Saturday, March 26, 2011

Taking responsibility for uncomfortable things

Fox Soccer Channel don't seem to be able to show live internationals, at least not of any of the home nations, so instead today they dug out a nice little show on football rivalries instead*. Today's show was on the Old Firm - perhaps the strongest rivalry in football. Of course, the rivalry is about much more than just football - it is also about religious bigotry.

One of the people interviewed by the show was Brian Wilson**, a 'Celtic Historian' according to the show, but actually a British politician who is also a Celtic fan and now a director at the club.

He gave a quote that I like: "if football is a repository for these [sectarian] attitudes then football has a duty to address them".

I agree. I can draw parallels between football hooliganism and other group 'issues' in the world today. In football in general and in British*** football in particular, we have had in the past problems of a small proportion of football fans behaving in socially unacceptable ways. If football fans who do not participate to work to eradicate this then they are complicit in it. If you openly associate yourself with any group which has a significant proportion of people (significant either by the group's size or else by the fact that other groups are not behaving in that way****), then you must openly oppose the 'anti-social' elements. If your group has some sort of a, let's say, charter, which glorifies in some way the behaviour of the football hooligans and either makes it difficult for you to criticise them (without twisting the charter too much) or makes it easy to point to that charter as justification, then you need to consider how best to address this.

Perhaps Wilson's advice should be taken in other circumstances too.

* It turned out to be more interesting than listening to the England-Wales match on the internet radio anyway.
** Get around, get around, I get around. I get around, round, round..... NO! NOT THAT ONE.
*** Scots like to claim innocence, but I know!
**** Probability of a football fan being a hooligan versus Probability that a hooligan is a football fan.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

In praise of Japan

I just came from a meeting at the World Bank in which I learnt that the lower house of the Japanese Parliament (the Diet) has just approved their contributions of funds to IDA 16 development funds. A number of people here who use Japanese funds reported that they had recently received emails confirming that funding would be arriving.


I've commented before on the lack of looting in Japan: (HT: MM) How about social and cultural norms? The social equilibrium is not to behave like that even under extreme circumstances. Of course, a social equilibrium can change if a tipping point is reached. But I think this is a good question. It might help us to actually understand why there is looting in other circumstances and come up with a more interesting answer than a politically correct and largely thoughtless 'because they're poor' or 'because they are they are in such a difficult situation' or 'because they have no choice'. I'm an economist saying let's look critically at cultural norms and social behaviour and not be afraid to say these have consequences - in Japan's case, good ones.

A couple of days ago, on the BBC Day in Pictures there was THIS impressive photo of a cleared road.

Last night I took a cab driven by a Nigerian engineer (the taxi is his evening job) who works on projects in Japan which had been 'hit' and he was telling me how amazingly organized the process of getting back on their feet seems to be and that he'd be heading out there soon.

Now let's talk about us. I've questioned the wisdom of sending of money to Japan, but I still think it is probably better than sending SOCKS.

Yesterday, I accidentally managed to gatecrash a private party in a café/bar in Washington. The private party appeared to be a meeting of mostly former JET participants who clearly felt emotionally close to Japan. There were several different 'chapters' present there and they were raising money and wanted to donate themselves.

Unfortunately, they didn't know what to do with the cash - they were talking about what to do with the money. Is this putting the cart before the horse?

The main coordinator said (very sensibly, in my opinion) that rather than having each 'chapter' of the alumni association doing their own thing, it would make more sense to pool the money and create one group. Presumably, they want to start the 4,501st new charity in Japan. I would go further, if you must raise money, why not just give it to the Japanese Government and have even fewer groups in Japan?

A couple of the suggestions shocked me. Someone said someone currently on the JET programme lost his/her life - so a suggestion was to use some of the money to fund a memorial for them. (WOW.) Someone else suggested someone along the lines of adopting a school.

The school adoption got me wondering how Americans would feel if schools got 'adopted' following a natural disaster here by a Japanese association of people who had lived here. Would it be patronising? Do people really think that they can do a better job at the school than, say, the local council in Japan?

I understand that people have emotional connections to Japan and to suffering, possibly with a stronger feeling to people you see as the most similar to you. It is bad this guy died, but let's acknowledge, if you are suggesting using the funds for a memorial, then you are probably doing it for you. Not for other people. This is fine - it is your right to use your money as you wish. But this would almost certainly not be using the resources in the best way to help (I suspect that the best way would be NOT to set up an NGO and to give the cash to the Japanese Government instead, if you really want to help). It is also probably not the best way to 'do good in the world'.

From what I heard this morning of the development aid still being promised by the Japanese, their commitment to doing good in the world remains impressive. I wonder if they have kept their heads better than most of us.


This is really common in gents' toilets in DC. Why? What possible benefit does adding a urinal next to a normal pot bring? It is a room for one person - I don't need that choice! And some how, I can't imagine sharing this room with someone else.

Interestingly, this is my second ever post featuring a urinal. These are exciting times, ladies and gentlemen.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Fourteen non-obvious points from economics

I love THESE points so I am going to reproduce them here. I think that for quite a lot of them they are not that widely understood or accepted by the general public or politicians.

  1. The price and quantity of objects sold are determined jointly by the desires of buyers and costs of sellers.
  2. Holding the price constant of a object that becomes more desired will result in fewer people obtaining that object than if the price were left free to float.
  3. The wages of workers in a free market are determined by the amount the marginal worker produces not the average.
  4. If a set of producers specializes in what each can produce relatively not absolutely most cheaply, the total value of production will rise.
  5. An increase in the mass of citizenry will not lead to an increase in the proportional mass of the unemployed.
  6. The total flow of services available to the community cannot, in general, be increased by destroying some stock of assets. I.E. one cannot raise general living standards by breaking glass to give work to the glass maker.
  7. A valuable, storable and costly to extract resource will last longer than current extraction rates divided by known reserves implies.
  8. The contagion rate of sexually transmitted diseases will fall as the disease becomes more widespread. IE, there is decreasing marginal infectibility.
  9. Increasing the supply of medicine and vaccines to a preindustrial society will cause living standards to fall.
  10. Requiring increased training to practice a profession will cause the price of the service to rise more than amortized the cost of the training.
  11. Permitting the construction of more expensive high-rise buildings will cause rents to fall.
  12. The expansion of heavy industry will cause wages for service workers to rise.
  13. Under the same economic regime poorer countries will tend to grow faster than richer ones.
  14. Competitive profit seeking organizations will produce products more greatly desired by consumers, at lower costs, than universalist benevolent organizations.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Friday links

4/ UN backs action against Qaddafi Great - now he's almost won, our legal cogs have turned. Not that we care - legality is more important than people. And besides, who'd be grateful in the end anyway? I expect to hear a load of conspiracy theories rather than thank yous.

"I never hugged him; I bombed him."

6/ Why no looting in Japan? (HT: MM) How about social and cultural norms? The social equilibrium is not to behave like that even under extreme circumstances. Of course, a social equilibrium can change if a tipping point is reached. But I think this is a good question. It might help us to actually understand why there is looting in other circumstances and come up with a more interesting answer than a politically correct and largely thoughtless 'because they're poor' or 'because they are they are in such a difficult situation' or 'because they have no choice'. I'm an economist saying let's look critically at cultural norms and social behaviour and not be afraid to say these have consequences - in Japan's case, good ones.

Statistically speaking, the least happy American would be a 4’10”, middle-aged Muslim woman without children who is separated from her husband and earns under $12,000 a year. She’s also an unemployed manufacturing worker in West Virginia.

I just showed this article to a colleague who reckons we could make her more unhappy by giving her toothache.

9/ You seem to be confusing the probability that a Muslim person will be a terrorist with the probability that a terrorist person will be a Muslim. I'm anti witch-hunt, but anti-denial that there is an issue. Mostly, that means both sides can disprove of me in their own way.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Socks for Japan (no joke)

or another reason to dislike economists.

Effectively, I am not sure about the wisdom of carrying coal to Newcastle giving money to Japan. Teams from other places that suffer similar catastrophes, yes. HERE is a nice entry from a blog by Chris Blattman that expresses it nicely.

Aidwatch recommends that you give MONEY not SOCKS (omg), but also suggests that you might like to consider diverting your funds to whatever catastrophe CNN happens not to be covering today.

I can't help feeling that might be good advice. After all, the question should not be 'will your cash do some good in Japan?' but 'will you cash do more good in Japan than anywhere else?'. See how cold I am? But my aim is to do good, not to assuage my current feelings based on the news story of the day. And I'm even prepared to take the flack from all the people who must think I am a horrible person because of it.

HT for most links here to MM.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Reasons why people dislike economists

Economists will often joke how no one will talk to them at dinner parties. I say it is said in jest but - I think - it is only half in jest.

I have recently been talking with an economist who works with non-economists and who finds it tough. My own experiences tell me that there are at least two issues which economists bring up which don't always sit comfortably with other people. One is opportunity cost and one is moral hazard.

Opportunity cost: Sometimes people (by which I generally mean non-economists) will say what a wonderful thing it would if something happened. For example, launch their project in a developing country that will do some good. Or build a nice stadium for the Olympics. The economist is likely to challenge this. Why? Not because they don't think it wouldn't be great, but because they are thinking of the opportunities foregone by putting resources into the pet project/stadium. The economist wants to know not only if your idea will be good (in some way) but whether it is better than all of the other things you could use the resources for. For example, would you prefer a hospital or the stadium? Would your pet project to build a school which there are no teachers to staff be the best use of resources or might it be better to do something else? I've managed to introduce resource constraints here - the people working on the stadium are, by definition, not working on something else.

Of course, the response to an economist raising these issues tends to be pretty negative - sometimes bordering on disgust. How can you think that building the school wouldn't be a good idea? Humph. But that isn't the point. Maybe, a school really isn't the most important thing - maybe a well is, or a road, or a local policeman, or whatever. And really, the person who doesn't care is the one who is letting their heart get in the way of common sense. They don't really care about people - they care about their pet project.

Moral hazard: It's when you make some intervention which changes people's behaviour in a bad way -- often one you've not thought about. For example - let's give unemployed people benefits. They have come on hard times and we should support them. Fine, but bare in mind that there are behavioural consequences to that. People are less likely to find a job and more likely to worry less about losing their job. Oh - how could you even think that?!! can come back from some people who don't like to admit things they dislike about human nature, and some people will make a great effort to prove this wrong. I was once in a village in Malawi and the village head was asking me for a well. I told him that I come from a village of a similar size in the UK and that the people dug their own wells without outside help. But this idea was lost on him. And rightly so - he sees interventions by NGOs doing this sort of thing everywhere - why should he make the effort to organise it? It'll happen eventually. I am not against either unemployment benefit or outside intervention in development - I am strongly for the latter especially (it is my job and it is my job because I believe in it) - but we do need to consider these things if we are to be as effective as possible. Denial doesn't help anyone.

I say denial won't help anyone, but I perhaps mean anyone except economists - who would be able to talk to people at dinner parties again.

Monday, March 14, 2011

British Government prefers a poorer Britain...

... to letting in foreigners. I know this because it doesn't want the best person for a given job to be doing it; it prefers that a bad Brit be bumbling away rather than an awful, smelly non-European.

Consequences - the country produces less, so consumes less, i.e. is poorer. You'll have worse hair cuts and poorer service when buying a new home. I hope they get rid of all foreign doctors too. I am sure that you, like me, would prefer to die than have a foreign doctor cure you! But don't worry, the people giving you the poor service (or not curing you) will be British, so you can feel nice and warm inside.

They want to place greater restrictions on foreign students too. The country will be thrilled! Students are bad enough, but foreign ones?! Hideous! Besides, I hate the idea of evil foreign students entering the country to study and some of them even have the cheek to want to stay and use their skills to make the country more wealthy - we should definitely clamp down. Also, some of them learn about Britain and British culture and that would be really bad. They might end up buying our exports (things linked to our language is already one of our biggest exports) and might make life easier in the future for our businesses because they know our language and culture. Even worse, they might bring different culture and world views to our own shores and whoever benefited from learning from and sharing with others?! The idea is preposterous!

I don't know about you, but I'm headed back for the isolation of my cave.

Old maps of Africa


Sunday, March 13, 2011

Animal 'rape'

My favourite podcast is not on economics but science. I strongly commend Science Weekly by the Guardian to everyone.

Whilst out running this morning* and listening to one of the episodes, I learnt something interesting. Female ducks can control sperm once it has entered her vaginal passage - that is, she can block the passage of the sperm to prevent it from reaching her eggs. Wow! This can be as a defence against rape and certainly tips to some degree the balance of power in sexual relationships, given that the primary aim of sex is to procreate.

On the show was the author, actor, director, writer of a new series of short films called Green Porno which previewed at the recent Sundance Festival. The films look at interesting examples of sex amongst different animals. You can watch some on youtube.

I wonder how that would change human relationships? Females would be able to control exactly who they wanted to father their children - or to a much greater extent. It is well-known that fewer males tend to father more children and others father fewer - so this tendency would probably increase.

Would it increase or decrease rape? One reason rape might decrease is that one of the reasons for it has decreased - males who rape are less likely to father a child. But fathering a child is not the only reason for rape and might actually be seen as a drawback in most societies (might situations of war or large-scale migration be different?) so given the likely behavioural response of females (I assume that most females are likely not to choose to have the children of men who rape them), might instances of rape actually increase?

How would the developed and the developing world differ? Under what different circumstances would the impact be different? I think it is linked to the motivations for rape in the first place.

A final, interesting thing to note - the Science Weekly podcast goes out on several American radio shows and they have had to cut out this section of the show because it was too racy for US audiences. Jeeeez.

*Part of the Insights into the Interesting Lives of Economists series.

Corruption in India...

... is getting worse according to some.

You can record your instances of bribe-paying in India at I Paid A

Friday, March 11, 2011

Friday links

This is an interesting one. Do Muslims have the right to burn poppies on Remembrance Day. My answer is a clear YES! But I am judging you for doing it. You are disgusting, insensitive, ungrateful, anti-social, paranoid, pathetic and abusing your freedoms. But go ahead. You have the right to do it. Just like a certain Reverend Jones has the right to burn the Koran (he didn't do it in the end). But you know what - whilst defending your right to do it, I'm judging you too and harshly. Want to build a mosque on Ground Zero? I'm going to defend your right to do it. But I am judging how little you give a shit about people's feelings and what I would regard as common decency. Motoonist? Etc. When you are given freedom to do things and you choose to throw that back in others' faces (which you have every right to do) it is an indication that you are behaving like a little child who cannot be trusted with too many freedoms - you have no control over yourself. So maybe it will be better to take them away.

6/ Inside a Sharia court in the UK (he only hit you once, so it's not very serious)

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Business class in a church

The secret of buying and selling in a Methodist Church in Washington DC.

I read a great book a couple of years ago by a couple of editors of the Economist about How the Global Rise in Faith is Challenging the World. I remember them having some very interesting examples of religion and business.

Pick up your Torah, Bible, Koran or for all I know any other religious books and you'll find loads of economic rules in there. Everything from production to interest to taxes to inheritance to agriculture to money. The rise of various forms of protestantism in Latin America and parts of Asia is strongly linked to networking and business and getting ahead in life.

I'm thinking of starting my own religion soon. I hear it can be a real money-spinner. For me and for you. Let me know if you'd like to sign up. I'll let you know the ins and outs of you believe later - once you've become emotionally or practically attached. Like we do with children.

More anti-social behaviour

Si c'est pas Amazon, c'est

The box it arrived in:

And that little print cartridge is what I purchased:

Notice the 'please recycle' on the plastic packaging. O, what concern for the environment.

I even paid extra for a super-efficient printer for both ink and electricity and print cartridges which are actually made to be refilled so that I have what I thought would be the right balance of quality and environmental concern. If you look closely, you can see that each time you want it refilled, you post the cartridge back. I wonder if each time they post it back in a box like this.

Mais bordel, vous vous foutez de ma gueule?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011