Sunday, January 30, 2011

Antidote to the scourge

Separation of church and state is a good thing. Separation of Wall Street and state would be nice as would be separation of race and state. I could name others. It's too bad that the U.S. Census still counts people by race, although it's a good that they finally allow respondents to check more than one box.

Most of us have limited knowledge of the racial/ethnic mix among our many ancestors. But if we want to self-define, fine.

Today's NY Times includes "Black? White? Asian? More Young Americans Choose All of the Above". The piece cites a recent Pew Research Center survey which found that "Nearly 9 percent of all marriages in the U.S. in 2009 were interracial or interethnic, more than double the percentage fo 30 years ago." With any luck, it will keep spreading and doubling.

Tribalism is a scourge. Look at a map of the world's conflicts, now and in years past. They are usually about racial or ethnic differences. Inter-marriage is probably the best way to dispose of them.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Not "smart"

The President feels that it's a safe call to say that we should invest more in infrastructure. And he's the man who likes to say that the spending should be "smart". And the smart set typically nods approvingly.

But we spend a lot on infrastructure and we do not get good returns because we spend "stupid." The last ten years for wich we have data on Federal highway disbursements (see Table 1090) tell the story. These include revenue sharing with state and local governments, much of it matched with local funds, and show a 59 percent increase. Over the same period, total vehicle miles traveled grew by 11 percent (same link, Table 1100).

Some of the discrepancy is due to the commitment to add high-occupancy vehile (HOV) lanes to encourage carpooling. But carpooling is down.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Democratization of hubris

Tyler Cowen's The Great Stagnation argues that we (Americans) have gathered the low-hanging fruit (free land, the easy technological breakthroughs and educating the undeducated) and are now in for a slowdown. Moreover, our measurements are badly flawed and often misleading. To be sure, all the econ textbooks enumerate the many flaws and limits of GDP accounting and measurement is always tricky. But the problem of misimpressions will only get worse. We got a lot of very cool stuff for free on the internet, but this does not show up in GDP.

But GDP is not a plausible bottom line. How about long life?Cowen discusses health care and shows that we Americans spend a lot but do not get commensurate payoffs. Longevity is up, but our numbers do not match our expenditures.

But this is also a measurement artifact. National data aggregate over all the people who smoke, take drugs, avoid exercise and consume all the wrong foods. The actual payoff from modern medical science is that we can now choose the possibility of greater longevity than our ancestor could. Every life expectancy calculator asks all the obvious lifestyle questions.

The real payoff to Cowen's argument comes near the end of his book when he writes about the current economic woes and asks how so many mistakes could have been made by so many people. His answer: "We thought we were richer then we were." If so, it's best to take his story seriously. On the heels of the democratization of lxury and the democratization of temptation there is now the democratization of hubris.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Teaching moments

Voyeurism was never like this. There is reality-TV (dubbed "human zoo" by some), YouTube and its many imitators and all of the cameras that come with our cell phones. There is also tourism. Americans have trooped to old Europe for years and treat it pretty much as a museum. Eco-tourism is similar and, again, offers the charm of peeking at "the natives." Want to see farmers farm the old-fashioned way? Travel to a country where it is not yet mechanized.

So it's almost inevitable that we get stories like this one in today's WSJ: "Japan's Belching Smokestacks Draw Industrial-Strength Sightseers ... Kojo Moe Fans are Infatuated By Factories; Night Cruise Past Steel Plants."

How else to explain to the kids that grandpa (and perhaps grandma) used to toil in one of these (though not as modern) eons ago?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Uber-mom and Tiger-mom

Here is David Brooks writing about cognition in the New Yorker. Here he is podcasting on same topic at a recent Aspen Institute appearance.

As usual, Brooks delivers with a sense of humor. In this case, it's about an uber-mom set on getting her kids into Harvard but clueless about the emotional intelligence the kids will need to succeed. Just when we have learned how to game college admissions, we are also learning that getting in and out of an elite school by itself is not enough.

The teachers that each of us remember most fondly and that have left a lasting impression are the ones with whom we had formed an emotional connection. There are all sorts of emotional connections, but whatever they are, they are a necessary condition for lasting impacts.

Does Tiger Mom know anything about this?

Thursday, January 20, 2011


Mark Perry says that "Shale Gas Will Rock the World". Julian Simon, wherever he is, is probably smiling.

Peak-oil people may not be listening, but peak-natural gas people apparently have a 250-year cushion.

Aidwatch reports on the possibility of a Paul Romer-type Charter City in Honduras. Why not in one of the U.S. states?

Thomas Garrett and Russel Rhine show that those U.S. states that rank highest on the economic freedom scale experience best job growth.

The economic-recovery-via-green-industrial-policy dream takes a hit (as expected). Two-fers are hard to find anyway.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


We celebrate the democratization of luxury, but Daniel Akst (We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess) reminds us of its evil twin, the democratization of temptation. Battling one's demons has always been a problem, but the fact that so much is now "cheaper, easier and faster" means more demons for more people.

Akst quotes Joseph Schumpeter: "The capitalist achievement does not typically consist of providing more silk stockings for queens, but in bringing them within the reach of factory girls in return for steadily decreasing amounts of effort." That's the upside. The downside is that cheap calories (and microwave ovens), widely available sex and drugs along with the rejection of old taboos and self-control fatigue account for a million pre-mature deaths in the U.S, each year.

But that's not all. Shameless borrowing and re-financing (along with cheap credit) gave us the housing bubble and the financial collapse of 2008.

The book is a lively read that takes us through the various pre-commitment devices that people have invented to try to manage themselves. There are many funny passages about tatoos of the names of spouses to deter infidelities -- and the predictable and expensive tatoo removals, of which there are about 100,000 each year.

There are surely controversies that the author skirts (the number of deaths caused by second-hand smoke). Greater opportunities could as well prompt greater effort (deferred consumption) by some as it prompts greater indulgence by others.

Modernity is always a two-edged sword, but I'll gladly take it.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Never like this

The Economist (Jan 15) includes "Logoland: Why consumers balk at companies' efforts to rebrand themselves."

The story mentions various "electronic lynch mobs" that form when loyal consumers take on a re-branding they don't want. Gap, Tropicana and the UK Royal Mail had to back off when they tried on new logos. The article mentions that "people have a passionate attachment to some brands."

Branding allows buyers to reduce risk and sellers to charge premium prices. Both sides come out ahead. What is so interesting is the sensitivities and passions involved. Branding was always high risk-high return, but never like this.

This morning's WSJ mentions that the Tunisian revolt took off when a grisly protest self-immolation circulated through Tunisia via Facebook. Regime change was never like this.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Public spaces in America

Dr. E. Fuller Torrey has been writing about the shameful way in which we handle the problem of untreated schizophrenics for many years. Here he is again in light of the Tucson shootings.
A 2008 study out of the University of Pennsylvania that examined murders committed in Indiana between 1990 and 2002 found that approximately 10% of the murders were committed by individuals with serious mental illnesses. There are about 16,000 homicides a year in this country. Using the Indiana study as a guide, roughly 1,600 of them are likely committed by people with serious mental illnesses.
I am fortunate to live in one of LA's nice areas. And I walk every day. And I encounter at least one of the pathetic figures that Torrey cites, each and every day.

I cannot count how many pieces I have seen about plans for better downtowns and better public spaces. But all of this well-meaning talk manages to dodge the most important aspect. Many of the public spaces that we do have are blighted by people who we (our strange mix of policies and attitudes) have dumped onto the streets.

Here is the latest on Eli Broad's generous gift to LA, for a new downtown contemporary arts museum (H/T Ross Selvidge). This is cheered all around as people see it as another big step in downtown revitalization. But downtown is still not a place where you want to go for long walks at night. All of the folks who will show up for major openings via chauffeured limos will not notice.

The idea of public spaces is appealing, but putting up new and glamorous structures while looking right past the obvious tragedies is pointless.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Scary thought

Today's WSJ includes two pieces that are seemingly unrelated, but I wonder. First, Holman Jenkins writes about the Tucson shootings and others like it. " ... Pima officials are likely to be haunted by the findings of the panel investigating the Virginia Tech massacre. That investigation found that state officials had booted ample opportunity under the law to corral a dangerous person. They failed to even provide the simply accurate record that would have disqualified him from purchasing a gun." So none of the usual suspects (lax gun laws, talk radio, Sarah Palin, etc.) Just incompetence.

The piece right below Jenkins' is by Lenore Skenazy ("Eek! A Male!") which highlights what the author calls "worst-first thinking. ... Given the level of distrust, is it any wonder that, as the London Telegraph reported last month, the British Musicians' Union warned its members they are no longer to touch a child's fingers, even to position them correctly on the keys?"

We hear about zero-tolerance embarrassments all the time. Do we embrace zero-tolerance because we are simply incapable of anything less nutty? It's a scary thought.


Instead of facing the troubling truths cited by Jenkins, today's LA Times' front page (not on-line) expressed the hope that the President's speech on the shootings will "bring us together."

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Travel tidbits

USC's Pengyu Zhu and I are having fun with results from the 2009 National Household Travel Survey (NHTS).

I had previously noted that in the earlier surveys (1990 and 2001), most peak-hour travel was for non-work purposes (including just the NHTS categories "family/personal" and "school/church" and "social/recreational"). This continued to be the case in 2009.

Looking at person-trips in just the Monday-Thursday peaks (Friday is slightly different), the two recent surveys (2001 and 2009) are remarkably consistent. The AM peak (6-9am) included 62 % nonwork trips and 38% worktrips in 2001, but the corresponding results for 2009 were 63% and 37%. For the PM-peak (4-7pm), the non-work shares were even greater, 76% in both years.

Peak-load road pricing anyone?

Travel per capita was down slightly from 2001. Was it the 2009 economic troubles? Was it the internet? We are testing.

Sunday, January 09, 2011


Critic David Denby (New Yorker, Jan. 10) writes about the re-realease of Claude Lanzmann's "Shoah". He asks why the re-release (on the documentary's 25-year anniversary) and answers by alluding to fact that we now have Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands which I have mentioned a couple of times.

The book provides context that many of us (Denby notes) had not really understood when we first viewed "Shoah" years ago. "... the Nazis and the Soviets may have been trying to destroy each other in the ferocious combat of 1941-1945, but, if one looks at the entire thirteen-year period [1933-1945] that he [Snyder] describes, the two totalitarian powers occasionally acted in a weird kind of concert, in which each side emboldened and enabled the other."

Having this story available, Denby suggests that we see Lanzmann's work again.

Friday, January 07, 2011

The beat goes on

Politicians in most of the states caved in to insurance companies and prohibited health insurance sales across state lines.

Politicians in Washington left this alone when they "reformed" health insurance last year.

This bad combo now comes home to roost and Blue Shield of California wants to raise rates by as much as 59% on some policies.

Bad policies create problems that often spawn more bad policies. But we now have two bad policies interacting. The "solution" that we hear about is pressure from HSS on Blue Shield and others to roll back/reconsider rate hikes.

They are not yet being pressed to stay in business. Not sure how hat would work. Perhaps a bail-out. But bail-outs are not exactly uncharted territory.

It now appears that there are more bad policies on the way.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Simple questions for a great mind

The recently deceased Tony Judt was a treasure. His Reappraisals is one of my favorite reads re 20th-century history and his many essays were always a treat, the kind of thing you flip to and read first.

The December 23, 2010, issue of the New York Review of Books contained Judt's "The Glory of the Rails," a wonderful sketch of rail travel and how it changed the post-1830s world. Quite predictably, this was followed by Judt's "Bring Back the Rails" (Jan 13). The author emphasizes what he sees as rail's key contribution to civil society.

But Judt never asks "at what cost?" And he does add this: "... it is possible (and in many places today actively under consideration) to imagine public policy mandating a steady reduction in the nonnecessary use of private cars and trucks."

Which trips are "nonnecessary"? And who does the "mandating"? I will never understand how and why well meaning and smart people can be so casual about other people's liberties and so naive about the economy about which they opine.

Both of Judt's essays are non-gated and worth reading.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Itches and forecasts

Forecasting is hard work, but we must do it. Here is an indispensible blog that compiles past forecasts that now look silly (H/T Virginia Postrel). And here is a post that looks at the 100 trends to look for in 2011 (H/T Mark Perry).

The Dec. 2010 Journal of Economic Literature includes "Designing Climate Mitigation Policy" (gated, here is the abstract). The article provides a wonderful survey of what we know and cites several 100-year climate change forecasts. But these come with incredibly wide uncertainties.

Do we embrace expensive policies in light of such uncertainties? I am OK with Bjorn Lomborg's conclusion, that for now it is best to invest in basic research re cleaner fuels.

This brings up an odd pairing of articles in the December Atlantic. "Dirty Coal, Clean Future" makes a couple of good points. (1) It's all about China; if China creates less carbon, then there would be a measurable difference in atmospheric accumulations; if project X or city Y in the U.S. "go green", it means very little without China; (2) "Clean coal" (gassify the stuff while it is still underground) is plausible and China leads in this technology.

But this report is paired with Kenneth Brower's "The Danger of Cosmic Genius" (gated). It's about Freeman Dyson: "How could someone as smart as Dyson be so dumb about the environment? The answer lies in his almost religious faith in the power of man and science to bring nature to heel."

Dumb? Religious? In today's NY Times, David Pogue frets over "Getting Over the Two-Year Itch". We tend to throw out our electronics every two years because they are so quickly dated.