody, I know Rasmusen a bit plus I have numerous gay friends. So just read here on the episode. Here is Rasmusen’s frequently interesting blog. Here are Rasmusen’s views on religion. Thanks to Eugene Volokh for the Chicago Tribune link.

Tragedy of the tragedy of the commons

Garrett Hardin and his wife recently passed away, it is rumored to have been a double suicide. Hardin was a well-known environmentalist, most prominently he coined the phrase “tragedy of the commons”. He spent the latter part of his career opposing immigration and favoring population control, he was even embraced by some eugenecists.

Addendum: The Hardins were survived by their four children, thanks to Nicky Tynan for the pointer.

Will those annoying calls go away?

Perhaps you have put your name on the “do not call” list. Don’t think that your troubles are over. One estimate suggests that unsolicited calls will go down by no more than 25 percent. The wording is ambiguous but from the context the figure seems to be for people who have put their name on the list, obviously it will be worse for the population as a whole. One loophole is that anyone with a “previously existing commercial relationship” can call you, so can non-profits, pollers, and radio and TV providers, not to mention politicians. The group Private Citizen is leading the fight against such cold calls, and is the original source of the estimate. Thanks to TechiePundit for the original pointers to the links.

Where do people marry close relatives?

Check out this map, which is dominated by the Muslim world.

Stanley Kurtz of the Hoover Institution has argued that such intermarriage patterns make liberal democracy harder:

In the modern Middle East, networks of kin are still the foundation of wealth, security, and personal happiness. That, in a sense, is the problem. As we’ve seen in Afghanistan, loyalty to kin and tribe cuts against the authority of the state. And the corrupt dictatorships that rule much of the Muslim Middle East often function themselves more like self-interested kin groups than as rulers who take the interests of the nation as a whole as their own. That, in turn, gives the populace little reason to turn from the proven support of kin and tribe, and trust instead in the state.

An intriguing idea, but I find it very hard to establish the appropriate causal connections. Still, better that we ponder the question than stick our heads in the sand. Parapundit offers a very useful overview of the debate, sympathetic to Kurtz’s point of view. Please note, as always, that use of a link does not constitute endorsement of all of that link’s contents or subsequent links.

Will Bush back away from steel tariffs?

President Bush has received two mid-term reports, critical of his decision to implement steel tariffs, here is a relevant International Trade Commission link. The tariffs are not only bad economics, but it seems, bad politics as well. Steel price increases appear to have cut out some jobs in the potential swing states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan. And most of Bush’s economic advisors opposed the tariffs from the beginning. The Washington Post account (see the above link) suggests that the Bush Administration is likely to nix the tariffs:

“The only reason they won’t do it is if they’re unwilling to admit they made a mistake,” said a Republican strategist who works closely with the White House.

An alternative account from The New York Times (registration required) implies that the matter is less settled. Even the Post notes that giving up on the tariffs would be a significant loss of face for Karl Rove, their initial backer. Either way, this issue is likely to prove an embarrassment to the Bush reelection campaign.