Results for “age of em”
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Wining about Taxes

Jennifer Rosen totals up the taxes on a bottle of wine. This summary is direct from Walter in Denver.

1. Federal import license, $500, 3 to 5 month wait.

2. Register an office for each state in which the wine is sold, $100 to $350 per state.

3. Find a distributor for each state or even each county. These distributors will add their own markup to the price of your wine. State governments will not allow you to act as your own distributor.

4. Create and print a new English language label for the wine. The label will have to meet the federal requirements for warning labels and such.

5. After shipping, wait ten days for the wine to clear customs.

In Rosen’s hypothetical case the bottle of wine that sells in its home country for $4.50 winds in U.S. stores at $15.50 per bottle.

Tax protestors often note that half of the average American’s paycheck goes to taxes. When you count the cost of regulation, government’s cost is actually much higher.

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.

Climate Change Change

I took my kids to see the dinosaurs in the Smithsonian yesterday. As I was wandering around, I came across a surprising exhibit on the ice age that noted the following:

Initiation of glacial conditions may be triggered by surprisingly rapid climate changes. Therefore, the minor global cooling trend of recent decades…is being carefully watched and studied. Already the effects on food production are severe in many parts of the world….We are now in a relatively warm period (“interglacial”) following one of several major glacial periods. It is not certain when the present interglacial period will end but…imagine the impact of another full scale glacial advance like that just a few thousand years ago!

Clearly, the Smithsonian needs to update some of its exhibits but when they do so I hope they note that the “scientific consensus” on global climate change has been much more variable than the climate.

More Bickering

Two quick notes on Tyler’s comment on my recent post on vouchers.

First, whether the school or the parent is sent the check is irrelevant (this is a basic theorem in economics). My point, however, was that parents cannot add-on to the voucher amount – i.e. the Chilean system has extensive price controls. Another way of saying this is that in the Chilean system parents never spend any of their own money on the private (subsidized) schools. I think a good voucher system requires that on at least some margins parents spend their own hard-earned dollars on their children’s education.

Second, Tyler thinks that the most convincing evidence is that Chileans did not improve on an international scale. Actually this is the least convincing evidence and it illustrates my point about the power of HU’s tests. The private schools in Chile increased by about 20 percentage points over the relevant time frame. Suppose that private schools were better than public schools by 10 percent then the aggregate gain at the national level would only be 2 percent. Small exogenous decreases in the quality of the public schools could easily swamp this gain.

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.

The doctor drain from Canada

Unlike most libertarian-oriented economists, I find persuasive the left-wing arguments that individuals have a positive right to medical care. The problem is, most governmental systems are proving unsustainable in the long run. They are affordable only by rationing, which frustrates doctors and patients alike. The Canadian system is (barely) tolerable, only because so many Canadians come to this country for their care.

Read this article from The New York Times.

Here is one money quote:

Forced to compete for operating room time with other surgeons, he said that he and his colleague could complete only one or two operations on some days, meaning that patients whose cases were not emergencies could go months or even years before completing necessary treatment.

“Scarce resources are simply not being spent properly,” Dr. Sriharan concluded, citing a shortage of nurses and anesthesiologists in the hospital where the single microscope available is old and breaking down.

The two surgeons are sharply critical of Canada’s health care system, which is driven by government-financed insurance for all but increasingly rations service because of various technological and personnel shortages. Both doctors said they were fed up with a two-tier medical system in which those with connections go to the head of the line for surgery.

Here is another:

There was a net migration of 49 neurosurgeons from Canada from 1996 to 2002, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, a large loss given that there are only 241 neurosurgeons in the country.

My take: It is only going to get worse.

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.

What is in a voter’s self-interest?

Alan Krueger reports on survey research that shows that people do not vote according to their self-interest. In particular, he bemoans the fact that a majority of the poor want to get rid of the estate tax. This and other odd results are due to “ignorance and uncertainty” says Larry Bartels, a Princeton political scientist. If only the poor were better informed they would vote against tax cuts for the rich. Moreover, a better informed electorate would be a good thing. I take issue with both of these positions.

Take the normative position first. Assuming that voters voted self-interestedly, would a more informed electorate be a good thing? Doubtful. If everyone voted their “interest,” as Krueger and Bartels conceive it, every bureaucrat, welfare recipient and old person living on social security would vote for more government. Naturally, I think this would be a disaster but even those who think this would be a good thing ought to give pause when they consider how much more polarized our society would become were it not for the fact that ideology cuts across class lines.

Moreover, isn’t it interesting that when the poor vote against their “self-interest” they are labeled “uninformed” – Bartels compares them to Homer Simpson. But when Hollywood liberals like Barbara Streisand or rich philanthropists like Bill Gates Sr. vote against their “self-interest” they are called enlightened. What Krueger and Bartels refer to as self-interest is actually masking an ideology.

Is it true that informed voters would vote differently? (Krueger cites some evidence suggesting that in fact this is not the case – at least not as much as one would expect – but he doesn’t offer an explanation.) To understand this one should first realize that voters are uninformed because it doesn’t pay to be informed. The probability that one vote sways the election is infinitesimal so voters are rationally ignorant. Does this imply that voting is random? Not at all. Voters who care about ideas even a little are free to vote their ideology at low cost. Thus, in my view, the fact that votes don’t matter gives us hope. It’s only because votes don’t matter that libertarianism has a chance of success. Of course, I recognize that the same facts gives socialism a chance at the polls but I hope good ideas will win out.

Addendum: I’ve been influenced on these issues by our colleague, Bryan Caplan – although I give the ideas a more positive spin than he does. I recommend his paper Libertarianism Against Economism: How Economists Misunderstand Voters, and Why Libertarians Should Care from The Independent Review and his other papers on rational irrationality which you can find on his web page.

Bickering with Alex over vouchers

Oh, yes, it is time for that again.

Alex thought that Brad DeLong and I should be cheerier over the prospects for vouchers. My previous post had cited a study of vouchers in Chile, showing no real educational improvement over twenty years.

Like Alex, I am willing to give vouchers a try, but I think he is overselling the idea. Why I am not convinced by Alex’s pep talk?

First, Alex cites a study of Colombian vouchers, which showed improvement from a voucher program. Point granted, but I think that correct conclusion is simply that sometimes vouchers improve schooling, sometimes they don’t. The most convincing Chilean evidence, not cited by Alex, is simply that overall educational performance, on the international scale, did not improve after twenty years of vouchers.

Second, Alex argues that Chile did not have a pure vouchers scheme. Again, point granted, but no implementable vouchers scheme will be pure, let us take this for granted. Have you read about the Washington D.C. voucher proposals, which would force private schools to admit a certain percentage of “voucher students” by lot? Not surprisingly, the good private schools don’t want to participate in the program, if it passes.

Alex overestimates how far the Chilean system deviates from a pure voucher model. True, the Chilean system makes the payment to the private school, rather than to the family. But according to most theories of tax incidence, this should not matter. The private school will lower tuition accordingly, hoping to capture more students, and thus a greater payment from the government.

Overall, what is going on? Education is not just another commodity. Some of it is signaling, in which case subsidizing it doesn’t bring great gains. Another big part of education is selecting peers for our child. A school filled with bad kids is a bad school, whether it is private or public. It is not obvious how much a private school can make bad kids good. As experience in Eastern Europe and around the world shows, certain kinds of education may be a prerequisite for well-functioning markets, the right values don’t follow from markets automatically.

Most generally, educational performance varies with many factors, not all of them depending on the scope of the market. There are, in fact, very many good public schools, whether in the U.S. or abroad. Now Chile is a relatively homogeneous and urbanized country, with 13 million plus inhabitants. The country also has a reputation for discipline, order, and strong family structure. Is it plausible to think that such a region can have reasonably good public schools, so good that vouchers won’t elevate their youth to another level? Yes.

Vouchers would give U.S. urban youths another educational chance, but let us not expect too much from this reform.

Vouchers in Chile and Colombia

Tyler mentioned, following a depressed Brad DeLong, a new paper on education vouchers in Chile that does not find large achievement gains. I have some criticisms of the paper (see below) but I was surprised that neither mentioned the most important recent paper on vouchers, Vouchers for Private Schooling in Colombia by Angrist, Bettinger, Bloom, King and Kremer in the Dec. 2002 AER.

Using data from a randomized experiment, Angrist et al. estimate that attending private school increased the probability of finishing eighth grade by 13-15 percentage points or 25 percent. Test scores increased by .29 standard deviations which is equivalent to about an extra year’s worth of schooling which has been estimated to increase yearly wages by 10 percent. Other markers such as teen cohabitation also improved.

Is this just a case of dueling papers? No, first, unlike Hsieh and Urquiola (HU), the Angrist et al. results are consistent with results found elsewhere. See in particular those found for Catholic schooling in the United States . Second, Hsieh and Urquiola (HU) are good researchers, judging by their paper, but Angrist et al. have a much more convincing research design – results from a randomized trial beat econometric identification any day. Cheer up Brad!

I shouldn’t give the impression that the results are directly comparable, however, as HU are trying to get at the general equilibrium effect of a voucher experiment and Angrist et al. are after the partial equilibrium effect of private schooling. Given the large gains found in the partial equilibrium literature, however, the GE results from HU are not plausible in my view.

Now regarding the HU paper some information is in order. First, there were no vouchers in Chile. Instead, there was public funding of some private schools on a per-student basis. Parents could not apply their voucher to the tuition at a private school of their choice.

Second, HU do not test whether students who transferred to private schools did better than other students – they tested whether aggregate scores (public and private) increased over time as more students attended private schools. Their evidence seems consistent with a nationwide decline in public school quality over time. More generally, I would have liked to have seen some information in their paper on the power of their tests. Given the size of the private sector what sort of gains could would we have expected to see in the aggregate scores and is their technique powerful enough to pick up such gains?

Third, HU claim that “cream skimming” was extensive but I find this difficult to believe because there is no price difference between public and private (voucher-accepting) schools since each was paid the same per-student amount. There are some non-pecuniary barriers but no limits on entry that HU mention.

Fourth, why did private enrollment increase if parents did not perceive a quality improvement? HU mention “freshly painted walls” which I thought was a bit flip – we ought to take revealed preference more seriously.

I do think that the HU study of Chile provides useful information about designing a good voucher program and my priors would have been that the program instituted in Chile, even though not a true voucher program, would have produced a larger effect – thus I learned something from the paper.

Latino assimilation

The U.S.-born children of immigrants are replacing their parents as the fastest-growing generation in the Latino population, and the shift will have profound effects on the country’s largest minority group.

The children of immigrants are likely to move closer to the mainstream than their parents — marrying people from other backgrounds, for example. Their political views are likely to change as well, becoming more liberal on abortion, experts say, but less supportive of affirmative action. Their earnings and education will surpass those of their parents, experts predict, but will not close the gap with the Anglo majority.

“The biggest difference is that we’re shifting from a process where the largest component is Spanish-speaking immigrants — where language and immigration status were two enormous questions — to growth of a population that is English-speaking and native-born,” said Roberto Suro, the Pew center’s director. “You totally move away from the issues that have been dominant. They have a totally different set of issues than their parents do.”

My take: Good news all around. I don’t believe common cries that America is collapsing under the weight of Latino immigration, for one statement of this view, see Mexifornia, by Victor Davis Hanson. No, market prices are not always right, but until real estate prices collapse in California and Texas, it is hard to be so worried about the problem. The Great American Experiment continues to work.

Here is the Washington Post article. Here is the home page of the Pew Hispanic Center, I don’t yet see the study on-line. Here is a relevant interview, with Jeffrey Passel and Rebecca Blank, two researchers in the area.

Bounty Hunters

The “bounty hunter” conference was fascinating. To be precise, I was invited to speak before the California Bail Agents Association which includes bail bond agents who write the bonds, surety/insurance companies who back the bonds as well as bail enforcement agents (aka bounty hunters) who recapture fugitives.

The bounty hunters were generally big guys but not so that you would notice on the street – these were not your Gold’s Gym type. A bounty hunter can always buy muscle but what they really need is smarts. A successful bounty hunter avoids excessive confrontation because every pickup is a lawsuit waiting to happen. One bounty hunter told me a big part of his success has been unfailing politeness.

Another key element is getting family members to cosign the bond – even hardened criminals don’t want to see Momma’s house taken should they fail to appear at trial.

It’s no coincidence that bail agents typically have their annual convention in Reno or Las Vegas but these are poker players not mindless feeders of the slot machine. (The distinction between these forms of gambling strikes me as important but to my knowledge has not been taken up by economists.)

Many of the “bondsmen”, perhaps even a majority, are women. Bondsmen must develop intuition and judgment about who is a flight risk and women may be particularly good at this. Also, although the defendant’s are usually men, its often their wives, girlfriends and mothers who bail them out and dealing empathetically with these women is a big part of the art – alas, repeat business is not uncommon.

As with other insurance industries, you can make a lot of money quickly by writing bail but trouble comes when your charges skip and their bail becomes forfeit. At least that is what is supposed to happen but – and I am surprised to be saying this – lax regulators and high-price lawyers can open a window of opportunity that makes bad bail writing potentially profitable. The problems this creates for the honest players in the industry was a big topic at the conference. I was impressed, however, that there was also a frank discussion about how to distinguish rules meant to weed out the fraudulent from anti-competitive rules. This is a topic I need to think more about.

I was asked to speak at the CBAA because of my paper on bounty hunters with Eric Helland (forthcoming in the Journal of Law and Economics). Here are some key facts and findings:

A whopping one-quarter of all felony defendants fail to appear at trial. Of these some thirty percent can’t be found after a year.

The police are overrun with unserved arrest warrants for failure to appear and typically devote little time to the task.

As a result, FTA appear rates are some 28% lower for those released on commercial bail compared to those released on their own recognizance.

When a defendant does FTA he is about 50% more likely to be caught and is caught much sooner if a bounty hunter is on his trail compared to if only the police are involved. (Both of these effects are after controlling for other relevant factors, of course).

All Music

For information, reviews, links, and commentary, here is the best music site I know, AllMusic.com. It covers everything in music, not just the major stars.

Check out this page on the Byrds, for one illustrative example. Here is everything you ever wanted to know about Zakir Hussain.

Addendum: Thanks to Eric Dixon for helping to correct the links. He relates:

It’s a quirk of allmusic.com’s search engine that it will return pages with a generic “amg.dll” URL for any page that pops up directly from a search (as opposed to choosing the correct page from a list of possible matches after a search). If you want to get a replicable URL you need to click on a link for the artist, or album, or song, you want. And it’s probably a good idea to then remove the “&uid=”… database query from the URL, which is user-specific.

The value of a meteorite

OK, a big meteorite falls through your roof and wrecks part of your house. Are you worried? Maybe. Are you rich? Well, maybe yes. Exactly this happened to one family in New Orleans.

“They’re extremely lucky,” said Rhian Jones, curator of meteorites at the Institute of Meteoritics, with a note of envy creeping into her voice. “It’s so rare and such an amazing thing to happen. They were lucky they weren’t in the house at the time, but they were lucky that it happened. It makes them very special.”

One dealer estimated that the meteorite could sell for $8 to $20 a gram, or somewhere between $108,862 and $272,156. If it had been from the moon or Mars, it would have been worth millions. The damage to the house was estimated at $10,000. The family will now take that long-awaited European vacation.

Meteorite dealing has boomed in the last decade, in part because of the Internet, and in part because of new supply extracted from the Sahara and Antarctica. Here is one reputable place to buy a meteorite. Here is an ebay listing, 759 items when I checked, although most of them are cheapies. Note that a quality meteorite collection can be worth several million dollars.

For the full story of the “victimized” family, click here. It remains to be seen whether insurance will cover the damage to the house. After all, are meteorites not the proverbial “act of God”?