Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A challenge to Landsburg

Steven Landsburg is an economist I greatly admire. The depth and uniqueness of his mind and viewpoint are quite amazing. So it is with trepidation that I challenge an argument he has made several times before and has touched on in another guise yet again. I expect it is likely that I am not refuting Landsburg. More likely I am misunderstanding the argument and hence not addressing it or I'm making a weak argument--a weakness I cannot see.

The main argument is about wasteful competition. The first appearance I can recall is here. Followed by another here. Then came this very interesting question about taxing novelists for the same reason we may want to tax carbon. He followed the post with another for clarification.

There are multiple arguments being made in these posts, and I agree substantially with many. Where I disagree is in this concept of wasteful competition--that the additional athlete, football team, novelist, etc. is more socially costly than beneficial. If I have it correctly, the argument runs as follows:

  1. The resources devoted to a marginal addition in output for good X can be substantial.
  2. In many cases the output of good X before the marginal increase was already substantial.
  3. The gain from the marginal addition of good X is slight.
  4. Therefore, we have wasted resources on the margin since the gain does not justify the cost. There is a market failure.

I think there is more going on here. On the surface he appears to lack an appreciation for quality. It is as if at the extreme (perhaps an unfair reductio ad absurdum) he believes mediocrity is the optimum. Yes, that is an unfair characterization, but it is getting toward my point. Looking deeply I do not think we can be so linear in how we think about marginal improvement. It is multidimensional and part of a larger purpose.

The resources that flow into a given endeavor only look out of proportion to the marginal output when we narrowly define the output. The nth cereal on the aisle may not add much to the quality of my breakfast, but it may be a natural and unavoidable byproduct of the magnificent process that brings me cheap cereals (and so much more) on demand and basically without fail.

Consider also that although cost curves decline as quantity produced increases while economies of scale persist, only usually does quantity produced mirror the progression of time. It doesn't have to be the case that quantity and time are interchangeable as the X-axis. So while it may seem wasteful in isolation to see yet another novel published, that may be part of the cost of the first novel.

Finally, innovation often comes in unexpected surges emerging from dull periods of slight and arguably inefficient activity. The iPod was not just one more MP3 player. ESPN was not just one more way to see the already-watched sports.

As for competition and the fear it may become wasteful, be scared. You can't help that. But don't be afraid. We have to strive on for better and higher possibilities.

PS. Here is how I answered the novelist taxation question.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Highly linkable

As politicians seemingly fiddle as we begin to dance on the ceiling, it is important to realize it is going to be okay. This actually is business as usual--it is just not usually so obviously unproductive. Wasting resources (through an unfettered process of spending money) apparently looks to the media and much of the public as productive progress. It is not. Arguing about the terms under which the money spending process will continue apparently does not look as productive. It is not that different.

Hey, guy who sells ethanol. Is it a good idea to create and foster a monopolistic environment in which you can operate?

Ethanol guy: "Yes!"

Everybody else: "Hell no, are you kidding!?!"

Casey Mulligan makes a strong case about just how high and damaging tax rates are today including as a result of Obamacare. Grumpy says he may be underestimating how bad it is.

Here is the long (and excellent) and the short on why Fama was an excellent choice to share the Noble Memorial Prize in Economics as announced today. Shiller and Hansen are also fine choices in my opinion. It is just that I believe Fama casts a big longer and a bit stronger shadow.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

WWCF: Gridless Power or Wireless Power?

Which will come first?

Gridless Power (household power commonly generated on site)
Wireless Power (batteries or battery-like power sources that largely self charge)

Both of these would be very big advances as respective cords are cut. For gridless power the aesthetic benefits would be dramatic gains all by themselves. Imagine a world where we are nostalgic for overhead power lines. The telephone pole as romantic as horse-drawn buggies. But don't forget the benefits of blackouts and brownouts being as foreign as breadlines are to us today. Whether the target of terrorists or ice storms (take a guess which one has taken out more power supply in the past 10 years), the centralized power system creates a dependency and hence vulnerability that we would certainly like to avoid.

In wireless power this could include simply batteries with life something like 100x greater than currently available. But imagine your iPhone actually charging from the motion it undergoes while in your pocket. Or perhaps from heat in the air. Or moisture--maybe water isn't the kryptonite of the mobile phone. 

Gridless power doesn't have to be solar; although, that is a big likelihood. You don't have to be a super genius like Tesla to imagine wireless electricity. And yes, these two overlap quite a bit--it seems. Sometimes things similar in concept end up being quite different in practice.

My WAG is wireless beats gridless in terms of large-scale affordability and consumer penetration by at least a decade. The economies of scale at work in the grid are quite powerful forces. The abundance of natural gas strengthens the inertia for the grid considerably. 

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Saving football from itself

Football is at a major inflection point. These don't come along often. The first one of this nature was at the beginning of the twentieth century when Teddy Roosevelt "saved" football by urging rule changes. In 1905 there were reportedly 19 fatalities from playing football. Following that season an intercollegiate conference, forerunner to the NCAA, established radical changes for safety's sake. The NCAA would continue in this capacity, in-sport rule-making body, for another 50 years or so before becoming the cartel it is today.

Other inflection points have been the creation of two-platoon football the first time in 1941 ending in 1954 and the second time in 1965 and the widespread racial integration of the sport in the 1970s.

Today the inflection point is again safety related. The sport is getting more physical and more dangerous as society is getting less tolerant of violence and wealthier--meaning the value assigned to safety and health are growing. Just as when the highest scoring offense meets up against the lowest point allowing defense, something's got to give. If not, this could be the end.

Here is a spitball list of some potentially safety enhancing changes to the game. Perhaps changes like these would be enough to save football. To many traditionalists, myself included, these may seem quite unpalatable. But the truth is change of some kind has to come. We can continue to dance around this if we want to, but we might be left behind. Some aspects of football as we know it today probably will someday look totally removed from the real world--the actions of imbeciles with everything out of control.

  • Get rid of the intentional grounding rule.
  • Outlaw all blocking below the waist.
  • Outlaw any tackling or blocking where the one tackling or blocking leaves his feet.
  • Extend the automatic ejection rule for "targeting" (one that I applaud except for the poor decision to not allow the 15-yard penalty portion to be reviewed as the ejection decision is reviewed) to horse-collar tackles or facemask infractions to include helmet and head tackles. For facemasks, perhaps bring back the idea of a difference in severity by including the ejection for more severe facemask infractions.
  • Outlaw zone defense including perhaps not allowing any defender to start play farther than 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage.
  • End kickoffs and punts--force fourth down attempts. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Let's keep it suboptimal

Last week while visiting the wonderful city of Seattle, I spotted a delivery truck with an unfortunate message painted broadly across its side. The truck was a produce delivery truck and the message was apparently an intentional advertising slogan. It read, "Let's Keep It Local!" I didn't have time to take a picture. Presumably based on the other advertising art this is a local fruit and vegetable company.

I have to admit my first reaction was a little hostile. My thoughts were: Will they sell to me? What if I plan to take it back to Oklahoma? At the Pike Place Market I purchased an extra honey crisp apple and mango with the intention of taking them home. What a shame it would be if those purchases had been prohibited based on my intentions to eat them abroad. But I'm sure the localizers do not care about my consumption venue, or that I can peel an apple in one long, curry strip. It is only the production origin that concerns them; I can imagine them saying. But that just leads to more questions:

  • You're okay with exports, but you don't like imports? 
  • So, you're saying you'd like to have your apple cake and eat it too? 
  • Does it concern you that such a scheme will lead to your own wealth being reduced? 
Did I lose them with that last one? It is the mantra of the local movement that by "keeping it local" we keep both sides of the exchange--notice the "we" here, and remember there is no "we". We is an arbitrary fiction. It implies at some point people stop being one of "us" and start being one of "them". Such xenophobia is not just morally unhealthy. It is economically destructive--itself a moral wrong.

If you eat your own apple cake, you then won't have one left over. If you (import and) eat mine, you still have yours. All I ask is that you give me something you value less than the cake but that I value more than my cake. Like perhaps a Locks tour from Elliott Bay to Lake Washington. This is the essence of gains from trade. These gains expand as the market expands--as more of "them" become "us".