Sunday, April 30, 2006

More Whole Foods

by Tom Bozzo

Commenter "Bratfest" (*) pointed out that the corporatist Wisconsin State Journal editorial page lined up with the progressive Cap Times against overturning the Plan Commission. Their preference is for the developer to negotiate project parameters that would pass the Plan Commission. The upshot:
So now it's the Cap Times AND the State Journal; Soglin AND Konkel pushing "no." Where does that put you on the local political spectrum?
Economists do, on some matters, end up on an axis that's orthogonal to the usual political spectrum. Bratfest also asks:
Assume that WF would locate at the same spot with the structured parking and multi-story plan the Plan Commission wants. Assume that Freed works hard to lease the rest of the structure, a risk they have taken with the rest of the development. Then what's your opinion?
Since I'm an economist, but not insane (**), this would of course be fine with me. My concern is that it assumes away the problem. The additional urban amenities are desirable to the city and its residents, but costly. Depending on Whole Foods unknown willingness to pay more for the Hilldale location (assuming its rent is unsubsidized), the amenities' costs may induce them to find an alternative site, probably outside the city — there obviously are not limitless locations for a 50,000 square foot building and its parking within the city limits that wouldn't lead to the same concerns from the Plan Commission. (Unless they could manage to take over the Copps structure in the Shorewood shopping center. That would be cool if improbable.) If the city insists on amenities and Whole Foods moves elsewhere as a result, the costs are those associated with the promotion of sprawl, etc.

At this point, I'd say that some gruesome details of my thinking are below the fold, but I haven't implemented the feature of hiding such things in the Marginal Utility template. So while the bulk of the argument is above, a bit more of my thinking is below. You are warned that it is a partly mathematical summary of some mathematical thinking.

Bratfest's assumption is an outcome to which I'd assign some probability, call it P(Hilldale|Bratfest), that Whole Foods will move to the Hilldale site under the given scenario. (In probability theory, the "|" means "conditional on," with technical implications, but I'm using it a bit more informally to mean "in the scenario preferred by.") Then there's P(Hilldale|WSJ), the probability that there's some intermediate design that can satisfy all parties on the site. P(Hilldale|Bozzo) is the probability that the plan that flunked the Plan Commission is the only one (apart from small modifications) that will keep Whole Foods at Hilldale — so if the Council says no, Whole Foods walks.

With some fiddling of the definitions, those can be made to cover the set of outcomes that end up with Whole Foods at Hilldale, which everyone in Madison seems to want (or at least not oppose, for those who couldn't care less) at least to some extent. The uncertainty here arises from our outsider ignorance of the actual decision parameters for Whole Foods and the developer.

My position is based on two assumptions and a feature of my preferences.

One assumption is that the probability P(Hilldale|Bozzo) — the probability Whole Foods ends up at Hilldale if the existing proposal is admitted basically "as is" — is 1. If the council gives its OK, there's no doubt that Whole Foods will move to Hilldale and thus stay in the relatively near West Side. Moreover, that's large relative to P(Hilldale|Bratfest) and P(Hilldale|WSJ), and possibly also large relative to the probability that either alternative scenario leads to Whole Foods at Hilldale; P(Hilldale|Bozzo) = 1 ≥ P(Hilldale|WSJ) > P(Hilldale | Bratfest). (Strictly speaking, the negotiations favored by the WSJ could lead to revelation of the information that the current proposal is basically the best offer.) That implies that P(Not Hilldale|Bratfest) and P(Not Hilldale|WSJ) are relatively "large," whereas P(Not Hildale|Bozzo) is zero — the last, again, just saying that the developer will implement its proposal if approved. "Not Hilldale" probably means a move to a Fitchburg or Middleton development where the "big box" concerns will be attenuated. I assume those because if Whole Foods was willing to pay a lot more to be on University, the developer should have returned to the Plan Commission with an alternative design more appealing to the Commission's no voters.

The preference features are that I'm loss-averse, and consider the gains from the plan features desired by the Plan Commission's naysayers to be small relative to the losses to the city from having Whole Foods decamp. So the gains from the additional amenities can't compensate me for the losses associated with the probability that the development will just move elsewhere if forced to provide them; it would be the equivalent of playing "chicken" and losing. (A notable difference between this scenario and "chicken" is that Whole Foods doesn't necessarily incur a large loss from the "collision," given that there's a close alternative site from its perspective; the developer, stuck with the vacant office buildings, has to go back to square one and is worse off.) I shouldn't be overdramatic: Madison would survive. The benefits to that outcome, however, would be substantially limited to the plan opponents' self-satisfaction and the convenience of some suburbanites.

(5/1/06: Edited in probably vain attempt to convert the original post into something approximating English in response to "Bratfest's" comment.)

The Corner of Politics and Policy

by Tom Bozzo

We'll be back to the vital question of where Whole Foods relocates in Madison shortly. This is about the frantic efforts of both parties to appear to be doing something about gas prices.

After briefly suggesting on Friday that the lump sum rebate part of the Republican plan maybe wasn't as stupid as some were making out, I was relieved to see John Quiggin flesh out the idea at Crooked Timber.

I will go out on a different limb and suggest that the progressive punditocracy's paroxysms of disapproval over the perception that the Democratic proposal was pandering to the public at the expense of a policy properly promoting petrol conservation through high prices were overblown. (*)

The classic answer to any economics question is, "It depends on the elasticity" — i.e., the relative responsiveness of effect Y to cause X. U.S. gasoline consumption is usually taken to be "inelastic" in the "short run," which is to say that it takes large price increases to effect much reduction in fuel consumption. An implication is that a federal gas tax holiday, while sending the wrong direction of signal on the margin, is very unlikely to send people to their local giant SUV dealerships to replace their Corollas with new gas-guzzling Canyoneros.

This is a byproduct of the federal government having hitherto declined to use fuel taxes as a means of encouraging conservation: the tax is so small that getting rid of the whole 18.4-cent thing (**) would hardly be perceptible amid the sort of price fluctuations that have been seen over the last year.

Is it great policy? No. But arguably the bigger failure of both parties' initiatives is their tokenism. The Democrats could take their gas tax holiday, raise it an additional lump sum tax cut to close the gap with the true pain that's been inflicted by soaring energy prices, find plenty of socially worthless corporate welfare to pay for it, and have a result that should be considered acceptable politics and policy — putting an end to elements of the K Street Project's kleptocracy on the table would arguably be more valuable than the consumer side of the program. Of course, good progressive policy would entail generous funding of transportation alternatives to ensure that people who want to get out of their cars, can.

Effectively killing their own proposal by tying it to ANWR drilling, meanwhile, is bad politics on the Republican side. This is, after all, the one tax cut that wouldn't require arm-twisting to pass in the present environment as a stand-alone measure. If Democratic strategists were really smart, what you'd hear is how the Republicans are so feckless that they can't even put together and pass a clean temporary tax cut.

Addendum: According to the NYT, Sen. Debbie Stabenow strikes back on both the tokenism and tying issues.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Whole Foods in Madison: Why the Council Should Overturn the Plan Commission

by Tom Bozzo

On Tuesday, the Madison City Council will take up an issue of uncommon interest to the local Urban Haute Bourgeoisie: the proposal to relocate the Whole Foods market from its current location at University Ave. at Shorewood Blvd. a few blocks west to the corner of University Ave. and Segoe Rd. This has twice been rejected by the Madison Plan Commission over land use concerns. I've said before the correct resolution is for the Council to overrule the Plan Commission.

In this case, I find myself opposing, perhaps improbably, former mayor Paul Soglin, current alder Brenda Konkel, and the Capital Times editorial page, among others. All marshal an array of arguments against permitting Whole Foods to relocate to the Hilldale site as proposed by the developer.

As I suggested yesterday, the theme of this post is, "Good ideas don't need bad justifications." I have yet to see a good justification for the Plan Commission's actions.

The core argument is that the design for the site — a single-story building with a large parking lot (as I've snarked before, you might think it was going to be a grocery store) — violates the "new urbanism" principles behind the Hilldale redevelopment.

As the Cap Times put it:
The plan is distinctly at odds with the vision that has been promoted forthe renewal of the Hilldale Shopping Center area. The goal has been a mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented "lifestyle center" with parking in multilevel ramps hidden behind condominiums or commercial buildings.
This does not withstand serious scrutiny. As an economist, I like to consider statements like this in terms of the (probable) alternative outcome, which is relocation to a suburban location beyond the reach of the Madison Plan Commission. In that light, the real question is, "How do you promote urbanism in any form by sending development into the suburban sprawl?" Perhaps more to the point, in a world where economic and environmental concerns will favor de-sprawling, it makes no sense not to keep the business in a relatively central location (about 0.6 mile/1 km west of the present store).

The proposed location is clearly superior to almost any alternative from the perspective of bike, pedestrian, and transit-friendliness. Hilldale, unlike any suburban location, has large numbers of condo and apartment dwellers within walking distance. Segoe Rd., the cross street, is a designated bike route, and the east-west Blackhawk and Indian Hills bike paths run nearby. Several Madison Metro bus lines provide high-frequency service along University Avenue. Should the proposed commuter rail system be built, a planned station is a couple blocks away.

Any suburban location seems destined to generate more, and longer, automobile trips — along already congested suburban arteries — particularly for residents of comparatively central neighborhoods (like me, truth be told) who, to be blunt, shelled out relatively big bucks for our relatively small houses in part not to be slaves to our cars.

Land use arguments against the project also are not compelling. On the false equivalence side, the Whole Foods part of the Hilldale redevelopment plan is likened to the big box sprawl on the city's suburban fringes. It's silly to liken the fate of one middle-west-side block to the faceless sprawl that has been allowed to propagate on the far east and west sides. It's not that the city's planners shouldn't regret fomenting sprawl in the past, but again to do so by encouraging more sprawl is not the correct response.

The plan admittedly would roughly halve the amount of commercial space currently on the proposed Whole Foods site. Ald. Konkel asks, "is that enough?" No. The existing office buildings are vacant and have little prospect of being re-occupied. Moreover, the entire line of argument ignores the considerable net increase in density in the surrounding blocks comprising the rest of the development. There is puffery: the buildings are "multi-story," says Ald. Robbie Webber. (True enough, three is greater than one.) Konkel raises a technical issue over the buildings' eligibility for demolition, noting that they aren't structurally unsound or incapable of rehabilitation — except, it should be noted, for the proposed use — which given the buildings' lack of architectural significance (indeed, cheapo modern ugliness) is malapropos. Konkel also complains that the development includes 30% more parking than the zoning ordinance requires for a development of that size; such an argument seems sure to boomerang for some future development.

Other bad arguments stoke local pretensions. Appeals to the existence of other Whole Foods stores that have parking structures are little more than big-city envy. Madison is not a particularly dense city as it stands, and the site is located in a transition zone between the "old" suburbia southwest of the UW-Madison campus and newer, lower-density suburbia. Those other Whole Foods sites are in much denser areas. There are Whole Foods locations in denser and richer areas (Bethesda-Chevy Chase Md., for instance) that, shockingly, have surface parking.

But if keeping up with other cities doesn't work for you, there's parochialism as an alternative. The Cap Times editorial needlessly modifies "Whole Foods" with "Texas-based" and "developer" with "Chicago-based." We can only assume it's Bad — as Soglin, approvingly quoting Tim Melcalfe, owner of the conventional grocery store located within the old Hilldale Mall, suggests — that the plan is being advanced by nonlocal firms.

Indeed, Soglin's quote of Metcalfe is a truly terrible reason to turn down the project: to show "true support" for locally-owned businesses. Obviously, it would strain my credulity past the breaking point to think Metcalfe would be arguing in favor of the plan if only the Willy Street Co-Op were to occupy the site.

It's argued that the area doesn't obviously need so many grocery stores, but Metcalfe's Sentry Foods and the Copps (née Kohl's) directly across University have co-existed for eons, and both conventional groceries plus the Whole Foods are slammed at peak times. Two of the three, in fact, have inadequate parking for peak business. They've managed being spread along a half-mile stretch of University for nearly a decade.

That distance may offer Metcalfe some ability to hold up prices on such items as are stocked in both stores, but I'm not convinced he's really that much better off if he gets his way. Nina Camic rightly noted in the comments:
The Hilldale commercial center has yet to demonstrate that it can override decades of frumpy-ugly, thoughtless, depressing retail management.
Whole Foods, whose "problem" is that it's overflowing its current site, will undoubtedly bring people to Hilldale. Whole Foods (even post-expansion) and Sentry are, and will remain, imperfect substitutes. We shop both, even on the same errand itinerary, in which I can't imagine we're alone. We also shop Woodmans, Copps, and other groceries, in which I also am pretty sure we're joined by others. So, is it more or less likely that someone completes a shopping list at Sentry if it isn't necessary to so much as move one's car to do so? Are they really better off with a sleepier Hilldale?

For that matter, is it more or less likely that later, density-increasing phases of the project will come to fruition if there is a retail amenity like the Whole Foods on site instead of in Fitchburg or Middleton?

I'll reiterate what Nina said: Pushing the store into the suburbs makes no sense. The reasons advanced in opposition to the project, given any careful scrutiny, make no sense. So I support my alder, Ken Golden, whom I expect will vote to override the Plan Commission. If you're a Madison reader, you should favor overriding the Plan Commission, too.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Alternative Energy Solutions: The Interlude

by Ken Houghton

Courtesy of the comments at Sadly, No! comes this article on oil shale and this one that addresses its price feasibility.
They don't need subsidies; the process should be commercially feasible with world oil prices at $30 a barrel. The energy balance is favorable; under a conservative life-cycle analysis, it should yield 3.5 units of energy for every 1 unit used in production. The process recovers about 10 times as much oil as mining the rock and crushing and cooking it at the surface, and it's a more desirable grade. Reclamation is easier because the only thing that comes to the surface is the oil you want.

At $70/barrel, this seems more likely to be cost-effective than other interim solutions proposed. And the 25 years of research and work has led to addressing the most obvious environmental issue: turning Colorado into West-Virgina-before-Nixon:
And we've hardly gotten to the really ingenious part yet. While the rock is cooking, at about 650 or 750 degrees Fahrenheit, how do you keep the hydrocarbons from contaminating ground water? Why, you build an ice wall around the whole thing. As O'Connor said, it's counterintuitive.

As they say in the blogsphere, read the whole thing, sooner rather than later.
Most of the best territory for this astonishing process is on land under the control of the Bureau of Land Management. Shell has applied for a research and development lease on 160 acres of BLM land, which could be approved by February. That project would be on a large enough scale so design of a commercial facility could begin.

The 2005 energy bill altered some provisions of the 1920 Minerals Leasing Act that were a deterrent to large-scale development, and also laid out a 30-month timetable for establishing federal regulations governing commercial leasing.

Shell has been deliberately low-key about their R&D, wanting to avoid the hype, and the disappointment, that surrounded the last oil-shale boom. But O'Connor said the results have been sufficiently encouraging they are gradually getting more open. Starting next week, they will be holding public hearings in northwest Colorado.

Worth paying attention to.

Yet Another Reason to Love the GAO

by Ken Houghton

How to Support the Troops: Bill them for the weapons they leave on the battlefield when they become a casualty!
Pull quote:
The underlying problem is an antiquated computer system for paying and tracking members of the military. Pay records are not integrated with personnel records, creating numerous errors. When soldiers leave the battlefield, for example, they lose a pay differential, but the system can take time to lower their pay.

English translation: you are not eligible for "combat pay" while you are in a hospital recovering from combat injuries.
The government then tries to recoup overpayments, docking pay for active-duty troops and sending debt notices to those who have left the military. Eventually, the government sends private agencies to collect debts and notifies credit bureaus

English translation: if your injuries are serious enough that you are honorably discharged as disabled, you will owe for the "combat pay" you received while recovering from combat.
A total of $1.5 million in debts has been linked to the 400 fallen soldiers and 900 wounded troops. Of the total, $124,000 has been repaid. The government has waived $959,000, and the remainder of $420,000 is still owed.

So about 2/3 of the charges were so inane that even the Army recognized them as bollocks.
Michael Hurst, a former Army finance officer in Arlington who has studied the issue, said the military should have taken action years ago to prevent the debts from being created.

Clearly, budgetary priorities did not include failing to "[l]iterally [add] insult to injury."
"It's a complete leadership failure," he said. "We can't expect the soldiers to notice mistakes in their pay that the paid professionals have failed to notice and correct."

But isn't this the strategy that has worked so well with HMOs and company pension plans?

The full report is here. For those without Adobe, here is the Abstract. The brightest note:
As a policy, DOD does not pursue collection of debts of soldiers who were killed in combat.

Friday Random Thoughts

by Tom Bozzo

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Four Score and Seven (Joke Edition)

by B. Strong

Alan asks why I didn't tell the two inappropriate-for-graduation jokes in my last post. Here they are:

Joke 1
Three sociologists are out hunting rabbits.

The Berkeley sociologist sees a rabbit, shoots at it, and misses wide left.
The Chicago sociologist sees a rabbit, shoots at it, and misses wide right.
The quantitative sociologist jumps up and down and yells, "we got it, we got it."

Joke 2
I pity the poor sociologist who is forced to to use a proxy for experience and a dummy for sex.


Joke 1 I first heard told about economists, but I can't remember where. Joke 2 is lifted and modified from Machlup (1974).

Four Score and Seven...

by B. Strong

I have been asked by my Chair to give a speech at the sociology department's graduation ceremony. My charge is to be "brief, engaging, and funny." I can do brief, and students usually write on my evaluations that I'm funny. (I suspect most of them mean "funny-looking," but that will do in a pinch.) "Engaging" is a bit tougher, but presumably if you're funny you are at least half way there.

Although it wasn't explicitly part of my instructions, I also assume that I'm supposed to make the undergraduates (and their parents) feel reasonably good about their choice of major. I shouldn't, for example, use my time to tell jokes about how many sociologists it takes to change a lightbulb, or what you call a pile of sociologists at the bottom of a lake.

I only know two "positive" sociology jokes, even if I did rip them off from economists and econometricians. Both assume too much inside knowledge of the field, and one has the added bonus of being too crude for a graduation ceremony.

I have to admit that I'm at a loss for what to say. Given the current trajectory of the discipline, it's hard for me to get excited about leading Three Cheers for Sociology. (For a recent example, see Jeremy's post and comments here.)

So, how many sociologists does it take to change a lightbulb?

Powered By My Own Sense of Self-Satisfaction

by Tom Bozzo

Another fine spring day, another bike ride to work. I'd been on pace to go three full days without even riding in an automobile, but the body shop finished with Suzanne's wagon a bit early, so I took an intraday ride to pick it up. My goal is to average 3 bike commutes a week for the cycling season — for me, that runs until the neighborhood streets are befouled with frozen precipitation in early meteorological winter. Hope springing eternal, that may be more on the order of eight months from now rather than seven months.

Even at present fuel prices, the financial savings are modest: roughly $1.50/day assuming I forego an after-work visit to the gym. So we're looking at expand-the-LEGO-train-layout-a-little money. The longer-run adjustments are likely to be much more substantial, though.

Those of you who may know me for my car nuttery might be surprised to hear that I'm partly in Recovery. This actually dates back a few years to an outing in which I test drove a Porsche 911 with my brother (who, being single and well-paid [*] can contemplate such expenditures) and, while its effortless displays of speed were dazzling enough, decided it wasn't worth the money. Even my present car represents an effort to get off a track that modern marketing would intend to lead to ownership of expensive, gas-guzzling Autobahn battlecruisers.[**] Given my daily driving habits, my next car could easily be one of these (since I don't so much love the looks of these), though who knows what early '09 will bring.[***]

(Title reference.)

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Onion Is A Priceless National Treasure

by Tom Bozzo

On the Skilling trial.

We'll see if Kenny Boy "Fighting Off Bankruptcy Myself(*)" Lay can sell the jury the Houston Bridge. Somehow, I don't think it's great legal strategery in a corporate fraud case to admit that you were managing to outspend your already outrageous compensation.

Back In The Saddle Again

by Tom Bozzo

This morning, I finally donned my extremely bright birthday windbreaker — very effective at keeping out the wind; hopefully I won't get a signal of ineffectiveness at repelling SUV drivers — and biked to work for the first time this season. By Sara's standards, this makes me a fair weather wimp cyclist. It nevertheless felt good to ride across University Avenue between signs for $3.129 and $3.139 premium gasoline. Now that Fearless Leader and the GOP are on the case, I expect to see $4 Real Soon Now.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Take the A-train

by B. Strong


Subway scene
Originally uploaded by kaweeden.
I'm not much of a photojournalist, but these three fellow travellers on the A-train caught my eye.

I'm also evidently not much of a blogger, because the post I wrote about the photo seems to have disappeared. I don't have time to reconstruct the post now, so I'll leave it to my fellow marginal utilitarians, including visitors, to guess why I found the scene interesting enough to risk the ire of these three New Yorkers.

Hint #1: I'm a sociologist who studies inequality for a living.
Hint #2: This particular A-Train goes from Rockaway to Manhattan via Brooklyn. I took the picture about 7:45 am, somewhere around Broadway/Nassau, the first Manhattan stop.

Tom adds:
I saw the draft post before it got bloggered, but won't give the answer away quite yet.

Hint #3: The answer is something that everyone depicted in the photo, including the pair of knees at lower right, has in common.
Hint #4: It tangentially relates to a W$J Marketplace article from a couple days ago that made a claim about gender-specific attitudes that I found totally implausible.

Extra brownie points may be awarded for identifying all of the funny things about the addendum.

Allegories

by Tom Bozzo

Via Gary Farber (whose virtual tip jar could use a hit), a post at Digital Warfighter outlines what could be a ripping Star Trek XI. Resemblance to early twenty-first century problems, um... you decide. Alas, there is no relation to the actual Star Trek XI plot.

For non-followers of the major blogs, a tale of the emperor and the uncivil blogger from Thersites at Metacomments. An effin' riot.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

All Things Organizational

by Tom Bozzo

Brayden King, Assistant Prof. of Sociology at BYU and former tender of Pub Sociology, is back at it with Teppo Felin of BYU's business school at the two-day-old orgtheory.net. Set your links accordingly.

Sunday Botanical Blogging

by Tom Bozzo

More signs of meteorological spring in Wisconsin...

IMG_3521
Viburnum "spiced bouquet"

The future of Net Neutrality is now

by Ken Houghton

Westchester sets a standard; who will enforce it?

It's certainly a political issue:
"There are many unsecured wireless networks out there, and any malicious individual with even minimal technical competence would have no trouble accessing information that should be kept confidential," [Westchester County Executive Andrew] Spano said. [emphasis mine]

"It would be nice if these businesses took the necessary steps on their own to ensure their networks were kept secure, but the sad fact is that many don't."

But here's why it's an Economics issue:
Bruce Schneier, chief technical officer of Counterpane Internet Security Inc., said laws like Westchester's are probably helpful "because the information companies have on their networks is more valuable to you than it is to them and the law gives them an incentive" to protect it.

Anyone read that last paragraph and not understand why outsourcing is more popular with companies than workers?

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Blogs for Network Neutrality

by Tom Bozzo

Telcos operate under common carrier obligations which, in the flyover version, prevent them from discriminating among content providers in their roles as internet service providers. This system is also known as "network neutrality." Some of them think that they could be more profitable were they freed to levy additional charges against what they like to call "bandwidth hogs," and so they have been hard at work trying to kill efforts to write network neutrality provisions into telecom law.

With considerable justification, Atrios calls this "another attempt to kill the internets" and points to MyDD's Matt Stoller, who has lots more information including a link to an ideologically diverse group forming to work the other side. Since the telcos spend lots of money advancing their issues, the network neutrality side faces what looks like an uphill battle.

Longtime readers may remember the issue from earlier in the year, when Frank Paynter had been promoting the issue at his old site.

Stoller points to an astroturf group, Hands Off the Internet, which is sponsored by the new AT&T, a few other telecom firms, and a strange collection of conservative groups. The essence of the Hands Off pitch is a no doubt expensively calculated corporate pseudo-libertarian pitch: stop Uncle Sam from regulating the free and open internet and messing up what we have. Needless to say, left unmentioned is that Edward Whitacre very much wants his hands on the internet.

More serious versions of the argument, appealing to "freedom of association" and "freedom of contract" are specious because they deprecate the freedoms of individual users in favor of the corporations' exercise of them. Of course, it's a normative matter as to which freedoms matter more. Where the pseudo-libertarian argument really falls apart is that internet users' freedoms amount to implicit contractual terms with the service providers, and the service providers want to abrogate them without compensation. Or, more specifically, without compensation to users as opposed to users' so-called representatives in Congress.

The basic problem is this, from the earlier post:
The danger, given the current political climate, is that "network neutrality" has a constituency that's virtually every end user of the internet, but that doesn't matter because the key moneyed interests are on the other side (another h/t to Frank):
There were strong Network Neutrality words in draft telecom legislation before the U.S. House Commerce Committee, but these were removed in a second draft, because, according to Chairman [Joe] Barton [R-TX], “Nobody I talked to liked the first draft.”
You can just imagine to whom Rep. Barton talked.
Expect to be hearing more.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

A Quick One

by Ken Houghton

Packing my office (such as it is) and trying to catch up from the holidays, but this has to be noted, especially in the context of my soon-to-be-continuing rants series about Investing in Equities.

So call this Post 1A of that series.

Attended a seminar last night from an Investment Professional who was giving members of our firm a briefing about "the capital markets." Now, since about 90-95% of all firms can only access the debt (read: Fixed Income [FI]) markets, and since I've spent my career (term used loosely) in FI, I was basically using it for the Continuing Ed credit and to see if there was something new happening in FI.

A glance at the presentation revealed that the speaker was going to concentrate on Equities. I grabbed a brownie and went back upstairs, where I could watch it and work at the same time.

The presentation--though by a gentleman who is my age (or even older), and with a similar background--was rather superficial. If it was intended for our just-out-of-school hires (too early, no?), then I fear for our hiring practices.

There were, however, two notable things in it:
(1) He noted that most companies now are insisting on Dutch Auction for their IPOs. More on this on a later rock, but, as you might guess, he was not overly supportive of the idea.

(2) He made it clear that the market has little sense of history, since he spoke of Enron as if it were the first time the ratings agencies were completely caught off-guard.

Whoops!

Accounting for the Unaccountable

by Tom Bozzo

In addition to the highlights in Ken's post, no account of GAO's recent efforts on the side of the angels would be complete without a mention of Walker v. Cheney, the agency's ultimately unsuccessful effort to overturn the rock under which the critters of the administration's energy task force were wriggling.

Avedon Carol makes an excellent point regarding the shuffling of the White House "policy" deck chairs:
We don't actually know what their policies are. We know what they say, but they don't even say one thing consistently, unless it's "tax cuts". But even that's not really true - they claim the tax cuts go largely to ordinary working people, but in fact they go disproportionately to the upper brackets and to corporations - and to unearned income. Indeed, their program actually shifts a larger burden of taxes onto ordinary people. So what they say and what they do are two different things, even in this.
The possibility that has to be considered — remember, these are the "Mayberry Machiavellis" we're talking about — is that there are no policies. There may be actions that resemble policies to the general public, but they have no outcomes whose effects outside the electoral process have been calculated. This, I submit, makes seemingly crazy things (sticking with actions with outcomes that appear to be total disasters in shows of strengthiness) a lot easier to understand.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The one job in the Federal Government that I would take

by Ken Houghton

With all the fooforah about the inability to make useful changes in the Bush team , this seems a good time to take a step back and salute ones of the area of the Federal Government that continues to do a virtuous job.

Off the top of my headline, I know of three college classmates who had prominent roles in the Clinton Administration. No one from subsequent years is in the Bush administration, though Matt Cooper and Miguel Estrada have gained some measure of fame from their dealings with it.

So maybe Josh and Duncan are correct, but there is still one area where, were the job to be available and agreements could be reached, someone interested in maintaining their reputation and serving the commonweal should have no trouble joining.

Following is a very limited survey of their recent work (several PDF):

Analysis of Data Sharing practices that even the WaPo couldn't ignore

Ongoing Health Effects of 11 Sep 2001

A consideration of the Long-Term Fiscal state of the country

Improving the Security of Electronic Voting

Veterans' Employment and Training Service

Katrina and Rita Responses and Contracts

The Management of the Creation of the Department of Homeland Security

DOD Acquisitions not suited for the information restructuring

and a wealth of Archives that have not yet been sold to Showtime.
Whenever someone complains about the Government, point them to the GAO and, to a less but still significant extent, to the CBO.

The Truth is Out There.

Inflation

by Tom Bozzo

Get some here. Glad to see that the Fed has it licked.

In the early going (8 AM CDT), it looks like yesterday's FOMC-inspired bond rally has retreated to the tune of 2-3 b.p. across a wide swath of the yield curve.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Those Wacky Stock Markets

by Tom Bozzo

Shorter market reaction to the FOMC minutes: The business cycle may be peaking. Whoopee!?

Just thought I would lower my own discourse before Ken posts Stocks (Part II).

Try to do like the Gentiles do...

by Ken Houghton

I was going to post this one my personal blog, but figured that since I haven't finished Part 2 of "Stocks," I should humanise my family, if not myself.

This one is actually from last year, when my youngest was nearing one.



Rosalyn Pandora, ca. 11 months
photo (c) 2005 Shira Daemon

Light Entertainment

by Tom Bozzo

The great thing about RSS is that it transforms infrequently updated blogs from mild annoyances (of the "why hasn't so-and-so updated?!" sort) into little presents delivered to one's aggregator of choice.

Case in point: Corndog emerges from his secret lair (located under a state fairground somewhere?), to take on minions of the Anne Murray Fan Club.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Yes Nukes?

by Tom Bozzo

Lots of talk in the blogiverse about Greenpeace's Patrick Moore coming out in favor of expanded nuclear (fission!) power generation, and about the evidence-immunity of some of the backlash.

I'd have considered myself a nuclear power skeptic, perhaps in line with Mark Thoma, having grown up not too far worst case scenario terms from Three Mile Island — the accident happened on my 11th birthday — and quite a bit closer to the not untroubled Salem nuclear generating station. Maybe I inhaled some irrational technopositivism along the way somewhere, but several factors lead me to think that more nuclear generation has a place in the future generation mix.

1. Electricity, as the saying goes, brings good things to life. The 'information economy' is particularly dependent on reliable electricity supply. Moreover, electrical power can be substituted for lots of uses of hydrocarbon fuels, directly or indirectly (as in, where d'ya think the 'hydrogen economy' is coming from).

2. Coal, while plentiful and relatively cheap, is an environmental disaster of a fuel. "Efficient" mining methods are destructive and/or dangerous, it's bad for greenhouse gas emissions, and widespread mercury contamination is the kicker (in my view, at least balancing the nuclear accident risk). I could discuss "clean coal" but then would have to stop myself from laughing long enough to finish the post.

3. Someday, maybe, a nanotech miracle will allow a lot of surfaces that presently only keep the sun and rain out of buildings to serve as solar plants. There are only so many un-dammed rivers, and arguably some of the dammed should be freed. Etc. etc. etc. for other renewables. Real energy policy can't — OK, shouldn't — depend on vaporware in the near term.

So you want more electricity without accelerating the climate processes that might wipe out the world's low-lying areas and presumably trillions of dollars in present-day wealth? Smashing atoms isn't the perfect solution, but neither is anything else.

Quote du jour from Mark Kleiman: "There's actually a strong analogy between refusing to acknowledge that the alternative to Gore was Bush and refusing to acknowledge that the alternative to nuclear is coal."

Clarification: I wish renewables well, really I do. The issue at hand is how to generate gigawatt quantities of greenhouse gas free 'base load' within today's power plant planning horizon in all weather. That's where the Kleiman quote applies.

Equity Premia, or Is the Premise Valid?

by Ken Houghton

Brad DeLong declares that "Stocks Have Been an Extraordinarily Good Investment," and goes on to ask "Why?"

Channeling George Bernard Shaw as played by JFK (a role for which I am not fit--though I'm not certain Christopher Walken was, either), I ask your indulgence as we take a step back, borrow a picture from Burton G. Malkiel (it was on page 257 of a previous edition), and "look at the evidence":



The first thing to notice is that the returns in the current range of the stock market are far from "extraordinary" in an environment with 4.75% Fed Funds. The "extraordinary" returns came from Price Earnings Ratios well below 15 times current--not forward--earnings.

The other thing to note is that, of those historic returns, a large portion of them came from dividends. Now, I'm as fond of dividends as the next man (at a 15% tax rate, I'm fonder of them than I am working on a dollar-for-dollar basis), but the reality is that dividends have declined over time, as has (and will, as DeLong noted in quoting Shiller about a year ago) the absolute return of the market:
[Shiller's paper] uses historical returns from 1871-2004 .... This sample has an average real stock market return of 6.8% annually, slightly above the 6.5% annual return assumed by the Social Security actuaries....

The United States economy and stock market performed extremely well over the last century. Many factors suggest this lucky experience is not likely to be repeated: most analysts project slower GDP growth in the next century, the risk premium required for investing in equities may have diminished, and the P-E ratio is very high by historical standards.

The Wall Street Journal recently surveyed 10 leading financial economists, the median projection for the stock market real rate of return in this survey was 4.6% above inflation.

A decline from 6.8% to 4.6%--just under 1/3 of the real gain--is not to be taken lightly. (If anything, Malkiel's graphic above implies an even greater decline.)

Additionally--a reason to which I alluded earlier--investment income is not required to work as hard as it was in earlier times. If I care about after-tax income (and, having written my annual check to the state of New Jersey to cover dividend income and capital gains taxes, I do today more than many others), it is much easier to accept a lower absolute return when the tax rate is reduced.

Continued on Next Rock...

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Easter Bunnies!

by Tom Bozzo

Julia, this morning:
IMG_3512

John, 2 years ago:
IMG_1241
The kids were just about the same age in the pictures.

Amazingly, the enormous hail that whacked the cars didn't beat the crap out of our up-springing plants. Rather, the warm and wet weather has made them very happy. Here's last week's little dicentra as seen this morning, its first round of flowers already on their way.
IMG_3513

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Flexibility and Intolerance, Part Deux

by Tom Bozzo

A companion point of sorts to the recent discussions is that while there's plenty of reason to think that there are dynamical processes that drive individuals into ruts and/or which transform seemingly small and random disagreements (e.g., over details of trinitarian Christian doctrine) into highly persistent intergroup differences, what I'll call for want of a better term "free" market logic demands the utmost in flexibility. Because to be otherwise foregoes all sorts of positive sum interactions, which by the way you can't refuse even if you want to.

I've been engaged in discussions from the left (if not that far left, relative to me) on why economists are so feckless at stemming the privileged classes' resource grabs and from the right on why I don't just lie back and enjoy what the lately prolific Billmon calls the "supply side utopia." Indeed, Why People Think The Economy Sucks is a pretty good anti-utopian primer, and puts a solid finger on the first problem:
I have no quarrel with corporate profits, particularly if I get to keep some of them, but a situation in which all the benefits of productivity growth flow to capital, and none to labor, not only defies the standard economic textbooks, but probably isn't politically sustainable for long – at least, not without some help from guys like General Pinochet.

Why is this happening? New technologies, skill shortages, outsourcing, downsizing, the decline and fall of the union movement, changing social norms and expectations – or as John Snow might put it, learning to "trust the marketplace." Any of the above, all of the above.

It's sobering to think that what we've seen so far may be just the beginning of our journey back to the good old days of the Robber Barons...

Given the current power structure and the elite consensus that globalization can't be stopped, or even slowed, the solution isn't obvious, at least not to me. [emphasis added]
The first step, then — easier said than done — is to re-learn that firms and markets are institutions that should serve us, and not in the present sense.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Choosing My Confessions

by Ken Houghton

In the context of the attitude-toward-religion-and-the-irreligious postings, Dave Neiwert deserves serious notice for saying gracefully what I stumbled toward yesterday: it's the lack of tolerance (which may be endemic) that gets hackles up:
Of course, this doesn't much bother fundamentalists, since they already claim that they represent the only "true" Christianity, and consider anything that departs from their dogma to be "unChristian." Along similar lines, they also claim that this is a "Christian nation" that should abide by Biblical laws.

and select Biblical laws at that, since I've never noticed that Evangelicals keep Kosher.

In the world of True Believers, even relatively Christian beliefs, such as Tom's post-Vatican II Catholicism (a fading memory from the Holy See's point of view; ask Ernesto Cardinale) become fair game.

I note this today because of the day it is. Because today in the United States (and Monday in Europe) are "holidays," even for those of us who do not keep the religion(s) and sect(s) associated with those days. While I'm happy to have a day with the family (and to get ready for the 17th), one of my own choosing would, perhaps, have been preferrable.

Or is this what Tyler Cowen means when he speaks of "increased leisure time"?

Fixing a Hole?

by Ken Houghton

Despite Tom's cue line, I'm going to deal for now with more important and relevant stuff--bridging the generation gap from me to Quinn and John.

This article, while too cynical in tone even for me, makes the case for the pre-Twain copyright laws, especially here:
Hopefully this means Paul McCartney will no longer feel obliged to record abortions such as Mull of Kintyre and Rupert and the Frog Chorus, while Ringo –famously described by John Lennon as 'not the best drummer in the World, not even the best drummer in The Beatles' - can finally stop narrating episodes of Thomas the Tank Engine. [emphasis mine]

From those of us who were alive when the Beatles were a band to those of you who are left with the hardest-working-recovering-alcoholic-with-the-least-talent-in-show-business narrating your children's shows, we can only hope you realise that there were greater things in life. And, to parphrase (badly) the band whose cover of Batman was one of the first singles I ever bought, "Hope I Stop Recording before I get boring."

Labor, Leisure, and Inequality (Again)

by Tom Bozzo

Over at Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen discovers that Aguiar and Hurst's paper on trends in labor and leisure time has hit the NBER working paper series, and styles it a "smackdown" of the "myth" of declining leisure time advanced by the likes of Juliet Schor.

Is it a smackdown? No. Stephen Karlson had drawn my attention to a release of the paper via the Boston Fed's working paper series back in early February. (N.B., the Boston Fed link above is more useful for NBER non-subscribers.)

From our archives:
What seems to be happening [taking the data at face value], by and large, is that market labor supply among the less-educated is significantly lagging that of the better-educated, and the residual of market and non-market labor is leisure. I wonder how much of the observed labor/leisure phenomenon represents a smooth labor/leisure tradeoff, versus a more complex balancing of costs and benefits pertaining to trying to string together a workweek from multiple McJobs.
There's more about the suspect definitions of "leisure" and the welfare interpretations for those who are interested.

See also the MaxSpeak archives (here, too) for additional discussion.

Maybe this can be Ken's (or our resident scholar of social class issues Kim's?) cue for a MR parody post...

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Golf Balls From Heaven

by Tom Bozzo

(40 GB iPod Photo for scale)

IMG_3503

Damage to the cars: TBD The dent removal guy will make a fortune off my car, which is extensively dinged. A large hailstone took out the rear glass of Suzanne's car, spraying the driveway and the interior of the car with shards of glass. The two-week odyssey to get the darn thing fixed late last year was part of the reason why I got my present (4-door, automatic transmission) wheels, so at least we're prepared for the ensuing service outage. Its stout German sheet metal seems to have fared better than mine.

Inclination to build garage sooner rather than later: Increasing! Hello, Architectural Building Arts!

Addendum 4/15/06: If you must know, the storm beat about $7,500 worth of damage into the cars. Years of insurance premium payments are vindicated!

A Minister, A Priest, and A Rabbi...?

by Ken Houghton

The last time I had internet access, the issue here was husbandry. I go away for a few days, and this has turned into beliefnet (or perhaps, pace Drek, nonbeliefnet).

The "vacation" (shepherding children, reading Borges when possible) was spent in Lancaster County, PA, which proudly declares itself "Pennsylvania Dutch Country." Non-locals tend to refer to it as "Amish country." So, inevitably, we left the playground, pools, and duck ponds of Willow Valley and visited "the Amish Farm and House."

The background was recounted by our "knowledgeable guide," who was old enough to have gone to grade school with Amish children (in the same one-room schoolhouse). As she noted, the Amish came to "Penn's Woods" in search of religious freedom: based in large part on their belief that the Mennonites were not strict enough.

While we are fond of talking about how people came to "the New World" in search of "religious freedom," we all too often neglect that many of those people were in search of less freedom. Should it surprise anyone that their descendants would continue the tradition of restriction?

From Quinn's Crib

by B. Strong


Quinn's 4th
Originally uploaded by kaweeden.
The Boy did not appear to appreciate our somewhat tuneless rendition of "Happy Birthday." The construction cake, on the other hand, was a big hit.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Flexibility and Intolerance

by Tom Bozzo

The posts on tolerance towards the irreligious from Drek and Kim put me in mind of something I think is telling about the trend information Kim mentions. I grew up Catholic — very Catholic, to the point that we knew about as many Jews as Protestants, while I was growing up — and since we were liberal Catholics, one strange bit of entertainment was that we would laugh over 1950s-vintage catechisms and their study questions.

The pre-Vatican II Catholic Church's contribution towards the World War III effort was, in part, to train the faithful in how to resist communist guerrillas who might force one to renounce the faith at gunpoint. I am totally not kidding. I also note that my late grandfather, whose politics took a hard-right turn into proto-Reaganism after the JFK assassination, had reportedly called my father the "atheist communist dupe" during my folks' courting days. And yet, somehow, I was born.

In that regard, that Catholics are more tolerant (and, over time, increasingly so) towards atheists and communists alike has to be regarded in glass-half-full terms. Though the fall the main communist powers — or their transformation into authoritarian capitalist powers, as the case may be — can't have hurt.

As the non-sociologist, I also have to find the amplification of small differences that would be extraordinarily difficult to explain to a hypothetical alien observer into persistent between-group differences to be Very Interesting (*) in the sense that it seems to keep portions of the sociology profession in business.

All the same, not shocking are the observations that Protestants and women are less tolerant. I'd like to see the Protestant line disaggregated between fundamentalist and less-fundementalist sects, as my intuition would be that the Biblical literalist sects are less easy-going. As for women, my simplistic crackpot theory of the degree to which the aging Catholic hierarchy is out of touch is that they're so out of touch that they've failed to notice that men in search of power and prestige look to professions other than the priesthood to make their marks. (The companion observation is that young priests seem both more orthodox, and weirder, than the generation with which I grew up.) Read scary stuff like the NYT article on the criminalization of abortion in El Salvador, and it's clear that there's a certain alignment of hardline women and hardline aging men in promoting less-tolerant positions.

------------------------------------

(*) And not at all unrelated to my one-time academic research, which dealt with issues of how random perturbations of technology markets lead to "lock-in" of de facto standards. Also contributing was re-watching Wings of Desire last night; in particular, Marion's rhetorical question in her closing speech, "Why is this brown-eyed boy my brother, and not the green-eyed boy across the street?"

Purely Symbolic

by Tom Bozzo

Price of unleaded premium gas, 4/12/06, University Ave. and Speedway Rd., Madison, Wisconsin: $2.999.

Yield of 10-year Treasury note, COB 4/12/06 (per the Vanguard web site): 4.98%.

(BTW, it's kinda amazing how the "economic boom" has tax revenues pouring into federal government coffers, eh?)

Just in case you were worried that the sociologists were taking over... ;)

Verklempft

by B. Strong

In the "publish or perish" environment of an R1 university, it's not easy to forget that we (professors) also teach and advise. Conversations between colleagues often start with a running countdown of how many classes are left in the semester, how much time we "wasted" grading or prepping lectures, which colleagues managed to buy out courses next year, etc.

It is easy, however, to forget that this part of our job can have far more impact than our research. (Judging from my citation counts, this is especially true for me... but I digress.) Every once in a while, though, a student can remind us of just how much influence we have, and in ways we probably never imagined.

At the risk of sounding like I'm blowing my own horn, I'd like to share one such reminder. This e-mail is from a student whose honors thesis I advised last year; she's spending two years in the Peace Corps in the Gambia.

I thought of Cornell recently sitting in my small mud hut writing furiously in my journal about how unfair it is to be relegated to second-class status here less than a year after I graduated. In the West Africa bush I know I shouldn't be surprised by the gender discrimination but sometimes when I can't even get the carpenter to make me a stool without bringing a man with me, I get really angry.

With all these thoughts in my mind, I thought I'd write to tell you how important it is that I had you as my advisor at Cornell. Here daughters get put down by their mothers, women tell each other they can't do anything meanwhile they literally do twice the work or more than men. As I play with ideas of how to help change their minds and as I toy with my future plans I find myself clinging to the fact that I've seen women in power in order to remember that it is possible. If I'd had another middle aged white guy as my advisor I'd probably have more doubt about going to a good grad school (or whatever) after Peace Corps. I wanted to say thanks for being a role model for me, even though I'm pretty sure you aren't doing what you are doing simply to set a good example for your students.
Maybe, just maybe, the next time I feel the urge to whine about how little time I have to do research, I'll remember that my "other" work is worthwhile, too. (I reserve the right to continue to whine about grading.)

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Feelin' the Love, redux

by B. Strong

In his maiden voyage into marginal utility, Drek alluded to religious differences in the civil liberties accorded to various marginalized groups, including homosexuals, socialists, communists, racists, and, gasp, atheists. Because I'm a dweeb -- and a dweeb with tenure -- I spent a couple of minutes playing around with these data, not to contradict Drek but to satiate my curiosity (and, truth be told, delay my grading).

Across all years of the General Social Survey (1972-2004, n=appx. 30,000), the percentage of respondents who answered "not allowed to speak" to the question, "If [such] a person wanted to make a speech in your (city/town/community) against churches and religion, should he be allowed to speak or not?" are as follows, by self-identified religion:
Protestant: 35%
Catholic: 27%
Jewish: 16%
Other: 21%
None: 12%

"If some people in your community suggested that a book he wrote against churches and religion should be taken out of your public library, would you favor removing this book, or not?" Percentages are those who favor removing the book:
Protestant: 39%
Catholic: 30%
Jewish: 12%
Other: 26%
None: 13%

"Should a person [who is against churches and religion] be allowed to teach in a college or university, or not?" Percentages are those who would bar the teacher:
Protestant: 56%
Catholic: 46%
Jewish: 35%
Other: 38%
None: 23%

Protestants are, as Drek said, more likely to be in favor of these forms of censorship than other religious groups. As They say, though, the devil is in the details.
  1. First, the questions are a bit more strongly worded than asking about the rights of an atheist per se. Respondents who show up in the percentages above probably include many, maybe even the majority, who believe in a religious version of "don't ask, don't tell" in public -- and arguably publicly funded -- spaces.
  2. Second, and probably related, note that a nontrivial percentages of people with no religious affiliation who indicate that they would disallow a speech by an atheist, remove an anti-religious book from the library, and bar an atheist from teaching at a university.
  3. Third, all religious groups are getting more tolerant, if by this we mean resistant to curtailing civil liberties. The (linear) trend is only significant for Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, but there's too few people and too much heterogeneity in the "other" category to read much into the lack of statistical significance here.
Finally, Drek is much too careful of a sociologist to extrapolate from small numbers, but I have no such qualms. (Hey, this is a blog, not ASR). Here are percentages by religion from 1998-2004 (n=5,480-ish), years in which there are 20 Muslim/Islam respondents who answered the civil liberties questions.

Bar from speaking in public:
Protestant: 29%
Catholic: 24%
Jewish: 11%
None: 10%
Muslim/Islam: 33%

Remove anti-religion library book:
Protestant: 34%
Catholic: 25%
Jewish: 10%
None: 12%
Muslim/Islam: 43%

Bar from teaching in college or university:
Protestant: 45%
Catholic: 39%
Jewish: 30%
None: 20%
Muslim/Islam: 45%

With the exception of the library book question, I don't see a whole lot of difference here between Muslims residing in the US and Protestants. Small n, unobserved heterogeneity, YMMV, blah blah.

Oh, and welcome, Drek!

Back-Announcement

by Tom Bozzo

Thanks to the last-in/first-out convention of blog organization, it probably will make more sense to you that I'm announcing the third of the guest bloggers "after" his post appears.

Please give a big Marginal Utility welcome to Drek, second member of the crew from the sociologysphere. Word has it that Drek's alter ego walks the earth as a PhD student at a large U.S. institution of higher education not in the central time zone that I could name, but am sworn not to. OK, I'm not sworn, but I'm not telling. As the proprietor of the wide-ranging Total Drek, he is a blog pal of long standing, keeps me up on the latest in the debate over "public sociology (*)," and has the educator's drive to try to shed light in the darnedest corners.

Today, Drek offers — by way of a preview of a study showing relative lack of religious tolerance in the U.S. towards the non-religious forthcoming in the American Sociological Review — some actual analysis of data on public attitudes towards atheists, communists, and homosexuals. Are the culture wars half-won or half-lost? We report, you decide...


(*) For economist readers, "public sociology" is roughly analogous to "all economic commentary by economists intended for more-or-less general consumption."

Feelin' the Love.

by Drek

As regular readers of my blog know, I am not what you'd refer to as a religious person. I am, to the contrary, rather anti-religious and can be classed as a materialist atheist. Having been an atheist for some time now (somewhere in the vicinity of fifteen years if you count from when I "came out" about it) I have long had the impression that we are not the most liked minority group in the world. However, despite my hunch, I had no idea of the true scope of the problem. At least, not until I learned of a recent survey conducted by Sociologists at the University of Minnesota. The results of this survey are rather striking (from the original press release):

American’s increasing acceptance of religious diversity doesn’t extend to those who don’t believe in a god, according to a national survey by researchers in the University of Minnesota’s department of sociology.

From a telephone sampling of more than 2,000 households, university researchers found that Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society.” Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry.


Well, as I've said before it's good to be loved, and this survey does indeed give me a warm fuzzy feeling inside. I can't say I'm really all that surprised- there's been plenty of anecdotal evidence in support of the idea that atheists aren't liked. Take, for instance, President George Bush (the first) who denied that atheists should be considered U.S. Citizens (which is a little terrifying given the policies of his son towards non-citizens). Then there's the preference given to religious parents over irreligious parents in custody disputes, which is pretty horrifying given that the United States is purported to be a secular democracy. Finally, there's the otherwise-innocent curiosity from people who should probably know better. So, the Minnesota study might seem like the straw that should break this camel's back.

Well, have no fear gentle readers, for I am made of sterner stuff than that! I have read Chick tracts and emerged with my mind unscarred! I have spent time perusing Answers in Genesis and emerged with my faculties untainted! Perhaps more importantly, I am a skeptical guy, and want to know more. Now, the survey in question won't see publication until the next issue of the American Sociological Review, thus thwarting the simplest approach to gaining more information. So, lacking a time machine (unlike, I think, my dissertation advisor, whom I am convinced is from the future) I must find another source of insight- namely, the General Social Survey.

The General Social Survey is a representative survey of the non-institutionalized U.S. population. It's been conducted every year or two for decades now, and includes data on a wide variety of issues from demographic factors to public opinion. Of particular use to us, within this survey there happen to be three questions pertaining to those who don't believe in god. These questions are: whether an atheist should be prevented from speaking in public, whether an atheist should be permitted to teach, and whether an atheist book should be removed from the library. So, you know, basic civil liberties. Presumably, the more people dislike atheists, the more likely they are to attempt to restrict their civil liberties. Thus, despite the lack of comparable questions, we should be able to get at least a rough handle on how disliked atheists are. Moreover, the same questions are asked for homosexuals and communists as well, so we can get a sense of perspective.

So what do we find when we examine the GSS? Well, believe it or not, using the 2004 GSS data* it appears that fully 85.9% of the population wouldn't curtail any of these civil liberties. The first lesson we take from this is that if atheists are hated, a vast majority of the population still seems to be relatively okay with us. The proportion of people indicating that between zero and three of the above civil liberties should be curtailed are:

Atheists:

0: 85.9%
1: 6.6%
2: 3.8%
3: 3.6%

Mean: 0.252

By comparison, take a look at the same breakdown for homosexuals and communists:

Homosexuals:

0: 89.7%
1: 4.9%
2: 2.2%
3: 3.2%

Mean: 0.189

Communists:

0: 85.9%
1: 5.4%
2: 3.5%
3: 5.2%

Mean: 0.281

So, based on these figures, it does look like atheists are arguably as hated, or more hated, than any of these three groups. Granted, we're running neck-in-neck with the communists, but hell, a lot of folks think that atheist is synonymous with communist anyway, so that makes a certain amount of sense. Well, that and the general U.S. disdain for communists that emerged during the cold war. Uncle Joe would be proud. In any case, it does appear that the survey from Minnesota is correct- atheists are among the most hated groups and are less liked than homosexuals. It's also apparent, however, that most people probably don't actually hate us. If these figures are any indication, most people are pretty okay with atheists, and I find that reassuring.**

What about the people who do hate atheists? What are they like? Well, let's find out! For the below, "atheist haters" are those who would restrict all three liberties, "non-haters" are all those who would restrict two or fewer, and "pro-atheists" are those who would restrict none.

Education: On average atheist haters have twelve years of education, which is roughly equivalent to a high school degree. This is supported by the GSS "degree" variable, which shows that the modal degree obtained by atheist haters is, indeed, a high school diploma. By contrast, non-haters have an average of 13.8 years of education and a higher proportion have obtained educational credentials beyond the high school diploma, though most still only have diplomas. Finally, pro-atheists have a mean education of 13.9 years, and have yet a higher proportion of post-high school degrees.

Age: Atheist haters have a mean age of 46.3 years, while non-haters and pro-atheists have ages of 44.6 and 44.5 respectively.

Race: 71.8% of atheist haters are white, 14.3% are black, and 13.8% belong to "other" ethnicities. Among non-haters, the proportions are 79% white, 12.1% black, and 8.7% "other." Finally, for pro-atheists the proportions are 79.8% white, 11.5% black, and 8.6% "other."

Sex: Of atheist haters, 38.2% are male and 61.7% are female. Among non-haters, 46.5% are male and 53.4% are female. Finally, for pro-atheists, 46.8% are male, and 53.1% are female.

Income: Modal household income for all three groups is above $25,000 a year, but only 53.6% of atheist haters reach this level, while for non-haters and pro-atheists, the proportions are respectively 71% and 72.1%.

Religion: Atheist haters are predominantly composed of Protestants (65%) and Catholics (26%). Moslems, "other Christian," "No religion," and "Inter-denominational" make up the remaining, but none of these groups account for more than 4% of all atheist haters. For non-haters, Protestants account for 50% while Catholics account for 25.1%. The remaining 25% is distributed among a variety of other faiths, with those professing no religion accounting for 14.7% of the total. Finally, pro-atheists are 49% Protestant, 25% Catholic and 15% "None." The remaining faiths do not individually account for more than 3% or so of the total. It's probably worth noting here that those who say they have no religion are not necessarily atheists, but rather may not subscribe to any particular religious doctrine.

Religious Attendance: Atheist haters attend an average of 36.9 religious services per year. Non-haters attend 22.7 times, and pro-atheists attend 22.2 times.

So, based on all of this, we can conclude the following about atheist haters: they are relatively poorly-educated, older, disproportionality unlikely to be white, and female with relatively low household incomes. They are mostly Christian, especially Protestant, and attend church much more frequently than average.

If we throw all of this into a logistic regression model using atheist hating as our dependent variable, though, we find that only three things are significantly related to the likelihood of hating thy neighbor. These are education level (which reduces the likelihood and is significant beyond the .001 level), Protestant faith (which increases the likelihood and is significant beyond the .05 level), and frequency of religious attendance (which increases the likelihood and is significant beyond the .001 level).

What all this means is simple: Protestants, and especially those who attend church frequently, are much more likely to hate atheists than other people. This is, of course, just as Jesus intended. Those who are more educated, however, are less likely to hate atheists. The remaining variables, including race, sex, and age are spurious and only appear associated with atheist hating because they're associated with education and/or religious devotion. Well, at least as an atheist I now have a pretty good idea who it is I should be worried about. Oddly, I pretty much had a sense I should watch out for the god-fearing before this, but it's nice to have independent confirmation.

And, in sum, I consider this to be encouraging. Atheists may be relatively more disliked than other groups, but we still seem to be largely accepted. While there is certainly a core of individuals who really don't care much for us, that core is largely made up of the ultra-religious. It should probably not come as a shock that this group finds atheists to be particularly threatening- especially when we live moral, worthy lives. Perhaps the study coming out next month will show this to be in error, but for the moment things look okay.

Maybe we atheists aren't feelin' the love, but at the same time, we also aren't feelin much hate. That's enough.

For a start.

* Okay, for those who are curious, I'm using the weighted GSS data from 2004. This is necessary because the 2004 data includes an African American oversample and has certain adjustments to account for non-responses. So, if you want to try to replicate what I'm doing, you'll need to use the "wt2004nr" weight variable. Please also note that I dashed these off in my spare time, so there may well be slight rounding errors and whatnot. Crap, for that matter there may be huge glaring faults. What can I say? I try to reserve the high-quality analysis for the paying gigs.

** As you might guess, I'm not exactly thrilled that fully 14% of the population wants to curtail at least one basic civil liberty. As an academic, I need to speak publicly, teach, and write books, so this is hardly a wonderful situation. Worse yet, by the time you're willing to restrict a group's civil liberties, you've probably already reached the point where you don't want to live next to them, let them babysit your children, or marry into your family. Still, it's a start, and I'm honestly surprised that the figures aren't any worse. And boy isn't that, in and of itself, depressing? I'm actually optimistic because fewer people than I expected hate me. Gosh, I love my life.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Whan that Aprill...

by Tom Bozzo

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Grow, little dicentra.

After a solid week spent too much staring into computer screens, it was a nice change of pace to get out into today's — surprisingly non-warming — sunshine and scratch around in the dirt for a while. That held up even as much of the actual dirt-scratching was to fix a muddy trench excavated in the terrace by an unknown driver early in the week. "That's naughty and dangerous," said John, getting quickly to the heart of the matter.

Based on an initial survey of the beds (redesigned and replanted last year), it doesn't look like we've had any major winter casualties. The bit of turf we'd had modest success in cultivating in the back yard is not looking at all well, though. (Our predecessors had a big play structure, which went with them, and a lot of mulch back there.) Time to start thinking of restoring it to its former shade garden glory, perhaps.

Meanwhile, the city just added $27,000 to its guesstimate of my real property wealth. Pop the champagne!

Friday, April 07, 2006

Friday Random Five

by Ken Houghton

The first four from the refences of my previous posts:

"Crying in the Rain," Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds
"Strip," Adam Ant
"Simple (The Interrogation)," Scott Bakula from this recording
"All Apologies," Nirvana

As for the fifth, let's pick something seasonal, and while I haven't heard this version yet, the song will certainly remain the same:

"Dayenu," So-Called Seder

I'm away until First Night; back then with a Value-Added discussion post.

Moments of Equilibrium, Weeks of Touring

by Ken Houghton

As I mentioned earlier, I want to look at the post from Tom that I trampled last night, and most especially at the graphic he references from Mark Thoma.

Don't get me wrong; I'm as fond of raw data as the next person (assuming equal computing power), but I started in Financial Services about twenty years ago, working in Derivatives, so I'm much more inclined to look at changes than I am to look at absolutes.

All of this comes straight out of physics: speed, velocity, acceleration map rather well to yield, duration, and convexity. This is not coincident. And moments of equilibrium signal more than the speedometer ever will, except in the event of a ticket.

So I took the same data Mark graphed, from page 11 of Kennickell's paper, and treated 1989 as the baseline. The end, as it were, of the Seven Fat Years.




This seems much easier to understand. If we use 1989 as a base, only the top 1% of the population shows an increase in percentage of holdings. The 95-99% range is breaking even over the same time.

Everyone else, not to put too fine a point on it, is falling behind. The bottom half has declined steadily since 1995, while the 50-90% range has made a slight recovery from 2001, but still does not approach its 1998 share of the pie.

Yes, it's a larger pie. And, yes, some people have moved from the margin of one group to another. But by and large, 95% of the population has seen wealth transfer to the top 1%.

UPDATE 14 April: Mark Thoma publicizes that the benefit of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts goes to only the top 1% as well.

Ducks In Rows

by Tom Bozzo


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