Sunday, April 6, 2014

Highly Linkable

We're back from an unintended hiatus. Let's begin with some jokes one might overhear in the Lambda^3 house. (HT: Mungowitz)

The world is spinning fast for the NCAA. Northwestern players, et al. can unionize because they have been ruled as employees. If this stands, this potentially changes everything. No apple cart is safe from tipping. Of course, the NCAA isn't hesitating one moment to provide comic relief as events unfold. But Jeffrey Kessler may get the last laugh.

Before we leave the sports realm, the Box Score Geeks want you to remember that the NBA is not McDonald's.

Scott Sumner reflects on what he has learned from Fama and Lucas.

The state will even license con men (and women). Apparently, there is indeed no end to state licensure. I'm sorry, what did you say about the current unemployment rate? . . .

Speaking of employment problems, perhaps your potential employer is agreeing with your current employer not to hire you away. I've witnessed this type gentlemen's agreement in a couple of different situations. Megan McArdle assumes the case against it while, I believe, making more strongly the case why it is not as simple as it would seem. There are complexities here that legislation with its good intentions and unintended consequences may undesirably unravel.

Mike Munger has completed his Mungerfesto with the fifth installment. I give the overall piece a B+. Simply refining the presentation would elevate it to A-. Giving a more thorough treatment to how this is largely a second-best but necessary approach to our world's political economy problems given that the first-best approach is unrealistic (I believe this is his argument of direction versus destination) would make it A+.

I look forward to reading the new book from Max Tegmark recommended by Steven Landsburg. It is always fun to read material completely over one's head. If nothing else, it offers a humility we all should seek.

Speaking of humility . . . wow.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

WWCF: Robot Surgeons or Robot Firefighters?

Which will come first?

Autonomous Robot Surgeons


Autonomous Robot Firefighters

Here the critical consideration is autonomous. Robot-like machines today assist in surgery and firefighting. But they are guided by set routines and humans running remote controls. And while there are autonomous elements to these actions, we are not yet to the point where we need to insure Asimov's three rules are being followed. With surgery it will probably be harder to define when that line is crossed. The simple concept would be turning the power switch to "On" and telling the robot, respectively, remove this patient's appendix or go into that building to find any trapped people.

Obviously, we need a high level of comfort that the robot is up to the job. So perhaps the desire for robot autonomy in these cases comes down to figuring out where the benefits from autonomy are greatest relative to the costs. At first blush the benefit would seem highest in the somewhat random and uncontrolled environment of a fire. Likewise the cost would seem to be lowest--if the robot fails to get you out of the towering inferno where no human could have saved you anyway, the opportunity cost is nil, but not so for a robot botching your nose job. But it is not just the cost of robot error that is a factor. The surgery robot can be reused over and over. The firefighting robot may have a much shorter use life. Recent developments are taking this point into consideration.  

Critical still is what I'll term the "devil you know" factor. Surgery may not always be elective, but generally the patient does exert some discretion as to who performs it. And firefighting technology doesn't have to pass through the death-causing gauntlet that is the FDA. The discussion below this post indicates these issues well.

My guess is that we are 10-20 years away from these technologies, which actually seems close I think. I'll give a slight edge to robot firefighters largely driven by the devil you know factor slowing robot surgery down.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Highly Linkable

This is one of the greatest shots I've ever seen of the greatest city on Earth. It looks best perhaps on an HD tablet. Be sure to zoom in for the full effect.

If that puts you in the mood to get stuck between the moon and NYC, perhaps you'll need a place to stay.

If you're traveling to NYC by air, don't be afraid. It is a very safe way to travel. Just look at this stunning visualization of all the air travel in a single day in Europe.

Leaving NYC for now, here is a great story about inventor Alan Adler. Not only did he invent my favorite device for making phenomenal coffee (the AeroPress), but he invented my favorite flying disc (the Aerobie Flying Ring). I still have my Aerobie from the 80s. That sucker can fly and on a line. 

And you thought you'd make it through the link post without any economics homework--not so fast. John Cochrane is breaking down the case for cost-benefit analysis in financial regulation. Reading through this earns you $100 in MagnitudeMoney redeemable at the blog's gift shop (coming soonish). Alright, it's long, but it is worth it.

I'll be back soon with a WWCF and so much more. But in the mean time, catch up on your reading.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Highly Linkable

The Internet is controlled by 14 people who hold 7 secret physical keys. This sorta takes the mysterious fun out of it.

Tyrannical central planning looks dimmer every time you look at it.

Sumner points out the obvious culprit behind the high and growing rates of youth unemployment.

Dovetailing unfortunately with the prior link whereby union workers tend to gain from minimum wage laws at the expense of low-wage (largely youth) workers, is how NYC's mayor and teachers' unions are fighting proven successful methods of teaching disadvantaged youths.

Jonathan Mahler is fantasizing about the lawsuit that will kill the NCAA. Mark Cuban is promoting an idea that I believe would improve NCAA basketball, NBA basketball, and most importantly the wellbeing of the men who play basketball. Not to mention that it would likely be have negative side effects for the NCAA itself.

Two more on sports: Baseball umpires show bias (all the more reason machines should replace/complement their work); Grantland has a good overview on the work left to be done in bringing analytics to sports.

Landsburg has some good thoughts on the Arizona Senate's attempt to allow a certain type of discrimination.

Turnabout is fair play for the CFPB.

Here are two strong reasons to not believe the conventional wisdom that middle-class incomes have been stagnant for the past few decades. The first shows how amazingly more affordable housing is today, and that is before we take into account how much better it is today in quality. The second debunks the myth that wage growth and productivity growth have separated from one another.

Lastly, an interview with "the bogeyman".

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Can't Stop The Gods From Engineering

Well, we can all breathe a sigh of relief. The momentum won't end. At least that is the story now that Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett has won re-election. His main opponent, City Councilman Ed Shadid, was apparently threatening to thwart that progress. And he continues to I guess by leading an initiative drive to bring back up for a vote both the >$250,000,000 new OKC convention center and the nearly permanent 1% sales tax associated with the city's long-term MAPS projects.

I'm not here to tout Shadid. The point I wish to make is a larger one. The winner of the mayor's race, Cornett, is seen and self proclaimed as the torchbearer for what I call the Coalition to Spend Other People's Money on Bright and Shiny Things. Shadid is one of the more high-profile challengers to this the received wisdom. But let's put the politicians aside and discuss the issue at hand. That issue is simply one of two questions:

  1. Should we force people through taxes to pay for things they don't seem to want?
  2. Why do we have to use taxes and government spending to express the people's desire?

I believe the first question is the correct framework of the issue. The supporters of MAPS have to believe the second is. I am presuming the people don't want these things because if they did, their wanting them would be sufficient to cause someone in the market to provide them without government involvement. Conversely, the supporters presume that the people* do want these things, but are unable to express that desire through the market. Let's assume the issue is framed properly by the second question, which means the challenge to the supporters is "show me the market failure!" Which really amounts to "show me the externality!"

Here is why. We've got lots and lots and lots of evidence that the market generally works at delivering the goods (the goods people want). That puts the burden of proof firmly on those who wish to make the case for the second question. Why is the market not able to connect demand and supply in this case? Ultimately that gets to what economists call externalities--positive externalities in this case. For some reason it must be that the benefits that would come from these projects cannot be sufficiently realized by those who would be the suppliers of these projects in the free market. But is a convention center really like clean air? There are lots of private suppliers of convention centers. What makes the OKC market so unique that convention centers become a public good?

Looking back to the funding into what is today Chesapeake Arena where the OKC Thunder play, why would private investors not be rewarded enough to build and improve such a facility? A self-serving, non-peer reviewed economic impact analysis is not relevant to this question. I understand how bright and shiny bright and shiny things are. This is a question of a cost/benefit analysis--both parts of which are critical to making a good investment decision. If only someone impartial studied these things . . .

Good public policy is shaped by setting aside what emotionally feels good for what critically is in the best interest of the public. Figuring that out is hard, but it is especially hard if you never look. See beyond the seen. Until the coalition can answer the second question effectively, I have to presume that the first question is the one to ask--the answer to which seems obvious.

*There is a BIG underlying assumption here that what is in the general (majority) interest of the public is expressed through the voting process and that that interest is a desirable end to impose on all of the people. It is not hard to poke holes in this assumption. If thirty people are trying to decide on what movie to go see where they all have to see the same movie, having fifteen of them vote on the movie will leave some of the voters dissatisfied and likely will leave some of the non voters dissatisfied too.

PS. Note that I am only discussing the economic efficiency facet of this debate wholly ignoring the important ethical argument about if it is right to tax some people (largely lower income/lower wealth people who have a harder time escaping the sales tax) for the benefit of some people.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A Little Whine

Me: "Look what just came in the mail!"

Me: "Wow! $100 off a case of wine. I really like wine. I'll put this to good use."

William Jennings Bryan: "I'm sorry, but you cannot use that voucher."

Me: "Why? Is it a fraud?"

WJB: "No, it is entirely legitimate."

Me: "Excellent! I think I'll start shopping right away."

WJB: "That will do you no good."

Me: "Is the Internet down?"

WJB: "No, the Internet is working fine. But the wine cannot be shipped to you."

Me: "Why? Is there some act of God preventing delivery of packages to my area?"

WJB: "No, the shipping companies are operating. They just cannot deliver wine to individuals in Oklahoma."

Me: "Why are they picking on Okies?"

WJB: "They are not. They would love to deliver the wine to you."

Me: "Is Zagat picking on Okies?"

WJB: "Oh, no. They would love to sell the wine to you."

Me: "Then who is behind this?"

WJB: "Okies. Well, Oklahoma law to be precise."

Me: "But wait, isn't Oklahoma part of America? Or did we get swept up by a twister and delivered to Oz?"

WJB: "Of course you're still in America. In fact there are several states that prohibit the direct distribution of alcohol to individuals who do not have a distributor's license."

Me: "Prohibit? I thought alcohol prohibition ended decades ago."

WJB: "Sadly at the federal level it did. But the states were reserved the right to limit it as they saw fit."

Me: "And the way they see fit is to prevent anyone without a license from having wine delivered to their address? That doesn't sound very consumer friendly. Why would they want to create a monopsony/monopoly situation?"

WJB: "It's great for the distributors. Plus, it's for your own good."

Me: "How is it for my own good?"

WJB: "How would you know the wine being delivered is wine without a licensed distributor verifying it by having it delivered to and promptly delivered out of his warehouse?"

Me: "Well, I could trust the people at Zagat and then when it arrives I could taste it."

WJB: "Oh simple citizen, imagine the chaos if every Larry, Moe, and Curly were having things shipped to their home for direct consumption. We must have licensed professionals as part of the process."

Me: "But we do have thousands of things via Amazon . . ."

WJB: "And what if your children were to go on this Internet and order wine? They could be dead drunk before you knew what happened."

Me: "Like if they got into the wine I have in my house that I purchased at an Oklahoma liquor store but not a grocery store because that is illegal in Oklahoma and not that I purchased on a Sunday because that is illegal and then they drank it all up . . . Do I need a state-licensed person perhaps to have a key to my liquor cabinet to make sure only authorized people consume my wine?"

WJB: "Interesting idea . . ."

Me: "Sigh . . ."

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Go On, Take the Money and Run

Almost three years later, I along with tens of thousands of Americans have now received back the money we had on deposit with Collectively we had about $80 million that we were using to play online poker. Suddenly on April 15th, 2011 (Black Friday) those funds were no longer available and the website and computer programs used to play poker and transact into and out of player accounts were shut down by our friends in the U.S. Federal Government. Of course, it was for our own good . . . Wish you'd stop bein' so good to me, Cap'n.

It is my understanding that playing real-money online poker has never been illegal--not before passage of the UIGEA, not between its passage then enforcement and the actions taken on Black Friday, and not after including when the DOJ said, "Oops, my bad!"

But my understanding does not matter here. Let us not have a failure to communicate when we say, "Consenting adults playing poker with their own money SHOULD NEVER BE ILLEGAL!" Alas, we do not live in a world of free markets and free minds. And so when the Attorney General of NY took action on Black Friday, he pushed online poker from the shadows and fully into the black market. Throughout this entire affair online poker has always been available to U.S. players. But as the government took a firmer hardline stance against it, the providers (Party Poker who abruptly exited the U.S. market in 2006, FullTilt, PokerStars, Bodog/Bovada, et al.) and facilitators (various third-party money transfer services) some of whom remained in the market became less transparent and less trustworthy. However, FullTilt never failed to fulfill any withdrawal requests I made including one made a few weeks before Black Friday. It remains unclear how at risk player funds were before government action versus how government action created a liquidity risk.

The fight goes on. There is strong, widespread support for poker including lobbying by the aforementioned via link Poker Players Alliance (PPA). And there is the fledgling coalition against it led by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. No fear mongering is beyond the pale for Sheldon's group--"Online gambling funds terrorists!" "It's going to target the elderly and college-aged children, CHILDREN!"

This recent NPR piece shows where the trend is going along with the position the prohibitions are staking. From the story, Sheldon states, "I'm morally against it and I think it will kill the entire industry." Sorry Sheldon, you can't be both the Baptist and the Bootlegger at the same time. Framing it as a moral stand is transparently pathetic. But at least that would be an argument, begging the question that government should enforce your morality positions. That it threatens your business model is never an argument against innovation or for prohibition.

And so we grind on.