Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Anya Kamenetz's Generation Debt nonsense just keeps popping up (hat tip: Eric). If you follow the last link, you'll notice that there isn't any serious attempt to show that student debt is financially crushing, even for the two medical students that are the article's focus. It's all about how the debt is emotionally crushing.

Why isn't either of these students complaining that high taxation "makes me upset that I have to maybe not do what I want to do because I won't be able to pay my bills at the end of the month"? Perhaps it's because they don't have nasty pieces of paper telling them they should expect to pay several million dollars to the federal government over their lifetimes. There's also the fear of defaulting on their loans. I suspect some students would prefer a scheme like those used in Britain, Australia, or New Zealand, where student "loans" can be repaid by having a fixed percentage of wages automatically withheld, just like income tax. Given an appropriate tweaking of bankruptcy law, private financial institutions could offer something similar in the U.S.

P.S. Anya Kamenetz, as a member of my age group, you're making us look like Generation Whine. Please stop.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Bush just made a sort of anti-Kelo executive order. What will be its concrete effects, if any? My impression is that eminent domain abuse is mainly a problem with local governments. Will the Justice Dept. interpret the order as requiring more just compensation for "regulatory takings"? (Think EPA.) Or is that precluded by the clause that "this order shall be implemented consistent with applicable law and subject to the availability of appropriations"?

Update: Ilya Somin argues the order achieves "little or nothing."

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Not-so-gloomy demographics

If France is doomed, then its doom is very slow in coming.
Of late, it has frequently been suggested that France--and increasingly, not only France but western Europe as a whole--is heading for a Muslim majority. No longer will France be plausibly described as the "eldest daughter" of the Catholic Church; no longer will Luther’s church have any sway in his homeland; no longer will local Christianities mark the daily lives of people in Spain and Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden. Instead of church towers, we will have minarets. Instead of the code napoléon, we will have the shari’a. Instead of women sunning themselves on Mediterranean beaches and same-sex marriage in the Low Countries, we’ll have women forced to wear burqas and gays once again closeted. The past centuries of social liberalization in Europe will be brutally reversed, as Europe enters a new dark age. (But particularly France, since it has too many Muslims to be saved.)

Why? Well, rates of immigration are high enough, but the main factor is the high Muslim birth rate. In the context of a generalized European birth dearth, high fertility rates on the part of Muslim immigrants will inevitably lead to a replacement of the native European population by non-natives....

Figures of eight million French Muslims are regularly tossed around, based, it seems, on panicked fears of high Muslim immigration and a high Muslim birth rate. These figures are vastly overestimated, though. Figures on religious affiliation and ethnic background aren’t kept by the French government, as part of a long-standing reaction against the misuse of those figures by Vichy to deport immigrant Jews to the concentration camps. The suggestions of The Economist that there are a bit over four million French Muslims seem to be more sensible and generally accepted. This amounts to roughly 7% of the French population--a significant number, to be sure, but not an overwhelming majority.

If this minority population grew for the next 50 years at a rate of 2% per annum (a high rate, and one that doesn’t seem to be supported by signs of an ongoing demographic transition), while the remainder of the population shrunk at a rate of 0.5% per annum (also a high rate of decrease, and one that doesn’t seem likely to be achieved for a while given generally high French fertility rates), at the end of this 50 year period the total French population would have shrunk by 9%, and France’s Muslim population would amount to roughly one-fifth of the total. You’d have to wait for a century to approach a position of parity between the two populations, assuming the same unrealistic growth rates. This is definitely not any sort of imminent threat, nor as I shall demonstrate is it a very plausible threat at all.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Am I a dork? I prefer the term nerd. Or geek, or wonk....
What might have been:
If the federal budget had grown from the day George W. Bush was inaugurated at the same annual rate it had for the six years before he came to office, the federal budget would consume only 17% of GDP today. And it would be balanced, even after taking into account the tax cuts. Instead, the budget is still unbalanced today and government spending hovers around 20%.
Of course, just as culpable as Bush is Congress, which I don't think has had a pro-spending-cut majority since about 1995. Since then, the trend has been accelerating spending growth. (Of course, there have been occassional small, pitiful signs that things are finally starting to turn around; make of that what you will.)
I've really taken a liking to Cato Unbound. Most recently I've been reading about their June topic, the future of work. The participants are four economists; the format is lead essay, then response essays (1 2 3), and then group blog.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Here's a slick new proof that the reals are uncountable.
Alice and Bob decide to play the following infinite game on the real number line. A subset S of the unit interval [0,1] is fixed, and then Alice and Bob alternate playing real numbers. Alice moves first, choosing any real number a_1 strictly between 0 and 1. Bob then chooses any real number b_1 strictly between a_1 and 1. On each subsequent turn, the players must choose a point strictly between the previous two choices. Equivalently, if we let a_0 = 0 and b_0 = 1, then in round n, for n at least 1, Alice chooses a real number a_n with a_{n-1} < a_n < b_{n-1}, and then Bob chooses a real number b_n with a_n < b_n < b_{n-1}. Since a monotonically increasing sequence of real numbers which is bounded above has a limit (see [8, Theorem 3.14]), the limit alpha of a_1, a_2, a_3,... is a well-defined real number between 0 and 1. Alice wins the game if alpha is in S, and Bob wins if alpha is not in S.
It's pretty easy to check that if S is countable, meaning we can list S as {s_1, s_2, s_3,...}, then there's a strategy for Bob that will guarantee him victory. (Bob plays b_n=s_n whenever it's legal; otherwise he plays randomly.) On the other hand, if S is all of [0, 1], then Alice wins no matter how she and Bob play. Therefore, [0, 1] is uncountable.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

I really like this idea.
My proposal (which I suspect is not original) is that, on top of the current deduction for charitable contributions, we create a large charitable exemption, of, say $20,000. That would mean that you could donate up to $20,000 and have that amount taken off your taxes. Thus, the after-tax cost of your donation would be zero. For people whose annual tax obligation is less than $20,000, the income tax would essentially be optional. You could pay your taxes, or you could give an equivalent amount to charity.

A charitable exemption would have the effect of shifting resources from government to private charities. I believe that would be a net plus for people in need.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Even when I'm most optimistic, I can't imagine how we'll ever stop giving military aid to the Afghanistan government. Why? For the same reason I can't see how we'll stop giving military aid to Colombia: the drug war. When I'm most pessimistic, I think we will eventually lose interest in Afghanistan, and our enemies there will have been able to wait us out using to an extorted cut of the profits from poppy sales.

While I'm on the subject, I'll note some of my general disgust with the drug war. First, I don't see how ingesting a chemical is intrinscially wrong. Second, especially when looking at statisitics like these, I can't fathom how the drug war is worth its cost. Third, are opiates really that addictive?

Saturday, June 10, 2006

If you're worried about global warming...

Forget about CO2 emissions. Do something useful:

Indur Goklany, in a study for the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA), examined the effects of tackling infectious diseases, hunger, water insecurity, sea level rise and threats to biodiversity now as opposed to attempting to mitigate climate change now. In all cases he found that tackling them now would have considerably more effect and be cheaper than tackling climate change. For example, meeting the emissions reduction targets of the Kyoto Protocol will reduce the population at risk from malaria by just 0.2 percent in 2085. Investing as little as $1.5 billion in malaria prevention and treatment would cut the death toll in half today.

Moreover, we cannot ignore potential benefits of resiliency beyond greater capacity to adapt to climate change. In another study, Goklany found that a richer-but-warmer world provided greater benefits than a poorer-but-colder world. The benefits of wealth more than offset the costs or warming, while the climatic benefits of a colder world were more than offset by the costs of starving the world of energy to keep it cold. For example, if nothing is done to reduce temperatures, increasing wealth will drive down the population at risk from water shortage by up to 57 percent. The adaptive approach banks these benefits.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

This is mildly entertaining. (Hat tip: Hit & Run.) For a little more entertainment, one needs a quiz to determine "which Flame Warrior are you?"

Thursday, June 01, 2006

The Army Corps of Engineers has officially taken the blame for the New Orleans levee failures.
Serious work began on New Orleans' hurricane protection system in the 1960s after Hurricane Betsy flooded the city in 1965. But over the decades, funding slackened and many parts of the system were not finished by the time Katrina hit.

The result was a disjointed system of levees, inconsistent in quality, materials and design, that left gaps exploited by the storm, the report said.

Also, engineers did not take into account the poor soil quality underneath New Orleans, the report said, and failed to account for the sinking of land, which caused some sections to be as much as 2 feet lower than other parts.

Four breaches in canals that run through New Orleans were caused by foundation failures that were "not considered in the original design of these structures," the report said. Those breaches caused two-thirds of the city's flooding.