Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Look at Me, I'm a Hipster

So there's a piece in the Times about fixed-gear bicycles. As far as I can tell, they have the following features:

1. No brakes.
2. The pedals must always turn if the wheels are turning, so you can't coast.
3. Hipsters love them.

I didn't make it through the whole article, but there didn't seem to be any advantages that might offset attributes 1 and 2. I suspect that attribute 3 follows directly from attributes 1 and 2: the bikes are used as a signaling mechanism. Look at me, I'm way too cool to own anything practical like a regular bike. I'm deeply authentic, unlike all these despicable assholes with their useful bikes.

Of course, the irony here is that if you're buying a shitty bike just to look cool, that's more or less the opposite of authenticity. Admittedly I'm attributing mental states to hipsters that they very well might not have, but it's hard to think of why else you would buy one of these defective by design bicycles.

Fertility is Overrated

One of the more obnoxious conservative critiques of Europe is that its low fertility rates are an indication that its civilization has failed, or that it is effete and lacks vigor. This "argument" is often accompanied by a quasi-racist anxiety that whites aren't reproducing enough, especially relative to other races.

I guess I should just point out that low fertility is associated with many desirable traits. The least fertile nations are the most prosperous, the best-educated, the most free, etc. I wonder how many conservatives consider the West Bank a better society than Israel - on the basis of fertility, the West Bank is almost twice as "vigorous" or "thriving" or whatever.

This reflects that it is often problematic to use aggregate statistics to derive individual virtue. So for instance, countries vary in their savings rates. One might be tempted to describe a high-saving society as frugal and a low-saving society as profligate. This is almost always nonsense. People save at different rates over their lifetimes, so national savings rate might reflect demographic differences. Alternatively, national savings rates can reflect different political priorities. The US is running a deficit in part to finance a very expensive war - this doesn't make Americans less frugal than other people, except in a very attenuated sense.

Other times such derivations are more appropriate. Some societies really are more violent or less literate or whatever. If anything, though, low fertility rates should be a point of pride. Many people don't realize this, though, so it's a way to score some cheap points at the expense of societies with enviable social statistics.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Bloomberg is Making Sense

So Brad DeLong quotes Andrew Samwick, who supports Bloomberg's congestion tax idea. The short version is that drivers entering lower Manhattan during business hours would pay a fee. Ideally, this would cut down on traffic, leading to more use of mass transit and lower commute times.

My objection is that I'm not sure the mass transit is ready to take up the slack. During commuting hours the trains are basically packed. You could pack a few more in, but by and large the trains are running full. Unless you can dial up the size or frequency of trains, I don't know how many more people they can accomodate.

Of course, there are alternatives to the subway. You could run more buses. People will be more likely to carpool. A few might even walk. I'm inclined to support the mayor's plan, but I'm not hugely optimistic. On the other hand, if driving into Manhattan responds inelastically to price, then it's probably a good target for taxation anyway (I don't buy the argument that it hurts poor people, because if you are driving into Manhattan you're not very poor).

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Footnotes - Worse Than Racism?

I have come to hate footnotes. They break up the flow of a paper, especially when the footnote carries on to the next page before the text does. That drives me crazy. I would love to skip them, but sometimes they include crucial information. Ideally we could just eliminate footnotes entirely. Barring that, here are some possibilities:

1. Only use footnotes for citations. This means that most readers can ignore them entirely - it is easy enough to refer back to a footnote if you end up needing the cited material.

2. If you must include substantive points in a footnote, put the footnote number in bold. This way we can ignore the ones that merely include citations.

3. Really limit footnotes to information that is superfluous to the average reader. So for instance, it would be fine to explain a term or give an example, but the reader would only read the footnote if she needed some explanation for ideas in the text. I think this is how footnotes are supposed to work, but the law review articles I've been reading often include copious substantive footnotes. It's not rare for a law review article to include hundreds of footnotes.

So yeah, I think footnote abuse is rampant, and these guys will definitely be first against the wall when the Revolution comes.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Food Policy and Death

In response to my post about high infant mortality in the South, Anonymous wrote: "It's one thing to be poor and starving; poor and obese sounds more like a self-inflicted malady."

I once held the same view, but I don't think it actually holds up to much scrutiny. Coincidentally, there's a Michael Pollan piece in the NYTimes Magazine that deals with this very question. Here's a quotation: "Drewnowski [an obesity researcher] concluded that the rules of the food game in America are organized in such a way that if you are eating on a budget, the most rational economic strategy is to eat badly — and get fat."

Now, it's probably better to be overweight than to be malnourished. Still, I think it's a little silly to view nutrition as one-dimensional. By that logic, 18th-century sailors with scurvy deserved no pity, so long as they had plenty of caloric intake. A reasonable view of nutrition takes into account not just calories, but also the other elements of a healthy diet: protein, vitamins, fiber, healthy fats, etc.

For some reason, many poor people in this country don't have good diets. Partly this may be ignorance or lack of self-discipline. As Pollan explains in the NYTimes piece, though, a lot of people are simply behaving rationally given limited income and massive subsidies to unhealthy food. This is therefore a legitimate question of public policy, and not merely a "self-inflicted malady."

As a final note, I think it's fairly callous to brush aside infant death simply because you think the parents made bad health choices. I believe in personal responsibility, but I don't think the concept applies particularly well to month-old babies. This mis-application of an otherwise sound principle is a staple of a certain brand of resentment that I find particularly toxic. Those poor people ought to know better! It's not our fault if they die so young! But of course it is our fault, in the sense that the deaths stem fairly directly from the choices we make about farm subsidies, WIC, etc.

More Tax Thoughts

People complain about the alternative minimum tax (AMT), and to some extent the complaints are justified. The AMT has crept into fairly low levels of income, and no longer seems well-suited to its original purpose of preventing loophole abuse.

On the other hand, some version of the AMT might make sense as a flat tax, in the sense of not having deductions or credits. As I pointed out a few posts ago, the big computational burden of tax-paying has nothing to do with brackets. Rather, it's very difficult to wade through all the complexities that go into figuring out what your taxable income is (I was echoing a point made by Matt Yglesias). Once you've accomplished that, it's trivially easy to calculate your taxes under either a flat tax or a progressive tax.

So one possible virtue of the AMT is that it wipes out a bunch of those calculations. In practice most people probably do the calculations and then realize that they're caught by the AMT, but that's not a necessary feature of the system. We could just say that above a certain income you don't get any credits, deductions, whatever. It would prevent us from fine-tuning incentives with income tax policy, but I'm not sure that ever made much sense. The only thing I can think of that I might regret eliminating is the deduction for charitable contributions, but that's probably ready for an overhaul anyway (a lot of the money is spent on fairly partisan crap that doesn't deserve a subsidy). A full-blown AMT would certainly save a lot of time, and time is money. Possibly we just need to make sure the tax rates are right, and then let the AMT rip.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Dixie Chicks + Economics

So is it just me, or is this song basically the Krugman anthem?

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Poverty Saturday

A few thoughts on poverty.

First, don't miss the New York Times story on infant mortality in the South. The problem appears to be one of poverty and culture:

Now 21, a mother of two with a third on the way, Ms. Allen lives in a sparsely furnished house in Hollandale with her unemployed boyfriend and his mother. Her children live with her parents.

Ms. Allen greeted visitors with breakfast in hand: a bottle of Mountain Dew and a bag of chips.

[me again] Note, though, that poverty and culture can't have changed much in the past few years, but infant mortality has shot up (definitely click the graph next to the story). Something else is going on.

In other news, I was recently reminded of the existence of the MIT Poverty Lab, which is committed to empirical work on development. I'm sympathetic to their approach, although I don't know their work very well.

Time Continuously Flies

To address Grobstein's point (in a comment under my flat tax post) about brackets, here's an exerpt from a recent post by Yglesias: "What's needed is not a flat tax, but a curved tax, where rates are a smooth function of adjusted gross income." Yglesias argues that with today's computers, this would be fairly easy to do. Note that I still don't really see the problem with brackets.

Anyway, as I was flying into Hartford from Chicago and wondering if the guy next to me had already set his watch forward an hour, I realized that the same analysis could apply to time zones. Instead of 24 discrete time zones, which are actually very complicated*, we could just have time be a continuous function of GMT and longitudinal distance from Greenwich (or whatever). This would be very difficult for traditional watches, but very easy for GPS-equipped cell phones, I would think. It would mean that you're not screwed if you're on the western edge of a time zone, in which case you get almost an hour less sunlight at the end of the day than you would a bit further west. I'm sure there are other advantages. I suppose it would make things like television scheduling nightmarishly difficult, but that's old media. On the internet you don't have to coordinate viewing times.

There's also a rare great Slate article on the economics of time zones. I'm pretty sure it undermines my entire argument, but I guess that's the price you pay.

*India is one time zone, even though geographically it spans several. This is just one example of many I could cite if I knew any others.

To Catch A Non-Economist

So I was watching "To Catch a Predator," and I realized I really dislike the show.

It's not that it's basically entrapment. It's not that the host is this smarmy guy who, even with his target handed to him on a plate, can't land many hits. It's not the constant fear that Tarun will walk into the house and be arrested.

Rather, what I hate is their disregard for basic economics. It's a rookie mistake - to ignore that people respond to incentives. It reminds me of the crude liberal notion that the cost of raising taxes is just that people have less disposable income. Wrong! People will substitute away from taxed behavior, and this distortion will usually make society worse off (the exception is the Pigovian tax, in which the taxed behavior is socially undesirable).

The incentive that they're ignoring is that, of course, the publicity effect of the show. Once predators know that this show exists, they will simply stop preying on young teenagers. The better the show's ratings get, the less predation there will be. The show is essentially self-defeating.

I don't mind when people don't grasp complicated economic concepts. The basic principles, though, are fairly obvious even with no formal economics training. That a show like "To Catch a Predator" operates in such ignorance of basic economics is frustrating, and it makes me pessimistic about our future.

Suck On This Libertarians

Freedom is just:

A. Another word for nothing left to lose.
B. Some people talking.

It's one or the other people.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Flat Taxes Are Almost As Taxing

Matt Yglesias makes a great point about flat taxes: they have at best a negligible effect on the complexity of filing taxes. The real complexity comes from the calculation of deductions, credits, etc. With a flat tax you don't have to calculate your taxes in each bracket, but that's the only reason it would be easier to file them. The computation necessary for a progressive tax system per se is laughably easy.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Water Arbitrage

So today I decided to urinate in the law school, rather than at home, to save a little water. Imagine my chagrin, then, when I realized the law school urinals use one gallon per flush. That's not much less than a standard toilet, although it is still more efficient I suppose. Still, I think it could be much more efficient - a whole gallon! Ideally you would just have laser beams destroying the urine, thus using no water per flush.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Welcome to Krugmanistan

Krugman has a good column today (sorry if you don't have TimesSelect). He discusses the tactic of using "little lies" to create the impression of scandal where none exists:

"Each pseudoscandal [of the Clinton administration] got headlines, air time and finger-wagging from the talking heads. The eventual discovery in each case that there was no there there, if reported at all, received far less attention. The effect was to make an administration that was, in fact, pretty honest and well run — especially compared with its successor — seem mired in scandal."

Of course, there's nothing inherently right-wing about this tactic. Still, I have to say that it's being used against Senator Obama quite a bit. Several times I've heard people refer to his madrassa education, even though this story was a fabrication. The story itself got huge attention, but the correction didn't register with a lot of people. It's a serious problem, because a lot of voters simply don't have time to track down every little story. Most people probably aren't even aware of why they have negative feelings about someone (what exactly did Mike Milken do wrong?), so they don't even know where to look for countervailing information.

It seems to me that political/ideological actors are always going to spread disinformation. This is a problem when either mainstream media is compromised, or when people cluster into ideologically homogeneous websites and blogs. I don't have a solution, other than vigorous debunking. It never seems to reach the whole audience, though.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Something For the Weekend

So I judged at UChicago's debate tournament this weekend. It was fun, the rounds I saw really demonstrated the best and worst that debate has to offer. A few highlights:

1. A judge told another judge that their landlord was fixing the back door. I asked if this was a euphemism.

2. A judge said of a debater that "his member really let him down." I divulged that my member has let me down on a number of occasions.

3. A team ran the case that social activist student groups should use Facebook to screen members, along with the traditional interviews and applications(!). One argument was that people aren't professional enough on Facebook, so this will encourage them to improve their image. The LO responded, "We aren't told a lot about what kind of social activist group you are, but it's safe to say you're not Students for a Better Facebook."

4. Stanford named their teams after philosophers. Stanford Milton Friedman Ralph Nader argued (against Amherst A) that sovereign immunity should be eliminated. That way social policy can be entrusted to 12 random idiots, you see. Along the way, a Stanford debater suggested that you should be able to sue the government for breach of contract. What contract, you ask? The social contract. I love Stanford debaters.

[UPDATE: fixed spelling error]

Just So You Know

I was on Helen's "other folks" list - back when it meant something.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Almost Perfect

At some point someone needs to come up with a theory of how the Bush administration makes decisions. Of course, the obvious theory is that, for whatever reason, they always make the wrong decision. That theory has a lot of predictive power, but it's not perfect. Here are the known exceptions:

1. Clean diesel.
2. Food procurement process for hunger aid.

Here are the things they've messed up:

1. Everything else.


I'm not actually sure they're right about food procurement. Right now a lot of the food we donate has to come from US farmers and be shipped by US shippers. This is clearly inefficient in a static sense, because it makes the food more expensive and slows it down. What's unclear is how much food we would give if there weren't powerful US interests lobbying for it. Personally I would hope that food aid would continue even without as much profit for US corporations, but I can't be sure. Still, on balance I find myself agreeing with Bush on this one.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Life Worth Living

I didn't really like American Splendor all that much, although I suppose it's worth watching. However, one thing sticks in my mind. Harvey has a coworker who is a big fan of "Revenge of the Nerds," I think because he likes to see outcasts win. Harvey points out that the real outcasts in society aren't the sort of quasi-nerds who get college degrees, but the really weird people who aren't welcome in mainstream institutions.

I think this is true on at least two levels. First, in my own life, I've come to resent the glib "weirdness" that is commonly celebrated on television shows, movies, etc. Walk a day in my shoes, and see what it's like to be weird. See if you still want to celebrate it.

I'm fortunate in that my weirdness hasn't (yet) precluded me from enjoying some of the better institutions of modern life. I was thinking about the labor market in the US, and I can't figure out whether I'm optimistic or pessimistic. In some ways the labor market is quite good.
However, it strikes me that it imposes a very specific "interface" (for lack of a better word). For a variety of reasons, it's important to be clean, presentable, reliable, prompt, etc. Obviously these have always been valuable traits, but I think much more so now than in the past. My sense is that 100 years ago if a man was strong and willing to work hard, the other shit didn't matter.

I think this kind of thing works greatly to the advantage of middle class people, because their status and their attitudes about work match the expectations of employers. It's not that they're better workers, necessarily, just that they fit the paradigm. So for instance, I'm told that many workers in South America are willing to work hard but don't understand our insistence on promptness. Promptness is the kind of thing that has come to be important in our economy, and it's become part of our understanding of what it means to be employed. I imagine it's not too hard to adapt, but I think this might help explain why marginal populations in the US do worse than you might expect. Their "weirdness" alienates them from the mainstream economy, and it's a vicious circle.

As a side note, this is one possible argument against the minimum wage. If it's really important to develop an understanding of the employer-employee relationship, and poor young people are priced out of the market by the minimum wage, they might suffer a permanent adverse effect on employability.