Saturday, June 30, 2012

Felix Salmon's overview of education

In a long but pithy post, Salmon uses the over-hyped Aspen Festival as a springboard to discuss education reform, starting with this sharply written paragraph:

For me, one of the more interesting tracks of the Aspen Ideas Festival is the series of conversations about education. Aspen is the natural habitat of America’s overconfident plutonomy: the kind of people who are convinced that since they have been successful themselves, they are therefore qualified — more qualified than education professionals, in fact — to diagnose problems and prescribe solutions. The ultimate example of this in recent weeks was the firing of Teresa Sullivan as president of the University of Virginia, by rich trustees who had no substantive beef with her at all. Instead, they just didn’t like her reluctance to sign on to various inchoate strategies, which sound great in a mass-market leadership book but which are unlikely to be particularly helpful in the context of a venerable educational institution.

Fanatical Centrism watch -- inevitable Washington Post Edition

Sometimes, it's the juxtaposition...

Clicking through Economist's View this morning, I came across this bailing-against-the-tide passage from Paul Krugman:

If this sounds familiar, if it reminds you of the problem of partisanship in U.S. politics, it should. There are close parallels, as well there might be, since the trouble in macro is in effect a symptom of this wider political war. And there’s another parallel: many of those decrying the conflict within macro without facing up to the real sources of that conflict are playing the same unhelpful role being played by fanatical centrists within the punditocracy. (And no, “fanatical centrist” is not an oxymoron). 
By now, the centrist dodge ought to be familiar. A Very Serious, chin-stroking pundit argues that what we really need is a political leader willing to concede that while the economy needs short-run stimulus, we also need to address long-term deficits, and that addressing those long-term deficits will require both spending cuts and revenue increases. And then the pundit asserts that both parties are to blame for the absence of such leaders. What he absolutely won’t do is endanger his centrist credentials by admitting that the position he’s just outlined is exactly, exactly, the position of Barack Obama.

From this, I went on to this op-ed from Linda J. Bilmes and Shelby Chodos

Twenty-five years ago, President Ronald Reagan angered many Democrats with a broad effort to eliminate red tape and allow states discretion over federal grants. He called it the New Federalism. A half-century earlier, President Franklin Roosevelt angered many Republicans by using federal dollars to put millions back to work through a variety of programs that became known as the New Deal. 
Although we think of these two presidents and their initiatives as ideological opposites, there is no law of nature (or of economics) that prevents us from combining their ideas to help address the faltering economy today. A Reagan-Roosevelt approach — a sort of decentralized recovery that sends money directly to the states — has the best chance of putting people back to work and making America stronger.

So why not reroute the traffic away from Washington? Instead of more top-down stimulus with another emphasis on “shovel-ready” jobs or Washington pet projects, President Obama should appeal directly to the nation’s 50 governors by proposing a direct grant to each state to spend as it sees fit. 
A state-directed recovery initiative would be the quickest, easiest way to reduce unemployment and get the economy moving again. Congress would simply distribute money to the states, based on population and with no strings attached. Each state could use these funds however it chooses, whether by cutting taxes on small business and families, or by investing in education or infrastructure. This is far simpler than the Obama administration’s proposed American Jobs Act — which, despite many attractive features, reads like a laundry list of federally inspired programs.

With millions of Americans unemployed and a taxes-and-spending battle looming at the end of the year, Congress needs to take action before the federal budget becomes convulsed with fighting among special interest groups. In the teeth of the Great Depression, 1932 marked the first time a young Ronald Reagan voted for FDR. That same year, Justice Louis Brandeis called the states our “laboratories of democracy.” Today, in that spirit of bipartisanship, it is time to let the states be our laboratories of recovery.
If Krugman were to rewrite this as a parody of professional centrism I'm not sure what he'd feel the need to change. He certainly wouldn't have to tweak the proposal itself. Bilmes and Chodos already taken a major Obama talking point ("Let's give money to the states"), made some meaningless distinction (based on the apparent assumption that money isn't fungible) and completely ignored the fact that there's no way that this will ever get past the House Republicans. Nor would Krugman have to change the language or the tone with its appeal to bipartisanship, decrying of special interests and disapproval of Congress in general, but of course, no party in particular.

We really are beyond the point of satire.

"The 15 Most Disliked Companies in America"

There's a common theme running through this list from the Business Insider. Check out how many of these companies face little or no competition. And on a related note, see how well represented one of the industries we've been discussing is.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

4 14 13 13, 4 18 25 11 20 19 20 21 24 16 14 9 15 14 10 11 3 24 12 25 15 24 5 11 24 6 10 24 20 14 5?

When I get some bandwidth I want to do something on codes in the K through 12 classroom. You start with simple table-based codes to have some fun with numbers and letters (and to get some practice using tables), then you build on the concept over the years, introducing problem solving, probability, even number theory (public key codes) and programming.

With that in mind I Googled cryptogram maker and got this. I didn't look at the rest of the site so I can't vouch for it but the cryptogram maker did most of what I wanted it to.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Dude, I'll have you know that was a bitchin' surf shop...

This Fresh Air interview with aviation journalist William McGee fits in nicely with our ongoing discussion of air travel. The whole thing's worth a listen but the part about maintenance is fascinating.

DAVIES: I was shocked to read in the book that the FAA doesn't require the major carriers to even list their subcontractors? 
MCGEE: You know, when I started investigating this issue, I can't tell you how naive I was. I thought this would be something where, you know, if I spent a little time looking at the record, that I could, you know, piece this together. And one of the first things I did was say, well, OK, where are U.S. airlines outsourcing their work, and who are they outsourcing it to? 
And as an investigative reporter, I thought, well, that's a pretty simple thing. I was absolutely shocked to find out that not only could I not find that out, the FAA itself has been unable to find this out, and this has been documented and documented in congressional hearings, where independent government organizations, including the Government Accountability Office and the Department of Transportation Inspector General's Office, have gone to the airlines and said: OK, where is the work being done and who's doing it? 
And the airlines, amazingly, have responded that they're not clear, in some cases. They're not sure who's doing the work. Now, to me, this is just mind-boggling because to think that in the 21st century it would be a simple matter of, you know, contacting the accounts payable department and saying where are you cutting checks, you know, somebody must have a handle on this. And yet congressional testimony has shown that the FAA does not even have a full sense of where the work is being done. 
And in many cases - this is where it's, you know, the bizarre gets even more bizarre, the outsourced facilities outsource themselves. So in some cases you have two and even three degrees of separation from the outsource company. In one case that I looked at, critical work on an aircraft was being done by a surfboard repair shop in California, and the FAA immediately sort of stepped in and stopped that. 
DAVIES: Critical work? 
MCGEE: Yes. That was that basically a body panel on an aircraft was made from a material that was similar to surfboard, was, you know, was given to an outsourced shop, and they in turn contacted a surfboard shop. Unfortunately, the gentleman running the surfboard shop had no FAA certification and had never worked on an aircraft before.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Jonathan Chait on Bush v. Gore and journalistic cowardice

On the heels of an exceptionally clear-eyed take on the health care debate, Jonathan Chait follows up with an exceptional piece of journalistic criticism:

The myth that Bush would have won had the recount proceeded dates back to a recount conducted by a consortium of newspapers that examined the ballots. The consortium found that “If all the ballots had been reviewed under any of seven single standards, and combined with the results of an examination of overvotes, Mr. Gore would have won, by a very narrow margin.” But the newspapers decided that this was not how the counties would have actually tabulated the votes. By the variable standards they would have used, the papers reported, Bush would have prevailed. Thus the national news reported a slew of headlines asserting that Bush would have prevailed.
The conclusion was erroneous. The newspapers assumed that the counties would only have looked at “undervotes” — ballots that did not register any votes for president — and ignored “overvotes” — ballots that registered more than one vote for president. An overvote would be a ballot in which the machine mistakenly picked up a second vote for president, or in which a voter both marked a box and wrote in the name of the same candidate. A hand recount in which an examiner is judging the “intent of the voter” would turn those ballots that were originally discarded into countable votes.
Counting overvotes in which the intent of the voter was clear would have resulted in Gore winning the recount. And subsequent reporting by the Orlando Sentinel and Michael Isikoff found that the recount, had it proceeded, almost certainly would have examined overvotes. (Most of the links have been lost over time, but you can find references here and here.)
The newspapers’ error has to be understood in the context of the time. After Bush prevailed in the recount, there was massive pressure to retroactively justify the processes that led to his victory, in the general spirit of restoring confidence in the system. In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, that pressure intensified to the point where it was commonly opined that the newspapers ought to entirely cancel the recount (scheduled to come out in November 2001, at the height of the rally-around-Bush moment). In that atmosphere, the newspapers grasped for an interpretation that would both reassure most Americans of what they wanted to believe and avoid placing themselves in opposition to a powerful and bipartisan rallying around Bush that was then at its apogee.

Over the past quarter century or so, journalists have managed to fashion an ethical code so self-serving and cowardly that they can justify going to any length to avoid covering a difficult story, revealing uncomfortable facts about the profession or challenging powerful people. It's the same code that allows James Stewart to defend a press favorite like Paul Ryan by lying about Ryan's positions.

We still have some good, independent-minded journalists and pundits out there, but they're doing good work despite, not because of their profession's value system.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

off-beat data for off-beat research

Or maybe on-beat. A huge trove (50 years worth) of daily police bulletins turned up recently in LA and are going to be scanned and posted for the public. I could imagine some researchers having some fun digging through these.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Always click the link

Andrew Gelman has a really weird post on modern art that somehow manages to tie in Warhol, Karl Popper and Al Qaeda. It is built around a bizarre op-ed by some art history professor but, though Gelman quotes her at length, he doesn't bother to rebut statements like "Art has also failed miserably at its secondary goal of protecting us from terrorism.

I don't know how Gelman could let something this get past him, particularly given his background as an art historian.

p.s. Before commenting on this or on Gelman's piece, give some thought to the title of this post.

Yglesias on the Apple Store

I wish that I was able to quote the entire by Matt Yglesias, but this portion makes the most important point of the article:
More precisely, the Times says the average hourly base pay is $11.91 an hour, which if you work 40 hours a week for 50 weeks a year comes out to the slightly lower figure of $23,800 per year. That's not very much. But it's a lot more than many people make right now. Currently 15 percent of the population is living below the Federal Poverty Line including a shocking 22 percent of American children. And yet a single mom raising three kids working full time at the Apple Store at an average wage would be above the Federal Poverty Line.
That should tell us something about how dire the conditions facing poor Americans are. But, again, those are the circumstances in which 15 percent of the population and 22 percent of kids find themselves.
And yet at the Apple Store workers get "very good benefits for a retailer, including health care, 401(k) contributions and the chance to buy company stock, as well as Apple products, at a discount." So think about a world in which these kind of jobs were the absolute worst jobs around. You're thinking about a world in which everyone has health insurance, and essentially no full-time workers or children of full-time workers are living in poverty. That would hardly be a world with no problems, but it would be a tremendous achievement. And it seems to me to point to the fact that the really urgent question isn't why aren't Apple Store jobs better, but why are so many jobs worse than this? Why can't we live in that world where people who work hard and play by the rules aren't poor?

One thing that this article really does is answer the question of why do I care so much about inequality.  I write a lot about topics like CEO pay; the truth is that I would stop caring about these issues in a world in which this really was the case.  My issues with wealth redistribution are based on the dire poverty which people find themselves rather than class envy.  If people who worked hard and played by the rules could obtain these types of jobs with ease then I would care a lot less about the wealth of the upper classes.

The other thing that I like about this is that it represents a constructive social vision as to what we could do to actually improve the lives of working class Americans.  It may or may not be the best possible idea, but it at least gives a specific target to aim for.  And that is worth a lot.

Great post by Kaiser Fung

Okay, sometimes you miss a great article and feel really stupid when you do find it.  In this case the author is Kaiser Fung and he provides a fantastic example of how modeling decisions can completely undermine a research article's conclusions.  In this case the authors manage to completely reverse conventional wisdom with their analysis.

The only thing I disagreed with Kaiser on was using income as a proxy for the value of one additional year of life.  I worry that could end up in bad places if we were not careful.

Definitely worth a complete read.

Burn Notice is back

And, unlike Justified, you still watch this one for free.


Friday, June 22, 2012

The magic of markets

Paul Krugman has a very interesting piece about the privatization of prisons:
But if you think about it even for a minute, you realize that the one thing the companies that make up the prison-industrial complex — companies like Community Education or the private-prison giant Corrections Corporation of America — are definitely not doing is competing in a free market. They are, instead, living off government contracts. There isn't any market here, and there is, therefore, no reason to expect any magical gains in efficiency.
The whole piece is worth pondering.

Google has an interactive Turing tribute

You really ought to check it out.

Class stratification

Marketplace has a good story on (increasingly rare) marriages across class divides. The whole thing is worth a listen but this part in particular caught my ear.
That doesn’t come as a surprise to Susan Fiske, a professor of psychology and public policy at Princeton. She looks at how social class shapes our daily interactions. “It’s rude to talk about somebody being more privileged than somebody else,” Fiske says. “Social class is such a taboo topic in American society.”  
Fiske’s research sounds like a warning label for couples like Rider and Heavener. Consider the experiment where Fiske put volunteers in MRIs, and showed them pictures of people from different classes. When they got to the photos of really poor people, the part of the brain that normally lights up when we see another human being just didn’t light up. “What we find is that people say it’s hard to think about this person as a three-dimensional human being,” Fiske says.
I've been becoming more and more convinced that class identification has been growing more powerful for the past four decades (with the caveat that the identification is asymmetric; it extends up but not down). The experience of the Great depression and the war had, I suspect, greatly reduced group identification in economic classes. The war had entailed remarkable shared sacrifice and collective action while the Depression had deeply impressed on most Americans the possibility that they too could be among destitute someday. When LBJ was pushing through the Great Society, all of the electorate were born before 1945 (the 26th amendment was still years away)

People.born after the war had almost the opposite experience. They grew up in a period of great economic security and growth. The notion of "there but for the grace of God go I" was almost entirely foreign to them. Under these circumstances it would be difficult to imagine empathy for the poor not dropping.

What amazes me though is how far we've gone and how completely we've internalized these somewhat Randian class attitudes. Mass incarceration is seen as a way of maintaining social order. The same journalists who rail against overpaid teachers will be genuinely moved by the hardships of people scraping by on 300K. A political party in an election year loudly complains that the majority of Americans should pay more taxes so we can make the system less progressive.

Of course, all these examples involve a fairly rarefied group of leaders and opinion makers. Perhaps there's some hope for the rest of us.

p.s. Should have worked in a link to this previous post on the subject.

Improving work-life balance

Dana Goldstein:
1. Universal early childcare and pre-K
2. Extended learning time at school, not just for more test-prep, but for art, music, sports, and other enrichment and supervision affluent kids get as a matter of course. This would help the school day better conform to parents' work day, which helps women (and men) work and parent (Slaughter also points this out)
3. A higher minimum wage and workplace representation in the service sector (especially helpful for single moms)
4. Paid family leave
5. More enlightened men - men who do chores! According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' latest time-use study, men still do only about 25 percent of housework, 29 percent of food preparation and clean-up, and 33 percent of childcare.*
 I found this list interesting because it seemed to really focus on three elements.  One is a stronger social saftey net (points 1 and 2).  Two is less income inequality ( point 3, and to some extent 4).  Three is the culture of the people involved (point 5), which seems to be a hard point to attack as a matter of government policy. 

The question that I have is what is the relative priority of each item on this list?  What are the trade-offs?  And what else could you do to reach these goals indirectly?  For example, something like the Canadian "baby bonus" program could indirectly address the concerns in point 3, without increasing wages for an entire class of workers.  We already do this indirectly, via tax policy, so why not be explicit? 

What do others think

A good story on structural unemployment and an excuse to bring up intra/inter-group dynamics again

From Marketplace:
Basically, [Management professor Peter Cappelli at the Wharton School] thinks employers are just being cheap. He says this is something they learned from the downsizing of the 1980s. It was so easy to snap up laid-off workers somebody else had already trained. So then companies downsized their own training programs to save money. 
Meanwhile, they’ve steadily raised the bar on job applicants -- demanding ever-more credentials and work experience -- then complain they can’t find good help.
And which employees do companies provide with the most skills-enhancement? According to the training organization’s data, it’s not production workers, or customer service reps or new employees. It’s supervisors, managers and executives.
For a variety of reasons (demographic, economic, political, educational), I suspect that the group cohesion in management and the associated social classes has gotten stronger over the past few decades. If this is true, we would expect executives to hold an increasingly high perceived value for executive work while seeing non-executive work as less valuable and more interchangeable.

You can make the case that much of the training given to executives is of limited value. By comparison a strong and unambiguous case can be made for training that, for example, increases workers' relevant computer skills. If we're spending more on the first than on the second, there's something wrong. My theory is intra/inter-group dynamics. Any other suggestions?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Thought provoking idea of the day

Maybe meritocracy is more complicated than I assumed:

What this means paradoxically, is that to encourage an honest “meritocracy”, one may have to discard equality of opportunity. To come from a dishonored or disgraced family would be a hurdle to overcome. To come from a family with an unblemished record for integrity, would be boost. Not because this is fair to the child. It is demonstrably unfair. But, because it may be the only enforcement mechanism that will work against ambitious parents.
The context for this post is Karl Smith thinking about why cheaters will rise to the top of a meritocracy and the implications that this will have.  I often disagree with Karl Smith but, on this point, I think that he might be on to something that is hard to deal with in a social context like that of the United States.

But I would be delighted to be proven wrong.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

One more point about that "On the Media" story

There's something I should have spelled out explicitly in my previous rant. "Sociopathic, genocidal dictators plant propaganda in respected news outlets through think tanks and paid experts" is bad enough. These commissioned op-eds can do real damage, muddying the debate and preventing or delaying sanctions and other actions against these regimes, but the more frightening headline is "Even sociopathic, genocidal dictators can plant propaganda in respected news outlets through think tanks and paid experts."

We are literally talking about some of the worst people in the world arguing some of the most indefensible positions imaginable. If they can, with enough money, buy not only a platform but also a veneer of journalistic respectability then there really is no standard. No speaker or message is too repugnant or dishonest to be whitewashed by the press.

If editors and publishers won't bother to vet proxies for Assad and Charles Taylor, what kind of scrutiny can we expect for a political party or a Fortune 500 company? When we read an editorial about global warming or see a study on tax increases cited, can we assume that the journalistic standards are any higher?

Education Reform: back from the grave?

It has been a while since we did a post on education reform.  But Karl Smith Adam Ozimek reported on a recent paper by Jesse Rothstein on teacher firings. Since this was similar to a discussion here on Observational Epidemiology. I thought that I would quote it in full:
But they assume that replacement teachers can be hired without limit, with no increase in compensation, from the same quality distribution from which current teachers are drawn. This is implausible. The elasticity of labor supply to teaching is unlikely to be infinite. Moreover, one would expect reductions in job security to require a compensating differential even to maintain the current level of supply. Thus, if salaries are not adjusted, filling positions vacated by fired teachers would likely require reducing hiring standards and thus, presumably, quality.
And then quote a line from Karl Adam Ozimek:
As a theoretical exercise I wouldn’t draw too strong conclusions from the study, but it does tell an important story that I think is often ignored in the education debate: many reforms increase risks to the teaching profession, and absent some offsetting benefits, this will decrease labor supply.
What I find interesting here is the need to hedge on very simple economics when they have a non-conservative conclusion.  Of course labor is not infinitely elastic.  But we take economists deadly seriously when they discuss things like dead-weight loss in taxation.  In these cases we are often willing to accept the theoretical conclusions of high taxes = lower growth despite inconvenient empirical examples (compare growth under Eisenhower to Kennedy, or Clinton to George W Bush).

That being said, to give credit where credit is due, Karl Adam Ozimek does then go on to talk about the policy implications of these changes.  What comes out is the story of a tough trade-off in policy and the need to cleverly design a system.  That is a possible path to improvement.  Careful rethinking and redesign may work, as might seriously questioning ideas like credentialism.

But these ideas are not a clear path forward with risks or costs.  Thoughtful reform can work and does work.  Cutting resources because you dislike "government workers" is a very strong belief in the absence of public goods.

EDIT: Name error noted in comments is corrected

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A rant about On The Media and journalistic criticism

I found myself listening to NPR's On the Media in the car this afternoon. It's not something I do often. I have a huge problem with the current state of journalistic criticism, a field that now seems to consist entirely of  self-serving, self-satisfied trivialists and tribalists united by a blood oath not to acknowledge any of the serious problems facing journalism. OMD is often among the worst offenders.

I got lured into this story partially because the topic (brutal regimes hiring PR firms) interested me and mainly because there was nothing else interesting on the radio.

Here was the introduction:

"The New York Times reported this week that the Assad family employs Western PR firms to polish its image for the rest of the world. A few years ago, Harper’s contributing editor Ken Silverstein went undercover and approached PR firms as a fake representative of a tyrant who needed to improve his image. He talks to Bob about what he learned."

The interview was carried out with the usual mixture of smugness and breathlessness. The superiority was understandable if annoying (they were, after all, talking about apologists for dictators), but the surprise was truly difficult to fathom. Silverstein told about firms competing for these huge contracts as if the behavior was unprecedented. Not only was what he described pretty much what you'd expect; it was also perfectly consistent with what we see from law firms, lobbyists and consultants. In other words, there wasn't really a story there.

Silverstein then described what he called the "dirty little secret" of the industry, namely that the work (according to him) wasn't that effective, an assertion he supported with an anecdote about a firm that had bragged about getting a client off a ten-worst list by getting it moved down to the eleventh spot. He didn't seem to realize that this point undercut the importance of much of what he had said before (why should we care about dictators hiring PR firms if those firms are ineffective?). Nor did he seem to realize that in this context, moving past threshold values like 1, 5, and 10 really is a big deal.

Buried in the middle of this, Silverstein quickly and casually threw out the following: the firms promised clients that the firms would "write and place op-eds in American newspapers [and] recruit academics or think tanks to put their name on it." I at that point assumed that even Garfield (who is truly terrible at his job) would jump in and and ask for details, but the subject held no more interest for him than it did for Silverstein.

In any sane world, "Sociopathic, genocidal dictators plant propaganda in respected news outlets through think tanks and paid experts" would be the lede on a program about the media while "PR costs more when you're caught doing horrible things but it may not be worth the money" would be, at best, a side note. Unfortunately, OMD tends to follow the Jack Shafer school of journalistic criticism: sins are weighted by the sinner's membership and position in the journalistic tribe (multiple examples available on request).

The PR firms described here are certainly sleazy but not in a surprising or perhaps even unethical way. I would certainly have more respect for a PR firm or law firm that refused to have dealings with these regimes but I'm not sure any rules are being broken by taking them on as clients. As for the suggestion that these monsters are not getting their money's worth, I'm not entirely sure I buy the argument and even if it's true, I don't find it particularly newsworthy or worrisome. Lots of goods and services aren't worth the price and if someone is going to get screwed on a deal, I'd actually prefer it to be a murderous dictator.

By comparison, there are clear and serious ethical breeches by the editors who print unvetted op-eds by experts with undisclosed conflicts of interest and by the reporters who cite commissioned studies as if they represented reliable, impartial research, but under the Shafer system, the offenses of the PR firms are more heavily weighted because they are committed by outsiders.

I know this inter/intra-group explanation may seem like a bit of a jump, but there's clearly a problem with journalism and accountability. If you have an alternate theory, I'm open to suggestions.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Hoisted from the WCI comments

Comment from Shangwen on Worthwhile Canadian Initiative:

I think a corollary of your title could be, "liberalization matters, not privatization". When most people argue for or against the "privatization" of health care, all they are really talking about is changing the payment stream so that individuals (out of pocket or privately insured) pay entirely for the same system for which the government now pays a majority share. But that does not involve changing occupational monopolies, disencumbering drug development, or making it possible for innovation to force prices down. That is flipping only one switch in a very large machine.

I think that this is a really good point. As a private individual I cannot purchase most medicines (even at the marginal cost) without a prescription from a medical doctor. But there are some conditions (e.g. hypertension) where I could probably do a better job of monitoring on my own using a snazzy blood pressure machine and being able to look at factors like time of day or day of week.

In the same sense, if I get an infection at 5 pm on a Friday afternoon, my options are essentially the emergency room or, just maybe, urgent care. There are no circumstances in which I could call a nurse with my symptoms and try a first line antibiotic before heading into the emergency room.

It is really unclear that market forces will work under these restricted conditions. And this ignores other factors like information asymmetry. Nor am I convinced that all of these conditions are necessary to force innovation forward -- restricted resources can also be an effective spur to innovation and American (and Canadian) medicine has mostly avoided that scenario so far.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

A clever puzzler from the departing Car Talk boys

I've seen similar puzzles that involved changing one sentence into another by moving spaces before (Gyles Brandreth had a whole chapter on them in The Joy Of Lex), but I've never come across one that got three different words or sets of words out of the same letter.
RAY: What can I say? Here we go. I'm going to read you a sentence that has five words missing. The missing words will each be denoted by a "blank." Your job, if you so choose, is to fill in the blanks.
"The (blank) doctor was (blank) (blank) to operate, because she had (blank) (blank)." So there are five words that are missing. 
TOM: I could make up all kinds of fill-ins for that. 
RAY: But, here are the constraints. The letters used to fill in the first blank - after the word "the" - are going to be the same letters used to fill in the two blanks after the word "was" and, the two blanks after the word "had." 
So, if for example there are ten letters in that first blank, then the two blanks after word "was" will use those same ten letters, but to make two words. That will also be true for the two blanks after the word "had." 
But here's the twist. You cannot re-arrange the letters. Only the spaces between the letters can be changed.
This time I won't make you wait for the answer.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Another story about the business of air travel

From, appropriately, APM's the Story.

Whenever I hear one of these golden ticket stories about American Airlines's decision to issue (then un-issue) tickets good for unlimited first class travel, I always am struck by:

1. The terrible job American did pricing these tickets;

2. How clumsy and tone deaf their attempts to claw them back were;

3. The fact that the guy's name really is "Vroom."

Thursday, June 14, 2012

An interesting story on the economics of air travel

From NPR's The World:

Canadian airports don’t like the trend either. They say Canada’s losing $2 billion a year to “passenger leakage.” Daniel-Robert Gooch, president of the Canadian Airports Council, said the problem is that Canada’s air travelers are expected to pay for airport improvements through taxes and fees.
“We have taken an approach in Canada to aviation that’s different from the U.S. and other parts of the world,” Gooch said. “We don’t subsidize airports in the way that takes place in the U.S. and other parts of the world, so we see the users paying 100 percent of the costs.”
A June 5th report from the Canadian Senate echoed those concerns, arguing that Canada’s airports need tax breaks to compete with their subsidized neighbors to the south.
Airline passengers in the U.S. do pay fees to support airport infrastructure. But U.S. taxpayers pick up the tab for other improvements — like a $30 million dollar upgrade to the Bellingham airport runway.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

who's in cell four? or why a trip to the airport feels like a trip to 1987

I was planning to go into more detail with this follow-up but it looks like I'll need to settle for the short version (deadlines, deadlines...)

I bought a car a few years ago and was amazed at the innovations I could get for a little over 20K. The engine, the transmission, even the key were based on technology that would have been unavailable or prohibitively expensive a decade earlier. By comparison, when I travel by air I'm amazed at how little innovation I've seen over more than the past quarter century. How do we explain the difference?

We often hear that businesses will automatically innovate if the government just gets out of their way but that's not the way companies works (at least not based on the projects I've been on). For starters, feelings toward innovation are often mixed. Innovation is usually costly and often professionally risky and, since successful innovation almost always has benefits that pay out over a number of years, it is likely that credit for your ideas will go to your replacement.

Businesses therefore need a good reason to innovate, good enough to outweigh the costs and risks. Two of the biggest (and most closely related) factors in the cost benefit analysis are competition and persuadable customers (customers who will buy your product if you take the action and won't if you don't).

For both auto manufacturers and dealers, the level of competition is high, as is the number of persuadable buyers. Customers have a abundance of choices and an open buying window. In this environment, a well-designed feature or clever bit of technology can often cinch a forty or fifty thousand dollar sale.

By comparison, people needing to make long-distance trips generally have extremely limited choices and  a tight buying schedule. The number of persuadables is very small; most are geographically predisposed to one airport and a handful of airlines. If you're counting on market forces to drive innovation in that situation, you don't understand market forces.

upate: sorry, I had originally meant to talk about a matrix of consumer behavior where persuadable customer were in the fourth cell.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

A new recurring theme for OE

I have to run in a few minutes so I won't have time to go into much detail but Joseph's recent post seems like a good opening for a topic that's been popping up in our phone calls for the past few months:, the shifting role of inter- vs. intra-group perceptions and interactions.

The groups I'm primarily focused on here are based on class, generation, race, region, party and, particularly in the case of journalism,  profession (for example, the only way to find any intellectual coherence in Jack Shafer is to view his writing as a defense of the journalistic tribe and its hierarchy with writers like Michael Kelly and Maureen Dowd at the top).

Much of the odd, talking-past-each-other quality of many of our recent debates becomes more understandable if you allow for the possibility that a different set of rules and definitions are being applied to the speaker's group. Phenomena like mass incarceration or the perceived hardship of getting by on 300K only make sense when viewed in terms of an us-them dynamic.

And to loop things back to Joseph's post, I suspect that executives with ostentatious lifestyles are more likely to identify with their own class and coworkers and less likely to worry about the interests of mostly middle class investors.

One more issue with Principal Agents

Erza Klein points out a study that suggests that there is an inverse relationship between a CEO being frugal in their private life and their propensity to commit fraud in their professional life.  This remains a classic problem of trying to balance the management of public companies with distributed ownership (much of which is not really able to vote).

This is a hard problem.

Blogger moves

Megan McArdle has moved on from the Atlantic

A quick thought on the decline of country music

It used to be that country songs had a by-god body count. Innocent men were executed, lovers killed, miners buried alive...

Now it's a big deal if you key somebody's car.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Utopian urbanists and the will of God

Here's a hypothetical discussion I'd like you consider, not because it could ever happen but because I think it makes an interesting thought experiment.

Imagine we're sharing a cup of coffee with Edward Glaeser and we make them the following proposal: let's take a large metropolitan area in the South or West and just zone the hell out of that puppy, set aside huge swathes of land right through the middle of the city, allow no development whatsoever, not even any roads except for a couple of elevated highways.

I predict that Glaeser would object strenuously to the suggestion. He would probably start things off by waxing eloquently on the evils of zoning, then decry the inefficiency of wasting land that could potentially house millions of city dwellers.

Suitable chastised we drop that idea and change the subject, asking him what cities in the South or West we should look to as models. I'll make a second prediction: he would cite either Seattle or San Francisco (and possibly both), praising them for their density, walkability and lack of sprawl.

The trouble is that all of these appealing aspects are pretty much a direct result of large swathes of undeveloped land that cover large parts of these area, swathes that can be driven across only by way of a handful of elevated highways.

Of course, it's awfully easy to be unfair to someone when you're writing his dialogue for him. It's quite possible that I've misrepresented Glaeser's positions on one or both of my predictions. Still, when I read Glaeser, I can't shake the impression that he's not just suggesting policy changes that can make things better; he's talking about a utopian product of libertarian ideals.Because of this I get the feeling that a city building around a body of water is fundamentally different than a city building around a piece of zoned land, even if the end result is the same. (Is it even possible for the end result to be the same? That's a topic for another post)

None of this makes Glaeser's analyses bad or diminishes any of his many good ideas, but when it comes to setting policy, utopianists always make me nervous.

An going debate between Joseph and Mark

Mark and I have been discussing this post by Noah Smith.  I tend to agree a lot with Noah's points in the post, but I think it ignores the elephant in the room.  Consider this post by Matthew Yglesias:
There's lots of hypocrisy in politics all the time, but it's really amazing how quickly and ferociously all kinds of conservative views about the evils of central planning, government intervention in the economy, and industrial policy go out the window when the subject of fossil fuels. The very same people who'd bang the drums loudest about efforts to spur more advanced renewal energy technology think nothing of dumping billions of dollars in the laps of Shell Oil.
Modern industrial policy seems to be focused around encouraging and subsidizing the use of fossil fuels.  Why not simply adopt a neutral stance to the whole matter?  It would allow alternative energy to displace fossil fuels if and when a specific technology is efficient enough to do so.  Maybe it would let nuclear or hydro or solar energy generation compete on a more level footing.  It may be too late to stop global warming and I am in favor of searching for innovations to improve all aspects of the economy/society.

But do we really have to make subsidizing fossil fuel a policy objective?  

Friday, June 8, 2012

Has anyone patented rounded corners yet? If not, I see an opportunity

…Apple has been awarded a patent on wedge-shaped computers. Once again it is difficult to see why this sort of competition-stifling government-enforced monopoly would be beneficial to the overall cause of innovation. It’s absolutely true that the record should reflect the fact that Apple made wedge-shaped computers popular and the new wave of Ultrabooks are slightly lame imitators. But we progress as a society because of imitators! People come up with good ideas and then those ideas spread.

Airline non-innovation

As mentioned before, getting people on and off of different modes of mass transit adds a tremendous amount of time to the process, not to mention annoyance. One of the many things people hate about air travel is the waiting in line, first to get your boarding pass* then to get through security and finally standing in the unairconditioned jetway and the even stuffier plane itself (not to mention the wait to get off the plane once you've landed)

What if there were a way to cut that boarding time in half?
Kenneth Button, a George Mason University professor of transport economics (and editor of the journal that published Steffen’s 2008 paper). Airlines want a boarding scheme that works for every flight, not one such as Steffen’s that might save time on some flights but cost minutes on others. “They want something that can consistently save two-to-three minutes on every flight,” Button says. In terms of pure speed of cabin loading, Button suggests airlines use both front and rear airplane doors, as some European carriers do.
Actually, since we're talking about a double queue, I would assume it would on average more than double the speed since more people would end up in the faster line..Faster loading and unloading would save the airlines some money and they would greatly improve customer experience.

All of which raises the question: if it's such a great idea, why don't we see twin jetways all over the place? The answer certainly has something to do with up front costs but I think there's a bigger reason. I'll spell out the theory this weekend.

For more airline news, check out this NPR story.

* yes, I know you can print those at home but if you have to check you bags there's no time savings.

I always wonder about the response rate on things like this

I saw on Talking Points Memo and it had such a perfect word-association quality that I thought it was worth sharing.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

An unsung hero of technological innovation

Be honest, how many inventions do you use as often?

From the Atlantic:
Eugene Polley, inventor of the first wireless television remote control, died last month at 96. Polley, an engineer at Zenith, named his device Flash-Matic. It was introduced in 1955. In his New York Times obituary, the purpose of the gadget was described in an advertisement this way: "Without budging from your easy chair you can turn your new Zenith Flash-Matic set onoff, or change channels. You can even shut off annoying commercials while the picture remains on the screen." More than a half-century later, engineers in cahoots with viewers are still working out ways to minimize the intrusion of commercials.

Choke points

As a companion to the earlier post on room for innovation in transportation, there's also a lot we can do with existing technology:
Let’s start with the small-scale stuff that needs doing. There are many examples around the country where a relatively tiny amount of public investment in rail infrastructure would bring enormous social and economic returns. Why is I-95 so congested with truck traffic that drivers divert to I-81 and overwhelm that interstate as well? One big reason is that railroads can capture only 2 percent of the container traffic traveling up and down the eastern seaboard because of obscure choke points, such as the Howard Street Tunnel in downtown Baltimore. The tunnel is too small to allow double-stack container trains through, and so antiquated it’s been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1973. When it shut down in 2001 due to a fire, trains had to divert as far as Cincinnati to get around it. Owner CSX has big plans for capturing more truck traffic from I-95, and for creating room for more passenger trains as well, but can’t do any of this until it finds the financing to fix or bypass this tunnel and make other infrastructure improvements down the line. In 2007, it submitted a detailed plan to the U.S. Department of Transportation to build a steel wheel interstate from Washington to
Miami, but no federal funding has been forthcoming. 
The Howard Street Tunnel is the worst of some seventy rail choke points in the mid-Atlantic region alone. According to a study commissioned by the I-95 Corridor Coalition, a group of transportation officials along the highway’s route, fixing these choke points would cost $6.2 billion and return twice that amount in benefits. The returns would include $2.9 billion in reduced freight transportation costs, $6.3 billion in direct savings due to reduced highway congestion for vehicles still on the road, and $3.7 billion in indirect economic benefits generated throughout the economy by these transportation savings. Importantly, rail capacity can often be improved substantially by relatively low-cost measures such as adding signals, occasional switches, and new, computerized train control devices, whereas with rubber wheel interstates the only way to add capacity is to add lanes. This is another reason why the social rate of return on rail investment is much higher than on most highway projects. 
Another notorious set of choke points is in Chicago, America’s rail capital, which is visited by some 1,200 trains a day. Built in the nineteenth century by noncooperating private companies, lines coming from the East still have no or insufficient connections with those coming from the West. Consequently, thousands of containers on their way elsewhere must be unloaded each day, "rubber-wheeled" across the city’s crowded streets by truck, and reloaded onto other trains. It takes forty-eight hours for a container to travel five miles across Chicago, longer than it does to get there from New York. This entire problem could be fixed for just $1.5 billion, with benefits including not just faster shipping times and attendant economic development, but drastically reduced road traffic, energy use, and pollution.
And as a companion to another post, if you really wanted to take the analogy of running government like a business seriously, the first thing we should do is borrow all we need to get our infrastructure running to capacity.

Straussians and Randians

Joseph and I have a recurring argument about who presents the greater threat, Straussians (my choice) or Randians (Joseph's). This post by James Kwak on the Republican push to tax the lower 47% definitely has me rethinking my position:
The other, even-more-disturbing explanation, is that Republicans see the rich as worthy members of society (the "producers") and the poor as a drain on society (the "takers"). In this warped moral universe, it isn't enough that someone with a gross income of $10 million takes home $8.1 million while someone with a gross income of $20,000 takes home $19,000.* That's called "punishing success," so we should really increase taxes on the poor person so we can "reward success" by letting the rich person take home even more. This is why today's conservatives have gone beyond the typical libertarian and supply-side arguments for lower taxes on the rich, and the campaign to transfer wealth from the poor to the rich has taken on such self-righteous tones. 
This just goes to show how pathological the Republican Party has become. It would be so much simpler, more logical, and more politically appealing if they would just draw a line against higher taxes for anyone. That's what the Taxpayer Protection Pledge does, and it makes a certain amount of sense, even if I think it's bad policy. The fact that Eric Cantor feels compelled to go out of his way to talk about raising taxes on the poor shows how the nasty instinct for class warfare is undermining what should be a simple, small-government agenda.  on the Republican push to raise taxes on the bottom 47% did a good job making me question my position.
The whole thing is worth checking out. While you're at it, take a look at the Bruce Bartlett post Kwak cites:
Once upon a time, Republicans were more concerned about the number of rich people with no income tax liability.

On Jan. 17, 1969, just days before Richard Nixon’s inauguration, the departing treasury secretary, Joseph Barr, disclosed that in 1967, 155 Americans with an income of more than $200,000 had no income tax liability, including 21 with an income above $1 million.

This was considered such a scandal that Nixon sent a tax package drafted by the Johnson administration to Congress with his endorsement. When the Tax Reform Act of 1969 was enacted, including a minimum tax to force rich people to pay something, he praised that provision.

As Nixon said in his signing statement:

A large number of high-income persons who have paid little or no federal income taxes will now bear a fairer share of the tax burden through enactment of a minimum income tax comparable to the proposal that I submitted to the Congress, which closes the loopholes that permitted much of this tax avoidance. 

Ronald  Reagan defended his tax reform proposal on the grounds that it would reduce the number of nontaxpaying rich people. In a June 6, 1985, speech, he said:

We’re going to close the unproductive tax loopholes that have allowed some of the truly wealthy to avoid paying their fair share. In theory, some of those loopholes were understandable, but in practice they sometimes made it possible for millionaires to pay nothing, while a bus driver was paying 10 percent of his salary, and that’s crazy. It’s time we stopped it. 

Among the specific measures Reagan supported to increase tax fairness was an increase in the tax on capital gains to 28 percent from 20 percent.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The next time you hear about hedge funds' sophisticated risk management algorithms...

A couple of great posts over at Felix Salmon's blog. First a sardonic take on the SALT conference in Vegas:

Well, yes. This is why SALT will always be in Vegas, and why Vegas will always welcome SALT with open arms. I’m sure the casinos made very good money on SALT even after accounting for Geismar’s winnings, and they’ll probably make money from Geismar too, on net, over time. If nobody ever won big money, no one would gamble at all. But in the end, the house always wins — and all of these hedge-fund managers are smart enough to know that. And still, left to their own devices, what they do is gamble, and they even layer on silly “risk management” techniques which don’t reduce risk at all — in this case, after a losing hand, Geismar would bet a little less, reckoning that somehow “laws of averages” would help him as a result.

And then from guest blogger Jonathan Adler, a nicely written explanation of just how silly this "risk management" was.

The ever-popular broccoli-is-bad-for-you story

Andrew Gelman points us to a New York Times article by Gina Kolata that bears this provocative title:

For Some, Exercise May Increase Heart Risk

I don't want to go too deep into an analysis of the study. Gelman's post and the accompanying discussion do a good job exploring the issue and it's too late in the evening to cover old ground. There are, however, a couple of points from the post and comments that are particularly pertinent:

1.Gelman --  "Each person is an individual, and I would not be surprised at all to learn that a treatment that is effective for most people can hurt others. Once you accept the idea of a varying treatment effect, it’s natural enough to think that the effect could be negative for some people."

2, There are other, not-so-mysterious ways that exercise could indirectly cause these adverse effects. Soreness and injuries can cause stress and interfere with sleep, carb-loading, sports drinks and energy snacks can be surprisingly unhealthy, and it's not unusual to hear someone excuse a big meal with the line "I worked out today."

The effect described in the article is both weakly supported and unsurprising but it's getting extensive coverage because it falls into one of journalism's most beloved genres, the it's-not-really-good/bad-for-you story, a type of article that allows reporters to pander to their readers and be counter-intuitive at the same time. If you can come up with a study which suggests that seat belts are dangerous or that bacon prevents colon cancer you will be swarmed with microphones.

Here's a an example we discussed earlier:

... (reported by the ever credulous NYT under the headline Bicycle Helmets Put You at Risk) was that of Ian Walker, a psychiatrist at the University of Bath. Walker, an opponent of helmet laws, put a sensor on his bike and rode with and without a helmet until he had been passed 2,500 times (see the curse of large numbers). To control for potential gender effects he sometimes donned a long wig (to get the full comic effect, check out Walker's picture below).Walker found vehicles came on average 3.35 inches closer when he was wearing a helmet (for context, the average passing clearance was over four feet).

If you carefully read all the way through Kolata's exercise article you can find all of the required caveats (New York Times writers are generally pretty good at cover-your-ass journalism), but even a thorough perusal could leave you with a wrong impression while those who skim the piece or simply read the first paragraph are almost certain to be mislead.

You might expect journalists to require a higher standard of proof for stories that might encourage dangerous or unhealthy behavior. Instead we get the exact opposite.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Medicare for all?

From Aaron Carroll
I don’t think I’d be betraying any confidences if I reveal here that my father is no great fan of the ACA. That said, he could not have been happier the day he turned 65. He loves his Medicare. Before that time, while he was somehow able to find insurance for himself, the plan cost somewhere around $15,000. That was before the $5000 deductible. I think I could heal the cheers all the way across the country the day he became eligible for Medicare. My mother, on the other hand, still hasn’t hit 65. She’s counting the days.
I think maybe my Canadian background is betraying me here, but why are we so scared of universal medicare in the United States?  We have already covered the most expensive portion of the population (the elderly, the disabled, and impoverished children).   Is it really the case that a higher rate of spending drives innovation more than it drives rent-seeking and low productivity? 

I think that the answer to this question gets more critical as time goes on rather than less.  But I simply do not get what the resistance to universal health care is based on.  It would do wonders to make mobility higher (moving without health care is a scary thing) and do a lot to increase competitiveness in sectors like manufacturing. 

Why is this so hated?  Can it really just be a war of the old versus the young

Monday, June 4, 2012

To understand obesity, genetics is essential/irrelevant

Both or the following statements are true:

1. Genetics is a major factor in understanding obesity

2. Genetics has no significant role in obesity

The trick is the framing of the question. If we are talking about the factors that determine why person A is obese while person B isn't, genetics should certainly be considered. If we're talking about the rise in obesity nationally and internationally, genetics has no significant role. This is one of those cases where the level of aggregation can completely change the validity of conclusions but you'll seldom hear the distinction made explicitly and you sometimes won't be able to tell even from context.

Making subtle changes in the way we frame a question can, and often does, make huge differences in both the way we approach the question and the inferences we can draw from it. Unfortunately, these fine points are often overlooked even in technical discussions and almost never make it to the popular press. The result is that intelligent people of good faith are often sucked into pointless pseudo-arguments. Worse yet, people of bad faith can produce dishonest but deceptively persuasive arguments by reframing questions mid-discussion.

Still my favorite Krugman quote

“There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.” -- Paul Krugman

Ironically, a lot of the people I know who enjoyed the Lord of the Rings went on to have a lifetime love of learning and an interest in history or mythology. That seems to be a positive social good, despite the very reactionary message of the book (Michael Moorcock rightly notes that a lot of the book is mourning for the loss of a more innocent age due to the industrial revolution). But I think what makes it work to motivate people is the message that the actions of everyone (even the little people) count -- a message that was perhaps over-hyped in the films.

In contrast, Atlas shrugged is an extreme example of the great man theory of history.  The special and gifted people carry society forward, eternally on watch for the parasites that comprise the common herd. 

One brings people together and the other tears them apart.  It’s an important difference. 

EDIT: See the comments... it looks like I mis-attributed this quote.  Sorry, all

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Back on the agricultural beat

As mentioned before, I'd like to see us do this with every agriculturally important species.

LONDON (Reuters) - An international team of scientists has cracked the genetic code of the domesticated tomato and its wild ancestor, an achievement which should help breeders identify the genes needed to develop tastier and more nutritious varieties. 
The full genome sequence of a tomato breed known as Heinz 1706, and a draft sequence for its closest wild relative Solanum pimpinellifolium, were published in the journal Nature on Wednesday.
Researchers who carried out the work said that together the sequences provide the most detailed look yet at the functional parts of the tomato genome and show order, orientation, types and relative positions of all of its 35,000 genes. 
The sequences should help researchers find the links between certain tomato genes and the characteristics they determine, and will also extend scientists' understanding of how genetic and environmental factors affect the health of a crop. 
"Tomatoes are one of the most important fruit crops in the world, both in terms of the volume that we eat and the vitamins, minerals and other phytochemicals that both fresh and processed tomato products provide to our diets," said Graham Seymour, a professor of biotechnology at Nottingham University, one of 300 scientists involved in the Tomato Genome Consortium (TGC).
"For any characteristic of the tomato, whether it's taste, natural pest resistance or nutritional content, we've captured virtually all those genes," said James Giovannoni from the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research at Cornell University, who was part of the U.S. tomato sequencing team. 
Tomatoes represent a $2 billion market in the United States alone, while in Britain the market for tomatoes is worth around 625 million pounds ($980 million) a year.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The twice-wrong analogy

Paul Krugman has been hammering away at the economy as household analogy for ages now, pointing out that the idea of belt-tightening becomes problematic when applied to groups that include both debtors and creditors. I'm wondering, though, if he's wrongly conceding a comparably serious point.

Let's assume we have a household that is running in the red because one of the breadwinners has been laid off. Also assume that the household has been offered a line of very cheap credit, virtually zero interest in real terms. Consider the following purchases:

1. Long deferred car maintenance;

2. Having some cavities filled;

3. Taking a career-relevant training course;

4. Buying a new suit for interviewing;

5. Getting a really big TV;

6. Vegas.

Let's group these in twos and think about the following choices:

A. Take a loan to cover 1 and 2;

B. Take a loan to cover 3 and 4

C. Take a loan to cover 5 and 6

D. Don't take a loan.

I could imagine a heated argument over the merits of A (the cost of putting these things off is far more than the interest) and B (If these purchases lead to a job they will have paid for themselves many times over), but I can't imagine a good argument for D.

It is certainly possible to find government purchases that resemble C but most of the proposed spending we've been talking about recently (infrastructure, education, research, public safety) seem to fall alongside A and/or B. Advocates of austerity could try to argue that these things don't have the potential to save money in the long run, but that's not what we've been hearing. Instead we simply get the argument that, even with essentially zero-interest loans, a household in the red should never borrow money.

What's worse, people take this seriously.

Along these lines, check out the following from Frank Rich via Thoma:

... The most important single step toward a brighter future is to repair our economy as soon as possible. And one of the surest ways to do so is a large and immediate infrastructure refurbishment program.
This path would not require Republicans to concede the merits of traditional Keynesian stimulus policy. Nor would it require them to abandon their concerns about the national debt. In short, the philosophical foundation for an agreement is already firmly in place.
If it doesn’t happen, the coming political campaign will provide a golden opportunity to learn why. At the inevitable town hall meetings, voters who are tired of gridlock should ask candidates when they think that long-overdue infrastructure repairs should begin. The only defensible answer is “Right now!” Candidates who counsel further delay should be pressed to explain why.

Subway cars and shipping containers

A quick thought, inchoate and probably none too original, but here it is.

I took the subway earlier today. I do that about once or twice a month when I'm out and about on the weekend and I don't feel like messing with traffic. I considered heading over to East LA for burrito at Al and Bea's but I decided against it because I didn't feel like waiting through multiple stops and changing trains. I never even considered a destination that would entail getting transferring to a bus -- that's only worth the trouble when there's a large cost to driving and parking (traveling to the airport is the only example I can think of)

That's the real hassle of public transportation, not the business of actually getting people from A to B, but the waiting, the loading, the unloading, the transferring and repeating the process. And that's just for a simple there-and-back trip. If you have multiple stops what would be a couple of hours of errands by car can take a day.

I got to thinking about the analogy between that and shipping before the advent of intermodal freight containers. Back then much of the time and most of the cost of shipping came from transferring items from ships to trucks then from trucks to trains then from trains to trucks. It was the innovation of putting all those items in a big, reusable metal box that made the modern age of cheap trade possible.

It struck me that we're still waiting for an analogous innovation (or set of innovations) in transportation, not just in buses and light rail but in trains and even air travel (what percentage of your last trip was actually spent moving from A to B?). Why we haven't seen more progress is question for another post (trying to avoid hydra blogging here).