Category Archive for: Miscellaneous [Return to Main]

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Should You Wear a Bicycle Helmet?

Andrew at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science explains the best way to avoid getting hit by a car while riding a bicycle:

Should you wear a bicycle helmet?, by Andrew: Rebecca pointed me to this interesting article by Ben Hoyle in the London Times, "Helmeted cyclists in more peril on the road." Hoyle writes:

Cyclists who wear helmets are more likely to be knocked off their bicycles than those who do not, according to research. Motorists give helmeted cyclists less leeway than bare-headed riders because they assume that they are more proficient. They give a wider berth to those they think do not look like “proper” cyclists, including women, than to kitted-out “lycra-clad warriors”.

Ian Walker, a traffic psychologist, was hit by a bus and a truck while recording 2,500 overtaking manoeuvres. On both occasions he was wearing a helmet.

During his research he measured the exact distance of passing traffic using a computer and sensor fitted to his bicycle. Half the time Dr Walker, of the University of Bath, was bare-headed. For the other half he wore a helmet and has the bruises to prove it.

He even wore a wig on some of his trips to see if drivers gave him more room if they thought he was a woman. They did.

He was unsure whether the protection of a helmet justified the higher risk of having a collision. “We know helmets are useful in low-speed falls, and so are definitely good for children.”

On average, drivers steered an extra 3.3 in away from those without helmets to those wearing the safety hats. Motorists were twice as likely to pass “very close” to the cyclist if he was wearing a helmet.

...I was aware of the "risk compensation" idea, that helmeted riders will ride less safely, thus increasing the risk of accident (although the accident itself may be less likely to cause serious injury), as has been claimed with seat belts, antilock brakes, and airbags for cars. (If it were up to me, I would make car bumpers illegal, since they certainly seem to introduce a "moral hazard" or incentive to drive less carefully.)

But I hadn't thought of the idea that the helmet could be providing a signal to the driver. From the article, it appears that the optimal solution might be a helmet, covered by a wig...

Also amusing, of course, is that his name is Walker.

If you wear a helmet, I don't think you should change your behavior based on this research, including the part about the wig, but that's up to you.

Update: Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution and Gabriel Milhache at Economic Investigations add more discussion on this article.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Going Into Labor Day

Our "always-excellent" Fed Watcher Tim Duy and his wife Heather got a little bit confused about the term "labor" in Labor Day weekend. Here's the result:

Introducing Elsa Ruth Duy, born 9/2/06 at 9:02 PM weighing 9lbs 2oz with length 20 inches. Elsa is my paternal grandmother's name, Ruth is Heather's maternal grandmother's name. Everyone is doing well. [pictures: Elsa-1, Elsa-2].


Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Weak Link Between Genes and Longevity

[This is supposed to post automatically.]

This surprised me. The correlation between genetics and longevity may be a lot weaker than you think, with "only 3 percent of how long you live compared to the average person ... explained by how long your parents lived":

Live Long? Die Young? Answer Isn’t Just in Genes, by Gina Kolata, NY Times: Josephine Tesauro never thought she would live so long. At 92, she is straight backed, firm jawed and vibrantly healthy... Mrs. Tesauro does, however, have a living sister, an identical twin. But she and her twin are not so identical anymore. Her sister is incontinent, she has had a hip replacement, and she has a degenerative disorder that destroyed most of her vision. She also has dementia. “She just does not comprehend,” Mrs. Tesauro says. Even researchers who study aging are fascinated by such stories. How could it be that two people with the same genes, growing up in the same family, living all their lives in the same place, could age so differently?

The scientific view of what determines a life span or how a person ages has swung back and forth. First, a couple of decades ago, the emphasis was on environment, eating right, exercising, getting good medical care. Then the view switched to genes, the idea that you either inherit the right combination of genes that will let you eat fatty steaks and smoke cigars and live to be 100 or you do not. And the notion has stuck, so that these days, many people point to an ancestor or two who lived a long life and assume they have a genetic gift for longevity.

But recent studies find that genes may not be so important in determining how long someone will live... — except, perhaps, in some exceptionally long-lived families. That means it is generally impossible to predict how long a person will live based on how long the person’s relatives lived.

Continue reading "The Weak Link Between Genes and Longevity" »

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Foundations of Productivity

I had to have my water heater replaced today, so I might be overly sympathetic to this message. My house is at that age where the roof, water heater, furnace, etc., that came with it when it was new begin to fail and it takes fairly big investments to replace them.

This article argues that the US is at a similar position in the life of its capital, i.e. that the roads, bridges, power plants, dams, ports, airports, electricity networks, sewage systems, and so on, most of which were built 50-75 years ago, are all showing signs of wear or inadequate capacity and are in need of replacement, expansion, or substantial maintenance. The question is how to summon the political will to address these needs with all the other pressing budget issues:

Things Fall Apart: Fixing America’s Crumbling Infrastructure, by Nicholas Kulish, Commentary, NY Times: Whether it’s the roads we drive on, the pipes carrying our water, or the power lines humming with the electricity..., America’s physical networks are falling apart.

Continue reading "Foundations of Productivity" »

Monday, August 21, 2006

I Got, Got, Got, Got No Time...

Unfortunately, I'm not going to get to these:

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Index Funds

Place your bets:

Siegel vs Bogle on Index Funds, by Greg Mankiw: I am a fan of both Jeremy Siegel (Wharton economist...) and John Bogle (Vanguard founder and index fund pioneer). I am therefore fascinated by the intellectual and financial battle between them. Here it is, as reported in today's New York Times:

According to Mr. Siegel, there is a “revolution” under way ... in which the traditional indexes like the S.& P. 500 will make way for fundamental indexing, which constructs indexes based on measures like companies that pay dividends, rather than just a company’s size. ...

Mr. Siegel says the central problem with traditional index funds, which are weighted by market capitalization, is that they overweight overvalued stocks and underweight undervalued stocks. Historically, value stocks outperform growth stocks, so an index should be constructed to invest in the cheaper value stocks rather than the expensive growth stocks.

“We should be shifting to another paradigm to look at how markets work,” Mr. Siegel said in an interview. “I don’t think the price of a stock is always in line with fundamentals. I think there are a lot of factors, which helps to explain a lot of what we see in the capital markets.”

Mr. Bogle disagrees. “Beware when you hear about the new paradigm,” he said yesterday. “I think the claims they make are outrageous." ...

I am placing my bets with Bogle on this one. Bogle's position has the virtue of an economic theory to back it up: the efficient markets hypothesis. The hypothesis is probably not exactly true, but it may be true enough to make it sensible for typical investors to follow its prescriptions.

By contrast, Siegel thinks markets are inefficient. But if that is so, why not advocate active money management? ... Siegel's position appears to be that active money managers aren't smart enough to beat the market but his mechanical rule is. I am skeptical. The hubris that makes active management often fail may also infect economists who make up mechanical rules.

Finally, tax efficiency is important in taxable investment accounts. It is hard to beat the market, but it is easier to beat the IRS by a combination of (1) focusing on capital gains over dividends and (2) deferring capital gains realization via reduced portfolio turnover. Tax efficiency argues in favor of the traditional index funds that Bogle recommends.

More on Siegel's Siegel's value-weighted indexing from a previous post. Brad DeLong has Bogle's response. The two index funds aren't mutually exclusive, so the bet doesn't have to be 100% on one or the other. Diversification over both funds is possible.

Monday, August 14, 2006

An Abundance of Higher Skilled Manufacturing Jobs?

According to this, there are good jobs "for workers with the necessary math, computer and mechanical abilities":

Factory Shift: Manufacturers Struggle to Fill Highly Paid Jobs, by Molly Hennessy-Fiske, LA Times: Daniel McGee's parents were apprehensive when their son turned his back on the four-year college degree they always assumed he would earn. They figured a bachelor's degree was the key to success in the modern economy... But as McGee saw it, his future lay in ... metalworking. And to succeed, he would have to do something that would shock many parents: ... study machine-tool technology at a two-year technical college.

McGee, 21, realized what many American workers are missing: Manufacturing, long known for plant closings and layoffs, is now clamoring for workers to fill high-paying, skilled jobs. While millions of manufacturing jobs have been outsourced or automated out of existence during the past decade, many of the remaining jobs require higher skills and pay well — $50,000 to $80,000 a year for workers with the necessary math, computer and mechanical abilities.

Some manufacturers are so desperate for workers who can program, run or repair the computers and robots that now dominate the factory floor that they are offering recruitment bonuses, relocation packages and other incentives more common to white-collar jobs.

In Ohio, American Micro Products Inc., an electrical parts maker, is offering $1,000 bonuses to workers who recruit technicians, and it is covering moving costs for the new employees. In San Antonio, Toyota cannot find enough qualified applicants for skilled positions at its new plant, even after the state sponsored a training program. In Fontana, California Steel Industries Inc. found it so hard to fill five mechanical and technical positions, some paying $28 an hour, that managers started paying employees to train for the unfilled jobs.

About 90% of manufacturers say they are having trouble filling skilled jobs such as machinists and technicians, according to a survey ... of ... 12,000 manufacturers. Of those manufacturers, 83% said the shortage of skilled workers affected their ability to serve customers. ...

Continue reading "An Abundance of Higher Skilled Manufacturing Jobs?" »

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Books of Law and Morality

This is from Crooked Timber:

Thus spake Rousseau, by Chris Bertram: I’ve been a participant in various discussions on and off blogs, about the laws of war, just war theory and so on, as it applies to recent events. Though I think it is necessary to get clear about those things, there’s a horrible disconnection and abstractness about the debates, which doesn’t seem respond appropriately to the human miseries, to the people who are most human to us just as they are stripped of their humanity. Two texts came to mind when I thought about this, and felt feeling of disgust at myself for treating such matters as theoretical exercises. The first was Yeats’s On a Political Prisoner, and the second was Rousseau’s The State of War from which I reproduce the opening lines below:

I open the books of law and morality, I listen to the sages and the philosophers of law, and, imbued by their insidious speeches, I am led to deplore the miseries of nature, and to admire the peace and justice established by the the civil order. I bless the wisdom of public institutions and console myself about my humanity through seeing myself as a citizen. Well instructed concerning my duties and my happiness, I shut the book, leave the classroom and look around. I see wretched peoples moaning beneath a yoke of iron, the human race crushed by the fist of oppressors, a starving and enfeebled crowd whose blood and tears are drunk in peace by the rich, and everywhere I see the strong armed against the weak with the terrifying power of the laws.

All this takes place peacefully and without resistance; it is the tranquility of the companions of Ulysses shut into the Cyclops cave and waiting their turn to be devoured. One must tremble and keep silent. Let us draw a permanent veil over these horrible phenomena. I lift my eyes and I look into the distance. I notice fires and flames, deserted countryside, pillaged towns. Ferocious men, where are you dragging those wretches? I hear a terrible sound. What a confusion! What cries! I draw closer and I see a theatre of murders, ten thousand men with their throats cut, the dead trampled by the hooves of horses, and everywhere a scene of death and agony. Such is the fruit of these peaceful institutions. Pity and indignation rise up from the the depths of my heart. Barbarous philosopher: try reading us your book on the field of battle.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

The Declaration of Independence

Happy Fourth of July

America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves. --Abraham Lincoln

IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume, among the Powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

Continue reading "The Declaration of Independence" »

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

This Day in History: Keynes Predicts Economic Chaos

On a whim, I went to This Day in History at the History Channel web site. This is what I found:

Keynes Predicts Economic Chaos, June 28, 1919: ...By the fall of 1918, it was apparent to the leaders of Germany that defeat was inevitable in World War I. After four years of terrible attrition, Germany no longer had the men or resources to resist the Allies, who had been given a tremendous boost by the infusion of American manpower and supplies. In order to avert an Allied invasion of Germany, the German government contacted U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in October 1918 and asked him to arrange a general armistice. Earlier that year, Wilson had proclaimed his "Fourteen Points," which proposed terms for a "just and stable peace" ... The Germans asked that the armistice be established along these terms... On November 11, 1918, the armistice was signed and went into effect, and fighting in World War I came to an end.

In January 1919, John Maynard Keynes traveled to the Paris Peace Conference as the chief representative of the British Treasury. The brilliant 35-year-old economist had previously won acclaim for his work with the Indian currency and his management of British finances during the war. In Paris, he sat on an economic council and advised British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, but the important peacemaking decisions were out of his hands, and President Wilson, Prime Minister Lloyd George, and French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau wielded the real authority. Germany had no role in the negotiations deciding its fate...

It soon became apparent that the treaty would bear only a faint resemblance to the Fourteen Points that had been proposed by Wilson and embraced by the Germans. Wilson, a great idealist, had few negotiating skills, and he soon buckled under the pressure of Clemenceau, who hoped to punish Germany as severely as it had punished France in the Treaty of Frankfurt that ended the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. ...

The treaty that began to emerge was a thinly veiled Carthaginian Peace, an agreement that accomplished Clemenceau's hope to crush France's old rival. According to its terms, Germany was to relinquish 10 percent of its territory. It was to be disarmed, and its overseas empire taken over by the Allies. Most detrimental to Germany's immediate future, however, was the confiscation of its foreign financial holdings and its merchant carrier fleet. The German economy, already devastated by the war, was thus further crippled, and the stiff war reparations demanded ensured that it would not soon return to its feet. ...

Keynes, horrified by the terms of the emerging treaty, presented a plan to the Allied leaders in which the German government be given a substantial loan, thus allowing it to buy food and materials while beginning reparations payments immediately. ... President Wilson turned it down because he feared it would not receive congressional approval. In a private letter to a friend, Keynes called the idealistic American president "the greatest fraud on earth." On June 5, 1919, Keynes wrote a note to Lloyd George informing the prime minister that he was resigning his post in protest of the impending "devastation of Europe."

The Germans initially refused to sign the Treaty of Versailles, and it took an ultimatum from the Allies to bring the German delegation to Paris on June 28. .... Clemenceau chose the location for the signing of the treaty: the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles Palace, site of the signing of the Treaty of Frankfurt that ended the Franco-Prussian War. At the ceremony, General Jan Christiaan Smuts, soon to be president of South Africa, was the only Allied leader to protest formally the Treaty of Versailles, saying it would do grave injury to the industrial revival of Europe.

At Smuts' urging, Keynes began work on The Economic Consequences of the Peace. It was published in December 1919 and was widely read. In the book, Keynes made a grim prophecy that would have particular relevance to the next generation of Europeans: "If we aim at the impoverishment of Central Europe, vengeance, I dare say, will not limp. Nothing can then delay for very long the forces of Reaction and the despairing convulsions of Revolution, before which the horrors of the later German war will fade into nothing, and which will destroy, whoever is victor, the civilisation and the progress of our generation."

Germany soon fell hopelessly behind in its reparations payments, and in 1923 France and Belgium occupied the industrial Ruhr region as a means of forcing payment. In protest, workers and employers closed down the factories in the region. Catastrophic inflation ensued, and Germany's fragile economy began quickly to collapse. By the time the crash came in November 1923, a lifetime of savings could not buy a loaf of bread. That month, the Nazi Party led by Adolf Hitler launched an abortive coup against Germany's government. The Nazis were crushed and Hitler was imprisoned, but many resentful Germans sympathized with the Nazis and their hatred of the Treaty of Versailles.

A decade later, Hitler would exploit this continuing bitterness among Germans to seize control of the German state. In the 1930s, the Treaty of Versailles was significantly revised and altered in Germany's favor, but this belated amendment could not stop the rise of German militarism and the subsequent outbreak of World War II....

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Wal-Mart Question

Wal-Mart once again. This match pits Wal-Mart supporter Jason Furman against former Wal-Mart employee and detractor, Barbara Ehrenreich:

Is Wal-Mart Good for the American Working Class? I wish it was better, by Barbara Ehrenreich and Jason Furman:

From: Jason Furman
To: Barbara Ehrenreich
Subject: The Low Prices Are Good News
Posted Monday, June 26, 2006, at 3:18 PM ET


...I myself have never worked at Wal-Mart, and I can only remember shopping there once. In fact, I instinctively recoil at the big-box shopping centers spreading their uniformity across the American landscape. But I try hard not to let my personal and somewhat elitist shopping inclinations get in the way of an appraisal of Wal-Mart's positive role in America's economy and society. (For my full appraisal, see this paper ...)

Are you as surprised as I am by how quickly Wal-Mart's critics move past the issue of low prices? You will hear comments like, "Yes, Wal-Mart may have somewhat low prices, but let's talk about its impact on workers, the environment, trade with China, etc." But given just how important these low prices are to the hundreds of millions of Americans that shop there, I hope I can beg your indulgence to linger on them for a few moments.

Continue reading "The Wal-Mart Question" »

Monday, June 26, 2006

How Would You Spend 50 Billion?

Your goal: Reduce human suffering. Your budget: Fifty billion dollars. Where do you start?:

Who Should Be Helped First?, by Bjørn Lomborg, Project Syndicate: The list of urgent challenges facing humanity is depressingly long. AIDS, hunger, armed conflict, and global warming compete for attention alongside government failure, malaria, and the latest natural disaster. While our compassion is great, our resources are limited. So who should be helped first?

To some, making such priorities seems obscene. But the United Nations and national governments spend billions of dollars each year trying to help those in need without explicitly considering whether they are achieving the most that they can.

The western media focuses on a tsunami in Asia; donations flow freely. An earthquake that devastates Pakistan garners fewer headlines, so the developed world gives a lot less. There is a better way. We could prioritize our spending to achieve the greatest benefit for our money.

This month, I will ask UN ambassadors how they would spend $50 billion to reduce suffering. They will repeat the same exercise that some of the world’s best economists tackled in a 2004 project called the “Copenhagen Consensus”... But the question shouldn’t be left to politicians or Nobel laureates alone. We must all engage in the debate. ..

Here’s one fact to consider: the entire death toll from the Southeast Asian tsunami is matched each month by the number of worldwide casualties of HIV/AIDS. A comprehensive prevention program providing free or cheap condoms and information about safe sex to the regions worst affected by HIV/AIDS would cost $27 billion and save more than 28 million lives. This, say the economists who took part ..., makes it the single best investment that the world could possibly make. The social benefits would outweigh the costs by 40 to one.

Other options that the economists favored spending some of their $50 billion include providing micro-nutrients to the world’s hungry, establishing free trade, and battling malaria with mosquito nets and medication. At the other end of the scale, responses to climate change like the Kyoto Protocol would cost more than they would achieve, so the economists crossed them off the list of things to do right now.

Regardless of whether we agree with the economists, everybody must admit that we cannot do everything at once. ... Often, politicians avoid prioritization. Why? The glib answer is because it is hard. ...

The UN conference won’t be easy. But it shows that there is a will to put prioritization squarely at the center of attention. It will produce a “to do” list that will demonstrate how to achieve the most that we can for humanity...

The principles of economics provide a sound basis on which to make rational choices. Now, the discussion needs to shift from the academic sphere to political life. It’s time for all of us to consider and compare our own priority lists. ...

Friday, June 23, 2006


For those with a taste for variety, here's a bit of sociology from Crooked Timber:

Social Isolation in America, by Kieran Healy: Here’s an important new paper... The paper compares the social network module of the 2004 General Social Survey (GSS) to the 1985 GSS, the last to include network questions. The key question of interest is this:

From time to time, most people discuss important matters with other people. Looking back over the last six months—who are the people with whom you discussed matters important to you? Just tell me their first names or initials.

...The new findings are striking: since 1985, the number of people saying there is no-one with whom they discuss important matters nearly tripled. As McPherson et al say,

The modal respondent now reports having no confidant; the modal respondent in 1985 had three confidants. Both kin and non-kin confidants were lost in the past two decades, but the greater decrease of non-kin ties leads to more confidant networks centered on spouses and parents, with fewer contacts through voluntary associations and neighborhoods. … Educational heterogeneity of social ties has decreased, racial heterogeneity has increased.

The predicted probability of social isolation is much higher the fewer years of education one has. Also, “Young (ages 18—39), white, educated (high school degree or more) men seem to have lost more discussion partners than other groups.”

The observed differences are pretty big, as these things go. Are they real? It may be that the 2004 respondents differed from the 1985 respondents in their interpretation the words “discuss” and “important.” (People might interpret “discuss” as face-to-face discussion, when they may also be pouring out their hearts on a blog somewhere, for instance.) Because of these issues, the authors spend a lot of time investigating the validity of the measure. More interestingly, it may be that we really are observing a shift in patterns of network affiliation. Feel free to speculate in the comments... [T]he paper ...discusses several of the most plausible interpretations of the shift...

Update: The Washington Post has a story on this research: Social Isolation Growing in U.S.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Recapture the Flag

Here's some fun for those boring summer days yet to come. If you follow this link, you will find the rules to the game 'Capture the Flag' from the 1947 Scoutmaster’s Handbook. Here’s a shortened version:

Capture the Flag - This is one of the most popular outdoor games for scouts.

Traditional Rules: From the 1947 Scoutmaster's Handbook, pp 447-8:

  • Space – Large;
  • Type – Strenuous;
  • Teams - Half Troop;
  • Formation - Informal ;
  • Equipment - Two Signal Flags

Each team has its own territory in which its Scouts are free to move as they please … The object … is to enter the enemy's territory, capture the flag, and carry it across the line into home territory without being caught. … If the flag is successfully captured, it must be carried across the line into home territory...

Here's a version adults can play:

Capture the U.S. Flag - This is one of the most popular political games.

Political Rules - From the 2000 Republican Handbook by Carl Rove:

  • Space – United States;
  • Type – Political and Patriotic;
  • Teams – Republican and Democrat;
  • Formation – By Party;
  • Equipment - Two United States Flags

Each party has its own blue and red territory in which its members are free to display the U.S. flag as they please … The object … is to enter the other party’s territory, capture the U.S. flag, and carry it across the line into home territory without being Swift Boated. … If the flag is successfully captured, it must be displayed prominently on cars, houses, clothing, etc. in the home territory...

The Republicans have captured the Democrat’s U.S. flag and, for now, the flag is theirs alone. But the game is far from over. It’s time for the Democrats, who are no less patriotic, to go on the offensive and recapture the flag.

Mirror, Mirror, On the Wall...

Was there ever any question? Apparently there was:

Are Economists Smarter?, Laurence J. Kotlikoff, Economist's Voice: The final straw that forced my friend Larry Summers to resign as President of Harvard may have been his alleged suggestion that "economists are smarter than sociologists." I must say that I too was taken aback. I had always thought economists were better looking than sociologists, but smarter?

I tried this proposition out on my brother, who’s a veterinarian at Cornell. "Mike," I asked, "Are we economists smarter than sociologists?" "Sorry," he said. "You’re better looking and more personable, but not smarter than sociologists or, for that matter, vets."

"Actually, this is good news," I said. "For years I’d been told that economists are people who are good with numbers, but don’t have the personality to be actuaries, let alone sociologists."

"Now that I’ve got you on the phone," Mike said, "do you really think that Larry Summers thinks that economists are smarter?" "Not really," I said. "I’ve know Larry since grad school. He loves to provoke, debate, shake things up, but I can’t believe he thinks we’re smarter. Better looking, yes, but not smarter. And after what he’s gone through at Harvard, I don’t think he’s feeling very smart."

"Mike," I said, "you’re a scientist as well as a vet. What’s smarter mean, anyway? Have you scientists located the smart gene yet?"

"We have," Mike said. "And there’s an easy test for it. Anyone who thinks he’s smarter doesn’t have it. And, if you don’t mind, pretty boy, I’ve got work to do."

"Gee," I thought, as I hung up the phone. "I wish I had that smart gene. My brother must have it. He’s writing papers I can’t begin to read, and he isn’t asking the smarter question. If only we’d been identical, not fraternal twins."

Funny thing is that at one time, I was sure I was smarter than my brother. I was in grad school at Harvard and my brother was a stable boy, mucking out stalls at Penn’s large animal hospital. We’d both gone to Penn, but I majored in a hard subject, economics, and Mike took it easy studying English. He wouldn’t and couldn’t be caught dead in a math or science course. When we graduated, Mike headed to one dead end job after another, finally ending up at age 26 literally knee deep in horse manure.

"Larry, I’m going to be a vet," he told me one day. "No way," I said. "You’re knocking your head against the stall. You’re not smart enough to be a vet. You did so-so in math and science in high school, and you haven’t looked at those subjects in a decade. You’ll have to go to night school for years to even apply."

"Larry, I’m going to be a vet."

And sure enough, five years later, after night school, being rejected at Penn’s vet school and finally being accepted there, Mike graduated number one in his class! I remember when they gave him the award for being the top student. I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t believe it. I, after all, had all the smarts. I did better in math and science and scored higher in the SATs. Mike had no aptitude for these subjects. Who would know this better than his twin brother? But there he was getting this award.

This shook my faith in smarts. But then I thought, "Gee, a lot of what vets do is very hands on, practical. Maybe this is why he succeeded. Maybe I’m still the smartest." I checked with my sister Barbara, who had gone from being a paralegal to running a major U.S. corporation. "Don’t worry," she assured me, "you’re the smartest."

But then Mike messed me up again. Not content with being a vet, he proceeded to get a PhD in physiology. Then he joined Penn’s vet school faculty and turned into a hard core scientist with a huge lab, NIH grants, you name it. He’s now doing genetic research with no time to talk to his "smarter" half. Penn’s Vet school recently asked if he would consider being its dean.

I’m very proud of Mike. I tell his story to every kid I know who’s been told he can’t make it, has lousy test scores, "has low aptitude," and didn’t go to Harvard. I also tell them that "measures" of smarts—IQ, SATs, GPAs, the ranking of your college—have a laughably small ability to predict success as measured by labor earnings let alone making brilliant discoveries or just enjoying life. Finally, I tell them that human potential is neither quantifiable nor bounded and that anyone who’s really smart knows this for a fact.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

SmartEconomist: Open Source and Patents

From SmartEconomist:

Q&A 9 - Next - Open Source and Patents: UC Berkeley Professor Bronwyn H. Hall will answer readers' questions on the relative advantages and disadvantages of open source vs. intellectual property rights in knowledge creation, on the role of innovation management in firms and universities, and on the implications for technology policy. Ask Your Question

Q&A 8 - Financial Globalization and Exchange Rates: Trinity College Dublin Professor Philip R. Lane answered readers' questions on how the increasing integration of international financial markets affects the relationship between exchange rates and external imbalances, and on the implications for monetary and exchange rate policy.
Read Q&A

Saturday, June 17, 2006

My Father's Day Gift

And it's a good one:


Tim Duy, who does Fed Watch here, giving Paul his diploma at the ceremony today:


Congratulations Paul, you earned it! Paul will be starting the graduate program at UCLA next fall.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

'Jonesing' for Status

In my neighborhood, there seems to be a rash of boat buying. Big boats. I'm not sure if it's the housing boom, people hit the lottery, or what, but having read Robert Frank and others I know that I am now feeling worse off since my relative status in the neighborhood has surely fallen.

So, I've been Jonesing for pleasure boats—just something to park in the yard for the neighbors, I don't have to actually use it or anything. I like this one, but I'm having trouble finding a trailer for it:

July 1906 Issue: Imperial Roman Galley, Scientific American—“Buried under the waters of Lake Nemi lie two pleasure galleys, which belonged to the Emperors Tiberius and Caligula, and which contain art treasures that have been coveted for five hundred years. It is because of their unusual size (war galleys were much smaller) that the vessels, it is inferred, must have been used as pleasure barges. From the investigations of the divers we may glean much of the construction of the vessels, even though we may not be able to present an absolutely accurate restoration [see illustration].”

I'm not really Jonesing for a boat, but it's entertaining watching the neighbors try to play status leapfrog. New boats need new trucks to pull them...

Saturday, June 10, 2006


Interview from Radio Economics:

Dr. George Borjas discusses the American immigration system (audio)


The New Global Arabism - Washington Post
The Cultural Revolution at 40 - Project Syndicate
The Coming St. Putinsburg Summit - Project Syndicate
Morocco’s Veiled Feminists - Project Syndicate

From SmartEconomist:

Q&A 8 - Next - Financial Globalization and Exchange Rates: Trinity College Dublin Professor Philip R. Lane will answer readers' questions on how the increasing integration of international financial markets affects the relationship between exchange rates and external imbalances, and on the implications for monetary and exchange rate policy. Ask Your Question

Q&A 7 - Global Job Markets and US Leadership: Harvard University Professor Richard B. Freeman answered readers' questions on the relationships among immigration flows, scientific education and the global market for skilled workers, on how they affect US technological leadership, and on their implications for economic policy. Read Q&A

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Class Autobiography

Bryan Caplan writes:

My Future Class History, by Bryan Caplan: Class Action challenges visitors to write a Class Autobiography: "Write your 'Class Autobiography.' A powerful way to reflect on class is to take an hour and write the story of your upbringing in relation to money and class." I had a lot of fun writing my Intellectual Autobiography, so I'm intrigued enough to give Class Autobiography a try. I'll probably post it in a few days. Any other bloggers care to join me?

Bryan's class essay is here. I decided to take up the challenge. I'm kind of nervous about this, it's self-centered, whiny, all sorts of stuff, I'm not sure how it reads, so I won't be the least bit upset if you decide to skip this post. But what the heck, here it is:

My mom's family is Mormon, something that ended with my grandmother, and they helped to settle the area where I grew up. My mom was born in the town I grew up in, a town of 3,500 people in California in a place called Colusa. It is named after the Colus Indians. Her dad sold farm equipment for the Caterpillar dealer in town and they were lower middle class, though she describes it as being very poor - getting a pair of socks for Christmas, that sort of thing.

My dad grew up on a small farm just outside of Yuba City, California near a one store town called Tudor. His family was lower middle class at best, though poor might describe them better. During World War II he also lived in San Francisco (briefly) while my grandfather worked in the shipyards.

Most of my family on my mom's side is involved in farming in one way or another, and as I just noted my dad grew up on a farm. Because of that background, education wasn't important. Until my generation, there is only one relative I know about who graduated from a four year school, and that was probably because he played football there.

My parents did attend college briefly, a community college, and that is where they met. I think my dad was there just to play football, and I'm not sure what my mom's goals were, but I do know they both dropped out before graduating at age 20 when I was born. My dad went to work for a tractor dealer selling tractor parts, and my mom held brief peach cannery, telephone company, UC extension, and so on kinds of jobs. They tell me it was a struggle financially. My having surgery a couple of days after I was born didn't help (without modern technology, I would have died).

I was born in Yuba City where the community college was, then we moved to Colusa when I was one, then back to Yuba City when I was four, back to Colusa again at 12 where I stayed through high school. I hated moving. I grew up in working class neighborhoods with a lot of freedom. From the time I was six or seven years old, I could pretty much do as I pleased so long as I stayed out of serious trouble, and I mostly managed to do that. I hung out with what I would think of now as "the tough kids" when I was in Yuba City, but somehow avoided any serious trouble. I was the instigator - the one who got other people to do things but would not do them myself.

Once I moved back to Colusa when I was 12, the groups changed a bit. Because the town is so small, there is only one school at each level so it wasn't possible to sort by income as much as it was in Yuba City which is bigger. My social group cut across social strata and the groups stayed together from kindergarten through high school pretty much, even after high school. Because all social groups were together in the same school, I also began to see the differences in ways I had not seen before. For example, there was a nine hole golf course in town and a tennis club with a swimming pool and there were two groups of kids - those who belonged to the tennis and golf club, and those who did not.

I did not and I began to feel the exclusion. A lot of my friends spent a lot of time at the golf course (one would turn pro later and it was the gathering place for the "top" social group). I could never go. Same with the tennis club. We'd all be together having fun, they'd go to one place or another and I'd go home. I hated it.

I did solve the golf course problem by getting a job there in junior high school. I picked up range balls, washed clubs, that sort of thing. The pro, Bob Billings, was unbelievably good to some of us. In exchange for working, he paid us of course, but he also let us play free whenever we wanted, gave us free lessons, and so on. There were several of us who worked there. Because of the pro, we had the best, or near the best, golf team in the state. And that was among all schools, not just small ones (though I played baseball instead of golf). If you didn't have money, sports was another way to get noticed and have the privileges of money. My brother, a scholarship football player for Oregon State after high school, took advantage of that.

Back to my being a bad influence, and I probably was. I didn't have a curfew in high school, I could drink all I wanted and not get into trouble, etc. There was one mom in particular who wouldn't let her son hang out with me. His dad was an eye doctor (not sure which kind) and they lived in the small enclave of the well-to-do in town. I wasn't good enough for her son. That pissed me off, still does to this day, but I owe where I am to people like her.

At some point I made up my mind that I would prove that someone with my background, my lack of social graces, with my lack of money, etc., could kick their butt. It was a determination that's hard to describe, though the language I slipped into there is revealing. As I said, all the exclusion based on class, all the small town crap that goes on, all of it served to make me want to prove people wrong. It was a small town, a place where those with power and money (for the small pond called Colusa) persist for generations.

So, growing up I had a chip on my shoulder, probably still do. I was lucky though for two reasons. First, no matter what I did or how much I screwed around (e.g. in class disrupting others out of sheer boredom), school came easy and I was always at the top of the class somehow. Second, from an early age my mom knew I could go to college and began putting that idea in my head. I never assumed anything else, going to college after high school seemed a natural progression.

I was thinking about this yesterday and it occurred to me that I read every book that was in our house at least twice (all 15 of them...). My dad cannot write or spell very well, and he never reads. My brother was diagnosed with dyslexia and I think my dad must have had similar problems growing up. But my mom was an avid reader. Unfortunately, they were mostly trashy novels. She always left them lying around while reading them or before giving them away, and she must have known that I read every one of them when she wasn't home. What if there had been real books in my house? Or if my parents had been educated enough to direct my reading? I don't blame them, they had no idea about books. I would have sponged up anything put in front of me, but maybe I was better off spending my summers getting on my bike and going and playing baseball or basketball and hanging out with friends instead. Who knows.

When the time came to leave Colusa after high school my choices were very limited, not because of academics, that would have gotten me most places, but because of resources. I was from the small town of Colusa, and from the other side of the tracks. A friend of mine growing up, the rich kid in our class whose dad was a big rice farmer in town, went to Stanford because a congressman got him in (I assume campaign contributions were involved - his grades and mine weren't that different).

Me, I had two choices, go to a junior college or Cal State Chico as it was called then. I chose Chico. I worked my butt off all summer after graduating from high school to save $1,400. The tuition was around $100 per semester and I had enough left over to pay the dorm bill (remember, inflation). My parents contribution, after negotiation, was $20 per month, though they did buy me a car and insure it. But mostly it was up to me. I did two things while there. I never missed a class, and I never missed a party. I did miss a day at work once though.

I did well at Chico, really well, but I was naive. This is going to sound dumb to all of you, but I really didn't understand the difference between Stanford, Berkeley, and Chico State. Where I grew up, there were two types of people, those who went to college, and those who didn't. It didn't much matter where, just going and getting a degree was enough. I suppose the "upper class" understood the difference, but in working class land where I grew up, such distinctions weren't drawn, at least not in my house. The Ivy league was for other people, and people either went to college or they didn't, to Chico, maybe to a UC if they could afford it. And those who went often never returned. When I hear Bryan Caplan say in his essay "What if I had grown up rich? ... I would have gone to the Ivy League instead of UC Berkeley, but it's not like Berkeley held me back," I have to laugh because to me, Berkeley was an elite school, a dream, not something I could ever do. My third year at Chico a faculty member took me aside and told me I needed to go to a UC school, Chico wouldn't do. I called my parents and told them, and they said, simply, that's not going to happen.

I had no idea how limiting coming out of Chico would be. I've seen a lot of graduate applications in my life, and mine was more than competitive as a math/econ/stat major with really good GREs and great supporting letters. But I was denied every place I applied and to this day I think that still affects my attitude about this profession. I can remember opening the letter with the last chance I had on my front porch and feeling crushed. I was going back to the tractor store just like my dad, brother, and grandfather. You can't get there from Chico no matter how good your record is.

Fortunately for me, I was working for a faculty member doing work for Medicaid estimating reimbursement levels for pharmaceutical drugs and he got to know me pretty well (he's president of a university now). When he found out I had been rejected everywhere, he made a phone call and got me into Washington State University with money, the place where he had gone to graduate school (in an afternoon - it wasn't until much later that I realized how much I owed him for doing that).

So, I went to graduate school at Washington State. It was a pretty easy program for me, I'm embarrassed to say I didn't work much on weekends my first year of grad school, so I took electrical engineering classes (graduate stochastic processes), graduate level math/stat courses, that sort of thing to try and fill in the missing pieces. That turned out to be a good decision.

It is considered a success if you move parallel when you come out of graduate school. If you come out of a 25th ranked school and can get a job at similarly ranked school, that is considered a success. Moving up is pretty hard (and, of course, harder the closer you are to the top) so where you go to graduate school can make a huge difference on where you end up. Coming out of graduate school, I went to UCSD and did a two year post doc kind of thing, I taught a grad course and took one at the same time. At the end of the two years, I went to the school with a graduate program that would (a) get me closest to my kids who were living in Chico, and (b) give two jobs since I was married at the time to an economist. Oregon was the best fit on both scores, and it was the time at UCSD, I think, that got the door open and got me here. This is a much, much better program than the one I went through at WSU. I don't think Oregon would have given me a good look coming straight from WSU, it was the time at UCSD that did it.

This essay is supposed to talk about class and how it affected me. I am of two minds. I'm glad I grew up working class where baseball and football were as important as algebra. The kind of a background where we never once (or rarely) stayed in a motel on vacation, that was for rich people, we always went camping instead. Because of that, I am fluent in two worlds - I am always surprised when I go home how quickly my speech patterns revert. If I talked in class the way I talk to farming friends, I'd be fired pretty fast. When I'm at professional meetings or around school, my speech patterns are entirely different.

But there are still resentments hidden deep down because of the lack of opportunities I had. What if my dad had been the rich rice farmer instead of the guy selling him tractor parts and I was the one who went to Stanford rather than my classmate? On pure merit, we were equally deserving, so why did I have to go to Chico and work while attending? With the same record, would graduate schools have viewed me differently had my transcript said Stanford instead of Chico State?

I don't know if the people at the top schools really understand how they are viewed from the "lower" ranks. I think they would be quite surprised. We don't think the difference is purely merit based. It's not always a fair view, I acknowledge that, but little is done to change the impression by those at the top. We wonder how much of your success is really due to merit, and how much of it is because the editor of the journal was your dissertation adviser or buddy in graduate school, etc. There's a lot of "old boy" networks that serve to benefit a small number and if you are not on the inside from the start, it's a huge disadvantage. Perhaps it's hard to see from the inside.

My introduction to this was brunt. I went to UCSD out of graduate school and my first week there, at the Department party, another faculty member asked me where I was from. I said "Washington State." The response was "oh," in a way that made his opinion of that very clear, and the person turned, walked away, and never talked to me again. I even tried once a week or so later, but he didn't have time for me, even time to just be decent. If you aren't from the right place, there's is a lot of baggage to overcome, more than you think as a naive new Ph.D. from my background.

I used to go to NBER meetings, even presented at them, but I found it to be more of the same. I always felt on the outside and, though there were exceptions (and people I respect immensely because of it - they took a moment to be inclusive of someone from a lesser school - and I don't think I embarrassed myself when they did, I think I asked good questions, etc.), and I finally just stopped going. I was there to learn, not feel snubbed. It's less important now with the internet, but being from Oregon it was important to go to meetings to catch up with the latest research. But I never felt all that welcome, if that's the right word. That's too bad and there's really no reason to act that way.

So, yes, class affected me, still does. I carry resentments because of it, though when I see them I do my best to steer myself around them. As I look back at my life, going to a small high school, etc., the opportunities were different. When I write here, I find myself bristling against accusations of being part of the academic elite, one of those in the ivory towers. That's not how I see myself, not at all. I see myself as an outsider even here. The small town guy with the common sense that comes with that. One of my colleagues has a similar background, but mostly they don't. They are from the big name schools with big name advisers, their parents are professionals, etc. They grew up in a different world. My family is mostly working class with all the struggles everyone else has, and that's how I grew up. That's the identity I carry around.

But I also know how lucky I am to be here doing something I enjoy so much. I could never really complain wholeheartedly about salary, etc., not when you are from where I am from and feel as lucky as I do to be paid this much. Compared to waiting on farmers in the tractor store, well, there's no comparison.

Sometimes all of this can be used as an excuse, and it's hard for me to separate me and my choices from my environment. People at the fifth ranked school wonder why they aren't at the number one school and see the world as unfair because of it. People at Harvard wonder why they didn't win the John Bates Clark award and conclude it must have been politics, not merit. It's always easy to blame outcomes on the environment, on politics, etc., but still, I can't help thinking that while I might not have an entirely fair view of all of this, there are disadvantages due to class that are not easily overcome.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Picasso Appreciation

"Dora Maar With Cat"
Picasso Sells for $95 Million

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Horton Hatches the Easter Eggs


"I meant what I said, and I said what I meant:
An elephant's faithful one hundred percent"

Saturday, April 01, 2006

It Does Grow on Trees

A classic April Fool's Day hoax. Here's the original BBC broadcast.

Money for Nothing: Pretending to Take the Bait

Fanny Amun has had too much exposure to US politicians taking money from lobbyists and claiming it doesn't influence their decisions:

Take bribes but be fair, soccer refs told, Reuters: Football referees in Nigeria can take bribes from clubs but should not allow them to influence their decisions on the pitch, a football official said on Friday.

Fanny Amun, acting Secretary-General of the Nigerian Football Association, said bribery was common in the Nigerian game. "We know match officials are offered money or anything to influence matches and they can accept it," Amun told Reuters ...

"Referees should only pretend to fall for the bait, but make sure the result doesn't favor those offering the bribe," Amun said...

Politicians get the same lecture. They "only pretend to fall for the bait" when taking money from lobbyists. Some pretend too well:

Nap Time for Ethics, Editorial, Washington Post: Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) has been implicated in accepting lavish trips and other gifts from Jack Abramoff in exchange for helping the lobbyist's clients...

Monday, February 20, 2006

Hidden Costs of SUVs, Education Outcomes, Discrimmination, and Disaster Dollars

These are from an article " A Wealth of Talent" in the San Diego Tribune on UCSD's move into the US News & World Report's top 10 (about which department chair Richard Carson says “I think we sent out an e-mail,” ... “We didn't throw a party or anything like that.”).

The brief articles are about the research of Michelle White on the hidden costs of SUVs, Julian Betts on classroom outcomes, Kate Antonovics on discrimmination, and Richard Carson on disaster dollars:

Continue reading "Hidden Costs of SUVs, Education Outcomes, Discrimmination, and Disaster Dollars" »

Saturday, February 18, 2006

The 11th Article of the Treaty of Tripoli

It’s the weekend, so I’m going to venture a bit beyond the usual posts about economics in this and the post below it. I’m hoping the vast knowledge that is blogland can help me with this. I came across this quote about a year ago, but I haven’t been able to place it in its proper historical context and because of that, I don’t know what to make of it.

When George Washington tells us this country was not based upon Christianity, how should we interpret those words? The 11th Article of the Treaty of Tripoli, signed by George Washington in 1796, and later signed by President John Adams after ratification by the Senate, states:

As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims, and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Muslim nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

It is my understanding that since a large number of the founders were Deists, understanding the difference between Christianity and Deism is a start to placing this in context. Deism originated as a rejection of orthodox Christianity, and in the late 18th century Deism was accepted by many upper-class Americans, including the first three U.S. presidents. For example, when the Declaration of Independence mentions “the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God,” this is likely a Deist, not a Christian idea of God, though I’m guessing there are those who will disagree. My question is simple. What is the correct interpretation of this statement?

Wikipedia has a bit more:

The Treaty is notable for Article 11... Article 11 has been a point of contention regarding the proper interpretation of the doctrine of separation of church and state. It is generally considered as confirmation that the government of the United States was specifically intended to be religiously neutral. The United States Constitution specifically states that treaties with foreign powers have the force of law.

In 1930, it was discovered that the existent original Arabic version of Article was gibberish and that the original Article 11 was not an article at all, but a letter from the Dey of Algiers to the Pasha of Tripoli. Nevertheless, Joel Barlow's English "translation" of Article 11, as recorded in the certified copy of January 4, 1797, is contained in the version of the treaty that was approved by President John Adams and Secretary of State Timothy Pickering and ratified by the Senate.

There exists an additional certified copy of the original Arabic Treaty made by James Cathcart. This copy confirms that Article 11 was not a part of the Arabic original, but was for some reason revised in the English translation that was ultimately ratified. The Treaty was broken in 1801 by the Pasha of Tripoli and renegotiated in 1805 after the First Barbary War, at which time Article 11 was removed.

The significance of this article that is often overlooked or ignored is that it stated categorically that the United States of America is not founded upon the Christian religion, and that this treaty, with that statement intact, was read before and passed unanimously by the United States Senate, and was signed by the President of the United States without a hint of controversy or discord, and remains the earliest and most definitive statement from the United States Senate and the President of the United States, on the secular nature of American government.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

"A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language"

Interesting article on Noah Webster from the International Herald Tribune. His dictionaries were intended to be more than just spellings and definitions, they were also written to promote national unity and cultural independence from Britain:

Building a nation with words, by Adam Cohen, IHT: When Noah Webster published "A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language," purists were horrified.

Continue reading ""A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language"" »

Yes, But is it a Sport?

Scientific American takes a look at the new scoring system for figure skating:

Figure Skating Scoring Found to Leave Too Much to Chance, Scientific American: The overseers of international figure skating scoring instituted a new system in 2004, designed to reduce the chances of vote fixing or undue bias after the scandal during the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2002. Under the old rules eight known national judges scored a program up to six points with the highest and lowest scores dropped. Under the new rules, 12 anonymous judges score a program on a 10 point scale. A computer then randomly selects nine of the 12 judges to contribute to the final score. The highest and lowest individual scores in the five judging categories are then dropped and the remaining scores averaged and totaled to produce the final result. This random elimination of three judges results in 220 possible combinations of nine-judge panels, explains John Emerson, a statistician at Yale University. And according to his statistical analysis of results from the shorts program at the Ladies' 2006 European Figure Skating Championships the computer's choice of random judges can have a tremendous--and hardly fair--impact on the skaters' rankings. "Only 50 of the 220 possible panels would have resulted in the same ranking of the skaters following the short program," Emerson writes in a statement announcing his findings...

Continue reading "Yes, But is it a Sport?" »

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Fat Chances

Remember all that tasty food you sacrificed for your health? The expected benefit just changed:

Low-Fat Diet's Benefits Rejected Study Finds No Drop In Risk for Disease, by Rob Stein, Washington Post: Low-fat diets do not protect women against heart attacks, strokes, breast cancer or colon cancer, a major study has found... The findings run contrary to the belief that eating less fat would have myriad health benefits... Although the study involved only women, the findings probably apply to men as well... Several experts cautioned, however, that the study hints that there still may be some benefits to reducing the total amount of fat in the diet... [R]esearchers fear that the findings will leave the public skeptical about all health advice, or will be misinterpreted to mean that diet and lifestyle are unimportant. ...

Thursday, February 02, 2006

No, It's Not the Calvo One

Right now, I'm on a ferry crossing the Puget Sound. It's pretty cool.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

You in 1905

On the PBS web site is "You in 1905," part of Manor House:

You in 1905
Get a snapshot of your life as it might have been had you been living in Britain 100 years ago. Just enter your gender and your fathers profession.

So I entered:

Continue reading "You in 1905" »

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Holiday Zeitgebers

"Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas … perhaps … means a little bit more!":

Christmas classics, Editorial, LA Times: Biologists use the word "zeitgeber" to describe a physical stimulus that kicks the biological clock into gear. For example, light streaming through the window in the morning and birdsong are zeitgebers signaling that it's time to wake up. Scientists haven't devoted a lot of attention to the role of zeitgebers in stimulating holiday cheer, gift buying and goodwill toward men. In some climes, it's probably connected to frosty windowpanes and snowy rooftops. In L.A., it may be the first appearance of Santas in shopping malls, or those giant, flashy decorations they string across Hollywood Boulevard every year. But for people across the nation, a prime signal that the holidays are approaching is the reappearance of classic Christmas movies and TV shows, many of which we've enjoyed since childhood and have seen so many times we can recite the dialogue by heart.

Here are a few of our favorite snippets. May they stimulate peace, comfort, joy and a very Merry Christmas to all.

Continue reading "Holiday Zeitgebers" »

Dealing with Bliss Points

I have a great uncle who insists on eating dessert, and lots of it, before Christmas dinner. It always seemed like a rational solution to uncertainty about how much room to save to me - after all, this is a high utility part of the meal and eating one roll too many could mean skipping dessert - but rational is not the typical family view of this behavior. After dessert, he eats until he literally can't eat another bite, then falls asleep on the couch. I always think of this:

Maitre D: And finally, monsieur, a wafer-thin mint.

Mr Creosote: No.

Maitre D: Oh sir! It's only a tiny little thin one.

Mr Creosote: No.... I'm full...

Maitre D: Oh sir... it's only wafer thin.

Mr Creosote: Look - I couldn't eat another thing. I'm absolutely stuffed...

Maitre D: Oh sir, just... just one...

Mr Creosote: Oh all right. Just one. ...

Here's the video (warning...).

Facts for the Holiday Season

Just the facts ma'am. Just the facts:

The Holiday Season, U.S. Census Bureau: The holiday season, with its many traditions, family gatherings and general good feelings, will soon be upon us. To commemorate this time of year, the U.S. Census Bureau presents the following holiday-related facts and figures from its data collection.

Continue reading "Facts for the Holiday Season" »

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Project Gutenberg's "Twas the Night Before Christmas"

One of my memories of Christmas is my grandfather, with as many of us grandkids as he could fit on his lap, reading "Twas the Night Before Christmas" in his own special way. After the reading, it was time to put out the milk and cookies, go to bed, and try to get to sleep:



Continue reading "Project Gutenberg's "Twas the Night Before Christmas"" »

Is There a Santa Claus?

I don't know if there's an economist's view on the existence of Santa ( though I should since that's me), but here's the physicist's view:

Is there a Santa Claus? - a physicist view : Consider the following:

1) No known species of reindeer can fly. But there are 300,000 species of living organisms yet to be classified, and while most of these are insects and germs, this does not COMPLETELY rule out flying reindeer which only Santa has ever seen.

2) There are 2 billion children (persons under 18) in the world. BUT since Santa doesn't (appear) to handle the Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and Buddhist children, that reduces the workload to 15% of the total - 378 million according to Population Reference Bureau. At an average (census) rate of 3.5 children per household, that's 91.8 million homes. One presumes there's at least one good child in each.

3) Santa has 31 hours of Christmas to work with, thanks to the different time zones and the rotation of the earth, assuming he travels east to west (which seems logical).

This works out to 822.6 visits per second. This is to say that for each Christian household with good children, Santa has 1/1000th of a second to park, hop out of the sleigh, jump down the chimney, fill the stockings, distribute the remaining presents under the tree, eat whatever snacks have been left, get back up the chimney, get back into the sleigh and move on to the next house.

Assuming that each of these 91.8 million stops are evenly distributed around the earth (which, of course, we know to be false but for the purposes of our calculations we will accept), we are now talking about .78 miles per household, a total trip of 75-1/2 million miles, not counting stops to do what most of us must do at least once every 31 hours, plus feeding and etc.

This means that Santa's sleigh is moving at 650 miles per second, 3,000 times the speed of sound. For purposes of comparison, the fastest man- made vehicle on earth, the Ulysses space probe, moves at a poky 27.4 miles per second - a conventional reindeer can run, tops, 15 miles per hour.

4) The payload on the sleigh adds another interesting element. Assuming that each child gets nothing more than a medium-sized lego set (2 pounds), the sleigh is carrying 321,300 tons, not counting Santa, who is invariably described as overweight.

On land, conventional reindeer can pull no more than 300 pounds. Even granting that 'flying reindeer' (see point #1) could pull TEN TIMES the normal amount, we cannot do the job with eight, or even nine.

We need 214,200 reindeer. This increases the payload - not even counting the weight of the sleigh - to 353,430 tons. Again, for comparison - this is four times the weight of the Queen Elizabeth.

5) 353,000 tons traveling at 650 miles per second creates enormous air resistance - this will heat the reindeer up in the same fashion as spacecraft re-entering the earth's atmosphere. The lead pair of reindeer will absorb 14.3 QUINTILLION joules of energy. Per second. Each.

In short, they will burst into flame almost instantaneously, exposing the reindeer behind them, and create deafening sonic booms in their wake. The entire reindeer team will be vaporized within 4.26 thousandths of a second.

Santa, meanwhile, will be subjected to centrifugal forces 17,500.06 times greater than gravity. A 250-pound Santa (which seems ludicrously slim) would be pinned to the back of his sleigh by 4,315,015 pounds of force.> In conclusion - If Santa ever DID deliver presents on Christmas Eve, he's dead now.

(NOTE: This appeared in the SPY Magazine (January, 1990) )

Selling Big Pharma

Be sure to read about the side effects before asking your doctor for this.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Can You Track Me Now?

I've been trying to stick mainly to economics, but what the heck, it's the weekend. I knew cellphone calls could be tracked from cell records, but it hadn't occurred to me that they can track a phone's position even when it's not in use:

Live Tracking of Mobile Phones Prompts Court Fights on Privacy, by Matt Richtel, NY Times: Most Americans carry cellphones, but many may not know that government agencies can track their movements through the signals emanating from the handset... as a tool for easily and secretly monitoring the movements of suspects... But this kind of surveillance - which investigators have been able to conduct with easily obtained court orders - has now come under tougher legal scrutiny. In the last four months, three federal judges have denied prosecutors the right to get cellphone tracking information ... without first showing "probable cause" to believe that a crime has been or is being committed. That is the same standard applied to requests for search warrants. ... Cellular operators ... know, within about 300 yards, the location of their subscribers whenever a phone is turned on. Even if the phone is not in use it is communicating with cellphone tower sites, and the wireless provider keeps track of the phone's position as it travels. The operators have said that they turn over location information when presented with a court order to do so.

Prosecutors ... argue that the relevant standard is found in a 1994 amendment to the 1986 Stored Communications Act, a law that governs some aspects of cellphone surveillance. The standard calls for the government to show "specific and articulable facts" that demonstrate that the records sought are "relevant and material to an ongoing investigation" - a standard lower than the probable-cause hurdle. The magistrate judges, however, ruled that surveillance by cellphone - because it acts like an electronic tracking device that can follow people into ... personal spaces - must meet the same high legal standard required to obtain a search warrant to enter private places. ...

This may not be the best example, but I worry that, in the name of safety and security, our personal freedom and privacy is slowly being eroded away and once we lose each piece, we will never get them back. Never. The main argument I hear when I raise this is something like "Why should I care, I have nothing to hide, and it will catch the bad guys. That makes me more, not less free." I usually try to explain why they should care, and often get a look that says "Crime-loving liberal idiot." I am going to keep trying though because I think this is important, hence the post. [Update: Related.]

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Escape from Voice-Mail Jail

Ever spend time in "voice-mail jail" trying to figure out how to talk to a human?:

A blow for harried consumers, The Oregonian: ... "If you have a question about the way we calculate your bill, press 1. If you have a question about the length of the billing cycle, press 2. If you have a question about making a payment, press 3. ... " Still holding the phone? ... We daresay most consumers hate ... voice-mail menu barriers ... That's why it's been fun to observe the furor that's followed the publication of a cybergeek's cheat sheet for breaking out of such voicemail systems. The cheat sheet, at, gives phone numbers and button-punching sequences that customers can use to escape the voice-mail menu and speak to a live operator. (For example, when you dial a particular airline, you need to say the word "agent" four times before the system will connect you to a human being. For a certain bank, you have to press 5, pause, then press 1 and 4.) ... [U]sers have ... provok[ed] at least one miffed response from a company that sells voice-mail systems. initially posted a haughty why-voice-mail-is-good-for-you page ... but softened it later to highlight best practices of companies that use voice-mail systems ( ... When you reach an operator, be sure to say "Happy Holidays."

Sunday, December 04, 2005

A Pot of Gold

Thursday, December 01, 2005

The Emperor Has Nice Clothes

I didn't know this debate was going on in Japan. I know which side I'm on:

Point of View, Hideki Nagane: Direct lineage would destabilize throne, The Asahi Shimbun: The Chrysanthemum throne is said to have been passed down over 125 generations, from the time of Emperor Jinmu. If Japan allows women and imperial family offspring of female lineage to become emperor, it would fundamentally change the history of imperial succession. ... Most European monarchies hand down the throne via direct lineage. The British royal family, which gives precedence to male heirs, ... values succession to members of direct lineage. By contrast, in the Japanese emperor system, when there are only women in the immediate family, the baton is passed to a male heir of a related family. ... [T]he succession method of esteeming the first Emperor Jinmu and ancestral accumulation ... is not direct lineage but male lineage. ... Changing the rules of succession ... is a very grave problem that must not be treated lightly. ... However, after meeting only 14 times since January, the advisory panel hastily came up with a recommendation to allow women to become emperor. The decision makes too light of a weighty matter. ... [A]ny argument that gives a higher order of succession to Princess Aiko than to Prince Akishino is problematic. ...

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Turkey Facts

From the Census:

Thanksgiving Day - Nov. 24, 2005  

What many regard as the nation’s first Thanksgiving took place in December 1621 as the religious separatist Pilgrims held a three-day feast to celebrate a bountiful harvest. The day did not become a national holiday until 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday of November as a national day of thanksgiving. Later, President Franklin Roosevelt clarified that Thanksgiving should always be celebrated on the fourth Thursday of the month to encourage earlier holiday shopping, never on the occasional fifth Thursday.

256 million The preliminary estimate of the number of turkeys raised in the United States in 2005. That’s down 3 percent from 2004. The turkeys produced in 2004 weighed 7.3 billion pounds altogether and were valued at $3.1 billion.

Weighing in With a Menu of Culinary Delight

44.5 million The preliminary estimate of the number of turkeys Minnesota expects to raise in 2005. The Gopher State is tops in turkey production. It is followed by North Carolina (36.0 million), Arkansas (29.0 million), Virginia (21.0 million), Missouri (20.5 million) and California (15.1 million). These six states together will probably account for about 65 percent of U. S. turkeys produced in 2005.

649 million pounds The forecast for U.S. cranberry production in 2005, up 5 percent from 2004. Wisconsin is expected to lead all states in the production of cranberries, with 367 million pounds, followed by Massachusetts (170 million). Oregon, New Jersey and Washington are also expected to have substantial production, ranging from 18 million to 52 million pounds.

1.6 billion pounds The total weight of sweet potatoes — another popular Thanksgiving side dish — produced in the United States in 2004. North Carolina (688 million pounds) produced more sweet potatoes than any other state. It was followed by California (339 million pounds). Mississippi and Louisiana also produced large amounts: at least 200 million pounds each.

998 million pounds Total pumpkin production of major pumpkin-producing states in 2004. Illinois, with a production of 457 million pounds, led the country. Pumpkin patches in California, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and New York also produced a lot of pumpkins: each state produced at least 70 million pounds worth. The value of all the pumpkins produced by these states was about $100 million.

2.1 billion bushels The total volume of wheat — the essential ingredient of bread, rolls and pies — produced in the United States in 2005. Kansas and North Dakota — combined — accounted for about 33 percent of the nation’s wheat production.

$5.2 million The value of U.S. imports of live turkeys during the first half of 2005 — all from Canada. Our northern neighbors also accounted for all of the cranberries the United States imported ($2.2 million). When it comes to sweet potatoes, however, the Dominican Republic was the source of most ($2.3 million) of total imports ($2.6 million). The United States ran a $1.7 million trade deficit in live turkeys over the period, but surpluses of $3.5 million in cranberries and $10.6 million in sweet potatoes.

13.7 pounds The quantity of turkey consumed by the typical American in 2003 and, if tradition be true, a hearty helping of it was devoured at Thanksgiving time. On the other hand, per capita sweet potato consumption was 4.7 pounds.

The Turkey Industry

$3.6 billion The value of turkeys shipped by the nation’s poultry processors in 2002. Those located in Arkansas led the way with $581.5 million in shipments, followed by processors in Virginia ($544.2 million) and North Carolina ($453.0 million). Businesses that primarily processed turkeys operated out of 35 establishments, employing about 17,000 people.

The Price is Right

$1.00  Cost per pound of a frozen whole turkey in December 2004.

Where to Feast

Number of places in the United States named after the holiday’s traditional main course. Turkey, Texas, was the most populous in 2004, with 496 residents; followed by Turkey Creek, La. (357); and Turkey, N.C. (267). There also are 16 townships around the country named “Turkey,” three in Kansas.

8 Number of places and townships in the United States that are named “Cranberry” or some spelling variation of the name we call the red, acidic berry (e.g., Cranbury, N.J.), a popular side dish at Thanksgiving.

20 Number of places in the United States named Plymouth, as in “Plymouth Rock,” legendary location of the first Thanksgiving. Plymouth, Minn., is the most populous, with 69,797 residents in 2004; Plymouth, Mass., had 54,604. Speaking of Plymouth Rock, there is just one township in the United States named “Pilgrim.” Located in Dade County, Mo., its population was 135.

107 million Number of occupied housing units across the nation — all potential gathering places for people to celebrate the holiday.

Finally, thanks to everyone who visits this site. I started writing one day around nine months ago not expecting much. This has exceeded, by a substantial margin, even my wildest expectations and I'm very, very grateful for that (and astounded to be honest). I owe a big thanks to all who visit and to all of the other bloggers who have helped people find Economist's View as they agree or take issue with the things I post. I plan to continue and to do my best to improve the site over time. So whether you comment regularly, occasionally, or not at all, whether you agree with what I say or straighten me out when you don't:

Thank you.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Indifference to Restaurant Service

My son is in college and taking economics courses. We meet for dinner once a week:

Me: The service in here is awful. This is making me really mad.

Son: Why? They're saving you money. Won't you just reduce the tip until you are indifferent?

I wanted a reason to be mad, not indifferent. I was hungry and pretty cranky, so I explained, curtly, how market failure in the food service industry made it so that reducing the tip would not fully compensate me for my losses. I was then told, in so many words:

Son: That's a dumb argument.

And it was. But don't tell him I admitted that. I did reduce the tip, and even though I didn't reduce it very much, I'd feel better now if I hadn't. I'll see if Mr. Smarty Pants can explain that.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Hooked on Chopsticks

Being good at sports is so easy - just take away the silverware:

Korean golf secret exposed, Asiapundit: Korean female golfers continue to excel in the Lady's Professional Golf Association (LPGA). In fact out of the top 30 female professional golfers, 10 of them are Korean. You may be asking yourself, how is a small country like Korea able to dominate women's professional golfing? What is the secret to their success? Is there some kind of advanced training regimen or some mystic Korean herbal tea that is giving them such an advantage? Well look no further, the Korea Times has leaked the ancient Korean secret to becoming a master golfer; the ability to use chopsticks: > The Korea Times > Sports > Dexterity Enables Korean Lady Golfers to Dominate US LPGA: What enables South Korean lady golfers to be so formidable in the U.S. LPGA Tour? It is nothing less than the Koreans’ talent to make things skillfully with their hands, a trait handed down from generation to generation for thousands years. Celadon in Koryo and the Yi dynasty are world famous for blue and white china in quality, and you know that pottery involves the same skills as playing golf. Not to change the subject, South Koreans’ special talent to make things skillfully with their hands is also believed to greatly contribute to their making almost a clean sweep of the World Skills Competition. By the same token, Koreans are good at various sports that are played chiefly with the hands: handball, archery and table tennis, to name a few. Professor Hwang Woo-suk of the Seoul National University who led the first cloning of embryonic human stem cells told in a public lecture that one of his assistants surprised the stem cell big shots of the world with his skills, which were beyond their imagination but actually nothing for Koreans. Professor Hwang, referring to the use of chopsticks, mentioned that the Koreans’ skill with their hands contributed to their success in cloning embryonic human stem cells. An editor golf fan of an English daily newspaper mentioned that one of the root causes for Korean ladies to play such great golf in the U.S. is closely connected to dexterity, which is also critical to preparing delicious Kimchi, a Korean side dish loved by the people around the world.

That is right folks, chopsticks! With the ability to use chopsticks you can become a top professional golfer, make pottery, play handball, become a master archer, and if you still got some time left you can do a little embryonic stem cell cloning on the side. This is not to mention the fact you can be a skilled maker of Kimchi. ... Something else to consider before you start practicing your chopstick skills, don't practice using them like the Chinese or Japanese, follow only the Korean technique for using chopsticks and food preparation:

Japanese, who also use chopsticks like Koreans, once produced a golf great named Ayako Okamoto, who became a member of the LPGA Tour in 1981 and won 17 events between 1982 and 1992. She was recorded as the first woman from outside the U.S. to top the LPGA tour's money list in 1987. ... Despite this, the Japanese do not surpass Koreans in the golf world possibly because they ... use sashimi knife in preparing raw fish, their all-time favorite, instead of directly using hands as Koreans do. Similarly, the Chinese do not distinguish themselves as much as Koreans in the LPGA tour of America because they do not stress the role of hands in making foods. ... Mostly they use fire to create taste instead of using their hands. ... Of course, there are some other factors that make all the great achievements possible including tenacity and indomitability, two characteristics of Koreans, along with quite a lot of synergy among the South Korean golfers. But without the dexterity unique to Koreans their great success would be hard to imagine. 

For those not familiar with the Korean media, these type of articles are very common to reinforce Korean pride and sense of superiority, especially over the Japanese and the Chinese. Everything seems to revolve around Kimchi, chopsticks, and Dokto. My only question is how did Annika Sorenstam become so dominant without Kimchi, chopsticks, and Dokto? If you haven't had enough chopsticks and Kimchi you can read more about it over at Cathartidae.

Sunday, September 11, 2005


Even though Kintana is "one of the strangest mammals on the planet," he still hopes to be Cecil's friend.  He is very endangered:

(source, details here)

Friday, September 09, 2005

National Guard Troops in New Orleans Face Tough Conditions in Relief Effort

A reporter from The Oregonian is embedded with local National Guard troops sent to New Orleans and has been reporting daily on their role in the relief effort.  Today, Harry Esteve talks about the lack of support for the troops that are in place and the conditions they have encountered:

Daily miseries complicate relief mission for Oregon Guardsmen in New Orleans, Harry Esteve, The Oregonian: NEW ORLEANS -- In a city without power or running water, meeting the basic needs of more than 1,700 soldiers and airmen has become an exercise in cunning, brazen "borrowing" and head-shaking frustration for the Oregon National Guard.

Continue reading "National Guard Troops in New Orleans Face Tough Conditions in Relief Effort" »

"They'd Throw a Party for a Dog's Birthday"

This isn’t about economics.  It is about the city of New Orleans, its magic, its darker side, and the unique intangible part of the city that may be lost forever:

My New Orleans, by Thomas A. Sancton, WSJ Commentary:  Watching the apocalyptic images of New Orleans on television is like witnessing the fall of Pompeii -- the collapse of a mythic civilization in the face of an all-powerful and unforgiving nature. In my case, I am also watching the destruction of the urban roots and sinews that shaped my early life. ... the French Quarter, the teeming riverfront, the mansions of the Garden District, the luxuriant oak-lined elegance of St. Charles Avenue, the splintery back-of-town neighborhoods where jazz was born and where the jazz people created a unique cultural gumbo of spicy food, hot music and joie de vivre that was the best antidote to adversity.

Continue reading ""They'd Throw a Party for a Dog's Birthday"" »

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Help Is Still Needed

Please donate to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Extensive Set of Help Links in the Continuation Frame

Continue reading "Help Is Still Needed" »

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Please Help

I would like to join the call to Donate to the Red Cross to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

[Update:  Please see the comment by Movie Guy for an extensive set of links on Katrina's aftermath.]

Saturday, July 23, 2005

An Encyclo-what-ia?

This is a follow up to this post last weekend:

Kids and the Internet - it's a good thing, By Laura Matthews, Christian Science Monitor:  We read a lot of alarmist commentary about the dangers of the Internet for youngsters. ... I'm the first to admit that there are risks … Yet, from what I've seen, the educational benefits of online access are worth it. … the Internet gives kids access to information in ways prior generations couldn't even have imagined. ... 

Continue reading "An Encyclo-what-ia?" »