Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A compliment, I guess?

Not sure what to make of this, but it appears to be what would happen if you took this post of mine and ran it through google translate through a few languages back to English.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Targeting Automobiles

Here's a nice chart illustrating why automotive gasoline would be a good candidate for a deterrent tax:
Click to enlarge

Source: Goddard Institute for Space Studies at NASA!

Incidentally, I have now posted more in the first three months of 2010 than all of 2009.

I am a Grocery Bag

No reason not to cite this post in full (except perhaps creative integrity, etc):

PLASTIC BAG TAX IS INSANELY EFFECTIVE: THIS ONE IS FOR D.C. PEOPLE, as well as behavioral economists, who surely make up the rest of you: our beloved new five-cent plastic bag tax decreased plastic bag usage from 22.5 million to 3.3 million in the first month alone. Washington D.C. is now sparkly clean! We are so insane about taxes in this country. FIVE CENTS! Whatever. Some of us need to clean litter boxes and will continue to pollute like the dickens.

Washington Post via Wonkette.

It doesn't appear to be a major revenue stream, but that may not be the point. What should the total tax revenue represent? Perhaps the total cost of cleaning up littered grocery bags and housing D.C.'s share of grocery bags in landfills. When it's factored on a per-bag ratio, it should work out pretty well that any lost revenue from the deterrent effect should cancel out the cleanup costs that are no longer needed.

Monday, March 29, 2010

"Epistemal Arrogance"

Earthsharing Austrailia shares some of the sentiments of a student who is beginning a Finance/Economics program. He compares the worldview of a typical marketing course:

‘We don’t know what is going on in an individuals mind, or what makes them happy. We call it a “consumers black box”, that’s what we are trying to find out.’

With the far more conclusive theoretical framework in economics:

‘We assume people are rational utility maximisers (‘utility’ means happiness) and utility is a function of consumption, and consumption is a function of wealth. So the higher the GDP, the better... okay onto the science!’

I might propose something like the following for psychology (at least as it relates to these prior definitions): "We're beginning to discover what makes people happy, but it seems as though individuals aren't very good at predicting what that is for themselves. It seems that people are actually more alike in what makes them happy than our individualized culture tends to emphasize." I'd also argue that such a theoretical framework should be integrated with economic study to determine what policies maximize actual well-being rather than GDP-represented well-being.

"Productive Members of Society"

Quoth Nancy Pelosi:

Think of an economy where people could be an artist or a photographer or a writer without worrying about keeping their day job in order to have health insurance or that people could start a business and be entrepreneurial and take risk, but not job loss because of a child with asthma or someone in the family is bipolar—you name it, any condition—is job locking.

Mary Katherine Ham ignored the latter part of Pelosi's quote in her response in the Weekly Standard:
If liberal Boomers such as Nancy Pelosi insist on creating government incentives for a generation of people to be unemployed artists who nonetheless have their health care paid for by productive members of society, there will be fewer productive members of society.

But I do believe that even if her misinterpretation was reflective of Pelosi's actual sentiment, Ham's critique would still be unimpressive.

When Ham refers to "productive members of society," given the context, she is referring to people with traditional 9-5 jobs that offer a comprehensive benefits package. The problem is that, at the moment, our economy doesn't require as many "productive members" to produce all the requirements of a good life. This is thanks to technology, and this shouldn't be discouraged. However, capitalism's usual reaction is to force innovation, which could mean more labor-saving technology, but most often it means "convincing the general public to buy more, new crap."

When technology saves us labor costs so that we can thrive on fewer people working, shouldn't it be a good response to use the greater leisure time to create art and literature, instead of finding new work to do?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Religious Commons

On the Commons recently featured someone from my hometown in a post about "uncommon commoners," Rev. Tracey Lind:

Lind, who is also a city planner, is working to do just that in inner city Cleveland with Trinity Commons, the most ambitious new development for her neighborhood in decades. She has brought a coffee shop, independent bookstore, Ten Thousand Villages fair trade store, art gallery, labyrinth and public square to the grounds of Trinity Cathedral. Anyone can come to browse, relax with a cup of coffee, walk the labyrinth, pray, reflect, read, check their email on the cathedral’s wi-fi system, or take part in one of the many events – "religious and secular" – that go on at the church.

I admire this church's work in Cleveland, and many people whom I trust have a great deal of respect for Dean Lind and the inclusiveness of the church she heads (I believe she's been a guest at my home, actually, but I was not in attendance). However, I'm a little skeptical of how just it is to call this common space a "commons" in any legal sense. Though it is certainly charitable for the church property to be open to the public, it is also not under any public ownership, and, to my knowledge, there is no technical civic involvement.

Down the highway 20 minutes is a gross commercial complex called "Crocker Park," which I also admire for its intent: the goal was to bring dense living back, with mixed use buildings and a walkable main street. It, however, suffers from what I anticipate to be the same problem: it is still wholly owned by one private organization. When one enters Crocker Park, one is still acutely aware that they have entered someone's shopping mall. Likewise, the few times I've been in the common space at Trinity, I have still been aware that I've been visiting someone's church.

Oddly, from the introduction given, discussing the sacred places that are considered commons, I anticipated that the article would continue to discuss the contradictions in this belief. In fact, couldn't one argue that some of the major geopolitical problems of the past half century have been the result of the inability to treat sacred lands as common? It may be that legally enforcing the commonality in such a situation might provide a solution, such as in Fred Foldvary's prescription.

Debate and Respect

I hope that I'm self-conscious enough to identify when people with whose opinions I agree are expressing them in a disrespectful or unproductive manner.

At the very least, I'd like to demonstrate that I can recognize the inverse, when people are expressing opinions with which I might disagree, but doing so in an inclusive, charitable, and productive matter. This is obviously an easier thing to recognize, but I'd like to cite both Michael Kinsley and Greg Mankiw as illustrations of respectful and productive disagreement.

Quoth Mankiw:
Arthur Okun said the big tradeoff in economics is between equality and efficiency. The health reform bill offers more equality (expanded insurance, more redistribution) and less efficiency (higher marginal tax rates). Whether you think this is a good or bad choice to make, it should not be hard to see the other point of view.

I like to think of the big tradeoff as being between community and liberty. From this perspective, the health reform bill offers more community (all Americans get health insurance, regulated by a centralized authority) and less liberty (insurance mandates, higher taxes). Once again, regardless of whether you are more communitarian or libertarian, a reasonable person should be able to understand the opposite vantagepoint.

Bike across the country in a day!

I've seen it passed a few times, Strange Maps was where I found it now.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Our attention is misplaced

...if you drive one of the Toyotas recalled for acceleration problems and don’t bother to comply with the recall, your chances of being involved in a fatal accident over the next two years because of the unfixed problem are a bit worse than one in a million—2.8 in a million, to be more exact. Meanwhile, your chances of being killed in a car accident during the next two years just by virtue of being an American are one in 5,244.
Robert Wright

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The New Depression, Part II

back to part one...

As it stands today, we've seen fantastic technological developments in the past decade in the way information is handled. This is something that can benefit every industry. But, it tends to effect each industry in the grunt-work positions: jobs that handle the processing of information but little responsibility to make decisions. Jobs that now can be automated. In short, entry-level jobs.

At the helm to receive these jobs is a generation that is best equipped to make them easier for themselves: they already understand the tools that make it easier. Why spend hours tabulating data from a paper form, when you can automate the whole process of data collection and calculation on a Google Document?

This knowledge, unfortunately, has not been to this generation's advantage. They are increasingly derided as lazy and "dislike[ing] the idea of work for work’s sake, and expect[ing] jobs and career to be tailored to their interests and lifestyle." The fact that this generation has been increasingly beginning their post-collegiate years living with their parents again is occasionally described as a cause of their employment woes rather than an effect.

The result is that the jobs this generation streamlines are then eliminated, self-defeatingly. And evidence supports that when you enter the job market in a recession or difficult hiring environment, the effect on your whole career is permanent, and make you disproportionately susceptible to depression.

The point of this matter, however, is that we are again in a situation in which technology has displaced human labor, and we have not yet figured out what kind of work will fill the employment gap in our economy. The path we are currently on of great inequality would lead us to a likely solution of more guarding and destructive work. But this doesn't have to be the way capitalism operates.

What if a system were devised in which the technological benefits that have made work easier were actually to the benefit of people who do the work? If people were encouraged, when technology made their work easier, to do less of it (instead of find other work to maintain a 40 hour work week to keep your health benefits)? What if labor-saving technology actually increased leisure time?

What if, as Sam Bowles suggests, there was a universal welfare system that didn't disappear if you found work, thus disincentivizing employment? His suggestion is enough to live a meager existence on if you wanted, but if you were ambitious, could be put toward going to college or starting a business?

What if such a system was funded by putting a just price on natural resources through carbon and land taxes?

What we have today in the United States doesn't have to be what capitalism is.

The New Depression, Part I

From a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll:
  1. 40% of people are satisfied with the way democracy is working in this country
  2. 59% are dissatisfied
Personally, I share some of the feelings of your Wonkette's commentary:
Why? Well, if you’re on the side of Obama’s big majority of 2008 and the even bigger Dem majorities in the Senate and House, you’re probably a little “let down” that a handful of wingnut rural senators (Ben Nelson, etc.) representing a tiny fraction of the population have somehow stopped all the shit you supported, like health care reform. WTF, right? And you probably never really got over that whole deal in 2000 when the Republican-controlled Supreme Court of the United States appointed somebody president even though this person lost the election. Ouch! Ha ha, and then we had eight straight years of horror and blood, and then the entire economy collapsed. Again. And if you are an angry unemployed uneducated middle-aged rural/southern white person, what is up with a negro becoming president?! That’s not in the *original* Constitution, right?

The question asked about our current state of democracy. We all hope, though, that this democracy – whether we believe it will be through government shrinking or growing, through social programs or through tax cuts – is supposed to make our lives better.

This democracy has, however, in the past thirty or so years allowed a peculiar sort of capitalism to thrive. Michael Scherer describes it thusly:

America's greatest successes for the past decade have come largely from destruction--the company that closes a plant to ship jobs overseas, the financial wizard who predicted a mortgage market collapse created by other financial wizards, the corporate executive who has figured out how to do more with less. We are all living through an age of contraction, in which smart destruction is more prized than creation. I don't know where it is leading us, but I would be willing to wager on the skills that next year's Harvard and Yale grads dream about acquiring. No doubt that America will soon be home to the most skilled and accomplished destroyers in history. As you tuck your children in tonight, let them know. If they dream big, they too can one day dismantle something wonderful.

Does the wealth earned in this context represent reward for benefiting the citizens of this economy?

According to research by Samuel Bowles at the Santa Fe Institute, America's economy today is one in which a quarter of the employed are what he considers "guard labor":

The job descriptions of guard labor range from "imposing work discipline"—think of the corporate IT spies who keep desk jockeys from slacking off online—to enforcing laws, like the officers in the Santa Fe Police Department paddy wagon parked outside of Walmart. The greater the inequalities in a society, the more guard labor it requires, Bowles finds.

Does the wealth earned by guard labor represent reward for benefiting the citizens of this economy?

Capitalism in America is a structure in which, essentially, everyone must spend whatever they earn to keep everyone else employed. If people start to save too much, spending a little less on non-essential goods, perhaps, those people who work in the business of making those non-essential goods will begin to lose their jobs. If anyone then starts to worry that their industry could be next, they start saving money in case catastrophe strikes, and then, of course, more industries do take a hit.

All of this occurs in a context of constant technological advancement. Since the industrial revolution, machines have been replacing work that was previously done by humans. In order to keep the economy alive, we must create new work for the people who've been displaced. Things like guard labor. Things like destructive labor.

to part two...

Monday, March 8, 2010

I had occasion to remember...

Robert Newman's History of Oil is entertaining, true, and important. Anyone who hasn't seen it should set aside 45 minutes to do so (as its only detriment is it happens to be a little long).

Reconsidering taxes

It would not surprise the reader to learn that I'm generally in favor of public reinterpretation of taxes and taxation. The joke goes that a republican can't say "tax" without "cut," and that a democrat can't say "tax" without "on the rich," and this sort of vastly undercuts what should be understood as a public good.

Jeremy Adam Smith has some interesting commentary on this. He describes his local faltering infrastructure and laments the inadequacy of the currently defined tax base. His home of San Francisco is in particular trouble what with the state of California capping property tax at 1%. It is interesting that he does not mention this, given that most of the public goods that he mentions as depending on taxation are location-based: schools, libraries, public transit – mind you, I'm very optimistic about reducing the location-dependence of public education and information, but at the moment, most people's education is still determined very largely by where they live. Smith's personal connection with the dismal situation regarding public taxation is he just did his taxes, presumably income taxation – another odd disconnect.

He goes into detail about public transit, and cites a study [pdf] that illustrates fantastically what kind of public good a usable transit system is:

Providing high quality public transit service typically requires about $268 in annual subsidies and $108 in additional fares per capita, but reduces vehicle, parking and road costs an average of $1,040 per capita. For an average household this works out to $775 annually in additional public transit expenses and $2,350 in vehicle, parking and roadway savings, or $1,575 in overall net savings, in addition to other benefits including congestion reductions, reduced traffic accidents, pollution emission reductions, improved mobility for non-drivers, and improved public fitness and health.

The value of that savings is reflected in the value of the property that is serviced by such a transit system – which is to say that unless that fifteen hundred dollars is recollected in property taxes, landowners are given a handout.

But the important point is: this transit service costs significantly less than than the value it produces. The local government would not need to recollect all the land value it created to fund the transit services that create it. It could be argued that the government would have the right to, because they created the value and not the landowner, but if it were to do so, a legitimate government of the people would in turn return such value to its citizens equally, not just to the landowners.

If one must call the people recollecting the value they created a "tax," then so be it.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Small Request

Robert Gibbs should go into the press room and say something like the following:
Just in case we haven't been clear: deficit spending in a recession is actually a strategy, a deliberate strategy. It is not a sloppy mistake we are making in which we've just decided to spend with no regard for what amount of money is coming in.

You may disagree with this strategy. The other major strategy to stimulate the economy is for the Fed to lower the interest rate, but it's already at zero. We all like that option, too, but for this recession it's not enough.

You may think a tax cut is better to stimulate the economy than government spending. Most data supports the idea that government spending is better, but because a good portion of the American people prefer tax cuts, we made 280 billion of the stimulus package a tax cut for 95% of working Americans. But still, we have to increase the deficit to either cut taxes or spend, and that's the point.

We are making this point to rebut anyone who argues that the deficit at this point is irresponsible. Deficit spending is how we got out of the Great Depression. Deficit spending is how Reagan got us out of the 1980 recession (only he forgot to reduce the deficit when he was done). And deficit spending is what's going to get us out of this recession.

My guess is, it's what everyone in the White House and the Council of Economic Advisors is thinking, they're just afraid to say it in public. I suppose they could throw in something about how every president between FDR and Obama has lowered the debt, except for Reagan and the Bushes.