Monday, July 30, 2007

Trains and brains

One of my favorite fantasies is receiving one dollar each time someone suggests the no-brainer (literally) to "just add a monorail."

Where to start? Tom Rubin (via Wendell Cox) discusses the latest of many such planning disasters. This time its the Las Vegas monorail, along a high-density strip and to serve large numbers of out-of-towners, the perfect setting -- not.

I have no idea whether the authorities placed Elvis impersonators on the trains. Let's not go there.

It takes a storm

When I visited New Orleans a year ago, I found little in the way of good news except charter schools. Katrina was the long overdue death blow to the dysfunctional school district so reform was the only way to go. Forbes of August 13 includes "Katrina's Surprise: In the hurricane's aftermath, a charter school in New Orleans defies the odds and thrives."

This is very good for New Orleans and will develop into an example that could well benefit the whole country -- much of which still debates "saving the public schools."

... Nicknamed the Little Red Schoolhouse and perched on dry
land in the French Quarter, comfortably above sea level, the school now brims
with energy, ambition and rising test scores among its 420 students, more than
90% of them from low-income African-American families. Remarkably, it thrives in
a still toppled city in the midst of one of the worst school systems in the

"It took a hurricane to speed up and really jump-start the
reform efforts in New Orleans," says Gary Robichaux, principal of McDonogh 15
(named for a slave owner who over a century ago left an endowment for building
public schools in New Orleans). "Before, we were tied up in what became a
complex bureaucracy. Now we have the autonomy to do what we need to get done to
make our schools successful."

For months after Katrina's assault many children now under his
watch showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder: scared to leave their
parents, angry or tearful, unable to focus. Some relived the hurricane over and
over in their heads, while others cowered in thunderstorms. In art therapy they
drew pictures of corpses, flooded houses, lost pets and people escaping in boats
and cars.

Today McDonogh 15 is more accustomed to happy hallways
bursting with the colors of Mardi Gras and the strains of adolescents playing
New Orleans jazz in the school band. Student uniforms come in green shirts for
prekindergarten through first grade, gold for second grade through fourth and
purple for fifth through eighth grades, each shirt bearing an uplifting slogan
("No short cuts. No excuses." "Work Hard. Be Nice.").

The school day runs extra long, from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., plus
a half-day every other Saturday. Discipline is strict, but classes are livened
up with clapping and chanting--"Read, baby, read!" Students go home with two
hours of homework each day, and they can call their teachers' cell phones with
any questions. The heavy emphasis on reading is leavened with daily creative
arts classes that include French and jazz band. Good behavior earns the kids
"paycheck points," which add up to such rewards as invites to a school dance or
a trip to SeaWorld in San Antonio.

In just one year since opening in August
2006 McDonogh 15 students have made great strides. About 85% of kids grades
three through eight began the school year two or more grade levels behind, on
one reading evaluation. Now all but 29 children are at grade level or better. In
September 2006 the reading skills of McDonogh 15's eighth-graders were better
than only 22% of eighth-graders nationwide, and now they read better than 41%.
The class' math scores soared, from the 21st percentile in September 2006 to the
80th percentile in May 2007, meaning they now outscore 80% of the nation's
13-year-olds. Other grades posted equally impressive

It is a surprising departure from a deplorable history. The
school district in New Orleans was failing, financially and educationally, even
before Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005. It ranked second to last in the state,
and some high schools had twelfth-grade dropout rates approaching 40%. A school
corruption probe that began in 2003 brought convictions of 23 people on charges
of kickbacks and fraud, including a former school board head, two teachers and a

In the hurricane's aftermath the state took control of 107 of
the city's 128 schools. Now, in what some are calling a grand experiment, 31 of
the 58 public schools that have reopened in New Orleans are operating as charter
schools, freeing them from school board oversight and letting them set their own
curriculums and hire and fire at will. In New Orleans charter schools now
educate half the city's 27,000 students, a larger portion than anywhere else in
the country. Nine more charter schools have the go-ahead to open in the

"It's a stunning transformation of public education, given
that there was nothing there to begin with that could provide a model," says
Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform in Washington,

McDonogh 15 is one of 55 public charter schools that make up a
nationwide network known as KIPP ("Knowledge Is Power Program"), dedicated to
serving low-income and minority students with a rigorous curriculum. It was
founded in 1994 by Michael Feinberg and David Levin, who had spent two years
working in the Teach For America program. Since then Gap founders Doris and
Donald Fisher have donated $45 million.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Environmental justice

The EU is an opportunity for Europe to benefit from a much larger electricity grid which makes wind power plausible. Who knew? The Economist of July 28 includes an article that makes the case.

We all knew of the benefits of a larger extent of the market and it makes perfect sense here too. But it is not simply because of deeper specialization among traders. In this case, because nature makes wind unevenly available, a larger grid is the way to handle the problem.

It's just that the old-fashioned windmills that we associate with the Dutch landscape look so much better than the modern ugly ones that we see on wind farms. But it is positively heartwarming to see the wealthy environmentalists of Martha's Vineyard demand their fair share of "environmental justice."

Many coastal areas here and abroad have wind as well as rich people, many of whom may come to see that it is all about tough trade-offs.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Wild stuff

I had not planned to see "Sunshine". The Hollywood version of climate change was bound be an over-the-top fanatsy that upends (and feeds) the daily dose of doom that is now standard fare. Anthony Lane's review ("Hot Stuff") in The New Yorker suggests that the film is actually much (much) worse than I had feared.

But back in the real world, Joel Schwartz writes about a recently published piece in Nature which also has more to do with implausibly extreme scenarios than with anything real and serious. Schwartz take us through mind-boogling overreaching and sleight-of-hand by the scientists. He concludes:
So there you have it. Another “authoritative”-but-wrong paper
in a premier scientific journal that will henceforth be used to support
unwarranted alarmism about climate change and air pollution.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Smell test

William M. Gray of the University of Colorado writes about "Hurricanes and Hot Air" in today's WSJ. Here are the parts I loved most:
Some scientists, journalists and activists see a direct link
between the post-1995 upswing in Atlantic hurricanes and global warming brought
on by human-induced greenhouse gas increases. This belief, however, is
unsupported by long-term Atlantic and global observations.

Consider, for example, the intensity of U.S. land-falling
hurricanes over time -- keeping in mind that the periods must be long enough to
reveal long-term trends. During the most recent 50-year period, 1957 to 2006, 83
hurricanes hit the United States, 34 of them major. In contrast, during the
50-year period from 1900 to 1949, 101 hurricanes (22% more) made U.S. landfall,
including 39 (or 15% more) major hurricanes.

The hypothesis that increasing carbon dioxide in the
atmosphere increases the number of hurricanes fails by an even wider margin when
we compare two other multi-decade periods: 1925-1965 and 1966-2006. In the 41
years from 1925-1965, there were 39 U.S. land-falling major hurricanes. In the
1966-2006 period there were 22 such storms -- only 56% as many. Even though
global mean temperatures have risen by an estimated 0.4 Celsius and CO2 by 20%,
the number of major hurricanes hitting the U.S. declined.

One reason may be that the advocates of warming tend to be
climate modelers with little observational experience. Many of the modelers are
not fully aware of how the real atmosphere and ocean function. They rely more on
theory than on observation.

The warming theorists -- most of whom, no doubt, earnestly
believe that human activity has triggered nature's wrath -- have the ears of the
news media. But there is another plausible explanation, supported by decades of
physical observation. The spate of recent destructive hurricanes may have little
or nothing to do with greenhouse gases and climate change, and everything to do
with the Atlantic Ocean's currents.

People who rely on theory and models and who have little observational experience usually get it wrong. Of course. One has to temper the other.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Growing wealth in a black swan world

To recover from Taleb's The Black Swan, I found and read Peter Bernstein's Capital Ideas Evolving. It updates his earlier Capital Ideas. If anyone wants to see the unfolding of modern finance but presented in an "inside baseball" format, this is it.

Ever since the expulsion of ancestors Adam and Eve, most knew that black swans are a fact of life. But Taleb beats this idea into the ground while real people are making money -- and the world gets richer. We get richer in a black swan world. Taleb spends too little on this important idea but Bernstein celebrates and explains it better than anyone.

I am not giving anything away by quoting from his summary.
The miraculous vitality of markets is impossible to suppress,
as even communist countries have learned. But the great theories of
Capital Ideas have nurtured and guided the development of today's markets to a
much greater extent than most of the participants in these markets stop to
realize. In the most vivid manner, Adam Smith's Invisible Hand is always
in play, while Joseph Schumpeter's "perennial gale of creative destruction"
blows compellingly, to a point where as Schumpeter also reminds us, "Profit ...
is temporary by nature: it will vanish in the subsequent process of competition
and adaptation." (p. 246)

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Saving lives in spite of elite opinion

Free markets for organs would save lives but the high-minded among us would never stand for that. So we have dumb laws that kill. The high-minded have blood on their hands.

David Undis has found a clever way to get around our laws and yet incentivize would-be donors. He has created LifeSharers. His recent piece in the Baltimore Sun explains it best. The high-minded are no match for clever people.

Are you a registered organ donor? If so, you should get a
break. But instead you're getting the shaft.

Now registered organ donors around the United States are
uniting to get fair treatment.
If you've agreed to donate your organs when
you die, your generosity can save lives.
Last year in the United States,
about 22,000 people received organs transplanted from deceased donors.

But registered organ donors who need transplants are treated
no better than people who have declined to donate their organs when they die. As
a result, every year, thousands of registered organ donors die waiting for
transplants when the organs that could have saved their lives are given to

LifeSharers is an organization that seeks to rectify the
situation by giving preference to organ donors. Not only would this make the
system fairer, but the effect of moving donors to the front of the line would be
to increase the number of donated organs available for everyone.

Keep in mind that the large and growing shortage of organs
in the United States is really a shortage of donors. About 8,000 Americans die
every year because there aren't enough organs for everyone who needs one. But
every year, Americans bury or cremate countless transplantable organs.

Tremendous efforts have been made to persuade Americans to
stop throwing away organs that could save their neighbors' lives. Charitable
organizations and the federal government have spent hundreds of millions of
dollars educating everyone on the need for more organ donors. State governments
have made signing up to become an organ donor as easy as checking a box on a
driver's license. Newspapers and television stations have run countless stories
about the organ shortage, and radio stations have broadcast countless public
service announcements.

These efforts have not stopped the organ shortage from getting
bigger and bigger. It's time to try something new.

Let's move registered organ donors to the front of the
transplant waiting list, and let's move people who won't donate to the back. If
the United Network for Organ Sharing, which operates the national organ
allocation system, adopted this policy, it would save thousands of lives every
year because just about everybody would sign up to be a donor. Very few people
would choose to put themselves at the back of the waiting list. After all, there
are already more than 96,000 people on the list, and more than half of them will
die before they get a transplant.

What about people who can't donate their organs? Well, all
Americans can offer to donate their organs when they die - no matter what their
health status is. Nobody knows today whose organs will be transplantable
tomorrow. Surgeons transplant many organs that they would have rejected just a
few years ago.

But shouldn't organs be given first to the people who need
them the most? Not if these people aren't willing to donate their own organs. If
people are unwilling to save their neighbors' lives, should we really elevate
their needs above everyone else's? Besides, moving nondonors to the back of the
waiting list could increase the supply of organs so much that even nondonors
would get organs.

LifeSharers members agree to donate their organs when they
die. They also agree to offer them first to other members, if any member needs
them, before offering them to others. This is done through directed donation,
which is legal under federal law and in all 50 states. There is no age limit,
and parents can enroll their minor children. LifeSharers has more than 9,200
members and has doubled its membership in the last year.

Even people already registered as organ donors have reason to
join LifeSharers. Members increase their chances of getting a transplant if they
ever need one. They also help make organ allocation fairer. Perhaps most
important, by offering their organs first to other organ donors, they give
everyone a good reason to stop throwing away organs that could save their
neighbors' lives.

Friday, July 20, 2007

More public goods

Newmark's Door points us to this very cool blog. Talk about public goods!

Compared to what?

Ben Bernanke has to be a good economist as well as a cool customer. I caught some of his televised testimony to Congress this week. The questioners used the occasion to position themselves squarely on the side of "fairness" and to assert their concern that there was too much inequality.

But writing in yesterday's WSJ, Arthur C. Brooks notes, "... the evidence reveals that it is not economic inequality that frustrates Americans. Rather, it is a perceived lack of opportunity."

Do most Americans aspire or envy? Cannot increasing wealth at the top signal greater opportunities to aspire to? Can that incite more entreperenurial activity? Do we then get more growth? "The rich are getting richer faster than the poor are getting richer. So what?" asks Brooks?

Robert H. Frank introduces the concept of "Positional Externalities." Greater income inequality is a source of unhappiness as it reveals itself via increasing consumption inequality. Frank makes an efficiency argument for a progressive consumption tax (to replace the progressive income tax).

Clearly status quo tax law and practice compare poorly with almost any reform proposal. Comparisons with reforms that would incite greater entrepreneurial success would be far more useful.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Holy cities

Portland, Oregon, and Curitiba, Brazil, are among urban planners' favorites. Pilgrimages are regularly made to each. Returning with relics is surely not far off.

Randy Crane has a nice post on Curitiba. Now Randal O'Toole has chimed in with his analysis of Portland's planning ("Debunking Portland: The City That Doesn't Work", Cato Policy Analysis No. 596).

From the abstract:

"When judged by the results rather than the intentions, the costs of
Portland's planning far outweigh the benefits. Planners made housing
unaffordable to force more people to live in multifamily housing or in homes on
tiny lots. They allowed congestion to increase to near-gridlock levels to
force more people to ride the region's expensive rail transit lines. They
diverted billions of dollars of taxes from schools, fire, public health, and
other essential services to susbidize the construction of transit and
high-density housing projects."

Sunday, July 15, 2007

One can only guess

P.J. O'Rourke devoted a whole book to the project Eat the Rich. Of course there is the old problem that after we eat, shoot or tax them enough, there won't be any of them left. What would class warriors do then? That's a Laffer Curve problem in extremis.

Greg Mankiw has a fine treatment of federal income taxes ("Fair Taxes? Depends What You Mean by 'Fair'") in today's NY Times. "The rich", those in the top 1%, pay an effective federal tax rate of 31.1% (Mankiw cites CBO data). Of course even if they paid 100% (or much more) that would never silence most populists and politicians. What would they talk about or do all day?

Governments' place in all this is much more complex because there are many other taxes and expenditures that have an effect. The elephants-in-the-room are the fastest-rising-and-most-regressive taxes, the ones that pay for social security and the various parts of medicare.

It's complex enough to obscure the real bottom line. What do the myriad taxes and expenditure programs as a whole do to the income distribution? No one knows.

Is complexity and obscurity convenient? One can only guess.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

A contender

It's not the dumbest idea of all time but, as my friend would say, a contender. Today's LA Times reports "'Subway to the Sea' plan still adrift." The Mayor wants to extend LA's Red Line subway another 12.5 miles so it goes all the way to the beach. (Why stop there?)

Planners are still $5 billion short but, the story reports, they do have $5 million for a study of the project.

The sharing part of me prompts me to do the study for free. So here goes.

The present 16 miles of the Red Line accounts for an annual loss of $286 million (even after considering all manner of external benefits from some riders not driving). So we are looking at augmenting this problem by about $223 million per year. The $5 billion to be spent has an annual value (using the governments favored 7.5% annual interest rate) of $375 million. So the bottom line is: forget about it.

In fact, as a bonus, I suggest the MTA shuts down the 16 miles of Red Line they now operate. In fact, if each of the 115,000 current daily boardings are parts of a round-trip, there are approximately 57,500 of them. We could ask them if a lifetime pension of $5,000 per year would make them whole. It's mostly a low-income ridership that now uses the Red Line and many might think that this is pretty cool.

Or give each of the riders just $2,500 a year and refund the other half to the county's 3-million households. Each one could get about $50 each year -- and the promise that they will not have to cough up an additional $125 every year for the extension to the sea.

But I suppose that for me to be a contender for the $5-million study money, I would have to dig much deeper and do all kinds of sensitivity tests. For all that money, I might even find a way to justify this turkey.


The idea of free stuff has obvious appeal. For those who do not pause to think about it, there are reports of what happens when free stuff is offered. IEA's website now has Philip Booth's Toward a Liberal Utopia online and downloadable (tip from the review in the latest Freeman).

The first chapter (by Tim and Helen Evans) on the UK's National Health Service is bracing, even for those who were skeptical of the free stuff concept. One-million on waiting lists, 200,000 trying to get on waiting lists, 100,000 picking up infections while being treated and 7-8 million (including one-half of trade union members) opting for private care.

Sicko indeed.

Friday, July 13, 2007

The half-life of bad ideas.

In "Too much information," the Economist's Buttonwood remarks on how market participants cope (or do not cope) with ever more and ever cheaper information. So far, I would say, we are doing quite well. And remind me not to make buy/sell decisions based on anonymous chat room tips.

I like my soybeans and firmly believe that they are good for me. But in a weak moment I turned to talk-radio this morning, only to hear an author being interviewed about "soy making kids 'gay'". Well pop epidemiology can launch a thousand websites. The two words brought up 55,700 when "feminization" and "soy" are entered.

What if Richard Florida is right? What if gays are more creative and what if creative people revitalize cities? Soy products might have policy significance.

But (alas) a small sampling of the sites that Google brought up revealed an almost equal bunch of "pro" an "con" arguments and studies about the soy-feminization link.

It's a Wikipedia world. The half-life of bad ideas gets shorter and shorter.

Good news about the bad news

I often encounter smart people who casually equate skepticism re climate doom with the likes of creationism. Art De Vany has been discussing the problems with forecasting models (of any sort) and guiding us to some interesting sources.

The least that some of us can do is to highlight his pointers. Here is one.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

More on warming consensus (not)

I just found this at Newmark's Door.

More debate (and less pietistic hectoring) is like a breath of fresh (cool) air.

Courageous economists

I often hear that Michael Moore is "courageous". He stands up against the Iraq war, does not like George W. Bush and is unhappy with U.S health care.

In about the same league, is the NY Times' recent report that the economics profession is dominated by laissez-faire advocates, save for a few courageous voices.

Alex Tabarrok sets the record straight at Marginal Revolution. He cites the Klein-Stern survey work that corroborates the idea that most economists do not accept the power of markets. Free market support among American Economics Association members, they find, is in the single digits.

Google Scholar shows 37,300 hits for "market failure" but only 8,070 for "government failure."

Times writers and readers may note that Paul Krugman does beat the drums for leftist policies in his NYT column on a regular basis.

There may well be a Democrat in the White House in 2009 and there will be jobs for economists who clearly establish their "courage" at about this time.

They still want to believe

My June 30 blog mentioned the LA Times' front-page story about the failures of transit-oriented development. Silly me. I thought that they had finally succumbed to evidence.

Just ten days later, their editorial gets them back on track. No matter the cost or the findings or whatever, they still "want to believe."

From the Los Angeles Times
Smart growth? Wise

Though the concept hasn't delivered on its promise of getting
us out of our cars, that doesn't mean it's a failure.

SMART GROWTH, we want so badly to believe in you. You were
centrally planned by the greatest minds of our time, conceived in an atmosphere
of collective purpose and self-criticism, built to the greenest specifications
and fired by a bold vision: victory over the individual will and the creation of
a new citizenry for a new century. If only you would work.

A recent Times look at how four "smart-growth" or
"transit-oriented" developments (TODs) have transformed local traffic patterns
raised the dismaying possibility that they may be doing the opposite of what
advocates promised. New Urbanist planners have long hoped that building
high-density, mixed-use, multiple-unit developments on or near public transit
lines would encourage Angelenos to leave their cars and start taking buses and
trains. Instead, the properties that Times reporters studied have substantially
increased vehicular traffic.

Evidence for TODs' ability to reduce congestion has been
failing to pile up for quite some time. According to Federal Highway
Administration statistics, between 1990 and 2000, during which time the
Metropolitan Transportation Authority introduced the Blue, Green and Red lines,
the percentage of L.A. residents taking mass transit — bus and rail combined —
increased from a paltry 4.5% to a measly 4.6%. Since then, statistics haven't
been much more encouraging. The best evidence is that TODs may produce some
marginal percentage increases in transit ridership — and these percentage
increases are swamped by the large numbers of new residents and shoppers
attracted by high-density, mixed-use developments.

A growing region needs housing, and this alone may be
justification for the billions of public and private dollars that are being
spent on new multi-unit developments. But the magical thinking that has informed
so much of this development — the belief that, in the words of one New Urbanist
manifesto, "transit, pedestrian and bicycle systems should maximize access and
mobility throughout the region while reducing dependence upon the automobile" —
has failed, at least so far, to prove itself on the ground.

Still, if the TODs that are radically transforming Hollywood,
downtown and other neighborhoods have not compelled people to change their
behavior, they do have the potential to attract the kind of residents who seek a
traditional walking-around urban experience. Reducing the rate of congestion
growth will require a vast array of policy solutions and options for residents,
and smart growth may be part of that.

We still want to believe.

I recall the first lunar landing in 1969 and how the astronauts were prepped to immediately put some moon soil into a special pants (?) pocket so that they had something to bring home if they had to abort the mission before they could fill their larger specimen bags.

Likewise, many econ professors know that some students only pay attention for the first few minutes of any course. So, some immediately tell them that it all boils down to three imperatives (ten litte words). 1) at what cost? 2) compared to what? and 3) how do you know?

Now, if we could only find a way to make it simpler.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

From the sublime to the ridiculous

Nassim Nicholas Taleb tells the punch line of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable on almost every page. And pretty much the same punchline appeared on almost every page of his previous book, Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and Markets. Yet, he does tell the story entertainingly and his books do sell. So, all power to him.

He is at his very best (in my view) in "The Scandal of Prediction" (Ch. 10 of Swan). In the social sciences, prediction is a fool's errand -- and ubiquitous. Even in the natural sciences, great humility is a good idea.

Dare I say climate change doomsday? There are many juicy targets and last weekend delivered many more. Jonah Goldberg tells it best in "Live Earth: Dead on arrival" (LA Times, July 10, 2007).
'IF YOU WANT to save the planet, I want you to start jumping
up and down. Come on, mother-[bleepers]!" Madonna railed from the stage at
London's Live Earth concert Saturday. "If you want to save the planet, let me
see you jump!"

You just can't beat that. What else could capture the canned
juvenilia of a 48-year-old centimillionaire — who owns nine homes and has a
"carbon footprint" nearly 100 times larger than the norm — hectoring a bunch of
well-off, aging hipsters to show their Earth-love by jumping up and down like
children? I suppose she could have said, "Now put your right foot in / Take your
right foot out / Right foot in / Then you shake it all about…. That's what
climate change is all about."

Actually, I think the "Hokey Pokey" makes more sense.

But, hey, I don't want to bash Live Earth, which is not to be
confused with Live Aid (1985, dedicated to eradicating African famine) or Live 8
(2005, promising to relieve African nations' debts). So with the African
continent so well-fed — and debt free! — who can blame the Celebrity Concern
Industry for moving on to its next big success?

The avowed point of Live Earth was to … can you guess? That's
right: raise awareness about global warming. Considering the energy required to
put on the show, the nine Live Earth concerts doubtlessly raised more CO2 than
awareness. NBC's three-hour televised version got trounced by "Cops" and
"America's Funniest Home Videos." Moreover, surely most of the people who
attended or tuned in already knew about global warming before they saw the video
tutorial about Ed Begley Jr.'s eco-friendly home and sanctimony-powered go-cart.

Still, if some rock fans had somehow missed the global warming
story entirely, imagine how befuddled they must have felt while listening to
Dave Matthews sing the glories of cloth diapers. And, assuming they didn't hit
the mute button when Czech supermodel Petra Nemcova came to the stage, one
wonders what any climate-change ingenues might have made of her confession. The
model, who nearly was killed in Thailand by the 2004 tsunami, explained that she
"didn't feel hate toward nature" because of the tsunami. "I felt nature was
screaming for help."

It's nice that Nemcova didn't want to blame the messenger, but
it's hard to feel a similar reluctance about Live Earth's impresario in chief.
Former Vice President Al Gore recently penned a book in which he rails against
the current "assault on reason" by the evil forces of Earth-hating
right-wingery. He repeatedly invokes science as if it's his exclusive property.
But the soft paganism on display in Nemcova's faith-based assertion that a
sub-oceanic earthquake was the result of Mother Nature sending us a message is
typical of greenhouse gasbaggery.

Gore talks about the dysfunction of political discourse today.
But when it comes to global warming, he and his acolytes insist that the time
for debate is over. In other words, Gore's ideal discourse would involve only
discussion about how best to follow through on his prescriptions.

But such high-minded objections sail over the chief source of
Live Earth's lameness. The acts were mostly fine. But the outrage and passion
felt so prepackaged you half-expected Ludacris (who rapped about the evils of
SUVs) to say "this moral outrage is brought to you by GE's 'Ecomagination.' "
Indeed, one could say that Live Earth is proof that global warming has jumped
the shark, except for the fact that the phrase "jumped the shark" has jumped the

Madonna, Genesis, UB40, the Police, Cat Stevens (now Yusuf
Islam), Crowded House, Duran Duran — these were among the headliners for this
supposedly cutting-edge extravaganza. I listened to these acts in high school
more than 20 years ago — and some of them were already going gray by then. Phil
Collins and Sting are 56. Cat Stevens is just shy of 60. The Rolling Stones
didn't play Live Earth, but I wouldn't be surprised if that was because Mick
Jagger needed a hip replacement.

Like the Rolling Stones, who define "graceful retirement" as
drags on the oxygen tank between sets, these acts hawk youthful-activism
nostalgia for the fans rich enough to pay for it.

Some argue that environmentalism has become a secular
religion. Buying carbon offsets, they say, is the modern equivalent of
purchasing indulgences for your sins from the Catholic Church. Live Earth
certainly fit into that vision. The concerts seemed like Baptist hoedowns of
yore, except now Gore is the Billy Sunday for the baby boomer

Maybe that's in the works too. But more likely, these were
simply concerts by and for people who need to salt their sanctimony with
platitudes about raising awareness. The music industry always has played fans
for saps. In 1968, Columbia Records peddled the slogan "The Man Can't Bust Our
Music!" Now global warming is a brilliant way to market aging rockers too rich
and famous to pass as rebels against anything save their refusal to retire with
some dignity.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

The joy of history

I thought that I knew something about libertarian thought and Austrian economics. I have now read Brian Doherty's wonderful Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement and realize that I knew very little.

The world is now a freer place and the libertarian analysis of policy choices is taken more seriously by more people than ever. But we have not reached the promised land and perhaps never will. Doherty makes the point that along the way we have become rich enough to put up with a bloated public sector. The glass is (only) half-full. Getting there has also meant that a new and more practical brand of libertarian thought and practice have come to be.

All of these evolutions occurred in tandem and Doherty tells the story in a little over 600 pages. Being the astute journalist and historian (and easy writer) that he is, he has discovered and included gems and anecdotes that help lift the book to the top of that very short list of titles from which you might select a gift for a good friend.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Deprived or depraved?

A character in Westside Story sings that he's depraved because he's deprived. There may have been some intended irony but this has been a staple of elite opinion for some time.

The WSJ's David Wessel ("Princeton Economist Says Lack of Civil Liberties, Not Poverty, Breeds Terrorism," excerpted below) cites Alan Krueger's research on terrorists which finds that most terrorists are not at all poor.

Casual newspaper readers of the last few days may have reached the same conclusion. The story ends on a limp note, however, quoting Krueger this way. "When nonviolent means of protest are curtailed, malcontents are more likely to turn to terrorist tactics."

I had thought that the UK is a pretty good place to be if you want to speak your mind. Perhaps one liberal piety has simply been replaced by another. Perhaps the bombers are simply sociopaths and misanthropes.

Occam, where are you?

When Princeton economist Alan Krueger saw reports that seven
of eight people arrested in the unsuccessful car bombings in Britain were
doctors, he wasn't shocked. He wasn't even surprised.

"Each time we have one of these attacks and the backgrounds of
the attackers are revealed, this should put to rest the myth that terrorists are
attacking us because they are desperately poor," he says. "But this
misconception doesn't die."

Less than a year after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, President
Bush said, "We fight against poverty because hope is an answer to terror." A
couple of months later, his wife, Laura, said, "Educated children are much more
likely to embrace the values that defeat terror." Former World Bank President
James Wolfensohn has argued, "The war on terrorism will not be won until we have
come to grips with the problem of poverty, and thus the sources of

The analysis is plausible. It's appealing because it bolsters
the case for the worthy goals of fighting poverty and ignorance. But systematic
study -- to the extent possible -- suggests it's wrong.

"As a group, terrorists are better educated and from wealthier
families than the typical person in the same age group in the societies from
which they originate," Mr. Krueger said at the London School of Economics last
year in a lecture soon to be published as a book, "What Makes a

Princeton's Alan Krueger says social scientific research turns
up little support for the conventional wisdom that poverty and lack of education
breed terrorism.

"There is no evidence of a general tendency for impoverished
or uneducated people to be more likely to support terrorism or join terrorist
organizations than their higher-income, better-educated countrymen," he said.
The Sept. 11 attackers were relatively well-off men from a rich country, Saudi
Arabia. ...

... Among the statistical pieces of the puzzle a small band of
academics have assembled since are these:
• Backgrounds of 148
Palestinian suicide bombers show they were less likely to come from families
living in poverty and were more likely to have finished high school than the
general population. Biographies of 129 Hezbollah shahids (martyrs) reveal they,
too, are less likely to be from poor families than the Lebanese population from
which they come. The same goes for available data about an Israeli terrorist
organization, Gush Emunim, active in the 1980s. • Terrorism doesn't
increase in the Middle East when economic conditions worsen; indeed, there seems
no link. One study finds the number of terrorist incidents is actually higher in
countries that spend more on social-welfare programs. Slicing and dicing data
finds no discernible pattern that countries that are poorer or more illiterate
produce more terrorists. Examining 781 terrorist events classified by the U.S.
State Department as "significant" reveals terrorists tend to come from countries
distinguished by political oppression, not poverty or
inequality. • Public-opinion polls from Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan and
Turkey find people with more education are more likely to say suicide attacks
against Westerners in Iraq are justified. Polls of Palestinians find no clear
difference in support for terrorism as a means to achieve political ends between
the most and least educated.

Data on which all this relies are hardly perfect: Terrorists
don't fill out elaborate questionnaires. Better-off, better-educated individuals
could be motivated if not by their own circumstances, then by the conditions of
their impoverished countrymen. Interviews of terrorists in Pakistan by Harvard
terrorism scholar Jessica Stern reveal recruiters there found the poorest
neighborhoods to be the most fertile ground, particularly among those who feel
Muslims are humiliated by the West. She says Mr. Krueger and like-minded
scholars don't yet have enough evidence to prove anything. "We are only just
beginning to do really serious large studies in terrorism," she

But the conventional wisdom that poverty breeds terrorism is
backed by surprisingly little hard evidence. "The evidence is nearly unanimous
in rejecting either material deprivation or inadequate education as an important
cause of support for terrorism or of participation in terrorist activities," Mr.
Krueger asserts. The 9/11 Commission stated flatly: Terrorism is not caused by

So what is the cause? Suppression of civil liberties and
political rights, Mr. Krueger hypothesizes. "When nonviolent means of protest
are curtailed," he says, "malcontents appear to be more likely to turn to
terrorist tactics."

Which -- ironically, given that Mr. Krueger is no fan of the
president's actual policies at home or abroad -- is close to Mr. Bush's
rhetoric: "Liberty has got the capacity to change enemies into

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

No widespread fainting spells reported

Policy makers are prone to ignoring trade-offs. So no one blinks when complaints about housing affordability are not traced to the effects that supply has on price and the effects that stiff regulations have on supply.

But Wendell Cox calls attention to a report that shows some U.K. policy makers trembling on the brink of discovering these basic market principles.

No reports (yet) of widespread fainting spells.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Don't worry, be happy

This post on happiness made me happy. But it does not come close to Daniel Gilbert's treatment.

Freedom, prosperity, narcissism and more

Most of us like freedom and prosperity -- and the fact that they beget each other.

But nothing is perfect. Prosperity facilitates narcissism (which may have something to do with low birth rates). Matt Kahn blogs about this for the case of LA.

We have the LA Weekly and many other cities have something like it. Count the ads (in the print edition, for starters) for self-improvement treatments (mainly physical and even including "G-spot amplification"!). The number of such ads runs to well over 100.

Inconvenient rebuttals

When the NY Times gives op-ed space to Al Gore's climate change views, rebuttals like this ought to be circulated far and wide. I found it on Art De Vany's blog.

Bryan Caplan adds the clincher argument.