Wednesday, January 30, 2008

More Prizes

Via Arnold Kling, here are four billion dollar projects.

1. Develop a cure for breast cancer.

2. Develop a cure for diabetes.

3. Reduce greenhouse emissions from petroleum powered automobiles by 95% without increasing the cost of a normal car more than 5%.

4. Achieve 150 miles per gallon of gasoline in a 3,000 lb. car, using EPA standards; without increasing the cost of a normal car more than 10%.

Self-Interest Is the Secret to Growth

Paul Krugman correctly points out that the developing stimulus plan is hogwash, but for all the wrong reasons. The goal is not, as Krugman states, to increase consumer spending. That's easy; we can do that tomorrow. Simply ban all forms of investment. But everyone knows that won't be growth (thankfully).

Similarly, as Don Boudreaux explains, moving money around won't expand the economy either. You can't fill a pool by moving buckets of water from the deep end to the shallow end. You can't make society wealthier by taking from some and giving to others.

Economies grow from a rising living standard, a standard that betters as skill and productivity expand. Krugman quotes FDR: “We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics.” But the opposite is true. Self-interest motives countless investors and entrepreneurs to find ways to increase our capacity to make things people want. Spending is a reward, not a means.

HT: Rhett Butler

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Koch Classic

If you'll be on Mason campus on February 12 or March 19-20 you might want to hunt down Lea Krohn who'll be fielding questions concerning the Koch Associate Program.

I recommend stopping by not merely because she's an alum of my undergraduate almamater (Beloit College). Not merely because she is one of a handful of female classical liberals and is thus a wonder to behold. Not merely because she contacted me to request a promotion on this little blog. Not merely because she dropped the name of a mutual friend, (even though this friend works for a senator). No; most of all Koch programs are prestigious recognitions of excellence, emphasizing practical experience and valuable networking opportunities. Kcoh fellow go very far and it's worth taking a moment to find out if you have what it takes to be one.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose

Recently I just finished reading Anything for a Vote: Dirty Tricks, Cheap Shots, and October Surprises. The book goes through each presidential election in US history and focuses on how dirty each was. Each election gets 2-6 pages or so. Here are some of the highlights:

In 1800 Jefferson’s people called Adams “a hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Adam’s supporters responded with “Jefferson is a mean-spirited low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” They also spread rumors that Jefferson was dead.

In 1828 John Quincy Adam’s supports taunted Andrew Jackson in the hopes that he would challenge someone to a duel. Jackson supporters spread rumors that Adams had offered his wife’s maid to the czar as a concubine.

Davy Crockett in 1836 said that “Martin Van Buren is laced up in corsets, such as women in a town wear, and if possible tighter than the best of them. It would be difficult to say from his personal appearance, whether he was a man or a woman, but for his large red and gray whiskers.”

One of the worst elections ever was 1876. Tilden’s supports said that Hays shot and wounded his mother “in a fit of insanity.” Hays people claimed Tilden got syphilis from an Irish whore which made him susceptible to blackmail.

For the 1896 election the New York Times published an article called “Is Mr. Bryan Crazy?” It stated that if Bryan was elected “there would be a madman in the White House.” Two days later another article appeared that said Bryan suffered from megalomania, paranoia querulent (complaining too much), and querulent logorrhea (talking about complaining too much).

It was an enjoyable read, and I learned a lot not only about dirty political tactics but American history as well. I recommend this book, especially if you think that politics has never been worse than it is today.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Contracts Are Not Jails

About five months ago, I signed a nine-month lease with my landlord. Since that time his relatively quiet one-and-a-half-year-old has morphed into a louder two-year-old, my landlord got an additional dog, the wiring in the house is now in noticeably poor shape, and my evolving requirements have exceeded the small space I live in. These are all relatively slight annoyances, but enough to make me want to move. But I have to wait until May, when my lease runs out. No big deal. I see myself in an unfortunate situation of partly my own doing. But not according to Bob Sullivan because I'm "in jail."

For the record, jail is where you go when people take you by force and hold you there. You do not volunteer to go there. Yet Sullivan paradoxically announces that Americans are in "cell phone jail" because they face stiff penalties if they end their contract early. This phrase is utter nonsense. Contracts are not jails, but promises both parties agree to. In this case, the customer loses flexibility and gains lower prices or peace of mind (not having to keep track of your minutes is valuable to many).

Granted, some people later regret their decision. Cell phone companies change prices. Coverage wasn't what was hoped for. For people to pay for something they don't want is undesirable. But when the contract (usually two years) is up, people can switch at no charge. Most don't. Now if many people made a stink about their provider and switched en masse we'd see lower fees, better coverage, and other improvements Sullivan claims can't exist because Americans are prisoners. But people are generally happy with their service, a fact we forget in the heat of the moment because we focus on the few times it doesn't work and not how often it does.

If we were truly prisoners, why would any cell phone company try to please us at all? Why not just cut costs down to nothing, sell people toy phones, and charge them $1,000 a month? It's because we're customers who tie our own hands for a time but will refuse to do it again the moment we feel we are truly "jailed."

HT: Jason Youngberg

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Ten Really Important Things To Remember

Friday on Real Time, Bill Maher argued the Ten Commandments demonstrate the backwardness of religion and have little to do with our time. Most of them are stupid, referring to how great God is, and others are simply obsolete.

But those first five are really about making the second five legitimate. This is the word of the only God (a word your parents are likely to share), and he's serious about being the only God. You better not pay attention to anyone who says some other deity wants to add, subtract or modify the laws. And they're good laws. I'm not a religious person, but it's easy to see the advantages in taking these things to heart. The sentiment, the big picture, behind the second five are things all cultures can embrace:

-Don't murder.
-Don't commit adultery (or, generally, "keep your promises")
-Don't steal.
-Don't lie about your neighbor (or, generally, don't lie)
-Don't covet your neighbor's wife/house (or, don't desire stuff to the point that it hurts others)

True, these are not perfect and could use some updating. But the essential elements of the sanctity of people, property, and promises are there. Religion isn't mindless and the people of the past weren't stupid. Just because it's about God doesn't make it worthless.

Friday, January 18, 2008

When Maps Meet Encylopedias

Google Maps is a great resource for finding your way around the city, especially in an area you've never been to. The only problem is everything looks so unrecognizable from the satellite and it gets time consuming to pin point every needed locale. Google Maps Street View is nice, but only available in some parts of a few cities.

Enter Wikimapia which combines all the great aspects of Wikipedia with all those of Google Maps. Everything on Wikimapia looks like what you would see on any satellite except the screen is covered with a cornucopia of boxes. Hover over a box, and it'll tell you what you're looking at. Click on it and a little window will pop up, giving you a short description. There are ads, done, of course, by Google.

Only a year and a half old, users have tagged over five million sites. Few things are perhaps as good as capturing Hayek's "man on the street" as this.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Green Greed

In our own way, we are all environmentalists. Rare is the person who desires to see animals go extinct or bulldozes old growth forests for kicks. The question is not should we embolden the natural environment but how.

Enter such phrases as "free market environmentalism." Economic development and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive, though pundits often paint them as such. Polluting less can save a company money; all pollution is something the company bought, reformed, and then throws away. A power plant in my hometown sells its excess heat to an adjacent Alcoa plant instead of the Mississippi River. The plant is happy, Alcoa's happy, and the fish are happy.

Economic growth comes from fulfilling people's desires and that includes environmental concerns. Harry Smith at CBS writes to inform us of a car that runs on batteries instead of the internal combustion engine. Ok, it may not get rid of pollution if the homes are powered by coal plants or the supply chain to make the battery yields a net loss. But it does demonstrate that firms are willing to invest millions in these new technologies because they know it will attract paying customers. To paraphrase a great economist, it is not from the benevolence of the builder, the banker, and the boss that we expect a cleaner environment, but from their regard to their own self interest.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Safety Regulations Can Be Dangerous

People often scoff when I argue that more laws and standards reduce innovation. Scoffers probably can't think of an example of what wasn't created because of those restrictions. Enter the Tata Nano, a $2,500 unveiled in India yesterday. In a country where the next cheapest car runs about four times as much, the Nano has a lot of potential to give mobility (and opportunity) to a lot of people.

But don't expect the US (or Europe) to benefit from mobility--the Nano won't meet the government's safety standards. We are forced to favor safety over price, or get nothing and the poorest are hurt most of all. In a country where it's hard to go anywhere without a car, those who need the most opportunities find their job choices severely curtailed.

Some might say we don't want less safe (but cheap) cars, but even that is not obvious. Recall that in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, where people lost their lives because they has no way to escape New Orleans, the more expensive car was the more dangerous one.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Demand Curves Still Slope Down

Paul Krugman argues (January 7) that increasing taxes on the wealthy will not hinder the slowing US economy. It's a strange argument considering the wealthy invest much more and this investment is a key input into how economies grow. If you tax people more, especially on investment, they will be less likely to invest. Krugman cites the high growth rates in the Clinton era but it isn't, as he implies, due to high taxes. The plethora of possibilities was due to the dotcom boom. Krugman is mistaking coincidence for logic.

Of course if you do want to play this game, Herbert Hoover sharply raised taxes in 1932 and it didn't fix the problem.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

The Tyranny of Oil?

During his Iowa Caucus victory speech, Barack Obama promised (among many, many other things) an end to the "tyranny of oil." Mr. Obama must be confused--Americans voluntarily buy countless barrels every day. We habitually downplay substitutes, opting to live far from city centers, shunning buses, and using candles primarily for romance. Claiming we are under a tyranny of the very thing we choose to buy is like accusing Google, McDonald's, and Nintendo of being dictators.

Mr. Obama ironically said this in Iowa, where farmers collect taxpayer money to grow corn. This is money taken by force and handed out to a select few, offering no clear benefit to society. Ethanol, not oil, is the closer autocrat.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The Separation of School and State

Okay, it's getting down to the worse time of year for me. It's that time when every California state university and college student is pressured to register to vote. And those doing the pressuring make no bones about putting in a good word for their own favorites.

Back when Governor Kennedy (aka, the "Governator") was running, I was hounded by campus advocates collecting Social Security numbers - in the form of voting registrations. One rep actually told my friends and me that we needed to register "so that you can vote 'No' on the recall and for Bustamonte for governor"!!! So, I need to be told how to vote? By a campus rep?

A year later, during a grad student orientation, some rep from the Office of the Dean of Graduate Studies actually told the non-California residents that they needed to vote in California to get residency...a blatant lie! She also hinted that their votes were needed to it to avoid a repeat of the 2000 Presidential election. She failed to mention that, regardless of what these students did, California's electoral votes were going to go to the Democratic candidate. All she did was encourage students from borderline states to throw their votes away!

Why pressure college students to vote? Yes, they're underrepresented in the voting population, but isn't that their business? Why have links on the school website? Why the pop-up ads? Why let activists take up precious classroom time to encourage full-grown adults to do something that they obviously would have done if they cared about it? I call for the separation of school and state! Leave the on-campus recruiting to independent groups and their sidewalk booths and rallies. At least, they're expected to be partisan.