Monday, August 30, 2010

The 'Landes Law' on imperialism and its domestic corollary.

Historian David S. Landes
In his New York Times bestseller The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are so Rich and Some so Poor, David Landes claims
"a law of social and political relationships, namely, that three factors cannot coexist: (1) a marked disparity of power; (2) private access to the instruments of power; and (3) equality of groups or nations." [63]

Penned in 1998, this writing still sheds some interesting light on our recent foreign policy adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq. Conspiracy theories and "blood for oil" slogans aside, private companies did have a large involvement in immediate invasions as well the as follow-up occupations. Along with industry lobbying and corporate connections in the White House, condition (2) seems to have been justified. The marked disparity of power and inequality between groups hardly even need discussion.

On face, the principle at work here seems accurate. As Landes argues, "Where one group is strong enough to push another around and stands to gain by it, it will do so." However, this incentive isn't limited to foreign policy. I'll propose the following corollary to Landes Law:

Welfare State Corollary: three factors cannot coexist: (1) a marked disparity of specialized interests; (2) private access to the instruments of government; and (3) national government running a balanced budget.

In other words, when an interest group (e.g. farmers, doctors, bus-drivers, etc.) has enough political influence, it will push others around through the legislative process, as long as it stands to gain by doing so. When a multitude of such interests exist, satisfying all their demands will flout any efforts at a balanced budget (unless taxes are incredibly high, and there's an interest group against that too).

While Landes' Law poses a serious challenge to efforts at global peace, the Welfare State Corollary has implications on our current political system's ability to respond to the current financial crisis. I'll leave it to the reader to decide on the accuracy of this analogy.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Statistical Fallacy #317: Holding Constant that which Changes. See: 'median household income'.

"Torture numbers, and they'll confess to anything."*
  Our inquisitionist of the day hails from Bloomberg. In an article today, Venessa Wong wrote the following:
While many Americans dream of a windfall that will take care of their financial needs for life, the sobering reality is most of us are not getting far: U.S. Census Bureau data show median household income barely changed in the 10 years following 1998 as the price of housing and other goods increased. In consumer price index-adjusted dollars, the median household income in 2008 was $50,303, compared with $51,295 in 1998. [Emphasis added.]
 What's wrong with the above? In a fairly common maneuver to paint a doom-and-gloom image of the times, average household size is treated as a constant to compare incomes over time. That just isn't the case.

The problem with using 'median household income' as a measuring stick is that it's actually a factor of two other variables: combined income, and number of people per household. The latter aspect is conveniently overlooked by pessimists, who are looking to demonstrate a negative trend over time. When everything is considered, a different picture emerges.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Busting the 'egg scandal' wide open.

These eggs were not broken to make an omelet.
Recently, Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms, both located in lovable Iowa, have come under fire for "poisoning" the public with salmonella from their eggs. An egg source for 13 different retail brands, this news has rocked supermarkets nationally, and an even wider recall might be in the works.

"The history of ignoring the law makes the sickening of 1,300 and the forced recall of 550 million eggs shockingly understandable," says William D. Marler, a Seattle attorney representing someone who became ill from a 'dangerous' egg salad. (They're all dangerous in my opinion, especially on a hot day).

The numbers above got me wondering. What proportion of the recalled eggs were contaminated with salmonella? If 550,000,000 eggs resulted in 1,300 people becoming sick, the chance of any one egg making someone ill is .000236% . Eat a whole dozen, and your odds skyrocket to .0028%, a roughly one-in-35,000 chance of becoming ill from a tainted egg.

Surely, if you're one of those 1,300 people, hearing the numbers won't cure your stomach-ache and flu symptoms, but it should be reassuring for the other 99.99% of the population. Salmonella can be dangerous for the very young and very old, but many cases are so mild they aren't even reported.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Don't recycle your green glass, plastic or paper. That's right, trash it for the planet.

Recently in the news, the Mayor of New York expanded the state's recycling program to encompass more plastics; supposedly, this will divert 8,000 tons of plastic from landfills each year. My question is, what's so bad about throwing garbage in the trash?

With all our trash in the Dakotas, as it should be.
Maybe this makes sense to New Yorkers -- their state did birth the "trash crisis" myth which has followed American politics home like a stinky dog. However, recycling has remained a national craze, even though landfills are generally cheap and available across the country. Fun fact: If all American trash were brought to one huge landfill, and "you keep filling up this landfill for 100 years, and if you assume that during this time the populations of the United States doubles, then the landfill will cover about 160,000 acres, or 250 or so square miles, with trash 400 feet deep." Source. That may seem like a lot, so to put it in perspective, see the attached diagram which compares the 3,717,813 square miles of the lower 48 to this hypothetical landfill. Doesn't look so big now, does it?

Recycling colored glass, paper and plastic isn't just unnecessary; it's also inefficient. Let's count the ways:

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Money Melts the Pounds Away -- an in-depth look at The Biggest Loser outcomes.

No, this is not veiled commentary on my social life.
Obesity is a growing issue in the industrialized world generally and the United States in particular. The science behind obesity is still developing, but the popular culture response has already begun. Reality television, which has previously attempted to resolve our lovelessness, joblessness, and lack of fashion has now begun to confront the ‘American lifestyle.’ 

Television network NBC’s hit reality series “The Biggest Loser” takes a group of overweight individuals and sequesters them in a large housing and gym facility. There, under the oversight of expert personal trainers and medical personnel, they attempt to lose weight as quickly as possible. Taking place within a competitive team setting, at the end of each week the people who lost the least weight risk being eliminated. At stake is $250,000 cash for the winning player and a $100,000 prize for the eliminated player losing the most weight by the finale.

The Biggest Loser's game-show world bears only loose relation to the reality of an average person looking to drop a few pounds. However, its dramatic format and inspiring message have proved a global success, with the creation of Biggest Loser UK, Biggest Loser Australia, and Biggest Winner Arab (to name a few). The American version of the show has produced nine seasons since 2004, with a tenth being filmed as of this writing. 
With each contestant’s weight loss announced weekly, this television series provides a wealth of data on weight loss under ideal and controlled conditions. With 6 to 8 daily hours of exercise, a rigidly structured diet organized by top-rate personal trainers along with a strong monetary incentive, participants on The Biggest Loser have every advantage in losing large amounts of weight. Some drop over twenty pounds, or over 5% of their body mass, in a single week. The vast majority go on to change their lives by adopting healthier eating habits and frequent exercise. These results demonstrate weight loss at the absolute limit of human capacity. 
While every participant on The Biggest Loser puts in a monumental effort to lose weight, there can only be one winner. Contestants experience different outcomes in weight loss in spite of a generally high standard of effort. There have been many debates in the bio-medical field on whether obesity is caused by genetics, culture, age, or something else entirely, and a consensus has yet to emerge. With its wide demographic variety, The Biggest Loser provides an opportunity to test how these differences impact optimal-scenario weight loss. 

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The case for a private military -- let the market take a shot.

At the end of a previous blog post, I speculated on the possibility of an all-private military. The idea: instead of having the DOD do the work of recruiting, training, and then deploying our military personnel, the federal government could just handle the top-level strategy then hire out for troops to implement it. Unconventional? Yes. Effective? Possibly.

Currently, the U.S. army is staffed on an all-volunteer basis. People have to willingly choose to put their life on the line. That system just isn't working -- the military is facing a serious recruitment shortage. When you look at the numbers, it's obvious why:

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Why won't the U.S.P.S. just go out of business? Oh wait, they're not allowed to.

Ah, the Postal Service. Famous for friendly service, reasonable fees, and murderous rampages. In spite of birthing the saying "going postal" the USPS has still taken the coveted "most trusted government agency" for the last five years (probably because you have to give them your things before they break and steal them, unlike most other federal agencies). What I wonder is, if everyone trusts them so much, why can't they turn a profit? Let's find out.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Is Hoarding a disease, or just un-economic? Some advice for the cluttered.

Who doesn't need 70,000 empty beer cans?
People with their finger on the pulse of reality TV (like myself) are shocked and disgusted by the spate of shows surrounding the issue of "hoarding." For the unexposed: the premise of such a show is that people with a serious clutter problem ("hoarders") ask for help from the reality television deities to clean their places. Then, the audience gets to be amused and disgusted as the hoarder whines, moans, and otherwise impedes the cleaning crew from taking out the junk. Apparently it's a successful formula, because several different networks are now doing "Hoarder" themed shows.

Economics does a lot of theorizing about consumption, and generally the assumption is that more = better. Presumably, a person will only buy something if it makes them happier or brings them some sort of utility. TV about hoarders is a case study in diminishing returns from possessions. In other words: the first 10 antique lamps and teddy bears were wonderful, but after there are 500 and you're sleeping on a single chair while living in fear of death by trash-alanche, then more stuff has become a dis-utility.