Thursday, August 28, 2008

 

Worth Its Weight in Gold?

Via Marginal Revolution, Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories has a good article on "The Monetary Density of Things" . It's about the value of things by weight. Rhodium and 50-dollar bills are worth more than their weight in gold, but marijuana and 2-dollar bills are worth less.

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Monday, August 25, 2008

 

Science Fiction as Prior Art

In 1934, Heinlein was discharged from the Navy due to pulmonary tuberculosis. During a lengthy hospitalization, he developed the concept of the waterbed, and his detailed descriptions of it in three of his books constituted sufficient prior art to prevent a US patent on water beds when they became common in the 1960s[9].
(from Wikipedia, Robert Heinlein. Footnote 9 is to a WSJ article)

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To Deprovincialize

I am writing up my post-sabbatical report. Nobody will read it, but I can't help but spend some time on it anyway, and I can combine the effort with the report for the donor of my research chair. I thought I might have come up with a new word, but I see it is already out there. I wrote, "exposure to lots of people from many universities is an important part of the “deprovincializing” purpose of a sabbatical." It is the most important reason why those of us who go on sabbatical ought to be forced to move out of Bloomington during it rather than just treating it as a research period.

Deprovincialize
v. t. To divest of provincial quality or characteristics. Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, © 1996, 1998 MICRA, Inc.
(from http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/deprovincialize

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

 

Rick Warren

I blogged back in 2006 on Pastor Rick Warren, whose words range from pandering to liberals to the fatuous to the perceptive. He did a good job with the Saddleback interviews of Obama and McCain, I think, choosing some good questions for them. I came across something else to count in his favor in a 2008 New Republic article by Alan Wolfe (my boldfacing):

I have yet to let Jesus enter my life, but I admire Warren. We once appeared on a panel together along with Harvard's Peter Gomes at the Aspen Ideas Festival. When it came time for questions, a woman stood up, proclaimed her Judaism, and asked Warren if she was going to burn in hell. He paused before responding--and then answered her question the only way it could be answered. Yes, he said to audible gasps. My reaction was that either you believe that Jesus is the savior or you do not, and I found myself impressed that Warren remained true to his convictions, knowing full well that the audience would not like what he said.

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

 

New Zealand and Tort Law; Arbitration

Over morning coffee I read Peter Schuck on tort law in New Zealand (hat-tip and link, Larry Solum). New Zealand has a no-fault system for personal injuries generally, and something similar for malpractice. Processing costs per case are of course low, but the system may illustrate a perverse effect: low transaction costs per case can lead to a high total amount of transaction costs because more claims are made. The paper doesn't compare total transaction costs per capita in the US and New Zealand, but it says "In 2006-07, the ACC had pending 1.6 million claims, ... this for a population of 4.3 million..."

I wonder what the total transaction costs are? Probably in New Zealand many claims are made that are either harder to prove fault in or too small to be worth hiring a lawyer in the US. Actually, we also need to figure in the insurance company transaction costs, since both in the US and New Zealand private insurance companies exist, although New Zealand has a much bigger free public medical care system than the US. (Another complication is that US medical care, "gold-plated", is more expensive.) Anyway, is it good or bad that lesser claims get compensated in New Zealand? Is it better to just let losses lie for them, and avoid transaction costs altogether?

There are many ideas for tort reform. I wonder if any country uses government arbitration? Here's my idea. After an accident, a policeman must be called in if there is to be compensation to anyone (the hospital or morgue will do it if the injury is severe enough). He writes a report and interviews witnesses. Each side then writes a report saying, under oath, what they claim happened. A government arbitrator looks at the reports, maybe interviews witnesses (without lawyers present), and assigns the case to one of three categories: X wins, Y wins, or Unclear. The government pays claims for Unclear cases; private insurance or the people themselves for others. Insurance companies are free to use the results for experience rating.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

 

Obama and McCain on Evil

Here's more from the Saddleback Church interviews of McCain and Obama, on the question of evil. The transcript of the Obama interview says:

WARREN: ... Does evil exist? And if it does, do we ignore it? Do we negotiate with it? Do we contain it? Do we defeat it?

OBAMA: Evil does exist. I mean, I think we see evil all the time. We see evil in Darfur. We see evil, sadly, on the streets of our cities. We see evil in parents who viciously abuse their children. I think it has to be confronted. It has to be confronted squarely, and one of the things that I strongly believe is that, now, we are not going to, as individuals, be able to erase evil from the world. That is God's task, but we can be soldiers in that process, and we can confront it when we see it.

Now, the one thing that I think is very important is for to us have some humility in how we approach the issue of confronting evil, because a lot of evil's been perpetrated based on the claim that we were trying to confront evil.

WARREN: In the name of good.

OBAMA: In the name of good, and I think, you know, one thing that's very important is having some humility in recognizing that just because we think that our intentions are good, doesn't always mean that we're going to be doing good.

The transcript of the McCain interview says:

WARREN: ... Does evil exist and, if so, should ignore it, negotiate it with it, contain it or defeat it?

MCCAIN: Defeat it. A couple of points. One, if I'm president of the United States, my friends, if I have to follow him to the gates of hell, I will get bin Laden and bring him to justice. I will do that. And I know how to do that. I will get that done. (APPLAUSE). No one, no one should be allowed to take thousands of American -- innocent American lives.

Of course, evil must be defeated. My friends, we are facing the transcended challenge of the 21st century -- radical Islamic extremism.

Not long ago in Baghdad, al Qaeda took two young women who were mentally disabled, and put suicide vests on them, sent them into a marketplace and, by remote control, detonated those suicide vests. If that isn't evil, you have to tell me what is. And we're going to defeat this evil. And the central battleground according to David Petraeus and Osama bin Laden is the battle, is Baghdad, Mosul, Basra and Iraq and we are winning and succeeding and our troops will come home with honor and with victory and not in defeat. And that's what's happening.

And we have -- and we face this threat throughout the world. It's not just in Iraq. It's not just in Afghanistan. Our intelligence people tell us al Qaeda continues to try to establish cells here in the United States of America. My friends, we must face this challenge. We can face this challenge. And we must totally defeat it, and we're in a long struggle. But when I'm around, the young men and women who are serving this nation in uniform, I have no doubt, none.

Obama's position is correct. Evil exists, and we should confront it, we will not defeat it completely, and there is evil within us.

McCain, however, is right in saying that we should and will defeat evil. We will not defeat all evil, but we will defeat some of it. He does not address the problem of evil generally, only in one area of national policy.

McCain's answer is more impressive than Obama's because he is inspiring and specific. You can tell he really means it. He sees specific evil, and he has specific plans to defeat it. Obama is vague in his examples of evil, and he doesn't seem to have either much interest in defeating it or specific plans. Evil is seen "all the time": "in Darfur", "on the streets of our cities", and "in parents who viciously abuse their children". Obama sounds like a politician who makes excuses for defeat even before he starts, because he doesn't really want to address the problems. He is going to "confront" evil, not "fight evil" or "defeat evil". He is most concerned that in confronting these evils we will not perpetrate evil ourselves. "Let's not be too hasty in trying to end evil" is his message.

THe next day. I should add another excerpt. It is from just before McCain is asked about evil. They are talking about abortion and stem-cell research. What is interesting about it is that when the topic shifted to Evil, McCain did not mention abortion, even though the topic had just come up.

WARREN: OK. (APPLAUSE). All right.

Another issue, stem cells. We've had the scientific break-through of creating pluri-potent (ph) stem cells through adult stem cells.

MCCAIN: Yes.

WARREN: So would you favor or oppose the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research since we had this other break-through?

MCCAIN: For those of us in the pro-life community this has been a great struggle and a terrible dilemma because we're also taught other obligations that we have as well. I've come down on the side of stem cell research. But I am wily optimistic that skin cell research, which is coming more and more into focus and practicability, will make this debate an academic one.

WARREN: How about the issue of evil. I asked this of your rival, in the previous debate. Does evil exist and, if so, should ignore it, negotiate it with it, contain it or defeat it?

MCCAIN: Defeat it. A couple of points. One, if I'm president of the United States, my friends, if I have to follow him to the gates of hell, I will get bin Laden and bring him to justice. I will do that. And I know how to do that. I will get that done. (APPLAUSE). No one, no one should be allowed to take thousands of American -- innocent American lives....

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Optimal Gasoline Taxes, Given Externalities

A good article on optimal gas taxes is "Does Britain or the United States Have the Right Gasoline Tax?" Ian W. H. Parry and Kenneth A. Small, The American Economic Review, Vol. 95, No. 4 (Sep., 2005), pp. 1276-1289. In 2000, taxes were $2.80/gallon in the UK and $.40/gallon in the USA. They should have been $1.34 and $1.01, in light of congestion, accidents, and Ramsey taxation (with minor contributions from pollution and CO2).

Wikipedia says taxes are $5.20/gallon in the UK, $.47/gallon in the US, $7.61 in Germany, It is important to include value-added tax, which is done in those figures.

The Inst. for Fiscal Studies, more reliable, gives the fuel duty plus VAT per liter in pence for different European countries as from 55 in the UK (the highest) to 24 in Greece (the lowest). Germany is 40; France is 46 (second highest); Italy is 42; Spain is 28.

Thus, it seems Greece and Spain are about at the optimum and all the other European countries are too high.

Curiously, Parry and Small do not mention one of the major arguments for a fuel tax: paying for road construction and repair. I seem to remember that the effect of cars on road deterioration is trivial (it's all due to trucks), but I might be wrong on that, and it seems as if it has to be wrong for city streets.

Parry and Small point out that a gas tax is poorly designed for controlling congestion and accidents, since it is lower for fuel- efficient cars. Also, as implemented, it is invariant across locations, which vary tremendously in the cost from congestion, accidents, and pollution. They calculate the optimal per-mile tax, which does better. That is hard to enforce, though, since if the tax became high, odometer fraud would become common. (Maybe it could be based on how many miles you live from work, though, and age and sex, as insurance rates are.)

What might work better would be to increase the vehicle registation tax, or to at least base the per-mile tax on where the vehicle is registered. Or, we might combine a gasoline tax with a registration fee based on the vehicle's fuel-efficiency, fuel-efficient cars paying a bigger registration fee since they pay a lower gasoline tax per mile travelled.

In practice, I think, hybrids and suchlike are actually subsidized by the government rather than taxed more heavily. What Parry and Small show is that that hybrids would be driven too much, given that they cause accidents just as much as other cars.

In view of the importance of accidents as an externality, I'd like to see that explored more (maybe it is in the paper; I didn't read carefully). A big car is safer for the occupants, but more dangerous to other cars. So it seems, since the effect on other cars is the externality, that big cars should be taxed more.

Parry and Small find the optimal global warming tax to be very small, even using liberal estimates of the effect on global warming and the cost of it. It seems that European countries are emitting too little CO2 from cars, not too much. That result should be publicized. The conclusion is true even if other countries such as the US and China are emitting too much CO2, I think. The cost estimates of the Stern Report and others are based on "business as usual", which means that the marginal benefit to the world from the UK from increasing or reducing emissions is based on other countries' not changing their current policies. Thus, from the point of view of treating all countries neutrally rather than favoring some at the expense of others, the UK ought to emit more carbon dioxide.

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More's Utopia

I just skimmed through Thomas More's Utopia. It's better than I remembered, and has a lot of similarity to his friend Erasmus's In Praise of Folly. Here are some observations.

1. At the start and the end of Raphael's description of Utopia, the narrator says that what he is most dubious about is the abolition of private property. At the end, he says that the reason is that it deprives a state of magnificence.

2. The essence of Utopia is not really communism, but the restriction on what can be consumed. Since, for example, everybody wears simple clothing of one pattern and color, nobody is tempted to steal anybody else's clothing or to take too much for himself from the warehouse. It follows that what goods are permitted are in overabundance and nobody wants to steal. One assumption is that if luxuries were not produced, wealth would be great enough for an overabundance of necessities even if everyone worked only six hours a day.

3. Utopia is a reformed monastery, with monks who marry and devote themselves to happiness and self-cultivation rather than prayer and worship.

4. The Republic starts with the City of Pigs, which Socrates says is ideal, but Glaucon complains that they have no luxuries there. Utopia is the City of Pigs fleshed out (no pun intended). The Republic's second city, the Callipolis (Beautiful City) has luxuries, but is a feverish, diseased city.

5. Utopia, like the City of Pigs but unlike the Callipolis, has no Guardian class. The philosophers are not kings there. It is a democracy. In a sense, everybody is a philosopher, though.

6. Gallipoli was called Callipolis in ancient times.

7. In Book II More makes the argument that if the natives are underutilizing a country it is just to drive them out to make better use of the land.

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Which Supreme Courts Justices Would You Not Have Nominated?

From the WSJ comes a good question asked by Pastor Warren:

Rev. Warren asked each candidate which Justices he would not have nominated. McCain, who interviewed after Obama, answered that, “with all due respect,” the four most liberal Justices.

For his part, Obama said, “that’s a good one,” and then explained: “I would not have nominated Clarence Thomas. I don’t think that he, I don’t think that he was a strong enough jurist or legal thinker at the time for that elevation. Setting aside the fact that I profoundly disagree with his interpretation of a lot of the Constitution.” Obama added that he wouldn’t have appointed Justice Scalia, and perhaps not John Roberts, either.

Here is the transcript. It says:
Which existing Supreme Court Justices would you not have nominated?

MCCAIN: With all due respect, Justice Ginsburg, Justice Breyer, Justice Souter, and Justice Stephens.

WARREN: Why? Tell me why.

MCCAIN: Well, I think that the president of the United States has incredible responsibility in nominating people to the United States Supreme Court. They are lifetime positions, as well as the federal bench. There will be two or maybe three vacancies. This nomination should be based on the criteria of proven record, of strictly adhering to the Constitution of the United States of America and not legislating from the bench. Some of the worst damage has been done by legislating from the bench. (APPLAUSE).

And by the way, Justices Alito and Roberts are two of my most recent favorites, by the way. They really are. They are very fine. (LAUGHTER). And I'm proud of President Bush for nominating them.
Obama's transcript is in a different file. [September 23: In light of the first comment below, I've deleted the excerpt from Obama's transcript, as it might be misleading.]

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Removing Duplicate Email Addresses in an Address Book

[cross posted from the IU Computers Blog]

After searching for a free easy program to do this for me, a Mozilla Thunderbird user, I decided the best way is to use Excel, like this: First, export the address book to *.csv comma-separated format. From: http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/excel/HA010346261033.aspx Open the file in Excel. Select all of it. Do DATA then FILTER, then ADVANCED FILTER, then check off UNIQUE RECORDS ONLY. That will show only the unique records. Then COPY what is showing to the clipboard. Go back to DATA then FILTER then ADVANCED FILTER then Do NOT check off UNIQUE RECORDS ONLY. Then the whole file will show. Press the DELETE key to delete all the rows. Then do CTRL-V to paste in the uniquely filtered rows. Then SAVE the file, and all the duplicates will be gone. Then import the *.cxv file back into the email address book. There isn't a way I know of to filter on just duplicates in one column and deleting all rows that have duplicates in that column even if they are different in other columns. This and other Mozilla tips are at: http://rasmusen.org/a/mozilla-rasmusen.txt

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

 

Al Somers's Hair

From the American Spectator comes an article by Emmett Tyrrell that confirms the soundness of Dr. Somers's conservatism:
...my boycott has finally attracted the support of my old friend, the former Olympian, Alan Somers, who recently set a world record for the 3000-meter swim for men sixty and over. Al was a teammate of mine on the Indiana University swimming team in the early 1960s where many of our teammates were Olympians and world record holders. When I slapped my boycott on the Olympics he dissented. Worse, he chided me, attributing my boycott to sour grapes over never making the team.

Well, it is true that I never made an Olympic team but I never won a Rhodes Scholarship either, and I have never been critical of Rhodes Scholarships. Yet I accepted Al's rebuke with my usual benignity, confident that as the Olympics lurched ever further from the Olympic ideal of amateurism and good sportsmanship Al would capitulate. It is immensely rewarding to have him on my side during this Olympiad. What is more, next week he will collaborate with me in this space when we shall deplore a particularly egregious excess in this year's swimming competition.

For now Al, whose Olympiad was in 1960 in Rome, is at work reviewing David Maraniss's confused book on those games Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed The World. Among other deficiencies, Maraniss fails to report that the 1960s swimming competition was the first in which male swimmers shaved their body hair to improve their times. One of the great news stories of the games issued from one reactionary American's refusal to follow the fad. Al was the reactionary. He gained instantaneous worldwide recognition after propelling his shaggy body to an Olympic record in the trials for the 400-meter freestyle. How he did in the finals I shall leave for Al to explain. He still denies shaving has anything to do with performance and in fact wore a mustache when he broke the world record in the 3000-meter swim.

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Monday, August 11, 2008

 

New Latex Commands

I've gotten a couple of new Latex books (the typesetting language) and found a bunch of commands I didn't know about. I've written them up at http://rasmusen.org/a/latex-rasmusen.txt and http://rasmusen.org/a/latex-rasmusen.pdf and http://rasmusen.org/a/latex-rasmusen.tex. An example is doing footnotes inside tables and math:

Use the \footnotemark command to insert the footnote number. To insert the footnote itself, use

\addtocounter{footnote}{-1}\footnotetext{Here is my footnote} \stepcounter{footnote}

outside the table or math but trying to be on the same page.

$$
x = y\footnotemark
$$

\addtocounter{footnote}{-1}\footnotetext{Except when $ x= 8$. } \stepcounter{footnote}

\begin{tabular}{|l|l|r|l|}
\hline
lattice & $d$ & $q$ & last column\footnotemark \\
\hline
square & 2 & 4 & 1.763 \\
\hline
\end{tabular}
\addtocounter{footnote}{-1}\footnotetext{ That's two words in that entry. } \stepcounter{footnote}

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The Philosopher King

I just read Allan Bloom's "Response to Hall" Political Theory, Vol. 5, No. 3, (Aug., 1977), pp. 315-330 http://www.jstor.org/stable/190644 . It's a great article which expands on his introductory essay in his translation Plato's Republic. Here is the main argument:

Socrates never precisely shows Glaucon that justice as Glaucon conceives it is good. Rather, in the course of founding a city and, thus, learning the nature of justice, Socrates introduces, as a political necessity, the philosophers. Glaucon learns that to be a ruler in the city he has founded he must be a philosopher. Then, when he is shown what philosophy is, he learns that it is the best life and is essentially independent of political life. From the point of view of philosophy-which Glaucon had not considered and, thus, had not considered as a good thing-the city looks like a cave or a prison.
I perhaps should write up a different argument, extending Bloom's: that Plato is showing not only that thinking is the highest activity rather than doing, but that philosophers become ridiculous when they become kings. The philosopher-king is *not* really the ideal, since the ideal state he comes up with is silly.

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A Word: CONCLUSORY

Conclusory: relating to an assertion for which no supporting evidence is offered ("a conclusory argument").

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Friday, August 8, 2008

 

Stern's Ely Lecture on Climate Change and DIscounting

I just finished reading Prof. Stern's Ely Lecture ( Stern, Nicholas. 2008. "The Economics of Climate Change", American Economic Review 98(2), pp. 1-37.). He is in favor of drastic measures to reduce CO2 emissions. Concentrations are now 430 ppm and he wants to stabilize them at 550 ppm. He is fearful of a 5 degree Centigrade temperature increase otherwise. Here are my notes.

1. He says the most recent warm period was around 3 million years ago. Really? There have been lots of ice ages and warmings.

2. He dismisses geoengineering in one paragraph with weak arguments.

3. His Figure 4 from McKinsey has lots of *negative* abatement costs-- things such as insulation improvement, fuel-efficient commercial vehicles, water heating, etc. We can't believe any of that. If it saves money, why isn't it done already? Liquidity constraints?

4. (p. 13). He cites 1.5% as the indexed bonds rate of return on longterm government bonds, and 6-7 percent for private investments:

In the United Kingdom and United States, we find (relatively) “riskless,” indexed lending rates on government bonds centered around 1.5 percent over very long periods. For private very long-run rates of return on equities, we find rates centered around 6 or 7 percent (Rajnish Mehra and Edward C. Prescott 2003, 892; Kenneth J. Arrow et al. 2004, 156; Sree Kochugovindan and Roland Nilsson 2007a, 64; 2007b, 71).
He has a puzzling sentence about what discount rate to use:
Given that it is social discount rates that are at issue, and also that actions to reduce carbon are likely to be financed via the diversion of resources from consumption (via pricing) rather than from investment, it is the long-run riskless rates associated with consumer decisions that have more relevance than those for the investment-related equities.
This is a good question, but what is the implication? Consumers are willing to borrow at rates on the order of 10%, so is that the appropriate social discount rate?

He makes the point that environmental goods' prices will change (though he does not point out that those goods are a tiny part of the consumption basket):

Suppose, however, that we persisted with the argument that it is better to invest at 6-7 percent and then spend money on overcoming the problems of climate change later rather than spending money now on these problems. The multi-good nature of the problem, together with the irreversibilities from GHG accumulation and climate change, tell us that we would be making an additional mistake. The price of environmental goods will likely have gone up very sharply, so that our returns from the standard types of investment will buy us much less in reducing environmental damage than resources allocated now (see also Section I on the costs of delay).12 This reflects the result that if environmental services are declining as stocks of the environment are depleted, then the SDR with that good as numeraire will be negative. On this, see the interesting work by Michael Hoel and Thomas Sterner (2007), Sterner and U. Martin Persson (2007) and Roger Guesnerie (2004), and also the Stern Review (Stern 2007, 60). Environmental services are also likely to be income elastic, which will further reduce the implied SDR.
He has some useful sources on the appropriate rate of pure utility time preference:
Indeed, the ethical proposition that delta should be very small or zero has appealed to a long line of illustrious economists including Frank P. Ramsey (1928, 543), Arthur Cecil Pigou (1932, 24–5), Roy F. Harrod (1948, 37–40), Robert M. Solow (1974, 9), James A. Mirrlees (Mirrlees and Stern 1972), and Amartya Sen (Sudhir Anand and Sen 2000). I have heard only one ethical argument for positive delta (Wilfred Beckerman and Hepburn 2007; Simon Dietz, Hepburn, and Stern 2008) that has some traction—namely a temporal interpretation of the idea that one will have stronger fellow feelings for those closer to us (such as family or clan) relative to those more distant.
When it came to choosing a social discount rate, Stern is opposed to using market interest rates. Later, though, when it comes to choosing the appropriate amount of equality and income redistribution, he slyly switches to favoring observed amounts:
Value judgements are, of course, precisely that and there will be many different positions. They will inevitably be important in this context— they must be discussed explicitly and the implications of different values should be examined. Examples follow of what we find when we turn to empirical evidence and try to obtain implied values (the “inverse optimum” approach). Empirical evidence can inform, but not settle, discussions about value judgements... The upshot is that empirical estimates of implied welfare weights can give a wide range of eta, including h below one and even as little as zero.
Here he is trying to squirm out of the powerful growing-income argument against a low social discount rate. The argument goes like this. Suppose we are considering taking $1,000 away from someone earning $40,000/year so we can give $1,600 to someone else earning $107,000/year. Should we do it? Despite the increase in social wealth, it seems unfair and not calculated to increase total happiness. Yet that is what happens when we require $1,000 in abatement costs in in 2008 because it has a 1%/year return in benefits obtained in 50 years, if incomes grow at 2%/year in the meantime. This argument is particularly powerful against liberals, though it works for conservatives too, and lays out starkly the forced transfers that libertarians hate.

There is a lot of posturing going on:

Costa Rica, New Zealand, and Norway, declared targets of 100 percent reductions by 2050, i.e., “going carbon-neutral.” ... California has a target of 80 percent reductions by 2050. France has its “Facteur Quatre”: dividing by 4, or 75 percent reductions, by 2050 (Stern 2007, 516). The United Kingdom has a 60 percent target but the Prime Minister Gordon Brown indicated in November 2007 that this could be raised to 80 percent (Brown 2007). Australia, under the new government elected at the end of November 2007, has now signed Kyoto and has a target of 60 percent...
Costa Rica doesn't matter of course, any more than the United Kingdom does, or anybody else but China and India:
Even with fairly conservative estimates, it is likely that, under BAU, China will reach current European per capita emissions levels within 20-25 years. With its very large population, over this time China under BAU will emit cumulatively more than the USA and Europe combined over the last 100 years.
"BAU" means "business as usual".

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Wednesday, August 6, 2008

 

Barack Obama's Economic Policies

From Obama for President website, here are some of his economic policies, with my commentary.
* Provide Additional Tax Rebates to American Workers: The economy has continued to weaken significantly, despite congressional action to provide immediate tax rebates to American consumers. Stimulus: $20 billion.
Good. Taxes are tending to increase, so cutting them is good, even if the tax cut is called a rebate.
* Establish a $10 billion Foreclosure Prevention Fund: Given the downturn in the economy, Obama is calling for immediate creation of his Foreclosure Prevention Fund that will dramatically increase emergency pre-foreclosure counseling, and will help families facing foreclosure to responsibly refinance their mortgages or sell their homes. Obama’s plan will not help speculators, people buying vacation homes or people that falsely represented their incomes. It is meant to help responsible homeowners through this difficult period. Stimulus: $10 billion.
Bad. People who are overextended are given plenty of time by their banks, who lose money from foreclosures. The industry of reckless lending should not be subsidized this way.
* Provide $10 billion in Relief for State and Local Governments Hardest-Hit by the Housing Crisis to Prevent Cuts in Vital Services: Because of the housing crisis and the weakening economy, many state and local governments are facing significant revenue shortfalls. Barack Obama believes that in the areas hardest-hit by the housing crisis we should provide immediate, temporary funding to state and local governments so that the decline in property values does not cause them to slash critical public services and cut vital infrastructure spending. Stimulus: $10 billion.
Bad. Localities can raise their own taxes if they want to, rather than using national taxes.
* Extend and Expand Unemployment Insurance: Barack Obama believes we must extend and strengthen the Unemployment Insurance (UI) program to address the needs of the long-term unemployed, who currently make up nearly one-fifth of the unemployed and are often older workers who have lost their jobs in manufacturing or other industries and have a difficult time finding new employment. Expanding UI is one of the most effective ways to combat economic turmoil; every dollar invested in UI benefits results in $1.73 in economic output. Obama is calling for a temporary expansion of the UI program for those who have exhausted their current eligibility. Stimulus: $10 billion.
Bad. We shouldn't encourage people to stay unemployed.
* Provide a Tax Cut for Working Families: Obama will restore fairness to the tax code and provide 150 million workers the tax relief they need. Obama will create a new "Making Work Pay" tax credit of up to $500 per person, or $1,000 per working family. The "Making Work Pay" tax credit will completely eliminate income taxes for 10 million Americans.
Bad. We've already done too much of this. It's good for everyone to contribute at least a little in income tax. Also, this plan does exactly what the Earned Income Credit is supposed to be doing already.
* Eliminate Income Taxes for Seniors Making Less than $50,000: Barack Obama will eliminate all income taxation of seniors making less than $50,000 per year. This proposal will eliminate income taxes for 7 million seniors and provide these seniors with an average savings of $1,400 each year. Under the Obama plan, 27 million American seniors will also not need to file an income tax return.
Bad. Why should old people get a special tax break?
* Simplify Tax Filings for Middle Class Americans: Obama will dramatically simplify tax filings so that millions of Americans will be able to do their taxes in less than five minutes. Obama will ensure that the IRS uses the information it already gets from banks and employers to give taxpayers the option of pre-filled tax forms to verify, sign and return. Experts estimate that the Obama proposal will save Americans up to 200 million total hours of work and aggravation and up to $2 billion in tax preparer fees.
Good idea.
* Fight for Fair Trade: Obama will fight for a trade policy that opens up foreign markets to support good American jobs. He will use trade agreements to spread good labor and environmental standards around the world and stand firm against agreements like the Central American Free Trade Agreement that fail to live up to those important benchmarks. Obama will also pressure the World Trade Organization to enforce trade agreements and stop countries from continuing unfair government subsidies to foreign exporters and nontariff barriers on U.S. exports.

* Amend the North American Free Trade Agreement: Obama believes that NAFTA and its potential were oversold to the American people. Obama will work with the leaders of Canada and Mexico to fix NAFTA so that it works for American workers.

Bad. He's a protectionist.
* Improve Transition Assistance: To help all workers adapt to a rapidly changing economy, Obama would update the existing system of Trade Adjustment Assistance by extending it to service industries, creating flexible education accounts to help workers retrain, and providing retraining assistance for workers in sectors of the economy vulnerable to dislocation before they lose their jobs.
Bad. Boondoggle spending.
* Invest in our Next Generation Innovators and Job Creators: Obama will create an Advanced Manufacturing Fund to identify and invest in the most compelling advanced manufacturing strategies. The Fund will have a peer-review selection and award process based on the Michigan 21st Century Jobs Fund, a state-level initiative that has awarded over $125 million to Michigan businesses with the most innovative proposals to create new products and new jobs in the state.

* Double Funding for the Manufacturing Extension Partnership: The Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) works with manufacturers across the country to improve efficiency, implement new technology and strengthen company growth. This highly-successful program has engaged in more than 350,000 projects across the country and in 2006 alone, helped create and protect over 50,000 jobs. But despite this success, funding for MEP has been slashed by the Bush administration. Barack Obama will double funding for the MEP so its training centers can continue to bolster the competitiveness of U.S. manufacturers.

Bad. This is fascist industrial policy, the kind that was widely ridiculed in the 1980's. The government shouldn't be funding private investment.
* Invest In A Clean Energy Economy And Create 5 Million New Green Jobs: Obama will invest $150 billion over 10 years to advance the next generation of biofuels and fuel infrastructure, accelerate the commercialization of plug-in hybrids, promote development of commercial scale renewable energy, invest in low emissions coal plants, and begin transition to a new digital electricity grid. The plan will also invest in America's highly-skilled manufacturing workforce and manufacturing centers to ensure that American workers have the skills and tools they need to pioneer the first wave of green technologies that will be in high demand throughout the world.
Okay.
* Create New Job Training Programs for Clean Technologies: The Obama plan will increase funding for federal workforce training programs and direct these programs to incorporate green technologies training, such as advanced manufacturing and weatherization training, into their efforts to help Americans find and retain stable, high- paying jobs. Obama will also create an energy-focused youth jobs program to invest in disconnected and disadvantaged youth.
Bad. Industrial policy again.

[To be continued]

* Boost the Renewable Energy Sector and Create New Jobs: The Obama plan will create new federal policies, and expand existing ones, that have been proven to create new American jobs. Obama will create a federal Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) that will require 25 percent of American electricity be derived from renewable sources by 2025, which has the potential to create hundreds of thousands of new jobs on its own. Obama will also extend the Production Tax Credit, a credit used successfully by American farmers and investors to increase renewable energy production and create new local jobs.
Terrible idea, and rotten economics.
Barack Obama believes that it is critically important for the United States to rebuild its national transportation infrastructure – its highways, bridges, roads, ports, air, and train systems – to strengthen user safety, bolster our long-term competitiveness and ensure our economy continues to grow.

* Create a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank: Barack Obama will address the infrastructure challenge by creating a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank to expand and enhance, not supplant, existing federal transportation investments. This independent entity will be directed to invest in our nation’s most challenging transportation infrastructure needs. The Bank will receive an infusion of federal money, $60 billion over 10 years, to provide financing to transportation infrastructure projects across the nation. These projects will create up to two million new direct and indirect jobs per year and stimulate approximately $35 billion per year in new economic activity.

Infrastructure is what a lot of our porkbarrel spending has been about. This Bank would have huge patronage power and would undoubtedly be corrupt, just like Democrat-led Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
* Invest in the Sciences: Barack Obama supports doubling federal funding for basic research ...

* Make the Research and Development Tax Credit Permanent: Barack Obama wants investments in a skilled research and development workforce and technology infrastructure to be supported here in America so that American workers and communities will benefit. Obama wants to make the Research and Development tax credit permanent so that firms can rely on it when making decisions to invest in domestic R&D over multi-year timeframes.

I do like that.
* Deploy Next-Generation Broadband: Barack Obama believes we can get broadband to every community in America through a combination of reform of the Universal Service Fund, better use of the nation's wireless spectrum, promotion of next-generation facilities, technologies and applications, and new tax and loan incentives.
I don't know much about that.
* Provide Tax Relief for Small Businesses and Start Up Companies: Barack Obama will eliminate all capital gains taxes on start-up and small businesses to encourage innovation and job creation. Obama will also support small business owners by providing a $500 “Making Work Pay” tax credit to almost every worker in America. Self-employed small business owners pay both the employee and the employer side of the payroll tax, and this measure will reduce the burdens of this double taxation.
This sounds like a good tax cut.
* Create a National Network of Public-Private Business Incubators: Barack Obama will support entrepreneurship and spur job growth by creating a national network of public-private business incubators. Business incubators facilitate the critical work of entrepreneurs in creating start-up companies. Obama will invest $250 million per year to increase the number and size of incubators in disadvantaged communities throughout the country.
Sounds like pork to me.
Obama will strengthen the ability of workers to organize unions. He will fight for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act. Obama will ensure that his labor appointees support workers' rights and will work to ban the permanent replacement of striking workers. Obama will also increase the minimum wage and index it to inflation to ensure it rises every year.
All bad. He wants to support unionized workers at the expense of poor workers who might compete with them.
* Ensure Freedom to Unionize: Obama believes that workers should have the freedom to choose whether to join a union without harassment or intimidation from their employers. Obama cosponsored and is strong advocate for the Employee Free Choice Act, a bipartisan effort to assure that workers can exercise their right to organize. He will continue to fight for EFCA's passage and sign it into law.
I don't know this bill, but unionizing already has lots of protection, since the 1930s.
* Fight Attacks on Workers' Right to Organize: Obama has fought the Bush National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) efforts to strip workers of their right to organize. He is a cosponsor of legislation to overturn the NLRB's "Kentucky River" decisions classifying hundreds of thousands of nurses, construction, and professional workers as "supervisors" who are not protected by federal labor laws.
I don't know this decision, but my guess is that he wants to force all these people to join unions against their will.
* Protect Striking Workers: Obama supports the right of workers to bargain collectively and strike if necessary. He will work to ban the permanent replacement of striking workers, so workers can stand up for themselves without worrying about losing their livelihoods.
If a worker decides his employer is not paying him enough and goes on strike, why shouldn't the employer be allowed to hire someone else who would be happy to get that wage?
* Raise the Minimum Wage: Barack Obama will raise the minimum wage, index it to inflation and increase the Earned Income Tax Credit to make sure that full-time workers earn a living wage that allows them to raise their families and pay for basic needs.
Bad economics.What he really wants is to get those workers fired so union workers who pay him big campaign contributions will be hired instead.
* Create a New FHA Housing Security Program: Barack Obama strongly supports the efforts of Senate Banking Committee Chair Chris Dodd (D–CT) to create a new Federal Housing Administration (FHA) program that will provide meaningful incentives for lenders to buy or refinance existing mortgages and convert them into stable 30-year fixed mortgages. This plan provides an important federal backstop – not a bailout – to this growing national problem. Neither lenders nor homeowners would receive a windfall from this plan.
I don't know that bill.
* Create a Universal Mortgage Credit: Obama will create a 10 percent universal mortgage credit to provide homeowners who do not itemize tax relief. This credit will provide an average of $500 to 10 million homeowners, the majority of whom earn less than $50,000 per year.
* Ensure More Accountability in the Subprime Mortgage Industry: Obama has been closely monitoring the subprime mortgage situation for years, and introduced comprehensive legislation over a year ago to fight mortgage fraud and protect consumers against abusive lending practices. Obama's STOP FRAUD Act provides the first federal definition of mortgage fraud, increases funding for federal and state law enforcement programs, creates new criminal penalties for mortgage professionals found guilty of fraud, and requires industry insiders to report suspicious activity.
* Mandate Accurate Loan Disclosure: Obama will create a Homeowner Obligation Made Explicit (HOME) score, which will provide potential borrowers with a simplified, standardized borrower metric (similar to APR) for home mortgages. The HOME score will allow individuals to easily compare various mortgage products and understand the full cost of the loan.
* Create Fund to Help Homeowners Avoid Foreclosures: Obama will create a fund to help people refinance their mortgages and provide comprehensive supports to innocent homeowners. The fund will be partially paid for by Obama's increased penalties on lenders who act irresponsibly and commit fraud.
* Close Bankruptcy Loophole for Mortgage Companies: Obama will work to eliminate the provision that prevents bankruptcy courts from modifying an individual's mortgage payments. Obama believes that the subprime mortgage industry, which has engaged in dangerous and sometimes unscrupulous business practices, should not be shielded by outdated federal law.
* Create a Credit Card Rating System to Improve Disclosure: Obama will create a credit card rating system, modeled on five-star systems used for other consumer products, to provide consumers an easily identifiable ranking of credit cards, based on the card's features. Credit card companies will be required to display the rating on all application and contract materials, enabling consumers to quickly understand all of the major provisions of a credit card without having to rely exclusively on fine print in lengthy documents.
* Establish a Credit Card Bill of Rights to Protect Consumers: Obama will create a Credit Card Bill of Rights to protect consumers. The Obama plan will: o Ban Unilateral Changes o Apply Interest Rate Increases Only to Future Debt o Prohibit Interest on Fees o Prohibit "Universal Defaults" o Require Prompt and Fair Crediting of Cardholder Payments
* Cap Outlandish Interest Rates on Payday Loans and Improve Disclosure: Obama supports extending a 36 percent interest cap to all Americans. Obama will require lenders to provide clear and simplified information about loan fees, payments and penalties, which is why he'll require lenders to provide this information during the application process.
* Encourage Responsible Lending Institutions to Make Small Consumer Loans: Obama will encourage banks, credit unions and Community Development Financial Institutions to provide affordable short-term and small-dollar loans and to drive unscrupulous lenders out of business.
* Reform Bankruptcy Laws to Protect Families Facing a Medical Crisis: Obama will create an exemption in bankruptcy law for individuals who can prove they filed for bankruptcy because of medical expenses. This exemption will create a process that forgives the debt and lets the individuals get back on their feet.
* Expand the Family and Medical Leave Act: The FMLA covers only certain employees of employers with 50 or more employees. Obama will expand it to cover businesses with 25 or more employees. He will expand the FMLA to cover more purposes as well, including allowing workers to take leave for elder care needs; allowing parents up to 24 hours of leave each year to participate in their children's academic activities; and expanding FMLA to cover leave for employees to address domestic violence.
* Encourage States to Adopt Paid Leave: As president, Obama will initiate a strategy to encourage all 50 states to adopt paid-leave systems. Obama will provide a $1.5 billion fund to assist states with start-up costs and to help states offset the costs for employees and employers.
* Expand High-Quality Afterschool Opportunities: Obama will double funding for the main federal support for afterschool programs, the 21st Century Learning Centers program, to serve a million more children. Obama will include measures to maximize performance and effectiveness across grantees nationwide.
* Expand the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit: The Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit provides too little relief to families that struggle to afford child care expenses. Obama will reform the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit by making it refundable and allowing low-income families to receive up to a 50 percent credit for their child care expenses.
* Protect Against Caregiver Discrimination: Workers with family obligations often are discriminated against in the workplace. Obama will enforce the recently-enacted Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines on caregiver discrimination.
* Expand Flexible Work Arrangements: Obama will create a program to inform businesses about the benefits of flexible work schedules; help businesses create flexible work opportunities; and increase federal incentives for telecommuting. Obama will also make the federal government a model employer in terms of adopting flexible work schedules and permitting employees to request flexible arrangements.
* Housing: In the U.S. Senate, Obama introduced the STOP FRAUD Act to increase penalties for mortgage fraud and provide more protections for low-income homebuyers, well before the current subprime crisis began.
* Predatory Lending: In the Illinois State Senate, Obama called attention to predatory lending issues. Obama sponsored legislation to combat predatory payday loans, and he also was credited with lobbying the state to more closely regulate some of the most egregious predatory lending practices.
* American Jobs: Barack Obama introduced the Patriot Employer Act of 2007 to provide a tax credit to companies that maintain or increase the number of full-time workers in America relative to those outside the US; maintain their corporate headquarters in America; pay decent wages; prepare workers for retirement; provide health insurance; and support employees who serve in the military.

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John McCain's Economic Policies

I've just been asked to sign an economists' letter of support for John McCain's economic plan. In general I don't like that kind of letter unless it's on some issue where pretty much all top economists can agree. Possibly there would be a consensus on the policy proposals mentioned in the letter itself, but McCain has some bad economic policy views not mentioned there.

First, what's in the letter. I've omitted the first and last "puff" parts.

His plan would control government spending by vetoing every bill with earmarks, implementing a constitutionally valid line-item veto, pausing non-military discretionary government spending programs for one year to stop their explosive growth and place accountability on federal government agencies.

Vetoing every bill with earmarks is a bad idea. He thereby throws away his bargaining power with Congress, and his ability to buy votes for important national-interest policies. Often a president needs to buy support for his foreign policy or trade policy by using earmarks.

The line-item veto would be good.

Pausing spending is bad. I don't know that most agencies' budgets have been growing too fast-- the big complaint is about earmarks.

His plan would keep taxes from rising, because higher tax rates are exactly the wrong policy to restore economic growth, especially at this time.

His plan would reduce tax rates by cutting the tax that corporations pay to 25 percent in line with other countries, by completely phasing out the alternative minimum tax, by increasing the exemption for dependents, by permitting the first-year expensing of new equipment and technology, and by making permanent a reformed tax credit for R&D.

That's pretty good. I'm not sure about eliminating the AMT, though, because it's a flat tax, which is a good thing.

His plan would also create a new and much simpler tax system and give Americans a free choice of whether to pay taxes under that simple system or the current complex and burdensome income tax.

That's a good idea.

His plan would open new markets for American goods and services and thereby create additional jobs for Americans by supporting good free trade agreements, such as the one with Colombia, and working with leaders around the world to avoid isolationism and protectionism. His plan would also reform education, retraining, and other assistance programs so they better help those displaced by trade and other changes in the economy. His plan addresses problems in the financial markets and housing markets by calling for increased transparency and accountability, by targeted assistance to deserving homeowners to refinance their mortgages, and by opposing so-called reform plans which would raise the costs of home-ownership in the future.

Free trade is good. "Deserving homeowners" shouldn't be bailed out. We DO need reforms to raise the cost of home ownership for the rich. Now for some other things from the Issues section of his website (accessible via http://www.johnmccain.com/Issues/JobsforAmerica/energy.htm.

John McCain will put our country on track to construct 45 new nuclear power plants by 2030 with the ultimate goal of eventually constructing 100 new plants.
Very good.
John McCain will encourage the market for alternative, low carbon fuels such as wind, hydro and solar power. ... John McCain believes in an even- handed system of tax credits that will remain in place until renewable energy has progressed to the point that it is competitive with conventional energy sources.
Bad.
John McCain will commit our country to expanding domestic oil and natural gas exploration. The current federal moratorium on drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf stands in the way of energy exploration and production. John McCain believes it is time for the federal government to lift these restrictions and work with states to put our own reserves to use.
Good.
For every automaker who can sell a zero-emissions car, John McCain will commit a $5,000 tax credit for each and every customer who buys that car. For other vehicles, whatever type they may be, the lower the carbon emissions, the higher the tax credit.
Bad.
John McCain has long supported CAFE standards - the mileage requirements that automobile manufacturers' cars must meet. Some carmakers ignore these standards, pay a small financial penalty, and add it to the price of their cars. John McCain believes that the penalties for not following these standards must be effective enough to compel carmakers to produce fuel-efficient vehicles.
Bad.
John McCain will make greening the federal government a priority of his administration.... By applying a higher efficiency standard to new buildings leased or purchased and retrofitting existing buildings, we can save taxpayers money in energy costs, and move the construction market in the direction of green technology.
Bad
John McCain will lead the fight for medical liability reform that eliminates lawsuits directed at doctors who follow clinical guidelines and adhere to proven safety protocols.
Good.
... John McCain will give every family a refundable tax credit - cash towards insurance - of $5,000 (Individuals receive $2,500). Every family in America, regardless of the source of their insurance or how much they make will get the same help. Families will be able to stay with their current plan, or choose the insurance provider that suits them best and have the money sent directly to the insurance provider.
This sounds crazy, so it's probably not quite as stated. As stated, a family already receiving $8000/year in employer-provided insurance could take the government's $5000 and top up their insurance with superduper coverage--say, for plastic surgery, air fares to exotic hospitals, etc. Probably the plan is limited to basic health insurance, in which case it might not be so bad.
Americans need insurance that follows them from job to job. Too many job decisions today are controlled by a fear of losing health care. Americans want insurance that is still there if they retire early and does not change if they take a few years off to raise the children. John McCain will lead the reform for portable insurance.
I'm not sure about that one. It's a good question as to what that will do to adverse selection.

[to be continued]

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A Good Sentence on Rescuing Banks

I liked this sentence from Prof. Buiter's blog, both in sound and sentiment:
I will refute his argument, focusing mainly on the case against bailing out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, unless this involves the euthanasia of the existing shareholders of the two GSEs and a material haircut for their creditors.

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Saturday, August 2, 2008

 

A Word Site: http://www.wordspy.com/

Wordspy.com lists new words with citations to where they appeared. Here are a few.

transumer n. A big-spending traveler; a person who travels to shop. [Blend of transient and consumer.]...

kindergarchy n. Rule or domination by children; the belief that children's needs and preferences take precedence over those of their parents or other adults....

urban caving n. The unauthorized exploration of tunnels, drains, and other features found beneath a city....


The author also has a page of his own favorites of established words, at http://www.wordspy.com/diversions/fave-words.asp. They include these:

Autological: Self-descriptive.

Crapulence: Excessive indulgence, or the sickness resulting from same.

Crepuscular: Of or like twilight; dim.

Feculent: Full of foul matter; laden or polluted with filth; fetid.

Flibbertigibbet: A silly, scatterbrained person.

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