Friday, July 29, 2011

Success is relative

From's automatically generated comments on legislators:

Successful: Sen. Hatch [R-UT], 67 bills enacted since 1987
Absent: Rep. Giffords [D-AZ8], 18% votes missed since 2007
Unsuccessful: Sen. Schumer [D-NY], 89% of 748 bills died since 1987

The more interesting thing is that Sen. Schumer is unsuccessful for passing 11% of 748 bills, or in other words successfully passing about 82 bills. Sen. Hatch was successful for passing 67 bills. I guess success really is relative.

(Also note that Rep. Giffords leads the pack of absentee congresspeople, missing 18% of the votes. Of course, the fact that 89% of her missed votes occurred this year after she was shot point blank by a lunatic, might be a mitigating factor.)

Noam Chomsky is wrong about everything

I hate Noam Chomsky. People at MIT love him because he represents everything they want to be: an irritable, insufferable know-it-all.

The guy thinks he knows everything. He is a more radical Ralph Nader but without the countervailing virtues of courage and grit. Or maybe a more apt description is "left-wing Richard Posner?"

Today I've found the best evidence yet to support that position.

How the hell does Chomsky know any details of the Hauser case?

China is a dump: Patent edition

China produces about 1% of all real patents on new technology despite having 20% of the world's population.

More at Marginal Revolution.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Quote of the Week: Election Edition

The quote of the week for the 2012 election comes from day 1 of the '12 election day, the day after Obama was elected:

[With Obama elected] I won't have to worry about putting gas in my car. I won't have to worry about paying my mortgage. You know? If I help [Obama], he'll help me.
The whole statement is here.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

PwC estimates US will be more than twice as rich as China in 2050

That's the headline you should see. But this is what the Guardian reports:
GDP projections from consultancy PwC show how the US, UK and the west will fall far behind the new economic powers like China in GDP by 2050. See what the data says
It's true that China, because of its vastly larger population (more than 4x the size of the U.S. in 2011) will have a larger economy and military than the U.S. But if you ask people what they want in life they don't say ensuring that people with the same passport have lots of money and guns, they usually say happiness (and the assumption here is that money = happiness).

So the statistic everyone cares about is income per capita and PwC estimates the U.S. will have an income of about $85k per head while China will be poorer than the U.S. currently is with about $41k per person. (I'm taking their GDP estimates and dividing by population estimates.)

Gallup World Poll data also suggests that Chinese people will still be significantly less happy than the U.S. is today as Asian's tend to be far less happy than you would expect given their incomes. This may be due to weak religious institutions (religion and purpose lead to life satisfaction), long hours to acquire that income (people hate working), and in the future the negative impact of commuting (the worst part of people's days, and in crowded China commutes will be terrible).

Or was I wrong and most people care about having a big military and A-Rod's income?

Note: I'm not endorsing these estimates. I think they are an exercise in futility and my intuition strongly disagrees with the final numbers. India is projected to be vastly poorer than China, with about half the income per capita, implying China will grow just as fast as China over the next 50 years. I could see China continuing faster growth for a decade but eventually the transition to a modern economy will harmper China's growth while India's infrastructure (ports, roads, electrical grids) will enable it to increase its manufacturing sector. It's education and large English-speaking populace, along with its vastly superior political institutions, suggest it might be ahead of China by 2050. I'd bet on that.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Patent Wars

I didn't like NPR until today, when I read this story about patents.

That's great journalism. That's the best investigative journalism I can remember reading.

Subjective data and health

Freakonomics posts some great statistics from a high-quality study of the impact of Medicaid on people's health and finances.

I'm a big fan of using measure of happiness to evaluate programs. Freakonomics reports the data:

  • 10% increase in the probability of screening negative for depression.
  • 25% increase in the probability of reporting one’s health as good, very good, or excellent.
  • 32% increase in self-reported overall happiness.
I don't know who did the screening for depression, but I take that as solid evidence that Medicaid is doing something very, very valuable. (I don't know what the cost was so I won't weight on of if it was worth it.)

The health and happiness data, though, seem suspect. The study was blind and indeed, Freakonomics reports, most of the impact on health happened immediately after enrollment, before people get any care. It sounds like the effect might not be real. Alas, subjective data has its limits.

MIT invents glasses that read people's emotion

The glasses were commissioned by the MIT president to improve undergrad's woeful social lives.

I'm only half joking. I went to MIT for four years. A lot of people there do have low emotional intelligence and this is coming from the reference point of an autistic person.

Friday, July 22, 2011


The BBC with a list of "Americanisms" British people hate.

I think Brits are fags. "Fag" of course is my favorite Americanism.

(Note: some of those are British, some an American wouldn't even recognize, and some they have a point, namely "deplane." Every time I deplane I hurl.)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Illegal to threaten and verbally abuse in LA

From the LA Times:

New law makes it a crime for drivers to threaten cyclists verbally or physically.

I guess it wasn't already a crime.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Michael Wilbon's latest terrible column

Wilbon is basically in favor of paying players their market value. That sounds fair. That's how it works in the rest of our economy. As he says, it's "capitalism" and "supply and demand."

He doesn't seem to care about the negative cultural or institutional impact the money will have. Professional sports have already, arguably, have an immense negative impact on black culture. Lots of people invest their time and energy in basketball and football and never development marketable skills. They end up without a job, without the prospect of one, and often illiterate. That doesn't sound so bad when you consider that if their dreams of playing pro ball had come true they'd be just as broke by 35 and be well on their way to dying at 50 (I'm exaggerating a bit here. But I think this is a fair picture.)

Paying college players only increases the incentive to work on playing hard and ignore developing real, marketable skills. The supply and demand lesson that kids need is that demand for football players is small and the supply is large while demand for programmers and nurses is high and supply is low.

Divorce Parties

I like the idea but I don't know if Japan is getting it quite right. Life is about enjoying yourself while people shit on you. Smashing rings and animosity over dinner sounds heavy on the shit and light on the enjoyment.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Harry Potter 7.2

It made $92 million on its first day. That sounds like a big jump from the previous record of $72 million for New Moon but here's a few reasons not to care:

1. Teenagers really have nothing better to do in the summer than see midnight and Friday showings. The trend toward increasing frontloading showed no signs of abatement coming into this year so its not shocking to see another new record.

2. This is the first teen movie available in 3D, giving about a 25% price premium to tickets. A lot of people realized 3D movies suck, but at least half the midnight audience and probably more bought 3D or IMAX tickets. Factoring that in and Deathly Hallows 2 might have sold fewer tickets than New Moon.

3. Harry Potter films always make about $300 million. It doesn't matter when they are released, how the economy is doing, whether the movie is any good--the same people go, plus or minus a small rounding error. This time the same people will show up and it will make < $400 mil (Update: I've changed my projection to over $400 million after a strong second weekend) but a lot more than $300 mil because of the expensive 3D tickets.

Look at this Box Office Mojo chart to see how no matter when the movies are release--Wednesday, Friday, summer, winter, booming economy, slugging, "recovering" all the differences in openings wash out by the 2nd week.

The overseas numbers, which aren't in yet, could be more interesting. People overseas love franchises and love 3D movies. Pirates 4 flopped in the U.S. but was the most popular one overseas, and there is an upward trend is in Potter ticket sales abroad--Deathly Hallows was the most popular one.


So many people claim to be staying home for Carmaggedon that I wonder if traffic will actually lighten up in Los Angeles.

Update: This report from CNN suggests that there is indeed less traffic during Carmaggedon.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Economists favor aid

Australian economists were polled on a variety of economic issues.

When asked if "Australia should reduce the proportion of its GDP spent on overseas aid," 65.1% disagreed or strongly disagreed.  15.7% agreed or strongly agreed. The rest were unsure.

In other words economists are four times as likely to favor aid as to disfavor it. That says something about the smartass view that long-run political economy effects make aid harm receipt countries. But that view was always clearly based on ideology, not evidence.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Should everyone learn Spanish?

Does learning Spanish really have negative externalities?
The Federal Court of Canada on Wednesday ordered Air Canada to pay $12,000 to Ottawa French-language rights crusader Michel Thibodeau in part because when he asked an English-speaking flight attendant for 7Up in May 12 of 2009, he got Sprite.
More here. HT: Marginal Revolution

The silver lining is that for a few years (maybe decades) legal requirements to have Spanish translators everywhere will generate demand for otherwise uneducated workers who would be unemployed. The drag it causes on the economy (acting like a tax on services) might cancel out that effect on the unemployment rate and eventually of course computers will do all the translation. But for a little while it could be good news for Hispanics and people who choose to become proficient in Spanish instead of getting some useful skills, like proficiently in engineering, programming, screen-writing or anything else that might benefit humanity instead of annoy the hell out of it.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Sick language in politics

I never understood what they mean, but these terms are standard in foreign policy discussions:
SPIEGEL: Is it a choice you chose because your foreign policy considerations trumped moral ones?
from this interview with Kissenger.

If a foreign policy consideration isn't about morality then what is it about? When we don't practice moral foreign policy isn't it immoral foreign policy? People talk about that like it's reasonable, normal and there's nothing wrong with it, yet by definition it's immoral.

I hope the confusion comes from the fact that most people think morally is about the short term--take a stand now--and not the long term--set a policy and stick to it, even if it harms in short run, to save more lives in the long run. In other words, the moral thing sometimes isn't referred to as moral for some reason.

But I think that's just the origin of how people started talking this way. Nowadays its perfectly fine to want to be a scumbag and draft foreign policy proposals that are abominable outright--in the long and short run.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

More on the psychology of libertarianism

Tyler Cown is "dissappointed" that the guys at EconLog aren't "engaging the academic literature" on yet another issue (consumer surplus from the Internet).

I think Tyler is coming to the realization that guys like Caplan, Kling and Henderson fit the classic libertarian archetype: smart guys who are smart enough to understand the arguments of Hayek, Nozick, Mises, etc. whose insights are more or less summed up by the perfect competition model, but not smart enough (or willing) to understand when perfect competition fails and why.

All the libertarians I've met in person fit roughly this story. The start out as teens interested in understanding politics. They often go through a radical leftist phase and then realize why communism failed. They understand the rudiments of market economics and then the story ends. They stop learning. They start and end every debate by shouting "MARKETS WORK!" echoing Walter Lewin, the famed MIT/OpenCourseWare Physics professor who used to to shout "Physics works!" after seemingly dangerous physical demonstrations.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

You've never been to...

I was reading on Reuters and stumbled on this comment:
Technically, the US population is illiterate compared to the Chinese. Americans teens can play the Xbox, Chinese teens can build the Xbox.
and this response:
 You have never been to China have you? China is full of illiterate people, and most young people spend their entire young lives playing video games. The US is still more educated than the [C]hinese ever have been.
The second commenter is almost certainly right, but for all the wrong reasons. First, it seems unlikely he has been to China, so what makes him think he is right? Second, even if he had been to China, how would he know much about the education system? Would his knowledge be representative and how would he figure out if it were?

He'd have to consult statistics (and consider if the statistics were any good). If he went to Shanghai he'd probably be under the impression that Chinese students were smarter than American students, on average. If he went to a rural pocket of poverty he might think most of China is still stuck in the stone ages. It sounds obvious that going to China would teach you a lot about China, but the truth is that most of what matters for economic policy can't be learned by observation. You have to get to know a country through the data and supplement that with tempered observations. I say tempered because by trusting your eyes you might be inclined to lump to all kinds of amateur sociology or anthropology in your theories. And you'll most likely be wrong.

(The book I linked to is about the people who make these mistakes not an example.)

Ethics for Pussies

The key question in ethics today isn't even an ethical question, its psychological. Utilitarianism is obviously right in every case, so why does virtue ethics appeal to us so much?

Here's my theory: people are naturally pussies and virtue ethics makes us feel better about it.

This article from some British newspaper sums it up, while discussing the trolly problem:
If you refuse to flip the switch five people who would otherwise be alive are dead. You are responsible for their deaths. And, arguably, you are blameworthy because it would not have been any skin off your nose to flip that switch. You didn't because you wanted to keep your own hands clean, to evade responsibility through non-action. [emphasis mine]
Everyone "gets" utilitarianism when someone else is doing the killing. People "get" valor. The greatest generation went to Europe to kill a lot of people--they came with guns, tanks, and bombs, what else did they plan to do with them?--and people call that valor. They understand that killing 1,000,000 people is a lot better than watching 3,000,000 people get killed.

But valor is hard.

We respect courage because few people have much of it.

So we take the easy[1] road and pretend that virtue doesn't exist. Interestingly enough, the theory that it doesn't exist goes by "virtue ethics." I prefer "ethics for pussies."

[1] - and self-justifying, I should add. Taking the easy road is easy, but that's ok because in virtue ethics, the suffering you will cause isn't a bad thing.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

National Treasure 3?

CNN reports that $11 billion in treasure was discovered under an old Indian temple.

I think National Treasure 3 should be about a treasure like that overseas, maybe in China.

Does MIT make people crazy?

I just graduated from MIT as an undergraduate and just based on the people I knew, I always felt at least half of MIT undergrads had a serious psychiatric disorder. I mean, to put it bluntly, a lot of people at MIT are completely insane.

But I never saw any objective data until recently. The data is from 2001 but I doubt very much has changed other than better treatment efforts (substantially better):

In a student survey at MIT last spring, 74 percent of respondents reported having had a mental problem that interfered with their daily lives, though only 28 percent reported having used the mental health resources the institute provided. Overall, 11 percent of students use the mental health resources at MIT, an increase from 7 percent a few years ago.
The report quoted one student who wrote that “asking for help is not easy for the typical MIT student.”

Three out of four.

If I were a parent I would be scared to send my child there.

But I don't think it's all MIT's fault. In fact, selection bias and interaction effect might explain quite a bit: MIT attracts people who have mental illnesses. Maybe overbearing parents, especially Asians, put extreme pressure on their (own only) child who develops low self-esteem as a result. MIT exacerbates the low self-esteem and forces people to go it alone because it has a culture that shuns getting help. Where does everyone think the children of Tiger Mom's go to school?

So if you're a parent who let their child flourish instead of imposing success on them, and you didn't coddle them their entire life and make it impossible for them to believe they could ever be wrong, I don't think you should worry about your kid going to MIT.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Niall Ferguson jumps the shark

The title of this post might be misleading. Maybe Niall Ferguson was always a hack, but I was under the impression he was a serious thinker.

If he ever were, this article proves that he isn't any more.

It should be mandatory reading in every journalism class. It's a template for how to be a lazy writer that still gets read: write with a strong voice, quote some primary sources, come tantalizingly close to begging the question, and most importantly coin a catchy phrase ("IOU-isolationism").

Do taxes on (non-diet) soda decrease investment in diet soda?

Hank Cardello, a former executive at Coca-cola, writes in the Atlantic that we should:

Keep taxes low to promote product R&D. Proposals such as soda or "fat" taxes only serve to raise revenues for government treasuries and have not been proven to lower obesity rates. Higher taxes reduce revenues and steal dollars earmarked for developing lower-calorie, better-for-you products that meet emerging consumer demands.
He worked at Coca-cola so maybe we should take his word that Coke will invest less in alternatives to sugary sodas when the taxes kick-in, but it sounds counter-intuitive. If soda becomes more expensive people will substitute other goods, increasing demand for alternatives. That increases the incentive to development tasty low- and zero-calorie beverages.

The fact that he links to study that found the taxes are effective--if you click the link it quotes the author saying "[a]ny strategy that shows even modest weight loss should be considered"--also makes me wonder if he has any idea what he's talking about.