The Brother’s Keeper Bill

October 30, 2011

Bryan Caplan on the EconLog blog writes:

Suppose someone proposed a “Brother’s Keeper Bill.” According to this BKB, people earning at least double the poverty line would be financially obliged to give 20% of their income to any sibling earning less than the poverty line.

Caplan doubts that many people would support this bill and provides several potential responses that fall into the following nine types: 1) atomic individualist, 2) libertarian, 3) moral hazard, 4) donor incentive, 5) work ethic, 6) meritocratic, 7) Puritanical, 8) evasive, and 9) debt.

You wouldn’t want to pay 20% to your brother who you know so why would you pay 20% to a total stranger? The answer is that you are not paying “a” stranger, you are entering into an agreement with a very large group of strangers. It is the same idea behind car/home insurance but applied to income.

The issue with Caplan’s argument is that it equates Responsibility-for-an-Individual with Obligations-to-a-Collective.

I think it is perfectly valid to question whether it is the role of government to provide income insurance but “The Brother’s Keeper Bill” is a sophism.

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Nurturing Tiger Moms

February 2, 2011

Bryan Caplan discusses Tiger Mother Amy Chua and I’m completely on-board until he says the following:

But hasn’t all the musical practice indelibly shaped Chua’s children’s characters?  Highly unlikely.  Behavioral genetics finds roughly zero effect of parents on personality.

I think this is a misinterpretation of The Nurture Assumption. The theory states that a large part of a child’s personality is environmental, that is, “nurture” but that this influence is mostly from peers rather than parents or teachers. What I think Caplan forgets is that parents can have an impact on children by indirectly influencing who their peers will be.

For instance, parents can influence their children’s personalities indirectly by the neighbourhood they choose to live in. If I remember correctly, Judith Rich Harris claims that the age of the parent(s) and whether a child is raised by a single parent has zero impact on child personality once you correct for the neighbourhood influence.

In her WSJ article, Chua says the following:

Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:

• attend a sleepover

• have a playdate

• be in a school play

• complain about not being in a school play

• watch TV or play computer games

• choose their own extracurricular activities

• get any grade less than an A

• not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama

• play any instrument other than the piano or violin

• not play the piano or violin.

How many of these rules do you think will significantly affect the relationship these children have with their peers? I’m guessing it is non-zero and possibly as important as neighbourhood/school choice.

Kitchen Stagnation

January 31, 2011

Paul Krugman and Tyler Cowen argue that the pace of innovation in the kitchen has stagnated over the last 50 years or so.

The same can be said for one of my favorite technologies, the canoe. The modern day canoe is based on the Aboriginal birchbark canoe. The original design is hundreds of years old and remains unchanged though the materials used in the construction of the modern canoe have changed over time. The birchbark was first replaced by canvas in the 19th century followed by modern composites like fiberglass and Kevlar about 50 years ago. There have been no significant improvements in canoe technology since then.

Is the lack of canoe innovation a sign that we are doomed to technological stagnation?

For me, the canoe is an example of a perfected technology. Within its problem space, it is done. It is complete. It represents the fruits of a long and arduous process, the engineering end-game. It makes me happy. It is the high bar for anything I create.

I admit that kitchen appliances do not give me the same sense of engineering perfection or completeness that the canoe does. They do, however, represent another common engineering measure, that of being “good enough”. It is a waste of time and money to try to improve a technology that is “good enough”. Perhaps that is the definition. A technology is “good enough” when additional engineering resources applied to the problem space result in negligible technological improvement.

One would think that economists preoccupied with the allocation of resources would have a special place in their heart for technology that is either “done” or “good enough” rather than seeing it as a harbinger of middle-class decline.

Rogers Cable has the following to say about the CRTC LPIF (Local Programming Improvement Fund):

New Fee on your Bill
Beginning September 1, 2009, customers will see a new line on their invoice called CRTC LPIF Fee, and a corresponding charge of 1.5% of their recurring TV monthly service fee. Rogers Cable does NOT benefit from the LPIF fees collected. These fees are directly remitted to the CRTC’s Local Programming Improvement Fund, for the use solely by broadcasters like CTV and Global serving markets with less than 1 million people.

The CRTC has the following to say about cable companies passing on the LPIF fee to customers:

Several cable and satellite companies want to increase their customers’ rates by 1.5%. Can the CRTC prevent this?

In Public Notice 2008-100 (paragraph 357), the CRTC indicated that in light of the performance2 level of the cable and satellite sector and the benefits accruing to broadcasting distribution undertakings (BDUs) as a result of other changes being made to the regulatory framework, the Commission saw no justification for BDUs to pass along any increased costs relating to the LPIF to their subscribers.

This is an example of a non-intuitive economic principle. You can not tax companies. You can only force companies to collect tax from customers on behalf of the government. Not only do you have hidden taxes but you also have hidden tax collection.

Actually, Rogers is making it a little less hidden but the principle still holds. Consumers always pay one way or another.

Slice of the Kidney Pie

August 29, 2009

Will Wilkinson and Bryan Caplan are debating why people oppose organ markets. Caplan believes that all (or effectively all) people that understand the economics behind organ markets support it over, I’m assuming, the current heavily altruistic system. Wilkinson attempts to summarize the moral argument against organ markets as follows:

Human beings have a certain dignity that is central to the value of human life. That dignity ought to be respected, preserved, and protected. Allowing the sale of human body parts diminishes the dignity of those involved in the transaction and erodes respect for the dignity of human beings generally. Therefore, markets in body parts ought to be legally prohibited.

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Voting Signals and GTD

June 14, 2009

Robin Hanson over at the Overcoming Bias blog has a post about What Voting Signals. He links to a NY Times article that describes a change in Switzerland in which every “…eligible Swiss citizen began to automatically receive a ballot in the mail, which could then be completed and returned by mail.” The result of this natural experiment was that the voting rate unexpectedly declined.

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Tom Slee over at Whimsley writes about Online Monoculture and the End of the Niche:

Online merchants such as Amazon, iTunes and Netflix may stock more items than your local book, CD, or video store, but they are no friend to “niche culture”. Internet sharing mechanisms such as YouTube and Google PageRank, which distil the clicks of millions of people into recommendations, may also be promoting an online monoculture. Even word of mouth recommendations such as blogging links may exert a homogenizing pressure and lead to an online culture that is less democratic and less equitable, than offline culture.

I am going to talk about a song called Waters of March. The first version of this song I heard was by a band named Smoke City. The Portuguese title of the original song  by Antonio Carlos Jobim is “Águas de Março” and the Smoke City version is partially in Portuguese and partially in English. 

This song is simply wonderful, which many if not most Brazilians already know, and the Smoke City rendition is unique and opens the song up to an English speaking audience. OK, too much talk about a song…. 

Go Listen to the Smoke City rendition of Águas de Março (Waters of March) at YouTube.

If you want a bit more, try the SeaLab version or the banjo version. 

So the point of my post is this, internet search and recommendation engines are not about being democratic or equitable they are about discovering greatness. In the case of the Waters of March song or the band Smoke City the recommendation engines fail miserably. The Wikipedia entry for Waters of March does not mention the Smoke City album Flying Away. The Flying Away album entry on Amazon in no way helps you find out about the original  Antonio Carlos Jobim song. Flying Away gained a cult following mostly because a the song Underwater Love appeared in a Levi Jeans commercial. iTunes is the worst with their we-know-what-best-for-you walled garden.

But people find this music despite the lack of links, recommendations, and availability of music to download. In fact, I think the truth is that people will go out of their way to share things that are truly great. The Internet with its links gives us a way to share. The recommendation engines and other tools are in their infancy but they will get better. People are ultimately the best recommendation engines and they will find ways to overcome the barriers of language and countries and bad software.