Archive for April, 2009

The Economics of Netflix

April 20th, 2009 Comments off

Tyler Cowen points to a calculator to see if you’re saving money using Netflix.

But as he says, the per-DVD cost isn’t really the issue.

Personally, I’ve canceled my Netflix subscription three times. But never again.

Reason for canceling: the movie I have is never the movie I want to watch. They sometimes end up sitting around for months until I send them back.

It’s *perfect* for watching TV shows on multiple disks. But there aren’t any (left) that I want to watch.

Why I have a ($4.99) subscription now, and won’t cancel:


$100 box plugs into your TV and connects to your wifi. You can watch any of Netflix’s instant movies for free. Limited selection, but lots of good stuff (especially older stuff). Recent upgrade means the quality is usually excellent. (I have a a 720p projector with like an 11′ screen.)

All you need is the cheapest $5/month Netflix plan. You can also view rented (or purchased) movies from Amazon on Demand via the Roku box.

Netflix/Roku plus Amazon on Demand means–despite my unhealthy need to choose my movie at the moment–that I almost never go to the video store any more.

For $100 up front (chalk it up to gas charges, so free) plus $60 a year–the cost of renting 24 DVDs, or two a month–plus miscellaneous Amazon rental charges.

Unfortunately I still have that one netflix DVD lying around preying on my mind. I was in the mood to watch it when I put it in my queue…

S&P 500 Earnings: The Most Depressing Graphic I’ve Seen This Year

April 20th, 2009 Comments off

Free Will. Again. Some More.

April 20th, 2009 Comments off

Responding with only limited time to do so to a very interesting discussion prompted by a Bryan Caplan post:

Obviously, indeterminism (i.e. developmental noise making identically-gened twins different from each other) does not satisfy as an explanation of free will. The weather system does not have free will. Need to look elsewhere.

Just to point to a couple of insights from Daniel Dennet in Freedom Evolves.

1. If humans truly do have a kind of free will that other animals (and inanimate entities) don’t, it seems likely that it’s related to another unique ability: the ability to explain our reasons–to others and to ourselves. So the cognitive machinery associated with language could be key to this understanding.

2. Somebody that he cites (don’t have time to look it up) suggests that consciousness and (the impression of) free will evolved essentially as a user interface for a very complex machine. That’s not fully satisfying, because it leaves the “user” intact and separate from the very thing that we think of as “us.” In our case–if this idea is safe–the user *is* the interface (or vice versa).

Sorry, just loose ideas, loosely presented. But they’re both important pointers in my ongoing thinking on the subject.

Win-Win Utilitarianism: The Greatest Good For the Greatest Number

April 20th, 2009 2 comments

Scott Sumner at The Money Illusion has a very interesting (followup) post on Utilitarianism–the doctrine (as here described on Wikipedia) that “the moral worth of an action is determined solely by its contribution to overall utility: that is, its contribution to happiness or pleasure as summed among all persons.”

In other words, aggregate utility or aggregate “goodness.”

He makes a very good point:

…the utilitarian policy criterion doesn’t explicitly mention equality, but utilitarianism is actually a radically egalitarian value system in two different senses. … [1] utilitarianism treats the well-being of every human being equally … [2] it almost certainly favors egalitarian distributions (other things equal), as an extra dollar is probably valued by a poor person much more highly than by a rich person.  Thus rather than viewing egalitarianism as a separate liberal value, I believe that it makes more sense to view it as an implication of utilitarianism.

…utilitarianism implies that no income inequality is justified under any grounds other than efficiency.

In other words, under this thinking, if the efficiency of a policy makes everyone better off, then any resulting inequality is justified. Otherwise not.

He again addresses the problem with this full-blown pareto-efficient utilitarianism (in which a policy must not make any individual worse off) in quite cogent terms:

Consider a policy that had a tiny adverse effect on the lowest class (equivalent to the disutility of a mosquito bite), but made everyone else (including the slightly less poor) massively better off.

But he doesn’t address the functional reality: that many policies which make the poor and somewhat poor better off also serve to make everyone better off. At least this is demonstrably true in prosperous countries since world World War II, if we use the rather crude measure of growth in GDP per capita (i.e. prosperity) to gauge aggregate utility.

Countries with more progressive tax systems grow faster than others.

Countries with more wealth equality grow much faster than others.

Countries with more generous social programs and redistribution regimes grow at least as fast as others.

More-equal countries provide more opportunity for people to climb the economic ladder.

Do these facts put us in a position to expound a doctrine that might be aptly called Win-Win Utilitarianism?

Shakespeare Authorship (sigh): They’re At It Again

April 20th, 2009 2 comments

Yet again, we have Supreme Court justices giving credence to the wacky notion that William Shakespeare of Stratford did not write the plays of William Shakespeare. Reported in the the WSJ.

It just goes to show that even supreme court justices who have long histories of probity and prudence can issue totally loony opinions. (cf Taney, Dred Scott.)

I’m not going to take the time to address the ridiculous points made in the article. It’s already been done, and at length. (What an unfortunate waste of good scholarly skills.)

My main point: we have 29 extant editions of Shakespeare’s plays (not counting poems and etc.) that were published during his lifetime with his name on them as author. By many different printers and publishers. And the First Folio — published seven years after his death by his decades-long business partners, compatriots, and dedicatees in his will — trumpets him as author with attestations by them and several other leading writers of the day.

No anti-Stratfordian has explained how this vast, decades-long conspiracy could or would have been coordinated so hermetically that the “truth” only emerged in the nineteenth century, the discovery of an industrious fellow named “Looney.”

Read the pamphlets and broadsheets of Shakespeare’s day — their closest equivalent to today’s news outlets — and you’ll see how similar those writers were to today’s bloggers. They loved uncovering juicy news and insider gossip. (And yes — not that it’s pertinent to the matter at hand — like today’s bloggers they did their fair share of embroidery.)

Do anti-Stratfordians really believe that a huge conspiracy — requiring hundreds of people (and theater people at that) to keep a Really Big Secret for more than three decades — never came to anyone’s attention? Or if it did, that all of those broadsheetbloggers agreed to supress it?

Yeah, and alien abductions are common occurrences.

Here’s an admittedly condensed conversation I had with my friend Robin Williams, who’s published a beautifully written and wonderfully produced book (like all her books) arguing that Mary Sidney Herbert wrote the Shakespeare plays:

Me: Robin, we have all these published plays with his name on them.

Robin: Yeah, but even traditional scholars admit that some of them weren’t written by him.

Me: Well, yeah… [That’s because publishers were trying to capitalize on his name to sell books.]

Robin: See? There’s not a single shred of evidence that Shakespeare wrote the plays.

Like I said: sigh.

I’d really like to see how these judges would rule if there was a human life, a billion dollars, or a fundamental constitutional principle at stake.

My favorite comment on this subject:

The plays weren’t written by William Shakespeare. They were written by another guy with the same name.

Joe Thinks Obama’s an Appeaser, and FDR Caused The Great Depression

April 18th, 2009 5 comments


I stepped into a pissing match over on my friend Mike’s Facebook page, and since I don’t feel right continuing to piss on his wall, I’ve moved it over here.

It all started with Mike posting this photo with the fairly innocuous and flippant comment, “This doesn’t look like a man shake to me.”

Joe Guerriero (who I don’t know) replied:

First a bow than a shake…with the wrong people me thinks…sorry Mike…the Chavez is a fascist thug!”

My comment (I couldn’t resist):

A bow and a warm handshake don’t cost anything (except politically among the macho natives here, and they don’t vote for him anyway). But the recipients–driven as they are by ego rather than reasoned calculation–actually think they’ve gotten something. Here’s to reasoned calculation, ego-free, rolling right over egotistical assholes.

Joe came back:

Don’t know you Steve but no need for name-calling but I guess it’s typical Obama-zombie behavior whenever someone disagrees with their what appears to be an increasingly socialist-leaning naïve agenda. Stop drinking the kool-aid and pick up a history book. Learn that appeasement has NEVER worked! Learn that most economists now agree that FDR lengthened the depression by a good 6 years due to his new deal tax and spend policies. Both are facts. My concern is that those who ignore history are in fact doomed to repeat it…peace…

So taking this up real-time…

no need for name-calling

Did you think I was talking about you? By “egotistical assholes” I was referring to Abdullah and Chavez. The earlier epithet, you’ll have to decide for yourself.

pick up a history book

That is excellent advice!

In the last twelve months I’ve read Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich; Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz’s A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960; Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom; Krugman’s Depression Economics; Zakariah’s The Future of Freedom; Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers; Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest; Kenworthy’s In Search of National Economic Success, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Churchill’s six-volume history of WWII–that’s all I can remember off the top of my head–plus at least a couple of dozen research papers on economics and economic history. (Plus magazines, newspapers, and regularly following all the major econobloggers). Is that what you had in mind?

How about you? Hannity and Colmes?

Do you think Sarah’s read any of those? Do you think she should take your advice?

Go read Machiavelli and Sun-Tzu. The Very Last Thing you’ll see them recommending is swagger and big talk. The previous administration was the least Machiavellian–the crudest and clumsiest–we’ve seen in living memory.

By “appeasement” I assume you’re (rather predictably) referring to Chamberlain. Now understand: Hitler utterly gamed Chamberlain, right up the… But it wasn’t because Chamberlain talked to Hitler. It was because Chamberlain let Hitler game him. Obama’s made of decidedly sterner stuff.

Just in case you or other readers don’t in fact know what Chamberlain actually did at Munich, a link for you.

Do you see yourself therein?

There is actually no better forum for gaming your adversaries than in direct negotiations, while making all nicey nice. Look what Hitler did to Stalin. (Ouch!)

It’s damned useful, of course, even necessary, to have a big stick in hand that isn’t otherwise in use elsewhere. (Hitler blew it in just that way, diverting his troops in May/June ’41 with distractions over the coup in Yugoslavia and invading Greece instead of getting on with the Russian invasion.) In another few years, hopefully, we’ll have that unencumbered stick again.

On the notion that FDR extended The Great Depression, it’s really nothing short of loony. Read Friedman and Schwartz–the preeminent founders, poster-children, and evangelists for Chicago-school free-market capitalism. They’re unequivocal: if it weren’t for the Hoover administration’s churlishly stupid tight monetary and fiscal policies pre-’33, it would have been a recession not a depression, and it would have been over by ’33.

Every economist of every political persuasion–libs and cons, pubs and dems– agrees with Friedman on this.

Things turned up fast following FDR’s expansionary monetary/fiscal loosening in ’33–i.e.. employment down from 25% to 15% in two years, industrial production skyrocketing. But then he got deficit concerned and tightened in ’37 (combined with just plain misplaced concerns and policies at the treasury/Fed re: gold and bank reserves), and it surged back in ’38. Eventually loose money and the war put an end to it all, and the Great Prosperity began.

If you’re interested in learning more, you’ll find plenty of posts in the right sidebar that will give you the “facts on the ground.” Start with Banks: Who Needs ‘Em. It gives the numbers and graphs, and you’ll probably actually like what I have to say there.

The Global Great Depression: Then and Now

April 6th, 2009 Comments off

Barry Eichengreen and Kevin H. O’Rourke give the global perspective. Just look at the pictures and read their last paragraph. Viz:

The X scale is in months.

Bottom line: While U.S. indicators hold hints of promise, the world as a whole is looking worse than it did in the Great Depression.

The good news: policy responses have been pretty aggressive–downright spectacular compared to the total non-response in the U.S.  pre-FDR.

That may well save us.

NoNoNoNoNoNoNo! There Is No Global Warming!

April 5th, 2009 Comments off

The Cato Gang really went off the edge recently with their ad (pdf) in the New York Times, claiming that:

temperature changes over the past century have been episodic and modest and there has been no net global warming for over a decade now.1,2 … The computer models forecasting rapid temperature change abjectly fail to explain recent climate behavior.4

My (two) thousand words’ worth:


The folks at RealClimate have eviscerated their footnotes, pointing out that the studies and scientists they cite don’t support their statements. (Think: cherry-pick, quote out of context, ignore direct contradictions.)

These guys are more than welcome to ask whether limiting greenhouse gases—at great expense—is the best solution to the problem we’re facing. But instead they’re squeezing their eyes closed, holding their hands over their ears, and humming loudly. LALALALALALALALALALA!