Thursday, January 31, 2008

Post-racial politics?

The extraordinarily long campaign of 2007-08 requires an extraordinarily strong stomach. It's not just what the candidates say but the realization that this stuff works with the electorate.

"I am ready to take on energy and the environment," one of them mentioned on a TV-news clip yesterday. What does that mean? It does not matter who said it. Most of them are ready to "take on" anything -- and usually via some crackpot socialist scheme. When the pundits explain that candidate X is "strong on" issue Y, it usually means that he or she has a socialist fix for that one first.

On a slightly more positive note, I just read "The Color of Politics: A mayor for the post-racial generation" by Peter J. Boyer in this week's New Yorker (only the abstract is available electroncically). It begins this way: "One evening this past fall, Barack Obama's Presidential campaign went to Newark, bringing together the two leading figures of what might be called the Oprah Winfrey wing of the Democratic Party." The writer referred to Obama and Newark Mayor Cory Booker.

The article is a disheartening tour or Newark and its politics, which are pretty awful. "The Newark Police Department sponsors an annual 'safe day' for Jewish families to visit cemeteries in neighborhoods now considered unsafe." Booker's opponents have used "white", "Jewish" and "fascist" to describe him.

Yet, much of white and black America (and the Clintons) have to get past the politics of race. Obama's politics are seemingly standard left-liberal hackery. But if he and others like him can really usher in a post-racial era, that would be wonderful.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Business as usual

For many years, LA's Broadway has been the only part of downtown untouched by local redevelopment plans and also the most lively. The nearby areas that have been less neglected by officialdom are dead zones in comparison. But this morning's LA Times reports that "L.A. plans Broadway face-lift."

Jane Jacobs had some things to say about all this (Pierre Desrochers' recent essay is a propos). Interestingly, Jacobs has practically achieved guru status on redevelopment issues, but that seems to be inadequate. Spontaneous success is not in local planners' playbook and local politicians are incapable of just sitting on their hands and leaving well enough alone.

There is other people's money to spend and there are re-election campaigns to fund.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


EconJournalWatch (Jan, 2008) is now online. Dan Klein and his colleagues get a lot of credit for keeping this project not just alive, but readable and interesting. (Full disclosure: colleagues Wendell Cox and Chris Redfearn and I have a piece in this volume. We criticize a recent QJE paper by Nathaniel Baum-Snow, who responds with a defense of his article.)

Editor Klein and his colleague Harika Anna Barlett contribute "Paul Krugman and the Have-Nots," an elaborate dissection of Krugman's hundreds of NY Times op-eds. Klein and Barlett find that the statist policies that Krugman embraces are not as "equitable" as the writer presumes.

It's an old story; those on the left love to assume that they are on the side of the angels. It's not very pretty. But Krugman's case, Klein and Barlett show, is special. He is very smart and very shrill.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Efficient way to study efficiency

In the Introduction to The Logic of Life, Tim Harford alludes to "The new economics of everything." It's an apt phrase and takes in a slew of recent books of which the first was probably Freakonomics. But that was followed (alphabetically) by Tyler Cowen's Discover Your Inner Economist, Robert Frank's The Economic Naturalist, Tim Harford's other book in the genre, The Undercover Economist, Arnold Kling's Learning Economics, Steven Landsburg's More Sex is Safer Sex, John Lott's Freedomnomics. There are others of earlier vintage, some that I have missed and still others that are awful.

But in my view, Harford does this best. He takes us through more than 200 recently published and worthy research papers (and some books) in applied economics and presents it all beautifully and in just over 200 pages. That's efficiency for the reader.

Anyone can have quibbles. I think that Harford is only partially right about New York. He lauds Manhattan's low auto use, high transit use and walkability. Yes, but the island is surrounded by a vast supporting hinterland with large numbers of people who commute there via some of the longest auto trips in the country. He cannot have the one without the other.

But the book is a joy to read.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Rambo data

Today's LA Times includes "Dead and deader" (by John Mueller) which summarizes the vital stats from the last four Rambo movies ("First Blood" (1982), "Rambo: First Blood Part II" (1985), "Rambo III" (1988), and "Rambo" (2008)). Reviewers are usually careful not to give away too much but this writer tells all in the way of key data. Some interesting trends are revealed.

"Number of bad guys killed by Rambo with his shirt on" 1, 12, 33, 83;

"Number of bad guys killed by Rambo with his shirt off" 0, 46, 45, 0;

"Number of bad guys killed by accomplices of Rambo acting on their own" 0, 10, 17, 40;

"Number of good guys killed by bad guys" 0, 1, 37, 113;

"Number of people killed by per minute" 1, 69, 132, 236.

There is also "Time at which the first person is killed (mins: secs)," "Number of people killed per minute from that point until the end of the film (not including the ending credits)", "Sequences in which Rambo is shot without significant result", "Number of sequences in which good guys are tortured by bad guys," etc.

As PC-game mayhem has gotten better and better (worse and worse), how could the Rambo body count go any other way?

There is also a tabulation of "Number of sex scenes. " All zeroes, no trend, not a chic flic. (Notice also that the aging Stallone does no more shirtless killing.) To be sure, we'll have to wait for the director's cut of the newest release on DVD.

Friday, January 18, 2008


There are interesting arguments pro and con term limits. I have thought that they are a necessary evil in a world of gerrymandered electoral districts. Of course, the FDR Presidency brought on the 22nd amendment and perhaps the Nixon-Reagan-Clinton-Bush experiences will persuade many that one term is enough. If the electorate does not have the good sense to recognize this then perhaps it should be a Constitutional limit.

Having said all that, it is saying the obvious that the G.W. Bush legacy will get its share of reflection and its ups and downs. Just like all the other ones.

This morning's WSJ op-ed ("Gas Taxes Are High Enough") by Mary E. Peters, Secretary of Transportation, suggests that this appointment belongs on the plus side of the ledger. She is the highest-ranking federal transportation official to openly embrace electronic road tolls on major highways. Highway congestion is often cited as a market failure in the texbooks. But not pricing when the means to do so at low cost are finally here is clearly a policy failure.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Sense on energy

Forbes' Jerry Flint writes about energy policy "I'm breaking your heart ... Achieving 35 mpg by 2020 is a nice rallying cry. But it won't happen." Excerpted below.
Solving the energy problem is easy if you pay no attention to
the laws of physics. That's the wonder of our Congress. To pass is easy; to
achieve is something else. This is where I break your green heart. You know that
Congress passed a law ordering all cars and trucks to average 35 miles to the
gallon by 2020. It won't happen.

Another part of that law mandates the production of 36
billion gallons a year of biofuels by 2022. That won't happen

It's not that automakers from Detroit to Tokyo to
Stuttgart are just mean and don't want to do it. They don't know how. Of course,
they don't dare complain or criticize the law. We must all be green and happy
about it.

But there's just no way anyone subject to the laws of
physics and automobile engineering can get a 5,000-pound pickup, or any
mass-produced, reasonably priced sport utility near that weight, up to

Today the 2008 Honda Accord (weighing 3,570 pounds) has
poorer fuel economy than last year's model, and Honda is Mr. Green. That new
hybrid system on the General Motors Chevy Tahoe SUV probably adds $10,000 to the
cost (and 400 pounds) and gets it up to 20mpg. Yes, the fuel economy increase is
terrific, near 50%--but we're up to only 20mpg on the four-wheeler, and that's
nowhere near 35.

The best way to increase fuel economy (and reduce
greenhouse gases, too) is to reduce the weight and engine size of the vehicles.
Congress could pass a law ordering that no car weigh more than 1,750 pounds (a
Toyota Camry is in the 3,200-pound range), no truck weigh more than 2,500 pounds
and no engine run more than 75 horsepower. Most Americans couldn't fit in such
cars, but they would average 35mpg.

We could also lower the speed limit to 40 miles per hour
nationally. That would do it, too, since engines would shrink, and air
resistance is a lot lower at 40 than at 60.

Or we could impose a $5-a-gallon gasoline tax, which would
push everyone into those tiny 35mpg cars--and have the advantage of pushing
every congressman who voted for it out of office.

If all else fails, maybe we resort to the
figures-don't-lie-but-liars-can-figure rule. Measure fuel economy not by what an
engine does, but what it could do. For example, imagine that every engine were
tuned to take E-85--meaning 85% ethyl alcohol and 15% gasoline--and that a car
gets 21 miles to the gallon on E-85. But if we count only the gasoline in E-85,
than it gets 140 miles per gallon of gasoline. That's one way to boost an

None of these things will happen, because Congress prefers
something for nothing, or something that doesn't show up directly as a
consumer's fee.

In a better world, energy policy makers would read Peter Huber and Mark Mills' The Bottomless Well: The twilight of fuel, the virtue of waste, and why we will never run out of energy.

It is all about applying human ingenuity to "purify" fuel, making denser and more useful energy from ubiquitous energy. The many "energy pyramid" illustrations through the book are data that help to make the point. And the book is delightfully well written.

Easy talk about energy and "running out of energy" are stunningly ignorant -- and beget awful "energy policy."

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Pesky facts

Tyler Cowen calls attention to some data that challenge various conventional wisdoms ("So We Thought, But Then Again ...") in today's NY Times. Cold weather killls many more people than hot weather each year and some warming is not soo bad. Read the article for the details and for some other data-based findings that too many love to overlook.

On a similar expedition, colleagues Jim Moore and Tom Rubin write about "Train wreck" in today's LA Times. They write about rail transit in Los Angeles and find that since 1986, adding rail to the bus system has cost about $11 billion but has reduced transit used by about 3 billion boardings over the years. (Yes, almost every local politico from the Mayor on down wants to do more of this.)

Friday, January 11, 2008

Not that sinister

We can all recall "do not litter" campaigns from our growing up years. Since approximately the time of the first Earth Day, these have morphed into campaigns for more recycling. I recently attended a lower school's "winter sing" (also the modern version of something else) and the young kids were singing (caroling?) about recycling! So, once again, it is the modern faith.

Too bad about all this because it obscures the economic point that markets prompt recycling and the kids could be learning a lot about the role of price signals in all this.

But better than a (possibly) dry econ lesson, there is the piece in this week's New Yorker, "American Scrap: An old-school industry globalizes". (Gated but here is the abstract.) Anyone with access to young minds should start with this and then fill in with stories about the behenid-the-scenes heavy lifting that's done by prices.

All of a sudden, globalization will not seem that sinister.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The hype is hype

We were warned about 2,500 years ago that democratic self-government does not work because ordinary people have not learned how to run the ship of state. And then we tried all the other forms and they were problematic.

Fast forward to the New Hampshire primary. Brett Stephens in this morning's WSJ writes about all the silly stuff coming out of the mouths of candidates and pundits (excerpted below).

Along these lines, Peter Orszag shares his Congressional testimony re income voltaility. It has not worsened. The hype is hype.

Barack Obama, still fresh from his victory in Iowa last week
and confident of another in New Hampshire tonight, has as his signature campaign
theme the promise to "end the division" in America. Notice the irony: The scale
of his Iowa victory, in a state that's 94% white, is perhaps the clearest
indication so far that the division Mr. Obama promises to end has largely been
put to rest.

Meanwhile, in Kenya last week a mob surrounded a church in
which, according to an Associated Press report, "hundreds of terrified people
had taken refuge." The church was put to flame, while the mob used machetes,
Hutu-style, to hack to death whoever tried to escape. The killers in this case
were of the Luo tribe, their victims were of the Kikuyu, and the issue over
which they are bleeding is their own presidential election.

When foreigners assail Americans for being naïve, it is often
on account of contrasts like these. A nation in which the poor are defined by an
income level that in most countries would make them prosperous is a nation that
has all but forgotten the true meaning of poverty. A nation in which obesity is
largely a problem of the poor (and anorexia of the upper-middle class) does not
understand the word "hunger." A nation in which the most celebrated recent cases
of racism, at Duke University or in Jena, La., are wholly or mostly contrived is
not a racist nation. A nation in which our "division" is defined by the vitriol
of Ann Coulter or James Carville is not a truly divided one -- at least while
Mr. Carville is married to Republican operative Mary Matalin and

Ms. Coulter is romantically linked with New York City Democrat
Andrew Stein.

Saturday, January 05, 2008


The economics of congestion pricing is a no-brainer. The political economy of why we have so little of it is also a no-brainer: new taxes are bad taxes, not matter the economics.

Fixing the political problem is also a no-brainer -- now that David King, Michael Manville and Donald Shoup have thought of it ("For Whom the Road Tolls").

There have been many long discussions over what to do with the revenues from pricing. Return it to the drivers? No, say the authors. Return it to the cities that freeways traverse and create a consitituency that will lobby for road pricing.

The authors find that in LA county, 66 cities have freeways and these are among the less well off. Returning the projected revenues from tolling all LA county freeways to just these cities gives each one $500 per capita per year.

The authors show that the redistribution would be progressive (the wealthiest do most of the driving) and the 66 cities now get most of the freeway air pollution.

Most important, the policy is likely to convert opponents to advocates.

The best ideas are the obvious ones -- once someone has thought of them.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

How to fix health care

I know all about the economics of health care. Too much reliance on third-payers. Too much politics. Too many programs for "reform" (i.e., more politics) from political candidates.

There is, of course, much more to it. The best discussion that I have seen is Arnold Kling's Crisis of Abundance: Rethinking How We Pay for Health Care. The author shows that the U.S. is different (surprise!). And he is thoughtful on what would be best for this country. The book is clear and short. What a concept!

Anyone with a serious interest in these issues must read this book.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Oy vey!

Jared Diamond is a very smart man who has written some wonderful books. So I find his piece in this morning's NY Times stunning (to say the least). In a nutshell, when the world's poor begin to consume as much as we (32 times, comparing their present consumption with ours), there will be "big consequences." The problem is that we consume much too wastefully.

But prices and markets are not considered.

Pete Boettke notes "What we are up against" by referring to an equally disappointing treatment in another recent NY Times piece. Missing from Diamond's discussion is the simple idea that the only way that the poor will ever consume more is when they produce more.

All the doomsday forecasts have been wrong because they simply extrapolated the technology of their time. But no one can predict which resources will be how scarce when the poor are 32 times more productive than now. Craig Newmark lists some sources that document the relevant history.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Bad news bearers for another year

At New Year's, all sorts of assessments are made. Some people look back and and some forward. When making forecasts (and if reputations in such things matter), go for the safe bet.

John Tierney does this in today's NY Times ("In 2008, a 100 Percent Chance of Alarm"). Any extraordinary weather occurrence will be linked by someone somewhere to climate change. And reporters will find that individual.

I have no idea whether CO2 causes warming or whether warming causes CO2 accumulations. If CO2 accumulations lag warming by hundreds of years, then Granger causation tests would be interesting.

Aside from all this, what I find remarkable is the tendency to extrapolate today's technology for many years into the future. Never has technology changed as fast as in our time. Those unwrapping their cameras, computers, TV's, cell phones, GPS gadgets, etc. know the score. Lynne Kiesling reports on new ways to store electricity -- and that advances in storage technology are auspicious.

But the bad news bearers will be with us another year.