Sunday, November 28, 2004

Is Sustainability Important?

Many environmentalists talk about the importance of sustainability. There is an intuitive appeal to the idea of balancing the needs of today with the needs of future generations. We certainly do not want to compromise our children's future.

What rate of oil consumption, for example, is sustainable? People talk about the need to improve fuel efficiency, because oil is a finite resource. But any rate will eventually deplete a finite resource, so no rate is sustainable.

That's okay, though. As a former Saudi oil minister said, "The Stone Age did not end for lack of stone, and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil." We do not need to sustain any level of oil consumption indefinitely; we will move on to something else. Some scientists are eyeing the moon's supply of helium-3, potentially a much greater power source than fossil fuels.

This is not to say than any level of consumption is as good as any other; the oil has to last us until we can move to helium-3 or whatever else. Only continued technological progress can sustain us indefinitely. We should be careful not to block it in the name of sustainability.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Democratic Voters are Just as Bad

Some Republican voters may not know the difference between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, but judging from some signs I've seen, Democratic voters don't know the difference between Bush and Hitler. Seriously, though, both sides have their myths. The very notion that Republican voters are stupid and ignorant compared to Democratic voters is one of these myths.

Cathy Young has a couple good articles on this topic, here and here.

The bottom line is that most voters are uninformed. Maybe it's a good thing more people don't vote.

Blue Federalism

After Bush's victory, some liberals want a greater emphasis on states' rights. This has been covered recently in a New York Times Magazine article, among other places.

This strikes me as odd. The intent is clearly to escape the tyranny of the majority, but wouldn't this merely create new, different tyrannies? Perhaps residents of upstate New York would not appreciate the socialist paradise that the urban elite envisions. Forty percent of New York voters chose Bush, so it's not simply that all of New York wants to be more liberal; a large portion would have to be dragged kicking and screaming. The liberals may prefer a liberal tyranny, but they should recognize it for what it is.

Another thing, one of the motivations that has been cited is that blue states no longer want to subsidize red states. So, if I understand this correctly, liberals don't want to continue subsidizing the poor if they keep making bad decisions? Sounds a lot like welfare reform. States' rights and accountability: is this what Ralph Nader meant by attacking the Republicans from the right?

Monday, November 22, 2004

The Burden on your Vote

Each person gets a say in government by voting in elections. If one of the candidates represents your views exactly, you get to express your desires exactly. Much more common, though, is the single-issue voter, who votes for the candidate with whom he agrees on the most important issue.

The single-issue voter doesn't get to voice his concerns on other issues; in fact, he ends up implicitly supporting policies he doesn't agree with. This is the "collateral damage" of voting. Libertarians might like Bush's tax cuts, but not the Patriot Act. Liberal hawks might like the War on Terror, but not the social conservatism. Paleocons might be the opposite.

As the federal government expands, the number of issues goes up. Therefore, the ability for the voters to effectively control the government goes down. Each vote cannot possibly convey opinions on defense, education, trade, healthcare, and every other issue while choosing from only two realistic candidates. There are three solutions: increasing the number of votes, decreasing the number of issues, and increasing the number of candidates.

The first solution, increasing the number of votes, is part of direct democracy. Through initiative, referendum, and recall, the voters can vote more often in an effort to control the government more effectively. In practice, however, this can lead to inconsistent policies, as politicians and voters fight it out in the same legislative space.

The second solution, reducing the number of issues, can be achieved in two different ways. The first is for the government to leave more to the private sector. For example, if education were privatized, voters wouldn't have to hear about how every candidate values education. They could vote on other issues, and send their children to a private school of their choice (assuming vouchers for the poor). The second way to reduce the number of issues is move more of the issues down to the state or local level. Of course, this may just be moving the problem.

The third solution, increasing the number of realistic candidates, can only be accomplished with electoral reform. Our current system ensure we only have two choices. With more choices, under a system such as instant runoff voting, voters may find a better match for their own preferences.

The federal government has gotten larger and larger. Our ability to control it has gotten smaller and smaller. Unfortunately, it won't change unless it becomes everyone's single-issue.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Who's to blame for high drug costs?

The New Yorker has another great article, this time on prescription drug prices. Here's an excerpt:
The problem with the way we think about prescription drugs begins with a basic misunderstanding about drug prices. The editorial board of the Times has pronounced them much too high; Marcia Angell calls them “intolerable.” The perception that the drug industry is profiteering at the expense of the American consumer has given pharmaceutical firms a reputation on a par with that of cigarette manufacturers.
I certainly have had complaints with the Times. Marcia Angell is a former editor-in-chief of The New England Journal of Medicine, and she gets a fair amount of criticism in this article.

The author contends that high prices are not exclusively the fault of the drug companies; some blame rests on doctors and medical journals, too. Sometime drug companies put out new drugs that are barely different than old drugs, but it's the job of doctors and medical journals to see through that. They should prescribe generics whenever possible, but often they prescribe expensive new drugs as a matter of course. Some people believe that doctors have an altogether too cozy relationship with drug companies, who fly them out to conferences and give them various perks. Op-eds written by doctors usually blame the drug companies for everything, though.

Luckily, doctors don't necessarily need to take on the responsibility of cost control. That responsibility rests with the insurance companies. If we can divorce health insurance from employers so that people can make decision on which company to use, each insurance company will have powerful incentive to use generics wherever possible as an easy way to cut costs while still providing the same level of service. We need to introduce real competition into the market.

Manhattan Everywhere

I recently read a fantastic article in The New Yorker called "Green Manhattan." Unfortunately, it's not freely available online, but it's in LexisNexis. The article makes the counterintuitive case than Manhattan is good for the environment, when you consider our pollution rates per capita. The author goes on to suggest that other places be made like Manhattan, with wider sidewalks, narrower streets, little parking, small apartments, etc.

In the interest of disclosure, I live in Manhattan, I love Manhattan, and I would love if other places were like Manhattan, if only to make the real Manhattan a little cheaper. I love that Manhattan is more "green" than I thought. My apartment isn't just small, it's saving the Earth!

However, I don't think this is solid environment policy. It's good to know that Manhattan is an energy efficient design; maybe other places will tend towards this design. We shouldn't let our love for Manhattan and the environment blind us to other possibilities, though.

Let's assume that environmental protection is our goal and greenhouse gases are the problem. Well, forcing other cities to be unfriendly to cars may help by forcing people to take mass transit. Unfriendliness to cars is not necessarily the best policy, though. What if someone invents a very efficient solar-powered car? Suddenly, aversion to cars isn't the best policy; it's actually harmful.

Consider raising taxes on fossil fuels instead. What would happen? It would be more expensive to drive into the city, so people would naturally start taking mass transit more. It would be much cheaper to heat an apartment than a house in the suburbs, so people might start to prefer apartments. Maybe everywhere will end up like Manhattan. However, this plan is not hostile to change. If the solar-powered car comes along, it would be cheaper to drive than a regular car, so people might start driving again instead of using mass transit. Maybe they'll put these efficient solar panels on their houses and live in suburbs again. It's difficult to know what will happen, but it's safe to assume that things will change. Forcing places to be like Manhattan assumes that the Manhattan model will remain the best solution. Using the market lets everyone decide.

Even taxing fossil fuels is imperfect. If the problem is that we don't want greenhouse gases in the air, it may be possible to filter them out in other ways. Some people have suggested farms of algae floating on the ocean, or machines that sequester the carbon. In that case, fossil fuel burners would have to pay the farmers and machine operators, and you wouldn't need to tax fossil fuels at all. A natural market equilibrium would keep the environment healthy.

Sometimes, unfortunate approximations are necessary. Forcing the Manhattan model on people would be a mistake, though; we have other options.

Flu Shots vs. Viagra

I'm beginning to think I could write a whole blog just contesting op-eds in the Times about healthcare. Today's subject is an op-ed by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele called, unsurprisingly, "The Health of Nations." (The name has been used over and over, including by the Times' own Paul Krugman earlier this year.)

The authors attempt to illustrate the evils of the market system when it comes to prescription drugs. Their example is the shortage of flu shots and the proliferation of impotence drugs:
The reason for the shortage is this: Preventing a flu epidemic that could kill thousands is not nearly as profitable as making pills for something like erectile dysfunction, a decidedly non-fatal condition. Viagra, for example, brings in more than $1 billion a year for its maker, Pfizer. The profits to be made from selling flu vaccine are measly in comparison.
Their solution is a single-payer system. Is this a reasonable response? First, consider Viagra. There clearly is a demand for it, given its strong sales. People want it. Would it be produced in a single-payer system? Or would experts such as these decide it was not important? The market responds better to what people actually want.

Isn't the shortage of flu shots proof that it doesn't? Actually, no. There isn't a proper market for flu shots, but a monopsony situation, where the government is the only buyer. The government pays a low fixed price and distributes the vaccine. As a result, most vaccine suppliers dropped out of the market. This is pretty similar to a single-payer situation. Price controls often lead to shortages.

So what's the lesson here? Certainly not that markets are bad and goverment control is good. In fact, it seems the opposite.

No Logo?

James Surowiecki has an article in Wired suggesting that the power of brands is diminishing. This makes perfect sense. A brand's power lies in the information it carries; for example, Sony is known for making good TVs. Nowadays, there are many other sources for information about a product. When I bought my last TV, I scoured reviews online and found that Samsung had a put out a particular model that had all the features of the high end Sony, but at a much lower price. When you buy a Sony, you're paying a premium for the assurance that comes with the brand. I got my assurance from a website I trusted, and it was free. The days of walking into a store and picking out a Sony are over.

Of course, we still need assurance from somewhere. Review sites are developing into "meta-brands." Anandtech, a site that review computer components, used to be one guy, Anand, whose opinion I felt I could trust. Now Anandtech has expanded, and I don't know anything about the individual writers. Still, I trust the Anandtech brand to tell me what brand to purchase of computer components to purchase.

Meta-brands are still brands; they still have to cultivate a reputation, and mistakes can hurt that reputation. A more radical departure from the current situation would be reliance on aggregate information from anonymous users. For example, even without reputations to protect, anonymous users have produced good results consistently on Wikipedia. But unless such a dramatic shift occurs, I would hesitate to say branding is dead.

Monday, November 08, 2004

IQ by state

There's a chart going around with IQ figures by state, and which candidate the state voted for. The punchline seems to be that stupid people vote for Bush.

Now, I can't find any authoritative source for IQ averages by state. There are some studies based on SAT/ACT scores or National Assessment of Educational Progress, but the differences between states are minor. Moreover, neither candidate monopolizes the "smarter" voters.

However, this particular chart appears to have been made from a correlation between income and IQ. So if a state's average income is low, its average IQ is assumed to be low. Very unscientific, but a lot of people are ready to believe it.

Amusingly, this means the contempt some liberals are feeling for red states based on this chart is actually illiberal contempt for the poor; the pride they are feeling is pride in being rich.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Some Maps

There are some interesting maps out there. This one is pretty funny. This one illustrates that differences between red states and blue states are less severe than one might imagine. However, there is a major divide, but it's not between the coastal states and the interior. It's between urban and rural areas. Take a look at this map, showing which way each county voted.

Interestingly, this means that the people most at risk for a terrorist attack voted overwhelmingly against Bush and his prosecution of the War on Terror.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Called Out

I suppose I approached the war in Iraq as a "liberal hawk." Perhaps my biggest influence was the book Terror and Liberalism by Paul Berman, who has been called the "maître penseur of the liberal hawks." My endorsement followed the same model that his endorsement and others' did, saying Bush had the right idea, but he was too inept to finish the job.

Well, the "I-Can't-Believe-I'm-A-Hawk Club" has just been called out by Tim Cavanaugh in Reason. It's a little too easy to support the war, blame Bush for any problems that arise, and claim to be on the right side of history if it goes well.

So the question is really, did Bush screw this up worse than I could have realized? Should I have followed
the D-Squared Digest One Minute MBA - Avoiding Projects Pursued By Morons?

More later.

I decided that I can't really be accused of deserting Bush. Supporting a particular policy of his doesn't mean that I owe him my support in the next election if I think the challenger can do better, which I did. Bush won, of course, even without my support.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Last Moment Endorsement

Ok, my blog is up and running (well, 2 posts) just in time for an endorsement. Vote Kerry.

Thus far, I think I've kept all my friends, but the explanation is much more scandalous. The single-issue is the "War on Terrorism." Here, I think Bush has the right idea. Our long term strategy has to include a liberal, democratic Middle East. So my problem is not with imperialism, use of force, blood for oil, or any of those sorts of reasons. My problem is with incompetence.

Thankfully, Kerry doesn't want to cut and run, which would immediately disqualify him, in my opinion. We started on the correct path; we need to press on. Kerry will benefit from simply not being Bush; he will start with a clean slate. If he can convince our allies to pitch in, fantastic. Hopefully, Kerry can capitalize on some of the potential that Bush has missed out on due to his gross mismanagement.

On other issues, both have their problems, but that is secondary. If Bush had come through on his promises for Iraq, I would support him, despite his fiscal policy and right-wing social agenda. A second term with a democratic Iraq and Afghanistan in place would have put him in the perfect position to work on Israel and Palestine. Unfortunately, those dreams have mostly evaporated. I don't hold out great hopes for what Kerry can accomplish; I just want him to mitigate the damage.