Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Music in the Classroom

While my students work on their individual work (usually previewing the content I am about to lecture), I play music. Mostly from my own personal collection, which means there's a lot of rock and roll. Here's a justification for it:
Results indicated that state positive affect and quality-of-work were lowest with no music, while time-on-task was longest when music was removed. Narrative responses revealed the value of music listening for positive mood change and enhanced perception on design while working.
For my US History classes I have an end goal of having a collection of music throughout history so they can listen to the music of the time period they are studying. For one, it will give them a richer understanding of history. I also think it will help me convince them that life (and also music) has only been getting better.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Learning by Teaching: The 1918 Spanish Flu

In light of the events in Japan, this may be the most under-learned natural disaster in history:
The pandemic lasted from June 1917 to December 1920, spreading even to the Arctic and remote Pacific islands. Between 50 and 100 million died, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history. Even using the lower estimate of 50 million people, 3% of the world's population (1.8 billion at the time), died of the disease. Some 500 million, or 28% (≈1/4) were infected.
Compare that to the 9 million that died in WWI, the largest war in Western history at that time.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Worthwhile Sentences on Death

From the oldest federal judge in the country: "At this age, I'm not even buying green bananas."

From Justin Scott: "either you cannot bear the idea of a horrific earthquake in Japan (or Haiti, or China) with God, or you cannot bear it without him."

From The Atlantic: "And they never—and I mean never—ask the critical Kantian question: what if everyone in the world consumed these supposedly sustainable alternatives to conventional food?"

From Oprah Winfrey: ‎"Forgiveness is letting go of the hope that the past can be changed."

From Justin Landwehr: "Life is too short to spend it doing things that you wish would hurry up and end."

Update: From Harry Houdini: “Nobody wants to see a man die, but everyone wants to be there when it happens.”

Friday, March 25, 2011

Negative Spillovers of Addiction

From Charlie Sheen's father, Martin Sheen:
"Because when you're addicted, you don't grow emotionally. So. when you get clean and sober you're starting at the moment you started using drugs or alcohol," the actor tells the UK's Telegraph magazine. "You're emotionally crippled."
Important for any of us who put a lot of focus on any one of our flaws.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The End Goal and Jury Nullification

Here's the Wikipedia article:
Jury nullification occurs in a trial when a jury reaches a verdict contrary to the weight of the evidence and contrary to the letter of the law (an official rule, and especially a legislative enactment). A jury exercising its power of nullification need not disagree with the judge's instructions themselves—which concern what the law is—but may rule contrary to the instruction in light of the actual evidence admitted in the case.
Here's a practical application of the idea from the writers of The Wire:
If asked to serve on a jury deliberating a violation of state or federal drug laws, we will vote to acquit, regardless of the evidence presented. Save for a prosecution in which acts of violence or intended violence are alleged, we will — to borrow Justice Harry Blackmun's manifesto against the death penalty — no longer tinker with the machinery of the drug war. No longer can we collaborate with a government that uses nonviolent drug offenses to fill prisons with its poorest, most damaged and most desperate citizens.
Although I know where I stand on illegal drugs, I'm not completely sure where I stand on taking the court system into my own hands. It's like trying to reach a goal, which in this case the goal is to treat citizens fairly, by ignoring the rules originally set in place to reach that goal. Here's the Economonomics blog ("putting the econo back in economics"):
You've probably heard this one before: The principal has some complicated objective he wants the agent to pursue, but he can't get the agent to care about this objective directly. Instead, he can only create a bunch of rules that approximately incentivize the right behavior [...] 
The thing is that objectives are rarely simple, but rules generally need to be. Simple to communicate, simple to follow, simple to measure whether people are violating the rules or not. Therefore rules are biased towards being simple, whether the objective that generated them is complicated or not.
So do are we more likely to have a fairer society if juries ignore what they perceive to be unjust laws. I just don't know.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Unsure If You'll Regret It, Do It

Whether in life or in an improv scene, we are often faced with two options, to do or not to do. Research says you should you do:
Using a random-digit telephone survey, respondents reported a salient regret, then answered questions about that regret. Results showed inaction regrets lasted longer than action regrets, and that greater loss severity corresponded to more inaction regrets.
So use your judgement, if you're not sure, go for it. If you're wrong, then it will just be a sunk cost.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The World's Typical Person

He's right handed, 28 years old, makes less than $12,000 a year, with a cell phone, but no bank account, and Chinese. Here's the site and the video explaining it.

Related: Here's a video interview with the average "happiest person in America". He's a "tall, Asian-American, observant Jew who is at least 65 and married, has children, lives in Hawaii, runs his own business and has a household income of more than $120,000 a year."

CIA's 'Facebook' Program

Monday, March 21, 2011

Emptying the Bottle: Late-March '11 Links

Here is a list of the worthwhile sites I've Bookmarked recently:
As always, feel free to email me anything interesting you come across.

Worst Thing a Leader Can Do

We've all heard of Yuri Gagarin, the first human to reach outer space. But few have heard about his best friend, fellow cosmonaut, Vladimir Kamarov, who died literally crashing into Earth. The most horrifying part of his death, recently covered in NPR's science blog, was that most of the Russian staff knew the ship had serious problems. But, as was true in most of the Soviet Union, no one was willing to be the messenger to tell Russian leadership.

This reminded me of something I shared years ago; a video critique of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. The main reason given for the tragedy that became the Star Wars prequels, was that no one was willing to challenge George Lucas. He was the after all the creator of not only the Star Wars, but also Indiana Jones, American Graffiti, and THX 1138. Those accomplishments limited his ability to receive feedback from those around him. That's why I think he and Spielberg made such a good team. When Lucas suggested calling the most recent Indiana Jones film Indiana Jones and the Flying Saucer people, Steven said no.

The more responsibility I get at my school or at the theater, the more I realize that what makes a good leader is the people they lead. A good boss hires good people and then lets them succeed. The worst thing a leader can do is separate themselves from those that they lead. We must embrace that we all make mistakes, and rely on those around us to limit them. So as this great blog posts describes, if you are a prominent leader (whether you're a dictator or famed movie director), be sure to realize that your cult of personality only signals support if people are over-supporting you.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Not Breaking News: Japanese Nuclear Incident

As I'm sure you've heard, Japan has just been through the second largest earthquake in the last 50 years. That and the resulting tsunami has left approximately 8,000 dead and 13,000 missing. But if you go to that link, which was the first Google result of "japan earthquake tsunami dead", you'll notice most of the information is not about the duel natural disaster responsible for this tragedy, but instead focuses on the ongoing nuclear power plant problems (this chart puts the radiation in perspective). Although that issue is important, it is getting too much coverage.

The numbers are close to impossible to find online, but unless I'm missing something no one has been killed or injured by the nuclear incident. In fact, if anyone has been killed by a energy explosion it's probably at the Chiba japanese oil refinery explosion. By my calculations, if you don't count the now defunct Soviet Bloc, there have been less than 150 deaths from nuclear power in it's almost 100 year history (compare that to coal's recent history). Despite this, Germany has temporarily shut down older nuclear power plants and the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission is reviewing our own facilities.

It is worth noting that this is a big deal. Japan is the only country to have nuclear weapons dropped on it's cities and the nuclear plant will likely be a wasteland. But that doesn't mean this news trumps the real destruction that could be as big as 8% of Japan's total GDP. It's the future of Japan's political and economic system that will fill the news in the next couple of months, hopefully not some nuclear problem where no one gets killed or even injured. It's important to remember the Fukushima Daiichi facility in Japan is 40 years old. It's nothing compared to the new nuclear power plants.

My hope is that history will look back on this tragedy and remember just how safe nuclear power actually is. A nuclear power plant built in 1971 survived a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and 10 meter high waves. I recently watched an interview of Jon Stewart by Rachel Maddow. It's long, but worth watching. In it they discuss the idea that when there is 24 hours of news coverage, everything is made to sound like breaking news. It isn't. The earthquake was 39,000 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Now that's news.

Non-Math Classes Shouldn't Give Homework

One of the classroom issues I've always wrestled with is homework. For one, I find it very difficult to prevent cheating when students are not in my classroom. Also, at least half of my regular students do not do homework. Ever. That's certainly not a reason to abandon homework, but it is a major drain on student grades (and a hassle for teachers). Lastly, most students have huge time commitments outside of school like sports, work, and family. So, should I give homework? Here's a study:
Following an identification strategy that allows us to largely eliminate unobserved student and teacher traits, we examine the effect of homework on math, science, English and history test scores for eighth grade students in the United States. Noting that failure to control for these effects yields selection biases on the estimated effect of homework, we find that math homework has a large and statistically meaningful effect on math test scores throughout our sample. However, additional homework in science, English and history are shown to have little to no impact on their respective test scores.
This goes along with my current classroom expectations. I give a closing question that requires a large paragraph to answer. Half of the students finish it in class, a fourth of them do it at home, and about a fourth don't do it at all. That is for non-honors/AP classes (I give extensive reading and questions for my AP Microeconomics and AP US classes). It seems like a healthy compromise and since homework only seems to help students learn technical content like math, I'll stick with it for now. Though I'm not sure if economics is more of a math or more social science.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

If You're Reading This, You're (Comparatively) Fine

I talk regularly about how rich we are. Here's why:
"Generally if people compare themselves to those who are worse off, they're going to feel better," continues Bauer, now a research associate at the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and a clinical psychologist at Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Associates of Toronto. "When they compare themselves to people who are better off, it can make them feel worse."

Looking towards others who are worse off can also have a marked effect on physical health: Participants who used downward social comparisons reported experiencing fewer cold symptoms. Overall, they reported a positive effect on their emotional well-being over the months that followed.
Is this way of dealing with challenges a healthy understanding of history or a dangerous coping mechanism?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Cheaters Overestimate Their Intelligence

One thing that never ceases to amaze me about typical high school students is their incredible ability to deceive themselves. Here's an example that I'm sure happens in my own classroom:
...asked 76 students to take a maths test, half of whom could see an answer key at the bottom of their sheets. Afterwards, they had to predict their scores on a second longer test. Even though they knew that they wouldn’t be able to see the answers this time round, they imagined higher scores for themselves (81%) if they had the answers on the first test than if they hadn’t (72%). They might have deliberately cheated, or they might have told themselves that they were only looking to “check” the answers they knew all along. Either way, they had fooled themselves into thinking that their strong performance reflected their own intellect, rather than the presence of the answers.
You can read my own attempts to remind myself I'm regularly wrong in my short series against self-verification.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Comedy Makes You More Attractive

For men at least:
Producing humor might function as a fitness indicator associated with greater desirability during dating selection. A male confederate in a bar was instructed to tell (or not tell) funny jokes to two other male confederates. A few minutes later, when the second of two male confederates left, the first male confederate asked a female who was near his table and who had heard the funny jokes for her phone number. The previous expression of humor was associated with greater compliance with the male confederate's request and with a higher positive evaluation.
And don't forget, doing improv also makes you smarter, happier, friendlier, supportive, adventurous, and more able to learn.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Disaster Aid to Japan

The picture above is from the earthquake and resulting tsunami that have ravaged Japan. Like other international disasters, people, companies, and nations are rushing to their aid. I've been a pretty big critic of foreign aid in past. In Haiti's recent crisis I've recommended trade, not aid to help them rebuild their country. I've even pointed out the flaws of personally volunteering abroad, especially on short term non-technical trips. I stand by those ideas. However, in Japan's case, foreign aid may meet my standard of doing more long term good than harm. Not everyone agrees with me.

Reuters blogger Felix Salmon makes a compelling argument on why Japan, the world's 2nd/3rd largest economy, should not receive the limited funds of charity. Although I agree with him complaint about how we focus too much on sudden tragedies while ignoring ongoing ones, I think on Japan he might be wrong. It is Japan's stable political and economic system that makes it a good candidate for donation. The problems that normally go with foreign aid, corruption and misuse, are much less likely to occur there.

Not surprisingly, I'm not the only one supporting donations to Japan. My go-to-for-everything Tyler Cowen supports it and my local comedy theater is raising money too. That's right, for this weekend's shows 50% of all ticket sales will go to relief aid. As usual I'll be performing this Friday night at 10:30. This particular show is free, but as I'd like it, donations will be accepted at the door. The photos are from the Boston Globe's Big Picture blog. Here are some equally wonderful interactive before and after photos.

Economics of Charity

I have my share of skepticism about altruism, like in my earlier post on not giving money to panhandlers. But perhaps some selflessness results in less work and more production:
The researchers videotaped people approaching and passing through the door of a university building. The tapes were analyzed for the relationships among several behaviors: Did the first person hold the door for a follower or followers and for how long? How did the likelihood of holding the door depend on the distance between the first person at the door and whomever followed? 
“The most important result,” Rosenbaum said, “was that when someone reached the door and two people followed, the first person at the door held the door longer than if only one person followed. The internal calculation on the part of the first arriver was, ‘My altruism will benefit more people, so I’ll hold the door longer.’” 
Another finding: the followers who noticed the door-holder hastened their steps, helping to “fulfill the implicit pact” between themselves and the opener “to keep their joint effort below the sum of their individual door-opening efforts,” the authors write.
This is a very simple example, but perhaps it could be a measure of whether a charity is worth it.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Takeaways from The Great Stagnation

As I described in an earlier post, I recently finished Tyler Cowen's ebook The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History,Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better. You can read more at his blog Marginal Revolution. Here are my takeaways that didn't make it into the original post:

Things are still great, but paying off debt will be very difficult. In the past it's been useful to have a divided government, it's hard to pass bad laws. But now that we've set things into motion that need to be stopped (Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, war), something needs to be done. Sadly, what our debt has done is actually encourage us to spend more (perceived price of government is down because it's all borrowed). The "low hanging fruit" mentioned in the subtitle is divided into three categories:

*Land: initially America had a lot cheap western and and easily accessible natural resources.
*Labor: in the beginnings of American education, there were huge gains to be had. Educating the brightest and hardest working can lead to huge innovation. Today, we educate everyone. The gains from and time needed to educate all will result in less gains.
*Technology: the technology created initially after the Industrial Revolution were more valuable than the inventions created later.

The difference the technologies that have been created recently is that they lead to a lot of private good, not public good. Think about how many spillover benefits there we to the invention of the printing press or running water. But most of the inventions recently, like smart phones and heart surgery, have seen the benefits centralized on the upper half of society.

The thesis only applies to the Western world and those that have already gone through industrialization. For the next century global growth will continue to surge under the "low hanging fruit" from the rest of the world. Hopefully by the time they are done we will be out of our innovative plateau (I'm hoping for teleportation).

One of the reasons innovation has slowed is because it has become more and more difficult for science to be done by amatuers (like for example Gregor Mendel and Thomas Edison).

The exception to this is the internet. From the accuracy of Wikipedia to the great things open source has created, the internet is the last place for smart nonprofessionals to leave their mark. But, as Cowen notes, the internet has not greatly increased GDP nor does it increase median wages. Though some claim it is worth at least a couple thousand dollars.

Cowen cites specific industries that he believes still have some "low hanging fruit" to be had: health care, education, financial, and government services. Each of these are full of inefficiency and often bad rule writing. Sadly, they are all also becoming bigger parts of our economy. Cowen wisely notes that as technology made large corporations possible, it also made big government possible. Could you imagine a welfare state without computers or even the printing press?

Here are his solutions to the stagnation: 1) shrink/improve government (easier said than done), improve science by making scientists rock stars (from the Onion), 2) look forward to and beware of the next big time of economic growth (after all the industrial revolution brought better technology in the form of medicine and weapons).

Difference Between Humans and Animals, Part XX

It's always fun when two of your thought hobbies cross paths. If you've read this blog for any length of time you know I'm continually fascinated with the differences (and similarities) between humans and animals. Also, recently I did a short series on issues I was wrong about to remind myself of the self-verification bias. Here's an interesting study using macaques and a computer game covering both topics:
The animals were trained to judge the density of a pixel box that appeared at the top of the screen as either sparse or dense. To give their answer, the monkeys simply moved a cursor towards a letter S or a letter D. 
When the animals chose the correct letter, they were rewarded with an edible treat. There was no punishment for choosing the wrong answer, but the game briefly paused, taking away - for a few seconds - the opportunity for the animals to win another treat. 
But the monkeys had a third option - choosing a question mark - which skipped the trial and moved on to the next one. This meant no treat, but it also meant no pause in the game.
The scientists saw that the macaques used this option in exactly the same way as human participants who reported that they found a trial too tricky to answer; they chose to "pass" and move on.
So monkeys know when they might be wrong, do you? Even weirder, chimpanzees know that other chimpanzees make assumptions:
If chimpanzees are faced with two opaque boards on a table, in the context of searching for a single piece of food, they do not choose the board lying flat (because if food was under there it would not be lying flat) but, rather, they choose the slanted one— presumably inferring that some unperceived food underneath is causing the slant. Here we demonstrate that chimpanzees know that other chimpanzees in the same situation will make a similar inference. In a back-and-forth foraging game, when their competitor had chosen before them, chimpanzees tended to avoid the slanted board on the assumption that the competitor had already chosen it. Chimpanzees can determine the inferences that a conspecific is likely to make and then adjust their competitive strategies accordingly.
When you assume it makes an ass out of u and me.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Profitability of Lobbying

I've written before on the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United to make political influence less restrained. However, my support for allowing more political donations doesn't mean I don't think the government shouldn't write better rules for the process. After all, good markets need good governments. Here's something I might limit, the revolving door of politics:
Washington’s “revolving door” – the movement from government service into the lobbying industry- is regarded as a major concern for policy-making. We study how ex-government staffers benefit from the personal connections acquired during their public service. Lobbyists with experience in the office of a US Senator suffer a 24% drop in generated revenue when that Senator leaves office.
Just how profitable is lobbying? Here's one example:
The report details efforts by hundreds of companies in 2003 and 2004 to push through a one-time tax "holiday" that lowered for a year the tax rate they paid on profits earned abroad. All told, U.S. companies saved about $100 billion in taxes, with pharmaceutical behemoths Pfizer and Merck & Co., technology giants IBM and Hewlett Packard, and health products maker Johnson & Johnson among the top beneficiaries. 
The study zeros in on 93 firms that spent as much as $282.7 million lobbying on the issue during that period, and ultimately saved a total of $62.5 billion through the tax change.
That a return of 22,000%!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Giving Life from Death Row

Written by a death row inmate:
There is no way to atone for my crimes, but I believe that a profound benefit to society can come from my circumstances. I have asked to end my remaining appeals, and then donate my organs after my execution to those who need them. But my request has been rejected by the prison authorities.

According to the United Network for Organ Sharing, there are more than 110,000 Americans on organ waiting lists. Around 19 of them die each day. There are more than 3,000 prisoners on death row in the United States, and just one inmate could save up to eight lives by donating a healthy heart, lungs, kidneys, liver and other transplantable tissues.
Or we could just print organs.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Relationship Currency

Yesterday I shared a link to Justin Wehr's new blog about exposing 99 embarrassing truths. It wasn't until after that I realized he'd taken the blog down. Here was his explanation:
Vulnerabilities are the currency of relationships

I'm not sure that's exactly true, but it's more true than I realized last week.

Background: Last week I started a Tumblr where I intended to publish in the public abyss 99 things that I’m embarrassed about in hopes of nudging myself in the direction of openness and comfort-in-skin. I made it up to 19 before quitting. (It's gone, you can't find it anymore, I deleted it.) I didn't quit because I ran out of things to say -- far from it, I barely said anything deserving of an eyebrow raise. I quit because I realized there was something wrong with my premises.

I still believe openness and comfort-in-skin are good things, but only up to a point. Last week I was operating under the unconscious assumption that embarrassing secrets are bad things that we should try to purge from our otherwise pure selves. Now it seems to me that vulnerabilities are better thought of as resources to be spent carefully.

The more widely you distribute it, the less it's worth. The harder it is to say, the more it's worth. The longer you hold it in, the more it's worth. But unless you let it out, it's worthless.

By this theory, there are two types of people who are relationship poor: (1) people without embarrassing secrets, and (2) people who refuse to ever "spend" their secrets.

Vulnerabilities are different from financial resources in at least one important way: Vulnerabilities are not a cha-ching money-in-the-bank kind of resource. You don't invest in them as you would a 401K. The goal is not to accrue as many vulnerabilities as possible.

But like any other resource, it is scarce, and it ought to be spent wisely.
I couldn't agree more. I've tried really hard to figure out what makes relationships successful. Balance, resolved conflict, dedication and thinking long term are all important for healthy relationships. But I think there is something very important in the above quote I'd never thought of. Intimacy is only intimate if it's private. The more people you bring into the circle of vulnerability the less it matters to you and to them.

If you're not already reading Justin's personal blog I highly recommend it. Here's two more recent posts from him worth reading: 1) we need more punctuation and 2) wisdom is being bad at trivia.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Emptying the Bottle: Mid-March '11 Links

Here is a list of the worthwhile sites I've Bookmarked recently:
As always, feel free to email me anything interesting you come across.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Special Reader Price for Playing and Learning

I've posted plenty of reasons to take an improv class. It will make you happier and smarter, improve your friendships, make you think fast, which will improve your mood, inspire other adventures, and can even be your way to love people. Here's another one, play has spillover effects on your learning:
Playfulness was associated with better academic performance (i.e., better grades in an exam). Also, students who described themselves as playful were more likely to do the extra reading that went beyond what was needed to pass the exam. This can be seen as first evidence of a positive relation between playfulness in adults and academic achievement.
So if you are interested in learning, and if you're reading this blog I know you are, then take my upcoming Improv 101 class. For a one-time-only deal for Bottlenecked Blog readers, we are willing to lower the price from $195 to the low low price of $100. Here's the class description:
IMPROV 101 explores the basics of comedy improvisation: team-building, trust, speed, status, active listening, and agreement. Students learn to be fearless and have fun on stage using the DSI approach to improv comedy.
No comedy or theater experience necessary.
Free admission to shows while enrolled. Class runs for 2 1/2 hours each week with optional office hours after class.
It starts tomorrow. If you're interested email me or sign up online and pay the discounted price when you arrive.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Worthwhile Sentences on Practical Politics

From Jerry Bowyer: "What works are societies governed according to principles that conform to the iron laws of human nature"

From David Brooks: "Seniors vote. Taxpayers revolt...The future has no union."

From Mitch Daniels: "Purity in martyrdom is for suicide bombers."

From Tyler Cowen: "I prefer a situation where each prisoner costs the state government a good deal."

From R.R. Reno: "The expansion of political responsibility beyond a certain point would absorb our private lives, a result that entails the opposite of what most people intend when they endorse political liberty."

Sunday, March 06, 2011

The Near Future of American Economic Growth

The inspiration for my series against self-verification was inspired by this final example of where I used to be wrong. A common theme of this blog is the recognition of just how rich we are. Whether you're an American, a high school teacher who's married to a social worker, a breakfast eater, a person with too many hobbies, or almost anyone who's been alive for the last 200 years, you're historically very rich. Along with that assumption, I've argued that economic growth will continue as it has since the Industrial Revolution. I'm less sure of that now.

If there was ever a person who could challenge such an important presupposition of mine it's Tyler Cowen. He's smart, well-read, and most of he's reasonable. He's also the only person with his own tag on my blog. Wikipedia (and his wife) describes him as a ""libertarian bargainer", a libertarian who's not so radical that he can't influence those in power. Tyler recently published a new short ebook, The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History,Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better. Thanks to my friend with a Kindle, I was able to read it this weekend.

The thesis of the book is clear and the facts are to deny. Median income growth is down. The economic growth and technological innovation that began with the Industrial Revolution has slowed. From the late 19th century to the mid-20th century technological innovation changed the face of America. The use of fossil fuels and electricity, telegraph/telephone, radio, car, refrigerator, penicillin, light bulb, airplane, nuclear power, running water, and germ theory are many examples. Now compare those to the important inventions for last 75 years. Spaceflight, lasers, solar power, DNA/genome/stem cell discoveries, credit cards, heart surgery, cell phones, smaller better computers, and of course the internet. Although those are all very important, collectively they have made less of an impact on the human race.

It's the simplicity of his claim that makes it so believable. The world is not ending and is in fact is still getting better, just more slowly. Per his book's subtitle, he describes the problem as an issue of "low hanging fruit". The first set of inventions I described are fairly simple and more important compared to those in the second list. Finding out mold kills disease is much easier than how to successfully remove and replace a human heart. We've picked the easy inventions off the tree of innovation. The next ones will require more effort. Also, the benefit of the more recent innovations are also not as evenly spread as the earlier ones. The poor gain a lot from running water, light bulbs, and penicillin and very little from Google, smart phones, and heart surgery.

However the biggest problem with this new reality is what it means for debt and investing. Originally I was less worried about our government's debt because, like it has in the past, economic growth can help pay most of it off. If we're richer in the future, it's easier to pay off poor debt. Without even counting the Great Recession, if economic growth will continue to slow down, it will make paying those debts off much more difficult. Less economic growth also means less growth in the stock market. Which means less growth for retirement and savings accounts which can have important changes on how we invest.

But remember this is bad news, not tragic news. The world is still great and getting better. In many ways the irony of this ebook is that it is an ebook. The internet is the great shining hope for, as Tyler predicts, another spurt in economic growth. The book is an example of how good the great stagnation can be. Four dollars for a lesson on American economic growth doesn't add much to GDP, but it sure made a huge impact on my economic and political perspective. I highly recommended the book and for the author's personal words on the book I recommend the interviews from EconTalk, The American, and BloggingHeads.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Economics of Monopoly

There has been a lot of complaining about the new improved, Monopoly Live. No dice, no paper money, and all-knowing infrared tower. But NPR's Planet Money recently did a story on problems with the classic version game. And who better to ruin a childhood game than an economist. Here's Russ Roberts in an earlier commentary:
But if I play Monopoly now, it's only to teach my kids how badly its lessons prepare you for the real world. In Monopoly, whoever has the most toys wins, and winning means taking everything belonging to everyone else. In Monopoly, landlords are parasites that eventually drive everyone into bankruptcy. And bankruptcy is like death, game over.

Monopoly is the ultimate zero sum game. You profit only by taking from others. The assets of its world are fixed in number. Yes, you can build houses or hotels, but somehow the greater the supply of places to live, the higher the price, an absurd contradiction to real-world economic life. In Monopoly, hotels never get a makeover and railroads, unlike Amtrak, are always profitable. In Monopoly, getting rich and succeeding in business only comes from exploiting unlucky suckers who randomly enter your life. There's no role for hard work or creativity, figuring out what customers might want to buy that isn't being offered by a competitor. There's no competition. I know, that's why it's called Monopoly, but only Marxists look at the world of capitalism the way the game of Monopoly does, as an unrelentingly gloomy system of exploitation where the rich eventually wear everyone else down.
Surprisingly enough, Russ suggests playing my favorite game, Settlers of Catan.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Policy Recommendations from Economics Bloggers

Here are my thoughts on each issue:
There's more interesting charts at the Kauffman Foundation.

Politics of the Stimulus Package

There are few issues I've given more blog time than the stimulus package, but I think a trillion dollars is worth my time. And yes, this is the fifth part of my series against self-verification, but no, I'm not a Keynesian now. It's not that I've been wrong about the stimulus, I've just been wrong in my discussion. My main argument has been that we can't know if it works, so why try. Economist Alex Tabarrok gives a much more rigorous argument. Even the most ardent stimulus package supporters agree that the recent package did not stimulate the economy becasue it wasn't big enough. It is very difficult for democratic governments to get the political support required to spend the money supposedly needed to stimulate the economy. Even in the Great Depression, where FDR spent more than 120% of GDP, Paul Krugman admits that wasn't enough. So here's Alex's argument:
Now I will take a large degree of laissez-faire and the chaos of democracy over authoritarian political and economic regimes any day. I assume most Keynesians would as well. Thus, if we can't count on massive increases in government spending during a recession to mop up problems ex-post shouldn't we all, Keynesians and otherwise, be spending more time thinking about ex-ante alternatives to Keynesian politics?
And here are his solutions:
Greater regulation to prevent crises from occurring is a legitimate response, although one that I wouldn't necessarily buy into in all particulars. Along the same lines, increasing wage, price and real flexibilities (e.g. relocation flexibility and public and private savings flexibility) would benefit us in future recessions. Automatic stabilizers such as unemployment insurance are one area that has worked quite well. What other areas can be automatized? Funding for states? How about an automatic payroll tax cut tied to the unemployment rate? (fyi, Keynes favored the latter).
Even if the economics of Keynesianism works, the politics of it doesn't.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

The Almond: Activists Want God Taken Out of Foul Language

A couple of years ago I posted an article that I submitted and got accepted in the satirical Christian news site, LarkNews.com. That wasn't my first experience with online satirical writing. In college, I helped to create and even ran the no longer existent Clemson fake news source, TheAlmond.com. Here's the ClemsonWiki article on it:
The Almond was a satirical news website written by Clemson University students and inspired by the satirical magazine The Onion [1]. The Almond was founded in the Spring of 2005, with the first online issue appearing on February 28th, 2005 [2]. The website was written and edited pseudo-anonymously under pen names, and anyone was free to submit articles to the site through an e-mail submission feature. Briefly, in the Fall of 2005, articles from The Almond appeared in some issues of The Tiger, in the TimeOut section. The Almond was also an official Clemson University student organization. 
Summer of 2007: The Almond was shut down following a cease-and-desist letter from the Onion. The main writers of The Almond created a new site in blog format at TheNewsMen.com. By September 2008, this domain name had expired.
This walk down nostalgia lane was courtesy of me coming across an article I originally wrote for the site that was later published in Clemson's student newspaper in 2005. Seems like only yesterday when I first giggled at my own idea:
Activists Want God Taken Out of Foul Language, by Jim Harris 
MIDDLE SCHOOL, CLEMSON - With the apparent outspokenness of the current presidential administration on the topic of religion, it is not surprising to see the opposing side speaking out as well. The legality of God in the Pledge of Allegiance and the 10 Commandments in public schools have become major issues of the times.

Now, even Clemson has been asked to take drastic measures to keep religion out of its doors. Local activist group AmeriCa's Right Of No Youth Ministers (ACRONYM) has confronted Clemson Middle School with the issue of young children using the word "God" in their foul language.

"I just want my children to be able to curse in the name of whomever they want," said Bob Springer, a member of ACRONYM.

When contacted Saturday for a statement, the school did not answer and was apparently not ready to reply.

ACRONYM was formed in 1996 to combat the growing number of children attending church youth groups.

"We formed picket lines of tolerance around local churches to keep our children's minds open to all voices and opinions," said Kathryn Sullivan, president of

ACRONYM. "Living in the Bible Belt can be tough, especially when people only surround themselves with others who believe similar things. ACRONYM is just a group of people who agree that this is wrong."

These activists not only blame the local church but also the media.

"We have seen the continuous collaboration between the church and conservative media for decades," said Springer. "I know my son didn't learn to curse in the name of God from me! Shows that are secretly funded by the Republican Party, like 'South Park' and 'The Osbournes,' are teaching my children ludicrous conservative values when they instruct my children that 'GD' is a 'hip' way to cuss. With this growing epidemic of religious cursing, fearful parents should be offering their children healthy, helpful secular alternatives."

ACRONYM's main legal argument is based on Thomas Jefferson's famous speech in which he quoted the Constitutional phrase describing America's "separation of church and state." Researchers are currently still searching for this line in Constitution.

"We know we are right to not let people force their beliefs on everyone else, but I just wish we could make everyone understand that!" said vice-president John Young.

Until the reluctant school is contacted to see what they are willing to do about the situation, it seems that these activists will just have to wait. ACRONYM has apparently committed itself to calling Clemson Middle School every Saturday until their phone calls are answered.

"They can't ignore us forever! Those Dalai-Lama-darn people will listen to open-mindedness whether they want to or not," said Young.

A rally to gain Clemson University student support is being held at the local Ben and Jerry's this Friday at 1 p.m.
My favorite part about this article was overhearing someone in one of my classes, who apparently didn't realize it was fake, say that he went down to Ben and Jerry's to see if anyone showed up. No one did.

To see the other handful of articles published in the student newspaper go here.

Efficient Welfare Payment

One of the mainstays of libertarianism is that government assistance to the poor decreases economic efficiency in two ways. One, by giving only to the poor, it incentivizes being poor. Two, by paying the poor, you must tax the rich, thereby dis-incentivizing being rich. However, I'd never considered the negative income tax popularized by libertarian icon Milton Friedmen. It starts with a flat tax, at say 25%. Everyone, rich and poor pays the same percentage. Then, a minimum income is established, at say $10,000.  Everyone, rich and poor gets the same $10,000 from the government. It's easier to pay taxes (which now costs hundreds of dollars per person just to file). It's easier to enforce (there are more people in the IRS's tax army than in Iraq). It's more equitable to both the poor and the rich. Here are a couple of examples using different incomes and my numbers of $10,000 and 25%:

Income earned: $0
Taxes paid: $0
Minimum income: $10,000
Total amount: $10,000

Income earned: $30,000
Taxes paid: $7500
Minimum income: $10,000
Total amount: $32,500

Income earned: $100,000
Taxes paid: $25,000
Minimum income: $10,000
Total amount: $85,000

Income earned: $1,000,000
Taxes paid: $250,000
Minimum income: $10,000
Total amount: $760,000

Freidmen supported this idea, but only as a replacement for the current income tax and welfare system. For joint households the credit would be double and there could be an amount given per child, say $5,000. The minimum income credit could also be given in monthly increments so as not to require much money management.

This was part four of my series against self-verification.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Educational Expectations and the Pygmalion Effect

I'd heard the idea, but never under this name:
The Pygmalion effect, or Rosenthal effect, refers to the phenomenon in which the greater the expectation placed upon people, often children or students and employees, the better they perform.
Here's the experiment:
In the famous Oak School experiment, teachers were led to believe that certain students selected at random were likely to be showing signs of a spurt in intellectual growth and development. At the end of the year, the students of whom the teachers had these expectations showed significantly greater gains in intellectual growth than did those in the control group.
Or to put it another way:
"Whether you think you can or whether you think you can't, you're right." -Henry Ford 

Responding to Communication Overload

In the third part of my series against self-verification I'd like to revisit a list I made a while back of things I hate. One of the items on that list was when people do not respond to messages. I had several people in mind when I wrote that, but one of them was the owner of the DSI Comedy Theater, executive producer of the North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival, and all around busy guy, Zach Ward. I recently mentioned this to him and our conversation was very insightful.

He said that he gets so many messages in the day, by his count in the hundreds, that to give a thoughtful response to each would be a full time job. As Get-It-Done-Guy Stever Robbins puts it, email has changed the burden of communication. In the past the sender had write, stamp, and mail a letter. No one spent 20 cents and 20 minutes writing something that's not worth 2 minutes to read. Now we've written and sent with barely a thought. That doesn't mean, however, that we can't cut out other communication tools like Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, to spend more time responding to personal messages. But as I now understand, there is a major difference between public and private conversations.

Firstly, private messages are only seen by a few. Social networking sites are just that, for building a large social network. A response on Twitter is seen and appreciated by many more people than an email. Also, being successful is partially about being a super-connector. More connections means more messages. So what's the solution? Here's some ideas that might help those who feel overwhelmed:

1) Realize that too many social connections have costs. Each person you connect with is another potential message. There is a cost to being popular.
2) Realize that too many social connections have benefits. An idea from Economist Jeff Ely is that by using public communications tools like Twitter and Facebook you can signal to others that you are busy. If you're too busy, people may assume their message got lost in the shuffle.
3) The more you raise the awareness of your message overload, the more sympathy others will have for your late/no response. Blogger Alexandra Samuel has decided to let everyone know she's too busy with an email auto-reply and a Too Big For One Person (#TB41P) hashtag.
4) There are plenty of messages that only require a little response. If I send you an interesting link, I'm usually just looking for an "awesome, thanks".
5) Any private question that requires more than a simple request can be made public. I've done that with my reader request posts. Try to turn a time consuming private questions into public production.
6) Top economics blogger Greg Mankiw proposes a tax on emailing him (I think Tyler Cowen wanted the opposite, but I can't find the link). Maybe if the email is worth his read, you can get your money back.
7) We can all be more sympathetic. I personally can't remember the last time I had an empty inbox. When I send someone a message, I try and forget about it. If they respond they respond. If they don't, they don't.

One final thing worth mentioning is that I am not overwhelmed by the number of messages I receive. So feel free to email or comment and as always, thanks for spending your precious time reading.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Emptying the Bottle: Early-March '11 Links

Here is a list of the worthwhile sites I've Bookmarked recently:
As always, feel free to email me anything interesting you come across.

Public Unions are Worse than Private Unions

I am not a fan of unions. I think they complicate what should be simple agreement between a worker and an employer. They infringe on the property rights of business owners. And they often mis-reward workers for union loyalty, not work quality. That said, I've been less harsh on public unions. This is not because I am a public school teacher, but because the government is inherently stronger than a business. In the case of school teachers,  the state school system is a near universal buyer of educational labor. With 9 out of 10 students attending public school, if you want to teach, you almost have to work for the government. Which this monopsony power, state schools can have an undue influence over teachers. So there is an economic reason for a teacher's union. Or that is until I read this:
From 1989 to 2004, AFSCME — the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — gave nearly $40 million to candidates in federal elections, with 98.5% going to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Why would local government unions give so much in federal elections? Because government workers have an inherent interest in boosting the amount of federal tax dollars their local governments get. Put simply, people in the government business support the party of government.
The government wants to increase the number of people working for the government, so they'll vote to increase the power of the government. Here's more:
Private sector unions fight with management over an equitable distribution of profits. Government unions negotiate with politicians over taxpayer money, putting the public interest at odds with union interests and, as we've seen in states such as California and Wisconsin, exploding the cost of government. The labor-politician negotiations can't be fair when the unions can put so much money into campaign spending. Victor Gotbaum, a leader in the New York City chapter of AFSCME, summed up the problem in 1975 when he boasted, "We have the ability, in a sense, to elect our own boss."
Surprisingly, the president who institutionalized progressivism in America, FDR, agrees. This was part two of my series against self-verification.