Monday, July 31, 2006

Today I learned the purpose of the thick handles of my car keys.

Update: I couldn't resist; I wrapped the handle of one my car keys in aluminum foil. Sure enough, that key then failed to start the ignition.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

A few good links

Of late, I've especially appreciated Greg Mankiw's blog for all its links to new data, whether it be on income equality, on exercise, or on genetics predicting educational attainment.
Charles Murray makes an interesting set of complaints against the No Child Left Behind Act. On the one hand, he hates it for having too demanding testing requirements:
The Frederick County, Md., schools our children have attended have turned themselves inside out to try to produce the right test results, with dismaying effects on the content of classroom instruction and devastating effects on teacher morale. We actually lost our best English teacher to the effects of high-stakes testing. "I want to teach my students how to write," he said, "not teach them how to pass a test that says they can write." He quit.
Then he complains that the testing requirements are not strict enough. States are not required to fully divulge test results; instead they release very limited results like pass rates of ethnic groups. Murray does a great job showing that relative pass rates are meaningless without more data.
Test scores in Texas went up for both blacks and whites. Maybe that's good news, representing real gains in learning for everyone, or maybe it's not so good, representing the effects of teaching to the test. The data Texas reports do not permit a judgment. But the black gains are almost exactly what would be predicted if the magnitude of the underlying black-white difference remained unchanged. If there really was closure of the gap, all that Texas has to do is release the group means, as well as information about the black and white distributions of scores, and it will easy to measure it. Whatever the real closure may be, however, it cannot come close to the dramatic reduction that President Bush found in the difference between black and white pass rates.
Ultimately, Murray's article makes an interesting statistics lesson but doesn't shed light on whether NCLB has caused "real gains in learning for everyone." The Tenth Amendment alone gives me reason to oppose NCLB, but I still really would like to know how effective NCLB has been.
If you like limited government, then typically you like decentralized government, e.g., federalism. A big exception is trade barriers. For example, Arnold Kling would love for Congress to sweep away the patchwork of states' regulations of health insurance. So would I, but in the long run we might still have lots of regulation, only now at the federal level. (Remember the "Patients' Bill of Rights"?)

I believe that at the federal level the probability of extreme outcomes is higher. Since there is no threat of people and businesses voting with their feet by moving to a new state, very rigid regulation or even nationalization at the federal level is much harder to fight. On the other hand, a relatively unfettered market in health insurance would be easier to achieve as one political victory in Congress than 50 victories in state legislatures. If I had to guess, I'd say it's worth the risk to try to get Congress to free the interstate market in health insurance. But I must stress this is just a guess.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

De jure federalism and de facto partition should be a U.S. goal for Iraq. For example, I like this proposed strategy. (For comparison, you might like to peruse this Foreign Affairs roundtable on Iraq.) I would add to that NYT op-ed that partition is compatible with a goal of democratic Iraqi government; it just recommends more focus on local political institions.

I see two problems with the partition strategy: fighting over oil revenues and an impractical desire among both many Iraqis and American policymakers for a more united Iraq. I don't have much to say about the first problem. As for the second, according to polling from late June, three fourths of Iraqis oppose ethnic or religious segregation of their country, even in Baghdad. On the other hand, Randall Parker points to evidence of people voting with their feet for segregation. (More here.) If the communal violence goes on long enough, all the major players will settle for a partition, provided the oil issue is resolved.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The fact that hybrid cars are so expensive should make one suspect they might not really be that good for the environment. Research has confirmed this is the case.
For instance, the dust-to-dust energy cost of the bunny-sized Honda Civic hybrid is $3.238 per mile. This is quite a bit more than the $1.949 per mile that the elephantine Hummer costs. The energy cots of SUVs such as the Tahoe, Escalade, and Navigator are similarly far less than the Civic hybrid....

But by and large the dust-to-dust energy costs in Spinella's study correlate with the fanciness of the car – not its size or fuel economy -- with the Rolls Royces and Bentleys consuming gobs of energy and Mazda 3s, Saturns and Taurus consuming relatively minuscule amounts....

One of the most perverse things about U.S. consumers buying hybrids is that while this might reduce air pollution in their own cities, they increase pollution – and energy consumption -- in Japan and other Asian countries where these cars are predominantly manufactured. "In effect, they are exporting pollution and energy consumption," Spinella says.

I don't think it's "perverse" to export pollution to other countries in this way. Other countries make their own choices about how to balance pollution costs with manufacturing benefits. Still, a lot of folks profess concern about the environment, not just their environment. Such globally-minded people should prefer cheap cars. Price is a good if imperfect proxy for environmental impact.

Friday, July 14, 2006

The limits of exercise (hat tip: MR):
For instance, it seems obvious that increasing energy output—by walking to school, for instance, or starting an intense gym program—will help decrease obesity. Unfortunately, another study points out that what's obvious isn't necessarily true.

T.J. Wilkin and his colleagues at the Peninsula Medical School in Devon, England, looked at three groups of English and Scottish children. They measured physical activity using accelerometers, devices that record duration and intensity of movement 600 times a minute....

Wilkins and his team found that every child has his or her own very consistent daily level of activity. It remains the same on weekends and weekdays; it's not affected by school physical education, or by whether the child walks or drives to school, or how much time he spends awake or in front of a television. We don't know what determines this intrinsic level of activity. But engineering the environment to make available or even to require more activity will apparently have little impact on children whose nature is to be inactive.

The study's subjects' ages were five to nine years. Being the oldest of five siblings, the results don't surprise me. I'm much more interested in how much this homeostatic effect tapers off with age. Fortunately, the paper mentions that some of its subjects are part of an ongoing longitudinal study that will address this.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

A feasible amendment?

I'd really like to believe the this nice little graph and the implication that eventually our government's overpromising of future retirement benefits will force massive spending cuts rather than massive tax increases. Alas, I'm not convinced; I really have no idea which of tax increases or spending cuts ultimately will be chosen over the other. (A near-tie is also possible.)

How might we really ensure federal spending doesn't explode in the long term? The most feasible idea that has occured to me is a constitutional amendment limiting federal taxation to defense spending plus 20% of GDP. Right now, nondefense federal outlays are under 17% of GDP; hence, anyone opposing the amendment would automatically be a supporter of a tax hike of over $300 billion more than what is needed to balance the budget. The gap between 17% and 20% also turns the "pass the buck" phenomenon into a force for smaller government. Today's politicians can look good by protecting us from big tax increases; their successors can handle unpopular entitlement reforms.

Moreover, 20% is a nice, round number to campaign with. "After defense is payed for, why should Washington ever need more than a fifth of our money?" One might seriously reply, "What about an epidemic, another Great Depression, or an asteroid impact?" However, deficit spending is not forbidden. Thus, the federal government would still be able to spend amply in response to national emergencies, military or not.

There are some minor technicalities that need to be ironed out, but they really are minor. For example, we should specify that the limit on taxation is with respect to each year. Moreover, since our forecasts of future GDP are imperfect, there has to be some remedy if the government accidentally overtaxes. A simple remedy is to require tax refunds next year. Alternatively, each year's taxation could be restricted to defense spending plus 20% of the GDP of the previous year. If GDP grew 5% in a year, then this would make the limit on taxation approximately 19% of GDP plus defense spending.

Is my idea feasible? Why or why not?

One argument I've read for restricting immigration is that it would increase our productivity in the long term because the higher cost of labor would encourage innovation, especially automation. Thus, instead of bringing in nurses from the Phillipines, we should follow the Japanese example and invest more in robots to care for our elderly. I've often read a similar argument in favor of making petroleum more expensive, either through taxes or regulations. It goes like this. Businesses are too focused on short-term profitability to adequately invest in alternative fuels. Therefore, we'll keep overusing oil until reserves become so low that there isn't time to switch to something else without suffering an economic catastrophre.

Both arguments boil down to the same thing. We're short-sighted when it comes to innovation. Necessity being the mother of invention, we must create necessity now. In the long run, this will make us better off.

I don't buy it. To the extent that we are short-sighted, let us have direct tax incentives for savings and R&D. This addresses the problem more efficiently and fairly than does creating specific artificial scarcities of things like gasoline.

By the way, there are certainly other arguments for restricting immigration (e.g., its effect on our institutions and culture) and taxing gasoline (e.g., offsetting costs of pollution and public road maintainence). For this post I just want to shoot down a bad argument.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Fourth of July "what if" talk eventually led me to this. I've added it to my list of books to read someday.

While I'm on this subject, I'll indulge one of my pet theories. (Really, isn't that what blogs are for?) Most Americans who today regret our independence would have fled to Canada if they had lived through the Revolution. Having been born too late for that, they instead become big fans of current Canadian society and politics. At root, it's a matter of temperament.