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A Spicy Stew of Economics, Politics, Data, Food, Carpentry, etc.
Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Okrent Swings and Misses

In his final column as NY Times Public Editor, Daniel Okrent charged that "Paul Krugman has the disturbing habit of shaping, slicing and selectively citing numbers," but didn't bother to give a single example to support his smear. Krugman, not surprisingly, took offense. Okrent responded with some specific charges, which Krugman then devastatingly rebutted, as has Brad DeLong.

Krugman and DeLong don't bother to answer some of Okrent's sillier charges, so let me. Okrent criticizes:
[Krugman's] 1/27/04 assertion that the cost of unemployment insurance "automatically" adds to the federal deficit. This two-fer misrepresents a pair of facts: that unemployment insurance is largely borne by the states, and that major federal contributions to the states come about only because of an act of Congress, which is hardly automatic.
Obviously this quibble over Krugman's use of the word "automatic" has no relevance at all to Okrent's original charge: that Krugman misrepresents the numbers. Presumably this is why Krugman and DeLong ignore it.

But it's worth pointing out just how ignorant Okrent's complaint is. Krugman is just using the absolutely standard language economists use to describe this particular aspect of fiscal policy, called "automatic stabilizers." For example, in his undergraduate textbook, Greg Mankiw (recently chair of the Bush Council of Economic Advisors) writes
"The system of unemployment insurance automatically raises transfer payments when the economy moves into a recession, because unemployment rises." [Mankiw, Macroeconomics, 1992, pp. 324-5]
which is something you'll find in pretty much any macro textbook, whether written by a conservative or a liberal. And which is almost exactly what Krugman originally wrote. Let me join with Jonathan Chait is saying that Okrent ought to be ashamed.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Laser-Guided Infrared Thermometers

A surprising number of people come to this blog searching for "Alton Brown infrared thermometer," since I once mentioned that Alton Brown recommends them. Apparently, he isn't enthusiastic enough to include infrared thermometers on his list of essential equipment. So, here's my take.

Infrared thermometers are in widespread use by mechanics for measuring engine temperatures and such, but can be also measure the temperature of a pan. You just point it at a metal object a few feet away, using the built-in laser beam to target it, and press the trigger to display the temperature.

I've never actually used one, but I recently gave one as a gift. The Bonjour thermometer is sold on lots of cooking sites. If you want to save a few bucks, I'm pretty sure that the Bonjour is just a repackaged version of the Mastercool infrared thermometer marketed to auto mechanics. They both look the same, and have the same temperature range. The recipient of my gift, who's quite a good cook, says he hasn't used it to test a pan yet, but that it seems to works very well on his boat engine.

Personally, I'm pretty happy with the usual methods of judging the temperature of a hot pan: watching how easily the oil flows; waiting for the butter to foam up, the olive oil to give off its characteristic aroma, or the oil to begin smoking; or throwing on a test piece and listening to the sizzle. Hmm, maybe it really isn't all that simple. I guess it would be nice to have an infrared thermometer. And they sure are cool.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Electronic Vote suppression

Perhaps the most important finding in Card and Moretti study I blogged about last week is that electronic voting seems to suppress turnout. The Berkeley economists found that voter turnout fell by seven tenths of a percentage point in counties that switched to touch screen voting, compared to what would be expected based on past voting patterns and county demographics. Card and Moretti suggest that some voters may distrust or be intimidated by the machines, and so been deterred from voting.

It seems to me that there's a much more obvious interpretation: electronic voting machines don't work all that well. There's certainly tons of anecdotal evidence. In the last election, watchdog groups recorded over 2,000 reports of trouble with voting machines, three quarters specifying electronic voting machines.

Here's a report from one precinct in Houston.

"Yes, there are six machines down. I got there at 8 o'clock and they have been down since," said voter Melita Warren. "The tech does not know how to fix it. She is reading the manual, so therefore I should have been at work a long time ago."

A private election watchdog group documented the problems.

"Long lines, an hour and half wait. People (were) coming in at 7:30 and not leaving until 9," said Mary Huffine.

No one knows how many voters left before casting their ballots and there is no way of knowing who will be back

All 11 E-slate machines are working now, but it took three technicians to come out to the site and fix the problem. Officials told Eyewitness News it should have just taken one technician to do the repairs.

There is still no word on what exactly was wrong with the equipment. Several other precincts were having problems with the E-slate machines as well.

For more, see VotersUnite.org or the National Academy of Sciences Electronic voting Committee.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Shit Storm in Iraq

Via Tim Lambert's blog Deltoid, I learn about the Iraq Living Conditions Survey, a new report by the UN and the Iraqi government. Serious problems in Iraq include not only electricity and violence, but also a shortage of water. Before the war, only 5 percent of urban households lacked safe supplies of drinking water. It's now 40 percent. Typically, the problem is weekly breakdowns of the water supply. Shockingly, 38 percent of urban households, and more in rural areas, report that the "cost of drinking water restricts consumption." I bet they're not taking too many baths either.

Iraqi pipes aren't so good at bringing in the water, or at carrying it away. According to the survey, 37 percent of Iraqis now lack "improved sanitation." Before the war, it was 7 percent. "Improved sanitation," by the way, doesn't mean a flush toilet -- a private outhouse counts. The third of Iraqis without improved sanitation typically use a public outhouse, or just a hole in the ground. No doubt this is why interviewers saw raw sewage around 40 percent of urban households, or less politely, human shit in the streets.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

No Large-Scale Vote Fraud Say Berkeley Economists

According to Berkeley Economists David Card and Enrico Moretti, it doesn't look like there was systematic fraud associated with electronic voting. An earlier analysis (by a team of Berkeley sociologists) had found that in Florida, Bush improved on his 2000 vote share more in counties that used touch screen voting. [sociologists' study here]

Card and Moretti used similar techniques to examine voting in all U.S. counties. Holding constant past election outcomes, they also found that Bush improved his vote share in counties with electronic voting, by about a fifth of a percentage point on average. But this effect is mainly found in states where you wouldn't expect to find fraud. Electronic voting seems to have helped Bush in states with Democratic elected officials; it doesn't seem to have helped much in swing states. [free copy of the paper here]

As Card and Moretti emphasize, this doesn't prove that Bush didn't steal a few counties here and there, say in Ohio and Florida, but it does seem to rule out widespread fraud based on electronic voting. Personally, I'm inclined to believe it because Card and Moretti are such prominent researchers (Card is a winner of the prestigious Clark Medal), because they're hardly Bush supporters, and because I think they're honest.

Friday, May 13, 2005

What Would Jesus Eat?

Dieting guides and religious books are consistent best sellers. So what could be more natural than combining the two?
Stephen Arterburn, the host of a Christian radio show and author of Lose it For Life, says: "If you want the world to notice Jesus, it helps to look and live like Jesus. We don't do this so we can look in the mirror and be more attractive. We do it so people can look at us and see Jesus."
Apparently, there are now several "Jesus wants you to be thin" diet books out. Even one called What Would Jesus Eat by Don Colbert. Colbert's books don't show up on conventional bestsellers lists, probably because many are sold at Christian bookstores and such, but he claims to have sold over 4 million copies of his many books.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Prize Money, Informants, and the Noose

Corporate Law prof Stephen Bainbridge has a fascinating post about the economics of Patrick O'Brian, or, more accurately the economics of the British Navy in the 17th-19th centuries. You didn't know the British Navy had economics? Well, when Naval vessels captured an enemy ship, they got to keep it, or more accurately, the captured ship and its contents were auctioned off or purchased by the crown, with the victorious captain getting a quarter of the proceeds. "Head money" was also paid for enemies killed or captured.

As readers of O'Brian's terrific novels know, this system didn't give quite the right incentives. The system of prize money and head money did encourage captains to fight rather than flee, but not necessarily to fight the right battles. Captains could make more money, much more safely, by attacking enemy merchant vessels rather than warships. And with frigate captains often on the other side of the world from their superiors, monitoring them wasn't easy.

According to The British Navy Rules: Monitoring and Incompatible Incentives in the Age of Fighting Sail, the academic paper by Douglas Allen that Bainbridge is discussing, the British Admiralty offset these incentives in several ways. They frequently executed captains for avoiding combat and treated captains who fought but lost leniently. The French navy of the time did precisely the opposite.

Also, the admiralty tried to set things up so that lieutenants would report captains who shirked their duty. Lieutenants were required to keep logs and couldn't be fired by the captain. Perhaps most importantly, it was very difficult to get promoted to captain, at least for those without connections. A lieutenant who ratted out his captain stood a chance of getting his job.

It was a complicated system with lots of flaws, but it worked well enough that the British navy ruled the oceans for over a century.

Anyway both the post and the paper are well worth reading. They give a lot of insight into the events of O'Brian's scrupulously researched novels (the conflict between lieutenants and captains was news to me). They're also fascinating examples of what economists call the "principal-agent problem." That is, the problem faced by managers who want their employees to work hard, but aren't able to easily measure the quality of their work.

To take one example, the problems faced by the 19th century British Admiralty sound a lot like the dilemmas faced by police chiefs today, as described by George Kelling of "broken windows" fame. How to make sure that beat officers are doing their job instead of snoozing in their patrol cars? How to allow cops the freedom to take initiative without giving too much opportunity for corruption? I'm not sure, although our experiments with prize money for the police haven't turned out that well.

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