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Archive for October, 2011

E Pluribus Unum

October 28, 2011 Leave a comment

The BBC has a cool feature everyone should check out. It’s a great way to gain some perspective on our common humanity. I’m humbled by my insignificance and grateful for how fortunate I am to be one of many.

 

Categories: Personal

Austerity Watch

October 27, 2011 Leave a comment

Remember all those conservatives that touted “expansionary austerity” and cited Germany and England as alternatives to the Keynesian model for getting out of this global recession? It’s funny that you don’t hear about that as often anymore.

It turned out Germany didn’t institute an arch-conservative plan after the recession (here & here).

Ok, so Germany didn’t try to cut their way to expansion, but the UK did. What happened with them?

Oh. They’re doing worse than us. From Martin Sullivan:

After three and a half years, U.S. GDP is just about returning to the pre-recession peak. That’s awful. But it s far better than the U.K. where GDP is still five percent ($750 billion in US terms) below its pre-recession peak.

You might be hearing less about the success of austerity economies. But if you do, you’ll know the facts.

(h/t Brad DeLong)

Categories: Austerity

Improving Lives Can Be Popular

October 25, 2011 Leave a comment

Felix Salmon worries that although congestion pricing may be smart policy, proponents should recognize its limitations.

There’s another way to look at this phenomenon, though. When congestion pricing is first introduced, people recoil against it — they expend quite a lot of effort to avoid the charge, and traffic goes down. Over time, however, it becomes just another part of the cost of driving, along with gas and insurance and parking tickets. As that happens, traffic goes back up again. Congestion-charge revenues go up too, of course, and those can be reinvested into public transport.

But traffic is like water — it wants to find its own level, which tends, in cities, to be maximum capacity. If you want to implement a system which keeps traffic below maximum capacity, then you need to apply significant pressure on drivers to keep them away from the roads. And that means not just implementing a congestion charge, but also regularly increasing the amount of the charge over time.

Variable pricing, which adjusts price to maintain the flow of traffic, will probably never win a popularity contest.

As a result, drivers are pretty much never happy with congestion pricing. Either it’s painfully expensive and going up in price — expensive enough to keep them from driving — or else it doesn’t have much effect.

Well, that’s according to Salmon. Fortunately, there is reason to suspect he’s wrong. Of course, congestion pricing is unattractive in theory, but the reason we should have any public policy is because it improves people’s lives compared to the alternatives. Back in March of last year, David Brooks and others highlighted research that shows that the “daily activity most injurious to happiness is commuting.” Therefore, it seems intuitive that improving commuting will produce happier commuters.

That intuition is validated in a survey of drivers of California’s 91 Express Lanes.

Eric Morris of U.C.L.A.’s Institute of Transportation Studies confronted Salmon’s fear nearly 3 years ago – reported on this blog:

The early projects show that motorists initially have doubts, but they become enthusiastic converts when they see and use the facilities. According to the last survey, over 70 percent of SR 91 express-lane users — and even over half of the nonusers — approve of the use of variable tolls.

Not all hope should be lost for rational public policy. Next time you’re stuck in traffic, remember that.

Categories: Congestion Pricing Tags:

The Failure of Localism

October 23, 2011 Leave a comment

In Mitch McConnell’s CNN interview with Candy Crowley, the Senate Minority Leader argued that the federal government shouldn’t send relief to states to prevent layoffs of policemen, firefighters, and teachers.

I certainly do approve of firefighters and police. The question is whether the federal government ought to be raising taxes on 300,000 small businesses in order to send money down to bail out states for whom firefighters and police work. They’re local and state employees. [...] The question is whether the federal government can afford to be bailing out states. I think the answer is no.

Matthew Yglesias explains why the federal government can afford to help local and state employees keep their jobs.

At the moment for localities to raise funds to pay teachers and firemen is quite costly. Households and small firms are in a fragile state, and taxing then at higher rates to support public service could be very damaging. The federal government, by contrast, can currently borrow money at negative seven-year real rates.

Aside from McConnell being wrong about what the federal government can afford, the Kentucky Republican demonstrates a bias that’s worth challenging further. Local control of government has advantages, but as with other American dogmas, its enthusiasts overlook the downsides. When public services are locally funded, those services can only be as good as what the locality can afford. And since poor people both need more services and have less revenue for taxes, the services don’t match the needs of America’s most impoverished citizens – the system itself clarifies why we need the term “disadvantaged.”

In Edward Glaeser’s book, Triumph of the City, he points out the injustice of this system for cities.

Rich enclaves have often formed right outside of urban political boundaries, where the prosperous can be close to the city without having to pay its taxes or attend its schools. A level playing field means that people should be choosing where to live based on their desires for neighborhood or opportunity not based on where they can avoid paying for the poor. 

A nation’s poor are every citizen’s responsibility, not just the people who happen to live in the same political jurisdiction. It is fairer, both to the poor and to cities, if social services are funded at the national rather than the local level.

Maybe the firefighters, police, and teachers losing their jobs aren’t directly protecting McConnell or teaching his children, but the families affected by his preference for local spending will still suffer.

Trail Mix

October 21, 2011 Leave a comment

I’m off on another hike this weekend. Here’s a hardy blend for your consumption while I’m away.

The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus:

The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.

Read more…

Vitamyth

October 14, 2011 Leave a comment

The average healthy person acquires all the nutrients the body needs in a well balanced diet. Numerous studies and meta-analysis research continues to suggest that taking vitamins is unnecessary and potentially harmful. Ronald Bailey of Reason magazine reports on two new studies that show high doses of vitamins may increase certain cancer and early death risks. Without strong evidence that vitamins help and more research that demonstrates they might hurt, Bailey labels taking megadoses a “superstition:”

A good definition of a superstition is “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation.” As data accumulate, taking megadoses of vitamins looks more and more like a superstition.

Back in 2007, Dr. Larry Norton, a leading oncology researcher, gave a talk at the Aspen Ideas Festival that described vitamins’ cancer link. Listen to it all, but the relevant bit starts at 12:20 in the audio.

If you look at the entire world’s picture of published literature, vitamin supplementation shortens your life. Unless you’re vitamin deficient – in which case you should replace the specific vitamin you’re deficient in. It’s pretty hard to get vitamin deficient unless you have a malabsorption situation.

To answer Andrew Sullivan’s question, “But a multivitamin a day?”

Eating a good healthy diet and also taking a multivitamin is at the very very least doubling the vitamin level in your body… Imagine you doubled the water you drink, you’d be pretty bloated all the time… In some cases some of these super-vitamins that are out there are increasing levels 10, 20-fold of what’s considered an optimal amount in a diet at the present time.

Cancer cells are your own cells. They’re just more metabolically active and can use those megadoses of vitamins to reproduce. As with many other myths, believing them can lead to dangerous consequences.

(photo by Garry McLeod)

If I were to hold a sign

October 7, 2011 6 comments

I’m not really the protesting type, but the 99 percent movement generally has its heart in the right place. Anyone is welcome to use the sign I came up with:

I suppose you could fill the back with specific policy ideas that could help like a financial transactions tax, NGDP targeting, state aid, an infrastructure bank, etc. Feel free to suggest other ideas too – those were just off the top of my head.

I got the graphs from Kevin Drum and Brad DeLong.

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