Sunday, December 14, 2008

Contrarian Investment Strategies: The Next Generation

I liked the last contrarian investor book so much that I'm now reading the next one. It's a fair bit of review so far, but it never hurts to read about the experts making major screwups another time. You can see what I'm talking about on page 68 of the preview. Currently I'm on page 81 where he's discussing the ubiquitous overconfidence cognitive bias. Highly recommended.

UPDATE: I actually finished this book later that night. As the first comment stated, his critique of the efficient markets hypothesis (spread throughout the book) was magnificent. I'm working on taking some notes for later, since unfortunately I only had it on a 2-week interlibrary loan.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Thundarr the Barbarian and Hiero's Journey

My coworker reads fantasy/science fiction novels. I haven't done that since high-school (and one brief spurt in college), but I miss them. So he gave me a copy of Hiero's Journey, a fun little book about a post-apocalyptic fantasy world.

It reminded me distinctly of Thundarr the Barbarian, a similarly post-apocalyptic but less sophisticated fantasy TV show on Cartoon Network. I've managed to find the first couple episodes on Youtube.

Later, I might watch a bit of Pirates of Darkwater. When I was a kid, I only watched a few episodes of these shows here and there through the kindly recordings given to us by our elderly neighbor. We didn't have cable.

UPDATE: The shows got old quick.

Web of Debt and history

I happen to be browsing through Web of Debt, a recent book on the conspiracy theories involving bankers. Most of it is stuff I've heard before, but I found Chapter 5 interesting. It is on the "historical revisionism" of the Middle Ages. It cites Thorold Rogers and William Cobbett in making the case that the Middle Ages was not as backward as it is typically perceived. They quote Thorold as saying that "a labourer could provide all the necessities for his family for a year by working 14 weeks".

I haven't checked their sources, although I plan to at some point. But I know the same point is also made in reference to Paleolithic societies, see the reference to Sahlins in this part of the Wikipedia hunter-gatherer article.

There's a couple reasons why we might work so much more in modern society. One, there are dwindling natural resources combined with a much larger population. Probably more importantly, however, there is just a greater demand for various material goods.

These reports could be exaggerated. I'm not sure how these reports are compared to modern hunter-gatherer societies, such as those in the Amazons, but such comparisons may not be realistic to other regions, since that is an extremely tough region. I would expect other hunter-gatherer societies to have more leisure than Amazonian tribes.

The book attributes the difference to usury, which seems dubious, although it is perhaps true that our current banking system puts greater emphasis on infrastructure and investment, which requires that we forego present consumption to a greater degree.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Things They Carried

I finally finished this book by Tim O'Brien on the Vietnam war. The most poignant chapters were Speaking of Courage and the Lives of the Dead. Tragedies of suicide and childhood romance, respectively. I've always been a sucker for childhood romance. Hearts in Atlantis, by Stephen King, was one of my favorite books partly because the first third was about childhood.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Administrative law, the environment, and mercury

21 CFR 25.34 (Code of Federal Regulations) is eye-opening. It allows the FDA to basically ignore the environmental implications of certain things in that list, such as Class II medical devices and electronic products (Class II means that they could be unsafe, but probably aren't).

In 67 FR 7620 (enjoy the ugly document, courtesy of the federal government!), the FDA made its move to finally reclassify dental mercury from a Class I medical device (completely safe) to a Class II medical device.

In section VII, it states this:

VII. Environmental Impact

The agency has determined under 21 CFR 25.34(b) that this action is of a type that does not individually or cumulatively have a significant effect on the human environment. Therefore, neither an environmental assessment nor an environmental impact statement is required.


How cute. Meanwhile, in 2005 the WHO stated that mercury from dental amalgams + laboratory and medical devices contributed 53% of total mercury emissions.[1]

For those curious as to how I ended up reading the CFR, I was reading an article[2] from the Journal of Law and Health.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Contrarian Investor

I wish I had written this book. Although it was published in 1979, the topics it covers are still the bleeding edge of investment science today -- behavioral science and the herd effect, value investing, low price-to-earnings, and cash flow.

The only area in which I differ with David Dreman is in technical analysis. He cites a fair amount of academic evidence against technical analysis. I haven't looked at that research, but studies of technical analysis are easily cherrypicked and misinterpreted. The fact that 90%+ of professional Forex traders use technical analysis is evidence enough of its usefulness. However, Dreman points out the ridiculousness of the other extreme, the efficient markets hypothesis, and the truth is that much of technical analysis is of dubious use.

Since much of this stuff is review for me, I skimmed it. He cites plenty of interesting information, including some psychology literature that I'd never heard of such as Gustave LeBon's The Crowd and Irving Jarvis's Victims of Groupthink, and a bunch of studies showing that experiments frequently make mistakes. Other literature was familiar, such as Muzafer Sherif's light experiment (when "confederates" in a study estimate the distance of light from them, the subjects yield to the judgment of the crowd) and Tversky and Kahneman's look at cognitive biases and judgmental heuristics.

Since the book was written in the 70s, the last chapter of the book is devoted to inflation. Conventional wisdom of the time was that inflation made stocks a poor investment. Dreman particularly focuses upon the Modigliani and Cohn position that professional investors just don't understand how inflation impacts equities.

First, investors confuse nominal and real interest rates (real interest = nominal - inflation). Since bonds pay high nominal rates in inflationary times, such as 9 percent in 1979 when inflation was 7 percent, investors look for rates of return from stocks in excess of 9 percent (the excess to adjust for rate) instead of in excess of the real rate of 2 percent. (UPDATE 2009-10-7: This paragraph doesn't make any sense to me right now. Why would investors looking for higher rates of return from stocks lead to them outperforming bonds? Outperformance occurs when an investment is not valued highly enough...)

Second, investors don't account fully for the effects of inflation. Inflation may create inflated profits (under the last-in first-out accounting method) and depreciation is exacerbated, but corporations benefit from being able to pay back their debt on much cheaper terms -- since the debt is relatively fixed and their income is being inflated.

Put together, these two factors make equity investments much better than bonds -- generating something like twice the return over a 10-year period.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Summary of the Equity Bailout; Money Going to Bailouts?

Here is a nice summary of at least one of the bailout plans, the $250 billion preferred stock recapitalization plan, ie the TARP (Troubled Assets Relief Program) Capital Purchase Program. In other news, someone says that a State Street (NYS:STT) banker is getting a nice bonus check this year, courtesy of the US taxpayers.

I'm still not sure how this program is structured exactly, but I hope that this $250 billion comes from the $700 billion. The Wall Street Journal seems to say that ("TARP will also be used by Treasury when it puts new equity into banks").

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Federal Reserve's Holdings of US Treasury Bonds Declines?

When the Federal Reserve wants to manipulate the federal funds rate, it buys and sells US treasuries in open market operations. When it wants to lower the rate and increase the money supply, it buys treasuries. In September 2007, it had $780 billion in these treasuries on its balance sheet. Last July, it had only $478 billion.[1] Such a decline is unprecedented. Since the US economy nearly always grows, the money supply must increase proportionately in order for deflation not to happen. And yet here we see one influence on the money supply cut by nearly 40%. Yet the monetary base has spiked.[2] This is because the Fed sold its treasury bonds to the public in order to make way for more loans. As long as it doesn't sell the bonds to US banks, it won't hurt the US money supply.

The details are in the Fed's current balance sheet. The new loans are listed in the Term Auction facility and the "other assets". I don't feel terribly comfortable analyzing it. On their September 2007 balance sheet other assets is only 40 billion. These other assets may not be quite clear, although I haven't investigated thoroughly. Bloomberg has sued[3] to gain access to the collateral on the loans and that might include more information on these other asset.

The Big Picture, my favorite financial blog, has a nice graphic on this.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Worldwatch Institute's State of the World 2007

I'm browsing through this book, and it is generally pretty good. It seems to focus on cities, however, and it is not as heavy on the facts and graphics as I sort of expected it to be.

I read the first half more closely, and now I'm more browsing. I was interested to read about eucalyptus as a cash-crop in Timbuktu, which lead me to the Wikipedia page. Apparently the tree is mainly native to Australia, and there's some major concern that it is an invasive species in South Africa.[1] Yet Worldwatch made no mention of that! The plant they mentioned next as helping to revitalize rural Africa, bourgou, seems more solidly ecological, and the National Research Council mentioned it favorably in a book on "Lost Crops of Africa". Apparently it can survive for months under water,[2] making it somewhat unique, and thus can be planted and harvested in areas where nothing could be grown previously.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Proposed Solution to the Housing Crisis

Part of what I seek to do here is to raise things that aren't being heard enough. As Krugman notes, the current bailout plan looks to be throwing money at some US banks without compensating US taxpayers for the risk they're taking.

What's worse is that this fix might not even fix the problem, because it is not only the subprime loans which are the problem -- it is all sorts of loans. Jason Lindt makes this case, and although I can't vouch for his numbers, he makes it convincingly. He says we should go straight to the problem: banks' insolvent balance sheets. While the current bailout plan looks like a sneaky way to throw money at banks, a good plan should specifically offer capital to these banks by purchasing their preferred stock. This gives them some Tier 1 capital as a cushion, and it also makes them pay us dividends in the future.

I still have questions about this. Sometimes the dividends on preferred stock don't get paid, but then they stack up cumulatively. The Tier 1 capital page says these types of preferred stock don't usually apply to Tier 1 capital. We might need a strange kind of which is more geared towards the long-term, and also gives us voting power in these companies. We need to put these banks on long-term payment plans, because it is going to be a while before they'll be able to pay us back for the mess they've caused.

Incidentally, as to the cause of this, Anton Wahlman notes something I haven't heard before: the effect of the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997, which exempted profits on personal residents from taxation. That law likely contributed more than the Community Reinvestment Act bullshit, which has been refuted.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The paths

If you live in a world of your own,
A world of isms and a dusty tome, hook a left.
Search till you die;
the wisdom you seek is a lie.

If you live in the world of matter,
A world of irrational symbols, reactions, and recursion,
try the path to the right,
but know you may be in for a fight.

You live in a world of people,
Some are strong, and some feeble.
Beware the bull; his word can pull.
And consider neither path, young soul.

My goal?

Granted curiosity infernal,
I seek life eternal.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Review of Kicking Away the Ladder by Ha-Joon Chang

I was pleasantly surprised by this book, which was first assigned to me in a class. I must not have read it then, and now I'm finally working through the books I've piled up over the years. It destroyed the misconceptions which I'd finally come to accept after years of brainwashing (with no evidence).

The first claim is that mainstream economists have ignored history. The "eminent" Nobel (the fake economics one) laureate economic historian, Douglass North, wrote "the standard history of the United States" economy which mentioned tariffs once "in order to dismiss them as an insignificant factor in explaining US industrial development" (2002:24-25). This can only be regarded as intellectually dishonest. Alexander Hamilton first proposed the infant industry argument for US industry, in opposition to Adam Smith's advice that the US focus on agriculture. The US maintained average weighted tariffs of around 40-50% on manufactured goods until 1950. The illustrative table, from Paul Bairoch's book Economics and World History, is available online.[1]

The second chapter focuses on policies which countries used to get an edge in industry. Espionage, tariffs, subsidies for imported raw materials, government-subsidized plants and researchers, and other methods were used to bolster industry.

The next chapter focuses on institutions. It's much looser and weaker, but makes the tentative case that we might be pushing important institutions such as democracy, central banking, various regulations, limited liability corporations, bankruptcy law, property (including intellectual) rights, the judiciary, child labor, social welfare provisions, and information disclosure too fast on developing nations. I'm not sure I'm convinced, but it is interesting. Some of these are important, others are less so, certainly. The most important, in my mind, are stable law, transparency, information disclosure, and property rights for the masses rather than the few. The succinct and scholarly discussion of economic institutions in historical and developmental context alone makes the book worth it.

After reading the book, I'm inclined to agree that activist policies are often necessary. Friedrich List, the major theorist of the infant industry argument, argued that free trade was really only beneficial among equally industrialized countries, and I'm inclined to agree. A country needs to build up its basic industrial institutions. However, tariffs are probably not the way to go today. Export-oriented policies used by the Asian Tigers are preferable. The issue is complex, however, as all the countries are chasing after a limited supply. Economists seem skeptical of the race to the bottom in international trade (in things like environmental standards), but I don't really understand why.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Should we be trying to support advertising?

There's a bit of a problem with "new media". People aren't willing to pay for it. We may have micropayments on the way, but for now the support is largely advertising. But advertising may not be as lucrative as people think. As web-consumers become smarter and internet search (as well as other internet navigation) becomes more effective, click-through rates plummet to nothing.

The bigger problem will come when companies realize that much of advertising is a waste of money. A recent study found by comparing US and Canadian drug use (where drug advertising illegal) that drug advertising was short-lived and "modest".[1] Media producers, particularly independent ones, will find it more difficult to spend time doing what they're doing.

When I find a good blog, I purposefully click on Google ads to show a little support.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Capitalism and Freedom Review

After reading Capitalism and Freedom carefully, my opinion of Milton Friedman has been revised upward. I was assigned this book for class, but I never gave it a thoughtful, careful read till now. The book that I had read carefully from Milton, Free To Choose, left me thinking he was not a great thinker. My recollections were that Free To Choose was surprisingly lacking in nuance. That is probably because it was targeted for a mass audience, but its simplicity still seems like a negative mark for Milton Friedman.

Capitalism and Freedom has very few numbers, and no models, but it is well-argued nonetheless. It is full of rhetoric, but it is the kind of rhetoric that makes sense -- the kind which characterizes government controlling the individual as a violation of human rights. Friedman argues against the central control which was prominent at the time, but is no longer taken seriously. He does not so much engage the other type of socialism -- welfare capitalism, except to perhaps endorse it in his last sections on the distribution of income and social welfare measures.

In Friedman's second chapter, he notes the appropriate functions of government (p. 34) -- functions which I completely agree with, but which neocons, and liberals, tend to forget about. These include setting and enforcing the rules of the "economic game", promoting competition, countering monopolies, overcoming neighborhood effects (also called externalities), and even supplementing charity and the family in protecting the irresponsible. He identifies a number of policies as unequivocally wrong. Generally I don't agree that these are always wrong, but it is hard to see why agriculture price supports would be necessary. Others, such as tariffs, parks, and detailed regulation of banking would seem to have a place dependent upon the situation.

Chapter 3, on money, is probably one of the most important chapters. Friedman opposes the current Federal Reserve system, believing it is too liable to human error, and instead proposes (citing his A Program for Monetary Stability) a consistent rate of growth in the money supply of 3 to 5 percent.

Chapter 4, International Financial and Trade Arrangements, is also enormously important, and unfortunately awfully complex -- more so than money. Friedman endorses the floating exchange rate which Soros finds so troubling -- and the floating rate might be the best of bad options. Unfortunately, it leads to a fair amount of uncertainty, speculation, and sudden catastrophes as currencies change. If only there was a perfect system.

In chapter 5, Friedman critiques the Keynesian use of fiscal policy to alleviate unemployment. He argues that it relies upon untenable assumptions, because the money which the government spends must be borrowed from the public, which will drive up interest rates, and thus reduce the amount of spending and investment. He admits that it is ultimately an empirical question, but says that his recent work (The Relative Stability of the Investment Multiplier and Monetary Velocity in the United States, 1896-1958) suggests that there is no rise in expenditures, as his "quantity theory" suggests.

In Chapter 6, Friedman lays out the case for vouchers in education. I won't spend much time here -- I agree that vouchers are a good thing if strict standards are maintained, but Friedman endorses questionable standards, such as allowing segregated schools. Chapter 7 is on discrimination, a complicated political subject I'd rather not get into.

Chapter 8 is on monopoly. Friedman admits that all the ways of dealing with monopoly are bad, but tentatively concludes that leaving monopolies private may be best, mainly because innovation happens so quickly, and the government is so reluctant to let loose of its hold. I'm not sure I agree, but it is a decent point. He also makes the case here that a corporation should not be socially responsible, and that government needs to be the one holding people responsible. This sort of reminds me of how I used to play MUDs -- exploit the code, and argue that I shouldn't have to maintain reasonable behavior if it is not programmed into the game. It was probably a bad attitude, and a corporation should similarly not follow the letter of the law -- if it does, it will hopefully find itself in trouble, as I did. This argument from Friedman might be taken as an implicit argument that the government must be especially vigilant and free to take action.

He notes an interesting unintended consequence of our current system. Dividends are taxed double, which leads corporations to hold dividends and then invest them in their business, whether it is prudent or not. I fully agree with him here, and wish corporations disbursed more dividends. He wants to abolish the corporate income tax and instead force shareholders to record their profits from the company on their taxes -- meaning that they'd have to pay taxes on them, I'm guessing?

In Chapter 9, Friedman makes the case that the American Medical Association is a lobbying group bent on keeping competitors out. It's amusing. He defends "faith healers" by noting that one of thousands of quacks may produce a valuable breakthrough through their unorthodox experimentation. Those of you who know my Wikipedia efforts will know that I am sympathetic to alternative medicine, and I like this defense -- although I truly dislike things like therapeutic touch and homeopathy. Friedman argues that restricting medicine only to the highly-skilled reduces the total "physician-hours", and reduces total amount of care, thereby reducing the quality. Friedman tentatively notes that government certification may be necessary because certification information is nonexcludable -- one person can pass it on to others.

In Chapter 10, on the distribution of income, Friedman gets again into the tough ethical issues. He admits that the issue is difficult. Somehow he tries to run inequality from personal endowments together with inequality from inherited wealth, because the latter leads to personal endowments. To an extent, this is true, but he emphasizes it too much. He also makes a somewhat bizarre argument that if there were 4 Robinson Crusoes marooned on four islands, and one landed on a fruitful island, that Crusoe would not be required to share his wealth, and the 3 others, who were barely scratching by, would not be morally justified in taking it. He says this is analagous to someone finding $20 on the street, and then 3 people deciding to mug you for not sharing it. Does his analogy make sense? I dunno. I don't get ethical issues, generally, but I think 1) we should encourage a meritocracy, 2) we cannot allow people to starve or live with debilitating illness. Which brings up to the next chapter.

In Chapter 11, Friedman discusses Social Security and other social welfare provisions. He criticizes the idea behind social security -- that people cannot save for themselves -- however, I tend to think that people cannot. He notes this possibility as well, but thinks there are better ways of ensuring that people secure their retirements, so that the government is not left supporting them in their old age. He argues that most people would save for their unemployment, and that social security arose only because many people were unprepared for the Great Depression.

In Chapter 12, Friedman endorses a negative income tax, noting that such a system would target poverty much more specifically than minimum wage laws.

In 13, he sums up his arguments. Nothing too interesting here, and I'm losing steam.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

What follows?

Everything logical should be able to be stated in understandable and because of that memorable terms. That's not to say the world can be described understandably per se -- the world is not fundamentally logical. But if someone says "you just have to see it, or it just is", rather than "it follows from this principle working like this", it seems likely that they're more confused than you are. (I have already been proven wrong on these, but it's to a degree -- I assume I will discover the intuitive understanding.) There are, I suppose, important foundational principles which just have to be assumed.

How about morality -- is that one of these foundational principles? I think not. But it is clear that there is physical truth -- a fixed sort of truth -- and spiritual truth. And spiritual truth includes not only your wildest imaginations (and then some) but also things outside of your wildest imagination. But then how do we factor in the effect of data, then? All truth is constructed from some limited data of the real world. Its degree of truth, then, is a function of how close it comes to the real world. There is a truth for both physical science and human morality -- or does it? I'm not sure if we can describe what we should define as truly good -- but we can describe what we will define as truly good.

The test of a real philosopher: to learn without being taught?

If the harder disciplines (physics, mathematics) are half as screwed up as philosophy, economics, and medicine (in no particular order), then God help us.

I've forgotten everything else I wanted to say.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Affirming the Consequent, Denying the Antecedent

Both of these are misnomers. When you "affirm the consequent", you are actually affirming the antecedent upon observing the consequent.

If P, then Q.
Q.
Then P.

This is the fallacy that they call affirming the consequent. The fact that its misnamed makes it more difficult to remember.

Similarly, denying the antecedent:

If P, then Q.
Not P.
Then not Q.

Another fallacy, but again, it is misnamed. The denial of the antecedent is observational. The fallacy lies in denying the consequent based on the observation of not P.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Intuition Pumps (Thought Experiments), Free Will, and Nietzsche

In light of the way that modern philosophy works, this post by Adam Rawlings deserves to be spread far and wide. It's not often that you find philosophers rejecting (even to a degree) rather than analytically debating (fallacious) thought experiments (there are good thought experiments -- check out out I made previously by hitting the thought experiments tag).

I haven't studied modal logic, but it seems that what is "logically possible" is rather arbitrary. Logically possible in our physical world is likely not what philosophers think it is; some of these "logically possible" assertions strike me as similar to Descartes' claim that "the more perfect -- that is to say, that which contains in itself more reality -- cannot be a consequence of and dependent upon the less perfect. This truth is not only clear and evident..." (Third Meditation). ADHR criticizes all of the thought experiments on this basis.

There's another criticism for Frankfurt thought experiments. As a compatibilist, Harry Frankfurt accepts determinism. Yet if determinism implies that there is a single future path which rules out metaphysical responsibility, as Dennett, Pereboom, Honderich, Inwagen, Kane, and others believe, then Frankfurt has to explain how the "free will" necessary for moral (metaphysical) responsibility exists. His thought experiments assume "free will" because people make a free choice. He attacks what he calls the Principle of Alternate Possibilities, focusing this attack on actions -- but what really matters is choices. In Frankfurt's imaginary world, people can still make "free" choices for which they are ultimately responsible. (Technically, the agent in Frankfurt's experiment is only responsible for his action when the controller did not have to act.) What I'm saying is that Frankfurt's thought experiments don't get him any closer to the moral responsibility he wants; he still hasn't addressed the regular problems with "free will" moral responsibility. He won't be able to, either, because the metaphysical free will which allows ultimate metaphysical responsibility is incoherent. We are not responsible for our positions, and thus we are not ultimately responsible for our actions. We are only responsible in the sense that we have to be responsible (responsibility keeps people's behaviors in check). This critique is obvious, but somehow it hasn't gained traction in the philosophical literature; I imagine most philosophers would reject it out of hand simply because they don't want to admit that they've studied Frankfurt counterexamples these past 30+ years without noticing.

If we can get past this focus on ultimate responsibility, however, we can start to think about taking control of our lives and acting with at least some personal responsibility -- you aren't responsible for the position you're in, but goddamnit, you're gonna have to make the best of it. At the same time, this position recognizes (as we do legally) mitigating and aggravating factors in actions, and advocates that we study the causal factors behind behavior to maximize our ability to exert rational control over our bodies. Dennett struggles with this idea in Freedom Evolves, but this is Nietzsche's entire goal, actually, although he pushes people to do it without science (while recognizing that ultimately it may come only through science):
"learning to see -- habituating the eye to repose, to patience, to letting things come to it; learning to defer judgement (italics mine), to investigate and comprehend the individual case in all its aspects. This is the first preliminary schooling in spirituality: not to react immediately to a stimulus, but to have the restraining, stock-staking instincts in one's control. Learning to see, as I understand it, is almost what is called unphilosophical language 'strong will-power'. (Twilight of Idols, What the Germans Lack Section 6.)

Nietzsche makes the distinction between the causa sui -- the self-creating "free will" which we continually debate, and the self's "will to power", the causa prima which we really need to focus on. We can't be create ourselves, but ideally we can act with our rational self rather than our animal instincts, and avoid being jerked around by 'stimuli'.

UPDATE: Thinking more about the Frankfurt example -- in the linguistic sense, yes, Frankfurt's agent is responsible when he chooses to act as the controller wants him to act despite the fact that he cannot do otherwise. But this is a counterexample, and an outlandish one at that. It's really restricted to just this case -- when the agent acts differently than the controller wanted and must be controlled, the agent is no longer responsible. How is it supposed to apply in the real world?

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Econometrics: Worse Than Useless?

Econometric Modeling as Junk Science.

The other one is in the May issue of The Pluralist Economics Review. Unfortunately not updated at the moment.

I really need start studying something really useful, like computer science.

Some feedback for the FBI


Since the FBI's Contact Us page doesn't allow you to email them, here's what my feedback states. Not that they'll listen to it.

First off, you can stop using these terrible feedback forms. There should be hardly any boxes, and more textual input. There's basically two things that people need to refer to: content and design. That's it.

Your main page seems somewhat overloaded.

Your Most Wanted terrorists page goes to a stange place where I can't go back -- it should be incorporated into your other page.

You shouldn't use tables for design. Update to more CSS.

Your History page should include links to laws that have affected you.

It's shameful that you have no email address on your website. I wanted to send this to you personally.


Usually I'm more harsh in my criticism, but again, it's not gonna matter anyway. The feedback goes into the void.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Decent Review of the Skeptical Environmental

I've been looking for a nice, concise little review of the notorious book for a while. It's by Frank Ackerman; type hit ctrl-f and then type "Tree-Huggers" and you'll find it.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The damage of cell phone radiation

Recently the press has been all over this article; a doctor's interpretation of current research into cell phones and conclusion that they are harmful. This claim has been made by experts previously; similarly, a scientific study found that cell phone masts [pdf] did seem to increase cancer rates.

Now there's a study that has found a direct relationship between cellphone radiation and tissue changes. I found out about it through Mercola, but the science comes from BioMedCentral, the premier open-access biology journal. While I still use my mobile phone, I'll likely be using a landline more when I settle down for a reasonably long time. The cost of using a landline for most of my calls is not that high.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Hume Didn't Discover the Problem of Induction

I noticed that Hume's insight into the problem of induction was not so original as philosophers like to claim when I took Ancient Philosophy. Good to see that the philosophical literature has raised the point as well. The same applies to just about all philosophical literature, I imagine -- which makes me wonder whether philosophy has been just a distraction from real knowledge all along. The Greeks set not only the foundation -- they may have built a good sturdy building, as well, and instead of letting it lie and giving it its due recognition, we tear it out down out of a need to publish. Adding more words to a world which is already drowning in them seems like a problem to me.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Listen To a Ph.D Economist Confuse The Discount and Fed Funds Rate

Somewhat shocking, but typical of an academic: listen to Russ Roberts interview Tyler Cowen.

Some other interesting comments: How much of the current credit crunch is due to lack of transparency? And why have mortgage-backed securities stopped trading, rather than trading at a value with the expected number of defaults worked in? These two seemed to assume that mortgage-backed securities aren't trading at that expected value!

Roberts: "I'm not so sure how much of this trouble is due to a lack of transparency. It seems unlikely..."

Wow.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Quantifying justice

While I've often said that morality is a function of individual preferences and cultural influences (which it is), there are certainly some things associated with ethics which are fairly objective. One of these is justice. Justice is just about universally considered to be "right". Justice can be quantifying: when a being receives a reward (penalty) proportional to the benefits (harms) they've created, the result is just. In our society, many people are not handled justly, and that's something to be concerned about.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Economics Might Be Changing

My previous post reflects a perspective based on a set of information. My information set is rather limited. While economists would like to gloss over the information limitations because they are mathematically annoying, these information problems are the greatest problems which people face when making economic decisions.

Economics is changing. Some of the George Mason economics, at least, are skeptical of the claims that your average mainstream economist will try to make. This probably reflects a growing awareness among the all economists that, say, applying the Coase theorem willy-nilly doesn't really make any sense. While I don't respect the politics of the GMU economists or the way that these political biases manifest themselves in their work, I will admit that they're probably on a better track than many of the prestigious mainstream economists, and some of their offhand blog posts are probably much more insightful and informative than many of the journal articles written today.

Check out "Evolutionary and Institutional Economics as the New Mainstream" by Hodgson, which I found on the Pluralist Economics Review. So far it's an excellent journal. The article is well-worth reading.

Mainstream economics:
  • Assumes a can-opener. This is not just a cliched joke.
  • Looks at the individuals as homogenous rational agents rather instutionally-influenced.
  • Has "a preoccupation with technique over substance" (p.18, Blaug).
  • Basically ignores the other social sciences.
  • Must change in order to make progress.
The article quotes Kenneth Arrow as saying that the "biological is a more appropriate paradigm for economics than equilibrium models analogous to mechanics" (Arrow 1995:9). It's clear that the top people in the field (Hodgson is one of them) see the flaws in economics. So why is it a controversial thing for me to note the same thing?

As I continually try to point out, the real world is a world of "reasonably bright individuals [maybe that's a little far] in information-poor environments" [with a surplus of distracting noise] rather than "infinitely bright agents in information rich environments" (Hodgson 2007:11).

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Do corporations oppose free trade?

Apparently Dr. Don Bourdreaux of Cafe Hayek noticed my comment that he, along with his colleagues, seems like a "shill for industry". His reply is that, if he was a shill for industry, he would fit a large number of conditions. The fallacy here seems to be that all shills for industry must fit all, or least some of these conditions -- it's a form of straw man argument, or perhaps a red herring. If all shills had to fit all those conditions, the word would be useless.

What does shill actually mean? Merriam-Webster defines shill as "a: one who acts as a decoy (as for a pitchman or gambler) b: one who makes a sales pitch or serves as a promoter". Wiktionary defines shill as "a person paid to endorse a product favourably, while pretending to be impartial".

Does Bourdreaux "serve as a promoter" of industry? Certainly. Do I think he's been paid egregiously to do it, as some other scholars of the Cato Institute have? Not really. Can he still be a shill? As I elaborated in my comments, shill may not be the exact word. Rather, they are apologists for the status quo. They don't think there's something wrong with the way we are treating our environment, and believe that the free market (composed of industry) will fix all problems if only it was completely unshackled.

The GMU economists seem to ignore the significant incentives that corporations have to look for short-term profit rather than the long-term, ,and the worrying concentration of power in a few firms, who exert that power both in the market and in politics. Similarly, they don't seem to mind the increasing concentration of wealth. They've expressed doubts on global warming, an area which they are not experts in. Scientists are as certain on global warming as economists are on free trade (which means that it depends on who you talk to) (do any believe in global warming? I'd like to know). They seem bothered that people ignore economists when it comes to free trade, but don't recognize the irony in their global warming skepticism. Further, and most damning in my mind, they never seem to say a peep about the information asymmetries which dominate economic decisions.

Does your typical corporation oppose free trade? Doubtful. If industry didn't benefit from free trade, it's unlikely that it would happen. Economists don't have that much power. Efficient multinational corporations benefit enormously from free trade -- it's the inefficient corporations which oppose free trade, such as the old steel industry (which is quickly being supplanted by mini-mills). Especially in today's globalized world, businesses benefit from free trade -- they can hire cheap labor and export to new emerging markets. It's likely that most businesses realize that it's the 21st century, and there's no going back from globalization (or at least, that's how it appears). Tariffs mean paying more for inputs and closed foreign markets. A glance at The Economist's CEO Briefing 2007 shows that CEOs are (or at least were) extremely bullshit about the global economy and trade, and, while worried about international competition, your average business is not really exerting a lot of political pressure to stop it. This Fortune 500 survey of 1987 found that a third of CEOs declared, without prompting, that they were free traders, and that CEOs want government to promote free trade -- and by that, they mean bipartisan free trade. I wonder what the number would be now.

Ironically, I like quite a few of the posts at Cafe Hayek -- for example, this one (though I think we can get some idea on the effect of NAFTA). But attributing most of our problems to regulation is just ridiculous. Yes, there is far too much government going on, but most of that government is spurred by industry -- the military-industrial complex which elected George W. Bush will continue to funnel most of our tax dollars to corporations. The recent financial crisis is not caused by government. Can we blame the government for our environmental crisis?

What has government done right in the past hundred years? Hmm: Internet, national road network, Clean Air Act, and the SEC., to name a few I'd agree that the government has done quite a few things wrong, but these were more a function of bad leaders than some intrinsic nature of government. It's not so simple as "industry good, government bad".

National Databases to Increase Government Efficiency

  1. The Consumer Product Safety Commission database of products. The Senate just passed a bill requiring this, but the House doesn't like the idea. Similarly, other relevant information on each product should be added to this database.
  2. A database on corporations. Contractor Misconduct is sort of a good start to this, but not quite. These databases should have all relevant information on a corporation, and should, of course, be linked to the CPSC's database, along with the usaspending.gov contractor database. To reduce overhaul, companies should be required to input this information themselves, after registering on the website. If the corporation is lax on updating its page, it should be fined.
  3. A national database of all local police stations, recording all complaints on officer behavior and their official resolution. If you read Reddit or Digg, you've likely heard about ratemycop.com. The trouble is that none of these comments are official; they have to be taken with a major grain of salt. And, if you browse through it, you'll find that there's a lot of stupid shit on there already.
  4. All complaints to federal agencies, including complaints on the federal agency's effectiveness, should be made public. All complaints which an agency collects as part of its duty need to be made public along with their resolution. There needs to be an appeal process. Note this story on on a study the GAO on the FCC's handling of complaints on business practices.
  5. Obama recently revealed his earmarks. All Congress members need a profile connected to a database, and all earmarks need to be made public. This shouldn't be a choice.
  6. A federal database on hospitals: misconduct of doctors, any possible performance ratings, a place to register to complaints. All prices for all procedures should be made public. Again, these profiles would be updated by the individual hospital rather than government bureaucrats.
  7. Every government website should make all the complaints regarding its website functionality public as well. Thus, problems on the website (which I frequently find, but are rarely addressed) will be resolved quickly and efficiently if the agency wants to retain face. Comments should be votable by registered users.
  8. A government account for all US citizens, detailing all information the government has collected on you. Access to this data would require a search warrant, and if any agency requested your information, you should be immediately notified. Libertarians will hate me for this, but I believe that the government should allow citizens to verify their identities cleanly and easily. Ultimately this will allow people to surf their web with their identities, comments, and so on verified if they so chooose.
  9. All complaints/comments on government policy should be "votable" by those with verified identities a la Reddit/Digg. Thus, the complaints which gather the most interest will go to the top. Of course, all these things could also be sorted differently (by date, by most votes, by most viewed, by resolved, ect.) Plus, all complaints could be also be rated 1-5 stars by any web surfer. You could see what people with verified identities thought was the most important vrs. your average web surfer.

In fact, there's many more databases that could and should be compiled and made public, esp. in reference to government projects and their costs. These could be linked to each other to expose fishy connections and trends. Citizens could then see for themselves what business and government is doing.

While things like Wikipedia have made a good stride in linking together relevant information and greatly decreasing information asymmetries, Wikipedia can't link to information which is not publicly available. Plenty of the most juicy, important information for citizens is still hidden by the government.

As I've said often before, the first and most important function of government is to act as a bridge for information.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Obama, Transparency, Earmarks

I have mixed feelings about Obama. While I loved him when I heard that he passed the Transparency Act of 2006, I was disappointed to find later that they'd basically taken usaspending.org and tossed a .gov at the end of it. They spruced it up a bit and made it more user-friendly, but I'm not sure that there was as much value-added as there could be. There was plenty of glory, however.

Yesterday Obama revealed his earmarks. I'm not real government-savvy (I've been exploring the government websites for about a year now, but they're still a maze to me), and I wonder why he even had to reveal them. Aren't they publicly-available? Apparently not -- or apparently it would be a major hassle to compile the data, as it's probably in text files. So it's $740 million, including a fishy $1 million for his wife's hospital. I'll give him credit for revealing it. Clinton has not revealed hers. I don't think he's completely pure, but he certainly has a better record for integrity than McCain (who was involved in the Keating case) or Clinton, who is just plain slimy.

I'd trust Obama and McCain more than Clinton when it comes to making smart economic policy, as well. While Obama has made a fuss about NAFTA, his book comes down more in favor of free trade:
A tariff on imported steel may give temporary relief to U.S. steel producers, but it will make every U.S. manufacturer who uses steel in its products less competitive on the world market.... U.S. Border Patrol agents can't interdict the services of a call center in India, or stop an electrical engineer in Prague from sending his work via email to a company in Dubuque. When it comes to trade, there are few borders left.


EDIT: Where is the press release of these revealed earmarks from Obama? The fact that it was revealed last Thursday (March 13), but there is no press release from Obama's website is disturbing, to say the least. It suggests that he's trying to downplay his earmark requests. However, the earmarks question is fairly prominently displayed (#2) in his AnswerCenter.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Complaints on Kant's Categorical Imperative

When I was a freshman, someone once tried to explain the difference between a consequentialist and deontological morality by claiming that the former was concerned only with the results of actions (an action with good consequences is moral) while the latter was concerned with the action itself -- the instructor may have even said the intention, although that is so clearly false that I'm probably purposefully remembering wrong. Yet consequences have everything to do with both of them. Consequentialist is an artificial, modern term which has been imposed on broad groups of historical philosophies. (According to Wikipedia, Elizabeth Anscombe introduced the word -- no citation.) It is misleading.

Both Kant's categorical imperactive and utilitarianism, to use the two most common (or only?) examples of "deontological" and "consequentialist" philosophies, are concerned with one's intentions. Without good intentions, one cannot be moral. The difference lies in the action, and, in particular, the consequences of the action. However, for Kant the abstract, universal consequences are the most important, while for someone like Mill the real (human) consequences take priority. Kant's argument is similar to the slippery slope: if you let one person do it, then everyone is allowed to do it, and then society descends into madness. What he ignores, however, is the laws that prevent everyone from doing it, and that, at least ideally, impose substantial risk upon those who do act immorally.

Kant tries to dress up his moral philosophy in flowery metaphysics: acting in a way that cannot be universalized to all men is logically contradictory, he says. Even if he's right, his categorical imperative is not as strong as he thinks, because an action should be universalized with all relevant factors included. That includes one's position and the circumstances surrounding one's position. Abstraction sheds all irrelevant information, yet in this case nearly all information is relevant. He cites an example of the suicidal man, and then claims that if we let him kill himself, then we would be saying its OK for all of us to kill ourselves, as we all have all suffered misfortune. Yet some of us have suffered far more misfortune than others, and not all of us have suffered enough misfortune to consider killing ourselves. If we allowed the terminally ill to kill themselves, for example (euthanasia), that doesn't lead to no people -- because not all humans will become terminally ill at the same time. Similarly, if all starving men who are able to snatch a bit of bread do snatch that bread, it's not as if there will be no bread left (unless there's a very, very serious famine -- in which case the rich will live and the poor will die). Instead, poor people will generally be barred from grocery stores and arrested fairly often. These examples can be applied in many cases -- even to murder, robbery, drug-dealing, ect. Further, one's position is especially relevant: a ruler of a nation is obviously allowed to do things that the average peasant cannot -- even, arguably, declare war.

Lastly, treating everyone as a end is impossible, but even worse (for Kant), insisting on the categorical imperative as you deal with other people leads to you treating others as a means to an end -- in this case, the end is the categorical imperative, and your friend who you cannot lie to save is simply a means to that end. This contradiction lies on top of the empirical impossibility of the entire idea. All individuals must treat all others as means to ends. Friends are a means to laughter and enjoyment, businessmen are a means to certain business ends, ect. This is no minor problem.

Like most historical philosophy, Kant's imperative is full of holes. But ultimately neither Kant or Mill's conception of the good is truly satisfactory, because the good is a subjective, personal decision. Everyone's conception of what is good will differ to some degree. For a philosopher knowledge may be the highest good; for your average American, pleasure; for an environmentalist, environmental beauty.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Has Economics Changed?

During a class not too long ago I was asked to state my favorite academic. Because I'd read his work not long before, and CEO pay is so out of control, I mentioned Lucian Bebchuck.

I'm also a major fan of David Colander. Pick any one of his diverse set of articles and you'll likely find something thought-provoking. In some ways, however, he seems to be almost like a sociologist or philosopher studying economics. Right now I'm reading The Changing Face of Mainstream Economics, in which he argues that mainstream economics has changed, and that today it is held together by its "modeling approach to economic problems" (p. 2). He believes that it is undergoing a paradigm shift.

Perhaps that's true. He should certainly know better than myself. But most of the papers that I read reflect the same old economics, and most economists do not seem so interested in difficult-to-quantify concepts such as information asymmetries and externalities. It seems as if most economists would rather run simple regressions or input-output analyses. However, Colander believes that minute "stealth changes" (p. 4) are happening, unbeknownst to the agents of change themselves.

If we were to judge by the internet, then the most influential economists in the world are the George Mason economists of Marginal Revolution, Cafe Hayek, and Econlog. These guys seem to be everywhere. I don't like them much -- they seem to be shills for industry, and just plain lazy. (Consider Kling's offhand comment that dogs impose more of a burden on the environment than SUVs, without any research.) They aren't exactly mainstream, either, but their views are fairly stereotypical.

What am I trying to say? I'm not happy with mainstream economists, but I'm fairly happy with economics theory. Information asymmetries, externalities, marginal analysis -- these are helpful for looking at the world. I'm just disappointed that so few economists seem to use these in the way they should: advocating greater transparency, taxes on pollution, subsidies for external benefits, and things like a national, federally-funded Health Savings Account plan. Further, the defense of things like CEO pay by way of pointing out its correlation with market capitalization strikes me as incredibly naive -- as if there was a dearth of "good chief executives".

But perhaps the blame should not be placed on economists in particular, but rather on humans in general. After all, how could people be so stupid as to think that only people who have previously worked as a CEO are good candidates, and worth hundreds of millions of dollars? And have they learned their lessons now, as these high-flying executives run corporate America into the ground?

Is it so hard to understand why executives who have no long-term stake in their companies might do a poor job? Corporate executives should be paid their bonuses in restricted stock grants -- and restricted for the long-term. By long-term I do not mean a year. I mean five years. In the meantime, let them live on a reasonable salary.

EDIT: Here is my response to Professor Bourdreaux.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Assorted Interesting News

Does alcohol actually work? Quote:
In a series of studies in the 1970s and ’80s, psychologists at the University of Washington put more than 300 students into a study room outfitted like a bar with mirrors, music and a stretch of polished pine. The researchers served alcoholic drinks, most often icy vodka tonics, to some of the students and nonalcoholic ones, usually icy tonic water, to others. The drinks looked and tasted the same, and the students typically drank five in an hour or two.

The studies found that people who thought they were drinking alcohol behaved exactly as aggressively, or as affectionately, or as merrily as they expected to when drunk. “No significant difference between those who got alcohol and those who didn’t,” Alan Marlatt, the senior author, said. “Their behavior was totally determined by their expectations of how they would behave.”

I get
Dr. Mercola
's monthly newsletter. This
was particularly interesting. From the article:
Three have died and another four have battled the disease since two masts were erected on the roof of the five-storey block which has become known locally as the Tower of Doom.

The cancer rate on the top floor - where residents of five of the eight flats have been affected and the three who died all lived - is 20 per cent, ten times the national average.
...


World Health Organisation guidelines have dismissed the risks of masts despite other evidence which has found they are harmful.

The NYT on China: Choking on Growth. Quote from the wildlife article:
Nearly 40 percent of all mammal species in China are now endangered, scientists say. For plants, the situation is worse; 70 percent of all nonflowering plant species and 86 percent of flowering species are considered threatened.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

If I Was President...

One of my first laws would be to require all companies to provide any customer with all data linked to their account/name, on demand, for free. Ideally they would make it web-accessible -- the smart ones, at least, would, because sending it out manually would cost more money.

Further, they would have to delete it on demand as long as doing so doesn't conflict with other laws.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Long-term tax rates

It's hard for me to see the value added in some of financial innovations and institutions. Credit card companies often simply allow people to indebt themselves more. Insurance companies must have had crazy margins before Geico started this price war. Did this rate swap add value to the situation?

What if we had a tax structure that encouraged real long-term investing? We already have long-term taxes rates for 1+ year of owning a stock; how about additional tax breaks for 5 or 10-year ownership? Or how about higher short-term rates and a more gradual long-term rate?

The short-term craziness of financial markets today is a real distraction from what matters. People don't think for the long-term. That's why we had these dumb loans: the people in charge of these companies were only thinking a few years into the future.