moldybluecheesecurds 2

Monday, July 31, 2006

Hybrids may save the environment, but not your pocketbook

The Omninerd has a thorough analysis of the economics of hybrid cars and concludes that for overall savings, it's still far more economical to drive a conventional high efficiency vehicle like a Toyota Corolla than a "gas sipping" hybrid Prius. Those who also employ an environmental consideration in their purchasing decision may be willing to pay a premium for lower overall gas consumption, but saving the Earth is not equal to saving money in this case.

Friday, July 28, 2006


Many economists will use this article as proof that the market can effectively regulate fuel efficiency. Prices are up, and demand for efficiency rises. Unfortunately, the economists will miss a few points:
  • For the poorest Americans, a tripling of gas prices (as has nearly happened since 2000) creates a disproportionate burden on poor families, who have little discretionary income to cover them.
  • It overlooks what we could have done with a sizable gas tax in 2000, driving fuel use down and banking the money for mass transit and car-alternatives to save even more fuel, as well as providing people with transportation options.
  • If nothing else, we could have used the extra money to help balance the budget.
In other words, I'm delighted to see that people are turned on to more fuel efficient vehicles. It's just too bad we've waited until those high pump prices mean more money for Saudi madrasahs instead of American metrorails.

The stag rears its ugly head

So just last week I noted that comments about stagflation might be overblown, given fairly strong GDP growth and fairly low inflation (despite rising energy prices). But that argument just developed a hole the size of oil barrel prices: the latest economic report shows growth slowing to 2.5% annually in the second quarter, but inflation surging at 5.6%. It may not be time to bust out the wheelbarrows, but with wages predicted to rise less than 4% this year, we'll all be making a little less on the same dollar by Christmas.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

The even numbered key to Middle East conflict

Ever wonder why Israel and the Palestinians/Arabs/Hezbollah have been at it since 1948? Why there's more intense bloodshed now? Why Northern Ireland was a place of near-constant strife for 150 years?

A psychology professor from Harvard recently published an article in the NY Times where he discusses the two principles of the legitimate use of force and how the human brain regularly short-circuits our ability to follow them.

The two principles of justifiable force are:
1) that your strike must be even numbered (i.e. you are hitting back, not striking first - unless it be an oil-laden country whose leader "hurt your daddy")
2) that your strike not exceed the first in force (proportionality)

However, human brains are poorly wired to follow these principles. The problem with the first principle is simply that people count differently. What seems like the first offense to me seems like a measured response to you, and thus we each perceive that we are dealing out even-numbered strikes.

Proportionality is also short-circuited by the human brain.
Research teaches us that our reasons and our pains are more palpable, more obvious and real, than are the reasons and pains of others. This leads to the escalation of mutual harm, to the illusion that others are solely responsible for it and to the belief that our actions are justifiable responses to theirs.
The article illustrates this with a poking game, where two volunteers exchange pokes with instructions to poke back only as hard as they were poked. Despite the instructions, each person averaged 40% more force when returning a poke, quickly escalating the level of force.

In other words, these world-capturing conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere are simply large-scale human fallibility. Israel strikes at Hezbollah for capturing soldiers, while Hezbollah does that in retaliation for a previous offense. Each retaliation changes which strike is even-numbered, and no one remembers where it began.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Blowing a hole in the world's nuclear non-proliferation regime

Several weeks ago, the Bush administration proudly announced a deal to offer civilian nuclear assistance to India. While the aid itself is unremarkable, it is precedent-setting because until now, a country had to renounce nuclear weapons in order to receive civilian technological assistance and materials. No more.

The US is the first nuclear-powered nation to open the door to proliferation by signing a deal with India allowing the transference of nuclear technology. While the President has indicated that some safeguards will be in place, the Economist notes that there's no real way to keep the technology from being co-opted into India's active nuclear weapons program. In particular, India's shortage of high-grade uranium for bomb-making might be a problem of the past, as they would be able to divert uranium intended for civilian use into bombs.

I can't see how this is a good move in a region where two nuclear powers (Pakistan and India) are regularly practicing brinkmanship.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Breed for niceness?

According to this long-running study in the former Soviet Union, not only do mean people suck, but their meanness might be genetic. Apparently, Soviet scientists were essentially able to domesticate a silver fox and rats within a human lifetime by always pairing the most tame animals for mating. What shall we domesticate next?

Friday, July 21, 2006

Bulls, and Bears, and Stags - Oh My!

You don't hear much about economic downturns or inflation from the government and indeed not even much from the media. But The Austrailian doesn't shy from an assessment that the United States could be facing stagflation - a combination of a slowing economy and rising inflation that eats away the standard of living.

The Economist opined last year that while the United States was not facing the same dual punch as it did in the 1970s (with inflation above 7% and GDP growth hovering at 1%), the Federal Reserve was running too loose of a monetary policy to effectively contain inflation. This means that interest rates are still too low to act as a curb on borrowing and spending (which leads to inflation).

However, the data show that we aren't really in trouble yet. Pulling some data from the BLS, we see that US inflation (as measured by the Consumer Price Index) was up 3.3% last year and is up at a similar annual rate this year. And GDP growth was 3.5% in 2005 and 5.6% (annualized) in the first quarter of 2006. So despite a growing number of news stories about it, do we really need to worry about stagflation yet?

Let's try a post 9/11 government

As usual, you can count on Bill Clinton to be articulate when describing the need to switch the party in control of government. Who's really interested in the security of Americans? It's not our administration!

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

We must protect the sheep - and the cute little chicks

If there's one thing sticking in Osama bin Laden's craw, it must be the "Great Satan's" ability to defend it's most valuable resources. That's right, Old MacDonald’s Petting Zoo is featured in the federal antiterrorism database, listed as a national asset alongside the Golden Gate Bridge, Empire State Building, and US Capitol.

Even better is the listing of Amish Country Popcorn. When the proprietor of this fine establishment was interviewed about his listing in the National Asset Database, he had this to say:
“I am out in the middle of nowhere,” said Mr. Lehman, whose business in Berne, Ind., has five employees and grows and distributes popcorn. “We are nothing but a bunch of Amish buggies and tractors out here. No one would care.”

But on second thought, he came up with an explanation: “Maybe because popcorn explodes?”

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Open the books, Uncle Sam

One of the main ideas behind American government is that the people rule. And flowing from this principle is the concept that people should be informed so that they make good choices. Laws like the Freedom of Information Act - turning 40 this year - were designed to ensure that the public has access to documentation of the government's business. So what's with the dramatically increasing level of government secrecy?

This kind of restriction is what's happening to American government, as increased secrecy removes a lot of public decisions from the scrutiny of citizens. And since citizens are supposed to hold the power in a country with democratic self-rule, secrecy is the enemy of effective and responsive government. If you don't buy it from me, check out Jimmy Carter's recent commentary or view the secrecy video at

Friday, July 07, 2006

Does Wal-Mart make it not organic?

Picture organic farms and you might see a farm family, carefully avoiding the use of pesticides or even mechanized equipment in order to raise the most natural animals, vegetables or grain. Technically, you might be overreaching, as the USDA defines organic food as stuff raised without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. But you probably don't imagine mass produced products at Wal-Mart as falling into the organic category. And there you'd be wrong.

Recognizing that organic food is a rapidly growing industry, Wal-Mart has decided to jump whole (grass fed) hog into the organic market. But the question is: once Wal-Mart goes organic, does organic really mean the same thing?

Beyond the USDA definition, Michael Pollan says that organic food "should be priced not high or low but responsibly." In other words, Wal-Mart's promise to reduce the premium on organic foods to just 10% of the conventional food price means that it won't be possible to do organic farming the same way. Pollan mentions the concept of "organic feedlots," where milk cows are raised - not roaming a grass-covered field - but in virtually the same way as conventional milk cows, substituting in organic grain.

The other factor in low prices is transporting organic food from the cheapest locale. However, while this organic food might avoid pesticides and herbicides, as Pollan puts it, it will be "drenched in petroleum." With oil profits often enriching large corporations - or more worriedly - illiberal regimes in the Middle East, perhaps cheap organic food is too costly to the concept of sustainability.

But at least it won't be elitist anymore...

Thursday, July 06, 2006

A race to watch

Connecticut "Democratic" Senator Joe Lieberman is facing a primary challenge from Ned Lamont, a progressive who's drawing a stark contrast to Lieberman's unwavering support for the Iraq War. One tool in Lamont's arsenal is his advertising agency. The agency is run by Bill Hillsman, who helped Paul Wellstone's long-shot campaign for Senate in 1990. Hillsman also teamed up with Jesse Ventura in his successful 1998 campaign for governor of Minnesota and he made a great ad ("priceless") for Ralph Nader in 2000. See Hillsman's work here.

It's going to be rough going for Lieberman - not that I'll shed many tears for his poor policy choices.

Racial profiling by name

Is there really anything more we can do to alienate otherwise friendly Arabs? We already have few enough friends in the Arab world. And even though there may only be 200,000 Arabs living in the United States, each one serves as an ambassador of American ideas to their relatives back home.

So it probably doesn't do us any favors to have Western Union, citing Treasury Department policy, prohibiting money transfers to people with Arab-sounding names. Here's just a few reasons why this is dumb:
  • We punish innocent people with Arab names
  • As a result, we further erode Arab opinion of the United States
  • We don't actually prevent terrorist money transfers, because there are alternative money-transfer services.

I'm just glad there weren't any Irish terrorists involved in 9/11.

Back from vacation

T've had the good fortune to have two mini vacations in the past few weeks, the first to Jamaica to see a friend's wedding and the second to family cabins. It's meant a lot of relaxing near water, the discovery of a local beer, and some sailing.

I was amused at my recognition of many land and water features on the plane ride to Jamaica, thanks to many hours wasted on Pirates!.

But now I'm back at the library, so I should be getting back to the punditry.