Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Best Social Safety Net

The other day I was reading a book that was published by the CATO institute (www.cato.org). Within the publication I ran into a quote that I really liked. There is a lot of talk about the need for a social safety net. Usually, when people make this claim they are talking about programs such as Unemployment Insurance. However, I think that the CATO publication has the best suggestion for a social safety net program. This is the quote: "There is no better safeguard against unemployment than the prospect of a new job." If programs such as Unemployment Insurance have negative effects on employment prospects, and I think they do, than the very programs that are designed to help those in need may very well have the opposite effect than its original intent.

(I currently cannot find the original publication that I am referencing. When I do, I will put the name, and author on this post)

Contradictions Cannot Exist

I was reading the Missoulian at work today. Within the newspaper I ran across an article that was talking about health care reform protesters. Within the article, an individual that was championing a public option in health care made the comment "That last time I checked, the government was the people." This is a comment that, in some form or another, comes from people who generally support increased government involvement in a plethora of areas of our lives. You hear a similar comment from the narrator in the left leaning video "The Story of Stuff", where the narrator says " the government is by the people, for the people and of the people."
I think that this argument is particularly weak when compared to how government actually performs. However, politicians are not motivated solely by the public's best interest. Generally, they are motivated by the desire to be re-elected. I will admit that the strength of a democracy is that it tends to align a politician's self-interest with those of the public's. However, this is not always the case and to pretend that it is is particularly naive.
However, what if we assumed that politicians are only motivated to do what is in the public's best interest. Given this, there is still the problem of determining what the best interest of the public is. Some people want a single-payer health care system, others do not. Some people want to ban abortions, others do not. How does any one know, even politicians, know what is in the publics best interest? I contend that even if we given politicians the benefit of the doubt on what motivates them, they are still unable to determine exactly what is in the best interest of the public, or more generally, what the public wants.
What I find particularly interesting about the people who make the claims that state that government is run by the general population, is that in the next sentence they usually claim that the reason the government is not doing what they think is best is due to special interest's influencing politicians! How can it be the case that the government is run by the people, but also run by special interests? For example, the quote from the individual in the Missoulian was from someone who was protesting Representative Rehberg's stance on health care reform. At this protest, people were claiming that the congressman was not doing what the majority of people in Montana want. This seems to be a clear contradiction in their thinking. Is government "of the people," or do politicians simply do what they think would make them better off? I believe that the latter is the answer, and that is partially why I am skeptical of the government's involvement in any sector of this countries economy, and people's lives.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Transformers 2

I went to go watch the second Transformers movie this weekend. I was not hearing the best about the movie, I understand why. Overall I think that the primary problem with the movie was the fact that it was too bussy. I defenitly felt that the movie could have lost about half its content, but not lost anything releviant to the story. Bay definately should have been more concerned with a tighter plot, and less with showing off the transformers. For example, why not just drop the whole college section?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Earth 2100

While watching television on my trip to D.C., I came across a television shown on ABC called Earth 2100. While watching the show, I could not help but shake my head in disgust. If so many people were not taking this show so serious, I would have been laughing. I don't think that I have ever come across a show that was such "green", climate change, propaganda. This show is just another attempt to motivate people to do things they would not otherwise do by scaring them.
To begin, this show is just a modern version of the Malthusian prediction of global catastrophe. In the movie the world is dying, with our industrial, pro-business, model killing the world. There will be mass starvation and depleted resources. It is to bad that these predictions have failed time and time again. Malthusians' prediction of mass starvation failed, so did the predictions made in the book "Population Bomb." Yet this story continues. When proponents of this world view are confronted with these facts, they usually respond that just because these predictions failed in the past, it does not mean that this prediction will not come true. However, given the fact that all these predictions have consistently failed, I would tend to place my faith in the assumption that they will fail again. I am also comforted that these predictions also lack any basic economic understanding.
In the show there was a comparison to the current modern world to Easter Island. Assuming the facts are correct, the inhabitants of Easter Island striped their island of all the trees, killing one of their primary life providing resources. However, what they fail to understand is that this happened simply because of a lack of adequate property rights. If we want to prevent this from occurring here in the modern world, we need to promote individual property rights so that individuals have very strong incentives to prevent the complete depletion of resources. Without property rights, I can see the Easter Island scenario occurring. However, instead of promoting individual property rights, they instead suggest we simply need to "act green."
In addition, the show was ridiculously critical of businesses, and only found love in government planning. Throughout the entire show, there was continued talking about the need of government planning. In the show, there is the story of a business that developed a massive desalination plant to provide drinking water. While the supply of water dropped considerably, which caused prices to rise, people only complained, which required protests. In the show, the business eventually "gave in." What the developers of this show fails to realize, now no new desalination plants would be build, limiting the supply of fresh water even more.
I don't know what bothered me more about this show, the complete lack of economic understanding, or the absolute promotion of green, and social, planing. Like I said before, if I was not so concerned about so many people taking this show seriously, I would have laughed so hard, considering the complete ridiculousness of the show. I hope that other people, who watched this show, see the ridiculous methods used in this show to scare them, but I fear many people will not see this.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Is WALL-E a Disney dystopian future?

I just finished watching WALL-E at my wife's parents house. I had watched this movie before, and I really liked it. I still like it, but as with many of the children's movies these days, there are strong environmental and social commentaries. I am sure that most kids do not pick up on the commentaries, but I know as an adult that I see them. WALL-E seems particularly harsh when it comes to the critiques of modern culture. While watching the movie, I picked up on three separate critiques of modern culture, environmental, corporatism, and technological. In combination, I would suggest that WALL-E is a dystopian vision of the future in a children's movie. 
The most obvious critique in the movie is the environmental statement. In the movie, the Earth has become a barren wasteland, where not even plant life can survive. In fact, humans need to go live in space, because, Earth is so destroyed. This devastation is obviously caused by human endeavors, with mountains of trash just lying around. The obvious point being, that humans are currently destroying the Earth and something needs to be done. 
The second critique that the movie is making is the corporate nature of modern society. We see this with the Buy and Large corporation in the movie. This corporation has become so large in the movie, that they are the only corporation and the only government. The critique of this being, that we are placing to much power in the hands of corporations. We see the distrust of corporations in this movie with the abandonment of Earth by the Buy and Large corporation. Also, there is a quote in the movie where the Buy and Large Corporation says that if you buy their stuff, you will be happy. In the movie, it is the captain of the ship, we can call him the beneficial dictator (kind of like the U.S. president is becoming). 
The final critique of modern society in this movie is the distrust of modern technology. This can be seen in the dehumanizing nature of the ship AXIUM. In this vision of the future,people don't talk in person, don't see the outside world, and don't even walk. They are able to achieve this only because of the technological wonder of the day. Because of these, they are not even expected to think! While the movie does provide hope, with the robotic characters of WALL-E and EVE, they are only providing hope, because they act like humans.
Combined, these three critiques of modern society, and the ridiculous extension of them into a possible future, leads us to a world where no one lives on Earth, people don't seek to one another, and robots command our lives. If this is not a happy vision of the future, I don't know what would be.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

My Op-Ed in a local Helena Newspaper

I wrote an op-ed regarding Single-Payer health care for the Queen News, a local Helena newspaper. I would recomend reading it. You can find it online at:

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

BLS Book Review

I was reading over the monthly publication, put out by the Bureau of Labor Statstics, called "Monthly Labor Review".  Within this particular publication there was a request for people to review books for them. The thought of getting my ideas publised from some place other than my work excited me. So, I sent them a message letting them know that I would be interested in reviewing books for them. I did not provide a very long message. I just let them know who I was and a little bit of my previous writting experence. I am hoping to hear back from them. I would enjoy doing some outside work. 

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Luddite Mentality

While I was driving home tonight, I began thinking about one of my favorite shows, Star Trek. I was specifically thinking about how even in this show, which according to its creator is supposed to provide hope about the future through technology, there is a reoccurring Luddite theme.
For example, there was a Star Trek: The Next Generation Episode where a planet "sold its soul" to a devil creature 1,000 years ago in exchange for peace and prosperity. The Enterprise shows up at this planet at the end of this 1,000 years when someone shows up to make a claim on this agreement and claims to be this devil like creature. Ultimately, this individual is proven to be a scam artist. However, the Luddite mentality shows up when the leader of the planet describes how the planet averted a planet wide disaster 1,000 years ago. He describes the process where the planet moved away from a industrial society, to an agrarian society. As if this process of moving away from producing goods must be bad for the planet, and must be stopped. This is only one example.
In the third iteration of Star Trek, Deep Space Nine, there is a group of revolutionaries called the Maquis. This group is fighting a gorilla war against a race called the Cardassians. In several episodes individuals in this group discuss the benefits of their agrarian way of life. They criticize the general view that replicated food is as good as regular food, even though they are supposed to be exactly the same. 
This view is not only shared by the Maquis . A disproportionally large amount of the secondary characters hold a similar view, where the use of replicators, and other forms of technology, is discouraged.
I am writing about this because I think the continued occurrence of the Luddite philosophy in Star Trek is systematic of the general distrust, and disdain, of technology that is prevalent in our society and culture. We see symptoms of this in the distrust of man made chemicals, and the belief that natural means "safe" and "healthy".   

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Subsidized Home Ownership

The people of the United States seem to be in love with the idea of home ownership. We call it the "American Dream". The government does a lot in order to help people reach this dream. It provides massive tax incentives, and it subsidizes home mortgages through institutions like Fanny Mae. There is no doubt that these incentives distort the proportion of individuals who own their own homes. This distortion is generally justified by making the assumption that home ownership generates positive externalities. 
The validity of this argument is questionable. I am somewhat concerned about the spurious relationship that is sure to exist between home ownership and negative factors, such as crime. This skepticism seems to be justified to some extent. However, even if these externalities exist, there is no doubt that the subsidies distort the market.
The Economist just published an article regarding home ownership and its effects on labor mobility. Home ownership makes it more costly for individuals to move from one area to another area. As would be expected, if something becomes more expensive, people do less of it. Because of this, some people will become less mobile than they would have been otherwise. This lack of mobility will make it harder from workers to move from less productive jobs to more productive ones. 
If the market was allowed to function normally, the reduction in mobility caused by home ownership would not be an issue. People making rational choices to give up mobility for owning their own homes is a reasonable choice. However, when we subsidize home ownership there will be a sub-optimal level of mobility in the labor market. The question that would need to be answered is, do these negative mobility factors outweigh the positive externalities, if they exist, that the subsidies provide? 

Monday, March 2, 2009

"The Story of Stuff"

Recently there was some commotion in Montana regarding a teacher showing a video in her classroom. The video she showed was "The Story of Stuff." You can locate this film on youtube, or you can Google it and go to their website.
After viewing the video, I can say that it definitely has a strong environmental leaning to it. While I don't particularly agree with the point of the video, I did find it entertaining. I enjoy this movie at the same level as any of Michael More's movies, where it is entertaining, but completely devoid of facts.
I can't say that I would have a problem with a child of mine watching this video in high school. However, I would definitely enjoy talking about many of the subjects presented in the video. While I don't really think it would be the best idea to go over all the topics here, there are some things I think would be good to address.
The first thing I found interesting was the complete lack of data sources. This becomes particularly interesting when she talks about the fact that we have "consumed" 30% of the worlds resources. The lack of a data source is not surprising, given there is absolutely no way of knowing how many resources on Earth. Also, what does it mean to consume a resource?
This is just one of the many problems with the movie, but I think that it could be beneficial for a child of mine to watch the movie, simply because it develops the critical thinking skills of people. It seems to me that is very important for high school students to learn.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Myth of The Rational Voter

I have been looking for a copy of this book since I heard Bryan Caplin presenting on the findings of this book. I looked in all the book stores in town, but none of them had a copy of the book. I could always buy the book on-line, and I was about too, when I took a trip to Bozeman. Fortunately, I was able to find a copy of the book at the local Barnes and Noble. I have already begun reading the book, and so far it has been living up to my expectations. When I finish the book, I will post a response with my thoughts.

Unions and Montana's Economy

I was recently reading the Billings Gazette, when I ran upon a story that they had regarding a pro-union rally that occurred in Montana. In this story, there was a quote from Jim Larson, Teamsters Local 190 political coordinator. In this quote, Mr. Larson states "Today, more than half of workers, 60 percent, say they would join a union right now if they could." 
The protest in the article was to support unions, and a bill that is a piece of US legislature. This bill would change the procedure for forming unions in businesses in the United States. For more detail on the bill, you can look here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Employee_Free_Choice_Act
To begin with, I would like to know where Mr. Larson came up with this number. If so many people wish to join unions, why is the proportion of the work force that is in a union declining? Using numbers provided directly by the AFL CIO, the proportion of the labor force that is part of a union has declined from 14.9% in 1995 to 12.4% in 2008. This is not a recent trend either. Union membership peeked sometime  in the late 70's. If so many people want to join unions, why have their share of the population been declining for 30 years? 
What I found particularly interesting was, Montana recently attempted to pass legislature that would make Montana a right to work state. (In case you don't know, this means that workers who do not want to join unions, can still work in jobs where other workers are part of a union. Without this bill, employees can be required to join a union, or loose their job. ) However, this bill has currently been tabled, thus it will not pass, and Montana will not become a right to work state.  You can find information on this bill at: http://data.opi.mt.gov/bills/2009/billhtml/SB0339.htm
I find this particular piece of information confusing, when compared to Mr. Larson's statement. If so many people wish to join unions, why is it necessary to force people to join a union, or loose their jobs? Why is it necessary to force these people to do something they don't want to do? I thought unions were supposed to support the rights of workers, not restrict them.
Could it be that union leaders are just as interested in promoting their own self interests as businesses are? 
I don't exactly know how I feel on the whole concept of a right to work law. If a business makes the agreement to only hire union workers, why should the government stop them? However, the very fact that the same business would want to hire non-union workers makes me question the tactics that are used to push business to make such deals in the first place. However, this blog was not an attempt to promote, or dispute, right to work laws. If just found the statement made by Mr. Larson to be particularly hard to swallow, when looking at what has happened in Montana, and in the United States.

Friday, February 13, 2009

E-mail about the book "The Tyranny of Dead Ideas"

While I was at work today, I received an e-mail from the Milken Institute. The e-mail was to inform me of a seminar that is going to occur in Santa Monica. I don't know why I get these; when would I be able to attend a seminar in California? But I digress. The forum was to discuss the book titled: "The Tyranny of Dead Ideas" and it was written by Matt Miller. The purpose of the book is to discuss, and challenge, "conventional" wisdom.
When I began reading the description of the book, it sounded quite interesting, and to some extent it still does. However, when I got to the section that listed these supposed "conventional" wisdoms, I asked the question, when are these considered conventional thoughts? Here is a list of the topics discussed in the book:
  • Our kids will earn more than we do.
  • Free trade is always good, no matter who gets hurt.
  • Employers should be responsible for health coverage.
  • Taxes hurt the economy.
  • Schools are a local matter.
  • Money follows merit.
While I find it particularly difficult to think that most people hold most of these thoughts, there is one that particularly jumped out. As an economist, from my own personal experiences and from what I read, I would not say that it is the conventional wisdom of most people that free trade is good. If you doubt this, you should read some of that Bryan Caplan's work. In his book "The Myth of the Rational Voter" Bryan finds that the general public tends to be significantly biased against foreiners, and free trade policies. He addresses these topics when describing a phenominon he describes as an "Anti-foreign bias".
We can already tell from the last portion of the point where they say: ... no matter who gets hurt.
It would be just as easy for them to say: Free trade is not always good, no matter who benefits. By using the original wording, they are making it implicitly clear that people are hurt by free trade, why ignoring the fact that some people benefit from free trade.
While I can guess that I would not agree with Mr. Millers view points, I would still find some of the topics he brings up could be quite interesting. Too bad I won't be able to go to the seminar.

My blog

This is my first blog. I felt the desire to begin doing this with the hopes of discussing stuff that I find interesting. I guess that is not surprising, given that I think this is the reason most people give for writing blogs.