21 December 2009

Do Professors "Own" Lecture Content?

This article doesn't answer that question, but it raises it and a few others. It was linked to by Greg Mankiw who was big enough to say that he is "not at all confident that I am right about this one."

The founder of the company that is profiled is Andrew Magliozzi, son of one of the CarTalk guys. CarTalk, if you don't know, is the greatest radio show in the history of the medium.

I think a professor or university may have a claim if a student posted video of an entire semester of lectures without the professor's consent. Class notes and recalled information from tests, however, seem to be fair game. Especially if the online service is free. Scanned images or digital pictures of tests would also seem, to me, a bridge too far, but the website doesn't seem to do that.

19 December 2009


Surprise. Paul Krugman wants the Health Care Reform bill passed, bastardized though it is.

I've highlighted some of Kruman's tendentious leanings a little bit, but why not a few more (I am not going to evaluate the merits of his thesis).

A few points. Krugman writes: "not long ago the Bush administration and its allies in Congress successfully blocked even a modest expansion of health care for children." The plain reading of this sentence is that Bush and his cronies actively stopped more children from being able to receive healthcare. That isn't what happened. No one has ever been precluded by the government from getting health insurance or going to a doctor or hospital. The administration worked against expanding federal funding of state programs aimed at providing subsidized insurance to qualifying indigent children. Now this was a stretch for the administration that couldn't seem to find a problem spending every dollar in sight and a few billion more, but that's not the argument. One can be in favor of health care (health insurance) reform and want no federal dollars spent on providing or subsidizing anyone's health insurance costs or state programs. This is no either/or and his ogre-ization of those mean old Republicans is spiteful and silly.

Next paragraph: "Bear in mind also the lessons of history: social insurance programs tend to start out highly imperfect and incomplete, but get better and more comprehensive as the years go by. Thus Social Security originally had huge gaps in coverage — and a majority of African-Americans, in particular, fell through those gaps. But it was improved over time, and it’s now the bedrock of retirement stability for the vast majority of Americans." Counting Social Security as an example of an "improved" social insurance program is pretty damn funny, especially from an economist. This underfunded, poorly-managed, overly-expanded, heavy-handed, paternalistic social insurance program is pretty much a case study in how not to run these programs. One minor example: the amount of transfers recipients get is pegged to inflation, but thanks to the bleeding heart of Richard Nixon, if CPI goes down (deflation) benefits remain unchanged, transfer recipients "get a raise." Bad fiscal policy, but politically expedient so it's just a dandy idea because really, it's just other people's money. So now we're in a recession and CPI is down about 5% from last year. We know that recipients will gain about $700 of purchasing power (on average) because their transfer payments won't be reduced. Well that's just not good enough for the Obama administration. He wants to give $250 to every social security recipient because it's not fair that there is no cost of living adjustment increase--where, it has been shown, there should be a COLA down. $13billion in debt to the productive people of this country. More than $13 billion in future taxes to those poor stiffs not yet working or born. This is Krugman's "more perfect" model, the one we should hope health care insurance reform mimics. No thanks.

Another point: he writes, "we need to take on the way the Senate works. The filibuster, and the need for 60 votes to end debate, aren’t in the Constitution." I don't like the filibuster. I know the logic behind it and I think it has helped in preventing bad things from getting passed but it has also been used to prevent some good things from getting done. The underlined bits are purely a matter of opinion and that which I'm happy has been blocked is probably the exact opposite of how Mr. Krugman and others feel. So long as we have an entrenched two-party system, that's how it's going to be. Now as far as it not being in the constitution, Article I, Section 5, Clause two states "Each House may determine the rules of its proceedings". So it is in the constitution. Each new congress every two years votes on it rules, its proceedings, and every two years for pretty much the history of the republic, the senate has chosen to allow the filibuster. A great tool when your for it, a terrible idea when your against it. And who is "we" kemo sabe? "We need to take on the way the Senate works."? The New York Times editorial board? Princeton econ professors? People who agree with you?

Don't like the filibuster? Then work to repeal the 17th amendment, expand representation in the House to a more realistic ratio than it is currently pegged at (435 representatives for 300+ million people?) and support 3rd party candidates: Libertarians, Greens, Constitution, &c. The failures of republicanism can be laid at the feet of the entrenchment of our party system. Doing anything possible to escape this stranglehold is change I could believe in.

18 December 2009

The Rap on Keynes

Pretty good stuff.

Lord Skidelsky doesn't mention, and Professor Roberts fails to bring up, that Keynes said that in normal times of growth governments should be running a surplus with deficit spending on public works ("countercyclical spending") when things start to go bad. This concept has been bastardized by neo-Keynesians (see anything written by Paul Krugman, ever), and politicians of all stripes, as justifying perennial negative spending by government in order to "keep things moving along." Even Keynes knew that the market needed no incentive or prodding to "move along" for productivity to grow ceteris paribus. The accumulating debt and ill-effects that deficit spending has on interest rates bode poorly for GDP growth which is why the ideas promulgated by Keynes were to be massive and short-term...the surplus in good times would be the cushion for when the shocks happen. The result is less robust short-term growth (broad-based market inefficiency) and becoming a less attractive option for long-term investment which harms long-term growth.

16 December 2009

The Worst Since...

The Obama Administration and its supporters continually describe the current crisis/recession as "the Worst Since the Great Depression." They also ceaselessly declaim the mess they were left with by the prior administration. I was and am no fan of George W. Bush or his administration, but these claims are faithless on several counts.

First of all, no one man is responsible for the current mess. The old adage about success having many fathers and failure being an orphan applies. Yes, the Bush administration did support many housing initiatives, stating that "homeownership is good." A mindless sentiment of the sort that should never, though usually does, drive policy decisions. But Bush also pushed for more oversight of Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac that was decried as "racist" by those who stood to benefit most by fiddling while those organizations burned through money like Grant took Richmond (I know, a terribly mixed metaphor, but it's early).

Alan Greenspan led the Fed and kept interest rates too low for too long. Was this because he was an Objectivist friend of Ayn Rand who hated the government? A tool in the pocket of banking and Wall Street "fat cats?" Or was he merely unable to see that we were in a bubble? Like just about everyone else.

Anyway, as to the original point, it is in the interest of the Obama administration to make the situation look as bad as it possibly can because it will then get credit for the inevitable recovery. And the worse it can be made to look at Point A, then so much the rosier Point B will look.

Here is a case in point, in this piece Paul Krugman, advocating for a second, larger Obama stimulus "jobs program" writes "the average duration of unemployment — the time the average job-seeker has spent looking for work — is more than six months, the highest level since the 1930s." This feeds into the "Worst Since the Great Depression" meme and ignores that unemployment, now at 10.2%, was worse during the early 80s recession (10.8% in 1982 when the Volcker Fed actively sought to reduce inflation, the Volcker Disinflation).

Krugman completely ignores the implications of frictional unemployment and the increase in the quality and duration of unemployment compensation which is in place to help people (and society) find not just a job, but a job that will lead to more efficient outcomes, matching the unemployed worker with the most appropriate job or allowing the person to acquire new training or education to be more productive in another line of work. And Congress has kept extending the number of weeks that people can collect unemployment compensation. (I will leave for now that, despite the national macroeconomic implications, unemployment compensation should be funded and administered strictly through state or local governments via wage taxation and should not be a concern of Washington.)

Krugman's piece , regarding the government creating jobs, also reminds of the engineer who was on a trip to China. He comes across a work site where a dam is being built. He sees the workers using shovels, picks and wheelbarrows. He tells the supervisor that there is equipment that could cut the amount of time and effort by 80%. "Oh, no," the supervisor tells him, "that would reduce the number of jobs for the men." "I see," the engineer says, "I thought you were trying to build a dam. If it's jobs you want, why not give them spoons instead?"

13 December 2009

My Dad

My dad died 23 years ago today. He was an alcoholic who was afforded every opportunity and had every reason to stop drinking. Some who knew him think that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder from his experience in Viet Nam and that the demons were too much to overcome. I don't know.

I'm no longer angry at him, but I was for a good long while. I don't know what, if any, role his addiction played in my own problems. My hunch is little, if any. I don't know if alcoholism is an inheritable trait. If it is, then there's a good chance my "allergy" (as the big book aptly describes it) came from him. But I don't think my life with him as an alcoholic played a roll, especially having gone through first-hand the devastation that alcoholism has on a family. Whether it did or not, though, doesn't really matter now, does it?

I still don't know why I did what I did. I also have no idea how I was able to stop when so many others can't. Was it a higher power? Beats me. The only thing I do know is that the obsession to drink was lifted. Through good times and bad I've been able to stay the course. Far more often than not, the fact that I'm an alcoholic rarely crosses my mind--the fact that I'm an alcoholic is a part of me, but it doesn't define me. And I can't remember the last time I thought of taking a drink. Not that I take my sobriety for granted. I try to go to the monthly anniversary meetings at the local clubhouse.

But I digress.

I'm not angry with or at my father because really, what's the point? I've learned to deal with anger and let go of resentments, nothing but trouble those two. But sometimes I get sad. He never got to see his boys grow into men; to impart whatever wisdom he had, whether we would have been receptive to it or not; mostly, though, it is his loss that he didn't get to experience his four glorious granddaughters.

It would have been nice to have gotten to know the man, but not so long as he remained on the path that he was. And, again, he had every reason and opportunity to get off of that path. He either couldn't or didn't want to. If it was the latter and there is a hereafter, then it is for him to explain.

Anyway, I miss you dad.

02 December 2009

Knowledge, Consensus & Dissent

I've been following the kerfuffle over the disclosure of stolen e-mails from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) of East Anglia University, England. This post is prompted by an article by Jonah Goldberg and a report on NPR.

I am as concerned as the next person about the condition of the earth and of man's impact on the environment. In high school I circulated a petition to have styrofoam cups and plates removed from the cafeteria, which was adopted by the school. I had read 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Planet, and tried to do as much as I could. I was an early advocate of recycling and got my parents to use detergents that didn't contain phosphorus. I tried not to be preachy, but I was a teenager and well...I was. But I wasn't smug and I didn't look down on those who didn't agree with me. You see? I am just that fantastic.

But there was then and, to a far greater extent, there is now what seems to me a galling lack of critical thinking among climate scientists and ecologically minded folks.

First and foremost, the earth is about 4.5 billion years old and has changed, to varying degrees, over that entire time. It's been pelted with meteors and asteroids, it has endured sulfur rains and liquid rocks flowing along the surface (still does that from time to time). Despite all of this, life generated and has been sustained by adapting to present conditions. These changes are all almost incomprehensibly long and slow and, from our fixed position, imperceptible; observable only from the fossil record, geological studies and the sheer quantity and diversity of species.

Based on this, I would say that anthropogenic climate change, if possible, would be inconsequential as far as the earth and a majority of species is concerned. Adaptation would continue. Not to say that I want human existence to be snuffed out by human activity, but

To the extent that man should limit his impact on the environment, make an effort not to have an unreasonably adverse affect on ecological conditions, and try not to eliminate a specific species or class of species, I am in full agreement. But like anything in life, things can be taken too far.

Consider the trees.

Everyone I know makes at least some effort to recycle paper. And jamming a piece of paper into a trash can that is next to a recycle bin will draw some dirty looks from most observers. If you ask most people why they do this, either actively recycle refuse on their own or hold those who don't with contempt, they say it's to save the trees. A wonderful sentiment, which would be all the more so if it were true.

Unfortunately, large scale recycling reduces the amount of land dedicated to trees. That's right, recycling paper causes more deforestation. I first read this in Steven E. Landsburg's book, The Armchair Economist (Chapter 24, "Why I Am Not An Environmentalist, the Science of Economics Versus the Religion of Ecology"). You see, paper companies need trees. Lots of them. Trees are an entirely renewable resource with a significant time investment, so paper companies and lumber suppliers need to "budget" for future consumption. But if you own a paper company and someone runs in and tells you, "hey boss! I just found a way to reduce the amount of wood needed to produce paper by 20-30%!" Then you (and every other paper producer) will reduce the demand for wood, the supply of wood will be reduced, over time) so the natural price equilibrium can be found (take this all with a heaping dose of all other things being equal, ceteris paribus). The land that was used to produce trees can now be used for other, more productive purposes. QED. Murray Rothbard discusses this in his lecture on Conservation and Property Rights which I hope to write about more later. This isn't just right-wing nuts, either. In his book Filthy Lucre, Joseph Heath writes "one way to increase the number of trees being planted is for us to consume more paper."*

I guess this is all a long way of saying that critical thinking matters. And that guy you see dropping paper into a trash can may well care about the planet just as much as you. And saying that anthropogenic global warming may not be happening may make you an apostate in the eyes who hold environmentalism as a moral issue, it doesn't make you a science-hating ostrich.

There is consensus in the scientific community (boy howdy do I hate referring to "communities"), and that consensus should be taken seriously. It should also be challenged. Mr. Darwin's elegant little theory was published 150 years ago and has been challenged ever since. Good science can and will withstand scrutiny. John Derbyshire has an excellent article here.

*This onion has a lot of layers. I hope to address it more later.