02 Aug 2009

Is It Joan Rivers or Maybelline?

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Is this for real? I was flipping through the TV channels before crashing in the hotel, and saw this on some celebrity gossip show.

I kept waiting for it to be an ad for her new movie or something.

02 Aug 2009

Does That Word Mean What I Think It Means?

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This Media Matters smackdown on a Fox lady (I’m not saying a foxy lady. mind you) is upset because she said “Social Security: already bankrupt.”

But it’s not so much that what she said was false, rather it was nonsensical. You’re either bankrupt or not, right? If GAAP says I will be bankrupt in three years, then I’m bankrupt right now, right?

So I think MM is right to be alarmed, because viewers probably took away something more concrete from the statement than what the facts warranted. It’s just ironic because they defend the solvency of SS by saying:

In fact, the Social Security and Medicare Boards of Trustees have projected that in the absence of a change in the law, Social Security will be able to pay full benefits until 2041, after which it will be able to cover between 78 and 75 percent of scheduled benefits through the end of the 75-year period covered by their 2008 long-range projection.

Right, that’s why it’s bankrupt, right now. That’s what it means to be bankrupt, you aren’t expected to be able to pay what you owe to your creditors.

02 Aug 2009

I Just Solved the Life Expectancy Problem

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Oh my gosh, I made the mistake of actually reading the first 1/3 of the comments on this Bill O’Reilly Media Matters brouhaha. I don’t want to encourage you folks to read it too, but it’s kind of like when you smell something really awful and want to share it with others.

In any event, the title of this blog post alludes to the fact that I lost 5 years of my life expectancy reading the arguments about bike helmets and, “You sir, have committed a logical fallacy. Touche!”

02 Aug 2009

Old Testament Prophecies of Jesus

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For believing Christians, one of the more convincing pieces of evidence confirming their worldview is that Old Testament writers seemed to have uncanny descriptions of the life of Jesus. For example, here’s Psalm 22: 1-18:

1 My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?
Why are You so far from helping Me,
And from the words of My groaning?
2 O My God, I cry in the daytime, but You do not hear;
And in the night season, and am not silent.

3 But You are holy,
Enthroned in the praises of Israel.
4 Our fathers trusted in You;
They trusted, and You delivered them.
5 They cried to You, and were delivered;
They trusted in You, and were not ashamed.

6 But I am a worm, and no man;
A reproach of men, and despised by the people.
7 All those who see Me ridicule Me;
They shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying,
8 “He trusted in the LORD, let Him rescue Him;
Let Him deliver Him, since He delights in Him!”

9 But You are He who took Me out of the womb;
You made Me trust while on My mother’s breasts.
10 I was cast upon You from birth.
From My mother’s womb
You have been My God.
11 Be not far from Me,
For trouble is near;
For there is none to help.

12 Many bulls have surrounded Me;
Strong bulls of Bashan have encircled Me.
13 They gape at Me with their mouths,
Like a raging and roaring lion.

14 I am poured out like water,
And all My bones are out of joint;
My heart is like wax;
It has melted within Me.
15 My strength is dried up like a potsherd,
And My tongue clings to My jaws;
You have brought Me to the dust of death.

16 For dogs have surrounded Me;
The congregation of the wicked has enclosed Me.
They pierced My hands and My feet;
17 I can count all My bones.
They look and stare at Me.
18 They divide My garments among them,
And for My clothing they cast lots.

Now for those familiar with the gospels (i.e. the four books in the Bible containing accounts of Jesus’ life), the above description, made hundreds of years before Jesus lived, is downright eerie. It accords very well with the (Biblically alleged) fact that Jesus was conceived of the Holy Spirit (i.e. His mother was a virgin when she became pregnant with Jesus), and at His crucifixion the Roman soldiers cast lots for His garments, pierced His hands and feet with nails, threw a spear into His side so that He began bleeding water, and yet didn’t break any of His bones. And of course, just before He died Jesus proclaimed, “My God my God, why have You forsaken Me?”

So how does the atheist respond to this? I can imagine a few possibilities:

Objections a Hypothetical Non-Christian Could Give
(1) The Old Testament “predictions” were faked; they were written after the fact to fit Jesus’ experiences.

(2) The New Testament “facts” were doctored to match the Old Testament predictions. Jesus’ garments weren’t actually divided up by the Roman soldiers, or at the very least, the only proof we have of this is the assertion of a gospel writer.

(3) The Bible is a big book. If you squint hard enough, you’re bound to found all sorts of vague “predictions” that ended up coming true. It doesn’t mean there’s actually predictive power; look at all the Old Testament’s flowery poetry that doesn’t correspond to any obvious future event. Are those all examples of falsified predictions?

Am I missing anything? Now what do the Christian readers (many of you have much more knowledge in this area) say in response?

02 Aug 2009

US Life Expectancy Rates

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The chief activity in the geeconosphere is to bring up alleged facts (which I doubt anyone verifies) and then bust out theories to explain these stipulated facts using economic logic and a dash of pizazz.

The latest example concerns health care, of course. (Not only do the feds take half our money, they get to set the topics for some of the brightest armchair theorists to discuss.) Here’s Tyler Cowen:

Matt Yglesias and Paul Krugman weigh in on interpreting life expectancy statistics across the U.S. and the Netherlands. The fact under consideration, from a few days ago, is that the U.S. has low life expectancy overall but superior life expectancy after you reach the age of 65.

One way to interpret this data (re: Yglesias and Krugman) is to think that the U.S. should spread Medicare to its entire population.

I’m sorry but this just strikes me as patently absurd, like Bryan Caplan telling me adopted twin studies prove that “parents don’t matter.” Yes, the reported fact is consistent with the hypothesis that government involvement with health care is a good idea, but it’s consistent with all kinds of theories. For example, maybe it shows that for some reason, the introduction of Medicare caused more stillbirths. Voila, the data reflect that!

I’m not claiming the following is the most important factor, but I bet one factor involves different immigration patterns. E.g. maybe poor people come in from South America when they’re young, then they work 20 years and go home to retire in their home country where it’s a lot cheaper to live. If those people on average have less access to quality health care (or live in dangerous neighborhoods, eat fast food, etc.) then they reduce the life expectancy of the cohort they’re in. But since only 18 – 50 year olds are in the US in any significant numbers, they only drag down the front end of the life expectancy tables.

I bet another major factor–and I hope I’m not pulling an O’Reilly here–is that a lot of young males die at the hands of their peers. (So I’m including homicide, drunk driving, boating while blindfolded, etc.) But as the survivors get older, they mature: they get married and stay in on weekends, they move to safer neighborhoods, they pick better friends, etc.

I have no idea of the actual numbers, but I would be shocked if this type of self-destructive, yet short-lived (no pun intended), cohort were as big a factor in the Netherlands as it is in the U.S.

01 Aug 2009

If You’re Going to Establish a Cartel of Banks, Make Sure You Control It

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Krugman links (with extreme official disapproval) to this Willem Buiter piece. Krugman excerpted Buiter’s funny opinion of Larry Summers, but I was more interested in his (Buiter’s) description of how the Fed installs its leadership. He concludes:

This arrangement amounts to one where a regulated industry, the US banks regulated and supervised by the Fed, elect their own supervisors and regulators. Regulatory capture is made inevitable with this institutional arrangement. Indeed, the governance structure of the regional Federal Reserve Banks, including the way in which they elect their Presidents, seems designed to ensure capture of the regulator/supervisor by the industry he is supposed to regulate and supervise in the wider public interest. It is an unbelievable and utterly insane arrangement from the point of view of the common good. It is a wonderful arrangement from the perspective of the US banking industry.

01 Aug 2009

How Can Destroying Products Be Good for Consumers?

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I’m still at Mises U, so that’s why the posting has been so sparse. On the bright side, I had a pretty good “Mises Circle” talk that I will link to when it goes up on the LRC podcast. There also may be some new karaoke YouTubes floating around to incriminate me in the near future.

In the meantime, let me share one interesting tidbit for the econ geeks amongst you readers. In the lecture concerning Mises vs. Rothbard on consumer sovereignty, I realized something that made the whole issue seem obviously “Point, match, Murray.”

Specifically, Mises had conceded that in principle, even on the free market a monopolist (facing an inelastic demand curve at the point of the original equilibrium) would find it profitable to restrict output. This would be a violation of the general rule that entrepreneurs act as mandataries of the consumers. Here would be a case where the market economy perversely led a capitalist to act contrary to the wishes of consumers, because he deliberately destroys units of a good–and that can’t possibly be the right outcome as far as the consumers are concerned.

Rothbard has a bunch of responses, but here’s something I had never thought of before. (Maybe it’s in Rothbard and I just missed it; I haven’t gone back to check.) We normally think of implausible cases where a private agricultural company manages to corner the world market on tobacco or coffee, and then burns some of the harvest in a given year in order to raise the price. (It has to be a private concern doing it, otherwise the issue has no bearing on the free market possibly hurting consumers.)

The discussion makes it sound as if it’s a rare, almost hypothetical scenario, but actually it happens all the time! For example, in high school I worked in the dairy department at a large grocery store. We would always keep a sharp eye out for expired product in the cooler or on the shelves.

Now let’s say there are a few quarts of skim milk that are getting close to the expiration date. We can try putting them in the very front of the case–and that’s why you should always look a few units deep into the cooler before buying anything perishable from the grocery store–but sometimes you end up with expired units. So you have to throw them out. (Or maybe we gave them to a soup kitchen or something; I can’t remember. I think we just threw them out.)

This was a conscious decision on our manager’s part. It would have been possible to put on a sale to move every last unit of product off the shelves before the expiration date. But in the grand scheme, it made more sense to keep the price at the normal level, knowing there would be a chance of losing some product every other week due to expiration.

Of course, the manager would try to order inventory to minimize this wastage, but on the other hand she wouldn’t want to run out of nonfat strawberry yogurt every other week, either. So it was a tradeoff when ordering more inventory; the more cases she ordered, the more units we would likely throw out, but the fewer she ordered, the more potential sales we would miss out on if demand were unexpectedly high. (And also customers would get mad if we were consistently out of stock on various items.)

So is this a violation of consumer sovereignty, the fact that we consciously adopted a strategy that would yield, on average, a lot of food being tossed out, month after month? Not at all. If someone insisted that always adjust spot prices to unload every last unit, it would change the manager’s ordering behavior and (I think) would clearly make the customers worse off. After all, rival grocery stores were always free to adopt such a policy. I can’t think of any obvious externalities or other stumbling blocks, so it seems there is a prima facie case that the systematic destruction of food by our grocery store was economically efficient.

The argument generalizes once you see it in the above light. For example, movie theaters routinely “withhold supply” off the market, in order to charge a higher price. Airlines do the same thing. Wouldn’t it be awful, in fact, if airline and movie prices always adjusted to make sure every last seat were always filled?

29 Jul 2009

There’s No "I" in IER

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Lately we’ve had some pretty good stuff come out at the Institute for Energy Research (IER), if I do say so myself. And such horn-tooting isn’t as bad as it first seems, since the below were truly team efforts.

* In this press release we pointed out the irony of Joe Biden’s recent recommendations to Ukraine. (Hint: he wants them to cut government subsidies and to increase domestic natural gas production in order to bolster their national security.)

* In this blog post we underscored the significance of Secretary of State Clinton’s visit to India, where she was told that India was not going to sacrifice its economy to fighting climate change.

* Continuing the theme, in this press release the IER team collected a bunch of quotes showing that US officials seem to not be listening to Chinese and Indian officials, when they say in quite plain English (?) that they aren’t going to adopt caps on their carbon dioxide emissions. This is rather awkward, since the only sliver of a rationale left for the Waxman-Markey bill (which passed the House narrowly and still has to get through the Senate) is that US leadership will provoke other major countries to follow suit.

* Finally, here is a blog post giving the low down on the CFTC’s recent announcement that, “after further review,” it turns out speculators caused the oil price spike in 2008 after all. I guess science advances one election at a time.