Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The grim fiscal outlook

Bruce Bartlett examines our Social Security and Medicare liabilities in terms of present value:
To make these very large numbers somewhat more concrete, Social Security's unfunded liability comes to 1.2 percent of GDP in perpetuity (1.4 percent without the trust fund) -- about what is currently raised by the corporate income tax. The comparable number for Medicare is 7.1 percent -- about what is raised by the individual income tax. And remember that these figures are for the unfunded portion of these programs, so they are over and above payroll taxes.

The chilling conclusion is that virtually 100 percent of all federal taxes, on a present value basis, do nothing but pay for Social Security and Medicare. Unless there are plans to abolish the rest of the federal government, large tax increases are inevitable.

Avoiding such tax increases is the best reason to reform Social Security now. It's too bad that President Bush made the Medicare problem so much worse before trying to fix Social Security.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Orthodoxy and "the other path"

In TNR, Ross Douhat writes that those who wish the Catholic Church would liberalize should consider the decline experienced by protestant denominations that have liberalized. Excerpt:
As Ratzinger himself once remarked, much of Protestantism has "taken the other path"--the path of ever-greater accommodation--when it comes to modernity and particularly sexual ethics, and "it is quite plain that it hasn't thereby solved the problem of Christianity in today's world." The new Pope's vision of Catholic orthodoxy may not win the day over Islam, or Pentecostalism, or agnosticism. But the vision of his opponents appears already to have lost.
Alex Tabarrok implicitly askes a question. Thomas Sowell claims to have the answer.

Update: Additional comments and links here.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Why I double-majored in physics

To me, physics has always primarily been a reverse math problem. I've never been particulary interested in how the experimental evidence is obtained. I just think of experimental results as particularly important mathematical properties, the goal being to construct a formal axiomatic system in which said properties become theorems. (Indeed, I'm particularly drawn to things like general relativity and string theory because I find the associated mathematics tastier than it is in other areas of physics.) Many actual physicists think this way too, and some of them also have blogs. See for example Kent Budge:
Particle physics is the quest to find a Lagrangian density that explains everything we observe about the universe. But there is more to it than that. Particle physicists are strongly disposed to believe that this ultimate Lagrangian density, or Theory of Everything, must be simple and elegant. In fact, they expect the Theory of Everything to be so compelling in its simplicity and elegance that, when we finally see and understand it, we will exclaim: It could be no other way! Einstein was expressing a thought much like this when he said, "What really interests me is whether God had any choice in the creation of the world."

In this respect, the particle physicist's vision is much like the mathematician's. Just as all the theorems of plane geometry are derived from a few axioms, so the complexity and diversity of the universe is derived from a minimal Lagrangian density. This Lagrangian density should have as few free parameters as possible.
The above link is to the first of a four-part (1 2 3 4) series about the symmetry of the Standard Model. (Don't be afraid to click: the intended audience is not mathematically inclined, so the series is more physics appreciation than physics.)

Friday, April 22, 2005

A new CDC study, or: how I learned to stop worrying and love the fat

Last year, a CDC study concluded that obeseity and its moderate cousin overweightness were responsible for 400,000 additional deaths annually. That was then; this is now:
Now the new study says that obesity and extreme obesity are causing about 112,000 extra deaths but that overweight is preventing about 86,000, leaving a net toll of some 26,000 deaths in all three categories combined, compared with the 34,000 extra deaths found in those who are underweight.
So, (quite unseriously) slicing the numbers as above, undereating is more deadly than overeating. Actually, what I take away from the study is confirmation (doubtless infected by a little confirmation bias) of my don't-worry-so-much philosophy about food. Contrary to the title of this post, I've always loved the fat. (And the Dr. Pepper....) I generally eat when I'm hungry (and not too distracted by a math problem) and eat what I'm hungry for. As for future health benefits I might be foregoing, 1) compared to the present, I value the future at a discount; 2) the level of future health benefits of a given diet is quite uncertain for an individual, even if it might be quite predictable in the aggregate; 3) medical technology is ever advancing, making it ever more feasible to substitute future medicines for present healthy diets. My relatively care-free diet isn't for everyone, but the opposite extreme projected by our mass media (including a fair amount of government propoganda), a neurosis about health and thinness, is surely undesirable for most.

Update: See also Steven Levitt's comments. (Hat tip: MR.)

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Oil and Taiwan

Reading two recent posts at the Belmont Club (1 2), I've learned of a card the US and/or Taiwan could play against China that I didn't think about before: if the Chinese try to take Taiwan by force, or even just blockade it, then one response is a "counterblockade" cutting off China's oil supply. This makes Taiwan's hand stronger than I thought. At the very least, I think Taiwan is probably safe until China secures its oil supply lines through naval expansion and/or more pipelines from the former USSR. My key assumption is that the Chinese leadership is very afraid of the domestic unrest that a severe oil shortage might cause.

Pork factory

From the latest issue of City Journal:
In its new budget, the Bush administration is proposing to eliminate one of the last and least effective vestiges of the War on Poverty: aid to cities doled out in the form of community-development block grants. The president has proposed slashing funding for this $5 billion-a-year boondoggle, which allows local officials virtually a free hand in spending federal money in their cities. Bush would fold what remains of the block-grant program into other, more tightly focused and controlled grant schemes.

The end cannot come soon enough. Over the last 30 years, the block-grant program has expended some $100 billion in thousands of communities, with little to show for the effort. Local officials squandered the billions by financing unworkable projects that often went bust, investing in new businesses that couldn’t survive in depressed neighborhoods, and funding social programs with little idea of how they might actually strengthen their communities. A paradigmatic example of government ineffectiveness, this tempting pot of money gradually evolved into nothing more than a funder of local patronage and congressional pork spending.
Read the rest - it's quality muckraking. I'd give the program 2-to-1 odds of surviving; pork has bipartisan appeal.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The Bell Curve

I finished reading The Bell Curve last week. Like Bowling Alone, it's packed with data, though the presentation isn't quite as engaging. There are only so many regressions comparing the influence of IQ and socioeconomic status that I can go through before they lose their allure. Still, it was worth it to have so much data in one place. I'll just reproduce one of the many things I learned: a list of the validities (that is, correlation coefficients) of various predictors of job performance ratings.
Predictor Validity
Cognitive test score .53
Biographical data .37
Reference checks .26
Education .22
Interview .14
College grades .11
Interest .10
Age -.01
The source for this data can be found here. (Thank you, Google Scholar.)

In the last four of twenty-two chapters, the authors Herrnstein and Murray did write a little bit about what they thought the policy implications of their book should be. However, the rest of the book is straight-up science. I found their science very careful and that they were humble in drawing conclusions.

With my overall praise made clear, I will venture my one scientific quibble. In their chapter on the demography of intelligence, they talk about "dysgenic pressure" of "0.8 [IQ] points per generation" in America (modulo uncertainty about the Flynn effect), presenting plenty of evidence that, on average, less intelligent women bear more children and do so at younger ages. E.g., in 1992, "the overall average IQ of American mothers was a little less than 98." They also cite some studies from the 1980s and earlier that looked at age cohorts of both men and women. However, in trying to assess the dysgenic pressure in America in the early 1990s (the book was published in 1994), they only consider female fertility patterns and immigration. They completely ignore whether or by how much this dysgenic pressure is mitigated by the likely positive correlation between intelligence and fertility among males. Perhaps there was no data for them to talk about, but in that case I think they should have mentioned their ignorance of this effect. Likewise, if there is a reason why they could discount male fertility patterns, then I wish they would have explained it.

Dave's filter

TNR's article on the new pope (It begins "In 1997, I wrote my master's thesis on the theology of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger....")

Byron York predicts 527s will legislated out of existence, and that the money will then flow to 501(c)(4)s. Personally, I don't care for all these big numbers. I like small numbers, like Amendement #1.

A Harvard divestment campaign that isn't against Israel.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Broadband regulation

We should follow Japan's example:
The [Japanese] government quickly removed many regulatory obstacles. But because cable providers were mostly mom-and-pop operations in rural areas, officials realized that they would also have to create a highly competitive private-sector environment. So the telecommunications ministry came up with one of the most competitive regimes in the world: it compelled regional telephone companies to grant outside competitors access to all their residential telephone lines in exchange for a modest fee (about $2 per line a month). The antitrust authorities also ensured that these companies did not create obstacles for their competitors, helping provide a level playing field.

The results were extraordinary. Yahoo! bb, created by Masayoshi Son's venture-capital firm Softbank, and several other companies soon entered the DSL market. Yahoo! bb began offering high-speed service five times faster than current U.S. broadband for $22 a month. After aggressive marketing forced its competitors to meet Yahoo! bb's price, high-speed DSL subscriptions skyrocketed. By the end of 2002, such access was available to many more than the 30 million Japanese households the government had targeted. Within another five months, a greater percentage of homes in Japan than in the United States had access to broadband.

Thanks to the government's competitive framework, the speed of the DSL service offered also rose dramatically, from 8 megabits per second in 2001 to 12, 26, and 40 megabits today. (The typical U.S. broadband connection, whether DSL or cable, is still only 1.5 megabits per second or slower.) Meanwhile, the price of monthly subscriptions remained stable, even for 26-megabit access speeds, at about $22 per month -- by far the lowest price in the world. By September 2004, 15.3 million Japanese subscribed to high-speed broadband. Moreover, for an additional $5 per month, users of Yahoo! bb can also have Internet telephone service. One in every 25 telephone calls in Japan is now made over the Internet, and the number keeps growing.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Citing foreign law vs. citing the Bible, an interesting analogy by Orin Kerr. As a corollary to originalism, I don't think either should be cited.


Arnold Kling has an interesting behavioral hypothesis he uses to explain the relative lack of catastrophic (e.g. high deductible) health insurance coverage. As he puts it, "If the disownership hypothesis is correct, then the attempt to wean the public off of insulation and toward catastrophic coverage may be more challenging than I had realized." Kling's "disownership" hypothesis may be wrong, then I strongly suspect that there is some behavioral mechanism at work here that will be just as hard to surmount. While I'm feeling pessimistic, I might as well link to this article in which Bruce Bartlett surrenders to the trend of ever growing government, and supports a VAT.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Friday, April 08, 2005


John Derbyshire is predicting that Brave New World is our future:
So far as it makes any sense to predict the future, it seems to me highly probable that the world of 50 or 100 years from now will bear a close resemblance to Huxley’s dystopia — a world without pain, grief, sickness or war, but also without family, religion, sacrifice, or nobility of spirit. It’s not what I want, personally, and it’s not what Huxley wanted either (he was a religious man, though of a singular type). It’s what most people want, though; so if this darn democracy stuff keeps spreading, it’s what we shall get, for sure. If we don’t bring it upon ourselves, we shall import it from less ethically fastidious nations.
I think Derbyshire is being both too optimistic and too pessimistic. While I definitely see a trend towards democratic peace throughout the world, I think that the threat of civil wars and long-held grudges between some countries will be mitigated but not eliminated. (Also, democracies are not immune to coups.) Moreover, in Brave New World, minimal human suffering was accompanied by minimal human striving: science had ceased. Thus, while a Brave New World could be quite stable, a single Brave New country would be left behind economically, implying a desire for security might keep some countries from ever allowing themselves to reach the stop-worrying-and-love-soma stage.

Even if Derbyshire is right about the 21st century, what if space colonization becomes possible by the 22nd century? The possibility of a future version of the Pilgrims founding a new extraterrestial civilization can't be ruled out; remember that even Brave New World had an island of exiled discontents. Extraterrestial human life could be much more Hobbesian (think life on the frontier), negating the trend of increasing material comfort that Derbyshire is fretting about. Looking much further into the future, extraterrestial human civilizations could eventually dwarf Earth economically, making Earth ripe for conquest. In short, human history is not nearing its end. God willing, it's just getting started.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Dave's filter

Syria promises complete withdrawal from Lebanon by April 30.

A free society needs marriage. Here's the first paragraph:
Marriage is a naturally occurring, pre-political institution that emerges spontaneously from society. Western society is drifting toward a redefinition of marriage as a bundle of legally defined benefits bestowed by the state. As a libertarian, I find this trend regrettable. The organic view of marriage is more consistent with the libertarian vision of a society of free and responsible individuals, governed by a constitutionally limited state. The drive toward a legalistic view of marriage is part of the relentless march toward politicizing every aspect of society.
Profile of Hirsi Ali.

Personal retirement accounts in Sweden, Poland, Argentina, Bolivia, Singapore, Britain, and Chile.

Monday, April 04, 2005

We're not so stingy: part 2

TNR strikes again; this time it's Peretz instead of Chait:
And, even if Pozen's indexing plan weren't coupled to private accounts, it would be anathema to liberals. As Jason Furman of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explained in a recent analysis, the long-term effect of progressive indexing would be to turn Social Security into a welfare system and erode support for it. While there is now some wealth redistribution inherent in Social Security, there is also a relationship between how much one contributes to Social Security and the benefits one receives upon retirement, a linkage that is the linchpin of the system's near-universal support. Under the Pozen plan, benefits for high and middle earners would, over time, be drastically reduced, while benefits for low earners would hold steady. The entire benefit structure would be flattened, turning it into a wealth-transfer system from rich to poor and shattering the system's political popularity.
Do "liberals" really believe this? Do they think we need to redistribute wealth to the elderly middle class because otherwise the middle class voters will just let the elderly poor starve? That's just too absurd, so I have to assume folks like Chait and Peretz just think the welfare benefits for the elderly poor wouldn't be "enough" in this scenario. Consider welfare reform: we may have ended welfare "as we know it," but we certainly didn't end welfare. I therefore presume Chait and Peretz think current welfare benefits aren't generous enough. I respectfully disagree, so I suppose Peretz would say this demonstrates his point.

Still, I have a hard time believing liberals merely support the current Social Security system merely as an extremely blunt instrument for supporting the elderly poor. Given the costs, e.g. higher payroll taxes, of such an inefficient welfare program, it's very hard for me not to believe that liberals like Peretz and Chait also support, or are least indifferent towards, the "side-effect" of the current form of Social Security benefits for the middle class. In support of my suspicion, I'm pretty sure Chait supports universal health care based on articles like this one. If I'm right, then let us argue about privatized vs. nonprivatized Social Security for the middle class based on their merits as such, rather than as indirect welfare programs.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Dave's filter

The government stole my hour!

If there's one government mandate we can all hate together, surely it is Daylight Saving Time. Reading this, we are reminded that DST was not intended to help farmers; urban businesses were supporters. Some further cursory googling of my own reveals that most of Indiana does not have DST because of farming interests in that state. Then there's the energy-saving justification for DST: the article I linked to above gives a few anecdotal counter-arguments to this justification, but no data. In looking for numbers, all I could find are references to "studies from the 1970s" and, less vaguely, to a 1975 DOT study. Then I found this 2001 testimony from a DOT official to the Energy Subcommitee of the House Science Committee:
Our 1975 study concluded that daylight saving time might result in electricity savings of 1 percent in March and April, equivalent to roughly 100,000 barrels of oil daily over the two months. These savings were calculated from Federal Power Commission data for only four daylight saving time transitions -- in the winter, spring and fall of the 1974 - 1975 experiment. Due to the limited data sample, the findings were judged "probable", rather than conclusive. Theoretical studies of home heating fuel consumption identified small savings due to daylight saving time. No potential increases in travel demand and gasoline use due to daylight savings time were identified at that time. The lack of actual data precluded an estimation of net daylight saving time energy savings. (emphasis added)
The poor quality of this study doesn't seem be generally known. For example, this California Energy Commission webpage doesn't seem to know about that "lack of actual data":
Studies done in the 1970s by the U.S. Department of Transportation show that we trim the entire country's electricity usage by about one percent EACH DAY with Daylight Saving Time.
Moreover, it's not "each day" of DST. DST doesn't start until March is over, and the only other month the DOT found energy savings was April. That leaves May through October with a big question mark.

Is there any better data out there? The California Energy Commission also did some regression analyses that predicted that making DST year-round instead of just April-October would cut California winter electricity use by half a percent. They also predicted "summer double DST" would cut California summer electricity use by a fifth of a percent and "could save hundreds of millions of dollars" by shifting electricity use to low demand morning hours. I'd like to see a national version of this study. I'd also like to see a study that estimates the net energy savings of ending DST, rather than just the net energy savings of intensifying it.

As best I can tell, DST very very slightly more likely than not saves America energy. Does this make the inconvenience worth it? Not to me: I want my hour back, or in lieu of that, some conclusive energy savings evidence.

Update: I should point out that the DOT study only looked at energy savings in March and April because it was trying to determine the merits of having DST start earlier, not the merits of DST itself. This reinforces my point about the lack of data on the merits of DST.