Posts tagged ‘patterns’

Memo to Vox: You Know How This Prosperity Was Achieved? We Let it Happen.

Vox shares what is perhaps the greatest achievement in human history, the continuing disappearance of absolute poverty:



Readers of this blog will likely  have seen this before (though it may well be new to Vox readers).  Here is the amazing thing about the Vox article:  It never once mentions capitalism, trade, economic freedom, or any synonym.  Here is a sampling of the tone of the accompanying article:

There's still much work to be done: 14.4 percent of the world amounts to 1 billion people who still need to be lifted out of extreme poverty. And making sure everyone's making at least $1.25 a day isn't the end of the fight either. The world's median income is still only $3 to $4 a day. By comparison, the poverty line in the US for a family of four is $16.61 per person per day. Once under-$1.25-a-day poverty is eradicated, the world needs to set about eradicating under-$15-a-day poverty, which will be a substantially harder task.

Vox is treating this like it is the result of some top-down effort, using the same language one might use to describe the eradication of Yellow Fever in Panama.  As if this resulted (and as if future progress depended on) some all-hands-on-deck technocratic government program.

No one "set about" eradicating poverty.  It happened because governments, at least to some extent, got out of the way and didn't stop it.  China is a great example.  Mao "set about" trying to eliminate poverty using many of the approaches likely favored by the Vox staff, and killed a few tens of millions of people in the process.

Here is my theory of the world's accelerating wealth formation that I have written on a number of times before.  This chart largely results from:

  • There was a philosophical and intellectual change where questioning established beliefs and social patterns wentfrom being heresy and unthinkable to being acceptable, and even in vogue. In other words, men, at first just the elite but soon everyone, were urged to use their mind rather than just relying on established beliefs and appeals to authority.
  • There were social and political changes that greatly increased the number of people capable of entrepreneurship. Before this time, the vast vast majority of people were locked into social positions that allowed them no flexibility to act on a good idea, even if they had one. By starting to create a large and free middle class, first in the Netherlands and England and then in the US, more people had the ability to use their mind to create new wealth. Whereas before, perhaps 1% or
    less of any population really had the freedom to truly act on their ideas, after 1700 many more people began to have this freedom.

So today's wealth, and everything that goes with it (from shorter work hours to longer life spans) is the result of more people using their minds more freely.

Me Then, Hillary Now: Progressives Are Too Conservative to Accept Capitalism

Coyote, in Forbes, December 2010 (excerpts):

My contention is that what drives most progressives, at a very fundamental level, is a deep conservatism.  Of course, most “progressives” would freak if they were called conservative, but what I mean by conservative in this context is not donate-to-Jesse-Helms capital-C Conservative but fearful of change and uncomfortable with uncertainty conservative.

Because capitalism is based so completely on individual decision-making, because its operation is inherently chaotic, and because its rewards can’t possibly be divided equally and still be “rewards”, progressives are hugely uncomfortable with it.  Ironically, though progressives want to posture at being “dynamic”, it turns out that capitalism is in fact too dynamic for them.  Industries rise and fall, jobs are won and lost, recessions give way to booms.  Progressives want comfort and certainty.  They want to lock things down the way they are. They want to know that such and such job will be there tomorrow and next decade, and will always pay at least X amount.  Which is why, in the end, progressives are all statists, because only a government with totalitarian powers can bring the order and certainty and control of individual decision-making that they crave..

Progressive elements in this country have always tried to freeze commerce, to lock this country’s economy down in its then-current patterns.  Progressives in the late 19th century were terrified the American economy was shifting from agriculture to industry.  They wanted to stop this, to cement in place patterns where 80-90% of Americans worked on farms.  I, for one, am glad they failed, since for all of the soft glow we have in this country around our notion of the family farmer, farming was and can still be a brutal, dawn to dusk endeavor that never really rewards the work people put into it....

I am sure, if asked, most  progressives would profess to desire iPod’s and cures for cancer.  But they want these without the incentives that drive men to invent them, and the disruption to current markets and competitors and employees that their introduction entails.  They want to end poverty without wealth creation, they want jobs without employers, they want cars without unemployment for buggy whip makers.

Hillary Clinton in July, 2015:  via Instapundit

In her first major economic policy address of the 2016 campaign, Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton raised questions about the effect that companies like Uber and Airbnb are having on American workers. . . .

Later in the speech, Clinton vowed to “crack down on bosses who exploit employees by misclassifying them as contractors” — a possible reference to something like the recent California Labor Commission decision that threatens to undermine Uber’s business model.

To be sure, Clinton does not want to destroy the sharing economy. She acknowledged that “these trends are real” and “none is going away.” But she may believe that, with the right application of political muscle, the new economy can be forced to conform with the antiquated blue social model — that is, the midcentury vision of steady, regulated, unionized employment with generous benefits.

As we have argued again and again, this notion is unrealistic. Like it or not, this 1950s model of economic organization is breaking down, and has been for several decades, thanks to globalization, demographic changes, technological innovation, and other trends that simply cannot be reversed. Measures like the California decision are futile and counterproductive. We should treat the emergence of a more entrepreneurial, dynamic landscape as an opportunity to be engaged with productively, not a danger to be henpecked by regulations better suited to the last century.

Streetcars: A Scam That is All About Class

I am increasingly convinced that the appeal of streetcars and light rail has everything to do with class.  From any rational perspective, these systems make no sense -- they are 10-100x more expensive than buses and lack the flexibility that buses have to adjust to shifting demand patterns over time.  A single extra lane of highway adds more capacity than any light rail line.

Streetcar's single, solitary advantage is that middle and upper class whites who would not be caught dead on a bus seem to be willing to ride streetcars.   I don't know if this is because of some feature of the streetcars (they are shiny and painted pretty) or if it is some sort of self-segregation (the upper classes want to ride on something that is not filled with "riffraff").

Anyway, Reason has a really good video on streetcars, which covers a lot of topics from cronyism to the class issues I mention.  And the film of the incredibly poor design of the DC streetcar has to be seen to be believed.  (via Maggies Farm and their great daily links page)

Transit Net Transit Ridership Does Not Go Up When Cities Build Rail

As I have written before, Phoenix has seen its total transit ridership flat to down since it built its light rail line.  This after years of 6-10% a year increases in ridership.  Most cities, even the oft-worshipped Portland, have seen the same thing.  Here is the chart for Phoenix (if you look closely, you can see how they fudged the bar scaling to make light rail ridership increases look better).



The reason is that per passenger, or per mile, or per route, or whatever way you want to look at it, rail systems are 1-2 orders of magnitude more expensive than buses.  Since most cities are reluctant to increase their spending on transit 10-100x when they build trains (and to be fair, proponents of rail projects frequently make this worse by fibbing about future costs and revenue expectations), what happens is that bus routes are cut to fund rail lines.  But since buses are so much cheaper, 10 units of bus capacity, or more, must be cut for each one unit of rail capacity.

The Anti-planner shows us an example in Honolulu.  No, the line is not finished so this effect has not happened yet, but you can see it from a mile away:

The city and state officials who promoted construction of Honolulu’s rail transit line now admitthat they don’t know how they are going to pay for the cost of operating that line. Between 2019, when the first part of the line is expected to open for business, and 2031, those costs are expected to be $1.7 billion, or about $140 million per year. In 2011, the annual operating cost was estimated to be $126 million a year.

Honolulu has about a hundred bus routes, which cost about $183 million to operate in 2013, or less than $2 million per route. The rail line will therefore cost about 70 times as much to operate as the average bus route.

So they have budgeted no money for operations, and are probably underestimating net operating costs as their revenue projections, as discussed later in the article, are transparently over-optimistic (this is always a good bet, since 99% of rail projects under-estimate their costs and over-estimate their ridership).  The rail line will cost as much to operate as 2/3 of their city's entire bus system, which is extensive and well-used. So how many bus routes will be cut to fund this one route?  10?  30?  70?

By the way, beyond the obvious harm to taxpayers, the other people hurt by this are the poor who are disporportionately bus users.  Rail systems almost always go from middle/upper class suburbs to business districts and seldom mirror the transit patterns of the poor.  Middle class folks who wouldn't be caught dead on a bus love the trains, but these same folks already have transportation alternatives.  The bus lines that get cut to fund the trains almost always serve much lower income folks with fewer alternatives.

Great Moments in Bad Economic Policy

This article on bad bipartisan energy laws and regulations from Master Resource brought back some old memories of the 1970s.

Folks who are at all economically literate understand the role that government price controls (specifically price caps) had on gasoline shortages in the 1970s.  When there was a supply shock via the Arab oil embargo, prices were not allowed to rise to match supply and demand.  As in the case of all such price control situations, shortages and queuing resulted.

It is too bad in a way that most folks today can't really remember the gas lines of 1973 and again in 1978.  It was my job in 1978 as the new driver in the family to go wait in line for gas for all the family cars.  I wasted hours and hours sitting in gas lines. I wonder if anyone has every computed the economic value of the time lost to Americans sitting in gas lines because politicians did not want the price to rise by 20 cents.

A number of my friends who knew my dad was an Exxon executive were surprised at my waiting in lines, and wondered why we didn't get some sort of secret access to gas.  But my family waited in lines like everything else.

Well, almost like everyone else.  Because of my dad's position, we did have a bit of information most people did not have, at least in the first shock of 1973.  It was not a secret, it was just totally unreported in the media.  The key was the knowledge of a piece of Congressional legislation called the Emergency Petroleum Allocation Act of 1973.  It had an enormous impact on exacerbating the urban gas lines, but either out of a general ignorance or else a media/academic desire not to make government regulation look bad, it is as unknown today as it was unreported in 1973.

What the law did was this -- it mandated that oil companies distribute gasoline geographically in the US in the same proportion that it was sold in the prior year.  So if they sold x% in area Y last year before the embargo, x% must be distributed to area Y this year after the embargo.  I can't remember the exact concern, but Congress had some fear that oil companies would somehow respond to price signals in a way that caused gasoline allocations to hose someone somewhere.

Anyway, the effect was devastating, probably even worse than the effect of price controls.  The reason was that while Congress forced gasoline supply distribution patterns to remain the same as the prior year (in classic directive 10-289 style), demand patterns had changed a lot.  Specifically, with the fear that gas might not be available over the road and looming economic problems, people cancelled their summer long-distance driving trips.

Everyone stayed home and didn't drive the Interstates cross-country.  So there was little demand for gas at the stations that served these routes.  But by law, oil companies had to keep delivering gasoline to these typically rural stations.  So as urban drivers fumed sitting in gas lines for hours and hours, many rural locations were awash in gas.  Populist Congressmen berated oil companies in the press for the urban gas shortages and lines, all while it was their stupid, ill-considered laws that created a lot of the problem.

So this was the fact that should have been public, but was not: That instead of sitting in urban gas lines for four hours, one could drive 30 minutes into the countryside and find it much easier.  Which is what we did, a number of times.

By the way, it was about this time that I read Hedrick Smith's great book "The Russians."  It was, for the time, a nearly unique look at the life of ordinary Russians under Soviet communism.  I wish the book were still in print (I would love to see one of the free market think tanks do a reissue, at least on Kindle).  Anyway, about 80% of the book seemed to be about how individual Russians dealt with constant shortages and ubiquitous queuing.  It seemed that a lot of the innovation in the general populace was channeled into just these concerns.  What a waste.  Dealing with the 1970s gas lines and shortages is about the closest I have ever come to the life described in that book.

Krugman vs. Krugman 3 Days Earlier (A New Record For Self-Contradiction)

People like to compare what Krugman writes today in his political hack era with what he wrote in his real economist era.  But this time I do not have to look that far back.

On February 5 and On February 6, Krugman essentially agrees with the OMB review of Obamacare effects on employment, saying that the health care subsidies for lower-income workers would cause millions to work less by reducing the incentive to work, which he called "a good thing."  More here.

On February 9, Krugman returns to a theme he has been hitting on for some weeks now, calling the Republicans anti-science, mean-spririted, etc. for actually believing that unemployment benefits might reduce employment by reducing the incentive to work.  And here is what he wrote on the topic on December 8:

The view of most labor economists now is that unemployment benefits have only a modest negative effect on job search — and in today’s economy have no negative effect at all on overall employment. On the contrary, unemployment benefits help create jobs, and cutting those benefits would depress the economy as a whole.

Yes I understand the shape of the subsidy patterns with income are different, but good God man you cannot reasonably argue that the labor supply curve is sensitive to means-tested government subsidies for one program but not at all for another without a heroic analysis that I cannot imagine and Krugman has not supplied.


Triangle Trade and Physics

You have heard of the Atlantic triangle trade in school.  It is always discussed in terms of its economic logic (e.g. English rum to African slaves to New World sugar).  But the trade has a physical logic as well in the sailing ship era.  Current wind patterns:



Real time version here.  Via Flowing data.

Seriously, click on the real time link.  Even if you are jaded, probably the coolest thing you will see today.  One interesting thing to look at -- there is a low point in the spine of the mountains of Mexico west of Yucatan.  Look at the wind pour through it like air out of a balloon.

Want to Save The Ice in the Arctic?

I wrote below about Chinese pollution, but here is one other thought.  Shifting Chinese focus from reducing CO2 with unproven 21st century technology to reducing particulates with 1970s technology would be a great boon for its citizens.  But it could well have one other effect:

It might reverse the warming in the Arctic.

The reduction of Arctic ice sheet size in the summer, and the warming of the Arctic over the last several decades, is generally attributed to greenhouse warming.  But there are reasons to doubt that Co2 is the whole story.   One is that the sea ice extent in Antarctica has actually been growing at the same time the Arctic sea ice cover has been shrinking.  Maybe there is another explanation, one that affects only the northern hemisphere and not the southern?

I don't know if you have snow right now or even ever get snow.  If you do, find some black dust, like coal dust or dark dirt, and sprinkle it on a patch of snow.  Then come back tomorrow.  What will you find?  The patch of snow you sprinkled in dark dust melted a lot in comparison to the rest of the snow.  This is an albedo effect.  Snow takes a while to melt because it reflects rather than absorbs solar radiation.  Putting black dust on it changes that equation, and suddenly solar radiation is adsorbed as heat, and the now melts.  Fast.  I know this because I run a sledding hill in the wintertime, where snow falls on a black cinder hill.  The snow will last until even the smallest patch of black cinders is exposed.  Once exposed, that small hole will grow like a cancer, as it absorbs solar energy and pumps it into the surrounding ground.

By the way, if you have not snow, did the experiment for you.  See here.  Very nice pictures that make the story really clear.

So consider this mess:


Eventually that mess blows away.  Where does it end up?  Well, a lot of it ends up deposited in the Arctic, on top of the sea ice and Greenland ice sheet.

There is a growing hypothesis that this black carbon deposited on the ice from China is causing much of the sea ice to melt faster.  And as the ice sheet melts faster, this lowers the albedo of the arctic, and creates warming.  In this hypothesis, warming follows from ice melting, rather than vice versa.

How do we test this?  Well, the best way would be to go out and actually measure the deposits and calculate the albedo changes from this.  My sense is that this work is starting to be done (example), but it has been slow, because everyone who is interested in Arctic ice of late are strong global warming proponents who have incentives not to find an alternative explanation for melting ice.

But here are two quick mental experiments we can do:

  1. We already mentioned one proof.  Wind patterns cause most pollution to remain within the hemisphere (northern or southern) where it was generated.  So we would expect black carbon ice melting to be limited to the Arctic and not be seen in the Antarctic.  This fits observations
  2. In the winter, as the sea ice is growing, we would expect new ice would be free of particulate deposits and that any new deposits would be quickly covered in snow.  This would mean that we should see ice extents in the winter to be about the same as they were historically, and we would see most of the ice extent reduction in the summer.  Again, this is exactly what we see.

This is by no means a proof -- there are other explanations for the same data.  But I am convinced we would see at least a partial sea ice recovery in the Arctic if China could get their particulate emissions under control.

Update:  Melt ponds in Greenland are black with coal dust


For the Left, Do Asians "Count"?

I was filling out my EEO-1 forms the other day (that is a distasteful exercise where the government is leading us towards a post-racial society via mandatory reporting on the race of each of my employees).  For each employee there are five non-white categories:  Black, native American, native Hawaiian, Hispanic, and Asian.  I started to think how interesting it is that the Left supports numerous government interventions in support of the first four, but never mentions Asians.

This can't be solely due to lack of past discrimination.   Watch a movie from the 1930's or 1940's and you will see Asians shamelessly stereotyped** as badly as any other race.  And generations who lived and fought WWII had many members, even a majority, that harbored absolute hatred against one Asian people, the Japanese.  We only sent one group to concentration camps in the 20th century, and it was not blacks or Hispanics.  Of course "Asians" is an awfully broad categorization.  It includes Chinese, with whom we have had a complicated relationship, and Indians, for whom most Americans until recently probably have had little opinion at all one way or another.

One problem for many on the Left is the fact that Asians are considered a serious threat (both as immigrants and as exporters) to the Left's traditional blue collar union base.  Another is that they are an emerging threat to their little darlings trying to get into Harvard.  I have heard the squeakiest-clean, most politically correct liberals utter to me the most outrageous things about Asian kids.  Which is why I was not really surprised that white parents in California who claim to support merit-based college admissions immediately change their tune when they find out that this will mean that far more Asia kids will get in.

I have been working with some data on state voting and voter registration patterns by race in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision vis a vis the Voting Rights Act.  The Left went nuts, saying that blacks and Hispanics would again be discriminated against in the South, and the Obama Administration vowed to get on the case, saying that it would begin with Texas.

By the way, Texas may make perfect sense politically for Obama but is an odd choice based on the data.  Minority voter registration and voting rates as compared to the white population are usually used as an indicator of their election participation and access.  In the last election, according to the Census Bureau in table 4B, blacks in Texas both registered and voted at a higher rate than whites.  In Massachusetts, by contrast, in that same election blacks registered at a rate 10 percentage points lower than whites and voted at a rate about 7 points lower.

But if you really want something interesting in the data, look at the data and tell me what group, if we accept that low participation rates equate to some sort of covert discrimination, deserves the most attention (from the same table linked above):

US Voter Registration Rates (Citizens Only)

White:    71.9%

Black:    73.1%

Hispanic:     58.7%

Asian:     56.3%

US Voting Rates (Citizens Only, last Presidential election)

White:    62.2%

Black:    66.2%

Hispanic:    48.0%

Asian:    47.3%


** Postscript:  I am not an expert on discrimination, but I watch a lot of old movies and read a lot of history.  To my eye, stereotyping of Asians has been more similar to anti-Semitic portrayal of Jews than to stereotyping of blacks or Hispanics.  Blacks and Hispanics have most often been stereotyped as lazy and unintelligent.  Asians and Jews are more frequently stereotyped as scheming, plotting, and intelligent-but-evil.  Frank Capra, who directed a lot of good movies also directed a series of heavy-handed propaganda movies for the government during the war.  The one on Japan is interesting -- your gardener's quiet mien is actually masking a nefarious scheme.  Even in the 1940's Japan was portrayed as economically frightening to us.

Update:  Over the last couple of elections, Asians have shifted to voting fairly heavily Democratic.  So a cynical person would suggest that they might suddenly "discover" this group.  We shall see.

Blast from the Past

I have not reread this little classic article from 9 years ago, until a customer in California found it and complained that it was outrageous that the state would actually allow such a person as its author to operate anything in a state park.  So I suppose it is worth relinking, if just for that reason.  Most of it holds up pretty well, though I regret the jab implying that progressives supported suicide bombers.  Here is an example:

Beyond just the concept of individual decision-making, progressives are hugely uncomfortable with capitalism.  Ironically, though progressives want to posture as being "dynamic", the fact is that capitalism is in fact too dynamic for them.  Industries rise and fall, jobs are won and lost, recessions give way to booms.  Progressives want comfort and certainty.  They want to lock things down the way they are. They want to know that such and such job will be there tomorrow and next decade, and will always pay at least X amount.  That is why, in the end, progressives are all statists, because, to paraphrase Hayek, only a government with totalitarian powers can bring the order and certainty and control of individual decision-making that they crave.

Progressive elements in this country have always tried to freeze commerce, to lock this country's economy down in its then-current patterns.  Progressives in the late 19th century were terrified the American economy was shifting from agriculture to industry.  They wanted to stop this, to cement in place patterns where 80-90% of Americans worked on farms.  I, for one, am glad they failed, since for all of the soft glow we have in this country around our description of the family farmer, farming was and can still be a brutal, dawn to dusk endeavor that never really rewards the work people put into it.

This story of progressives trying to stop history has continued to repeat itself through the generations.  In the seventies and eighties, progressives tried to maintain the traditional dominance of heavy industry like steel and automotive, and to prevent the shift of these industries overseas in favor of more service-oriented industries.  Just like the passing of agriculture to industry a century ago inflamed progressives, so too does the current passing of heavy industry to services....

Take prescription drugs in the US - isn't it pretty clear that the progressive position is that they would be willing to pretty much gut incentives for any future drug innovations in trade for having a system in place that guaranteed everyone minimum access to what exists today?  Or take the welfare state in Continental Europe -- isn't it clear that a generation of workers/voters chose certainty over growth and improvement?  That workers 30 years ago voted themselves jobs for life, but at the cost of tremendous unemployment amongst the succeeding generations?

Comments: Disqus Coming

Well, this has been a while in coming, but for a variety of reasons I am switching to Disqus comments on this site.  Essentially this means commenters will have to register, though I feel like the registration is pretty un-intrusive as Internet things go.  Active commenters in the blogosphere likely already have a Disqus account.   And there are some definite benefits in terms of comment ranking and such that I hope will offset any hassle.  I have been testing Disqus on Climate Skeptic, along with the security updates I have been slowly porting over here, and I am pretty happy with the result.

What this means is that for several days, comments will disappear here as Disqus imports them.   Though they they promise a day turnaround, on Climate Skeptic it took them nearly a week.  With all the comments on this site, it may take a while.  New comments will still work, but the old ones will go away, and then magically return a few days later.  Hopefully.

By the way, this is a mild illustration of what started the security lockdowns at the climate blog.  These are actually minor spikes compared to some in the past, and so far I have seen no similar patterns at any of the other blogs I run.  A number of folks active in the climate debate have been hacked of late.

"Abnormal" Events -- Droughts and Perfect Games

Most folks, and I would include myself in this, have terrible intuitions about probabilities and in particular the frequency and patterns of occurance in the tail ends of the normal distribution, what we might call "abnormal" events.  This strikes me as a particularly relevant topic as the severity of the current drought and high temperatures in the US is being used as absolute evidence of catastrophic global warming.

I am not going to get into the global warming bits in this post (though a longer post is coming).  Suffice it to say that if it is hard to accurately directly measure shifts in the mean of climate patterns given all the natural variability and noise in the weather system, it is virtually impossible to infer shifts in the mean from individual occurances of unusual events.  Events in the tails of the normal distribution are infrequent, but not impossible or even unexpected over enough samples.

What got me to thinking about this was the third perfect game pitched this year in the MLB.  Until this year, only 20 perfect games had been pitched in over 130 years of history, meaning that one is expected every 7 years or so  (we would actually expect them more frequently today given that there are more teams and more games, but even correcting for this we might have an expected value of one every 3-4 years).  Yet three perfect games happened, without any evidence or even any theoretical basis for arguing that the mean is somehow shifting.  In rigorous statistical parlance, sometimes shit happens.  Were baseball more of a political issue, I have no doubt that writers from Paul Krugman on down would be writing about how three perfect games this year is such an unlikely statistical fluke that it can't be natural, and must have been caused by [fill in behavior of which author disapproves].  If only the Republican Congress had passed the second stimulus, we wouldn't be faced with all these perfect games....

Postscript:  We like to think that perfect games are the ultimate measure of a great pitcher.  This is half right.  In fact, we should expect entirely average pitchers to get perfect games every so often.  A perfect game is when the pitcher faces 27 hitters and none of them get on base.  So let's take the average hitter facing the average pitcher.  The league average on base percentage this year is about .320 or 32%.  This means that for each average batter, there is a 68% chance for the average pitcher in any given at bat to keep the batter off the base.  All the average pitcher has to do is roll these dice correctly 27 times in a row.

The odds against that are .68^27 or about one in 33,000.  But this means that once in every 33,000 pitcher starts  (there are two pitcher starts per game played in the MLB), the average pitcher should get a perfect game.  Since there are about 4,860 regular season starts per year (30 teams x 162 games) then average pitcher should get a perfect game every 7 years or so.  Through history, there have been about 364,000 starts in the MLB, so this would point to about 11 perfect games by average pitchers.  About half the actual total.

Now, there is a powerful statistical argument for demonstrating that great pitchers should be over-weighted in perfect games stats:  the probabilities are VERY sensitive to small changes in on-base percentage.  Let's assume a really good pitcher has an on-base percentage against him that is 30 points less than the league average, and a bad pitcher has one 30 points worse.   The better pitcher would then expect a perfect game every 10,000 starts, while the worse pitcher would expect a perfect game every 113,000 starts.  I can't find the stats on individual pitchers, but my guess is the spread between best and worst pitchers on on-base percentage against has more than a 60 point spread, since the team batting average against stats (not individual but team averages, which should be less variable) have a 60 point spread from best to worst. [update:  a reader points to this, which says there is actually a 125-point spread from best to worst.  That is a different in expected perfect games from one in 2,000 for Jared Weaver to one in 300,000 for Derek Lowe.  Thanks Jonathan]

Update:  There have been 278 no-hitters in MLB history, or 12 times the number of perfect games.  The odds of getting through 27 batters based on a .320 on-base percentage is one in 33,000.  The odds of getting through the same batters based on a .255 batting average (which is hits but not other ways on base, exactly parallel with the definition of no-hitter) the odds are just one in 2,830.  The difference between these odds is a ratio of 11.7 to one, nearly perfectly explaining the ratio of no-hitters to perfect games on pure stochastics.

Resonance in My Feed Reader

My feed reader today had a series of oddly-related articles stacked right in a row.

First, I watched bits from the 1903 Princeton-Yale football game, the oldest surviving college football film  (apparently it is just barely old enough not to have Keith Jackson doing the play-by-play).  It is amazing how much more this looked like rugby than modern football.  The formations look just like rugby scrums except that the players are not locked together.  Note there are no huddles, just power scrum after power scrum.  Sort of like a missing link between the two games, and oddly less interesting than either.

I then was met with this post from Zero Hedge, discussing the current Greek bailouts in terms of a Nash Equilibrium, the game-theory concept developed by Princeton grad / professor John Nash (who was famously profiled in A Beautiful Mind).

It's not often I run into John Nash even once in a month, but two articles later I found this really interesting early letter, recently de-classified, from John Nash to the NSA, wherein he apparently anticipated many of the foundation of modern cryptography 10-20 years ahead of his time.

And its only a short walk from John Nash and cryptography to Alan Turing, and from Princeton to tiger stripes, so the next article I ran into was this one discussing a group of scientists who apparently have proved a Turing hypothesis for how tiger stripes (and other recurring patterns in animals) are formed.

Testing My Understanding

Today, US markets are rallying strongly (Dow up 400 points or so at the moment) on news of coordinated central bank action that, that .... that what?  It looks to me like the US and European banks are merely building up liquidity in preparation for potential bank runs.  I would have considered this bad news, kind of like news we just went to DEFCON 2, but for some reason the market is rallying (though there was also an ADP report saying hiring was way up last month, which is certainly good news).

As I wrote yesterday, there only appear to be 3 solutions to the European debt crisis and this is not one of them.  If I am right and patterns hold, the markets will wake up in a day or two and say, "wait, there is still trillions of Euros of deteriorating sovereign debt sitting on bank balance sheets with 40:1 leverage ratios" and fall back.  I am thrilled that our economy shows signs of life and I know that corporate profits have been good, but I don't see any way a European debt crash won't have substantial negative effects on the US.   If I am wrong, the market will continue up, up and away and you should stop ever listening to me because I clearly don't understand squat.

Update:  Yesterday I posited that real solutions were going to be a combination of 1) default/haircut 2) Make someone else pay back the debt and 3) print money.  I have heard it argued this morning that today's announcement may be evidence of #2 (ie, US taxpayers will bail them out) or more likely #3 (since the ECB can't print money, but the Fed seems to be doing a lot of it, lets get the Fed to print more money for the Europeans .... I don't understand the mechanics well enough to pinpoint who would bear the inflationary consequences of this, but betting on the US to be the world's patsy is never a bad bet).

Government Decision-Making in the Gulf

My first column at is up here (and on the opinion home page, which is kind of cool), and extends on some thoughts I have already posted on my blog about why government decisions in multi-agency task forces, such as those running the Gulf cleanup effort, seem to be made in such a stupid manner.

As most scientists know, one of the best tests of a theory is whether it makes correct predictions about future events.  Since I wrote this article several days ago, we have seen this new story which is absolutely consistent with the decision-making paradigm I describe in the article (from Q&O)

Louisiana has been busily building berms about a mile out from the coast to halt the infiltration of oil into its sensitive marshes, wetlands and prime fishing areas. This process was greatly delayed by federal red tape, and now that the state has permits in hand it's being order to stop because, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department, it's doing it wrong:

The federal government is shutting down the dredging that was being done to create protective sand berms in the Gulf of Mexico.

The berms are meant to protect the Louisiana coastline from oil. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department has concerns about the dredging is being done.

Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser, who was one of the most vocal advocates of the dredging plan, has sent a letter to President Barack Obama, pleading for the work to continue.


Nungesser has asked for the dredging to continue for the next seven days, the amount of time it would take to move the dredging operations two miles and out resume work.

Work is scheduled to halt at midnight Wednesday.

Pat Austin is trying to understand the federal obstruction, but finds that political reasoning is the only thing that makes sense of it all:

I'm trying to see both sides here; I'm trying to understand the "coastal scientists" who contend that the berms will "change tidal patterns" and lead to more long term erosion of the islands, but if the islands are killed off by the oil what difference does it make? To borrow from Greta Perry's analogy, if my house is on fire, what does it matter what room I try to extinguish first? It's all doing down.

Read the Forbes article -- why exactly this decision was not only possible but inevitable is discussed in detail.

I'm Pretty Sure We Are Not Going to Get Any Deficit Reduction

Via Reason, from the man Obama personally appointed to lead the Deficit Commision

"America needs a 21st century economic plan because we now know the market-worshipping, privatizing, de-regulating, dehumanizing American financial plan has failed and should never be revived, worshipping the market again," Stern said in remarks at the annual conference of the liberal activist group Campaign for America's Future in Washington on Monday."It has failed America and everyone that works here," Stern said.

Stern said the changes that Obama and Democrats in Congress have made are nothing short of a "revolution" that will move the American economy from national to international.

"This not our father's or our grandfather's economy," Stern said. "We're as far today from the New Deal as the New Deal was from the Civil War. And we cannot drive into the future looking in the rear view mirror."

He said the progressive movement must build on the past and look to the future as the economy is transformed "from a manufacturing base, to a service, finance, knowledge, green, Internet, and bio-science economy."

"This revolution's going to only take 30 years," Stern said. "No single generation of people have ever witnessed this much change in a single lifetime. [...] And as we've witnessed now in the absence of a simple and realistic way forward, people "“ even us "“ sometimes resist the future or try to turn back the clock to days that are now long gone."

I am not sure I have ever heard anyone sound more like a scabby beauracrat in Atlas Shrugged.  Can you believe this dweeb along with Barrack and the gang who can't shoot straight taking credit for the transformatoin of the economy?  As if these guys have anything to do with the rise of new industries and technologies, except to make their birth and growth more difficult through strangling regulation and taxes.

The last paragraph about progressives and change is an interesting one in the context of this old post of mine, where I discuss how progressives most hate free markets for their constant change and unpredictability. Here is an excerpt:

Beyond just the concept of individual decision-making, progressives are hugely uncomfortable with capitalism.  Ironically, though progressives want to posture as being "dynamic", the fact is that capitalism is in fact too dynamic for them.  Industries rise and fall, jobs are won and lost, recessions give way to booms.  Progressives want comfort and certainty.  They want to lock things down the way they are. They want to know that such and such job will be there tomorrow and next decade, and will always pay at least X amount. ...

Progressive elements in this country have always tried to freeze commerce, to lock this country's economy down in its then-current patterns.  Progressives in the late 19th century were terrified the American economy was shifting from agriculture to industry.  They wanted to stop this, to cement in place patterns where 80-90% of Americans worked on farms.  I, for one, am glad they failed, since for all of the soft glow we have in this country around our description of the family farmer, farming was and can still be a brutal, dawn to dusk endeavor that never really rewards the work people put into it.

This story of progressives trying to stop history has continued to repeat itself through the generations.  In the seventies and eighties, progressives tried to maintain the traditional dominance of heavy industry like steel and automotive, and to prevent the shift of these industries overseas in favor of more service-oriented industries.  Just like the passing of agriculture to industry a century ago inflamed progressives, so too does the current passing of heavy industry to services.

In fact, here is a sure fire test for a progressive.  If given a choice between two worlds:

  1. A capitalist society where the overall levels of wealth and technology continue to increase, though in a pattern that is dynamic, chaotic, generally unpredictable, and whose rewards are unevenly distributed, or"¦
  2. A "progressive" society where everyone is poorer, but income is generally more evenly distributed.  In this society, jobs and pay and industries change only very slowly, and people have good assurances that they will continue to have what they have today, with little downside but also with very little upside.

Progressives will choose #2.  Even if it means everyone is poorer.  Even if it cuts off any future improvements we might gain in technology or wealth or lifespan or whatever.  They want to take what we have today, divide it up more equally, and then live to eternity with just that.   Progressives want #2 today, and they wanted it just as much in 1900 (just think about if they had been successful "” as just one example, if you are over 44, you would have a 50/50 chance of being dead now).

Update: What does the line about shifting form a national to international economy mean?  It must be some kind of progressive code phrase that does not mean what it sounds like, since most progressives and this administration tend to be opposed to free trade and have a strong tendency towards protectionism.  After all, these are the same guys that sympathize with the anti-globalization rioters at various G8 conferences.

Bad Fourth Ammendment Decision

Via Valley Fever:

In upholding the conviction of Josue Acosta Marquez, (a.k.a. Martin Contreras-Pulido) in an interstate marijuana smuggling case, the Circuit Court judges wrote that federal agents and Iowa cops did nothing wrong when they planted the electronic monitoring device on a pickup truck used by Marquez while it was parked at a Wal-Mart. Police accessed the unit seven times to change the batteries -- always in a public place -- and tracked the pickup as it drove between Des Moines and Denver.

Since anyone can see a vehicle parked or driving in public places, the use of electronics to enhance surveillance doesn't violate Fourth Amendment rights regarding unreasonable search and seizure, wrote Justices Roger Wollman, James Loken and John Gibson.

No warrant neeeded. And there's nothing stopping cops from planting those suckers as often and wherever they like, says the Eighth Court judges.

First, I have always thought that extended surveillance of a home or moving vehicle, beyond say a few hours, should require a warrant, even if it is all performed in public places.  I think most folks would consider such actions by a private party to be intrusive (thus many state stalking laws) and we generally hold the state to an even tighter standard.

Second, cost is important.  A surveillance approach that is difficult and expensive is less likely to be abused than one that is suddenly 10x or even 100x less expensive.  The judges acknowledge this, but then ignore the problem completely in their statement when they write:

It is imaginable that a police unit could undertake "wholesale surveillance" by attaching such devices to thousands of random cars and then analyzing the volumes of data produced for suspicious patterns of activity. Id. Such an effort, if it ever occurred, would raise different concerns than the ones present here.

Just get a freaking warrant -- its not that hard, especially in this case when we are talking about extended surveillance and no particular rush to get started. This kind of lazy law enforcement has become endemic, and we shouldn't tolerate it.

Capitalism: A Real Not Sarcastic Love Story

Sure, we all know that a series of carefully edited anecdotes on film constitute better evidence than comprehensive data and statistics, but Mark Perry soldiers on and does what he can anyway to rebut Michael Moore's new movie.  He has lots of good charts, but his summary is:

the evidence clearly demonstrates that along with capitalism and greater economic freedoms come: a) higher per-capita incomes, b) higher incomes for the poorest 10%, c) greater life expectancy, d) less corruption, e) cleaner environments, and f) greater political rights and civil liberties. Not a bad record for a system that Michael Moore portrays as evil, and says did "nothing for him."

I am always amazed at these attempts to portray countries like Cuba as superior to the US for the common man.  One only has to look at immigration patterns (and even better some measure of desired immigration intent, since our ridiculously restrictive immigration laws keep so many people out of this country) to see the common man's preferences.   Moore and his pears are like a man who looks at a river running from north to south and then arguing that the land in the south must be higher.

Just as an aside, there have probably been thousands of states in world history.   Of all those thousands of states and regimes from history, including the hundreds that exist today, there are probably only 15-20 that would have  social, economic, and political systems that would allow a man born to modest circumstances to make a fortune through criticism of the government and the social elite.

The Observer Effect and Using Google for Social Science

I thought this was an interesting quick and dirty social study using Google. (via Knowledge Problem)

For any individual study you can validly say that you think the estimate is too low, or indeed, too high, and give reasons for that. For instance, you might say that your sample was mainly young people who tend to be healthier than the general public, or maybe that the diagnostic tools are known to miss some true cases.

But when we look at reporting as a whole, it almost always says the condition is likely to be much more common than the estimate.

For example, have a look at the results of this Google search:

"the true number may be higher" 20,300 hits

"the true number may be lower" 3 hits

I often tell folks that the key to understanding behavior is to understand incentives. The media as institutions have incentives to sensationalize and scare (it sells papers) and as individual reporters have incentives to magnify the importance of whatever story he or she is working on.

But what I found really interesting was how the Observer effect comes into play here.  Wikipedia has this brief definition of the observer effect:

In physics, the term observer effect refers to changes that the act of observation will make on the phenomenon being observed. This is often the result of instruments that, by necessity, alter the state of what they measure in some manner.

Click on the Google hit numbers above.  I get 42,700 and 5,360 respectively, the increase presumably due in part to this article and links to it.  Its impossible to report on patterns in Google searches without the very fact of such reporting affecting what is being measured.

More On Rising Health Care Spending

I posted the other day that one explanation of rising health care expenditures in the US is rising wealth.  As we are wealthier than other Western nations, doesn't it make sense we would spend more on our health than other nations.

James DeLong adds:

Robert Fogel, in his NBER paper, which has more detail than his American article (and will cost you $5), looks at changes in U.S. consumption patterns from 1875 to the present. A striking number is the reduction in the costs of the basics -- food, shelter, clothing took 74% of income in 1875; 13% in 1995. This has freed up a lot of income, and one of the great gainers has been health. In 1875, it took only 1% of consumption, largely because there was little to be bought, except for patent medicines loaded with alcohol and opiates, or a saw to lop off an injured limb. By 1995, it was 9%.Leisure was another big gainer -- 17% in 1875; 68% in 1995.

So if improvements in medical technology lead people to reallocate money toward health, fine.

Tort Lawyer Full Employment Act

From Walter Olson, on the House health care bill:

Contacts on Capitol Hill inform me that Republicans yesterday managed to block a remarkable provision that had been slipped into the House leadership's 794-page health care bill just before it went to a House Ways & Means markup session. If their description of the provision is accurate "” and my initial reading of the language gives me no reason to think it isn't "” it sounds as if they managed to (for the moment) hold off one of the more audacious and far-reaching trial lawyer power grabs seen on Capitol Hill in a while.

For some time now the federal government has been intensifying its pursuit of what are sometimes known as "Medicare liens" against third party defendants (more)....

The newly added language in the Thursday morning version of the health bill (for those following along, it's Section 1620 on pp. 713-721) would greatly expand the scope of these suits against third parties, while doing something entirely new: allow freelance lawyers to file them on behalf of the government "” without asking permission "” and collect rich bounties if they manage thereby to extract money from the defendants. Lawyers will recognize this as a qui tam procedure, of the sort that has led to a growing body of litigation filed by freelance bounty-hunters against universities, defense contractors and others alleged to have overcharged the government.

It gets worse. Language on p. 714 of the bill would permit the lawyers to file at least some sorts of Medicare recovery actions based on "any relevant evidence, including but not limited to relevant statistical or epidemiological evidence, or by other similarly reliable means". This reads very much as if an attempt is being made to lay the groundwork for claims against new classes of defendants who might not be proved liable in an individual case but are responsible in a "statistical" sense. The best known such controversies are over whether suppliers of products such as alcohol, calorie-laden foods, or guns should be compelled to pay compensation for society-wide patterns of illness or injury.

He has a lot more detail.  Ask anyone in a public contact business in California how similar laws for ADA violations have worked out.  Just one more horrible, failed law from California that has driven the state into the ground now being emulated at the national level.

You Don't Need To Carry Water if You Build a Water Pipeline

The other day, there was an intriguing story in the USA Today that a disproportionate share of stimulus money is flowing to counties that voted for Obama.  In fact, counties that voted Obama are getting twice as much per capita so far as counties that did not.  Matt Yglesias writes:

The insinuation of the piece is that the stimulus bill's funding streams are being artfully manipulated or something to disproportionately direct resources toward Obama-loving constituencies....[But] the secret to the riddle seems to be that areas that benefit from federal spending formulae tend to support the Democrats. Not as a result of short-term fluctuations in voting patterns or federal spending levels, but as a structural element of American politics.

Kevin Drum misses Matt's point, I think, when he responds:

Actually, that's not quite right.  It's weirder than that.  I just got around to reading the piece, and aside from the factual statement in the lead, it doesn't insinuate that the money is being unfairly distributed.  In fact, every single paragraph after the lead quotes people saying that there's nothing dubious going on and the money is just being distributed by formula.  The piece doesn't quote a single person, not even Sarah Palin, suggesting that there's any monkey business going on here.

But this does not refute Matt's point as I understand it, that "tinkering" is not necessary because the formulas themselves have been worked over time to preferentially send money certain places.  I would use the analogy that there are well worn channels where the money preferentially flows.

I must disagree that a story that money tends to flow preferentially (on a ratio as high as 2:1) to Democratic districts should be spiked, as Kevin Drum advocates. I think there is a story in this, though certainly I agree with Kevin it is not the story the author set out to write (one of micro-manipulation by Administration employees).

My sense is that the causality involved would be impossible to discover. Does money flow preferentially to these districts because Democrats are better or more focused on bringing home the taxpayer largess to their districts? Or does our money preferentially flow to these districts based on, say, economic or demographic factors that line up well with Democratic constituencies. Or is it, more likely in my mind, a virtuous circle with both factors involved.

Either way, this is an interesting story and some interesting new data in our endless red state-blue state analyses.

Handbag Patterns

My wife has more of her patterns she has designed for knitted handbags for sale, here or at her own site here.

Nobel Prize, for sure

Wow, I am not sure how I missed this seminal work, but I discovered it today via Steven Levitt.  The work is titled "On the Efficiency of AC/DC: Bon Scott versus Brian Johnson" by Robert J. Oxoby of the University of Calgary Economics Department. 

Our treatment variable in the experiment was the type of music played while individuals were making their decisions. As demonstrated by Bernardi et al. (2006), different musical styles can have different physiological effects in individuals. These effects, along with emotional responses, may result in different patterns of decision making regarding distributing money between oneself and another. In our Bon Scott treatment, participants listened to "It's a Long Way to the Top" (featuring Bon Scott on vocals) from the album High Voltage. In our Brian Johnson treatment, participants listened to "Shoot to Thrill" (featuring Brian Johnson on vocals) from the album Back in Black....

our analysis suggests that in terms of affecting efficient decision making among listeners, Brian Johnson was a better singer. Our analysis has direct implications for policy and organizational design: when policymakers or employers are engaging in negotiations (or setting up environments in which other parties will negotiate) and are interested in playing the music of AC/DC, they should choose from the band's Brian Johnson era discography.

I have this picture of AC/DC music blasting out on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade

(the whole story behind this "study" is here)

The Profit Motive Rocks

This post from TJIC, which is really about something entirely different, mentions that the price of cocaine has been dropping sharply over the last 10 years.  This is something I have heard police officials lament as well.

Does the profit motive rock or what?  The largest and most powerful government in the world stations armed men and ships around the country.  It has a legal system in place with huge penalties that has of late been nearly entirely dedicated to drug enforcement.  The US has even subverted 200 year old Constitutional restrictions on searches and property seizures (the Patriot Act is mostly used for drug, not terrorism, actions).  All to stop the importation of certain valuable substances.  And even so, the human mind is powerful enough to subvert all of these restrictions and bring in so much supply that the price continues to drop.

Al Gore believes that alternative energy efforts in the US are being subverted by the oil companies:

Apparently, according to Gore, the oil companies drive up prices
reducing supply and then depress them in a telling pattern. As soon as
the political will swells to a light boil, the companies reduce
prices/increase supply.

Really?  Independent drug traders are able to subvert a million government officials with guns to keep cocaine prices low, but Exxon, with a 5% market share (at most) in oil, is able to hold the line on oil supply?

Sure.  In 1972 and 1978 there were a series of oil price shocks (to real levels about where they are today) that convinced everyone that oil prices would keep going up and up and that oil would run out within a few decades.  Of course, in about 1984 oil prices crashed, and stayed down for almost 20 years.  Depending on how you date it, it took oil supply development between 6 and 12 years after the price signal to flood the world with oil, and that was in an environment with price controls and windfall profit taxes that reduced development incentives. 

Right now, we are about 5 years in to the current oil price spike.  Go long at your own risk.

More on supply and demand vs. price manipulation in oil here.  More on Al Gore, including a fisking of his solar plan, here.

Update: Of course, the Democrats in Congress are doing everything possible to keep oil prices up.  If I wanted to ensure high oil prices, I would 1.  Kill incentives to increase supply, perhaps with a "windfall" profits tax and 2.  Put the most promising potential new exploration areas off-limits to new development.  Congressional scorecard:  #2 is in place, and both Obama and Hillary and Pelosi are proposing #1.

Update #2:   Another thought on Gore's statement:  The boom-bust
patterns in oil are characteristic of nearly every other commodity out
there, which therefore presupposes that if oil prices are the result of
manipulation, then every other commodity must be as well since their
prices demonstrate the same patterns.  We see these patterns in
commodities that politicians have never even heard of and in which they
have never thought to exercise their "political will."  (political will
in this context defined as use of government force against a segment of
the populace).

A reasonable person might
suppose that the surge in prices followed by a drop a number of years
later is better explained by the time delay in increasing oil
production after oil prices spike. In many ways, Al's theory is simply
delusional.  If your friend started trying to tell you, in all
seriousness, that every action Microsoft takes is actually aimed at
thwarting him personally, you would think him insane.  But this is
effectively Gore's argument, showing the immensity of the politician's
ego.  Oil prices move not because of supply and demand, but because of
us politicians.  Every tick up and down is carefully managed to thwart
us brave Congressmen!

When a politician describes price signals as mainly influencing political actions, rather than the actions of free producers and consumers, they are probably a socialist.