Sunday, February 28, 2010

Difference Between Humans and Animals, Part IV

Perhaps I should change this series to the similarities between humans and animals. Either way, in the last couple of months I have been amazed at the intelligence of animals. Here are some more examples from the blog Not Exactly Rocket Science:

Chimps trump university students at memory task:
In 2004, Inoue and Matsuzawa started to teach 3 pairs of chimp mothers and children to play with numbers. One of the mums, Ai, was the first chimp to learn to use Arabic numerals to accurately number sets of real-life objects, but the other five had never done memory tasks involving numbers. Using at touch-screen computer, the duo eventually trained all the chimps to touch combinations of numbers from 1 to 9 in the right order.
When the youngsters reached their fifth birthday, Inoue and Matsuzawa taught them a more complicated task. When they touched the first digit, the others were replaced with white squares, and they had to rely on their memory to press the right sequence. The young chimps took to this task particularly well and amazingly, they finished the task more quickly than human adults.
Octopus can use a coconut shells as suit of armor:

Allison Foote and Jonathon Crystal searched for metacognition in rats by giving them a test that they could decline. If they passed, they received a big reward and if they failed, they got nothing. But the cunning part of their study lay in giving the rats a small reward if they declined the test. If they knew they were unlikely to succeed, they'd be better off bowing out. In this experiment, a measured attitude beats a gung-ho one.
The test asked the rat to classify a burst of noise as 'short' or 'long'. Noises that were very short or very long were easy to classify, but those of intermediate length were more challenging. After hearing the noise, the rat was offered two holes through which it could stick its nose - one for accepting the test and one for declining it. If it was up for it, it was then given two levers, one for a short noise, and one for a long one.
After some initial training, the results were clear. The rats were much more likely to opt out of the test if the noise they heard was challenging.

Here's Part I, Part II, and Part III of the series.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Futuristic Reason for Mandatory Health Insurance

Imagine a world where doctors can genetically predict what types of health problems you might have before you are born. That means before you even breath, you have a preexisting condition. You can already detect Cystic fibrosis, Hemophili, Sickle cell anemia, and whole host of other problems. The list is only going to get longer. Not only genetics, but geography may also play a factor. It seems economically beneficial for insurance companies to bar residents of areas where pollution greatly reduces life expectancy. Perhaps parents buying insurance for their kids before their born could work, but then what about their grandkids?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Guilt Free Nap

On nights when I have to stay out late for improv, I usually try to get a nap in. It used to make me feel like a bum, but no longer:
scientists say naps are natural. Humans are bi-phasic sleepers, which means we're meant to sleep in bouts, not long stretches. About one-third of U.S. adults say they typically take a mid-day nap.

The new findings reinforce the researchers' hypothesis that sleep is needed to clear the brain's short-term memory storage and make room for new information
I still don't want students to sleep in class, but now I wouldn't mind if they slept in earlier classes.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

An Educator's Job

Justin Wehr shares what Craig Newmark paraphrases from Deirdre McCloskey:
Aside from helping the students through the occasional rough spot, the students have to teach themselves the material. What the college professor can do is model a lifestyle. She didn't, at least in the passage I read, provide a lot of detail, so I'll presume to fill in. The college professor's first responsibility is to demonstrate that curiosity is wonderful, that ideas are important, and that learning to master difficult ideas is worthwhile. Second, the professor should demonstrate how to think about a topic carefully and how to organize and present those thoughts well. And third, college professors should demonstrate intellectual integrity. They should admit what they don't know and when they have made a mistake. They should remind students that the conclusions they teach have limits and are almost always tentative.

--When I started teaching I thought that I was an educator who, if things went well, would at least occasionally entertain. Today I think I'm an entertainer who, if things go well, at least occasionally educates. I think the switch has made me more effective, and I'm pretty sure it's made me happier.
Although high schoolers need more pushes than the average college student, the job feels similar.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Emptying the Bottle: Late-February '10 Links

Here is a list of the worthwhile sites I've Bookmarked recently:
If you'd like to follow my shared items live, subscribe here.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Value of a Boring President

Last year I posted a pretty controversial rebuttal to what many believe to be our greatest presidents. As I teach US History again this semester, I can't help but revisit what makes a president great:
Presidents like Woodrow Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman are regularly put at the top of lists of America's greatest presidents. This is true when both historians and the American public at large are polled. Yet these are presidents who did everything they could to expand the power of their offices, to extend the sphere of influence of the federal government and to bully through policies that met inconvenient hurdles otherwise known as checks and balances.

Woodrow Wilson ran for president on a peace platform, then dragged us through the bloody trench carnage of World War I. Oh, and he imprisoned thousands of critics and war protesters in the process. Teddy Roosevelt once lamented that he didn't have a war during his administration to make him great, and compared the stakes of his third-party run for the White House to the rapture and second coming of Jesus Christ.

Franklin Roosevelt broke the tradition set by George Washington of serving just two terms. When the Supreme Court rebuffed his attempts to pass unconstitutional legislation, he tried to expand the number of justices on the Court to ensure a friendly majority. Harry Truman was the first president to pull America into a protracted war without first consulting Congress. He then sought to nationalize private companies to ensure that war was properly outfitted.

These are odd men to call heroes.

Inexplicably, the presidents who knew and understood their constitutional limits, who respected those limits and who generally took a more laissez-faire approach to government get short shrift—even derision—from historians.

Men like Calvin Coolidge, Warren Harding, Rutherford B. Hayes and Grover Cleveland merely exhibited what Healy calls "stolid, boring competence." Historians loathe them, Healy writes, because they had the audacity to "content themselves simply with presiding over peace and prosperity" and not seek to remake the world in their own image. The nerve of them.
Let me clarify that I'm not declaring Harding great and Lincoln evil. I'm just longing for a public that is satisfied with a unambitious president.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

TiVo is Bad for Most Viewers

Everyone I know who has TiVo has only good things to say. The only problem is, most people don't have it. As the Economic Logician explains, as more and more people fast forward through commercials, there will actually be an increase in commercials to make up for revenue. Those with TiVo are unaffected, but those without have to suffer. Another problem is that stations may actually leave advertising supported over-the-air TV, thereby hurting all penny-pinchers. The solution is to buy TiVo before everyone else and hope that the decreasing cost of providing free TV (like the analog to digital switch) will continue to give us free entertainment.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Different Kinds of Smart

I told my students on the first day of class that I would never praise them for their intelligence. Here's yet another reason for that. This article that show one's IQ and their ability to recognize faces are not correlated, suggesting that people can be smart in more than one way. This is called Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Very simply, it suggests that intelligence is not an overall ability to do things well, but instead can be divided into different categories of intelligence. Thanks to Wikipedia, here they are:
This area has to do with bodily movement and physiology. In theory, people who have bodily-kinesthetic intelligence should learn better by involving muscular movement (eg. getting up and moving around into the learning experience), and are generally good at physical activities such as sports or dance. They may enjoy acting or performing, and in general they are good at building and making things. They often learn best by doing something physically, rather than reading or hearing about it. Those with strong bodily-kinesthetic intelligence seem to use what might be termed muscle memory - they remember things through their body such as verbal memory or images. Careers that suit those with this intelligence include: athletes, dancers, musicians, actors, surgeons, doctors, builders, police officers, and soldiers. Although these careers can be duplicated through virtual simulation, they will not produce the actual physical learning that is needed in this intelligence.

This area has to do with interaction with others. In theory, people who have a high interpersonal intelligence tend to be extroverts, characterized by their sensitivity to others' moods, feelings, temperaments and motivations, and their ability to cooperate in order to work as part of a group. They communicate effectively and empathize easily with others, and may be either leaders or followers. They typically learn best by working with others and often enjoy discussion and debate. Careers that suit those with this intelligence include sales, politicians, managers, teachers, and social workers.

This area has to do with words, spoken or written. People with high verbal-linguistic intelligence display a facility with words and languages. They are typically good at reading, writing, telling stories and memorizing words along with dates. They tend to learn best by reading, taking notes, listening to lectures, and discussion and debate. They are also frequently skilled at explaining, teaching and oration or persuasive speaking. Those with verbal-linguistic intelligence learn foreign languages very easily as they have high verbal memory and recall, and an ability to understand and manipulate syntax and structure. Careers that suit those with this intelligence include writers, lawyers, philosophers, journalists, politicians, poets, and teachers.

This area has to do with logic, abstractions, reasoning, and numbers. While it is often assumed that those with this intelligence naturally excel in mathematics, chess, computer programming and other logical or numerical activities, a more accurate definition places emphasis on traditional mathematical ability and more reasoning capabilities, abstract patterns of recognition, scientific thinking and investigation, and the ability to perform complex calculations. It correlates strongly with traditional concepts of "intelligence" or IQ. Careers which suit those with this intelligence include scientists, mathematicians, engineers, doctors and economists.

This area has to do with introspective and self-reflective capacities. People with intrapersonal intelligence are intuitive and typically introverted. They are skillful at deciphering their own feelings and motivations. This refers to having a deep understanding of the self; what are your strengths/ weaknesses, what makes you unique, can you predict your own reactions/ emotions.
Careers which suit those with this intelligence include philosophers, psychologists, theologians, marine biologists, lawyers, and writers.

This area has to do with vision and spatial judgment. People with strong visual-spatial intelligence are typically very good at visualizing and mentally manipulating objects. Those with strong spatial intelligence are often proficient at solving puzzles. They have a strong visual memory and are often artistically inclined. Those with visual-spatial intelligence also generally have a very good sense of direction and may also have very good hand-eye coordination, although this is normally seen as a characteristic of the bodily-kinesthetic intelligence.
There appears to be a high correlation between spatial and mathematical abilities, which seems to indicate that these two intelligences are not independent. Since solving a mathematical problem involves manipulating symbols and numbers, spatial intelligence is involved. Careers that suit those with this intelligence include artists, engineers, and architects.

This area has to do with rhythm, music, and hearing. Those who have a high level of musical-rhythmic intelligence display greater sensitivity to sounds, rhythms, tones, and music. They normally have good pitch and may even have absolute pitch, and are able to sing, play musical instruments, and compose music. Since there is a strong auditory component to this intelligence, those who are strongest in it may learn best via lecture. In addition, they will often use songs or rhythms to learn and memorize information, and may work best with music playing in the background. Careers that suit those with this intelligence include instrumentalists, singers, conductors, disc-jockeys, orators, writers (to a certain extent) and composers.

This area has to do with nurturing and relating information to one's natural environment. This type of intelligence was not part of Gardner's original theory of Multiple Intelligences, but was added to the theory in 1997. Those with it are said to have greater sensitivity to nature and their place within it, the ability to nurture and grow things, and greater ease in caring for, taming and interacting with animals. They may also be able to discern changes in weather or similar fluctuations in their natural surroundings. They are also good at recognizing and classifying different species. They must connect a new experience with prior knowledge to truly learn something new.
SAT scores highly correlate with success in college, but that may be because they are both measuring the same kind of intelligence. As a educator, I take it as a challenge to encourage all students in all intelligences. Also, as someone with ADHD (self-diagnosed) I take it as encouragement that there may actually be some benefits to the disorder.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

NCCAF Improv Week Begins Now

The DSI Comedy Theater, where I perform and teach, is not only Chapel-Hill/Carrboro Small Business of Year, it is also in the full swing of our 10th annual North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival (formally the Dirty South Improv Festival). Into the third week of a month long festival, already week one (sketch comedy) and week two (stand up comedy) have been hugely successful. As someone who first came to this festival as a participant in 2005, it's exciting to be able to help produce it in my sixth year! This week begins improv week, the heart and soul of the festival. With over 85 improv groups performing starting tonight and going until Sunday, this is a rare chance to see groups from around North America. If you're anywhere near the Triangle and are interested, here are some amazing $10 shows I recommend:

Friday Feb. 19, 2010, 7:30 pm @ DSI Comedy Theater
Boston (Toronto, ON)
Einstein meets Elvis (Altanta, GA)
NCCAF All-Stars (Carrboro, NC)

Friday Feb. 19, 2010, 10:00 pm @ ArtsCenter Main Stage
Jinx (Washington, DC)
Rare Bird Show (Philadelphia, PA)
Rachel & Dave (Austin, TX)
The New Deal Gets Bailed Out (New York, NY)

Friday Feb. 19, 2010, 11:55 pm @ ArtsCenter Main Stage
onesixtyone (Washington, DC)
Beatbox (Chicago, IL)

Saturday Feb. 19, 2010, 9:30 pm @ DSI Comedy Theater
The Immortals (Cambridge, MA)
Nakatomi Protocol (Toronto, ON)
Superbest (Washington, DC)
Junior Varsity (New York, NY)

Saturday Feb. 19, 2010, 9:00 pm @ Cat's Cradle (this show is $17)
MC Frontalot (San Francisco, CA, USA)
Death by Roo Roo (New York, NY, USA)

Saturday Feb. 19, 2010, 11:55 pm @ ArtsCenter Main Stage
The Bat (Carrboro, NC)

And of course you can always see me perform:

Tuesday Feb. 16, 2010, 8:00 pm @ DSI Comedy Theater
AU JUS (Carrboro, NC)
The 708 (Carrboro, NC)

Wednesday Feb. 17, 2010, 8:00 pm @ DSI Comedy Theater
Pound for Pound (Carrboro, NC)
Mano A Mary (Los Angeles, CA)
NCCAF All-Stars (Carrboro, NC)

Friday Feb. 19, 2010, 9:30 pm @ DSI Comedy Theater

The full schedule for improv week and film week is online. I recommend getting there at least 30 minutes in advance for the weekend shows or buying tickets online in advance, these shows will sell out.

In the words of Executive Producer Zach Ward: AWESOME!

Danger of Coping

We've all had to deal with adversity in some way. I remember as a teenager when I first realized that people weren't always looking out for me. I made conscious decision then to need people less. After all, you can't be let down if you never expected anything in the first place. It made high school, a world full of insecurity, much easier. I still had friends, but then friendship was all about having a good time. Then near the beginning of college, I realized that by never expecting comfort or loyalty from anyone, I had neglected to give others that. By coping with bad relationships, I had pushed away good relationships, hurting many people in the process.

Here's another example of coping gone wrong. There's evidence that people with a lack of personal relationships are more nostalgic. Instead of creating needed friendships, they look back on remembered good times. Again, it makes the lonely feel better, but it doesn't actually make them less alone. I am not trying to say coping is a bad thing. I am probably more functional in relationships today because I was not hurt when I was younger. However, we should not let our dealing with past pain, create future pain.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Political Influence Less Restrained

Years ago in graduate school I wrote a paper summarizing the century old history of campaign finance reform. The conclusion I came to was that although intentions were noble, no legislation has been able to stop money's, individual or corporate, influence on American politics. As you probably heard a couple of weeks ago, the Supreme Court struck down some restrictions on donations citing free speech. Many citizens and even the president himself are not happy with the decision and are worried that the influence from corporations or unions will overshadow the influence of regular citizens. Although I sympathize with the dissenters, I believe that the American people are more free and that our democracy is better off because of this decision.

The court was hearing a lawsuit against the Federal Election Commission for not allowing the release of the movie critical of Hillary Clinton during her campaign for the Democratic nomination. So what the court was literally ruling on was that the federal government doesn't have the power to censor political films. They then expanded the ruling to allow all corporations to not be limited in their political advertising. What the ruling does not allow is ability of corporations to give money directly to federal candidates or national party committees. They can only spend it expressing their own opinions, as they would a commercial for their product. Another reason not to worry about the decision is that 26 states already allowed this kind of spending on local politicians. Also, for years PACs have been a huge loophole in the ability for anyone to spend large sums of money in support or condemnation of any candidate. There is even some evidence that donations don't actually effect political decisions if you hold constituency and politician's beliefs constant.

Since the founding of this nation we have allowed one specific type of business to spend all of their resources on informing and often swaying the public on political topics. The press has been given the freedom to implicitly and for centuries explicitly influence American politics. Few would complain about our free press, which is guaranteed in the Constitution. In the same way I don't see Constitutional limits of citizen spending for political campaigns (which is actually limited currently). Nor are there Constitutional limits on groups of citizens spending their money on politics. It's not about what you want, it's about what the Constitution intends. Admittedly, the intention is up for debate, but that debate is decided on by the Supreme Court. Judicial review, although not explicitly in the Constitution, is thought by many to be implied. Don't worry, the irony of relying on the implied power of the Supreme Court to reject the implied power of corporate donations is not lost on me.

The problem is that money has influence on politics, even with campaign finance restrictions. Unless you intend to remove all political speech, there is very little to be done to prevent that influence. Donation disclosure is one way to hold politicians accountable for the money they take, but it's not the answer. The answer isn't to get businesses out of politics, it's to get politics out of business. As long as corporations or unions can use their influence to change the rules of the game, the game will be changed in their favor. Limiting expenditures on political speech limits Constitutional freedoms and actually hurts the chances of minor politicians. Limiting our government is the only way to limit money's influence in it.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Burden of a Small Government

I often discuss the benefits of keeping government small and non-intrusive. In order to do so you must make hard decisions. In 1887, President Grover Cleveland vetoed a bill that would have appropriated $10,000 in aid for farmers struggling through a drought. He stated:
I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution; and I do not believe that the power and duty of the General Government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit. A prevalent tendency to disregard the limited mission of this power and duty should, I think, be steadily resisted, to the end that the lesson should be constantly enforced that, though the people support the Government, the Government should not support the people.
Hard words to agree with as a blogger who has no influence, even harder as a president.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Google Told to Buzz Off

Like the title of this post, I took the release of Google's social networking tool Buzz pretty lightly. It automatically connected my email contacts to my blogs and shared items. Even after my friends complained about privacy, using Buzz ironically, I didn't see the big deal. Sure my inbox was more full than normal and I wasn't sure if I would actually use the service, but I didn't see the harm. Until I read this:
E-mail, it turns out, can hold many secrets, from the names of personal physicians and illicit lovers to the identities of whistle-blowers and antigovernment activists.
And here's a more everyday example:
In an expletive-laden article that was widely cited on the Web, a blogger who writes about issues related to violence against women complained that Google had made her fearful. She said that she had unexpectedly discovered a list of people, which may have included her abusive ex-husband or people who sent hostile comments to her blog, following her and her comments on Google Reader, a service for reading blogs and automated news feeds.
“My privacy concerns are not trite,” wrote the blogger, who uses the pseudonym Harriet Jacobs. “They are linked to my actual physical safety, and I will now have to spend the next few days maintaining that safety by continually knocking down followers as they pop up.”
Don't count Buzz out yet, but recognize there are some real privacy concerns.

*Addendum: I will funnel my blog and shared items through Google Buzz if that makes it more convenient for some to follow.*

Reason and Emotion

Here's another great example of a book review that saves me the time of reading the book. How We Decide, written by Jonah Lehrer is about the science behind our decisions. The part I found interesting was the relationship between reason and emotion. Though I'm not a sports fan, I loved his example of why Tom Brady is such a good quarterback:
Is it because he has some obvious physical talent? Probably not, since he was drafted so low. Is it because he’s a much smarter player than other quarterbacks? If so, the Wonderlic tests that college players are given before the draft would show some kind of correlation between high scores and good careers.

But they don’t. Solving complicated equations and throwing a football under pressure seem to involve two completely different parts of the brain. If a quarterback were to rationally think about the pros and cons of every possible decision he’s faced with while he’s on the field, he’d be a walking, talking tackling dummy. There’s just no time for all that thinking.
Sometimes it isn't worth the trouble to calculate what the best decision is. Instead, we should go with our impulse, which is tied to the unconscious knowledge of a lifetime of experiences. In this long but interesting video he tells the story (in the first 5 minutes) of a man who lost the ability to feel emotion after getting a tumor removed from his brain. But instead of becoming a perfectly rational actor, instead it took him painstakingly long to make pretty regular decisions. When the calculations are too large we can and should use our gut. This works great in deciding what to order at a restaurant, how to dodge ninja stars, or how to react in an improv scene. However, for the weightier decisions, we should try our best to restrain our impulses with our rationality and hope that the longer we live life (or play on stage), the more we can trust our subconscience to make the decision we would have made if we had done the calculations.

If you'd like to know more from the Jonah Lehrer, here's a free online copy of his book.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Answering My Own Questions, Second Edition

Here's Part I and here are some more interesting questions with interesting answers:

1) What is the total number of humans that have ever lived?
Best estimates are around 106 billion people. Because the current population is so large in comparison to the past (thanks Industrial Revolution), that's over 5% of humans ever.

2) How many calories do you use when thinking hard?
According the Popular Science, your brain burns 1.5 calories a minute while doing a crossword puzzle. Not bad when you consider walking burns 4 calories a minute. Should I have added weight loss to a reasons to blog?

3) What's the most famous spin-off television show?
Most found answer was Frasier. But what about King of the Hill and apparently The Simpsons?

4) Do the losers on Jeopardy get to keep the money they win?
No, but they do get small consolation prizes. So why don't more people bet it all at the end?

5) What percentage of people have had premarital sex?
According to a survey of women for the last 30 years, 95 percent had done so by age 44. Wow.

Here's one I couldn't find the answer to:
Why do TV shows tell us who closed captioning is "brought to you by"?
My best guess is because businesses want to look good by supporting it. Got a better idea?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Location, Location, Location

I've talked before about why homes don't always increase in value and why renting is a good choice for many of us. However, recently I've been asking myself why homes ever increase in value. Most products (computers, shoes, cars) all decrease in value over time. What makes houses different? Part of it must be that the wear and tear of a house is less than most products. Also, the technology of homes hasn't radically improved. But those only explain why they hold value, not become more valuable. After running this idea by a good friend (thanks Ed), I believe the only reason why houses usually increase in value over time is because the land (or space) they occupy increases in value. I'm even willing to go as far as to say houses don't increase in value, their lots do.

It's the same reason gold, diamonds, or even collector's baseball cards can be good investments, it's difficult to create/find more. Demand increases, but supply can't match, pushing the price upwards. Land becomes more scarce because of increases in population and also because of the general desire for more land (farming larger plots, bigger backyards, etc). We see this proven in booming cities where homes are purchased, quickly demolished and new ones built instead. However, if land increases in value because of more demand, it can also decrease in value because of less demand. This can be seen in Detroit today. It also helps explain why mobile home prices don't normally increase. When buying a house, it's important to remember that you are mostly buying location, location, location.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Emptying the Bottle: Mid-February '10 Links

Here is a list of the worthwhile sites I've Bookmarked recently:
If you'd like to follow my shared items live, subscribe here.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

The Politics of Economics

From the NYT:
when an investor’s favored political party held power in Washington, he or she generally increased holdings of risky stocks, shifted from foreign to domestic companies and traded less often. The opposite occurred when the preferred party was out of office.
This makes sense when the government is able to change the rules of the game without warning.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Make Your Own Luck

Those who know me well often say that I have pretty good luck. With a little help, so can you:
Unlucky people often fail to follow their intuition when making a choice, whereas lucky people tend to respect hunches. Lucky people are interested in how they both think and feel about the various options, rather than simply looking at the rational side of the situation. I think this helps them because gut feelings act as an alarm bell - a reason to consider a decision carefully.

Unlucky people tend to be creatures of routine. They tend to take the same route to and from work and talk to the same types of people at parties. In contrast, many lucky people try to introduce variety into their lives. For example, one person described how he thought of a colour before arriving at a party and then introduced himself to people wearing that colour. This kind of behaviour boosts the likelihood of chance opportunities by introducing variety.

Lucky people tend to see the positive side of their ill fortune. They imagine how things could have been worse. In one interview, a lucky volunteer arrived with his leg in a plaster cast and described how he had fallen down a flight of stairs. I asked him whether he still felt lucky and he cheerfully explained that he felt luckier than before. As he pointed out, he could have broken his neck.
The whole article is interesting throughout. To summarize in one sentence: if you want good things to happen, look for them.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

The Comfort of Being on the Fringe

In the few years since I started this blog, I've shared some pretty abnormal beliefs. From proposing Iraq decide whether we stay or not to suggesting free trade as a solution to global conflict. From subsidizing interracial marriage to suggesting students take educational drugs. And we can't forget my request for more political apathy and oil speculation. And what's more controversial for a white male to tackle than economics of slavery? But this post is not about rehashing old debates, it's about questioning why I am so comfortable being on the fringe.

Thomas Jefferson, seen by many as America's first libertarian, was famous for criticizing the early US government for being too intrusive. Whether it was the controversy over the creation of the national bank or the restriction of free speech with the Sedition Act, Jefferson became a champion of a strict interpretation of the Constitution. However, when he became the first president from the Democratic-Republican Party, his desire to restrict the power of government seemed to lessen. His controversial war against the Barbary Pirates and his unconstitutional (by his own definition) buying of the Louisiana Purchase are prime examples.

When you have very little political influence it is easy to stay ideologically pure, but when your beliefs have real influence on the lives of American citizens, it is more difficult. It's easy for me to say the government bailout of banks won't work or that the economic stimulus is a bad idea, because my statement has no real political impact. There is a certain amount of ideological comfort that comes with being on the edges of political and social thought. You can say and think what you want with little worry they will ever be taken seriously. That said, it doesn't mean I'm wrong.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Buy Local, Waste Resources

One of the implications of doing comedy in Carrboro, NC is that I often hear the call to "buy local". The obvious problem with this is that it limits trade and limits the market, which makes citizens poorer. What is less obvious, is that it is actually worse for the environment:
Let's suppose that people do decide to "buy local" with the goal of saving the world and reducing their carbon footprint. This will increase the demand for locally grown foods, but it will also have an unintended and likely deleterious consequence; it will increase the demand for farm implements and labor.

Since the decision to buy locally is essentially the decision to forsake comparative advantage, every unit of agricultural output will be more resource intensive than it would be under specialization, division of labor, and trade.

In other words, each additional unit of output will require more resources than it would under trade. To take a concrete example, this means that the cultivation of spinach in Memphis will require more fertilizer, more rakes, more tillers, and more hoes than the cultivation of spinach in California.
If property rights are protected, the proper use of resources is calculated in the price. If you purchase based on price, then you are doing what is best for the environment. That said, it is likely that not all property rights are well defined. The cost of the pollution produced in shipping products across the country is not fully paid by producers. However the solution is to tax the pollution, like a gas tax, not stop trade. This may not satisfy the soul of the socially conscious, but that sounds more like a problem with the soul than with the solution.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Worthwhile Sentences on Economic Problems

From True/Slant: "about 1/3 of cosmetic surgery is consumed by people who make less than $30,000 a year."

From the Freakonomics Blog: "Assuming all 5.5 trillion cigarettes produced around the world each year get smoked, smokers produce 84,878 tons of particulate air pollution annually — about half the pollution put out by all the cars in America."

From Matt Yglesias: "Why are we spending a multiple of Afghanistan’s total GDP on fighting a war in the country?" and "Couldn't more be done, for cheaper, with cash for bribes and development?"

From Tyler Cowen: "We no longer have an independent central bank in this country, at least not for the time being."

From Thomas Jefferson: "I sincerely believe that banking establishments are more dangerous than standing armies, and that the principle of spending money to be paid by posterity, under the name of funding, is but swindling futurity on a large scale."

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Cadillac Health Insurance Tax

In the comments of an old post, a reader asked my opinion of the Democrat's proposal to tax "Cadillac" health insurance plans. My initial reaction was that I didn't understand the plan because when you tax things you get less of them. So taxing citizens with very nice health insurance plans would result in less health insurance. I was right. However, loyal reader and friend Justin Scott pointed out that this might not be so bad.

Justin pointed me to a short podcast from Planet Money that discussed how taxing those with large health insurance benefits would actually encourage them to get less lavish insurance and result in them purchasing less health care. The decrease in health care services would presumably be the procedures that would yield very little benefit in the first place (they were only doing them because the insurance paid for it). Instead of getting their pay check plus huge health insurance benefits, these workers would now get a bigger pay check will less health insurance coverage. They get paid more, they consume less health care, prices go down.

So a tax on health insurance would actually decrease the price of health care for most people. Confused yet? Although I agree with the underlying logic, it is incredibly convoluted. The government is proposing that we tax "Cadillac" health insurance plans, which are given by employers because they receive a tax break from the government. So why don't we just remove the employer tax break for insurance like I proposed last year? If you goal is to get consumer to feel the cost of their health care, having them buy it themselves is the best way. My guess is because it doesn't sound very good to the voters.

One final worry. The tax has two purposes, make consumers count costs and raise money. However, the two are opposing. If it encourages people to cheaper health insurance to avoid the tax, then health care costs decrease. If people avoid the tax, no one pays. I wonder how much they accounted for that in the $150 billion it is suppose to raise?

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Difference Between Humans and Animals, Part II

A while back I discussed the difference between humans and animals. Like most debates, there is already someone smarter who's done the work for you. If this video is too long for you, as it was for me, you can download it as a mp3 using this site.

The most interesting part of this for me was his last point. In the same way we witness animals with a spark of humanity, every so often we can see the spark of something greater than humanity in ourselves.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

The Next Big Change in Education

The last big change in education was in the early 1900's when most states began to force all students to attend public schools. A hundred years later, the next change will be a movement back home. Like a growing number of jobs, teaching and learning can be done almost as well from a distance using the internet. As a motivated student (that's a key issue) wouldn't you rather hear the best economics 101 professor online than the average professor in person? Or wouldn't you rather be 1 of 500 students in a class and pay 1/10 the price? I'm not suggesting that colleges will cease to exist, there are so many non-economical benefits after all. What I am suggesting is that online classes will become a regular part of college and high school education. Less motivated students will just have to pay more for the personal touch. I'm so sure this will happen in the next few decades, I'm already preparing. My notes are all digital and I'm focusing on Advanced Placement, classes with a tangible benefit for students. If you're worried about how much you can learn by listening to a lecture online, I suggest you check out online lectures of Harvard professor Michael Sandel on Justice.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Emptying the Bottle: Early-February '10 Links

Here is a list of the worthwhile sites I've Bookmarked recently:
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