Friday, March 31, 2006

When Women Copy Governments

During our class break in macroeconomics on Wednesday, I faced a classic economic problem: Should I buy Starbursts, knowing I'd be paying for flavors I didn't like, or go hungry but retain 85 cents? Standing with me in front of the vending machine, Michael Thomas chirped up and offered to shoulder the burden. He paid me 35 cents in exchange for whatever flavors I didn't want.

This was quite gutsy on his part, for I could have easily discovered all the flavors looked appealing. Luckily for him, about half--eight total--weren't for me, so I passed them on. We were both satisfied with our decisions.

Walking back into class Michael's girlfriend noticed our gains. "Oh candy!" she said. Michael reflexively passed her a Starburst and she happily consumed it. I stopped in my tracks as Michael crossed the room to sit down.

She and I discussed the events that just happened, particularly the exchange between her and her boyfriend. She didn't see anything at all wrong with it. About halfway through this conversation, she promptly stood up and declared she wanted more candy. Seconds later she returned with two Starbursts. She gave one to Brian, who was sitting next to her and also not seeing the connection between what transpired and taxes.

If you don't see it either, then considered what Michael told me after I asked him why he gave up his hard-earned candy: "My life is easier if she's happy." Ah, there's the rub. Most women reading this might think he's talking about nice things she does for him, but most men know he referring to all the ways she can make his life harder, but holds back if she's happy.

Taxes are the same way. I could choose not to pay them, but I will find government will make my life harder as a response. When I pay them I'll find my money distributed to others, just like the Starburst that went to Brian. And when I comply with the enforced rules, I give the rule-makers every reason to tighten their grip; on a whim, her "tax rate" increased from 12.5% to 37.5%!

Keen readers will quickly note that unlike governments, you can opt out of a relationship. Yet many people can change citizenship and even more can move within a country, escaping local injustices. Economists usually don't focus on that option because it's unreasonable to require people to uproot their entire lives just to escape a transfer payment. (Note that when those costly demands escape the costs of moving, people try to, despite the risks. The curreny debate over immigration is an obvious example, as are the countless who brave the Caribbean to leave Cuba.) Similarly, as relationships move forward, it becomes more costly to end them, so the tolerable level of extortion increases. Marriages are thus potentially the most oppressive of relationships, a theory justified by countless testimonies of married folk.

The couple have been seeing each other for some time now (I want to say six months, but I don't know the exact number). It would be costy to end it. She knows this so she exploits it with some annoying, but not tremendously burdensome, punishment. While early in the relationship, Michael would have handed her candy to demonstrate he's a good guy (and thus get something out of it), he now does it out of fear of reprisal. Michael is living under tryanny.

I suppose it's reasoning like this which explains why my longest relationship was three months.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Dare To Be Different

Mike just sent me a link to this article on Slate. Nice to see Mason's victories have a nice tie in to our economics department. Looks like they are not so disjointed as I originally thought.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

V For Values

Abdul Rahman is currently on trial in Afghanistan for converting to Christianity. The death penalty is a virtual certainty and the people, we are told, are calling for his head.

Paradoxically, Said Mirhossain Nasri (top cleric at Hossainia Mosque) defended execution over exiling. "If he is allowed to live in the West, then others will claim to be Christian so they can too." Here's a crazy idea: maybe the reason people want to leave the country is because they could die for things like converting from Islam.

V For Vendetta references a similar time. It opens with the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, when Guy Fawkes tried to blow up Parliment in defiance of the king's criminalization of Catholicism.

A less obvious parallel is the movie's commentary on people in charge. Just as the new Afghan government is made up of those who were terrorized by the Taliban, a Big Brother-type character in this future dystopia is played by John Hurt, who portrayed protagonist Winston in a movie adaptation of 1984.

Laws beget laws. Those once under the thumb of tyranny struggle to "liberate the people" and impose a new ideal onto everyone else. They quickly forget that their exiled masters never thought themselves as tyrants nor do they recognized how quickly they become the very thing they fought against.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Patriot Games

I know very little about basketball and you'd have to pay me to be excited about us being the "sweet sixteen." In fact, I can't remember another time when my interest level was so little compared to everyone around me. Ok, I care a little that Mason was on the cover Sports Illustrated and more people know who we are now, but I have zero interest in the simple fact of Mason's standing.

Yet I am surrounded by those that do care and they care an awful lot. So much so, that they are externalizing the costs of them caring, of which I am in part bearing.

-A housemate of mine keeps talking about the upcoming game and wants to talk about it with me.
-Yesterday, my coworkers had a hard time talking about little else, of which I had to hear and exhibited an opportunity cost of conversation.
-Outside the office, the past two games are playing on a really large screen, which I, again, have to hear.
-The campus is now blanketed with posters about the team's standing and I don't care.

There have also been some annoying demand curve shifts.

-When Jeremy and I went to lift yesterday, the weight room was abnormally crowded, making it more costly for me to do the workout I want. (We attributed the sudden rise in gym attendence to "sports fever.")
-It was harder for me to find a good parking spot at the field house (where the weight room is located) because about 30 people were there, camping in line for tickets.
-While trying to find a spot, I had to navigate around a TV van parked in the road, as well as some campers playing football.
-There's a big line for "Sweet 16" T-shirts, spilling out of the bookstore and into the main area of the Johnson Center, making it more crowded.

And then there's one that's a bit of both.

-The topic is crowding out virtually all normal radio conversation; I would almost certainly enjoy the opportunity cost more.

I really hope we loose on Friday.

Friday, March 17, 2006

See David Loot

I would just like to extend my thank yous to all the taxpayers out there. I spent part of this break exploring some of the museums and monuments the DC area has to offer, provided free of charge to anyone who enters.

This is a classic example of transfer payments from most of the US to museum-and-monument-attending residents (and their visiting counterparts). Oh sure you could say anyone gets in free (even foreigners who don't pay US taxes) so it's fair, but that's like defending a thief who steals money, hides it halfway across the country and e-mails the location of the goods to the original owner.

In other words it's still wrong, but I went anyway.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Slumlord of the Rings

Last night I added another wikipedia article, slumlord. I was amazed it wasn't already there. And I have to pat myself on the back: I did a pretty good job keeping POV on this topic.

I have no problems with slumlords; they provide a valuable service. Slumlords keep rent prices low by not spending the money to fix a property. Those that have the least amount to spend on housing (the poor and students) have a place to live thanks, in part, to slumlords.

Ironically, the people who tend to hate slumlords tend to dislike gentrification. The former makes it easier for the poor to afford housing and the latter makes it harder. Not that I have anything against gentrification, either (one man's trash is another man's fabulous townhouse). In fact, they need each other. If a neighborhood gentrifies, the poor that live there need to move. If every other place is forced to be neat and clean, they have no where to live. Slumlords sell them a roof over their heads they can afford.

Friday, March 10, 2006

PETA's Thought Police

The office I work in gets regular copies of The Chronicle of Higher Education, a weekly newspaper documenting recent news in academia. One article this week caught my eye: Undercover Among the Cages.

It's common knowledge that PETA doesn't like it when other people experiment on animals. Now, thanks to advances in hidden camera technology, PETA sympathizers are increasingly inflitrating research labs. They record how the animal subjects are treated in an effort to encourage more government enforcement of the morality laws surrounding lab animal welfare.

Not once does the article question the ethical bedrock of what PETA is doing, even when it metnions the inflitration Columbia University (a private organization) in 2003. Instead it frames the spying as investigative journalism. To be clear, investigative journalism tries to demonstrate when an organization cheats (like scams and rip-offs) people. What PETA is doing is violating people's rights to privacy and liberty to push their own agenda.

This is not dissimilar to the illegal wire-tappings the Bush administration is engaging in: both of them steal away privacy to impose their will, their version of ethics, onto others. Big Brother is watching you.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Shafting the Space Elevator

Colleague and friend Brian Hollar commented yesterday concerning the possibility of a space elevator: a robotic machine that runs up and down a teather with one end anchored on earth and the other anchored to an object in orbit.

Brian thinks the idea is very promising, quoting Business 2.0's comparison of the idea: "The space elevator is where the PC was in the 1960s: The theory is solid, the materials exist, and people in garages are starting to tinker with the next step."

But the biggest hurdle to the space elevator is that NASA has latched on to it. The elevator is destined to be expensive (estimates start at about five billion USD) adding to the already high likelihood that it'll make a lot of headlines. This is more of a weakness than a boon. When NASA projects make headlines before they are complete, the project becomes a political pawn. The focus changes, the budget fluctuates, projects are added on and taken off, rivalries and infighting overcome the goals and, if you're lucky enough to finish what you started, it'll be a shadow of what it was supposed to be. The ISS is the first example that comes to mind.

Don't get me wrong; there are some things NASA's starting to do right. Following the X-Prize lead, it's offering annual prizes for those that solve certain technology obstacles the elevator faces. But the prize money is tiny ($50,000 for each of the two elevator-related prizes) and while one has thus far received an impressive following (19 teams this year for the tether prize), the other is proceeding lacklusterly (4 teams last year, only two so far this year).

NASA's core problem with its approach on this strategy is that it's missing the whole point of the prize system. The idea is to encourage novel solutions of achieving goals, not to simply outsource your R&D department. By stating how NASA would like to get into space (the elevator), that strategy is embodied in the rules and hampers engineers from using their own ideas. For example, the tether prize states all tethers must form a closed loop, weigh a maximum of 2 grams, have an inner circumference of 2m long, +/- 1cm, and can be no wider than 200mm.

The goal isn't to get into space with an elevator; the goal is to get into space cheaply.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Ah! I've Been Tagged!

Steve Horowitz just tagged me a few minutes ago and since it's more fun than studying econometrics, let's run with it.

Four jobs I’ve had
1. Dishwasher/Busboy
2. Teaching assistant (microeconomics)
3. College scene shop worker (building sets for plays)
4. "Team member" at Jo-Ann Fabrics and Crafts (a very manly job, I must add)

Four movies I can watch over and over
1. The Count of Monte Cristo
2. Snatch
3. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
4. Star Trek 6: The Undiscovered Country

Four places I’ve lived
1. Davenport, IA
2. Fairfax, VA
3. Beloit, WI
4. Istanbul, Turkey

Four TV shows I love
1. Firefly
2. Southpark
3. The West Wing
4. Battlestar Galactica

Four highly regarded and recommended TV shows I haven’t seen (much of)
1. Desperate Housewives
2. Grey's Anatomy
3. 24
4. House

Four places I’ve vacationed
1. Rome
2. Alaska
3. Orlando, Florida
4. Barcelona

Four of my favorite dishes
1. Spaghetti with meatballs
2. Chicken and garlic calzone
3. Fudge brownie with vanilla ice cream and hot chocolate sauce
4. Chicken Caesar salad

Four sites I visit daily
1. Wikipedia
2. Google News
3. At least one blog of a professor or peer
4. Gmail

Four places I’d rather be right now
1. An empty tropical beach, reading
2. Roaming the streets of Paris, eating crepes
3. Sitting around with old friends from Beloit, catching up
4. Sitting around with old friends from Beloit, pretending to be people far cooler than we could ever be.

Four new bloggers I’m tagging
1. Jason Briggeman
2. Capital Freedom
3. Jeremy Horpedahl
4. Michael Thomas

Friday, March 03, 2006

March's Most Random Wikipedia Page Is...

Ok I don't plan to do this every month, but List of sets of unrelated songs with identical titles should win something.

Congratulations Wikipedia!

For achieving its one millionth article on the first of March.

Not surprisingly, the landmark article--Jordanhill railway station--is probably one of the fastest growing articles about a mundane topic, achieving 31 discussion topic and citing 21 references within the first three days of its creation.

Just another example of how decentralized order can create wonders central planners could never dream of.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Pickpocketed At the Pump

Way back in August, I commented that the imposed price ceilings of Hawaii gas would actually cause the retail price to rise (because the law only pertains to wholesale gas prices). After checking data at, it appears my logic was sound.

Note that before the law came into effect on September 1, Hawaii gas prices were about 38-57 cents higher than the US average. After September 1, prices were about 57-78 cents higher. (Note the two expections shortly after Katrina, where the difference goes from 95 cents to 38 cents.)