Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Walmart Effect

Walmart is instantly polarizing amongst some - with its hostile views towards unions, and its success at pushing to lower prices, it's also an icon that is admired around the world. Instead of fighting Walmart by building and patronizing what they see as better stores, opponents would rather deprive us the choice of shopping at Walmart:

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Why Central Planners Fail: The Knowledge Problem and Why Markets Win

By one of my favorite bloggers, the "knowledge problem" is the recognition that no one can be an expert at everything while markets are able to facilitate cooperation and communicate through pricing signals (Washington Examiner):

Economist Friedrich Hayek explained in 1945 why centrally controlled "command economies" were doomed to waste, inefficiency, and collapse: Insufficient knowledge. He won a Nobel Prize. But it turns out he was righter than he knew.

In his "The Use of Knowledge In Society," Hayek explained that information about supply and demand, scarcity and abundance, wants and needs exists in no single place in any economy. The economy is simply too large and complicated for such information to be gathered together.

Any economic planner who attempts to do so will wind up hopelessly uninformed and behind the times, reacting to economic changes in a clumsy, too-late fashion and then being forced to react again to fix the problems that the previous mistakes created, leading to new problems, and so on.

Market mechanisms, like pricing, do a better job than planners because they incorporate what everyone knows indirectly through signals like price, without central planning.
Read the whole thing. Sadly, there isn't any shortage of "experts" who believe they can allocate resources and price better than markets leading the Cato Institute to observe that "inside every leftist, is an authoritarian dying to get out."

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

"Poverty has been man’s condition throughout his history"

In our age of relative affluence, it's remarkable how far we've come - but it's a road that's often forgotten. The Freeman via The Thinker:

There is very little either complicated or interesting about poverty. Poverty has been man’s condition throughout his history. The causes of poverty are quite simple and straightforward. Generally, individual people or entire nations are poor for one or more of the following reasons: (1) they cannot produce many things highly valued by others; (2) they can produce things valued by others but they are prevented from doing so; or (3) they volunteer to be poor.

The true mystery is why there is any affluence at all. That is, how did a tiny proportion of man’s population (mostly in the West) for only a tiny part of man’s history (mainly in the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries) manage to escape the fate of their fellow men?

Is Intellectual Property Necessary?

An interesting argument from UK's Adam Smith Institute - though I think it's more an argument against copyrights than all IP:


- Dickens could make money from Americans without copyright
- Musicians could feed themselves before Edison
- Plant breeding could bloom before the US Plant Variety Protection Act of 1970
- Software got written before the 1981 SCOTUS decision in Diamond vs Diehr
- Most of the 2009 Billboard Top 40 music earners made most of their income from live performances, not recordings
- Harry Potter novels sold enough in their first twenty-four hours to keep J K Rowling in style

...why do we think they need state protection now? The plain truth is that because of the grip of the small number of media giants who control the production, marketing and distribution of their favoured artists, many more undiscovered artists subsist on live gigs in local venues. And because of the modish patent trolls who have no intention of ever exploiting their patents, many innovators never even know someone else “owns” an idea until the writ arrives end up broken.

19th century libertarians ranked Intellectual Monopoly as state created privilege that impoverishes the majority. We should heed them: they are still destructive, unnecessary, statist and evil.

Trailer: Revenge of the Electric Car

Not for the Luddites amongst us. While battery tech has come a long ways, and it killed the electric car the last time around, I'm not sure that it's good enough yet judging only by pricing of electric cars. It's coming though - if only in the meantime they'd make it easy to do natural gas conversions.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Lexus' 360-Degree Carbon Fiber Loom

An ad for Lexus but there's something amazingly cool about this (via Core77):

Sunday, April 24, 2011

How Thorium Could Quench Our Thirst for Energy

Another reason why high gas prices at the tank are unsustainable - and as a corollary, spur the development of alternatives. Now if only governments would reduce the barriers to innovation... (via Instapundit)

Saturday, April 23, 2011

What do Markets "Owe" to the Common Good?

Megan McArdle points out a classic flaw of those who downplay the role and power of markets (TheAtlantic):

John Quiggin complains that what the classic essay I, Pencil actually shows is the wonders of a mixed economy, not the market. The essay traces all the amazing transactions that need to occur for a simple pencil to be made, pointing out that not one of the people involved could make a pencil by themselves, and most of them don't even know that they're involved in producing a pencil. But what about the US Forestry Service? Rail rights of way? The education system?

This is an argument to which the left-wing has a great deal of recourse whenever anyone suggests that people have a right to keep what they earn from voluntary transactions. You can only make money in the context of society, and so society has a right to regulate your transactions, and seize the proceeds, in any way that society sees fit.

And yet, the argument applies just as well to our sex lives or our political beliefs: they take place in the context of all sorts of government protections, from rape prosecutions to whistleblower laws. Without markets and the government, the "anything between two consenting adults" morality to which the majority of the elite subscribes would be impossible; the closest substitute for these things is family, and families have a very clear, deep, and persistent interest in regulating the sexual behavior of their members.

Does this mean that the government (or our employers) may properly restrict our sexual behavior to that of which a majority of our neighbors approve? That bed you're having sex in probably travelled on the interstate highway system, so standby for government inspection . . .
Read the whole thing.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Next Generation of X-Prizes

I've been a big fan of the X-Prizes because of the first Ansari X-Prize that spurred the creation of the private space industry. Here's a look by Vivek Wadhwa from TechCrunch at the next generation of X-Prizes:

There are several X PRIZE competitions in progress, such as the $30 million Google Lunar X PRIZE—which will reward anyone who can send a robot to the Moon that travels at least 500 meters and transmits video, images, and data back to the Earth. The Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE is offering $1.4 million to anyone who can speed the pace of cleaning up seawater surface oil resulting from spillage from ocean platforms, tankers, and other sources. And the Archon Genomics X PRIZE is offering $10 million for a device that dramatically reduces the time and cost of sequencing the human genome. [...]

As X PRIZE founder Peter Diamandis explains, unlike venture capital, which backs one possible solution, incentive competitions inspire a multitude of solutions; they build robust industries and ecosystems. The competitions do this by setting a target and goal that multiple players strive toward. And, unlike traditional philanthropy, which often spends only cents in the dollar toward a desired outcome, incentive competitions create tremendous leverage, with the prize purse attracting operating capital, and teams spending multiples of the prize purse. By setting an audacious but achievable target and vetting that target through experts, incentive competitions offer credibility and “air cover” for entrepreneurs, innovators, and inventors who want to pursue a path that would otherwise be considered too risky, Diamandis adds.

It is very possible that some of the of the technologies we discussed over the weekend will come to fruition and change the lives of billions; that investments of a few million dollars will do more good for the world than the billions that are invested in the me-too social media technologies that Silicon Valley is so excited about. My hope is that more of world’s greatest minds do what some did last weekend: brainstorm to save our civilization.

Awesome: Doing what you love and making money at it

While the swissmiss uses this diagram to describe worthwhile side projects, why isn't there a greater overlap? The best job ought to be the one that doesn't feel like a job.

via the swissmiss:

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A wandering mind is an unhappy one

Something that to note to self(BarkingUptheWrongTree): "People spend 46.9 percent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing, and this mind-wandering typically makes them unhappy."

It would seem David Allen was onto something.

A Few Fascinating Things


  • "Today, of Americans officially designated as 'poor,' 99 percent have electricity, running water, flush toilets, and a refrigerator; 95 percent have a television, 88 percent a telephone, 71 percent a car and 70 percent air conditioning. Cornelius Vanderbilt had none of these." --Matt Ridley

  • "As late as the 1950s, New York's garment industry was the nation's largest manufacturing cluster. It employed 50 percent more workers than the auto industry in Detroit." --Edward Glaeser

  • "Two married 66-year-olds with roughly average earnings over their lives will end up paying about $110,000 in dedicated Medicare taxes through the payroll tax, including the portion their employers pay. They can expect to receive about $340,000 in benefits. Two average-earning 56-year-olds will pay about $140,000 and get back about $430,000 in benefits." --David Leonhardt

  • "In 1941, the U.S. economy produced almost 40 percent more output than it had in 1929, with virtually no increase in labor hours or private-sector capital input. Almost all of the increase in output per hour is attributable to technological and organizational advance. ... The [Great Depression in the] 1930s were indeed the most technologically progressive decade of the century." --Alex Field
Lots more at the link.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Is the Real Estate Bubble Finally Bursting in China?

I haven't been blogging much about China lately and I guess there's a lot to catch up on but this one is a bit of an eyeopener: Beijing real estate prices plunge 27% in one month (ZeroHedge). Oddly this is a bit at terms with a WSJ blogging entry from today:

Through its official mouthpieces, China has in recent days conspicuously stepped up its rhetoric–and in some cases its actions–on its largely unsuccessful campaign to rein in the country’s stubbornly high property prices.

In a prominently displayed article that was also carried on the Xinhua News Agency’s website, the People’s Daily reported Wednesday on a top-level official property inspection team’s arrival in Hangzhou, the capital city of the affluent eastern province of Zhejiang.

The article quoted Yun Xiaosu, a vice minister of the Ministry of Land and Resources, as telling the Zhejiang officials that “the central government is of the view that the problem, which chiefly involves urban housing, has already affected the overall situation.”

“We must be determined to resolve the property price issue while reining in inflation,” Yun said.

[...] It’s been more than a year since Beijing vowed to keep the country’s increasingly unaffordable property prices in check. But after rolling out three rounds of tightening measures, prices remain near record levels, despite shrinking transaction volumes. This has put Beijing’s credibility to a serious test.

A Mathematical Love Song: Finite Simple Group Of Order Two

via The Thinker:

Driving growth by nurturing entrepreneurs and startups

The Kauffman Foundation and Brink Lindsey have just released some interesting new research. Brought to you by the same people who found that US job growth is driven almost entirely by startups. Their new research focuses on how governments in developed countries can continue to drive job growth that has otherwise slowed down:

The more uncertain things get, the only way to cope with that uncertainty is ceaseless trial and error... as we've learned the primary carriers of ideas are entrepreneurs with new companies... The way to keep things going is to make things favorable to new entrepreneurs.
Their study provides a roadmap for policymakers on how they can encourage and support entrepreneurs.

Ayn Rand: Pro-Markets does not mean Pro-Business

It's a differentiation that many, out of ignorance or demagoguery seem to forget. As Donald Luskin puts it, "the author of Atlas Shrugged [Amazon] was an individualist, not a conservative, and she knew big business was as much a threat to capitalism as government bureaucrats" in an editorial out in the WSJ:

But it's a misreading of "Atlas" to claim that it is simply an antigovernment tract or an uncritical celebration of big business. In fact, the real villain of "Atlas" is a big businessman, railroad CEO James Taggart, whose crony capitalism does more to bring down the economy than all of Mouch's regulations. With Taggart, Rand was anticipating figures like Angelo Mozilo, the CEO of Countrywide Financial, the subprime lender that proved to be a toxic mortgage factory. Like Taggart, Mr. Mozilo engineered government subsidies for his company in the name of noble-sounding virtues like home ownership for all.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Sandy Springs, Georgia: "The City that Outsourced Everything"

An interesting look at how a relatively new, but wealthier community (formed in 2005) has chosen to manage itself - outsourcing nearly all its services for substantial savings (from

While cities across the country are cutting services, raising taxes and contemplating bankruptcy, something extraordinary is happening in a suburban community just north of Atlanta, Georgia.

Since incorporating in 2005, Sandy Springs has improved its services, invested tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure and kept taxes flat. And get this: Sandy Springs has no long-term liabilities.
It will be interesting to see how these new cities like this manage over time and the businesses and residents they attract. But it's exciting to see alternatives out there - and dare I say it, it's progressive, in the literal definition of the word.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Scott Adams: "Forget art history and calculus. Most students need to learn how to run a business"

I love business because they're often an exercise in creative problem solving, optimization wrapped in a bit (sometimes a lot) of psychology. It's too bad that academia too often sees ideas like profit and commerce as distasteful and a necessary evil. Scott Adams writes an opinion piece in the WSJ of the value of learning entrepreneurship:

I understand why the top students in America study physics, chemistry, calculus and classic literature. The kids in this brainy group are the future professors, scientists, thinkers and engineers who will propel civilization forward. But why do we make B students sit through these same classes? That's like trying to train your cat to do your taxes—a waste of time and money. Wouldn't it make more sense to teach B students something useful, like entrepreneurship?
More at his blog and/or the discussion at Hacker News.

Why We Aren't Running Out: "Prices are Incentives Wrapped in Knowledge"

A quick and good video on resources and why we haven't yet run out:

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Root of All Evil

The UK's Independent explores why the lack of empathy is the root of all evil:

Human cruelty has fascinated and puzzled Baron-Cohen since childhood. When he was seven years old, his father told him the Nazis had turned Jews into lampshades and soap. He also recounted the story of a woman he met who had her hands severed by Nazi doctors and sewn on opposite arms so the thumbs faced outwards. These images stuck in Simon's mind. He couldn't understand how one human could treat another with such cruelty. The explanation that the Nazis were simply evil didn't satisfy him. For Baron-Cohen, science provides a more satisfactory explanation for evil and that explanation is empathy – or rather, lack of empathy.

"Empathy is our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling, and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion," writes Baron-Cohen. People who lack empathy see others as mere objects.

Empathy, like height, is a continuous variable, but for convenience, Baron-Cohen splits the continuum into six degrees – seven if you count zero empathy. Answering the empathy quotient (EQ) questionnaire, developed by Baron-Cohen and colleagues, will put you somewhere on the empathy bell curve. People with zero degrees of empathy will be at one end of the bell curve and those with six degrees of empathy at the other end.
Read the whole thing. I'd add though that this is probably one of the things that makes markets ingenious in co-opting the reward systems of "evil" for the benefits of society.

While malice, fraud, and other crimes exist, creating wealth legally within the system is far easier and more sustainable than the alternative. It's possible to profit if your motive is solely greed, but rewards are often greater when you aspire (or at least convincingly say you do) to more.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Protect Nature: Put a price tag on it

A reminder that it's not money but the love of money that's the root of all evil. I'm sometimes dismissed as being entirely focused on money when the reality is that prices are only a way to evaluate tradeoffs and scarcity. By reducing things to abstract values, we may end up undervaluing them - and that's the case this article makes. From the Boston Globe:

In the United States, China, Costa Rica, and elsewhere, governments have opted to fund the preservation of forests, watersheds, and other ecosystems — and not because, or not only because, of their beauty. The primary impetus, rather, is the “services” they provide, including air and water purification, carbon sequestration, flood control, and drought prevention. The World Bank has sponsored numerous relevant projects, and a Stanford-based initiative, the Natural Capital Project, draws together environmental organizations and academics to advance and implement the idea.

And yet, for all of the obvious appeal of this approach to green types, there are serious concerns about translating ecological value into dollars and cents. Commodifying nature offends the sensibilities of some environmentalists, who believe we should prize it for its intrinsic worth, and for ethical and historical reasons. If we appraise nature only for the “services” it provides to humans, could that lead to an overly anthropocentric ethos that jettisons any elements that do not obviously accrue to our benefit?
Read the whole thing. More discussion at Hacker News.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

[How] Will Western Civilization Fall?

Stephan Balch at PJMedia asks "Is our civilization a bubble?" (via Instapundit). While there may be some cause for concern, there's greater cause for optimism:

For about the last two hundred years (three in a few locales), the fundamental structure of Western civilization has been anomalous in a crucial way. The anomaly consists in this: whereas in the overwhelming majority of societies the dominant route to wealth and status has been through political control, essentially the use of force or threat of force to extract value from others, in the West it has generally been through exchanges in which the parties have choices, and in which value must be returned for value received if the transaction is to consummate. We’re so conditioned to this, to the fact that our great fortunes belong to entrepreneurs, inventors, magnates, entertainers, and athletes, people who make (or do) things that others want, rather than to royalty, nobility, high priests, mandarins, court favorites and military leaders, people who take in taxes and booty things that others would prefer to keep, that we — very much including historians, journalists, and social commentators of almost every stripe — give little or no thought to it, considering it pretty much the natural order of things. But our exchange-oriented social order does not represent the natural order of things, and what it anomalously results in is of enormous –though perhaps ultimately self-destructive — consequence.
While popular academics like Jared Diamond fret over environmental catastrophes (Amazon), I think they underestimate the capacity of this system to adapt.

As Brink Lindsey points out in Against the Dead Hand (Amazon), it's a system that has come less from design than from default and accident - and it's one that can be undone.

Does this make our civilization a bubble? If this is question with respect to whether our civilization is unsustainable, I think the answer is an emphatic no. This also does not however mean that the anomaly cannot be undone through our "self destructive" tendencies - or as Lindsey calls it, the Dead Hand.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Urgh, Google Email Hacked.

If you're on my gmail address book, my apologies for the bit of spam.

Monday, April 04, 2011

When and How Prizes, Grants and Charity Work

I was hunting for something else online when I came across this talk by Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution, one of the top economics blogs online. A bit wonkish, but it talks to one of my favorite ideas and the efficient pursuit of big goals:

Related, from the organizers of some of some of my favorite races/prizes:

In memory of Cody, a border collie with spunk

With all that's been happening in the world, it feels weird and a bit callous to eulogize a dog. He was born February 6th, 2009, and died April 1st, 2011, of the canine distemper virus. He was adorable. I feel I had the privileges of a grandparent - I got all the benefits when I was there of having Cody, but few of the responsibilities. To him, I may have just been the guy who would leave for months at a time and bring back treats. But I always had treats.

Our reunions were always a bit of an oddity. He'd pounce up and then jump up and down so I'd play along and jump up and down with him while he'd bark until people looked at me funny - which, rest assuredly, was not very long, but perhaps somewhat alarmingly, a little longer than one might expect. He will be missed.

(And no, he did not die because he was strangled, but this was definitely a happier moment captured in low res)