Monday, October 29, 2007

Only in L.A.

Everyone is constantly telling everyone else how great they look. (No one actually told me I looked great, but they told each other how great they looked without fail.)
--Steve Levitt, Freakonomics blog, on how he knows he's in L.A. and not Chicago

Monday, October 22, 2007

The miracle of sleep

His subjects were young healthy people who said they were chronically sleepy, just not getting enough time to sleep at night. Dr. Roehrs had them stay in bed 10 hours a night. The extra sleep, he said, reduced their sensitivity to pain to the same degree as a tablet of codeine.
--Gina Kolata, NYT, on another reason to get more shut-eye

I never sleep, 'cause sleep is the cousin of death.
--Nas, "N.Y. State of Mind"

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Making foreign aid work better

While foreign aid works in some situations, it has two huge problems. First, there is never enough money to go around. Last year, the United States provided $23 billion of development aid to foreign countries. This was more than any other donor, but it still resulted in very little for the billion people who live on less than $1 per day.

The second problem is that the money that does get distributed doesn’t always reach the people who need it. As the economist Jeffrey Sachs has noted, of every dollar given to sub-Saharan Africa, only about 40 cents is actually directed toward economic development. The rest goes to debt service, consultants and humanitarian emergencies. And after those expenses are subtracted, the remaining money is further reduced by mismanagement and corruption. ...

Congress should provide a 39-cent tax credit for every dollar of American investment in developing countries. If Company X were to build a $100 million factory in Madagascar, its tax bill would be reduced by $39 million. The lost tax revenue would be offset by reducing direct foreign aid by the same amount. ... For the same cost to the federal government, Madagascar receives far more resources. ...

Using tax credits instead of traditional foreign aid also means that the money will be spent more prudently. Because for-profit companies are focused on the bottom line, they will be more protective than government agencies of the money they invest in developing countries.
--Justin Muzinich and Eric Werker, NYT, on how to make foreign aid more effective. Eric was in the Harvard economics Ph.D. program with me, and is now an assistant professor at HBS.

Friday, October 19, 2007

What happens afterwards matters too

Ray Liotta inadvertently hurts "Goodfellas" in the "greatest movies of the past 25 years" discussion. Liotta was great in "Goodfellas," but the fact that he carried so much of the movie undermined it in some way because the rest of his career didn't hold up. On the flip side, "The Godfather" and "The Godfather II" became greater and greater over the years partly because of what happened to Pacino, DeNiro and Duvall as the years passed. If Ray Liotta was Michael Corleone, you would NOT feel the same way about the two Godfather movies. You wouldn't.
--Bill Simmons, ESPN.com, on intertemporal complementarities in acting quality

Providential movie making

It’s 1980 when Zabka first hears the story at a Christian camp. “I was there for the hotdogs and Frisbee. I was a squirrelly skateboard kid.”

But that night, a youth leader tells a campfire story about a father and son, a story that some say is true, others say is urban legend.

One day the father takes his son to work where he operates a drawbridge along the railroad tracks. The father raises the bridge for a boat, but a train arrives ahead of schedule, barreling down the tracks. As they frantically try to lower the bridge, the boy falls into the gears. The father has seconds to decide: Lower the bridge, killing his only son, or let an entire trainload of passengers perish?

“It just left a really big impression on my heart,” [Billy] Zabka says. He becomes a youth counselor himself, retelling the story often.

When he is 18, Zabka finds himself suddenly famous as the jock bully in the 1984 hit movie “The Karate Kid.” He becomes friends with [Bobby] Garabedian, a fellow teen actor getting roles in TV shows like “Who’s The Boss?”

Fast-forward 10 years. It’s morning and Garabedian’s radio alarm goes off. He awakens to someone on a talk show telling a story – about a father and a son and a drawbridge and a decision.

Garabedian is blown away. He tells the story to Zabka (“Wait a second, I know this story!”) and talks about turning it into a movie. Cut to September 2001. Arriving at a Malibu get-together, Garabedian overhears two women who are leaving.

They’re telling someone how they came to L.A. from Australia because they believed they had been called by God, possibly to meet someone, who is maybe making a movie, which could have an effect on viewer’s hearts.

Garabedian runs after them and announces that he’s pretty sure he’s the person God wants them to meet.
--Lori Basheda, OC Register, on the providential making of the movie "Most"

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The supply of jobs is not fixed

It is also widely believed that immigrants take local workers’ jobs, with the assumption that only a fixed number of jobs exist to go around. This is nonsense. We heard similar scare stories when women began to enter the labor force in large numbers: many men thought that if women started working, there would be fewer jobs for them. In fact, of course, most women now work, as do most men.
--Philippe Legrain, Freakonomics blog, on false fears of immigrants

Monday, October 15, 2007

What ails the humanities

Even a half-century ago, the question of life's meaning had a more central and respected place in higher education than it does today. Institutions of higher learning felt they had the right and duty to address, in an explicit and disciplined way, the question of how to spend one's life, of what to care about and why, of which relations, projects, and pleasures are capable of giving life purpose and value. The responsibility for doing this fell in particular to the humanities.

Since the 1960s, the humanities have largely abandoned this responsibility, under pressure from the modern research ideal. The result has been a deepening anxiety within these disciplines about the nature and value of their contribution to higher education. The culture of political correctness that has dominated the humanities for the past 40 years has sought to allay this anxiety by offering teachers of the humanities a new role as the champions of racial justice and other liberal values. These values are fundamental and worthy of support. But by converting them from political to pedagogical values, the humanities have not strengthened their authority but compromised it instead.
--Anthony Kronman, "Against Political Correctness: A Liberal's Cri de Coeur," Yale Alumni Magazine

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

How to use slides

See Steve Jobs's masterful presentation here.

For commentary on Jobs's presentation style and slides, in contrast to Bill Gates's, see this Presentation Zen post.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Mitigating circumstances

In my own defense, I can point out that I have also written heartwarming books where people return from the dead. Usually to eat the living, it's true, but surely that is a quibble — a miracle is a miracle.
--Stephen King, Entertainment Weekly, on his lighter side

Dubious virtual pleasures

An Indian entrepreneur has given a new twist to the concept of low-cost airlines. The passengers boarding his Airbus 300 in Delhi do not expect to go anywhere because it never takes off.

All they want is the chance to know what it is like to sit on a plane, listen to announcements and be waited on by stewardesses bustling up and down the aisle.

In a country where 99% of the population have never experienced air travel, the “virtual journeys” of Bahadur Chand Gupta, a retired Indian Airlines engineer, have proved a roaring success.
--Matthew Campbell, The Sunday Times, on virtual reality that is better than the real thing

Male economists as mates

Just as politics often trumps economics when it comes to public policy, rational arguments rarely win the day in dating, love, and marriage.

I wouldn’t expect male economists to marry very well. Firstly, they tend to think like the guy who wrote this letter. Secondly, they tend to be nerds. Thirdly, they make very little money when they are young because they get so much education, even though their lifetime income is quite high. Yet I think it is fair to say that the economists I know have married stunningly well (myself included). We’ve all been puzzling over this fact for the fifteen years I have been in the profession. As of yet, no one has come up with a good explanation. I doubt it could be perfect foresight on the part of the women we marry.

Also, completely contrary to what an economic model might predict, I can’t think of any economist who left his wife in middle age for a younger “trophy” wife. There must be cases, but none that spring to mind.

So maybe economists aren’t such heartless, conniving people after all. Or maybe economists just care so little about human relationships that it’s not worth the trouble to try to acquire a trophy wife.
--Steve Levitt, Freakonomics blog, on male economists in the marriage market. Actually, I can think of one middle-aged economist with a decades younger, very beautiful wife, although I don't know if he left another wife for her.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Requiring health insurance purchases

From Hillary Clinton and John Edwards to Mitt Romney and Arnold Schwarzenegger, politicians across the spectrum have tried or vowed to solve America's health-care woes by enacting an individual mandate--a law requiring every adult to purchase health insurance. ...

Individual mandate supporters typically justify the policy by citing the problem of uncompensated care. When uninsured patients receive health services but don't pay for them, the rest of us end up footing the bill one way or another. So advocates of insurance mandates contend, plausibly enough, that we should make the free riders pay.

But how big is the free-rider problem, really? According to an Urban Institute study released in 2003, uncompensated care for the uninsured constitutes less than 3% of all health expenditures.

Of course, it will not work exactly as planned. ... 47 states require drivers to buy liability auto insurance, yet the median percentage of uninsured drivers in those states is 12%. ...

None of this means the uninsured are not a problem. Yet the true issue isn't that they cost the rest of us too much. It's that they simply get less care than most people (one reason uncompensated care is such a small fraction of health-care spending). And if the real concern is making health insurance and health care available to those in need, we should focus on reducing health-care prices and insurance premiums. The individual mandate is, at best, a distraction from that goal. ...

To enact any mandate, legislators and bureaucrats must specify a minimum benefits package that an insurance policy must cover. ... A better approach to health reform would focus on removing mandates that drive up insurance premiums. States ought to repeal some or all of their mandated benefit laws, allowing firms to offer lower-priced catastrophic care policies to their customers.
--Glen Whitman, BusinessWeek, on misdirected healthcare reform