Thursday, November 30, 2006

I've always thought the pictorial explanation of deadweight loss was the most elegant, but some of Greg Mankiw's readers have risen to his challenge and explained well in words what deadweight loss is (3:29 PM, Anonymous) and why it rises approximately in proportion to the square (11:41 AM, Karl Smith) of the tax on a transaction.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Club for Growth gets some good press in Reason. (I'm also a big fan of the Club.) I'll complain only about an incorrect date: Pat Toomey became president of the Club back in January 2005, not in September 2006.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

A few good links

Building a better nail. (HT: Eugene Volokh)

A human could survive after being a vacuum for about 90 seconds. (HT: Tyler Cowen)

The Democrats plan to reject trade deals with Colombia and Peru.

Google's answer (still in beta) to NationMaster. (HT: Eric)

This may be politically savvy, but for me it is primarily a reminder that the Republican Congress as a whole was and is unwilling to get control of earmarks.
GOP leaders have opted to leave behind almost a half-trillion-dollar clutter of unfinished spending bills.

Driving the decision to quit and go home rather than finish the remaining budget work is a determined effort by a group of conservative Republicans to prevent putting a GOP stamp on spending bills covering 13 Cabinet Departments - and loaded with thousands of homestate projects derided as "pork" by critics.

It appears the Democrats won't do much better.

The trouble with the Stern report

The Stern report on climate change overestimates its costs because it uses too low a discount rate. Choosing discount rates is a complicated ethical problem, but Stern's chosen social discount rate is ludicrously low.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

How could I have forgetten the red, blue, and purple election maps (and cartograms)? Better late than never. (HT: A Constrained Vision)

Saturday, November 18, 2006

A few good links

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

In the days and months before the mid-term elections, I barely spent any time reading polls. Instead, I closely followed the betting market at, trusting it to aggregate the relevant information into a small list of prices easily interpretable as probabilities. I think this approach paid off. There were three very close Senate races last night: Virginia, Montana, and Missouri. The Republicans only needed to hold one to keep the Senate. In the first few hours after the polls closed in the East, the contract paying $100 if the GOP keeps control of the Senate was trading at around $85. In hindsight, this 85% probability made perfect sense. Given that there were three almost perfect toss-ups, one would expect a price around seven eighths (87.5%) of a dollar.

As the returns came in, things kept looking worse and worse for the GOP incumbents in the above three races. Over the course of half an hour, the price fell from 85 to 45. Ninety minutes later, it was in the low twenties. (Right now, it's still at 6%, waiting on the final count & recount from Virginia.) I got a kick out of watching the returns come in and instantly seeing the market's interpretation. It was far more efficient than scouring the web, TV, and radio for the comments of the precinct experts.

Alas, the markets don't tell me everything I need to know about politics. Things like "Congress will be more protectionist" (HT: Eric) are hard to directly translate into betting contracts. (Though there could be (but aren't, as far as I know) contracts on Trade Promotion Authority, the Doha round, increased tariffs against China...) And then there are exit polls...

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

One good New Atlantis link deserves another: The Paradox of Military Technology.
The First Fourteen Days of Human Life. Some of the analogies are stronger than others, but I ultimately agree with the authors that we can't deny personhood to a zygote just because it hasn't implanted yet, or because it is still capable twinning or fusion.

For me, the moral status of naturally developing human zygotes is pretty clear; a murkier matter is the status of unnaturally developing human blastocysts. For example, for my most recent adult Sunday school class, we watched a video of a lecture by Rudolf Jaenisch about the moral implications of his work with Alexander Meissner in which they "used nuclear transfer to derive mouse blastocysts from donor fibroblasts that carried a short hairpin RNA construct targeting Cdx2. Cloned blastocysts were morphologically abnormal, lacked functional trophoblast and failed to implant into the uterus. However, they efficiently generated pluripotent embryonic stem cells when explanted into culture." Assuming this procedure would work on human cells, would the result be a just a clump of cells, or would it be a very sick, very young person?

For sufficiently large N, a (non-gamete) cell from an adult human body can (in principle) be transformed, via N biochemical manipulations, into a genetically identical cell that is fully capable of implanting in a uterus and eventually becoming an adult human. So, where do we draw the line? At the risk of repeating myself, I think we will ultimately have to draw a lot of counterinuitive moral lines based on narrow genetic and epigenetic differences which cause major developmental differences. (Even then, some development differences will not be dichotomies, but rather differences of degree; a clear dividing line may be forever elusive in such cases.)

Regarding Jaenisch and Meissner's procedure, I honestly hadn't thought about it much between my October 2005 post and last Sunday. I was in favor of the idea last year, but coming back to the issue this week, I had doubts about the essentiality of the trophoblast, the precursor to the placenta which Cdx2 directs the formation of. Does preventing a functional trophoblast prevent a person, or create a very sick person? Going back to William Hurlbut's December 2004 paper for the President's Council on Bioethics, the first and second footnotes assuage my doubts. Key phrases: "studies confirm that normal trophectoderm is essential for normal embryogenesis" and "Cdx2 is essential for axial elongation in mouse development." If we really want to be on the safe side, then perhaps we should prevent gastrulation; Hurlbut cites evidence that this could be achieved by knocking out a gene called Hnf4.

Update: Let's spice things up with a concrete prediction: within 10 years, you won't be able to get NIH funding for research on human blastocysts unless you genetically/epigenetically make them incapable of implantation.