Category: Current Affairs

Bhagwati criticizes the WTO

Read this on how the WTO is becoming a forum to regulate the behavior of the poorer nations, rather than bring free trade. Eminent trade economist Jagdish Bhagwati of Columbia University calls WTO a “sham,” and a “legal…straitjacket of do’s and don’ts…”

Here is a money quote:

“The developing countries are scared out of their wits now,” Bhagwati says, “because they don’t understand what they’re being forced to sign. The agreements are going way outside the trade issues and involve a helluva lot of things like your access to oil, your access to intellectual property and capital controls…. When I looked through the investment agreements, it was worse than reading my insurance policy for the fine print. I couldn’t make anything out of it, and I’m a reasonably informed person, a pretty smart economist as they go.”

Who are the most partisan columnists?

Lyinginponds.com provides a running tab on which media writers toe a particular political line. The “winners” for the Total Partisanship Index are the following individuals, with 100 on the scale meaning pure partisanship:

Ann Coulter – 77
Paul Krugman – 74
Robert Scheer – 72
Molly Ivins – 68
Frank Rich – 61

The numbers try to measure how much the writer sides with one political party rather than the other. Click on the links for full explanations of the various indices.

Are student evaluations a good idea?

Here is Michael Huemer’s very interesting critique of student evaluations of professors, full of cites and links. Yes, student evaluations correlate positively with other measures of teaching effectiveness. Take multiple sections of the same course and give a common final exam, the correlation is in the neighborhood of 0.4 to 0.5.

On the other hand, a professor gets a much better evaluations if students think they will get good grades. The statistical correlations are strong and hard to deny. And in one study 70 percent of students admitted that their evaluation was influenced by the grade they expected to get. See this game theory article on how one-shot reciprocity can work.

In one survey, 38 percent of professors admitted to dumbing down their courses to get better evaluations.

Cosmetic factors such as appearance have a big influence on evaluations.

Huemer offers no policy conclusion. He does note that ratings by colleagues and other observers do not agree with each other very much and thus cannot stand as a serious alternative.

If you are curious, I could not find Huemer’s student evaluations through a web search.

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.