May 2005 Archives

The Limits of Shame

While shame -- or social opprobrium -- can be used to curb behavior upsetting to groups, one must still take into consideration the opposing forces. In the case of publicly identifying those homeowners that fail to keep up their properties, one has to ask if the effort and money that would be incurred by the offending homeowner is worth less to them than not having a "Scarlet Letter" signal attached to their property. Judging from some of the places I've lived in and around, this might not always be the case. Not to mention the fact that these people already certainly have some inkling that their place is unlike the rest of the neighborhood in terms of orderliness and cleanliness. The cost of shame would have to be significant to alter the behavior of someone who is already apparently far less concerned with "outward appearances".

One of the reasons I'd argue such a tactic would work is that the makeup social group in the case of homeowners would tend to be fairly constant over time. People move in and out, but not terribly rapidly. The offending homeowner would have to cope with repeatedly interacting with the neighbors he has offended. The less dynamic the change in actors in the social network, the more shame could affect behavior.

As a counter-example to illustrate the point, I cite the near-ubiquity of adult magazines at airport kiosks and bookstores. From the small terminal-side stands for news and candy to the in-house Border's, I could have had my pick of several titles of adult magazines. While Pl4yb0y might have once had some slightly mainstream credit with semi-popular authors publishing short stories in its pages, I imagine such value disappeared with the rise in competition against P3nth0use. Surely these would not be part of the regular offering if, in fact, no one was buying them. But who, I wondered, would sidle up behind a mom and her kids buying some candy and aspirin and in front of a dapper elderly man who still dresses for travel, and lay down the latest copy of any of these publications*? Isn't there a reason adult-material shops are located behind barred windows, or off highway service roads? Simply keeping materials out of windows would serve the public restriction against displaying materials for any child to see. The more stringent measures seem more calculated to serve a clientele eager to keep some sort of anonymity. (Sidenote: And indeed, the demand must be strong enough in airports to support such a range of sellers. That people would frequent the more popular and more crowed Borders over the small cart in an quiet terminal implies such. Even more interesting to me is that the Hotelling effect obtains here as well. Several mobile snack/news carts carrying such materials were located by terminal junctions, where most of the large stores have permanent space rather than gathering in the empty spaces between gates.) The difference, of course, is that whatever shame that exists lasts only briefly, and only in connection to a highly fluid set of people. When waiting in line to buy something from the magazine stand, you don't much expect to see any of these people again. There are few worries, as there would be living in a neighborhood that knows you are the one who refuses to mow your lawn, that interactions would be sustained and repeated.

With a lot of time available waiting for a delayed flight in Houston, this is the sort of thing that keeps my mind occupied.

*Please note: I do not mean to suggest that people who purchase adult magazines should be "ashamed". Rather I here use the term "shame" to express the emotional cost of revealing something potentially embarassingly personal to the outside world through such a purchase. Whether or not one should be ashamed (and I'm on the side of "no", so long as the content is produced free of coercion) is beside the point, since we exist in a world with social institutions that still hold to such mores.

[N.B. Odd spellings of publications, and lack to links thereof, are intended to keep down the amount of unwanted traffic from search engines and spiders.]

Learning Russian

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The time has come for me to learn Russian; and by learn, I mean become fluent. This will require much pain, as I still cannot pronounce ы without making my wife give me a corrective glance.

Of course, instead of actually learning Russian, the first thing I do is think about the economics of my learning Russian. Case in point -- the number and diversity of Russian textbooks published increases when enrollment in Russian declines.

Recommended Reading

A few weeks ago I had the distinct pleasure of hearing Steven Levitt speak to a gathering of UC alumni on the subject of his new book. Reviews and insights on Freakonomics abound, so I won't bother to say much other than while I recommend taking the weekend afternoon required to read through it all, it was sorely lacking in the part that interests me most: the process Levitt goes through to find/investigate subjects.

In addition to the talk being entertaining and engaging (not a frequent characteristic for economists) in general, I was particularly caught by a simple comment Levitt made at the very start of his presentation. Specifically he said that he dislikes using the word "rational" to define actors, since it seems to carry with it baggage that simply gets in the way of the discussion. In its stead, he suggested the term "optimizing". Perhaps this is already orthodoxy in a world in which I don't participate, but I find that I like it, at least as much as "rationality".

The odd nature of the word is well identified in a book I picked up while in transit from Texas this weekend, and heartily recommend: Everything And More: A Compact History of ∞:

It was always around that same time t every morning, and Mr. Chicken had figured out that t(man + sack) = food, and thus was confidently doing his warmup-pecks on that last Sunday morning when the hired man suddenly reached out and grabbed Mr. Chicken and in one smooth motion wrung his neck and put him in a burlap sack and bore him off to the kitchen. Memories like this tend to remain quite vivid, if you have any. But with the thrust, lying here, being that Mr. Chicken appears now to have been correct -- according to the Principle of Induction -- in expecting nothing but breakfast from that (n + 1)th appearance of man + sack at t. Something about the fact that Mr. Chicken not only didn't suspect a thing but appears to have been wholly justified in not suspecting a thing -- this seems concretely creepy and upsetting.

...

For instance, we know that in a certain number of cases every year cars suddenly veer across the centerline into oncoming traffic and crash head-on into people who were driving along not expecting to get killed; and thus we also know, on some level, that whatever confidence lets us drive on two-way roads is not 100% rationally justified by the laws of statistical probability. And yet 'rational justification' might not apply here. It might be more the fact that, if you cannot believe your car won't suddenly get crashed into out of nowhere, you just can't drive, and thus that your need/desire to be able to drive functions as a kind of 'justification' for your confidence.

[Footnote]
IYI Depending on mood/time, it might strike you as interesting that people who cannot summon this strange faith in principles that cannot be rationally justified, and so cannot fly, are commonly referred to as having an 'irrational fear' of flying.

David Foster Wallace is one of my favorite contemporary authors, but I will concede that this book is much more technical than his past essays. The care he takes to explain the enormity of the effort to pin down the precise nature of ∞ makes the effort of reading the book entirely worthwhile.

Also, in case you're a fan of these "microhistories" as they've come to be called, I would recommend you towards Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea (clean, enjoyable prose; compelling description of the difficulties and history of the idea, though perhaps too light in technical detail for some) and away from A Tour of the Calculus (Berlinski's apparent desperation to be considered apart from the common idea of a mathematician as someone entirely unable to converse with non-mathematicians makes the writing almost painfully over-adorned with pointless flourishes and bad analogies).

An Ominous Anecdote about Statistics...

Young German Neo-Nazis think judging the worth of people by ethnicity is a good thing:

To make matters more complicated, crimes committed by foreign-born Germans are not even listed separately in the official crime statistics, because the perpetrators already have German passports.
I hate bigots of all stripes, and requiring statisticians to pander to bigots is a manipulation of the duty of the statistician to report faithfully and objectively the data he has acquired. This addition of ethnicity to the statistical yearbooks happened before. I here cite an older book in my possession, XXXXXXX, one chapter of which describes what happened in the German statistical agency when Hitler rose to power. I've scanned in the chapter, and encourage you to read it at your leisure.

The Secret of Gary Becker

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Steven Levitt writes an ode to Gary Becker calling him the "not only the Michael Jordan of economics, he is the Gordie Howe of economics as well."

What is Becker's secret? It doesn't hurt to be incredibly smart. That isn't really what sets him apart, though, I don't think. He has four other traits that are just as important: he works harder than anyone else, he loves what he does, he is not afraid of criticism, and he has never stopped learning new things.

I think we should also add that Becker had excellent advisors like Milton Friedman. Friedman writes in his biography,

"People often excuse bad writing by saying that they know what they mean, and simply have difficulty expressing it. That is nonsense. If you cannot state a preposition clearly and unambiguously, you do not understand it.� I took that lesson to heart. I learned that trying to write something clearly and unambiguously was the best way to find errors and omissions in my reasoning and clarify my own thought�

It was in a letter to Gary Becker in May 1955, when I was in Britain, referring to a draft of his thesis that he had sent to me: �Nine times out of ten,� I wrote after criticizing his exposition, �sloppy writing reflects (and advertises) sloppy thinking.�

(Two Lucky People, p. 75-76, emphasis mine)

Now that Becker has a blog it would be interesting to hear his reactions then to Friedman�s criticism of his thesis.

Fighting Back

I read this article with great pleasure. One should not be mistaken into believing that environmental groups simply want better stewardship of the land. They want to drive people off of it. The funny thing is that cattle grazing actually benefits the environment as it's needed to replace the gone wild animals which used to feed on the same land. A snapshot:

Jim Chilton doesn't just admire cowboy values. He believes in them. And, like any true believer, he's eager to share the gospel in well-rehearsed sound bites, whenever the situation allows.

Ask him, for example, why he decided to sue one of the West's most prominent environmental groups. "I laid in bed at night, wondering if I was a cowboy or a wimp," he'll reply. "If you're a cowboy, you stand up and fight for truth, justice, integrity and honor. If you're a wimp, you lay there and go to sleep."

Or, ask about nature. "For a cowboy," he'll tell you, "every day is Earth Day."

That's why Chilton got so mad at the Center for Biological Diversity. The Center tried to make him the bad guy when he, the cowboy, was supposed to be the hero. And that was an attack no cowboy could forgive. (Forgiveness, after all, is for wimps.)

And so he sued -- a switch, given that the Center is normally the one filing the lawsuits. Chilton took the case to trial, and won one of the biggest punitive damage awards Arizona is likely to see this year.

If Nike can be held accountable for what they say, interest groups who cause real damage through their advocacy should be as well.

Taxes on Everything

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(With all due apologies to MR.)

Denmark, the land of remarkably high tax rates, has found something else on which to impose a tax.

Denmark, with the world's highest income tax levels, wants sperm donors to pay tax on the 500 crown ($84.59) reimbursement men receive for their services.

Of course, this tax won't divert activity away from the newly-taxed practice. The diversion will simply be in the location.

"It is a special kind of work and therefore the fee cannot be compared to normal working income," Cryos said in a letter to the tax authorities, adding it risked losing donors, most of whom are students.

Once upon a time, a small revision in the GDP growth rate led to a very different newspaper storyline. Just remember that this is an all-too-real fairy-tale...

One month ago, on April 29, I defended my dissertation about error in GDP. That day the headlines were screaming that the economy was in the tank. The quarterly annualized growth rate of Q1 GDP had come in at 3.1%. Jeannine Aversa of the Associated Press wrote:

[T]he economy grew at an annual rate of just 3.1 percent in the first quarter. The slowest pace of expansion since in two years was evidence of a new "soft patch."

The first-quarter's GDP figure, down from a 3.8 percent pace logged in the final quarter of 2004, represents the economy's most sluggish showing since the first quarter of 2003, when economic activity expanded at an even more mediocre 1.9 percent rate...

The newest snapshot of the economy disappointed economists. Before the report's release, they were forecasting a 3.5 percent growth rate for the first quarter...

["Soft Patch" is] the term Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan used last spring when economic growth slowed abruptly.

Today, Q1 GDP was revised upward to 3.5%, and Jeannine Aversa has found a new story:
"The 3.5 percent pace is really a safe and solid pace for the economy to grow. By that I mean, it is not so fast that you can have an inflationary accident and not too slow to create new jobs," said Stuart Hoffman, chief economist at PNC Financial Services Group. "It is right on the economy's speed limit."
Folks, 3.1% and 3.5% are economically and statistically indistinguishable. If you don't believe me, ask somebody from the BEA. There is almost no difference in the data, yet the story goes from "soft patch" to "safe and solid". This is not reporting reality; this is from the land of make-believe. Quite simply, GDP data aren't able to tell coherent stories with differences this small, especially when comparing two recent quarters.

Here's more:

The new reading is close to the 3.6 percent growth rate that economists were forecasting before the release of the GDP report.

The 3.5 percent pace clocked in the first quarter of this year _ while better than an initial calculation for the quarter _ still represented some slowing from the 3.8 percent pace seen in the final quarter of 2004.

Economists initially predicted 3.5%, and it came in at 3.1%. The next month, they predict 3.6% and it comes in at 3.5%, and this is slightly lower than the 2004Q4 of 3.8%. A few points are worth noting. First of all, these are very good predictions. Second of all, 2004Q4 growth itself was revised from an "advance" 4.0% to a "preliminary" 3.1% to the "final" 3.8%. Do you really think stories about short-term changes from 4% to 3% growth have any basis in reality? Third, what can stories based on these data possibly mean? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

I cannot see how anybody's planning decisions have changed because of this revision. As a subjective rule, I cannot see how any revision smaller than +/-1.5% or +/-2% could affect public or private policies at all.

The Law of One Price

Virginia Postrel blatantly violates the misinterpreted "law of one price", and tells that differing qualities completely justify intra-personal price divergence:

I bought a 12-pack of 12-ounce Diet Coke, a staple item in the Postrel refrigerator, for $2.98; that's about 2.1 cents per ounce or 24.8 cents per can...

Yet I also purchased a six-pack of .5-liter (16.9-ounce) bottles for $2.78: 2.7 cents an ounce or 46.3 cents a bottle.... I like to be able to close the container to avoid spills.

Finally, I bought a cold 20-ounce bottle of Diet Coke for $1.08, or 5.2 cents an ounce, and drank it immediately. If I'd had the change, I might have bought a 12-ounce can of even colder Diet Coke from a vending machine for 50 cents, or 4.2 cents an ounce.

This is all about the structure of preferences, putting a premium on cold and closable and fresh. There is apparently no tendency for these prices to converge; prices are not bending preferences.

Completely unrelated to Ms. Postrel's diet coke is a paper that shows market liberalization in China has succeeded in generating for many commodities a pattern of market prices that passes a "one price" test. Ms. Postrel has no internal exposure to exchange risk and no internal barriers to trade, and she thoroughly embraced the tremendous choice available to her. Apparently, the same goes for China.

[H/T: KP]

Power Outage in Moscow

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An explosion of some sort has caused a major blackout throughout Moscow and neighboring areas:

Prosecutors in Russia have opened a criminal case against the country's power monopoly after a major blackout in the capital, Moscow, on Wednesday.

Public transport ground to a halt, Moscow's main stock exchange stopped trading and water supplies were hit.

The electricity outage was caused by a fire and explosion at a substation, the energy minister told parliament.

The first thing the government of Russia has called for is the ouster of the current Chairman. I have no idea what Chairman Chubais' various merits or problems are; but perhaps the government should be reminded that it currently holds the controlling share of UES (the "power monopoly" mentioned in the first sentence of the article). At the time of the writing of this brief from the EIA, that stake stood at 52%, with Gazprom controlling 10%. Of course, Gazprom itself is soon to be effectively a state asset after the recent cash buyback plan put into place by the Kremlin.

No matter what the cause of the explosion (and I am sorry it happened on such a hot day; there are bound to be health issues arising from the power loss for air conditioning), the massive size of the blackout is in some large measure due to poor infrastructure. That is to say, an outdated, problematic grid almost certainly contributed to the scale of the problem. Who, then, was responsible for the grid?

UES, which is 52% owned by the Russian government (Gazprom now has a 10% stake) , controls most of the transmission and distribution in Russia. UES owns 96% of the transmission and distribution system, the central dispatch unit, and the federal wholesale electricity market (FOREM). The grid comprises almost 2 million miles of power lines, 93,000 miles of which are high-voltage cables over 220 kilovolts (Kv). [From the EIA brief linked to above.]

For reference, here is the EIA diagram of the Russian Electricity Sector Structure:

russia_elec_struc.gif

Click for a larger version

This places the transmission process under a heavy amount of regulation from a centralized source, and put it in position unable to respond to growth in demand and use. When a problem arose, massive parts of the grid failed. Does any of this sound familiar at all? (Better bet: Click here and just start reading.)


T&B's China Fact of the Day

[China] currently employs 370 million people to produce as much food as 2 million American farmers.
Here's the link.

Where Do You Talk Like?

Those of you who click through any number of more "personal" blogs will recognize the concept: a display of results from some internet "survey" or another to figure out which of several "things" (Star Wars character, literary heroine, car, etc.) to which you might be most similar. Along those lines I ran across one (I forget now on which I blog I first saw it) that gave an aswer as to the kinds of English one spoke, giving percentage breakdown of Northern, Southern, Midwestern, Upper Midwestern, and more. Little did I know that this survey was being followed a little more closely than the one that told me that if I were an X-Man I would be Cyclops. (Clearly erroneous. As anyone who knows me would say, I would be a perfect Havok.)

From that survey the results were compiled and then displayed in numerous maps of the US, showing geographic concentrations of response types: Dialect Survey Maps and Results.

One thing I'm grateful for is that this survey finally recognized and demonstrated something I'd noticed while living in Ohio three different times--a very odd use of the word "anymore" that was hard to reconstruct for examples. Here are the results for whether or not people consider either the phrase "I do exclusively figurative paintings anymore", or the phrase "He used to nap on the couch, but he sprawls out in that new lounge chair anymore" to be gramatically correct. (I do not.) Notice the "Eastern Midwest" concentration of those who responded "acceptable". Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Southeast Michigan all seem to consider this linguistically hunkey-dorey hunky-dory (my goodness, what was I thinking?). But then, what can you expect from an area that drops its helping verbs? (To wit, from my Pennsylvanian father: "Why are you just sitting on the couch? The lawn needs mowed and your hair needs cut.")

Had I the time and the data I'd map these results against the spread of ethnic groups over time and the level of economic development in each area. That, and a good GIS program would help. As my grandmother used to say, "If I had some cheese I could have a ham and cheese sandwhich if I had some ham."

Shopping Malls per 100,000 Pop

More evidence that Russia is not a normal country: Shopping Malls per 100,000 population.

I have returned to RAND, so I cannot comment on the substance of the charges that, essentially, DoD wants to close the wrong bases.

WASHINGTON - The entire Missouri delegation to Congress demanded Tuesday in a letter and a press briefing that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld release information explaining his decisions to close dozens of military installations around the country, including the 131st Air National Guard Fighter Wing at Lambert Field....

Pentagon officials said they had posted a large amount of information since the weekend on their base closing Web site and also provided the data to the Base Realignment and Closure Commission....

Spokesmen... said that what's missing are "the underlying empirical data justifying the scores" given military installations, as well as cost-benefit analysis for closing specific bases.

Meanwhile, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich asked that the Pentagon "immediately make all the data materials and computer models ... available for public review."

Let's assume the goal of everyone is to maximize defense capability within a reasonable budget constraint. (Stop laughing). Missouri officials believe that their bases are very important, and add much inframarginal and marginal value to national security, but they don't have independent data to prove it.

Then how exactly did they determine their prior belief that their bases are important? Why can't the public review their data and models and cost-benefit analyses?

-----

I'm getting tired of reading news stories in which X accuses Y of Z, Y denies Z, and the journalist makes little effort to find out if Z is true, or whether X or Y have solid reasoning and evidence behind them, or a huge personal and financial stake in the matter.

Fascinating New Paper

From the NBER emails on new working papers I found reference to a new paper by Echenique and Fryer: "On The Measurement of Segregation."

ABSTRACT: This paper develops a measure of segregation based on two premises: (1) a measure of segregation should disaggregate to the level of individuals, and (2) an individual is more segregated the more segregated are the agents with whom she interacts. Developing three desirable axioms that any segregation measure should satisfy, we prove that one and only one segregation index satisfies our three axioms, and the two aims mentioned above; which we coin the Spectral Segregation Index. We apply the index to two well-studied social phenomena: residential and school segregation. We calculate the extent of residential segregation across major US cities using data from the 2000 US Census. The correlation between the Spectral index and the commonly-used dissimilarity index is .42. Using detailed data on friendship networks, available in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, we calculate the prevalence of within-school racial segregation. The results suggests that the percent of minority students within a school, commonly used as a substitute for a measure of in-school segregation, is a poor proxy for social interactions.

A previous copy of the paper can be found here in PDF.

The whole thing is packed with fascinating ideas stemming in part from the model's disaggregation from the city level to the individual. Particularly fascinating was the ability of the new model (the SSI) to distinguish well between "mechanical" and "behavioral" segregation (that is, the amount of segregation one would expect based on the actual distribution of races versus the purposeful segregation evinced through choice of separatign oneself from a non-similar race) that illustrates a number of compelling such as:

Interestingly, one learns from Table 7 [a table describing "the SSI of the most segregated connected components by size of the component."] that blacks are more segregated than any other racial group, but the most segregated Hispanics are more segregated than the most segregated Blacks. Table 8 provides the top 15 most segregated blocks in America. A Hispanic block in San Antonio is the most segregated block, followed by a Black block in Lafayette, LA and an Asian block in Los Angeles

From the sections on school segregation:

Many researchers assume the relationship [between the percentage of minority students in a school and the level of segregation for each minority student in that school] is linear (see, for example, Orfield 1983). This seems to be true for Whites, Asians, and to a lesser extent Hispanics. For Blacks, however, the relationship between percent own-race in a school and own-race segregation is highly non-linear. As the percentage of black students increases from zero to twenty-five percent, black segregation rises sharply. Above twenty-five percent, Blacks are near complete segregation.

Employment is Destiny?

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Those of you toiling in a more "masculine" profession and are expecting, it looks like you might be more likely to be saying "Atta boy!"

Blokey jobs encourage baby boys, study says

The conclusion comes from a survey of 3,000 people from various professions by the London School of Economics and printed in the Journal of Theoretical Biology.

In the population as a whole in Britain, roughly 105 boys are currently born for every 100 girls, according to the study, The Sunday Times newspaper said.

But according to calculations by chief researcher Satoshi Kanazawa, for engineers and other "systemisers" [a description given to a form of cognition considered more "male"] the ratio is 140 boys per 100 girls.

Nurses and the like produce around 135 girls for every 100 boys, the study found.

Interestingly, the sciences are included in those professions termed "systematic", thus making the description of "masculine" mean more than simply requiring more brawn. If this conclusion is true, and the effect does exist, might it not have something interesting to say about the representation (or under-) of women in the upper tiers of scientific study? The women who do choose the life of an academic and excel to the top postions might be more likely to have male children, an effect that, coupled with the fact that children of highly educated parents are more likely to pursue similar vocations, would make comparisons to the normal distribution of men and women in the general population less and less applicable as generations wore on.

(Via, and with more to be found at, Illuminating Science.)

Doesn't seem a minute since the Tirolean spa had the chess boys in it...

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Kasparov is taking on Putin.

In the end, it can be said that Kasparov has defeated all of his intellectual adversaries but one: Vladimir Putin. And now, Kasparov is making his move against the Russian president.

Announcing his retirement from chess recently, the 42-year-old master declared that his new vocation is politics and vowed to take on the increasingly autocratic power structure ruling Russia. He wants Putin to step down in 2008, as the constitution mandates, and a democratically elected ruler to take his place.

Not that the fight will be fair, of course. It does, however, make for an interesting discussion on the value of two very different facets of understanding strategy. Apart from his dictatorial intentions, Putin is clearly a skilled manipulator of personal and political incentives. Kasparov, on the other hand, drew a tie from a machine that could calculate 50 billion moves in three minutes.

"I felt that I could use my resources, to apply my philosophy, my strategic vision in my native country, because it's such a crucial, decisive moment in history, and I felt my presence could make some difference," said Kasparov, who claims that he has been banned from state-owned television because of the threat he poses to the government.

...

He is finishing work on a book, scheduled for publication in 2006, titled How Life Imitates Chess. In it, he asserts that the sharp reasoning and brilliant intuition that guide a chess player's moves are the same elements that determine all effective decision-making.

One wonders how abstract the book's discussion will be: must we simply be cognizant of potential reactions by "opponents" and choose our moves according to their most likely response, or is it that a lifelong devotion to a single subject and dogged review of a narrow set of potential rivals in the pursuit of refining individual-specific assumptions (priors) for better evaluation during competition is what's called for to make "effective" decision making? It's certainly not the case that Kasparov confronted Deep Blue restorting to only a Maclom Gladwell-style style game. Likewise Putin has spent his career deep within the system of Soviet/Russian machinations. While both are supreme strategists, it seems the specificity of their fields would make it hard to compare abilities between the two. And considering that it's Kasparov moving onto Putin's turf, I don't hold out much hope for the chess genius.

(Via Political Wire.)

Accounting and Condoms from the World Bank

The World Bank likes to call itself the Knowledge Bank. The wealth of material on its website is truly amazing. From accounting to sustainable development to condom procurement you will find material on its website. Below you will find some links from the World Bank to prove to you it truly is a Knowledge Bank.

International Accounting Standards - A Practical Guide


In response to the global financial crisis in 1998, an initiative was launched to strengthen the global financial structure, and, although the International Accounting Standards (IAS) have been in existence for some time, it is believed such initiative will help promote transparency in financial reporting, and acceptance of its wide range of international best practices. This publication provides guidance, and summarizes each IAS, while each chapter contains a simple case study, emphasizing the practical application of key concepts in a particular standard.....A conscious decision has been taken to focus on the needs of the executives and financial analysts in the private and public sectors who might not have a strong accounting background...


Beyond economic growth : an introduction to sustainable development

This book is designed primarily to help readers broaden their knowledge of global issues, gain insight into their country's situation in a global context, and understand the problems of sustainable development--both national and global. Because development is a comprehensive process involving economic as well as social and environmental changes, this book takes an interdisciplinary approach. It attempts to describe and explain the complex relationships among various aspects of development, including population growth, economic growth, improvements in education and health, urbanization, and globalization.


Condom Procurement Guide, Vol. 1 of 1

I don�t know why it is identified in the working papers section.


Related Links: Tyler Cowen commented recently about Sebastian Mallaby's book on Wolfensohn referring to it as the best book on World Bank. See also these two reviews of Wolfensohn�s legacy; one by Kenneth Rogoff and the other by Jagdish Bhagwati.

Unions Fight Offshoring, Blogs

The MSM critique of bloggers as semi-literate, pajama-wearing, second-rate hacks is usually taken to be a threat to the professional ethos of journalists. But the sad truth for an investor in MSM is that blogs are reconfiguring business models, and adaptation might require organizational change, including the devil called outsourcing.

But once the unions get involved, it's no longer just a threat of questioning professional standards, but of threatening vested financial interests.

In fact, Reuters implicitly admits that bloggers have a locational and tactical advantage -- they're local, and their means of news gathering when not local is the same as any reporter:

Schlesinger also said he was offended by the guild's suggestion - which the union has denied - that American journalists are superior to their foreign counterparts. The wire service remains committed to "on-the-ground reporting, but some stories can be done very well by telephone or by reading something on the Internet," he said from India.

Google Hacks (UPDATED)

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I suppose I'm drifting a bit afield from economics, even if the question of information is highly relevant to the topic, but I thought these things might be of enough interest to post. (Kevin may edit this to improve the signal:noise ratio I'm clearly harming. But since Google has long been of interest around these parts...)

Google-Traffic: Combining Google Maps with traffic data from Traffic.com, you can now take a look at the major road conditions and trouble points on your commute home. (If you live in the listed cities, anyway.)

Google Housing: Maps and Craig's List come together to show you the location of the next place you might call home.

NYC and Chi-Town Hacks: See where the stops on the subway or the El are situated on Google Maps.

UPDATE: Here's another one for the Chicago audience. Chicagocrime.org offers an interactive Google Map paired with crime data.

I tend to like pharmaceutical advertising because I have a preference for more information rather than less (even if it is filtered through the lens of the seller). No, it's not an unadulterated good in all situations, but if I'm uncertain about the conditions under which I'm participating, I'll choose to believe that more information could be a help, especially in relation to medicine. All of which makes me appreciate the new patientINFORM service.

Under the patientINFORM web-based pilot project, when patients, their caregivers, or others visit the voluntary health organization websites with general questions and to read news stories and other web content created by the organizations to help interpret the latest research, they will also have the option of being connected directly to the source through links to free full text of the research articles on the journal websites. Healthcare consumers will be able to access selected journal articles as soon as they are published.

This comes via Slashdot, which has a host of interesting links to a number of places bringing more information to the masses.

There's a Sucker Born Every Minute

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I missed that Argentina had succeeded in a bond offering:


BUENOS AIRES (AFX) - Argentina has issued its first treasury bonds for sale to the financial markets since defaulting on its public debt mountain in 2001, officials said

The government's bond offering consisted of 1.0 bln pesos, according to finance secretary Guillermo Nielsen

The interest rate was fixed at 6.51 pct annually, but this could be adjusted according to inflation

Nielsen told reporters yesterday's offering was "very successful" and said it showed Argentina was "returning to normal" on the financial markets

This is actually rational since the country is unlikely to default again quickly. However, who's buying these at a 6.5 yield or coupon? Argetina's inflation rate is at least that high and the politicians of the place don't seem to understand monetary economics.

New tritium powered batteries for much longer life.

A battery with a lifespan measured in decades is in development at the University of Rochester, as scientists demonstrate a new fabrication method that in its roughest form is already 10 times more efficient than current nuclear batteries—and has the potential to be nearly 200 times more efficient. The details of the technology, already licensed to BetaBatt Inc., appears in today’s issue of Advanced Materials.

Of course, I have to imagine recycling these things would be a bit more difficult than your average Duracell.

Here's an interesting new technological twist:

SAN DIEGO, CA-May 3, 2005 – Nethercomm Corporation, the leading innovator of subterranean broadband communications, announces the development of Broadband-in-Gas (BiG) Technology. This technology is designed to effectively multiply the current available bandwidth of cable television and all other broadband systems with data capacities exceeding ten gigabits. Broadband-in-Gas delivers unmatched levels of connectivity by making use of Ultra Wideband technology to wirelessly broadcast information in a way that is both safe and reliable by using the private spectrum isolated within natural gas pipelines.

In the case of both natural gas and broadband internet access (NB: PDF), usage increases with household income. If the infrastructure works like they claim it does, it certainly seems like they'll have a natural customer base naturally inclined towards adopting the service. The more interesting question, to me, is whether an effective bundling of the two by gas companies might help increase the usage of natural gas.

A possible 10+ gigabits of transfer capacity? Forget my DVR, I'd just watch everything on my computer.

non-scientific, though interesting in it's own right, survey by Computer Economics purports to show that the lower costs of Open Source Software are not, in fact, the biggest perceived advantages.

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The survey indicates that IT decision makers value “reduced dependence on software vendors” as the most important advantage of open source. This indicates that software buyers must feel some level of dependence on proprietary software vendors, from which they desire freedom. Such dependence includes reliance on the vendor for maintenance and support and the necessity for the buyer to accept version upgrades that the buyer may not need or want.

This might be overgeneralizing the issue, to some extent, but I would tend to include this in with the "lower cost" advantage. The savings from not waiting around for support, for not having to fight with the sales reps about how much maintenance was included under the original sales contract, being limited to inferior choices among other software because of interoperability issues...the avoidance of large costs due to potential hold-up problems, generally, can be significant. That the respondents didn't identify them as "costs" doesn't matter if, in fact, the benefit of avoidance is being able to reinvest time and energy into things more productive for the company. Rightly or wrongly, open source is seens as facing this problem far less than vendor-specific products. On the other hand, one must hope that the open source community decides to become interested in solving a particular software need that your company may have. With no profit to respond to, it could well be that the best programmers are spending their days addressing what they believe is a desperate need for a really good OS X emulator.

Some Interesting Tidbits

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Paul Kedrosky of Infectious Greed has a couple of interesting posts up on his blog. The first shows that even economists have trouble practicing what they preach:

Harry M. Markowitz won the Nobel Prize in economics as the father of "modern portfolio theory," the idea that people shouldn't put all of their eggs in one basket, but should diversify their investments.

However, when it came to his own retirement investments, Markowitz practiced only a rudimentary version of what he preached. He split most of his money down the middle, put half in a stock fund and the other half in a conservative, low-interest investment.

"In retrospect, it would have been better to have been more in stocks when I was younger," the 77-year-old economist acknowledged.


The second one I find a little more interesting as it directly addresses one of my pet peeves of academia, namely that they aren't in touch with the real world. It should come as no surprise that an academic that leaves university life is actually more productive at producing papers afterwards and then gets another boost once they return.
One of the more Hobbesian choices faced by academic researchers with commercializable technologies is what they should do with them. While most money-minded people would say "Go out and make money from your invention", the reality is that most (but not all) academic researchers are in research institutions for a reason: They like to do research, not start companies. Leaving, creating a company, and then selling stuff doesn't strike them as a good time -- and that's fine.

At the same time, hoary Stanford anecdotes aside, most universities still sniff somewhat at faculty-members-turned-entrepreneurs. What's going to happen to your NIH/NSF grant? Who's going to manage your lab? How will you publish papers in the private sector?

All valid questions, so it is interesting to see a paper in the new issue of journal Research Policy that presents a startling factoid: Researchers are more productive at producing papers when they shift from academia to industry, and then they become more productive again if/when they come back into the academic fold.

Maybe they got an original idea that is applicable in the real world? I find it odd that students go from undergrad directly into graduate school and expect to produce interesting research. A lot the graduate students here aren't really sure what they want to do for their dissertation. I have about twenty ideas and most of them can be traced back to my work experience in one way or another. Ultimately, this threatens economics as a viable profession if they can't produce relavent research. I found it amusing researching admissions that my work experience didn't really count for much most likely. Over the last couple of years, I think my amusement has been justified. So, if you're an undergrad thinking of going straight to Econ Phd program, think about getting a job for a few years instead.

ADD

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I posted this over at my options trading blog, but I thought I would share this with T&B.

I was diagnosed at the beginning of this year with ADD. It was a total fluke that I discovered the possibility of having it as I had absolutely no idea the symptons described me to a tee. I had read an article on ADD in the workplace that really was freaky. The people described had work experiences very similar to what I had gone through. After reading it, I did a ton research and realized that I did have it.

Nearly everybody experiences the symptoms of it, but most don't to the degree that I do. This applicable to trading as my P&L was always like a mountain. I started trading for somebody, did very well, then lost interest and lost money. That repeated a couple of times along with a lot of conflict with my bosses. The most frustrating thing was always the little errors that drove me nuts. As a traders assistant/clerk, I was quite possibly the worst one in the world. As a trader, those unexercised options alone probably add up to a small fortune. I just simply forget or my mind has just wandered off into its own little world.

Today, we get an article on TheStreet.com questioning the prevalence of the disease. Frankly, medication probably is prescribed to people who don't need it. I definitely do and it has made a huge difference. I may be only taking two classes this semester, but this has been my best one in all of my academic career. I also sleep sane hours, keep my kitchen and bathroom clean(my livingroom is still a mess) and have lost a ton of weight.

What I'm really looking forward to is seeing how this affects my trading. The test won't be this month but what happens a few months down the line. I'm already much more calm through the day. Also, I have learned more about quantitative derivatives in the past few months than I did in ten years doing this. I always meant to, but could never quite get it going. Well, now I can and do.

I don't really have much time for pharmaphobics. There seems to be some sort of idea popular in the media that if a business is selling a drug than there must be some sort of conflict between profit and good medicine. Or, alternatives to medicine, like behavioral therapy should be tried first. That is a crock of shit. Pardon my language, but who the fuck wants to go sit on a couch to work through "issues." Some people may have a preference to go that route and thats fine, but its also fine that somebody corrects a chemical imbalance in the brain through pharmacology. So keep your dang paws off the drugs I take.

I will add one more thing. Even if medication is "overprescribed", these drugs are doing people some good whether or not they have ADD. There should be nothing wrong with a company selling them and nothing wrong with somebody helping themselves.

Wage Woes of DC Baseball

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In Working for Peanuts Jeff Horwitz interviewed one Elijah Scrivner who cleaned up four times after the Nationals played in RFK stadium.

Mr. Scrivner and 200 others agreed to work for $7 an hour, but it turns out Federal law requires that "janitors" at Federal and District government agencies -- and their contractors -- must be paid at least $12.71 an hour ($10.12 plus $2.59 for health and welfare). And RFK is overseen by the DC Sports and Entertainment Commission.

In other words: Doh!

Nobody is sure why the new contractors weren't informed of the legal requirement after the old contractor was fired, though it might have something to do with incompetence.

What's really amusing is the response by a subcontractor after being told about the Federal Minimum of $12.71:

Another Knight-hired subcontractor, Maryland-based Paj Business Staffing, also concedes that its employees were paid far less than prevailing wage. "We have told all of our people they have an additional $5.71 [an hour] coming to them," says Phyllis Stevenson-Jenkins, Paj's owner. She would have loved to pay that rate initially, she says, because "It's a win-win situation for us�we can bill higher." She says that Knight allowed her to bill only $10 an hour for each worker�"way, way under [SCA] wage determination."
What a great way to set up a compensation system, boys!

But Mr. Scrivner says that this wage is too high!

Besides, he adds, the newly higher wages are more appropriate for the job. "People should feel like they're getting a little more than minimum wage out of the work," he says. "The tasks we had to perform, picking up other people's trash�that was worth at least eight or nine."

Let's recap:

1) Market clearing wages are at $5-$7
2) Feel-good efficiency wages are around $8-$9
3) Government regulations require $12.71 an hour


It might be helpful to note that the Washington, DC unemployment rate hovers around 7.5%-8%.

Yglesias: Wrong Again

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Though I try to keep the echo-chamber stuff to a minimum, I do often run across things that just cry out for comment. And it seems to happen a lot when I read Matt Yglesias. (Does Brad DeLong really want to push this sort of fundamentally flawed understanding as promising?)

Here he is again:

Of course, I'm not happy with that kind of reporting either. Every time the President gives a speech claiming the system is heading for bankruptcy, I'd like to see news services report, "Speaking today in Canton, Ohio, the President repeated his misleading claim that Social Security is headed for bankruptcy. In fact, even after Social Security's trust fund is exhausted (projected by the Social Security administration to happen in 2041, and by the Congressional Budget Office to happen in 2052) tax revenues will suffice to pay seventy percent of scheduled benefits."

Ah, I'm not sure what he's getting at. "Bankrupt" means "insufficient assets to cover debts." Not some of your debts. All of your debts. For an organization, this means paying out everything it's obligated to (ignoring for the moment that SocSec is a program entirely at the feet of political whims), not just 70%. That is bankrupt (or, more technically, insolvent).

I'm still on the fence about how best to "fix" this system, but bring wrong, and then being huffy while being wrong, certainly doesn't help things.

UPDATE: Ditto from Jane Galt.

UPDATE, Part Deux: Megan says it the way I wish I could have:

Democrats are trying to argue, on the one hand, that the trust fund is real, and on the other hand, that it is not going bankrupt. These are mutually incompatible. For the trust fund to exist, the Social Security Administration must be an independant entity of the US government. Unless the programme is changed, in 2042 that independant entity will not have enough money coming in to cover the benefits it has promised to pay out. That entity will be insolvent--in common parlance, bankrupt.

Note: Take this as the anecdotal evidence it is.

During recent trip planning, an acquaintance of mine had some difficulty dealing with the online reservation system at Expedia. This forced contact-by-phone, resulting in a rather long discussion to figure out what had gone wrong. It appeared that a fare that was once available was no longer, even though my friend believed she had procured that fare.

Details aside, the end of the conversation resulted in an odd (to me) piece of advice: the customer service person recommended that my friend NOT repeatedly check the online fare using her single account. (That is, don't log on multiple times looking for a fare with the same dates/times/locations.) As it turns out, the price will be increased as the user checks more frequently. How many times it takes to raise the price was not indicated. The advice was to create a new account and search again for the fare. The price may well be lower.

My intial thought was that this makes little sense. If the person logs into an account multiple times, it seems reasonable to think that their decision to purchase is tentative. Their willingness to buy may be put off by seeing a higher price. In addition, unless people were made aware of this policy, there would be no benefit from pricing in this way. The pressure to "buy now before prices climb" would only be effective if people knew to expect a price increase the next time they logged on to search for a fare.

Like I mentioned, this is entirely anecdotal. Does anyone know for a fact this is how it works? And what would be the motive to do so? Is there enough to be made by increasing the fare a few dollars for those people on the bubble between buying and not, under the hopes that they don't notice the increase (or don't feel it large enough to sway their decision towards not buying). Is this a policy of the airlines put into place by the travel booking companies?

Any insight would be helpful.

s I indicated below, I'm considering replacing my 2000 Hyundai Elantra.

"Hazlitt" has been extremely reliable, and has only 48,000 miles, but I place a premium on a car not breaking down at inconvenient times -- like when my wife is driving our son across town. This has not yet happened, but I increasingly suspect, based solely on the age of the car, that it will.

My cost analysis training leads me to believe that if I do the math, I can come to a rational decision. Let's actually try to do the math, putting in subjective low, medium, and high values when good data are not available. In the end, we will have three estimates, a low end, a "best guess", and a high end estimate.

Model and Data

et's say I value not breaking down at a cost of $2000 (which includes the cost of repairs). What is the liklihood that in the next 5 years my 2000 Elantra will break down on the road? I haven't a clue to the real probability of BD(2000), actually. What is the liklihood that in the next 5 years a 2005 Elantra will break down on the road? No clue about BD(2005) either. Hence, my rough expected benefit from greater reliability is $2000*[BD(2005)-BD(2000)]. How in hell am I to determine this?

But I also want a car that is fuel efficient. My automatic Elantra has been averaging 30 MPG in mixed use. What are my automatic-transmission alternatives?

  1. Honda Civic HX
  2. Honda Civic Hybrid
  3. Honda Insight
  4. Hyundai Elantra (I don't fit into the front seat of the Accent), the
  5. Toyota Prius
  6. Scion Xa (The Xb is ruled out on asthetic grounds

The Baby-Goods Industry

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y two reactions to this article on the baby goods business: "You've got to be kidding me!" and "Who are these people?"

Like many parents-to-be, my wife and I are spending our last few babyless weeks in a panic-purchase feedback loop. Anxiety and uncertainty fuel impulsive trips to baby-goods superstores, whose gargantuan inventories only beget more anxiety and uncertainty, to which we -- good American consumers that we are -- respond by filling an oversize shopping cart until it's difficult to steer. ("Honey, do we need one of these vibrating Pack 'N Play play yards in Ivy League print with optional canopy accessory? Are you sure? The mother on the package seems awfully happy that she has one . . . .")
I'm sorry, but this "feedback loop" is not a problem with markets. It's not a problem with consumers, or with superstores, or with manufacturers. It's just not a problem at all.

I count myself as a "good" American consumer, and as a devoted father of a 21 month old, I can tell you that I had no anxiety in such stores, never felt social pressure (except from insistent relatives) to buy anything. I would never engage in "impulsive" trips to baby stores, and never once filled an oversize shopping cart.

We did spend a lot of money on a stroller, car seat, crib and chaging table, because a) we saw quality for our dollar, and b) we like stuff that looks cool, and can afford to pay for it.

There will always be those who don't mind using their children to broadcast their wealth, but for the most part, America's $6 billion-a-year baby gear industry thrives on two seemingly incompatible mindsets that tend to coexist in new parents: terror and schmaltz.

And there will always be those who can't help thinking that everybody is out to impress them. Terror and schmaltz? How about being an adult and having self-responsibility? Again, who are these people? Apparently, they are the kind that would drop dead if they ever entered a Wal-Mart Supercenter:

When they arrived at Babies 'R' Us in Silver Spring, Zambotti found the experience of entering its 37,000-square-foot space "overwhelming," she says. "I was paralyzed. I just stood there in the front of the store. We decided we had to go get lunch before we could even go in. We didn't even buy anything that day."
Paralyzed?!?! Another woman feels guilty for not having a complete nursery ready for the newborn -- as if it could possibly make a difference to the baby!

We bought baby furniture that matched our office furniture, which made sense since our nursery was also our "office" -- we just moved the desk over to the side. However, the crib was in our bedroom for 6 months. No guilt here folks.

Then there are the self-help authors, who of course, have absolutely no incentive to make it sound like reading their books are in any way necessary:

Iovine urges new parents -- and especially new mothers -- to take a deep breath and stay calm when faced with the vast sea of supposed "must-haves." But she knows it can be hard to stand up to aggressive product marketing -- not to mention parenting books and magazines filled with alarming anecdotes -- aimed directly at this emotionally vulnerable population.
Can anybody tell me what "aggressive product marketing" is? Do the car-seat manufacturers send out goons to physically threaten parents-to-be? Do toy manufacturers send out leaflets that imply that you're a terrible parent if you don't spend $1000 on flashing lights?

What surprises me is that people actually buy things because they think that a smiling baby on a box implies that their baby won't be happy without one.

My wife and I bought NOTHING that was in any way advertised or promoted to us; instead, we made decisions based on the relative quality, prices, and styles of the goods we wanted.

I believe that nearly all parents have the simple ability to think, "these magazines are just magazines". I remember reading a lot about doctors' opinions, but very, VERY little about scientifically demonstrated results.


I do wish however that formula manufacturers would stop pretending that breastfeeding is just another choice...

Hyundai vs. Volkswagen

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fter being told by a Hyundai car salesman that he had switched over from selling Volkswagens to selling Hyundais because the former were going downhill, I emailed Will Christie, a GMU Econ Ph.D. student who has an incredible knowledge of things automotive. He has given me permission to reprint his email:

[T]he dealer was (gasp!) probably on the level with you. If he's looking for hot sales on a commission, he made a smart move. Hyundai is in the process of repositioning themselves in the market, moving upscale. They are soon to bring out a new Sonata that makes the current model look positively ugly. The new Sonata will be larger with better features and will for the first time be aimed at the Camry and Accord. The XG350 is being replaced with a model called the Azera, which will compete with the Toyota Avalon and possibly the Lexus ES330. Both new models look considerably less Korean/Chinese and more Japanese (more "sophisticated," as Car and Driver put it). There is a new Accent on the way, and the Elantra will probably be redesigned next year (Hyundai's model life cycles are considerably shorter than industry average). The next Elantra will probably be poised to compete with the Corolla and the redesigned 2006 Civic. At any rate, Hyundai is a company on the move. Right now, in terms of reputation and position in the US market, they are probably where Toyota and Honda were in the mid 1980's, which isn't bad.

VW is a sinking ship. Years of bottom-rung reliability have caught up, and the reputation effect is beginning to impact business. Sales are down sharply over the past couple years, and the new products VW has brought to market have bombed, to put it mildly. Millions upon millions were wasted on the Phaeton luxury sedan, sales of which underperformed company expectations by about 80%. An entirely new (and expensive) plant was built for the Phaeton. Sales are so low that a Bentley sedan is being created on the same platform in order to utilize more of the plant's capacity. VW is trying desperately to refocus. A new Golf has been released, as has a new Jetta. A new Passat is on the way for next year. This is all probably too little to late. The GTI, the performance Golf, will probably continue to be a niche car, but VW owners are increasingly jumping ship, tiring of poor reliability. The fun factor of the cars simply isn't worth the hassle anymore.

Economists like numbers, however, and it is numbers you seek. There is no place where you can readily get the information... The auto industry does not use quarterly measurements for sales; data is kept monthly and summarized annually. An additional metric that is worth exploring is inventory time, the focus of my dissertation. Manufacturers collect sales data, but there is a lag of about three to five months between vehicle production and collection of the data. When you count the lead time for production scheduling, it can take eight or nine months for sales data to affect production. In the meantime inventory buildup is an additional sign that things are going wrong at the retail end.

It surprised both of us when I stumbled upon this data from Wards showing that in the first four months of this year, Hyundai sales in the US are up 14%, but VW sales are down 14%!

Argentina

Argentina is, as everybody knows, for the most part a basket case. I ran across an article on Bloomberg which exemplifies why:

Consumer price rises have quickened this year after Kirchner, 55, granted all non-state workers a monthly wage increase of 100 pesos ($35) in January and allowed people to defer income tax payments that were due in December. He has raised the average salary 38 percent since taking office two years ago in a bid to bolster the country's recovery from its worst recession on record.
Of course, if the government wasn't in the habit of granting "wage increases", they probably would be a heck of a lot richer. It could be worse, you could try running an atuo company in the country:
Manfred Muell, president of DaimlerChrysler AG's local unit, said the 42 percent wage increase auto workers are demanding would make the industry unprofitable.

``It's just not reasonable,'' Muell said at a news conference on April 21 in Buenos Aires.


President Kirchner sounds like he knows how economics works:
``We will win the battle, the battle of justice, of fair profits, the battle to defend people's purchasing power,'' Kirchner said in a speech on April 6 to union leaders. ``If people have the right behavior, we will put a lid on that perverse behavior that says that when people gain in purchasing power, prices go up.''
I can't say he doesn't sound a lot like politicians in this country though. Unsurprisingly, the reason people have more money is that they printed more:
The central bank boosted May 3 the seven-day call rate -- the rate it borrows from commercial banks at -- half a percentage point to 3.75 percent, leaving it up 1.25 percentage points since Jan. 9. The bank has also cut the money supply -- as measured by the monetary base -- by 4 percent this year to 36.1 billion pesos, following a 24 percent surge in 2004.

Ph.D.

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Last Friday, these fine people had the audacity to grant me a Ph.D. in Economics.

Celebration has been muted, as is my style.


Econ of Barbecue

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Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution has a bleg up about barbecue joints near Savannah , GA.

If you know anything, I'd recommend chiming in. Apparently, it's in support of work on the economics of barbecue. Should be fascinating.

Of course, my real question is: does he need any volunteer research help? Specifically, my qualifications include an unmatched knowledge of barbecue joints through most of the Midwest, with primary focus on Chicago. In addition, with meat from the right place, I've been known to make some mighty fine ribs, featuring a homemade sauce.

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