Sunday, July 30, 2006

But are we happy?

My favorite New Yorker cartoon is the one with two cave dwellers chatting over their campfire. One says to the other: "Something's just not right -- our air is clean, our water is pure, we all get plenty of exercise, everything we eat is organic and free-range and yet nobody lives past thirty."

That's why it's so good to see this Sunday's N.Y Times ("So Big and Healthy Nowadays, Grandpa Wouldn't Know You") feature Robert W. Fogel's important work on longevity, stature, nutrition, etc.

The article mentions fndings that point to, "what may prove to be one of the most striking shifts in human existence -- a change from small relatively weak and sickly people to humans who are so big and robust that their ancestors seem almost unrecognizable ... The difference does not involve changes in genes, as far as is known, but changes in human form."

Fogel himself is quoted as citing, "'a form of evolution that is unique not only to humankind, but unique amolng the 7,000 or so generations of humans who have inhabited the earth.'"

The Times piece does not go so far as to say that it is all about prosperity, economic growth, markets and economic freedom. But then many of its readers might faint.

All of this reminds me of a Times piece at the time of the millenium. One of their features asked many worthies what century they would have preferred to live in. Many opted for the years of the Renaissance. Others chose various other interesting historical periods

Intellectuals say the darndest things.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Context matters

The New Yorker's James Surowiecki is usually smart and provocative. In the July 31 magazine, he writes about "The Fatal-Flaw Myth" and elaborates Airbus' current woes and the temptation by many to conclude that industrial policy is a loser. Surowiecki suggests that in the not too distant past Boeing also had its problems. We should look at context in addition to innate characteristics.

Of course. It is easy to be fooled; cause and effect are elusive; we are easily fooled by randomness (as in the book).

Fair enough. But industrial policy is a big chunk of context. Spend enough money and government agencies can put men on the Moon. Given them enough money and enough time and they come up with space stations and space shuttles.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Who killed the EV?

I have no plans to see Who Killed The Electric Car? but the reviews are not promising. Even worse is the praise from those who liked it which reveals a bottomless ignorance, not just about markets but also about what sort of evidence is required to make which sort of claim.

But, I have just read about the introduction of the Telsa, the Zenn, the Dynasty and the Xebra. "The Electric Car Gets Some Muscle ... Latest Models Go Faster, Further on a Single Charge, Sticker Price Up to $110,000 ... The elctric car is trying to shake its puttering image and be reborn as a futuristic high-speed sports vehicle ... " (WSJ, July 27, reg. req.).

This suggests an alternate theory (and movie). It was not big-auto-big-oil-big-pharma that killed the EV. Rather it was the likes of Tesla Motors Inc, Wrightspeep Inc., Phoenix Motorcars Inc. , etc.

Sequel to the current movie?

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Don't worry, be happy

Material wealth and welfare are greater than ever. The census bureau reports that the median size of new single-family homes in 2004 was over 2,000 square feet, up from just over 1,500 square feet in 1975. Longevity keeps lengthening and new medicines, including a cervical cancer vaccine made available last month, keep arriving.

And the happiness researchers (and pollsters) show that it means almost nothing to most of us. Is the research nuts or are survey respondents nuts?

Listen to someone who is surely not nuts. Alain de Botton notes (IHT, Sep 7, 2004; link gone missing):

"The most remarkable feature of the modern workplace has nothing to do with computers, automation or globalization. Rather, it lies in the Western world's widely held belief that our work should make us happy.

"All societies throughout history have had work right at their center; but ours -- particularly America's -- is the first to suggest that it could be something other than a punishment or penance. Our is the first to imply that a sane human being would want to work even if he wasn't under financial pressure to do so. We are unique, too, in allowing our choice of work to define who we are so that the central question we ask of new acquaintances is not no where they come from or who their parents are, but rather what it is they do -- as though only this could effectively reveal what gives a human life its distinctive timbre."

Monday, July 24, 2006

It's hard and thankless work being the artistic and intellectual elite

"'Cookie-Cutter' Homes Suit Some Critics' Taste After All ... Yes, it's suburbia. But at 25, a Denver-area master-planned community is finally getting some respect -- if grudging ... HIGHLANDS RANCH, Colo. -- This is the biggest fastest-growing master-planned community in the nation. And quite possibly the most insulted ..." From this morning's LA Times.

I am trying to fight the impulse to poke fun, but failing. The story is just too good. The experts and the non-profit-advocacy types have finally caught up with the people who have made this the most successful community of its type.

Bob Bruegmann's work is cited. "Through the ages ... sprawl has drawn the derision of the urban elite. As row houses sprouted on the outskirts of Victorian London, for instance, 'the artistic and intellectual elite called them ugly little boxes, destroying the countryside, put up by greedy developers, ' Bruegmann said. Today those row houses are hailed as smart, even graceful urban design."

Sunday, July 23, 2006

More Bad News Bearers

In some areas of social science, static analysis can be poison. Perhaps none moreso than the study of income distributions. Today's NY Times includes the latest update of a favored theme: "Cities Shed Middle Class, And Are Richer and Poorer For It."

The article lists the five metro areas with the smallest percentage of middle class families: New York, Los Angeles, McAllen, Baksersfield, Miami. Might these also be the ones with the largest immigrant populations? Is it safe to say that almost all of the immigrants (by definition) have moved up in the world? Especially in terms of their prospects?

Growing numbers (and proportions) of "high income" families mean that middle-income people are moving up. Growing numbers of "low income" families are largely explained by immigration.

Even the static analysis data shown can be seen in a positive light.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Labels and puzzles

Best quote from today's WSJ interview with Milton Friedman (reg. req.): "I have found over a long time, that some people are natural economists. They don't take a course, but they understand -- the principles seem obvious to them. Other people may have Ph.D.'s in economics, but they're not economists. They don't think like an economist. Strange, but true."

Everyone who teaches principles sees some students who quickly get it and many others (some quite smart) who have a much tougher time. Some people are not comfortable with a non-zero sum world. Others can never get over the fact that self-serving behavior is OK -- let alone that it can serve a greater good. Still others think in terms of "ecological footprints" and do not fathom substitutions and technological progress.

Who are the real utopians? Those who are romantics about changing human nature accept inhumane ways to get there. But many who accept the limits of human nature celebrate what real people can (have) accomplish(ed) when left free to do so. At a recent conference, my discussant referred to me as a utopian. I reject the label and it took me some time to figure out how my thinking so puzzled my critic.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Question never asked

Marginal Revolution points us to various blogs on both sides of the current Israel-Islamist war in the mid-east. The blogs are interesting -- and more proof that reading blogs can be a much better use of time than reading conventional media reports.

I read those as the Syrian ambassador was interviewed on PBS. His position (and that of many others) is that Israel has been an occupier of Arab lands since 1967 and he and his allies simply want them to return to the pre-1967 borders.

But before the 1967 war, which Arab leader accepted those borders? None, I think. But it's a question that is never asked.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Economic models and economic bottom lines

The Economist of July 15 includes "Big questions and big numbers ... We cannot live without big and ambitious economic models. But neither can we entirely trust them. ... But all models should ultimately be seen as pedagogical devices, their calculations a means to the end of helping policymakers think through their decisions. ..."

In a better world, the produces and the consumers of the models would heed this advice. In this world, modelers can and often do oversell while policy makers have been known to use models as window dressing to misrepresent and further their real agenda. Bent Flyvbjerg's work exposes the dark side.

Post-WW II U.S. economic growth has been impressive and without a major recession but it has piled up crushing unfunded liabilities in Social Security, Medicare and its recent expansions. Have good and/or bad models had a hand in the successes and the failures?

Monday, July 10, 2006

"Smart" growth

Not to beat a dead horse, but today's LA Times includes a front-page feature, "Roads at Breaking Point" which begins this way: "California's highways, once the gold standard of the interstate system, are today some of the busiest, most dilapidated and under-financed roads in the country ..."

Nowhere does the article mention that the 30-year old crackpot idea (cheered by the Times at every turn) of diverting funds from roads to transit explains the mess.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Lapdogs, not watchdogs

As per yesterday's theme, there are several people who combine journalistic flair with good ideas (and persistence). Today's LA Times even includes a section on "urban myths". And the two articles featured debunk some myths that the Times has been forever fond of.

Robert Bruegmann writes "What gridlock? L.A. traffic isn't as bad as you think. Try speeding through the center of Paris." He reminds us that L.A.s multi-billion dollar rail transit investments have been hugely expensive but otherwise mostly irrelevant as a commuting option for most Angelenos.

Joel Kotkin writes "Don't feed the white elephant ... Aided by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, downtown Los Angeles' boosters are poised to dip again into the pockets of taxpayers to help a splashy new project. The cost this time is up to $300 million in loans, tax breaks and fee waivers for a $750-million 54-story complex -- including a 876 room Marriott Marquis, a posh 124-room Ritz-Carlton and 216 luxury condos -- across from the Convention Center." Kotkin goes on to explain that the center has been a sink for other people's money for many years.

Both writers are too polite to mention that the dumb ideas that were used to justify all of these catastrophic projects had been championed by the Times for many years. In a better world, journalists and editors would have been watchdogs instead of lapdogs.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Work to be done

Kimberly Strassel interviews Bjorn Lomborg ("Get Your Priorities Right") in today's WSJ. Lomborg is impressive, not just because of his research and his writing but also for his follow-up efforts to get the message delivered.

I recently blogged about David Warsh's Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations and reported my appreciation of a readable inside-baseball rendering of progress in modern economic science.

Yet, Lomborg's efforts to get grown ups to think about the simple stuff (trade-offs and scarcity, decisions at the margin, costs and benefits, etc.) is where the real action is.

One only has to look at today's NY Times ("How to Be a Good Neighbor")which includes an op-ed by NYU's Greg Grandin who wants the U.S. to urge a recount of Mexican votes because Lopez Obrador would renegotiate NAFTA so that Mexico could return to self-suffiency in beans and corn (!!!)

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Messy politics

A bad old political joke (mainly told by Jews) is that American Jews live like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans.

The update is by Stephen Ansolabehere, Jonathan Rodden and James M. Snyder, Jr., who's "Purple America" appears in the latest Journal of Economic Perspective (reg. req. Spring, 2006).

They conclude: "Ultimately, individuals' beliefs about what is right or fair economic policy for the nation are difficult to explain. They are only related weakly to one common indicator of self-interest -- income -- and they are nearly uncorrelated with cultural issues. Since these policy preferences appear to be one of the main forces driving voting behavior, however, explaining them is clearly a key question in American political economy."

Sunday, July 02, 2006

"Car culture"

" ... car culture is taking root in China, and in many ways it looks like ours." That's the view taken in a very interesting piece in today's NY Times Magazine ("Capitalist Roaders").

But rather than the mysterious "car culture" virus, it is simply that as people become moderately affluent, they choose the personal freedom offered them by personal transportation.

But the simple explanation is not ominous enough.

"On a snail-paced drive back into Beijing, Zhu had passed through a zone on the edge of town that had been bulldozed and was being rebuilt as upper-income, car-friendly suburbs. In fact, this was happening around cities all over China: new gated communities, new themed enclaves, all for the car-owning class. What was conspicuously missing was a corresponding investment in mass transit, in public spaces and public access. And, in heavy traffic at the end of a tiring trip, it was easy to worry that the Chinese, rather than charting an innovative, alternate route into the automotive era, were on their way down a road that looks a little too familiar."

And what would that "innovative, alternate route" be? This is where the piece ends so we can only speculate what the author had in mind.

July 4 story

There are many stories of what people will do to come to these shores. Here is one that involves Cubans. This remarkable episode is must reading for walled-border enthusiasts as well as for the Noam Chomsky left.

Voices lost

From the dust jacket of Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise:

"In the early 1940s, when Ukrainian-born Irene Nemirovsky began working on what would become Suite Francaise -- the first two parts of a planned five-part novel -- she was already a highly successful writer living in Paris. But she was also a Jew, and in 1942, she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz: a month later she was dead at the age of thirty-nine. Two years earlier, living in a small village in central France -- where she and her husband, and their two small daughters had fled in a vain attempt to elude the Nazis -- she'd begun her novel, a luminous portrayal of human drama in which she herself would become a victim. When she was arrested, she had completed two parts of the epic; her daughters took the manuscript with them into hiding. Sixty-four years later, at long last, we can read Nemirovsky's literary masterpiece."

I am reading the novel and am dazzled by it -- even via the translation by Sandra Smith. There is, in addition, the awful feeling of knowing that the author would soon be murdered. A little like reading Anne Frank but Nemirovsky's work is not a memoir.

The murder of innocents is tragic. The tragedy is brought home to us all the more when the innocents have the skills and the means to report from their perilous vantage.