Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Weird Marriage and Taxes Thing

Good rulings by SCOTUS on gay marriage bills brings up tax issues again.  I understand the desire to modify taxes based on single/married mostly for political purposes, but in the end I really don't think it makes sense.

We should have only one category--the equivalent of single--and everyone would file.  So if a married couple only has one working person, the other person could file a return with zero income.  Yes, this would mean that a rich couple with one person pulling in a couple million $ could have the other spouse collecting a few thousand in tax rebates, and they may pay less than now, but that couple would be paying more than a couple with both people working and each bringing in half (same total income).  So long as the change is paired with rate increases I have no problem with this.  (Note: as an alternative wealthy couples could probably reduce tax burden by having the working spouse "pay" the non-working spouse some fraction of their income.)

Sometimes it Hurts to Read XKCD


Animal Farm

Generally taught as an anti-Communism book.  Orwell didn't necessarily see it as that simple:
...I did mean it to have a wider application in so much that I meant that that kind of revolution (violent conspiratorial revolution, led by unconsciously power-hungry people) can only lead to a change of masters. I meant the moral to be that revolutions only effect a radical improvement when the masses are alert and know how to chuck out their leaders as soon as the latter have done their job.
I'm not sure it doesn't even apply more broadly (i.e. to non-violent revolution).  I can see definite parallels to Obama's presidency, where he came in on Hope and Change and lots of people supported him as a major turning away from past policy and once he got into office he broadly adopted that past policy that many (most) of his supporters had been railing against.  More, when he did that, rather than immediately decry the behavior, most people just accepted it, and him. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013


It's mostly, probably good that younger people are increasingly eschewing credit cards, and I'm actually glad that the article didn't make these next points.

Credit cards are a tool, and a very useful one: having a couple/few, but not using them or paying them off every month increases your credit rating.  They are helpful if you are tight for cash or have an emergency.  They are generally more secure than debit cards...a big deal if you do lots of travel or online shopping.  And, for "responsible" users, you should recoup some bonus (cash back being my preference) that is not available from debit cards.

Now, if having credit cards changes how much you spend, then it is probably a better idea to go without (or to have them for credit purposes/emergencies but keep them locked up day to day), but if you are going to buy something anyway, doing it with a credit card that provides some reward is the better way to go.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

I Don't Really Believe Greg Mankiw is Stupid

But his "Defending the One Percent" makes me seriously question that belief.  It has some pretty glaring shortcomings and reads more like something I would expect of a new graduate student in political science than a Harvard professor of economics.

The problem isn't that he has written anything in particular that is wrong, but that the whole thing is not even wrong.  It's mostly arguing against a series of straw men. There isn't a single argument he puts forward that can't be demolished with 5 seconds of actual thought.  It's like Newt Gingrich wrote it: it sounds smart to stupid people, but any actual smart person would consider it a joke.

He seems to go back and forth between economic and moral notions of what is and what should be that leaves a confused mess.  In the end his "just desserts" theory sounds like a moral judgement and is couched in such terms, but the moral is: every one gets their marginal economic contribution, and that's just a load of crap.

I haven't the inclination to do a complete tear down on it but there are two things that pretty much kill off whatever he is saying:

1. People who think that current trends and levels of inequality are bad are not, as far as I have seen, arguing that we should do away with inequality entirely.  We will and should always have a 1% (and a 0.01%), it isn't their existence, but rather the yawning gap separating them from the rest of us that is the problem, and that Mankiw never addresses.

2. The marginal utility of $1 vs. the marginal economic contribution is a serious discussion which Mankiw just ignores, though he states conclusions as though it was obvious (basically how would his "just desserts" get applied in reality?).

Further to point 2.  Say someone creates something that provides $10 of good to everyone on the planet.  This person has certainly created something of immense value, but how do you reward that justly?  Mankiw's "just deserts" theory would imply something close to $70 billion, but there is approximately zero effective difference between giving that person $1 billion and the total $70 billion.  Really, there probably isn't a difference down to below $100 million.  So at what point is that person no longer benefiting justly, and just hurting the broader economy by depriving others of capital?

More importantly, how do you deal with things provided by workers in non-profits and government agencies?  Scientists and researchers create things that have immense value to our lives and societies, but are almost never compensated at anything approaching their contributions.  I don't care how much of an ass you are, you can't tell me that Steve Jobs gave more to humanity (morally or economically) than Jonas Salk.  Further, there is a serious question as to who did "create" the things that make people wealthy.  iPods are great, but there is a shit-ton of prior research and development that were required before that last step was taken, Steve didn't do all that, but he (well, Apple) got to reap the rewards anyway without haveing to go back and pay for the prior research.

Maybe Mankiw is stupid.

Update: Lots of others hammering on the idiocy.  Here is one with lots of other details, and here is one that does a much more thorough job than I do on the "just desserts" moral economics issue.

Damned Liberals

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

But Teh Markets!!!

I actually do like free markets, but some people's obsession over them is kind of creepy.  Not all markets can be free without government intervention.  That shouldn't be a controversial statement.

Monday, June 17, 2013

One Wouldn't Think It Hard To Measure

Color me Rad "5k" run was this past weekend in Philly.  It was fun, but it was short...very short...maybe 2.5 miles instead of 3.1 short.  I realize that it was a fun, untimed run, but is it really that hard to lay out a course that clocks in at (close to) 5k?  It can be done fast and free online, at places like this or someone could have walked it with a decent gps device.  As easy as it is to do this, and as much as it said "5k" throughout, that the race was about a full kilometer short was just...weird. 

Distinction WIth Difference

Chris Satullo was talking on NPR this morning about not seeing why people are "ok" with Google and Verizon, et. al. having access to our private info and using it/selling it to companies to advertise to us, but are upset about the government having access to the same info. 

Now, he often takes a position that I disagree with, but in this case demonstrates a lack of awareness that is astounding.  I could rant on this for a while but there are two key issues that make a huge fucking difference:

1. The info that the private companies have is incomplete.  Google and Apple and Microsoft and Amex and Verizon...all have bits of data, and, yes, there is some sharing/selling, but only the government can really get a complete picture of a person through this aggregation of data.  Google can't get a warrant to force AmEx to give them data on sales made offline that they couldn't get access to otherwise.  The government can, so a much more complete invasion of privacy is involved.

2. More importantly: Verizon can't arrest you, detain you, put you on trial, or assassinate you (if you happen to be in, say, Yemen) least not yet. 

There is more, and more nuance but those two differences between the government having access to your private data and an internet company having access are very important and should have been very apparent to Chris Satullo before he went off on his daily rant.

Depressing Read

A pretty compelling case.  It's hard for lots of [liberals] to imagine something this well organized over this time frame, but Republican [elite] have demonstrated a remarkable ability to do this very thing.  (Now, it may be unraveling on them in some ways, as, thanks to the Tea Party, the crazies are taking over the asylum, but still...)

So I don't know how much of this is coordinated and how much of it is coincidence, but I'm a fair bit younger than the writer, and I noticed a difference in university education between when I started undergrad and when I finished graduate school.

Chemistry isn't necessarily the best position to see the whole problem (because research brings in lots of money and prestige to universities, professors there are not quite as hard hit as in other areas of study) so steps 1 and 3 are the ones I've most noticed.

Step 4 is almost a consequence of #s 1 and 3, though that doesn't make it less insidious, just something that maybe needn't be addressed independently.  I think if the first 3 things are fixed then this goes away (I also think that fixing 1 and 3 will fix 2 as well, but that's somewhat less certain).

The fifth step is one that I really want to address: "Destroy the Students."

Again, a lot of this is related to the earlier issues: if professors are poorly paid, then the education they provide will suffer as a consequence, and with all the money being pulled from state/federal budgets, and the administration and coaches needing their money, it has to come from somewhere, hence: lower quality education that costs more. 

That said, I think she misses one thing, though it is hinted at in the propaganda section: reinforcement.  In talking about the need or value of getting a degree, we are not actually at the point, that it isn't "worth it" and the reason is that companies doing hiring prefer college educated employees.  There is preferential hiring of people with degrees over those without even when the job requirements hardly necessitate that level of education.  This reinforcement of the need for a college degree by various corporations and businesses means that the current level of debt being assumed is, in reality, "worth it." 

Overall, I think that if steps 1 and 3 are remedied then the rest would follow, but it will take a lot of work.  It took 40+ years to undermine higher education.  Fixing it will take an equal effort.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

New Gaming Consoles!

Whether it's the Xbox or the PlayStation I really don't know what you are getting for the new systems. I mean, yes, Xbox is trying to bring all entertainment to one box, and that may be something, but mostly it's a convenience, and maybe worth waiting if you don't currently have a console, but hardly a reason for me to upgrade.  The PS3 already has a blu-ray player and much greater capabilities than most games were able to realize.  I don't see any reason to get a new console until they are being used to create more immersive gaming experiences.

The Kinect, Wii and Move were all steps toward that, but all imperfect and/or incomplete.  When the Wii came out it was exciting, but very quickly the limits became obvious.  The Kinect and Move were like two halves of a complete setup, both obviously limited by lacking what the other could do (I think the PS Move had the most potential).  Really, though, the biggest problem was a lack of compelling games that prevented any of the systems from being fully realized.  They were all mostly novelties.  Sorcery on the PS3 came pretty close, and the Move shooters were probably ok (though FPS hasn't been my game of choice since Doom 2).

I would love to see something like the Kinect's general motion/voice capture combined with a deluxe version of the Wii balance board (larger for one, so that you could move around a bit and walk/jog in place) and the Move controller combination.  That seems like it would be a great platform for lots of games.  Since all of those things are already on one system or another, it seems like the current consoles could already do what is necessary.  Maybe not, maybe some additional tweaking would be necessary to bring that all together so that it could be incorporated into games (and making games for these systems may actually be the limiting problem).

Something more dramatically different would be moving off screen to video glasses to get even closer to virtual reality.  Google glasses actually seems like it could be more of a breakthrough gaming platform than the next crop of consoles.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Studen Loan Interest Rates

There has been a lot of writing lately about the student loan rates about to double, and how bad that is for future grads (it is a non-issue for people already out of school, since their rates are already locked in).  As much as the interest rate is a bit of a help the problem, however, is not the rate going up, but that the debt level is increasing so fast.

There are two different problems that student loans create: one is the immediate payment of a large balance means money out of pocket right when recent grads are starting new jobs and would, if debt free, be spending lots of money for new "grown-up" things, like housing and furniture.  The other is the long time payoff which means recent grads are not going to have their full income for 10+ years (and it is nearly impossible to forgive any of it). 

Lowering the interest rate kind of helps with both things as it means your payment is lower and/or your payoff term is shorter.  But lower interest rates also, according to economic theories, lead to larger loan balances, and so in the end would likely change nothing.

Three constraints would help alleviate loan debt: a cap on the percent of total income paid (say 10%), plus a cap on the total time to payoff that wasn't so long as to seem daunting: I like 5 years, but would settle for 10 with complete forgiveness of the balance remaining at that point.  The third constraint is for private loans only: they are treated like credit card debt for most legal purposes. 

Interest rates for private loans would skyrocket past credit card rates, and they would quickly become almost non-existent.  Interest rates would almost be irrelevant, as most recent grads paying at the 10% level for the time limit most often would not pay off their loans entirely. 

Pay for it by eliminating the student loan interest rate deduction (well, at least for everyone who could be expected to benefit from the program), as well as the deduction that parents get for contributing to education savings plans (which, I believe, are just another give away to well off families). 

Really, I think college should be free for anyone who wants to attend.

As for the other problem of student loan debt outstanding among current graduates?  The ability to refinance those at lower rates would be a real boon, and would make a larger difference.  It isn't ideal (some form of forgiveness or flat payments would be) but it really would help in a way that it doesn't for future grads.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Odd Buisness

During the Broad Street Run there were cameras set up in a few locations taking pictures.  Now those pictures are available for purchase.  The absolute lowest price option available is $14 for a single 5x7 print.  They charge $16 for a .jpg copy (of a single image) and $70 for a USB drive with copies of all the images that are tagged with your bib number (~20 images for me, though I'm not in all of them). 

I'm not sure what the idea here is, because I can't even begin to imagine paying any of those prices.  The only option that I would even begin to consider is the .jpg copy of one of the images (pick the best) which I could email to friends/family and post online, but the dollar value for that to me is approaching zero, and at most a couple bucks.  I know there are lots of things like this where you get a small fraction that will buy something for sentimental reasons, but it seems like they are leaving a huge market of people like me untapped.  I would bet that nearly every one of the 40k people in the race would like to have an .jpg for the same reason as me, and at some price that would become tempting for a large number, but I can't believe that it $16 is even close to the right price to capture it (maybe $2-$5).

They've already taken the pictures and processed them to the extent that I can see my images.  The marginal cost to provide me a .jpg is near zero (well, it's really whatever their overhead on payment processing is, which is probably the problem). 

...This is the second email they have sent me, which kind of implies that they didn't get enough takers the first time around and they are looking to interest a few more people, but it's the same crappy deal.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Bike Share = Nazi/Stalin/Islamist/Totalitarian/...

The extremely hyperbolic (yes, it needs the extra adverb here) reaction by select [conservatives] to the bike share program is beyond weird.  It is very Onion-esqe, well, if the Onion started publishing really unbelievable pieces it would be.  I think this take is as good an explanation as any.

Oh, and the Front Page article referenced there is beyond hilarious, and for a change I was pretty happy to read the internet comments which were overwhelmingly insulting toward the writer.