Category: Current Affairs

How to advertise money

Earlier this month the U.S. Treasury Department’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing brought out a new $20 bill. Curiously, the debut of this redesigned piece of currency was accompanied by a marketing campaign–at a reported cost of $32 million. That’s a decent budget and includes events, print ads, some Web goodies, and even TV spots…The ads have been in heavy rotation, and they raise an obvious question: Why bother to advertise money itself?

Here is a description of one commercial:

In one spot, a guy with glasses gets some dough from an ATM, but the upbeat, swingy background music hints that this no ordinary withdrawal. And indeed, the machine spits out a stack of new $20 bills. He pauses and holds one up to study it closely (always a good idea to raise a twenty in the air and lose yourself in thought on a city sidewalk). An announcer says, “You can see right away that things are different.” A smile of satisfaction creeps over the guy’s face. “We’ve added color,” the announcer says, “and changed the portrait.” We follow Mr. Glasses as he buys some flowers, paying with a new $20 bill that seems to vaguely impress the vendor. The announcer mentions improved “security features” and assures us that the new twenty, like the old one, is worth 20 bucks. He then concludes with the new money’s tag line: “Safer, smarter, more secure.”

My take: We need to advertise the money to limit counterfeiting, and to maintain the status of the U.S. dollar in black markets and abroad. We need to tell the world that the $20 bill has changed.

Here is the full story, which includes a video link to one of the commercials. Thanks to Eugene Volokh for the pointer. By the way, I’ve yet to receive one of these bills.

Watch out for Dad

Many of Ms Sternheimer’s points are as striking as they are valid – as when she points out that for all the overheated media reaction to the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, far more children are killed by their parents than by their classmates. In that year alone, she says, 1,000 children were killed by their parents – compared with 35 killed by their classmates.

Karen Sternheimer, a 34-year-old sociologist at the University of Southern California, just published a book It’s Not The Media: The Truth About Pop Culture’s Influence On Children, arguing that the media doesn’t ruin our children as much as we imagine. Here is a useful review of the work. Thanks to www.politicaltheory.info for the pointer.

Here is a good bit from the review:

‘Young people today are less likely to be violent, sexually active, smoke or use drugs compared with their parents when they were young.’

Arrest rates for violent offences among people under 17 fell steadily through the 1990s. Only 13 per cent of 12- to 17-year-olds drank alcohol in 1999, compared with 33 per cent in 1990, and 50 per cent in 1979.

The teen birthrate declined 22 per cent in the 1990s and is now at what Ms Sternheimer says is an all-time low. (In 1950, the pregnancy rate for 15- to 19-year-olds was 80.6 per thousand, whereas by 1999 the rate had dropped to 49.6 per thousand.)

We’ve needed a book like this for some time now.

Addendum: Many of you have written to suggest that the blog post title should have been “Watch Out for Mom.”

How generous is the United States?

Immigration and remittances are the most effective welfare programs ever devised. Anyone who claims to speak for the world’s poor should embrace them. Here are some relevant facts:

1. Total remittances around the world are now about $80 billion a year, twice the amount of so-called “foreign aid,” which often goes to corrupt governments, not poor citizens.

2. Remittances are now ten times the amount of net private capital flows, after adjusting for profit repatriation and interest payments.

3. Mexicans working in the United States send back home $20 billion every year. This sum is twice the value of Mexico’s agricultural exports, and over a third more than tourist revenue.

All the figures are from the November/December issue of Foreign Policy, not yet on-line.

My take: There is altogether too much talk about the United States being ungenerous with foreign aid. We show up as 21st in the rankings, in per capita terms, according to one estimate. These figures neglect remittances, where the U.S. is a very clear first with $28.4 billion a year sent to other countries. The bottom line: when it comes to other nations, the United States is the most generous country in the world.

Are you interested in the rest of the top ten, for remittances? Saudi Arabia, with $15.1 billion a year, is a clear number two. Then you have Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, France, Luxembourg, Israel, Italy, and Japan. The Scandinavian nations receive so much kudos for their high foreign aid per capita, but when it comes to remittances, even tiny Luxembourg, population 437,389, beats them out.

The cost of radio time

To be interviewed free, Mr. Holland said, “you have to be a senator. You have to be a president. You have to be a secretary of state. You’d have to be huge. Or you’d have to have influence with us. It’s a gift.”

Sky Radio, which also produces programming for United, Delta, Northwest airlines, charges guests to appear on its public affairs programs. Oracle, Dell, many major tech companies, most of the pharmaceutical companies, and all the big energy companies have paid these fees. One typical appearance went for $5,900.

Now a complaint has been filed with the Federal Trade Commission. Here is the full story, from The New York Times.

My take: Is this really such a big deal? I’m all for disclosure, but we should recognize that most listeners won’t hear, digest, or comprehend the announcement that the content is paid for. That being said, what is the worry? Anyone who pays to be on the radio is likely very boring. So what if listeners hear a steady stream of corporate drones, all claiming that their companies are wonderful? As it is, business scandals certainly get plenty of room on TV and in the newspapers, and I am not afraid of people being brainwashed into becoming followers of Ayn Rand.

By the way, I was once asked to pay to be on the radio. I declined to pay, if only because I thought I was doing them a favor, and in part because I saw no personal benefit from the appearance. I was told that many independent radio stations make their living this way.

Kidnapping facts

1. The number of reported kidnappings ranges between 12,500 and 25,500 a year, and it is estimated that only one-tenth of all kidnappings are reported. Nor do these numbers include the Chechen children sold back to their families by Russian soldiers.

2. London alone collects $130 million a year in premiums for kidnapping insurance, here is a link to one company, the visual introduction to this link is very effective.

3. About 90 percent of all kidnappings take place in the ten riskiest countries (the link also has tips on kidnapping etiquette), with Colombia a clear leader, reporting 10 kidnappings a day, more than half of the total. The police in Colombia admit that 1500 kidnapped hostages are held currently, the true number is likely much higher. Kidnapping is estimated to be a $200 million tax-free business in Colombia.

4. Kidnappers in the Philippines perhaps have read Thomas Schelling on credible precommitment. They now demand the names of two other likely victims and an estimate of their net worth, before releasing kidnapped children from wealthy families.

5. If you wish to buy one million dollars worth of kidnapping insurance for Colombia, it costs about $20,000 to $25,000 a year. Many people and companies buy much larger policies than this. Many kidnappers consider a ransom of less than a million to be a joke.

6. In Colombia a mere three percent of (reported) kidnappers are prosecuted; in the United States it is 95 percent.

7. The fatality rate on security-consultant-handled kidnappings is about 2 percent. You are most likely to die if they try to rescue you. You are most likely to win a safe release when kidnapping is done in conjunction with the police. Your time in captivity is likely longest when your kidnappers are Marxist revolutionaries.

From Robert Young Pelton’s The World’s Most Dangerous Places. I have been to only four of the place he lists (Bosnia, Russia, U.S., and Yemen), noting that it would be five, but he doesn’t even bother to put Haiti in the current edition, it might be too dangerous for inclusion, it certainly has not become safer. Given that Mexico is number two on the kidnapping list, it represents an odd omission as well.

Russia arrests its wealthiest man

Black-uniformed special forces swept onto the airplane of Russia’s wealthiest man Saturday and forced him back to Moscow, where he was ordered jailed on criminal charges – a dramatic escalation of the politically charged probe into Russia’s largest oil company.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky was charged Saturday with fraud, forgery and other crimes hours after the special forces troops, weapons drawn, surrounded his private plane at a Siberian airport.

This can’t be good news for a country. I can’t begin to understand the byzantine ins and outs of Russian politics. But either the wealthiest man doesn’t deserve to be arrested, in which case this is a tragic oppression or scapegoating. Or the wealthiest man does deserve to be arrested, which is tragic as well. What does it say about how wealth is earned in the country?

Somehow, this being Russia, one suspects that both case A and case B are true at the same time, which makes it even worse, and no, you need not lecture me on Aristotle’s Law of the Excluded Middle.

Click here for the full story.

On Whether To Rebuild Iraq and Whether to Pay for It

I am frankly puzzled about what justification there might be for “rebuilding” Iraq and why outsiders, the United States in particular, should pay for it. Is there some powerful theoretical argument or empirical evidence I am not aware of that suggests that Iraq is likely to become a significantly more friendly and civilized place if its electrical grid, highways, and water and sewage systems are substantially upgraded? And if so, is there some special virtue to outsiders paying for it? If there are strong arguments for either proposition I have not heard them. It would seem to me that helping the Iraqis establish the rule of law, a stable currency, secure property rights, will be far more valuable, considerably cheaper, and sad to say difficult enough. My sense is that a large infusion of cash from the outside will have a pernicious effect. It will encourage the (re)development of a rent-extraction industry.

Privacy dilemmas

On most privacy issues I am willing to say “tough.” If you don’t like how your persona and image get processed by others, well, stay at home and keep your mouth shut.

But I am disturbed by this recent development, namely cameras hidden in cell phones. Consider this:

About 80 million of the palm-sized camera phones are in use worldwide, mostly in Europe and Asia. They are fairly new in the USA; fewer than 6 million are in use in North America. But falling prices – they now average about $380 – and improving picture quality are likely to spur growth.

Critics warn that as the phones proliferate, they are turning users into would-be paparazzi, with anyone nearby potential prey.

Not surprisingly, some locker rooms are starting to ban the phones, as are some celebrity events. Some firms are worried about industrial espionage. I can’t imagine a good regulatory solution here (how do you track down offenders who post photos on the web?), but these phones are pretty small, so we should not expect that private bans will be effective.

Is there a brighter side? Yes:

In Scotland, rescue workers use the phones to transmit pictures of accident victims to doctors while en route to hospitals, Mawston says. Camera phones were used to photograph a rape in England, and the pictures were turned over to police for evidence, Katz says.

About 2% of the 20,000 photos now posted each day on the Web site Fotolog.net, which allows people to create their own photo journals or share their pictures with others, are taken by camera phones. That number is rapidly increasing, site co-founder Adam Seifer says.

“People don’t leave their house without a phone,” says Seifer, who just purchased his camera phone. “So they’ll never miss those cool little moments that emerge throughout the day.”

My take: Social benefits will exceed social costs.

Government subsidies for witches

You have to go to Norway to get one. Consider this:

A Norwegian witch has won a £5,000 [53,000 kroner] business grant from her government to make and sell magic potions.

Her specialty products include night creams for vivid dreams, a day cream to combat indecisiveness and a foot cream to change a user’s bad habits.

I guess it is better than burning them, but how about laissez-faire?

From Cronaca.com, which right now has an especially good set of blog posts for browsing. The full story is from Ananova.com.

Not as bad as it sounds

The U.N. convention on cultural diversity, championed by Canada and
France, would take cultural goods such as films, plays and music out of
the realm of trade negotiations. It would exempt them from free-trade
rules, allow governments to protect and support their cultural industries,
and enshrine the “cultural exception” that European nations have defended
in international law.

It amazes me how many “free speech advocates” have no qualms about restricting consumer choice in the cultural marketplace, which of course is another forum for speech and ideas.

That being said, this news is probably not as bad as it sounds. First, American cultural presence is losing ground when it comes to both television and movies, the two most sensitive cases. Most people want to see locally produced TV programs, which reflect their language and culture. American shows dominate the television market only in parts of the English-speaking world, such as Canada. In cinema, France has shown some ability to capture more than half of its home market, thanks to films such as Amelie. Even Quebec, a very small region, has produced some box-office winners (“The Barbarian Invasions”) as of late.

Quite simply, most of the rest of the world is becoming more entrepreneurial in its cultural production. New technologies, such as digital moviemaking and editing, will only accelerate this trend. So putting in quotas is addressing a dilemma that the marketplace is already solving.

Second, the importance of the quotas is often more symbolic than anything else. France, for instance, does not strictly enforce its quotas against foreign films in French theaters. Anyone who has visited Paris knows it is a wonderful place to see foreign movies of all kinds. The French, for all their noises about the cultural exception, are remarkably open to outside cultures; the musics of Algeria and Zaire have been centered in Paris for some time now. In part, granting the French a symbolic victory on trade policy makes it easier for them to be more open in the long run, and this is what I predict from the U.N. convention. What the French, and many others want, is the ability to win a symbolic victory, and then the ability to choose what they want in the marketplace.

Here is full link, and thanks to Eric Crampton and Michael Giesbrecht for the pointer.

Is health care good for you?

Robin Hanson frequently tries to convince me that more health care, at the margin, doesn’t make us any healthier. A well-known Rand study found that 30 percent increases in health care consumption did not make people healthier. Nor does the international cross-sectional evidence drive the point home. Once you adjust for income, greater health care spending does not appear to make people healthier.

Robin now sends me this study, which shows that greater Medicare spending doesn’t make people any healthier. Areas with high Medicare spending don’t produce extra health, and yes, this result does adjust for the relevant variables. This, of course, would make Medicare reform a good deal easier, you cut cut spending without fearing catastrophe.

Why, then, do we spend so much on health care? Robin claims we do it to “show that we care” for our relatives. I’ve suggested we
do it simply to avoid the feeling of regret, should one of our loved ones die, and we then feel we “didn’t do enough.”

By the way, here is one of Robin’s essays, “Buy Health, Not Health Care,” he suggests that your doctor should lose a lot of money when you die.

My take: I never manage to win this debate with Robin. I don’t have much evidence to cite in favor of health care spending (email me if you know some). But I am suspicious when I hear the claim that health care does not matter at the margin. Which margin? The last unit you bought? The next unit you might buy? And how big a unit? No one wants to give up penicillin. And exactly which margin are these studies measuring?

On one hand, the economist in me would be happier if I had some evidence that all the extra American health care spending was bringing a concrete return. On the other hand, I hate going to the doctor, in fact I never go. If I could tell my wife that this was rational, well, that would be better than making the economist in me happy.

Siberian facts

1. Oil and gas account for about a quarter of Russian gdp, about half of the export earnings, and about a third of government revenues.

2. Much of the Russian energy supply goes toward heating very cold places.

3. Almost 40 million Russians work and live in cities where the average January temperatures range from minus 15 Centigrade to minus 45 Centigrade.

4. Costs of living in Siberia are about four times higher than in the rest of Russia.

5. The average wage in Siberia is about 1/12 that of Moscow, and most Siberians cannot pay their energy bills.

6. There are restrictions on settlement in Moscow, and a general difficulty of finding jobs.

7. Many of the Siberian cities would never have been developed, had it not been for communist planning.

From today’s Financial Times.

Apparently this is why Russia cannot so easily deregulate its energy market and allow prices to rise to world market levels. Siberia would move further into bankruptcy.

Tightening the border?

Barriers to entering Mexicans simply encourage them to stay in this country longer, and make them less likely to return home for long visits. On net, the number of illegal immigrants appears to go up. For more, read the always stimulating Virginia Postrel.

My take: I know some of these people (the Mexican immigrants), and I can tell you, this is absolutely true. Given border crackdowns, they make a conscious calculation to stay longer in the United States, rather than migrating seasonally.