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Recycling Myths February 28, 2007

Posted by David Bookstaber in Economic Policy, Energy, Regulation.

What’s wrong with recycling? The answer is simple; it doesn’t pay. And since it doesn’t pay it is an inefficient use of the time, money, and scarce resources. 

That’s from an enjoyable essay I came across today, “Recycling, What a Waste!” 

Growing up I always had a feeling that consumer recycling didn’t make sense.  Could the value of an aluminum can or glass bottle really be so high that it is economical for people to sort them into special blue containers, and then pay waste collectors to make special trips collecting those and trucking them to recycling plants?

That’s not to say recyclables are valueless.  If you can get people to donate enough of their time sorting and transporting raw materials for free, then aggregators can often sell them for a profit.  But if it was truly cost-effective then there would be enough profit in the exercise to incentivize consumers to recycle of their own volition.  I.e., without state laws requiring deposits on recyclable bottles, and without local laws fining people for not separating their recyclables.

But if there were really a lot of latent value locked up in all these recyclables, I know where we can find TONS of them: Every landfill around the country is loaded with organic materials that can be burned for fuel (like the coal we use to fire our power plants — only this fuel is already sitting in piles aboveground and close to cities), mixed with glass and metals that can then be recycled.  Except apparently it’s not worth doing.  And if it’s not worth going after this stuff when it’s already collected and sitting in enormous heaps, why is it worth hassling every consumer to sort and carry a few pounds of the stuff to his curb?

Jim Fedako, in the essay cited above, identifies two groups with a big interest in this exercise.  First are the (irrational) environmentalists who derive psychic dividends from “green” behavior.  “The other winners are the companies that do the collecting and process the materials, an industry that is sustained by mandates at the local level.”

If recycling at a financial loss leads you to greater psychic profit, then recycle, recycle, recycle. Let your personal preferences guide your actions, but don’t force your preference schedule on others who have a different preference rank for their own actions. And, do not delude yourself into thinking that you are economizing anything; you are simply increasing your psychic profit at the expense of a more rational investment.

Classroom Lectures Are Obsolete February 22, 2007

Posted by David Bookstaber in Education.

Ever since the invention of audio and video recording, non-interactive classroom lectures have been obsolete.  Why make teachers around the world stand up in front crowds of students to put on a live show when you could instead get one of the world’s best, most telegenic teachers, perfect and record a single production, and then distribute it to any interested student for a small fraction of the cost of a live performance?  Better quality, more convenient, less expensive.

Classroom and lab education still has its place, but our education paradigms have been woefully slow to adapt to the information age.  On a few recent trips I was listening to recorded lectures by Daniel Robinson from The Teaching Company.  They are at least as good as the best lectures on the subject I attended at Yale.

This complaint is sort of along the lines of my earlier post on performing artsGreg Mankiw’s blog also has a recent post on this subject.

More Arguments Against Mandatory Retirement February 16, 2007

Posted by David Bookstaber in Retirement.
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Human mental faculties suffer measurable declines with age.  Professions like air traffic control and piloting set absolute age limits, supposedly out of concern that older workers simply cannot maintain safe performance standards.  Many other professions, like law, try to force workers into retirement at age 60 or 65, though the only basis for such traditions I can imagine is the fact that over a century ago that is the age at which people typically died.

Research highlighted today in the WSJ reveals that, even as generalized mental skills like attention and memory degenerate, job-specific faculties are quite resistant to gerontological decay.  In fact, the experience accumulated over years in a profession can confer a performance advantage over the more agile brains of younger people.  This suggests that mandatory retirement — at least at the ages currently indicated — is both unfair and counterproductive.


Atlas Shrugs in Venezuela February 15, 2007

Posted by David Bookstaber in Government.
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The left was thrilled when Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez stood in front of the United Nations and encouraged the world to read Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony.  Meanwhile, Chavez seems determined to follow the script for economic ruin laid out by Ayn Rand:  Today’s news from Caracas almost reads like a plot summary for Part I of Atlas Shrugged:

[A]n increasing number of professionals, many of them from the oil industry, are looking abroad for work, driven away by President Hugo Chávez’s effort to extend state control over the economy, and by inflation verging on 20%.

Since his re-election in December, Mr. Chávez has pursued an agenda of “21st Century Socialism,” painting a future of “communal cities” and state-run cooperatives dedicated to production, not profit.

“Chavez’s electoral triumph and the radicalized discourse has increased the desire to emigrate,” said Luis Vicente Leon, the head of Datanalisis, a Caracas polling firm.

Not everyone is dissatisfied. Mr. Chávez, who first took office in 1999, has gained a broad base of popular support among Venezuela’s poor, largely by spending billions of dollars on social programs. And a newly rich class of Venezuelans with close connections to the government is likely to stick around as long as they can continue to profit from Mr. Chávez’s rise.

Choose Prosperity: Choose Small Government February 14, 2007

Posted by David Bookstaber in Economic Policy.
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With the U.S. seemingly at a political turning point, the next few years are very important. At a similar juncture in 1929, and again in 1965, the U.S. moved toward bigger government. After World War II, and again in the early 1980s, Washington chose less intrusive government. The results speak for themselves. Good times or scary times: It’s our choice. 

This is Brian Wesbury conluding his essay, “A Portrait of the Economy,” which offers a historical perspective on big government’s effect on the economy.

One would think that the unbelievably dramatic turnaround in the economy from the malaise of the 1970s to the boom of the past 24 years would prevent the return of big government. But it appears that a growing number of American politicians, journalists and their constituents have forgotten the awful reality of the 1970s economy. Part of the problem is that people younger than 45 don’t have even the slightest idea of how bad it was, or what caused it. They also have no idea that when Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan turned away from socialism in the late 1970s and early 1980s, continental Europe (Germany, France and Italy) kept going. Then while the U.S and U.K. boomed, continental Europe fell behind.

Couture for Men February 12, 2007

Posted by David Bookstaber in Open Questions.

The fashion industry has been utterly coopted by the female perspective.  I believe there is a latent market for clothing that appeals to the innate interests of men: Namely, technologically advanced and concretely useful apparel, rather than arbitrarily trendy and frilly patterns and designs.

To first illustrate key gender differences I offer as examples my wife and my self.  It is particularly amusing how our disparate interests can render one of us virtually blind to things that are central to the vocabulary of the other.  For example, my wife is oblivious to vehicles.  If I ask her, “What kind of rental were you driving this past week?”, I am bound to end up with a response along the lines of, “Um, it was white, sort of an SUV.  I think the logo was an oval with something inside it.”  Meanwhile, with just a glimpse of part of a car I can flesh out any number of details, including the brand, model, approximate model year, and probably a good number of trim features.  I can tell you why one car or feature is better or more expensive than another.  But I don’t naturally notice clothes.  I can’t remember what I wore yesterday.  Even after I spend an afternoon with somebody I probably couldn’t remember what they were wearing in any more than the most general terms.  In contrast, my wife can remember what she was wearing on almost any occasion in her life.  She can usually remember what I was wearing.  She knows if clothes are expensive or fashionable, even if she doesn’t own them.  (All I know is that some of my clothes don’t fit very well, and that others have to be dry cleaned if I get them dirty.)

But if I may be premitted to generalize from my wife, women are like that: They wear makeup and earrings.  They adorn themselves with accoutrements that serve no useful purpose — and in many cases are anti-utilitarian.  And this is the reason that men need their own couture: It’s not that men like me don’t care about clothes as much as women.  It’s just that we care about them in different ways.

If I could indulge in couture the first thing I would do is banish all accoutrements that do not serve a useful function.  Belts and ties are out; after all, the height of fashion should be the ability to design and buy clothes that fit without the need for extraneous straps.  Like suspenders and garters, these are surely just accessories that came into custom because mass-produced clothes weren’t designed to fit well enough on their own.  Likewise, non-fastening collars and other superfluous buttons and flaps are to be cut out.  Today’s collars are limp vestiges of removable collars that could be laundered more frequently than the shirt they protected.  Lapels that in previous ages could be buttoned up against the weather today are useless; they may as well be painted onto jackets.

Male couture should pay more attention to the properties and technology of fabric than to its color or shape.  I am thrilled that I can now buy non-shrinking, wrinkle-free, stain-resistant clothes that I can throw in a washer and dryer without worrying about how hot or hard I run the machines.  Semi-permeable and breathable fabrics like Gore-Tex are starting to look passe compared to materials that incorporate anti-microbial properties.  I would gladly shell out even more money for clothes that are lint-free, and would expect true male couture to incorporate more exotic features like anti-static fibers or embedded metal filament like those conductive suits worn by high-voltage linemen.  (“Volt-Tex — because you never know when you’ll be struck by lightning.”  These marketing slogans practically write themselves!)

Male fashion should extend beyond the materials to address form and function in ways that men naturally care about.  Colors should be incorporated only at a basic level for purely utilitarian purposes — white for a clean image, black to conceal or subdue, bright red or yellow for safety or attention.  Any patterning of color can be permitted only as part of an explicit camoflauge strategy.

As for the form of the clothing, I’d be perfectly happy if everything were a one-piece jumpsuit.  The only options should be whether the sleaves are short or long, how warm or cool the fabric will keep me, and how many clever pockets there are.

Euphemizing Race February 3, 2007

Posted by David Bookstaber in Language.
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There is no such thing as a hyphenated American who is a good American. The only man who is a good American is the man who is an American and nothing else.  – Theodore Roosevelt

We have an amusing history of trying to euphemize references to the race and sub-culture of the descendants of American slaves.  Nobody pales referring to “whites” or “Caucasians,” but the analogous terms “black” and “Negro” have become somewhat taboo.  James Taranto highlights the conundrum for today’s polite society:

The term African-American–which Jesse Jackson put forward as a replacement for black some two decades ago–is less precise when referring to the descendants of people whose ancestors were brought to America in bondage centuries ago. One of the horrors of slavery is that it largely, and involuntarily, sundered the connection between slaves and their ancestral homeland; and a change in terminology cannot erase this fact of history.

But the usage in the Times story makes things even more confusing. Apparently African-American now refers to both the descendants of slaves and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa (though presumably only dark-skinned ones; it is still, as far as we know, politically incorrect to refer to Teresa Heinz Kerry, a white Mozambique native, as “African-American”). Black, at least if Debra Dickerson has her way, refers only to the descendants of slaves.

What, then, do we call members of South Africa’s formerly oppressed racial majority? After African-American became the politically correct term for black, we recall hearing stories (perhaps apocryphal) of copy-editors changing references to this group so that they read, for instance, “South Africa’s African-American majority.” Politically correct language often does more to obscure than to clarify–but maybe that’s the idea.

Granted, race and culture are nebulous concepts.  But they are still real concepts, which circumlocution will not abolish.

Department of Unintended Consequences – Part III February 1, 2007

Posted by David Bookstaber in Taxation.
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The tax code is riddled with provisions, such as the Alternative Minimum Tax, the estate tax and any number of phaseouts and caps, that were sold politically as targeting only the “super-rich” but now capture taxpayers of far more modest means.

When it comes to tax code, More Is Less.  Will government ever learn this?  The WSJ editorial board illuminates the Senate’s latest gambit to raise tax revenue by soaking the rich corporate executive: