Friday, April 30, 2010

Legalize Drugs: The Facts

One of the largest and most intrusive parts of the US government is the war on drugs. Like the prohibition on alcohol before it, I believe it has done more harm than good. I advocate for the complete legalization for all drugs, but any step in that direction is satisfactory. I recognize that this is a radical suggestion, but it is something I firmly believe is in the best interest of my community, my country, and the entire human society. Let me also state that I have never and never intend on trying illegal drugs. My interest in this topic is purely academic. That said, here is a list of 20 reasons why I think all drugs should be legalized:

1) Addicts are patients, not criminals. They need help, not prison.

2) At it's most basic level, addiction is a choice. Admittedly the choice is difficult, but with community assistance I believe drug addiction will decrease. Take drug users out of the shadows and into a welcoming community.

3) Drug legalization has been successful in other countries, most notably Amsterdam. Portugal is well known for its successful drug decriminalization. Portugal did not become an international drug trade as had been feared and the number of drug overdoses actually decreased. In fact, lifetime use of many drugs is lower in Portugal than in most European nations.

4) Our drug war is having a detrimental effect on other countries, particularly those in Latin America. In Mexico this year there have been over 6,000 drug related murders and since America uses half of the world's cocaine we are at least partially responsible. The Mexican government has had to militarize its local police to help fight the power drug gangs.

5) American drug dealing youth are hurt economically and physically by the illegal drug trade.
Update: Decreasing the power of organized gangs will also increase high school graduation rates.

6) The current illegal drug farms are bad for the environment. One reason is because growers constantly fear legal action, so they often farm on hidden public land that isn't necessarily good for agriculture. Also, because it is likely they won't be farming the land in the future, they have no incentive to keep it productive.

7) It distracts police from doing other work. The United States spends an estimated $44.1 billion annually in enforcing drug laws.

8) Children can still be protected in the same way they are will cigarettes and alcohol. By making the market more open, youth will have to get their drugs from pharmacies, not street corner thugs. Because recognized businesses have more to lose, they are more likely to follow age limit laws.

9) Currently illegal drugs make up a large portion of the underground economy. It is currently the largest cash crop in California. Legalizing can bring in significant tax money to this bankrupting state. Though the number is unclear, the taxes will be in the billions of dollars. Those excess revenues can be used to subsidize drug treatment programs.

10) Drug king pins benefit most from the ban. Currently they are able to use violence to keep out competition and charge monopoly prices. If legalized, they cannot compete with legitimate businesses. Or even better, they go to work for them and get a real job.

11) More drugs do not necessarily mean more violence. 6 out of 10 people in state prison for a drug offense have no history of violence. The drug trade is more violent because it is illegal.In the underground market violence, not law, is how you protect your business.

12) Prisons and the money spent on them would decrease. The United States has 5% of the world's population and a quarter of the world's prison population. Drug crimes accounted for 21% of state prisoners and 55% of all federal prisoners. That's over half a million people out of productive jobs and into taxpayer care. About 1/4 of the prison population is there for drug related crimes.

13) Stronger drugs laws actually encourage risk taking, making drugs stronger.

14) The war on drugs is also a war on race. Only about 12% of the America is black, 1/3 of prisoners are black. Although only 14% of illegal drug users are black, they represent half of those in prison for drug offenses.

15) As barriers to use come down, so will prices. And as prices decrease, use will go up. However, prices will not decrease as much as you might think. For example cocaine price will only decrease by 2 to 5 times.

16) American support for it is increasing and is higher than it has been in generations. Almost half of American support the legalization of marijuana.

17) Some law enforcement organizations and many economists support legalization.

18) These drugs are probably less addictive than you think. Over 95% of those who claimed to have used crack and meth are not regular users.

19) Illegal drugs fund terrorism. Afghanistan's Taliban benefits from the underground and unregulated drug market.

20) This war is not winnable. The global illegal drug is worth an estimated $400 billion, 8% of all international trade. Drug dealers come and go but the market will exist forever. You cannot stop the supply without stopping the demand. The profit incentive is stronger for criminals than for police. You cannot shut down the market without severely limiting personal liberty.

The core of this debate is whether the benefits outweigh the costs. I understand that most people don't want to live in a country where people are allowed to use whatever substance they desire. But I also think many people aren't satisfied with living in a country where people can't. The more popular a drug is (think marijuana) the more obvious the costs are and more I think we can benefit from legalization. If nothing else, hopefully I've made the trade offs more obvious. Stay tuned for the second installment, Legalize Drugs: The Story.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Quit While You're Way Behind

Instead of being a search for truth, often this blog feels like a justification for what I'm already doing. Everything from talking fast to teaching high school and being poorer. The most interesting things are often those that explain an already existing pattern. As you know, my diversified New Year's Resolution failed miserably. Perhaps it was for the best:
Three studies examined associations between goal disengagement and goal reengagement tendencies and indicators of physical health (e.g., health problems, cortisol rhythms, sleep efficiency). Based on research showing that goal adjustment tendencies are associated with subjective well-being, the authors predicted that people who are better able to disengage from unattainable goals and reengage with alternative goals also may experience better physical health.
Notice this is talking about unattainable goals. I've yet to decide if my original goals were attainable considering my motivations and mental accounting of the costs and benefits. I'll let you know in my mid-year resolution check up.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Economics of Multiple "Babydaddy"

Here's a controversial explanation:
I noticed that uneducated mothers tend to have children from several fathers. I tended to blame this on their ignorance and shortsightedness, but apparently there is a very rational reason for this. Risk diversification.

Jinyoung Kim makes an evolutionary argument about mothers being ex-ante uncertain about the human capital of their children. In particular when the mother is less educated, she was to diversify the human capital risk of her children by having several fathers. In other words, monogamy is only a good idea if you are reasonably sure the children will all have good characteristics and are thus worth investing human capital into.
The logic works, especially for those whose children form their retirement.

Real Political Impact

A good friend of mine who lives in D.C. recently posted some first hand accounts of Tea Party protests. It was helpful in getting a better understanding of the movement. It also got me wondering just how helpful protesting is in creating political change. My gut feeling is not that successful. Unless you number in the millions or have a incredibly famous charismatic leader and very specific goals, I'm not convinced protesting has much impact. I've also mentioned that voting has little impact on political outcomes and that political involvement is more about consuming something than producing it. So what's the politically motivated to do? How do you change policy without being lost in the crowd? Politician Omar Ahmad says that the best way, is the old-fashioned way:

Here's the TED Blog to keep you updated of new talks.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Economics of Stand-up Comedy

Patent and copyrights are supposed to reward successful creators, thereby encouraging more creation. Without these protections, many fear, creations would be stolen before they were profitable, resulting in less creation. Here is an example where the market creates its own rules to limit creative theft:
In this paper, we analyze how stand-up comedians protect their jokes using a system of social norms. Intellectual property law has never protected comedians effectively against theft. Initially, jokes were virtually in the public domain, and comedians invested little in creating new ones. In the last half century, however, comedians have developed a system of IP norms. This system serves as a stand-in for formal law. It regulates issues such as authorship, ownership, transfer of rights, exceptions to informal ownership claims and the imposition of sanctions on norms violators. Under the norms system, the level of investment in original material has increased substantially. We detail these norms, which often diverge from copyright law's defaults. Our description is based on interviews with comedians, snippets of which we include throughout the paper.

Our study has implications for intellectual property theory and policy. First, its suggests that the lack of legal protection for intellectual labor does not entail a market failure by necessity, as social norms may induce creativity. Second, it suggests that the rules governing a particular creative practice affect not only how much material is created, but also its kind. Third, we suggest that comedians' IP norms system emerged over the past half century as technological change increased the benefit of having property rights in jokes and concomitantly reduced the costs of enforcing those rights. Fourth, we note that stand-up's norms system recognizes only a limited set of forms of ownership and transfer. We suggest that the system's crude rights structure is driven by the fact that effective enforcement requires that ownership be clear to the community. Lastly, social norms offer a way to regulate creative practices that do not sit well within IP law's one-size-fits-all mold. They do so, moreover, without imposing on society the costs of disuniformity in the formal law, including legal complexity and industry-driven lobbying.
Here is a perfect example.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Limited Manners

Fellow Durham blogger, Justin Wehr, recently threw out the idea that politeness limits social risk and that by doing so it decreases intimacy. In the sense that manners are masking what you would naturally do, I whole heatedly agree. Following societal rules is less likely to result in tension, but it's also less likely to result in vulnerably. As I've mentioned before, resolved conflict is essential for intimate relationships. I don't want to do away with politeness all together. Introducing yourself when you meet, saying "excuse me" when you bump into someone, or knocking before you enter a room all help guide us in social situations. What I do desire is the decreased emphasis on outward trivial actions as relationships continue. For example, my wife and I had good friends over recently, but I didn't offer them a drink when they walked in. Instead, my friend got up, went to where the cups were and got his own. I had already proven to him in the past that I care about him. I don't need to prove it with cordiality. Manners are helpful navigation tools for potentially awkward situations, but as trust builds, manner should be dismantled. So if I do something that may normally be perceived as rude, let it be signal that I'm comfortable around you.

Diversifying Risk, Survivor Style

I haven't always been complimentary of reality television. And I'm certainly not very interested in spending my scarce time watching complete strangers live their lives, even when its sports. However, there is one reality TV show I have been keeping up with recently, Survivor. It combines strategy (outwit), athleticism (outplay), and wilderness survival (outlast). It takes regular people (or as regular as reality TV gets) and puts them in an irregular situations. The current season, Heroes vs. Villains, has the greatest players from the previous nineteen seasons, making it the best reality TV has to offer. Last week was no exception.

The two equal numbered competing tribes merged together. In a unbelievable turn of events the Villains found and lied their way into two immunity idols, which would protect a player from being voted off. However, they weren't sure which players to give the idols to. So, instead of playing one and hoping for the best, they opted to give out both idols, thereby diversifying their risk. Just like the stock market, you don't win by putting your eggs in one basket. Playing the second idol was like buying a derivative on the vote. If the first one failed, they wouldn't lose everything. And because people have prefer to avoid loss than to acquire gains, even if it doesn't work this time, generally this is the best choice. It turned out to be the right decision and the Villains now have a huge advantage. Of course, if you haven't kept up with show, you probably didn't follow all of that. Hopefully it has enticed you to catch up with the season at, I guarantee you won't regret it.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Jesus Christ on the Radio?

Heard this radio show while driving recently:
Jesus is played by the show's producer, Neil Saavedra, who belongs to no denomination and who is "usually too tired to attend church after his program." Saavedra calls the program "interactive radio theater to teach people from all walks of life about the historical person of Jesus Christ." As a matter of practice, Saavedra refers to himself as "your holy host" and God as "my father," asks that people pray "to me," and that "the way to salvation is through belief in my sacrifice."
Of course he doesn't really believe he's Jesus, but does that make it okay? I'm going to say no, but listen for yourself. It's not specifically the pretending to be Jesus that feels blasphemous to me. After all, I'm not necessarily offended by the Passion of the Christ movie. It's that he speaks for Jesus, but uses his own wisdom. Many of the topics sounds more like a question for Dear Abby than for Jesus.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Hewlett-Packard High School

It's kind of a catchy name. Some in the county I live next to think it's a way to compensate for budget cuts:
The public school system is looking at $40 million less in funding for the upcoming school year, because of low revenue and state-mandated budget cuts.

Finding companies willing to pay for exposure at high school sporting events is one option officials should consider, board member Keith Sutton said Thursday.
They're not really looking to rename schools, but is it really such a bad idea? DISH, Texas did it and they seem to have benefited. After all, one of the professors who sat in on my thesis defense was Dr. Robert Tollison, BB&T Senior Fellow. As far as I know he never seemed bias in favor of the banking industry. Although there seem to be many corporations with attachments to primary schools, it's possible there could be a conflict of interest. Here's one article firmly against corporate sponsorship describing some unseemly practices:
classroom packets that promote Hershey's Chocolate or Kellogg's Rice Krispies; third graders practicing math by counting Tootsie Rolls; young children learning to read software that uses corporate logos like KMart, Coke, Pepsi, and Cap'n Crunch. Calvin Klein provides book covers along with tattoos sporting their logo CK!
There are definitely trade-offs. Is it worth promoting Hewlett-Packard in a word problem if you can cut class sizes in half? I guess the answer depends on how much the corporations asks for in exchange for funding.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The (Earth) Day After Tomorrow

Global apocalypse is a common subject for movies. Everything from zombies to mother nature herself threatens life on Hollywood's Earth. One of the more common depictions of human destruction is from nuclear holocaust. Good friend and reader Justin Scott recently pointed out a graphic that shows atomic weapons aren't as plentiful as we thought. You would need over a million nuclear bombs to destroy human life and the world only has about 10,000. That's less than 1% needed. This is not only good news for those of us that want to continue living, it also legitimises Obama's recent Nuclear Security Summit. At first I saw this as a political move to decrease global nuclear weapons from a number that could destroy the world three times to a number that could only do it twice. Instead, this is an important step in making all of us safer and more secure. If you're not convinced this is a big deal, note that this is one of the largest gatherings of world leaders since Franklin Roosevelt was president. So now that you know nuclear war probably won't kill you, go out and buy some chaos insurance and celebrate another Earth Day here and gone without global destruction!

Oh, and enjoy some amazing Earth photos from The Big Picture.

Prejudice or Price

There is a lot of debate about the government's role is in regulating social norms like discrimination in business. Separate from that ideological debate, is the factual one of whether that discrimination is actually happening. Economist Tim Harford recently described what business prejudice looks like:
if a company’s management is willing to give up profits to exercise a prejudice, then the discrimination is real
Company’s who are willing to exercise prejudice must give up profits. Whether it's not hiring cheaper black labor in the early 1900's or not hiring qualified female labor in the late 1900's, discrimination is costly. However, the higher rate of unemployment for African Americans or the lower pay of women do not necessarily mean discrimination is occurring. It many cases it may be that businesses are making choices based on prices and not prejudice.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Pay Politicians More Money and Less Attention

If good governance is what makes nations prosper, then how do we improve our politicians? Like any job, the way to get better employees is give better pay:
Our main findings show that higher wages increases political competition and improves the quality of legislators, as measured by education, type of previous profession, and political experience in office.
Another study shows that improved candidate quality increases government efficiency:
Our results show that a higher wage attracts more educated candidates, and that better paid politicians size down the government machinery by improving internal efficiency.
It's also worth noting that press coverage seems to have a negative effect (negative that is, if you want less government spending):
Congressmen who are less covered by the local press work less for their constituencies: they are less likely to stand witness before congressional hearings, to serve on constituency-oriented committees (perhaps), and to vote against the party line. Finally, this congressional behavior affects policy. Federal spending is lower in areas where there is less press coverage of the local members of congress.
That's all via the always interesting Eric Barker.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Am I a Hypocrite for Teaching Public School?

I'm pretty open with my belief that the lack of student/parent choice in American education is detrimental. Everyday I have students in class who attend because they are legally forced to. As you can guess, learning is not something easily done by force of law. If you want to teach high school, and I do, there are also few options for educators. So am I a traitor to my libertarianism for being a cog in a machine I don't fully support? Economist David Henderson says no while defending his colleague (and in turn me):
I was re-reading and pondering Ayn Rand and started to conclude that I shouldn't go back to [teaching] college and receive government funds. Then I realized that by that same principle, I shouldn't walk on government-funded streets. Then I realized that government had its hand in so many things that I couldn't live a normal life (and, indeed, probably couldn't even live--think of getting food or going to work without going on government roads or sidewalks) without using many things funded by government. That caused me to, as Ayn Rand liked to say, "check my premises."

I would take advantage of these things that government funds but never let those funds stop me from criticizing government when I thought it was wrong and would NEVER advocate funding of those things government did that I thought were wrong.
As one commenter put it, I am not excused from the costs of government (taxation, regulation, etc), so I should not be excused from the benefits either:
I don't see anything inconsistent in simultaneously advocating against a policy and accepting the benefits of that policy should you happen to be outvoted. To declare otherwise is to create a social order in which being principled means being a sucker.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Emptying the Bottle: Late-April '10 Links

Here is a list of the worthwhile sites I've Bookmarked recently:
To follow my shared items live and to see the comments on each, subscribe.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Hat Tip to Calvin Coolidge

"After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world."

"We make no concealment of the fact that we want wealth, but there are many other things that we want very much more. We want peace and honor, and that charity which is so strong an element of all civilization. The chief ideal of the American people is idealism."

Go here for even more on our 30th president, Calvin Coolidge.

Record US Capital Surplus

The title of this post is just another way of saying we have a record trade deficit, just without the fear. That's how baby-faced economist Benjamin Powell explains it:
Put simply, if you buy something from a foreigner, you must pay him—a debit is entered. Then the foreigner must somehow spend or save your payment—a credit is entered. When all credits and debits are added up, the entire accounting system must balance: The current account balance plus the capital account balance must sum to zero. Hence, a current account (trade) deficit implies a capital account surplus.

A trade deficit reflects the fact that we buy more goods and services from abroad than we sell to foreigners. Foreigners take the earnings they receive from our spending (minus the goods and services they buy from us) and invest that sum in the U.S. The U.S. has a wealth of investment opportunities, but we have a low rate of domestic saving, so lots of investments in the U.S. wouldn't get funded if foreigners weren't willing to supply us with their savings.
More investment means more production, which is undoubtedly very good for a nation. Although I would like to see our nation's personal and public savings increase, it's good that other nations see us as such a reliable place to invest. We shouldn't fear countries like China loaning to America. A more reasonable, but still unlikely, fear should come from China, that we won't pay them back.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Rationally Poorer

I teach and my wife is a social worker. Those aren't very high paying jobs. In a ranking of the lowest paid jobs with a college degree, social worker is #1, elementary education is #2 and general education is #7. Who would have guessed there would be a capitalist with so little capital? Before you pity me, I'll explain why our choice of college degrees were incredibly rational. I've already posted on how Americans in 2010 are richer than any civilization ever. I've also mentioned how that wealth has increased faster than our life expectancy, giving us more money, but less time to spend it. And I discussed that wealth has a diminishing positive impact on happiness, especially after about $40,000. And even though my wife and I make less than the average person in the US, we have a very clear plan for children, college payments, and retirement.

We chose low paying jobs not so we could maximize our income, but our goals. Though I am currently working very hard to create the intellectual property needed in the classroom, my workload will decrease (and has decreased) as I gain more experience. My hope is that by the time I have children, I will actually be working less than the average American (currently 8.8 hours a day). I currently have a spring break, a Christmas break, two months off in the summer, and school is over before 3 o'clock. In the future I hope to take advantage of this extra time and spend it with my lovely wife (and future kids), performing improv, and becoming more relationally responsible for my community. I am free riding off the Industrial Revolution and the hard work of the generations since. Hopefully I'm heeding the Biblical warnings against personal wealth while enjoying the comfort that has been produced by society as a whole. This helps to explain my simultaneous feeling of sympathy and appreciation for those entrepreneurs currently working hard to create more wealth for future generations. Being productive is important, but it's not solely measured by personal income or national production.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

More Choice is Good, Usually

A key concept to economic libertarianism is that more choice is always welfare improving. If offered a choice between three jobs, you would choose the one that best suits. If suddenly you were offered seven more jobs, that could only lead to an improvement (because if the new offers weren't better, you'd stick with the original choice). Admittedly there are costs to making choices. This is described well by Barry Schwartz's Ted talk on The Paradox of Choice. This problem mostly exists when our subconscious emotional reason misleads us. A great example of this is a study about the increasing choices we having in dating. Their conclusion is that when faced with abundant choice, people pay less attention to hard to measure qualities and more attention to obvious characteristics. Increased choice means quicker decisions on who to date. Sadly that mean attractiveness trumps character and as I'm sure you know, the two are not correlated. Now that you know, try and compensate.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Another Benefit of Improvisation, Mirroring

One of the basic tools of creating improv scenes is mirroring. This is where one actor copies another actor in voice, rhythm, posture, etc. It's useful for creating an instantaneous connection between characters. The skill is also important in creating friendship in the real world:
Affiliation ratings were compared for an experimenter who either (a) tapped to a metronome that was synchronous to the participant's metronome, (b) tapped to a metronome that was asynchronous, or (c) did not tap. As hypothesized, in both studies, the degree of synchrony predicted subsequent affiliation ratings. Experiment 3 found that the affiliative effects were unique to interpersonal synchrony.
It can even make you more caring in general:
This suggests that mimicry created an affective empathic mindset, which activated prosocial behaviors directed toward others.
Speaking of mirroring, I'm pulling a double header at the improv theater tonight, at both 8pm and 9:30pm (free). Here are my two previous posts on the practical benefits of improvisation.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

For College, Don't Give Into Peer Pressure

As an teacher I try to be realistic about the benefits of education. I've mentioned the possibility that education is a placebo, but also shown the non-economic benefits of a college degree. I've even discussed why I'm glad I got B's in college. But there are certain students who can benefit from a good education, those who normally wouldn't:
A new study finds that the students who are least likely to go to college (based on family background, abilities, and friend group) are the ones with the most to gain from a degree. Jennie E. Brand and Yu Xie find that the unlikeliest male college graduates earned 30% more over their lifetimes than comparable men who earned only a high school degree. In contrast, male college graduates most likely to go to college earned only 10% more than their non-college-educated counterparts.
Related: my earlier attempt at a cartoon about peer pressure.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Elderly Economy

Here is quite a "sentence to ponder" from Tyler Cowen:
Of all the people in human history who ever reached the age of 65, half are alive now.
Here's the explanation:
The revolution has two aspects. First, we are not producing babies like we used to. In just a generation, world fertility has halved to just 2.6 babies per woman. In most of Europe and much of east Asia, fertility is closer to one child per woman than two, way below long-term replacement levels. The notion that the populations of places such as Brazil and India will go on expanding looks misplaced: in fact, they could soon be contracting.
It goes on to explain that traditional pensions and social security schemes where young workers support old workers will not survive. Here's a bit of historical perspective:
The idea of a retirement age was invented by Otto von Bismarck in the 1880s, when as chancellor of Germany he needed a starting age for paying war pensions. He chose the age of 65 because that was typically when ex-soldiers died.
Retirement will be pushed back. Under the current state teacher pension system I can retire at 51. That's 5 years as a child, 17 years of education for 28 years of work so I can "rest" for 25 years (at least, my grandpa is over 90). This is bankrupting both governments and private businesses that try to use it. Overall this isn't bad news, we are healthier at 70 than our ancestors ever were. We shouldn't be afraid, but we should be willing to change.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Value of Support

About two years ago, I wrote a post entitled: What is your most controversial belief? My answer was that I didn't support many seemingly worthy causes, namely giving to cancer research. I felt that charitable donations skewed the cost and benefit analysis done by profit seeking research firms. Thanks to loyal commenters I was convinced that caring friends and family affected by various diseases rationally subsidize such research, thereby improving overall welfare. Earlier this year I posted again to better explain why such donation drives had bothered me. I presented some research that showed by simply asking someone to donate to charity, you actually cost (in the economic sense) them up to $3.50.

Recently, I have been reminded of these issues, but in a more personal and less economic way. An old roommate and good friend of my wife's was recently diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes, which can be fatal unless treated regularly with insulin shots. Her story is simultaneously tragic and hopeful. To channel her frustrations, she and her husband have committed themselves to participating in a 72 mile bike ride around Lake Tahoe which requires that they raise $8,000 for Diabetes research. My wife and I wanted to support them to bring the the world marginally closer to a cure, but mostly because we love them and wanted to encourage them, which is worth a lot (even in the economic sense).

Monday, April 12, 2010

Cost of Commuting

In a world with many choices, I admit sometimes we don't make the right ones. What I have a harder time understanding is repeated bad decisions. However I am not exempt from these seemingly irrational choices. I mentioned before how much I drive, but Jonah Lehrer suggests I don't:
According to the calculations of Frey and Stutzer, a person with a one-hour commute has to earn 40 percent more money to be as satisfied with life as someone who walks to the office.
Why is it so bad?
One reason is that it's a painful ritual we never get used to - the flow of traffic is inherently unpredictable. As a result, we don't habituate to the suffering of rush hour. (Ironically, if traffic was always bad, and not just usually bad, it would be easier to deal with. So the commutes that really kill us are those rare days when the highways are clear.) As the Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert notes, "Driving in traffic is a different kind of hell every day."
So why do 3.5 million Americans drive over three hours to and from work?
Consider two housing options: a three bedroom apartment that is located in the middle of a city, with a ten minute commute time, or a five bedroom McMansion on the urban outskirts, with a forty-five minute commute. "People will think about this trade-off for a long time," Dijksterhuis says. "And most them will eventually choose the large house. After all, a third bathroom or extra bedroom is very important for when grandma and grandpa come over for Christmas, whereas driving two hours each day is really not that bad." What's interesting, Dijksterhuis says, is that the more time people spend deliberating, the more important that extra space becomes. They'll imagine all sorts of scenarios (a big birthday party, Thanksgiving dinner, another child) that will turn the suburban house into an absolute necessity. The pain of a lengthy commute, meanwhile, will seem less and less significant, at least when compared to the allure of an extra bathroom. But, as Dijksterhuis points out, that reasoning process is exactly backwards: "The additional bathroom is a completely superfluous asset for at least 362 or 363 days each year, whereas a long commute does become a burden after a while."
I've been thinking about my commute for a long time. I'm right in the middle of my church, work, and improv theater, so for now it's definitely worth it. At least I have the benefits of renting and the flexibility to move in the cost minimizing direction.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Difference Between Humans and Animals, Part V

One of the characteristics that seem uniquely human is being self-aware. Animals realize they exist, but it appears humans are able to do it on a much deeper level. One way to test this is through suicide. Only an animal that self evaluates will calculate whether life is worth living. So, do animals commit suicide? Not really:
If you mean, "Other than humans, do otherwise healthy and reproductively-capable individuals of any other species perform actions foreseeably guaranteed to result in their immediate death?", the answer is NO. Violate any one of the conditions in the preceding statement, and the answer is YES. Sick or injured animals of many different types will act in such ways as to guarantee a speedier end to their suffering, and this appears to include whale beachings. Whale beachings are also one reason for the qualifier "foreseeable," in that it appears healthy whales may follow a sick leader when the latter beaches--as social animals, they instinctively trust their leader, which under most circumstances would not lead them to their doom, so their unexpected (to them) beaching cannot be considered genuinely suicidal. For that matter, a rabbit that walks out into an open field when there's a hungry owl nearby may be performing an action virtually guaranteed to result in death--but not foreseeably so. Nor would an animal that dies defending its young necessarily be considered suicidal, even if the enemy is something pretty much impossible to defeat; after all, the enemy might retreat if it doesn't seem worth the trouble, so sometimes defense works.
Here's Part I, II, III, and IV.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Emptying the Bottle: Mid-April '10 Links

Here is a list of the worthwhile sites I've Bookmarked recently:
To follow my shared items live, subscribe.

Government Intrusion vs. Private Restriction

As I'm sure you've noticed, I don't like it when government steps in between producers and consumers. Often people get this mixed up with a dislike of businesses telling their buyers what to do. A good example of the difference is frustration with restaurants forcing a dress code:
armed with the swift feedback of market forces, does what governments tend to find rather difficult: balance the competing interests of different people. Some people will pay to eat a meal surrounded by the smart set. Other people will pay to eat a meal without having to dress up. The restaurateur gets to decide whose wishes count – the snobs or the slobs.
Government regulation is far from an entrepreneur who provides a specific type of restaurant. For me this makes the issue of smoking in bars clearer. However, it makes the issue of racial integration more muddled.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Why Economists Outweigh Historians

Teaching history has given me an appreciation for the importance of historical study. Yet we hear very little about historians in everyday life. Here's a pretty good explanation:
One answer I offered was that economists had managed a remarkable balancing act between making the guts of their work totally incomprehensible — and thus forbiddingly impressive — to the outside world while continuing to offer reasonably straightforward conclusions. The basic form of an academic economics paper is a couple of comprehensible paragraphs at the beginning and a couple of comprehensible paragraphs at the end, with a bunch of really-hard-to-follow math or statistical analysis in the middle. An academic history paper, on the other hand, is often an uninterrupted cascade of semi-comprehensible jargon that neither impresses a lay reader nor offers any clear conclusions.

The one economist in the audience had another suggestion. Most economic work was aimed at prediction, and the world is always hungry for predictions.He added that most macroeconomic predictions are worthless (he was a microeconomist), but that doesn't seem to have damped the demand for them.
Hopefully this recession has shown us the promises and limitations of economics.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

The Best Sustainable Energy is Nuclear

In the wake of the recent coal mining incident that claimed at least 25 workers, many are reevaluating our energy production. If you listen to the West Virginian governor it sounds as if more regulation is the key to preventing such accidents. The regulatory optimists point out that safety improvements have brought the death toll in the US down from a hundred a year in the 1990's to thirty a year now. Surely the workers were aware of the risk, there is a long history of accidents in mining. It may be counterintuitive, but more regulation may not be what workers want. That's because of the trade off between wages and safety. This idea is discussed by Steve Landsburg from the perspective of textile factory fires.

The amount of coal mining deaths look particularly unwarranted when compared to those in the nuclear power industry. There were over seventy five deaths due to coal in the last ten years. I could only find a total of three Americans who died in Idaho in 1961 from an experimental nuclear reactor. No one died at Three Mile Island. Even the most infamous nuclear disaster, Chernobyl, only killed thirty one. If our most precious natural resource is human capital, how can we restrict the amount of nuclear power plants built, resulting in the continued mining of coal? This is important in the United States, but even more important in industrializing nations like China where coal mining is the most dangerous job in the country. Every 7.4 days there is a coal mining accident with at least ten deaths in China.

If America wants to be a leader in the world, there are few better issues than this. Allow businesses to build nuclear power plants domestically and offer to build them for industrializing nations as well.

Birthday Wishes for Political Perspective

Two years ago I made a birthday wish for happy parenting. Though the advice I posted wasn't the best, it was thought provoking. This year my request is inspired by the most recent post by the OkCupid blog. The main idea was to show that the Democratic Party appeals to many Americans, but that this strength is also a weakness. By gaining the support of large sections of America in the most recent election, the Democrats have organized an unorganizable group. They may have agreed it was time to reign in Wall Street, but they aren't going to agree on issues like health care, abortion, or foreign policy. This explains what we why will see Republican resurgence in November's election.

That very interesting point aside, OkCupid also created some great graphics that spurred this years birthday wish. I've graphed my own political beliefs before, but perhaps they aren't permanent:

This chart shows a transition from libertarian (top left) to authoritarian (bottom right). Kids start out young and idealistic, but as they grow older and have more money, they want less risk and more control. Though at 25 I am still solidly libertarian, I have seen myself move ever so slightly towards the middle. I have not changed my convictions about what an ideal government looks like. However I have realized that most people do not hold the same convictions. In a democracy sometimes compromise is better nothing. As much as it irks my conscience to say that, I believe it is true.

Over the last few years I have created two political versions of myself. The hardcore libertarian who wants a government to exclusively provide property rights and the pragmatic citizen who realizes that he has very little influence in politics (and if he did he might be more pragmatic). Many on the fringe are afraid to actually engage in politics for fear of compromising their ideologies. This falacy keeps those most passionate on the side lines. This realization has been helpful in my teaching and in my own learning. Politics is more of a hobby and less of a personal mission to rationalize the world. Who would have thought a dating website could create such thought provoking information?

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Incarceration Makes You More Black

It's well known that African American men are disproportionately imprisoned. They are seven times more likely to go to prison than whites to the extent that 30% of black men will spend some time there. What you may not know is that spending time in prison will actually make you perceive yourself as more black. Here's the study:
Results show that respondents who have been incarcerated are more likely to
identify and be seen as black, and less likely to identify and be seen as white,
regardless of how they were perceived or identified previously.
Here are the exact numbers from Marginal Revolution:
racial identification for the non-incarcerated was quite stable. But only 80% of the people who identified as European in 1979 and who were incarcerated between 1979 and 2002 identified themselves as White in 2002.
This seems to suggest what I've thought all along, that race in America is more about culture and perception than ethnicity.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Drug Dealers are Losers

Every high school student should watch this. Based on ten years of research and interaction with actual gang members, the data concludes that being a drug dealer is one of the worst jobs in America. Here are the facts:
  • average dealer makes $3.50 an hour (half the minimum wage)
  • death rate was 7% per person per year
  • compared to 2% on death row or .5% for soldiers in Iraq
  • based on that, being in a gang for 10 years means you have a 70% chance of dying
Outside of legalizing these drugs, how do we change this? One, convince them how bad this is, because many of my students don't believe it. Two, give them good options by helping them to graduate high school.

Related: Despite what Freakonomics claims, it wasn't abortion that lowered crime, it was prescription drugs.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Fresh Ideas for Free

Want a new perspective on your business without paying for it? Try placing a job advertisement:
One employer admitted to me that he had no intention of hiring anyone but placed a job ad. He had all the applicants write a plan for marketing his company's core product, which he then used as free work product. He said, "They were all so eager to get the (nonexistent) job that they killed themselves in creating their plan. I got great ideas."
Deceptive but successful.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Think Fast!

I recently posted a short video on the practical benefits of improv. Here's another:
This experiment found that the speed of thought affects mood. Thought speed was manipulated via participants’ paced reading of statements designed to induce either an elated or a depressed mood. Participants not only experienced more positive mood in response to elation than in response to depression statements, but also experienced an independent increase in positive mood when they had been thinking fast rather than slow—for both elation and depression statements.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Dreams Help Create Patterns

One thing that attracts me to both economics and improvisation is patterns. Trying to connect small stories into a larger picture. Patterns are so important in life that it may be why we dream. It's clear that what we do during the day greatly impacts what we dream about, but it's more literal than you might think:
As expected, [rats] running on the track generated a distinct pattern of neural firing in the rat hippocampus, a brain area essential for the formation of long-term memory...

The scientists examined 45 dreams and found that 20 of the dreams repeated the exact same patterns of brain activity exhibited while running in a circle. In fact, the correlation between the dream and the reality was so close that Wilson could predict the exact position of the rodent on the track while it was asleep.
But yet dreams are not literally our day:
Why the non-sequiturs, the long forgotten characters and the unexplained state of public undress? Wilson speculates that dreams are also an attempt to search for associations between seemingly unrelated experiences, which is why it’s so important for the controlling conscious self to disappear. What does this maze have to do with that maze? How can we use the lessons of today to get more food pellets tomorrow? This suggests that the strangeness of our nighttime narratives is actually an essential feature, as our memories are remixed and reshuffled, a mash-up tape made by the mind.
Teaching random facts don't explain much unless it is weaved into a larger pattern. This is key to education. The article is from Jonah Lehrer, a man worth Googling (hat tip to Justin Wehr).

Friday, April 02, 2010

Emptying the Bottle: Early-April '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.

Learning Together Decreases Learning

Despite popular beliefs:
Humans routinely encode and retrieve experiences in interactive, collaborative contexts. Yet much of what we know about human memory comes from research on individuals working in isolation. Some recent research has examined collaboration during retrieval, but not much is known about how collaboration during encoding affects memory. We examined this issue. Participants created episodes by elaborating on study materials alone or collaboratively, and they later performed a cued-recall task alone, with the study partner, or with a different partner (Experiment 1). Collaborative encoding impaired recall. This counterintuitive outcome was found for both individual and group recall, even when the same partners collaborated across encoding and retrieval. This impairment was significantly reduced, but persisted, when the encoding instructions encouraged free-flowing collaboration (Experiment 2). Thus, the collaborative-encoding deficit is robust in nature and likely occurs because collaborative encoding produces less effective cues for later retrieval.
Maybe because it creates learning gaps.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Tax on Illegal Drugs

From the great state of North Carolina:
According to CNN, “you have 48 hours to report to the Department of Revenue and pay your tax” on any illegal substance you purchase in Tennessee, after which you will get “stamps to affix to your illegal substance” which “serve as evidence you paid the tax on the illegal product.” Naturally, one might assume that such a tax would never be paid for fear of simultaneously being arrested for breaking drug possession laws. But in an even more perplexing twist, Tennessee does not require any identification whatsoever to get the stamps, and “it’s illegal for revenue employees to rat you out.” Nonetheless, voluntary compliance with this tax is quite rare. CNN reports that North Carolina, has seen “only 79 folks have voluntarily come forward since 1990″, with another 72,000 being taxed after they were discovered and arrested.
The April Fools joke here is that this is actually true. Here's the story along with a dozen other weird taxes. Here's my real attempt at an April Fools joke and here's my wife's better one.