hudebnik: (devil duck)

I recently read a blog post celebrating Milton Friedman's birthday and including several Quotable Quotes from him. Like Quotable Quotes in general, they're pithy, memorable, and easy to use in arguments in lieu of facts.

One was "There is nothing so permanent as a temporary government program." Now, we all know this in our cynical hearts, but as Krugman has pointed out (see also here), it's not particularly true, at least for large social-welfare programs.

So let's do a thought experiment with two government programs, each costing taxpayers a billion dollars a year. Program A writes a $1000 check to a million people a year, while Program B writes a $10 million check to a hundred people a year. Which is more likely to expire on schedule? I claim it's Program A: it benefits far more people, but few if any of them is so strongly affected as to lobby hard for its extension. (If, as seems likely, they're not politically well-connected people, they may not even know where to start.) By contrast, every one of the hundred beneficiaries of Program B has a strong interest in lobbying for the program to be extended, and might be willing to spend up to $10 million/year on it, which is enough to buy some professional-quality lobbying. On the other side are the taxpayers, who each spend $3/year on the program and therefore have no interest in fighting to make sure the program expires on time.

To look at it another way, suppose Program C writes a $1000 check to ten million people a year, while Program D writes a $100,000 check to a hundred people a year. Program C costs taxpayers $10 billion/year, which is enough to grab the attention of deficit hawks, while Program D costs only $10 million a year, so if even one of its beneficiaries fights to extend it, there's unlikely to be any significant opposition.

If this is correct, then there's a substantial thumb on the scale favoring redistribution programs to small groups of people over programs benefitting large groups of people. Look at industry-specific government subsidies and price supports, especially those that in practice benefit mostly a few upper managers rather than a whole worker base.

How would one fix this? One approach would be to adopt a convention that "temporary" government programs don't sunset all at once, but phase out over 5-10 years, and can only be extended one year at a time. This would raise the threshold of individual benefit it takes to inspire someone to lobby for extension: if you only stand to lose 10% of your $100,000/year check this year, and lobbying to extend it simply means you have to come back and lobby again next year, the cost/benefit relationship has shifted and you're less likely to do the lobbying.

But that's not a complete solution: for an individual, group, or industry that already maintains a lobbying arm, adding on one more annual lobbying effort isn't much of a burden. Other ideas?

hudebnik: (Default)

... heard [ profile] osewalrus being interviewed about consolidation in the telecomm market.

hudebnik: (Default)

"The Court, in its magnificent equality, permits the poor as well as the rich to spend millions of dollars a year influencing Congressional elections and members of Congress."

So Mr. McCutcheon claims his free speech rights are being infringed when he's allowed to write multi-thousand dollar checks to only 27 Congressional candidates, not 28. SCOTUS agrees and says he should be allowed to write checks to candidates for every single seat in Congress if he wishes; that's freedom of speech. Of course, it's a freedom that's only open to the richest 0.1% of Americans, but still... the Constitution protects the rights of minorities against the tyranny of the majority. That's why we have the First Amendment, after all.

What did James Madison et al have in mind when they talked about freedom of speech and the press? I assume they had some notion that in a free marketplace of ideas, the best ideas will win if they're allowed to be heard. The McCutcheon and Citizens United decisions say it's not the best ideas, but the best-funded ideas, that will win, and we all know that the best-funded ideas are those that serve the interests of the already-rich, not necessarily the public.

The Court could reasonably have ruled that, even if you consider writing a check to be "speech" (which I dispute, since it has no idea content), campaign finance restrictions are regulations on "time, place, and manner," not content, and therefore permissible. But that wouldn't further this court's goal of rewarding wealth and power with more wealth and power.

Act of God

Mar. 3rd, 2014 11:15 pm
hudebnik: (devil duck)

Seen in front of Holy Child Jesus Catholic Church.  And yes, the statue is the Holy Child Jesus.

hudebnik: (teacher-mode)
Several mostly-unrelated stories that hooked up in my brain.

I live in Queens, NYC, and the Queensborough Public Library has been making the news lately: the Library Director is earning $391K and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars renovating his executive suites and building himself a private outdoor smoking deck, while the rank-and-file library staff haven't gotten a raise in four years, nor a new hire in five. The Union and some of the City Council (led by one who used to work at the Queensborough Public Library himself) find this outrageously unfair.

I tried to imagine what the Director could possibly be thinking to do things like this. His job is to manage the Library's finances, among other things, and the more money he saves the Library (e.g. by not hiring anybody or giving anybody a raise), the better he's doing his job and therefore the more pay and perks he deserves. The very actions he's criticized for doing while paying himself more are precisely why he's paying himself more.

The Union and some of the City Council are concerned with the difference between his salary and those of rank-and-file staff, while he's concerned with the sum. A large difference is bad if you're concerned about fairness and propping up the working class; a large sum is bad if you're concerned with city finances and taxes.

Second, there was a CBO report last week predicting that Obamacare, through subsidies and the partial decoupling of insurance from employment, would lead to the equivalent of 2 million fewer people working in the U.S. Republicans, naturally, spun this as "We told you so: Obamacare will cost 2 million jobs." Which wasn't technically correct: the predicted effect is that people with jobs will voluntarily leave them, or work fewer hours, because now they can without losing their insurance. (Others will presumably change jobs, for the same reason, but that's not part of the 2 million figure.) If anything, this will make it easier to find jobs because fewer other people are competing with you for the same job.

Yet in a sense, the Republicans are correct: with the equivalent of 2 million fewer people in the labor market, 2 million fewer jobs will be done (under the usual Republican assumption that all economies are running at capacity, and there is no such thing as involuntary unemployment), which means a reduced GDP.  (Even without that assumption, one suspects that not all of the workers removed from the labor force will be replaced from the unemployment rolls, so it still means fewer jobs being done and a reduced GDP.)

In other words, the same prediction is bad if you're concerned about total GDP, or good if you're concerned about any given person's ability to find work (the difference between you and the rest of the work force). More generally, a decreased labor force is good if you're still in it yourself, and bad if you're trying to hire from it.

Third: I'm reminded of dear old Ronald Reagan, who, while running against the incumbent Jimmy Carter, invented something called the "misery index", the sum of the inflation rate and the prime interest rate. Which didn't make a lot of sense even to my 16-year-old self, since high inflation is bad for lenders, while high interest is bad for borrowers; the only person whom both of them would hurt is somebody storing lots of cash under the bed.

What's more meaningful, for most purposes, is the difference between interest rates and inflation, known to economists as the "real interest rate": high real interest rates encourage saving and investing, while low real interest rates encourage spending and borrowing.  The current economy could really use more spending and borrowing, but the millionaires in Congress and the billionaires backing them would prefer to be rewarded for saving and investing, so they've done everything in their power to drive real interest rates back up.

hudebnik: (Default)

I'm not complaining about taking liberties with the book -- every movie-from-a-book does that. There are some slight spoilers in the following, but most of them are either well known or pretty predictable so I make no apology.

Yes, they added a lot more fight scenes, because an action movie needs a lot of fight scenes. Yes, they renamed the "goblins" of the book as Orcs, because they already had Orc costumes in the Weta warehouses and it's simpler than explaining the difference. Yes, they inserted Legolas into the movie, because Orlando Bloom. And they inserted hot-elf-maiden, because otherwise there would have been no female characters at all, and because "Hunger Games", and "Brave", and "Hunger Games". And they had Stephen Frye, who might have been good as a dwarf but those parts were all taken so they had to write a sort of schizophrenic Stephen Frye character into the story.

What bother me are the inventions and insertions that make no sense at all, except as an excuse for a cool visual effect or star fan-service. Many of the fight scenes are preposterous in the same ways as those in "Pirates of the Caribbean": no, there's no reason for the characters to do this, but wouldn't it be cool to see them do it?

A small example: Legolas is fighting some Orcs with a knife in a small room, then pulls out a bow and shoots one at a range of a foot. Why? Five minutes later, he faces the baddest Orc of them all at 10-15 yards range, so this awesome archer pulls out... a sword. WTF?

A larger example: you're in a dragon's lair, with your life threatened from second to second. So naturally you find "the forges," which haven't been used in fifty years (and you seem surprised that "they're stone cold"), light them with a handy dragon (and no visible source of fuel), and start an industrial manufacturing line in order to melt a couple thousand tons of gold so you can go surfing on it, then cast a 100-foot-tall gold statue (having presumably built the mold in a few seconds off-camera) which, as soon as everybody's gotten a good look at it, starts spontaneously re-melting so you can try to drown a dragon (who lives, eats, and breathes gold and fire) in molten gold. Gee, who wouldn't think that was a good plan?

hudebnik: (Default)

The technological breakthrough of 2013... Turnshoes!

hudebnik: (rant)

There's been a lot of debate over how dreadful it would be to hit the debt ceiling. Some R's say "it won't be that bad," which ironically would weaken their bargaining position that the D's have to give them what they want or terrible things will happen. There's talk about the government's ability (or not) to "prioritize" which of its obligations will actually get paid on time: do we protect bond holders in order to keep interest rates down (at the political risk of being seen again as bailing out rich investors while screwing the little guy)? Do we protect Social Security recipients? Medicare? Military employees? Left-handed fnord-twerglers?

I was recently reminded of this 2011 post, pointing out that Social Security (and, I think, Medicare) aren't immediately affected by the debt ceiling because their assets are held in special bonds. When they need to make $1bn in payments, they redeem $1bn worth of bonds for cash, thus reducing the debt by $1bn below the ceiling so Treasury can issue another $1bn in bonds to restore its cash balance. And this can go on for years until the bonds in the Social Security trust fund run out. The only thing Social Security can't do at the ceiling is use incoming SS tax revenues to buy bonds as usual; they'll need to store that stuff as cash.

So just as Republicans' government shutdown over Obamacare ironically had no effect on Obamacare, their debt-ceiling game over entitlement spending could ironically have no immediate effect on the two biggest entitlement programs.

Who will suffer when we hit the ceiling? I think it comes down to food stamps, unemployment, government employees (those left after the sequester and the shutdown), and private companies with government contracts.

Of course, in a sense it doesn't matter who suffers first. Any way you pull over a billion dollars a day abruptly out of the economy will mean People Not Buying Stuff, which shortly leads to People Losing Jobs, which means they too will Not Buy Stuff (especially since they won't get food stamps or unemployment insurance), which means more People Losing Jobs. And as Krugman points out, that means fewer people paying taxes, which increases the budget shortfall, which means more spending cuts immediately, which means more people Not Buying Stuff, etc. Under these unusual circumstances, Krugman estimates a multiplier of 2.5, so since the initial cuts would be about 4% of GDP, that means a slowdown of 10% of GDP, which means a 5% increase in unemployment.


Oct. 11th, 2013 08:12 am
hudebnik: (rant)

So the House Republicans are thinking about possibly not driving the economy off a cliff, only a steep hill, in exchange for a promise of serious discussions in the next 6 weeks of how to reduce the U.S.'s crushing budget deficit.

It is urgent that there be a deficit-cutting deal soon, because if they hesitate by more than a year or so, there may be no deficit left to cut. As shown in these charts, the deficit for the fiscal year just ended is already down by 2/3 from when Obama took office; if that trend continues, we'll run a surplus in 2014-2015, for the first time since 2001.

A few months ago my economist friend David D. Friedman (with whom I seldom agree on political matters but who knows a lot more about economics than I ever will) pointed out a problem with the way I was adjusting for inflation in those tables. I concluded he was right and started reworking the tables. In the revised tables, which I haven't posted yet, the deficit has shrunk by not 2/3 but 78% since Obama took office, and at that rate it's entirely possible we'll run a surplus in the current fiscal year.

There are of course longer-term deficit concerns, having to do with health care and other benefits for retiring baby boomers, and these need to be addressed in a sustainable, multi-decade approach, not a crisis-of-the-month approach.  Anybody who tells you we're in a debt crisis now and must cut spending (or raise taxes) drastically now or we'll turn into another Greece is either uninformed or lying.


Oct. 1st, 2013 05:18 pm
hudebnik: (Default)

No, not about the Federal government shutdown. I just pulled the lever on a voting machine. There was only one issue on the ballot: a run-off between the top two vote-getters in the primary for the Democratic nomination for New York City Public Advocate. Not a trivial office, as it doubles as "vice mayor" of an 8-million-person city,, but the City just spent $13 million on a one-question election to decide which of two little-known local politicians gets to run on the Democratic line a month from now for an office whose annual budget is $2 million.

The party primary system is broken, not only because it wastes money on extra elections, but because it encourages candidates to appeal to the center of the primary-voting segment of their own party, rather than to the center of all their voting constituents. (Wait: I said this wasn't about the Federal government shutdown. So I lied.)

Give me a ranked voting system. I don't care much whether it's instant runoff, Borda count, or Condorcet count -- although I prefer the Borda count on mathematical and efficiency grounds -- as any of them would be a big improvement over what we've got now.


Sep. 23rd, 2013 07:54 am
hudebnik: (rant)

I wonder if Republicans would be more favorably disposed towards the food-stamp program if it were renamed the "free-market farm price-support voucher system". See, unlike a direct farm subsidy, a voucher system doesn't ask government to pick winners and losers in the farm industry; it lets consumers decide for themselves what they want to buy, so the market picks winners and losers.

Naaah. I must still be asleep.

hudebnik: (Default)

The attentive reader will no doubt recall the sidewalk-repair saga. (The attentive reader needs to get a life.) One side effect of the sidewalk repair was a pile of leftover slate paving-stones in the back yard.

[ profile] shalmestere has been suggesting for a while that we grow something in the narrow strip of dirt-and-gravel between the (concrete) back yard and the garage... but the slate was piled up there.

A few weeks ago I got an odd letter from the City Department of Environmental Protection. Seems they have a chronic problem with storm runoff overwhelming the sewer systems, and it occurred to somebody that if they could spread the rainwater over a longer period of time, they'd be fine. So they got a bunch of plastic barrels from an olive importer that didn't want to ship empty barrels back to Spain, drilled some holes in them, and dubbed them "household rain barrels", to be used to collect rainwater that can subsequently go onto lawns and gardens (presumably when it's dry and the sewers have lots of unused capacity). So they're giving away these rain barrels and kits to attach them to your gutter downspout, for free. Of course, if you want to run a garden hose from the barrel, it really ought to be elevated...

So I decided to move the slate paving stones from one side of the yard to the other, so I could put the rain barrel on top of them, near the downspout, and also liberate some gardening space.

One little problem: there were four full-sized paving stones, weighing (if I'm doing the arithmetic right) an average of 300 pounds. In addition, I wanted the biggest one on the bottom, and they were actually in the order 1, 4, 2, 3, so it was going to take some shuffling.

cut for pictures )

Take that, Cheops!

hudebnik: (devil duck)

Last week a large parking lot on campus was closed off for the construction of a new academic building. Today was the first time I noticed any visible progress.

Cut for pictures )


Sep. 11th, 2013 09:25 am
hudebnik: (teacher-mode)

I was supposed to be in front of a classroom half an hour ago. Instead, I'm still sitting on a train. But at least it's moving now, and I don't expect to be late for my next class.

hudebnik: (teacher-mode)

Graphics class: drew a diagram of a pinhole camera, with an image appearing upside-down on the back wall. Replaced the box with an eyeball. Asked "why is the image upside-down? Why not flipped left-right, or something else? Why should the direction of up-or-down be privileged? Light rays aren't significantly affected by gravity (except near a black hole, which we aren't)."

Did some more thought experiments until one student said "it's not upside-down, it's rotated." So we discussed rotation, reflection, scaling, etc. and I promised that all that stuff they learned in Linear Algebra would actually make sense and be useful this semester.

Computer Architecture class: discussed units, and why E = mc^2 makes sense but E = mc^3 couldn't possibly have been right. Word problem: I walk at 2 steps/second, each step covering 2.5 feet. I jog at 3 steps/second, each step covering 4 feet. If I alternate jogging 75 steps with walking 75 steps, how fast am I moving on average?

Solved the problem two different plausible ways, getting different plausible answers. Discussed which one was wrong, and why. What happens if I lengthen my jogging stride to 5 feet? Obviously this is a 25% increase in jogging speed, but what's the percentage increase in average speed? What if instead of alternating every 75 steps, I alternated every 30 seconds, or every 100 yards? Good discussion.

Data structures class: let's explore a vague problem. In the game of SubDivvy, the players agree on a positive integer to start with, and on each turn, the current player chooses a proper divisor of the current number, subtracts it from the current number, and that becomes the new "current number." Tell me everything you can about the behavior of this game.

Then commenced a series of student-led discussion. Debated definition of "proper divisor"; agreed to exclude the current number itself (or the game end in one turn), and negatives (or the game goes forever). Not sure whether to exclude 1. Defined loss of game as "there is no proper divisor," which means the number is 1 (if we allow 1 as a proper divisor) or prime (if we don't). Proved that current number only decreases, never reaches 0, and never goes negative. Proved that in the allow-1 version of the game, game always ends after at most n-1 turns; still working on minimum number of turns. Proved that (still in the allow-1 version) 1 is a losing configuration, 2 is winning, 3 is losing, and 4 can be won or lost depending on what you choose as the first move -- in other words, strategy does matter in this game (there are games in which it doesn't). Wait: we've been assuming there are 2 players, which I never said. What if there were 3, or 4...? At the bell, left students with the challenge of characterizing winning and losing game states. Good discussion.

If only every day of classes went this way....


Jun. 11th, 2013 05:54 pm
hudebnik: (Default)

Got up early, packed the car, and drove to Boston, making our first concert with 10 minutes to spare. The Peabody Consort, made up of 5 students and 2 faculty, did a program centered on Henry VIII: himself, his daughter and grand-nephew, his in-laws, and the Sephardim who fled said in-laws for his court. Two excellent singers who did some good romantic-drama schtick, a kick-ass viol player (who as [ profile] shalmestere points out is also decorative, and a sophomore in college), an excellent recorder player, an excellent lute/oud player, each given his/her opportunity to shine within a coherent program.

Then we walked a rapid mile to the next concert, by Meravelha: this program was a variety of 12th-15th-century pieces assembled to tell a "boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, girl becomes nun" story, so we were looking forward to it. Some pieces worked better than others: they had two sopranos, a mezzo, and a bass-baritone, and I think the sopranos won the vote on where to pitch things, so some of the pieces sounded a little shrill. They did some good Asteria-style romantic "business": for example, at the "boy gets girl" point, they took hands and sat silently together, her head on his shoulder, while the other musicians did the next number, after which the remaining singer (Cathy Stein, whom we know from Amherst) tapped the "girl" and gave her an "it's time to go" nod, leading into "Adieu ces bons vins", and this worked nicely.

Anyway, then we walked the mile back to the previous venue to hear the University of North Texas collegium. We hadn't planned to go to this concert, as it was pretty Baroque, but there was a big gap in our schedule, and we're glad we did: the ensemble of fifty-odd students was quite tight and polished, there were several excellent soloists (a traverso and several singers), and several sackbuts and natural-trumpets (which get a full scale by having four holes along the bore).

Then off to Newbury St for food.


May. 19th, 2013 09:36 am
hudebnik: (Default)

So today's commencement speaker is hip-hop artist Chuck D, who was a DJ for our campus radio station before forming Public Enemy. Another honoree is Burt Young, who played Rocky Balboa's father-in-law (no particular connection to my school).

Still standing and listening to Elgar, while more people file into the coliseum. Have water bottle, iPhone, and Kindle.

12:35 PM: the last name is read, the tassels flipped. Now the aimless milling around, somewhat hastened by the fact that everybody's hungry.

hudebnik: (Default)

When we woke this morning, the snow had already stopped falling. There was about a foot on the front sidewalk, so I shoveled it off, saw [ profile] shalmestere off to her gamba class, and took the Things to the park.

After [ profile] shalmestere got back, we went to the local art theater to see "Life of Pi", which was gorgeous and surreal and disturbing and all that. Walked home amid melting snow.

Posted via LiveJournal app for iPhone.


hudebnik: (Default)

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