Friday, December 31, 2004

Happy New Year!

by Tom Bozzo

Posts will resume in 2005.

The Island of Lost Posts V: Enemy Colors

by Tom Bozzo

I've since survived a trip to the Kohl Center in which the critter on my red sweatshirt was a reptile and the "W" was upside-down (though my team didn't), so I can now perhaps be less paranoid about going to early Fall markets wearing opposing colors.

Still, it was sleep deprivation or something that saw us slip and take John to Dotty's on Julia's 0th birthday wearing a Northwestern sweatshirt, acquired on a campus tour by my mother (and visible in the bottom photo here), on what was obviously a game day for some major Wisconsin sport.

The undergrads John was flirting with seemed to be understanding.

This was meant to be part of a "hospital diary" series from our stay for Julia's birth, but there turned out to be less time to kill blogging than I'd anticipated.

The Island of Lost Posts IV: Overture Center

by Tom Bozzo

During its September opening week, I started but didn't post an unironic thank-you note to local philanthropist Jerry Frautschi for Overture Hall, Madison's fantastic new concert hall.

Of course, it's impossible not to comment, especially in this fair city.

I vaguely recall one of the other Madison bloggers — I thought Jeremy (quasi- or maybe pseudo-back in action) but if so I'm damned if I can find the post — wondering whether giving $205 million to Madison's not-unpampered music lovers (and "Phantom" goers) was a socially efficient use of the money. The only answer can be, almost surely not!

But what I hadn't realized prior to the Overture opening was that Mr. Frautschi got really rich when Mattel bought the Pleasant Company, in which he had evidently been an early investor. So the effective transfer is from upper-middle- to upper-class buyers of American Girl dolls to middle- to upper-middle class Madison. It could be worse.

And insofar as I've read recently about billionaires blowing a quarter billion bucks on superyachts nearly the size of cruise ships, it could be a lot worse.

The Island of Lost Posts III: Computer Price Deflation

by Tom Bozzo

Through the election season, the comment sections on economic news releases at higher-traffic blogs that post on such things were rife with discussion about possible manipulation of economic statistics to bolster the Bush campaign.

Some of this was pure paranoia unworthy of further mention, but another strain of thought focused on quality adjustments to price measurements. The investment component of economic growth, for instance, would have looked worse if computer prices weren't measured to be dropping rapidly, so a dollar spent on IT hardware today constitutes more "real" investment than a dollar spent in the past.

Part of the reality is that there is a lot of sausage making to macroeconomic measurement. For background on price measurement with application to computers, I'd recommend Ariel Pakes' relatively unflinching "A Reconsideration of Hedonic Price Indexes with an Application to PC's" (American Economic Review Vol. 93 No. .5: 1578-1596).

For computers, there is actually a case to be made that the official computer price index doesn't measure enough deflation. The Consumer Price Index (CPI) series for computers (Dec. '97=100) stood at 33.9 when I got the PowerBook in February '01, and the most recent reading, from November, is 14.2. This can be interpreted as saying that I should be able to get a Feb. '01 PC now for 42% (14.2/33.9) of its price then, or about $1050 in the case of the PowerBook. Prices for all consumer goods increased by a bit less than 9% over the same period per CPI.

The anti-quality adjustment crowd would say, whoa, you can't actually hold quality constant and what's actually available is a $1999 Aluminum model, 80% of the old entry-level Titanium price. The CPI for computers is overstating deflation by this standard.

My response is that as much as I love my old PowerBook, it's not marketable now for anything close to the $1050 implied by the computer CPI. (With $1050 one can, for instance, get change back from the purchase of an iBook that is superior in most respects to an old Ti.) Computer deflation is by this standard understated in CPI.

There are several further rounds of objections and responses that could follow, but won't unless someone asks.

The Island of Lost Posts II: Education Research

by Tom Bozzo

Following posts early this past fall at MaxSpeak and Marginal Revolution on charter school research by Harvard economics professor Caroline Hoxby, I came across a working paper by Hoxby and three coauthors, "A Revealed Preference Ranking of U.S. Colleges and Universities." I just lost the will to write about it after some time had passed.

"Revealed Preference Ranking" is one of those papers whose copyright notice forbids quotation without written permission from the copyright holders. (I wonder, does this mean I'd have to contact all four?) I guess I'd like to see how the notice fared against a "fair use" defense, but IANACL so I'll just describe its contents as needed.

The paper purports to provide a hard-to-manipulate alternative to popular rankings such as those published by U.S. News. The general deficiencies of the U.S. News methodology are described here by Brian Leiter, specifically w.r.t. law school rankings, though my understanding is that much of Prof. Leiter's critique carries over to the undergraduate rankings. Foremost among them is the reliance of popular rankings on criteria easily manipulated (or even just plain made up) by the schools themselves.

"Revealed Preference Ranking" is an annoying paper, partly for relying heavily on straw man arguments (*), but mainly for setting the reader up for results it fails to deliver. The former manifests itself in the supsiciously extensive verbiage the authors expend comparing their rankings to the much different rankings one gets looking at admission and matriculation rates (see, e.g., p. 34) as opposed to the actual ranking indexes published by U.S. News or other sources.

The obvious question is how does their ranking compare to U.S. News, which they do mention by name? If the defects of the U.S. News ranking matter, then the true preference ranking ought to be materially different. You can see the U.S. News top 50 reported by Prof. Leiter here.

It just so happens that the tournament model and the accompanying (thinly described) statistical analysis yields a top 10 that shares eight schools with the U.S. News ranking, and the other two in the U.S. News top 10 are both in the Hoxby et al. top 20. The only "surprise" from the "revealed preference" ranking is Amherst, not in the U.S. News top 50.

Amherst was a surprise to me, anyway, as I attended a relatively high powered mid-Atlantic private high school and didn't know anyone who would have preferred it (#9) over Duke (#19), let alone Swarthmore (#14).


(*) Also present to some extent in the charter school papers, along with a bunch of other economist sins. Moreover, one of the charter school papers uses one of my least favorite methods of persuasion: criticizing a sampling-based study for using a sample, which would set my BS-O-Meter on high sensitivity if I were to give that paper a serious going over.

The Island of Lost Posts

by Tom Bozzo

Believe it or not, there have been a few things I've meant to write about but which never quite made it to the front page. Since I mostly haven't deleted the draft posts, they form a sort of secret blog. Some will stay secret for good reasons, but today's posting will offer a sample.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Happy To Be Home

by Tom Bozzo

Julia says, "I have my bee!" (And the pink paisley blanket.)

I say, sweet sweet wireless broadband.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

"Major Major never sees anyone in his office while he's in his office"

by Tom Bozzo

It turns out Northwest had been having luggage problems of its own when we returned to MSP on Tuesday. We weren't seriously affected, but as we waited at the carousel, I noticed a sign requiring that lost articles be reported to the airline within 24 hours of the event.

The number at PHL I was given to try to track down our lost cell phone was not picked up by a human in several calls on December 25-27, and was covered by a voice mail system that each time announced that its memory was full.

I gather that NWA's lost article recovery rate at PHL is extraordinarily low.

Another New Year's Resolution to be Broken

by Tom Bozzo

This is a resolution I shouldn't even bother making. Nevertheless, I really should at least try to get through my reading backlog before I bring more books in the house.

Before the holidays, my stack of reading material included:

Then I was out doing some Christmas book shopping, and couldn't resist a copy of Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mister Norrell at 30% off list.

At my mother-in-law's, I picked up her copy of Cornel West's Democracy Matters out of curiosity.

At the Edina Galleria this afternoon, with a half-hour to kill while Suzanne was shopping elsewhere, I couldn't resist trade paperbacks of Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation and Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

In a perfect world, I'd blog in the early morning and read in the late evening. The former, however, is subject to the toddler wake-up schedule. When John is up early, the temptation is to reclaim blogging time from the end of the day. The extent to which this has happened makes the above material look like a few months' bedtime reading. Add the presence of the west side Borders three blocks from the office, and the probability that this resolution will be broken looks close to unity.

A Digital Christmas

by Tom Bozzo

In today's NYT, confirmation of something I heard earlier in the week from a friend who co-owns the Other Music record shop in NYC:

"There is iPod messaging everywhere," said Kate MacKinnon, a spokeswoman for Tweeter. "You can't escape it. Even if people don't understand what it does, they want one."

My friend, noting that you can't throw a rock on the subway without hitting someone displaying the telltale white wires, actually credits the iPod for part of an increase in sales. The iPod evidently induces a strong desire in some users to maintain very large collections of current music, users of a certain age and income don't tend to use the extralegal download services, and the legal services have — as previously noted here — significant limitations for listeners with esoteric tastes (and OM does not cater specifically to mainstream listeners). This ends up as CD sales at the friendly neighborhood record shop.

Another interesting point is that since CDs have some resale value, whereas digital downloads have none (for now), the effective prices of CDs and downloaded albums are closer than sticker prices might otherwise suggest.

Also from the same article:

Flat-panel sales have also been helped by their popularity with women, who like the less blocky shape. Tweeter's research has found that when women shop for a TV, they are twice as likely to buy a flat-panel version.

I'm not sure if this would work on Suzanne, but my brother's big plasma HDTV sure was cool.

The Road to Liquidation

by Tom Bozzo


A good question is why one or more of the bankrupt airlines hasn't been allowed — or been pushed by the bankruptcy court, as needed — to follow the likes of Eastern and Pan Am into oblivion.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Questions of Blog Etiquette

by Tom Bozzo

New Year's resolutions were among the dinner conversation topics last night. The first one that sprang to mind for me? In 2005, I will only read blogs that are actually worth reading.

If this were British comedy, at this point Rowan Atkinson would gaze levelly at me, cock an eyebrow, and say, "Ah, so you'll be giving up blog reading, then."

No, not quite. I'd give a favorable nod to, among many others, all of those linked at right.

As a brief digression, I saw about 20 minutes of Jay and Silent Bob Strikes Back, bowdlerized for late-night extended basic cable TV (the need to maintain a somewhat sensible bedtime weighed against seeing the whole thing). One more than moderately amusing concept from the introductory scenes was that what really set the eponymous characters off was being subject to the disapprobation of anonymous nerds on the internet.

The sort of blog I have in mind is "Polish Immigrant." I won't even provide a link, lest I abet others in doing what I am resolved to foreswear. It strikes me that withholding links, even disapproving ones, may be worse in the blogiverse than calling the author a "part of the anatomy unique to men."

If you nevertheless a feel need to read ravings about the perfidious French or those unspeakable liberals, please let World O'Crap filter them for you.

(Addendum: Another example is the widely-anticipated Becker-Posner Blog, which is not addictively odious like Polish Immigrant, but instead mistakenly assumes that its eminences grises are interesting independent of what they have to say or how formulaically they say it. It ought to resemble Judge Posner's current guest blogging at Leiter Reports, but doesn't.)

This leads me to wonder what obligations are owed the anonymous or pseudonymous blogger. The Polish Immigrant, as it happens, outed himself by linking a City of Madison property tax record with his name in it. I won't give him the self-Googling pleasure of mentioning it here, but obviously if I felt like doing so, I'd not be violating any explicit or implicit confidence.

The blogroll is, you might have noticed, divided geographically among other ways, with a section in which liberal and not-so-liberal Madisonians, one of whom is not even a lawyer or an aspiring lawyer, are all thrown together. It so happens that another notionally pseudonymous blogrollee recently ran an hilarious series (starting here, scroll up for more) that might affect the classification. I could imagine that the pseudonymity in this case may be an inside joke within some circles — in which I clearly do not operate — but it still seems like a jerkwad thing to report the semi-obvious. What to do?

I also discovered another blog named Marginal Utility, about two months older than this one, decently written (in an almost-no-links personal journal style), the title shared with a column the author writes for an e-zine, PopMatters, that I'd otherwise never heard of. It slipped past my due diligence in titling this one, which was to search the Truth Laid Bear ecosystem and the blogrolls of every economics blog I read. I'm not too inclined to change the name here, though I feel a bit sullied for not having come up with something more original.

Among other coincidences, other "Marginal Utility" author Rob Horning's blogger profile lists among his favorite books Baudrillard's For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. I would not categorize that as a favorite book of mine, but I nevertheless just shipped my own copy to myself from Delaware, along with another 120 lb. or so of books and records that never made it to Madison back in '96 for some reason or other, at what turned out to be breathtaking expense. (What's a mostly orthodox neoclassical economist doing with such a title? Long story.) But a review in PopMatters tells me that the Flatmates records in the shipment will probably make it worth my while.

Monday, December 27, 2004

Four More Years (No Term Limits)

by Tom Bozzo

Wedding cake, December 27, 2000.

Posting will resume from the Twin Cities tomorrow.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

The Joys of Christmas Travel

by Tom Bozzo

Outside Temperature: 28F (1).
Size of shipping container that will be needed to get all this stuff back to Madison: Enormous.
Number of additional butter spritz cookies I could eat at this moment: Zero. Well, maybe One.

At Ocean, Nina asks,

Does anyone think that travel during the holidays is fun? La Guardia early in the week was a nightmare and this was without winter weather interference. Prices at traditional vacation havens are inflated, local eating establishments are often closed. What is the joy in this?

We are regular Christmas travelers. Our routine currently involves a Christmas morning flight from Minneapolis to Philadelphia, which allows us to spend Christmas eve with Suzanne's family (it's their main event) and most of Christmas day with mine (as Christmas dinner is ours).

Since our itinerary does not involve travel through LaGuardia — the nightmarishness of which, I've found, is not especially seasonal — our holiday travel experience has been smooth mostly. (Admittedly, it didn't hurt that I was at least a Gold-level frequent flier with Northwest for a highly privileged stretch from 1998 to 2003.)

Is there fun and/or joy in the travel? As long as we're dealing with common carriers in the mid-Zilches, we are not likely to get carried away with either en route. But there's enough at the end of the travel to keep us going, at least until growing kids and the correspondingly less portable Christmas keep our show at home.

Today's travel was not an exception. The TSA, which I was ready to deride as the "Touchy Feely Administration" given its recent bad press, was on its best behavior with polite and seemingly efficient representatives at our MSP checkpoint. Having breezed through security, the worst of the rest was a few minutes' de-icing delay on departure and the indignity of watching (from row 7) the first-class meal service, as the class divider curtains are now gone for security reasons. My sense (keep in mind, the sample is a time series of one flight) is that Christmas loads have increased, between schedule cutbacks and people seeking travel bargains on "off" days, but at least there were no altercations over bin space.

By past standards, I've barely been flying for the last year or so, and thus it was a disappointing surprise to see the economy-class lav stocked with "NWA antibacterial soap" instead of Aveda "Calming" cleanser. Perhaps that explains why Annie Jacobsen was so freaked out by that band of Syrian musicians earlier in the year.

John survived the maneuvering on approach to PHL, or rather the banana he ate in mid-flight did, unlike the last time (last summer) when a well-intentioned attempt to show him cool final approach sights — including the Center City skyline, the S.S. United States (from the air, its size and sleekness are just ahead of its decrepitude), and the mothball fleet at the Navy Yard — ended in disaster. (If you do have to have an airsick toddler, the best time for it to happen is two minutes before touchdown at your final destination.)

Also, I can say unequivocally that if you have to lose your mobile phone, do not lose it on Christmas afternoon. It turns out that, notwithstanding all the encouragement Sprint PCS offers to use their web site as a substitute for human agents, it is not actually possible to report a lost phone online. Moreover, they don't have anyone willing to take (or aren't willing to pay) whatever multiple of straight time is necessary to put a couple of bums in seats to handle such customer service exigencies of any description on Christmas. With cellular number portability, alternative service recommendations are welcome (note, we roam a fair amount).

The phone had been taken out to serve as a toddler distraction device, and indeed he was very sweetly "calling" my mother and brother to inform them of his impending arrival prior to takeoff. Then the phone never made it to any adult family member's pocket, despite the ill prospects of the unattended phone sitting on the seat having been noted by both adults, in one of these cognition-action failures that in more serious contexts ends up figuring prominently in the NTSB accident report.

As it happens, we'd been using a pretty clunky basic model with a display that was pretty well shot, so if someone picks it up with nefarious intent, there's a good chance that they'd judge the phone to be inoperable. (2) I'd been mumbling just yesterday about getting a sexier flip-phone more in the tradition of the long-deceased but still beloved StarTAC of my gadget-forward bachelor days. So maybe it wasn't so much of an accident. (3)

In summary, today was not exactly surprise-upgrade-to-trans-Atlantic-business-class great for us, but it could have been a lot worse.

In the department of things you don't learn so quickly when away from your usual communication channels, it actually was a lot worse for my grandmother, who flew into the maw of Thursday's U.S. Airways baggage-handling disaster. That involved multiple lengthy ground delays, evocative of Northwest's snowstorm debacle of a few years ago which IIRC resulted in a few lawsuit filings, and a PHL short-term parking tab of nearly $40 by the time her plane made it to the gate and the bags were located.

What about Christmas itself? It was a small gathering, just family, and we ate well. The digital camera was very cranky today, so just some random images this evening.

The wine glass from Mom's old crystal looks like an apéritif glass next to the Riedel monster. Portion control also is difficult with a wineglass into which an entire bottle can be decanted.

The Santas are taking over the mantel! When I was a kid, there was just one, with sleigh and reindeer, amid the greenery. There are also a few more stockings now.

John plays present. His turtleneck was not actually magenta.

I almost managed to catch Julia in mid-smile, only to have failed to notice that instead of turning off the useless red-eye reduction, I had turned off the flash entirely. D'ohh!


(1) Wilmington, DE.

(2) A quick usage check suggests that the phone either is in some NWA lost and found bin, or has indeed been given up for dead.

(3) Not really, as I'd rather apply the price of the phone to an iPod or one of those sparkly new PowerBooks, both of which were testing my personal fiscal restraint in the course of my fruitless search of Twin Cities Apple stores for a Ti replacement battery.

Friday, December 24, 2004

A Messy Merry Christmas Eve

by Tom Bozzo

Take one four-year-old, three two-year-olds, and one 10-week-old. Shake vigorously.

Cousins Allison and Samantha hold Julia.

John declines to join in the older cousins' orchestra.

The Hungry Hungry Hippo free-for-all captures the true spirit of the evening.

Merry Christmas to all of you from all of us!

Wesolych Swiat (*)

by Tom Bozzo

Outside Temperature: -10F
Andrew Lloyd Webber song lodged in brain: "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina" (we watched Evita on DVD (**), over a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau, last night)
Mood: Merry, no matter the efforts of the Grinch Who Made a Political Football Out of Christmas, and who wouldn't be with this under the tree:

The nativity scene was visited by Godzilla shortly after this picture was taken

(*) Polish for "Merry Holidays," according to Nina Camic.

(**) I am told that I cannot write ill of Evita (not that I had been inclined to do so), though I do think The Commitments is far and away Alan Parker's best film.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Poll Closed; Kerry Sticker Stays

by Tom Bozzo

The final tally from the poll on the fate of my Kerry bumper sticker is as follows:

Stick it to Ken Mehlman: 6
Don't fight the power: 2.

The sticker stays, at least through the winter.

Suzanne, whose vote would have been disproportionately influential had I somehow seen a gaggle of conservative readers voting for removal, says she voted to keep it. I also had an extra-blog conversation with some friends who reported being cheered by seeing other cars with Kerry stickers driving around. (One of them did remove a "B U _ _ S H _ _" sticker from one of their cars shortly after the election.)

These went a long way to changing the decisive vote, not counted in the above totals, from leaning towards removal to a stay of execution.

My guesstimate is that this blog has 10-15 more-or-less regular readers, so the response rate on the poll was not too bad, assuming transient visitors mostly ignored it. (I don't actually know who voted or how.)

PowerBook Battery Knackered...

by Tom Bozzo

...and the ability to use the laptop as a DVD player to calm a (potentially) cranky toddler on an upcoming 1000-mile flight is accordingly endangered. Do I brave the cold (still not yet 0F) and The Mall — on Dec. 23 — for an Apple Store run?

Madison Real Estate on a Budget

by Tom Bozzo

In comments on the Madison condo boom post, Brian (who is in a later stage of law school, but I'm not sure exactly how late) is concerned that he'll need a partner's salary to afford central Madison dwelling large enough to accommodate his growing family.

I sought to reassure him that, for now, he need only be a well-regarded associate to be able afford a decent house in a near-west-side neighborhood such as mine. He, or similarly situated individuals, should be prepared for tradeoffs in that price range, though.

The small yard, typical of the neighborhood, is no big deal. We have no fewer than four city parks with play equipment within some definition of walking distance, and have missed our previous large yard less than I'd have expected. It didn't hurt that I only had to spend about a half-hour mowing the lawn, total, all summer.

The tougher thing — over which I'd declined to make an offer on the house until I'd reached the Despair phase of the search — was that to obtain a desired fourth bedroom on our budget, we had to forego a garage. The original attached one-car garage was converted into a family room in, from the looks of it, the sixties or seventies, which is a higher-valued use of the space overall.

This was fine through the summer and fall. Then the cold set in, and I started to think that the action of my car's seat heater buttons (press once for full blast, which can be uncomfortably warm, up to three more times for lower settings and off) maybe wasn't a design defect after all. Then, yesterday morning, with the temperature display reading -1F and the clutch pedal feeling like stepping in thick muck, a new garage shot way up the list of future home improvement projects.

Merry [expletive deleted] Christmas from the Common Cold

by Tom Bozzo

Outside Temperature: -8 degrees Fahrenheit (*)
Mood: Stuffy, sniffly

Just a week or two ago, I had been marveling at how long it had been since John was sidelined with any sort of illness. Then his nose started running, and long story short, he's on the mend, I'm about at the peak (or depths, as it were), and Julia sounds snarfy but is still acting like a normal 9-week-old. Suzanne, for now, still seems to be defended by a significant remnant of the butt-kicking and name-taking pregnant woman's immune system and shows no symptoms.

This brings me to a matter of some delicacy. Some of my in-laws have been recommending a homeopathic cold remedy. I like them and know that they only want me to get over the cold quickly, but I just plain don't believe in homeopathic medicine. What's the protocol for breaking this to them?

As for what sets me off about homeopathy, see this page cheerily explaining that (but not how) diluting an active ingredient by a factor of 100 makes the active ingredient twice as potent for a taste, or read Bob Park's Voodoo Science for an earful.

Now, the remedy in question probably wouldn't kill me — after I survived seeing the shelf price at Walgreen's — as it comprises a couple of zinc compounds and a bunch of inactive ingredients to make lozenges. I do recall a period, several years ago, when zinc lozenges were all the rage in cold remedies.

Some particular features of this homeopathic zinc lozenge, apart from its extravagant price, made me think of Gary Becker's recommendation to solve the drug price crisis in part by cutting back on effectiveness research and trusting the public more, and chuckle. Mordantly, as Bob Somerby of the Daily Howler would put it.

Take a real drug, for instance my usual antihistamine, and the active ingredient is clearly listed — loratadine 10 mg.

The lozenges' active ingredients were given as [zinc compound 1] "1X" and "[zinc compound 2] "2X." In homeopathy, a "1X" solution is 1% active ingredient and a "2X" solution is 0.01% active ingredient (i.e., a 1X solution of a 1X solution). My first inclination was to think that the lozenge was 1.01% active ingredients and 98.99% filler, but it then struck me that it could just as easily be a half-and-half mixture of the 1X and 2X solutions and thus be (at least) 99.495% inactive ingredients. You can't tell from the labeling.

Meanwhile, the remedy's manufacturer links a report on a clinical trial that purports to have demonstrated the stuff's improbably high effectiveness. Having skimmed the linked paper, I'm interested in knowing what makes for a good medical study, and how tough it is to slip something past the goalie. But I figure the general public, if they got as far into it as me, would tend to see "clinical trial" and think, "then it must be good."

Placebo effect addendum: A nasal spray form of the remedy in question lists only a 2X concentration of one of the lozenges' active ingredients: no more than 0.01%.


(*) Edina, MN

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

A Journal Article the Children Should Find Fascinating

by Tom Bozzo

M. Christopher Auld and Paul Grootendorst, "An empirical analysis of milk addiction."

Journal of Health Economics, Volume 23, Issue 6 (November 2004), pages 1083-1316.


They may well appear to certain empirical analysis methods to be "rationally addicted" to milk.

Econometric methodology note: The actual point of the paper, that some behavioral hypotheses can't be identified from macro data except under highly restrictive assumptions, is uncontroversial.

Office methodology note: I get the cover page of the Journal of Health Economics routed to me and try to decide from that what I want to read from any given issue. While some combination of bookmarking the web sites of frequently read journals and walking up to the shelf where the actual issue is stored solves the clever title problem, it's nevertheless true that a jargon-laden title like "Monte Carlo analysis of the identification of the 'rational addiction' hypothesis from aggregate time series data" would be more professionally useful if less bloggable.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

You Can Never Be Too Rich or Too Cynical

by Tom Bozzo

Max Sawicky, on the D.C. baseball stadium blow-up, December 16, 2004.

...[W]e need some kind of kabuki exercise to provide the illusion that democracy is functioning and some brake on fiscal insanity and malfeasance in governance is in play.

So after Linda Cropp gets a little something something -- headlines attesting to her pull and her fiscal responsibility -- she rolls over and buys some fig leaves on the original arrangement. The financial details are lost on the public. Lo and behold, the day is saved, baseball is coming to the nation's capital, and the taxpayers get reamed for the cost of the stadium and associated public expenses.

You heard it here first.

Washington Post, December 21, 2004, page A1, "Accord Reached On D.C. Stadium: Williams and Cropp Negotiate Financing."

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams and Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp said last night that they had reached agreement on a stadium financing package that would satisfy Major League Baseball by guaranteeing construction of a permanent home for the Washington Nationals along the Anacostia waterfront...

District officials will continue pursuing private financing for the project for several months. But Cropp said she will drop a requirement that 50 percent of the construction costs be paid for with private money...

Even if private financing is found for some of the costs, the city still expects to implement a gross receipts tax on large businesses and a utilities tax on businesses and federal offices.

"This is materially the exact same thing the mayor sent over," [D.C. Council member Adrian] Fenty said. "It's a publicly financed stadium with less risk, but still a publicly financed stadium."

The latest variation on the D.C. baseball stadium deal is still subject to a council vote later this morning. Assuming Cropp brings sufficient votes with her, my sympathies to D.C. taxpayers.

Not So Early Morning Addendum: I almost let the D.C. baseball deal pass without comment. Since my College Park days, when my houesemates and I declined cable TV so the availability of nearly the complete Orioles schedule on the Tube wouldn't set our studies back, Peter Angelos pretty well beat the love of baseball out of me. Then I moved into the Brewers' TV market.

From the outset, the D.C. baseball deal has exemplified the worst of modern sports financing. It was almost explicitly sold to the District for its ability to steal tax revenues from surrounding jurisdictions. Even under the fanciful projections of the District's economic impact consultant — which claimed, among other things, increased lodging tax revenue requiring that about 10 percent of the Nats' attendance would stay in D.C. hotel rooms that wouldn't otherwise be rented — the tax shift wouldn't nearly be enough to service the bonds to be issued to finance the stadium and related construction. That job would fall to the new gross receipts tax levied on "large" District businesses, mentioned above.

The latest iteration of the deal proposes the creation of a 3000-space on-street parking district. Apparently, a firm is willing to pay the District $100 million upfront for the rights to a percentage of the revenue stream from the spaces as a "private" financing element. You might ask (as did the Post's Tony Kornheiser) if the present value of the entire revenue stream from game parking in those spaces would be worth $100 million. I leave the details as an exercise, but the short answer is not at any price that wouldn't divert the would-be marks to private lots or to Metro. In short, quite a lot of the $100 million in "private" financing looks to be extracted through a stadium-area parking tax. Some deal!

My Kerry Bumper Sticker: A Survey

by Tom Bozzo

Update 2: If you're looking for new content, please scroll down — there are a few weekend posts below. As for the poll, "No" retains a substantial lead, but "Yes" picked up its first vote over the wekend. I have not yet voted.

Update: I've post-dated this item to keep it on top of the blog for a few days.

It's December 17, the Ohio electors have voted, and my John Kerry bumper sticker is still on the car. As a Madisonian, I am far from alone in this situation.

But I have to say, what started as a form of protest and evolved into a matter of benign neglect is now starting to get me down. But not that much, yet. I also don't really know whether people seeing it would be more inclined to say "there, there" or "[sore] loser." So I'm seeking feedback on before I get my fingers cold taking the darn thing off.

Gentle readers, please take a moment of your time and answer the survey question below. TIA.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Becker–Posner Blog III: Kill Yr. Idols (With Apologies to Sonic Youth)

by Tom Bozzo

Becker–Posner installment three is up, on the subject of Global Warming, and after this one, I'm getting out of the business of commenting on — and barring a high-placed recommendation, even returning to — the Becker–Posner blog. I'll indict them on the charge of assuming that their (relatively) brief colloquies on topics of immense complexity are interesting because they are who they are. While this assumption was not unwarranted a priori, even adaptive expectations will catch up with it sometime.

By way of probable cause — apologies to readers if I'm mixing my legal metaphors — I offer the following statement:

The Microsoft Exchange server at work has been automatically sending me threatening messages for months telling me that I'm asking for Big Trouble if I don't do something about my hideously clogged inbox. (I tend to take the view that if my inbox and/or physical office were too orderly for too long of a time, it would be Bad News for my ability to pay my moderately outsized mortgage.) This morning, Exchange made good on the threat by preventing me from sending a brief e-mail until I cleared some stuff out. So I piled into the messy business of deleting enough stuff to get back into the e-mail server's good graces for the longer haul: I spent most of the workday shoveling the digital sh*t, trying desperately to stay awake while doing so.

Becker–Posner did not help maintain consciousness this afternoon. Posner led off this time, with another undergraduate topic paragraph leading me to conclude that the likeliest explanation behind the B–P "comedy gold" remarked upon by Kieran Healy at CT after the first round is uncredited research assistance. They agreed that radical climate change would be rilly bad, less so on the probability of a disastrous outcome. Policy recommendations return from the Gamma Quadrant, and are in fact so pedestrian (carbon taxes, tradeable CO2 emissions rights) as to not constitute superior entertainment to cleaning out one's inbox.

He's Just Not That Into You

by Tom Bozzo

Pssst! Having jilted JFW at least for December, JF is blogging a little at Pub Sociology, where Brayden King has been also been operating (advertised) instead of his eponymous blog.

Over there, Brayden "reveals" that the ASA (*) meeting is stalking the ASSA (**) meeting: Philadelphia Marriott for both. Thanks to academic calendar issues, neither meeting is in a decent mid-Atlantic time of the year.

"Our" theme, "Expanding the Frontiers of Economics," is a bit more agressive, though. Look out, other social sciences!

Then again, the ASAs are in San Francisco in '07, the ASSAs don't go back there until '09. The '07 ASSAs are in Chicago. In January. Stupid economists...


(*) American Sociological Association.

(**) Allied Social Science Associations, which is to say mainly the American Economic Association.

Person of the Whatever II

by Tom Bozzo

AP also reports on unprecedented security measures planned for the Bush inauguration and subsequent parade, including plans to search every spectator along the parade route.

Having endured hours of cold-for-D.C. conditions along Pennsylvania Ave. NW on January 20, 1993 for a quick glimpse of Bill Clinton, this sounds like a bit much. The guys with conspicuous sniper rifles on the roofs of buildings along the avenue were more than enough to keep us in line.

The story also indicates that police are expecting some demonstrators. No specific word as to whether plans for them include a "free speech zone" at Judiciary Square or thereabouts.

Person of the Whatever

by Tom Bozzo

From Time, via AP:

The magazine's editors recognized Bush "for sharpening the debate until the choices bled, for reframing reality to match his design, for gambling his fortunes — and ours — on his faith in the power of leadership."

Maybe he'll give himself the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for reframing the concept of freedom such that he could be deemed to have spread it somewhere in the world.

This issue will make an unusually quick trip to the recycling bin.

Addendum: Suzanne, reading the same story (below the fold on page A1 of the State Journal), noted the double-edged nature of the citation above.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

The Holiday (*) Capitol

by Tom Bozzo

For our Sunday morning outing, we bundled the kids up against the seven-degree chill and took them to the Square to see the holiday tree at the Capitol. For a bigger-picture view with relatively clear pictures of the displays, see this post at Althouse. Here, we have babies.

The attraction for John was the train circling the base of the tree. Our splendid Capitol? Eh. The reflective strips on his coat wrought havoc with the flash.

Julia says, maybe next year.

Where is that train?

Author, son, and a bit of tree, as the shutter just beats the squirming toddler headed for the floor.

I have to take issue with one thing at Althouse. She claims biblical imagery in the "Legislation" mosaic near the base of the dome (photo chez Althouse -- I didn't get a clear shot). (**) Now, I'm not a professional iconographer, but while the figure of Legislation may indeed have a long white beard, I'm not accustomed to seeing a bare-chested Moses composing the Ten Commandments himself. (And check out the figure holding up Legislation's bench. What would John Ashcroft say? What does John Gard do?!) Context matters a lot in these. Here is the accompanying mosaic of "Government." Biblical or classical? Hmmm...


(*) I leave wrangling over the Establishment Clause to others.

(**) Either that, or she's making a little joke that a certain segment of her readership might not find very funny if they got it.

Regular Reading, December 19, 2004

by Tom Bozzo

There are a few new additions to the blogroll this week.

NYU professor Nouriel Roubini has a lengthy post explaning in detailed but nonmathematical terms the economics of the Bush administration's Social Insecurity efforts — as Roubini bluntly puts it, the "mother of all con-man smoke-and-mirrors shell-games" — at his Global Economics Blog. Roubini's efforts should suffice to disabuse anyone of the notion that the big-name conservative economists attending last week's "economic summit" know something that the rest of us don't.

PZ Myers' biology-centric Pharyngula, a daily destination of mine, ventures into Social Insecurity territory to host a dialogue on the related subjects of whether it is possible to make one's self $100 richer by loaning one's self $100 and the motivations of various participants in the shell-game. There's a parallel universe where my laughter would not have trailed off into dread.

"Oscar Madison" at the Columnist Manifesto mused about the privacy implications of Web tracking technology (such as Site Meter, which counts visits here — click on the multicolored icon under the disclaimer to see just how lonely this corner of the netiverse is) and the seemingly random blogs that "refer" not inconsiderable fractions of the traffic at infrequently-visited Blogspot blogs.

Of course, I'm curious about who is visiting and reading. It's a small enough number of people that I know (not necessarily via Site Meter), or have well-educated guesses about, a large fraction of the regulars. That there should be anyone else, though a predictable consequence of posting this stuff to the naked Internet, is nevertheless a bit weird-feeling. If you're one of the mystery visitors, who are you and what are you doing here?

The random blogs, it turns out, result from people clicking the "next blog" button at the top right of this page, which would send you to a seemingly random blog. Note that doing so is not necessarily safe for work. I'm curious as to the precise nature of the randomness, since the "next blog" visitors show clear clustering (a bunch one day, none for several) in the traffic reports.

One thing that "nextblogging" reveals is that statistics such as the number of blogs tracked by Technorati, or the first derivative of that number, must be taken with a major grain of salt, which is rarely done in the "MSM". Of the 15,000 new blogs a day, is it unreasonable to think that 14,500 will be moribund in short order?

Viral Marketing 101

by Tom Bozzo

1. I read Fafblog!, occasionally have coffee run out my nose while reading Fafblog! (ow), link it in the right hand column purely as a signifier of my own derangement, and would be shocked senseless if I learned that I had any other relationship to the Fafbloggers.

2. Must... have... Fafmug!

Saturday, December 18, 2004

What A Million Songs Means to Me (The Fable of Kazaa II)

by Tom Bozzo

Along with the enormous success of the iPod, Apple has been reporting decreasing intervals between 50 million download milestones at the iTunes Music Store, where the inventory now consists of "more than one million songs."

To see how far along Apple is with the iTMS library, I popped over to the home of the CDDB, the virtually unstumpable (I've tried and failed) database whose integration with iTunes spares users the need to enter track names and other CD metadata. As of yesterday when I visited, they reported these statistics for the CDDB contents:

Database Statistics
CD's: 3,275,101
Songs: 41,895,777

So, with rounding and a couple heroic assumptions, Apple has on offer something like 2.5 percent of all songs released on CD. The accomplishment is simultaneously impressive and problematic.

For someone with tastes in moderately to very obscure alt-rock like this (the answer to the VRAQ (*) of what's playing in my car)...

...browsing the iTMS has been an exercise in disorientation, as the alternative section contains scores of artists I've never even heard of, and apart from a few curiosities (The Wake?), there isn't enough in the catalog (yet?) to foster digital "librarying" of beloved vinyls for use in a prospective Pod or other applications.

As for the mystery artists, I am simply starved for information, and so all music retailers — iTMS and likeable locals alike — suffer as I am neither unable nor unwilling to spend my entertainment budget on recorded music in principle. This is why, in a pure navel-gazing exercise, I find that while Stan Leibowitz [PDF] technically could be right that conveying information about CD contents via free samples (authorized or not) or other means could reduce music sales (other things equal), my intuition is that he's wrong. (**)

In addition to offering sample sound clips, iTMS offers Amazon-style 'listeners also bought...' links. These would be more useful but for serious "micronumerosity" (***) problems in the esoteric sections of the store: not enough people have purchased tracks from The Wake to reliably tell me what might make a good accompaniment to a download of, say, "Talk About the Past."

Might I suggest Momus' "The Hairstyle of the Devil"? No, not on iTMS yet.


(*) Very Rarely Asked Question, as Henry Farrell of Crooked Timber amusingly puts it. At his VRAQ page, Farrell notes that he likes the Boo Radleys as an example of "psychedelic pop," to which I say, "cool," as the front item in my stack of 45s is, in fact, the Boo Radleys' "At the Sound of Speed" (on psychedelic colored 'wax'). A second psychedelic pop example would thus be interesting, if to a narrow audience.

(**) Loosely put, removing uncertainty about the contents of an album can make you more or less willing to pay for it, which (generally) pivots the demand curve. The effect, then, depends on the location of the pivot point. Choose the right point, and contrary to the argument of Mark Cuban and others, free sampling reinforces rather than offsets the substitution effect from unauthorized downloading. But music sales per capita are not so high (4 albums per year in the U.S., according to Leibowitz) that I'd assume that the representative music buyer is saturated with information.

(***) A coinage of Art Goldberger's, meant to convey the gravity of the issue of small sample size to the academic community by means of a polysyllabic term.

Friday, December 17, 2004

The Future of Downtown Madison: Is the Sky Falling?

by Tom Bozzo

The Cap Times reports that the Monroe Commons development — a large (for the neighborhood, the rendering below doesn't do justice to the compactness of the site) multi-use building that will add 50 upscale condominiums and a new grocery store to the Dudgeon-Monroe neighborhood — sailed through a preliminary Urban Design Commission review on a 6-1 vote. While a neighbor of the project expresses some concerns, and my neighbor Audrey Highton puts on a good game face on behalf of our neighborhood association, there does not appear to be much opposition. (Confidential to the developers, bring in the Co-Op and the DMNA is yours.)

Architect's rendering of the Monroe Commons building.

In other downtown news, some merchants towards the Capitol end of State Street are starting to report increased traffic and sales that may be attributable to the completion of the first phase of the Overture Center and to the greater number of non-student residents courtesy of the downtown condo boom.

It's still fairly early to assess the impact Overture is having on the central city's business community, especially through the holiday season," said Jill Lundberg, Downtown Madison Inc. vice president and manager of the Central Business Improvement District.

"However, we are definitely feeling an increase in excitement about downtown Madison as a destination. Our gift card program is up 200 percent over last year, and a number of the businesses in the vicinity of Overture and up on the Square are reporting a very good year," she added. [Emphasis added.]

This caps a week that started with a Wisconsin State Journal op-ed lauding a post to the quasi-blog by local architect and developer Kenton Peters (1) claiming that a local regulatory maze, obstructionist neighhorhood organizations, and poor planning are failing to "revers[e] the decline of Downtown."

While the general thrust of Peters' post had me wondering exactly which declining Madison he was talking about, I should emphasize that he makes some good points. Downtown certainly has been in transition for some time, as industry has gradually abandoned the east Isthmus and as some large businesses have decamped to the edge cities on the far east and west sides.

The city arguably has been slow to push for a post-industrial transformation of the East Washington Avenue corridor, a potentially grand approach to the Capitol that's currently a slum of car dealers and shuttered factories. Had it been my $205 million, Overture Center would occupy one of the parking lots east of the square, where a lure to development seems more needed and some of the design constraints of the Civic Center site would have been relaxed.

Peters' most provocative point is that prime downtown real estate is too valuable to be left to office-dwellers. At least on the basis of the ugliest state office buildings along Wilson Street, this is true. However, realism dictates that the bulk of the state government, various hangers-on, and other professionals who want to be able to pop over to the L'Etoile Cafe for pastry will stay. The University — the greatest villain in this view, as its presence gives miles of prime Lake Mendota shoreline over to frats, philosophers, social scientists, undergraduate dorm-dwellers, bicyclists, and trees, not necessarily in that order — will no doubt stay put, too.

It's also true that the market has managed to survive all of the obstacles Peters enumerates to bring about a residential transformation of non-student downtown. A pair of public projects, phase two of Overture and the Dane County Courthouse, are the only nonresidential, or not substantially residential, projects seriously underway. Against that, we have hundreds of residential units under construction or in planning in large central developments, in addition to the Monroe St. building mentioned above (making me wonder how these would weather an interest rate spike):

I've undoubtedly forgotten something, but you get the picture. And don't talk to me (or Ann Althouse) about what the desirability of central neighborhoods has done to near-west side single family property values and taxes.

Weston Place rising, to give someone a chance to pay a million bucks to live on that side of University Ave.

The skyline view east-facing residents get late in the day, more-or-less. Yes, we've had prospective buyers come to our offices to try out the views.


(1) Peters is known for futuristic metal-clad buildings, some of which are cooler-looking (UW Foundation building) than others (Madison federal courthouse, IMHO). In suggesting in a portion of the post that historical preservation should ignore mere aesthetic considerations, Peters perhaps is laying the groundwork for a future generation's spare-the-courthouse effort.

Peters is also known locally for "accidentally" building an unauthorized extra floor on a downtown condo project, where the prime units command seven-figure price tags, for which he was fined an amount ($25,000) grossly insufficient to deter similar behavior in the future.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Don't Ask A Question If You Don't Want to Hear the Answer

by Tom Bozzo


Sadly, the Madison blog contingent is losing its temporary monopoly over Mr. Zmudzinski's comments section. Another post there, I see, has a comment that summarizes as 'damn straight.'

Becker/Posner Blog II-A: My Modest Proposal

by Tom Bozzo

Gary Becker notes that the pharmaceutical industry's R&D expenditures run around $30 billion annually. This must, of course, be recovered through drug markups, which Becker rightly notes does not constitute price "gouging."

Now, once you add in the costs of additional safety testing and post-approval monitoring of drugs for safety and effectiveness, I don't see how Becker's plan would achieve a savings of, say, $10 billion, other things equal.

It would seem just as easy to (bad word coming) socialize the early phases of drug R&D. Among other things, drug R&D has collective good aspects, it could be efficient to shift the risk of dead-end compounds off of private industry, and production of much of the basic science already is publicly funded to a considerable extent.

Nor are amounts on the order of $10 billion that would be better spent on drug R&D impossible to locate in the federal budget, given the political will to do so. My druthers would be to reprogram the vast majority of the expenditures on ballistic missile defense, which is almost pure boondoggle — though, sadly, a religious line item for the ruling party. Agriculture subsidies and the adventure in the Middle East would also make excellent candidates.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Wednesday Baby Blogging: Two Months Today

by Tom Bozzo

Despite an hour and a half of more-or-less solid fussing this evening while Suzanne was enjoying some freedom (the bottle being an alien milk-delivery device so far), I think we'll keep her ;-).

Becker/Posner Blog II: An Idea, Not Necessarily a Good One, from Becker

by Tom Bozzo

The theme for the second round of Becker/Posner posts is pharmaceutical patents. Without doubt, this is an important topic. There is a bit of comedy early on in Becker's post, as he prefaces his remarks with the following revelation:

Some of the industry’s important products include aspirins, antibiotics, blood pressure lowering medications, cholesterol lowering drugs, Aids cocktails, drugs that slow the progress of breast and prostate cancer and Parkinson’s disease, effective sleeping pills, and anti-depressants that enable many mentally troubled persons to live reasonably normal lives.

I'll leave reaction to the reader's inclination to be set off by top-tier academics (or their over-credentialed, underskilled research assistants?) telling one the bleeding obvious.

We do, after some other discussion of elementary economics of drug pricing, get to a non-obvious proposal:

I have proposed elsewhere ( )) that the FDA trust patients more, and allow them more freedom to use new drugs by granting approval without the efficacy and randomized stages - this was the situation prior to 1962. At the same time, the FDA can tighten up safety standards, especially by putting resources into following more closely possible side effects over long time periods. Were my suggestion implemented, R&D costs would go down considerably, patent length could be considerably reduced, and yet companies would have more incentive to invest in finding new drugs.

I woke up this morning to an NPR story (link forthcoming) describing the case of a man who had given himself a serious case of lead poisoning via a "natural" medicine remedy that happened to be a veritable cocktail of heavy metals, and there are obviously adherents to forms of "medicine" that cannot work by physical causes such as homeopathy and religious faith-healing. Even patients interested only in scientific medicine can't be assumed to have good information on the efficacy of treatments — part of the reason we have professional specialization, after all. It's odd that a Chicago economist should forget about this. It can be safely assumed that, in the world Becker envisions, patients will have safe but not provably effective medications aggressively marketed to them. So "trust patients more" doesn't seem to be an obvious means of promoting health care efficiency in itself.

While unmentioned, I'd guess that recent unsafe medication problems inform the call for stricter safety "standards." In practice, this would mean a layer of trials to partly replace the foregone trial stages, which would cut into the purported savings. It's also unclear at best whether it's beneficial to the health system to increase the supply of not necessarily effective drugs. It is easy to imagine a system (think nutritional supplements) in which it's very difficult for the FDA to force an drug that's ineffective or proven dangerous only after long experience — and only after various damages have been done.

It would also be nice to see a system free of seemingly egregious statistical decision-making errors in the drug RDT&E process, such as that described by Robert Waldmann here, before performing major surgery on the evaluation process.

So we have a big idea, just not a good one, from Becker in week 2. What could be up for week 3?

(Apologies in advance to B-P-B commenters, whose efforts I haven't read, if I've duplicated any of your ideas.)

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Should I Reconsider My Secret Desire to be French?

by Tom Bozzo

Probably not. Though Nina, now reporting from Paris, brings disturbing news on the American cultural hegemony front.

Full disclosure: we have a bunch of Starbucks city mugs in the cupboards, I had no problem going into any of their zillion outlets in the English capital last time I was there, and it once took me a couple days to notice that we had run out of Ancora D'Oro yet still (courtesy of the new drive-through on University Ave.) had coffee in the house.

Alms for the Blog...

by Tom Bozzo

...will not be solicited at this "Marginal" location in the foreseeable future.

I know, you were all worried about that.

The 7 Best Cars

by Tom Bozzo

Car and Driver is out with its annual 10Best Cars list. So what gives with the title? Two underlying vehicle "platforms" — the structural underpinnings that, when reused in several models, reap huge cost savings for automakers — account for half the slots in the list.

The big winner is Honda's "Global Midsize" platform, which underlies the "Best Family Sedan" (U.S. Accord), "Best Sports Sedan" (Acura TSX, a high trim of the car known as the Honda Accord in Europe and Japan), and "Best Luxury Sedan" (Acura RL, a/k/a Honda Legend elsewhere). The U.S. sticker price range in this model assortment is enormous, from $16,710 for a stripper Accord to $49,470 for the RL.

Evidently, the RL is being viewed as more than just a $50,000 Accord by car writers and the general public (it's selling well). The TSX, which I've driven, indeed does an admirable job of feeling a lot like the occasionally sainted 1997-2001 Prelude for a tallish, Accord-based sedan.

The C&D editors, IMHO, took some leave of their senses in awarding separate spots to the Chrysler 300 and the Dodge Magnum (for "Best Large Sedan" and "Best Wagon," respectively). Those cars are twins except for cosmetics and the aft bodywork. Indeed, DaimlerChrysler sells a retrimmed Magnum as the Chrysler 300 Touring in some non-U.S. markets.

Meanwhile, the BMW 3-series sedan, coupe, convertible, wagon, and the M3s are forced to share one position on the list. A travesty!

The surprise loser, discussed on this blog previously, is the new Audi A6. It failed to make the list even though C&D's reviewers generally accepted the new schnoz and thought it had caught up to the unloved E60 5-series in some areas where the old A6 was deficient. If this was #11 given the treatment of the Chrysler and Dodge, Audi was robbed.

An Alienation from Popular Culture Moment

by Tom Bozzo

At the gym, with limited choices for reading material, I picked up the November 22, 2004, Newsweek. In the arts-and-leisure material at the back, there is a story by David Gates, "Duet of the Divas."

The "divas"?

Renée Fleming and...

...Clay Aiken.

Urge to scream suppressed, barely. Upon reflection, I'm sure that Clay Aiken's name recognition would poll vastly higher than Fleming's with the general public. Still, are there really people who will buy a book about his rise to manufactured celebrity? Didn't he, like, not even win??!

Oy, the NYT nonfiction chart puts the Aiken book at #4, though not with a bullet — it was #2 last week, its first week on the charts.

On the plus side, Fleming's book is covered in two short articles in the November Opera News!

Also, I might have to take a look at The King and I: The Uncensored Tale of Luciano Pavarotti's Rise to Fame by HisManager, Friend and Sometime Adversary, by Herbert Breslin and Anne Midgette.

An excerpt in the October Opera News amusingly describes the trajectory of the "Three Tenors" concept from birth through massive overexposure, spin- and rip-offs. The short version is that for the original 1990 World Cup concert, the tenors were offered what amounted to all the money in the classical music world, and failed to secure a percentage of the subsequent gargantuan take. When the '94 reprise came around, nobody was going to make that mistake again.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Is Madison In the House Price Bubble?

by Tom Bozzo

The latest House Price Index release, noted here on Friday, shows national average house prices at a rolling boil. It also offers regional detail down to the Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) level — much of it downloadable, a boon to armchair statisticians.

So how does Madison stack up to the big kids? HPI only shows price appreciation within regions, so it tells how price increases here are keeping up with increases elsewhere. The short answer is that we're falling behind highly inflated areas:

(That is, Boston and Washington were more expensive than Madison in early 1995 when these indexes meet, and their HPIs have been growing faster.)

Madison ranks 91st out of 245 ranked MSAs (ranking requires a minimum number of eligible transactions in the area), which puts it below the national average as the most rapidly appreciating MSAs are relatively large.

Boston and Washington both had seen rapid house price inflation in the last bubble-like period and suffered what were considered long hangovers. What's remarkable about Madison is the very consistent and mostly moderate price growth, as seen in the price changes here:

In Boston, where the rate of increase in the '80s was as rapid as some of the suspected bubble areas now, there were a couple of quarters in the "crash" where HPI was down 10 percent over the previous year. As a result, the Boston area didn't regain its 1988-89 HPI peak until 1997. Washington didn't see negative HPI changes of that magnitude, but rather saw an extended period of near-zero average appreciation. I wouldn't want to be buying into the Washington-area housing market now, even with home equity from another well-inflated market to spend. (Sorry, Ezra and Kristin.)

Still, this does show some limitations of the MSA-level data. Within Madison's average, there are locations — mainly in central areas of Madison proper — that have seen very rapid appreciation and have even shown some signs of topping out, such as lengthening times-on-market and even mild deflation for a few properties.

Another methodological issue is that HPI attempts to control for housing quality by using data on repeat transactions. However, the description of the HPI methodology indicates that HPI simply assumes constant quality for any given house, so renovations are a potential 'confounding' factor with pure appreciation. For instance, our old place appreciated by about 9.5 percent per year based on the 2004 and 2000 contract prices, but by a still respectable but considerably lower 6.5-7.5 percent per year if the value of some improvements carried out in the interim were subtracted off the gross appreciation. This would help the don't-panic set a little.

So the answer to the titular question is (drum roll) — maybe. Yes, the economist's classic answer. At least, the history of other highly inflated markets would suggest that we may not have inflated enough to see an extended period of house price deflation in the absence of an especially vicious turn of the housing market fundamentals. (But beware a dollar-interest rate crisis!)

For some more discussion of analytical limitations of efforts to evaluate whether we're in a bubble, see Angry Bear here.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Starts With "C"

by Tom Bozzo

More signs of the times...

At the height of my teenaged cookie-monsterdom, I'd make a quadruple batch of the Betty Crocker butter spritz cookie recipe — 24 dozen cookies, more or less, with no fancy stand mixer to help either — as my main contribution to the holiday baking. I'd still be working down that quantity of cookies in January. I only baked a single batch of 84 cookies, including the kids' initials, this year.

John helped out with the decoration...

...and enjoyed the fruits of his labor.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Saturday Baby Blogging: Resemblance Edition

by Tom Bozzo

We've been hearing quite a bit about how John and Julia look alike. For obvious reasons, we'd expect this to at least some extent, though our tendency has been to seek out contrasts.

Here's an approximately age-controlled pair of pictures. Note, selection bias may be present.

John, December 18, 2002.

Julia, December 8, 2004.

John had more hair.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Bubble, Bubble...

by Tom Bozzo

The Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight's House Price Index (HPI) release (large PDF) for the 3rd quarter has everything you wanted to know about house price changes down to the MSA level, and then some.

Kash at Angry Bear quotes Stephen Roach from today's Financial Times saying that the headline result — continued acceleration of house price inflation — makes it clear that there is a housing bubble after all. Kash thinks this is the common sense interpretation of the data, and suggests that a recent New York Fed paper that purports to explain how there really isn't a bubble is typical of a cognitive disorder that spreads to mainstream economists in the later stages of a period of speculative excess.

I largely agree with Kash and Roach. One thing that grabbed me from the release, I noted in comments over at AB, is that the last couple of quarters have dramatically reversed a pattern whereby the HPI has lagged a house price index based solely on purchases. (The overall HPI is based on both sales and appraisals for refinance loans.) In the third quarter, HPI was up 12.97% year-over-year versus 10.26% for purchases only.

So to whatever extent the actual sale price growth is crazy, the refinancing appraisals are just bats**t. Since the refinancing appraisals arguably have a considerable element of art to their determination, and perhaps get a push from parties with interests in the transactions, that they're taking off amidst various signs of what naysayers might call bearish fundamentals looks like an even later stage before the bursting of the bubble.

More discussion with local flavor over the weekend.

Bizarre Love Triangle

by Tom Bozzo

I can't believe this stuff starts so early.

There are two adorable girls in John's playgroup, call them Q. and Z. (not their real initials, which will do no good if their moms read this), a few weeks older than John, who regular readers may recall is just past two. My impression is that Z. would be the queen bee.

Q. loves John. At snacktime, she wanted to give him a piece of cheese, but was too shy to do so herself. So Q. gave Suzanne the cheese to give to John another boy in the group, who wanted the cheese, which John had not yet seen. Q. also "wrote John a letter." We haven't seen the letter, so I don't know exactly what this means.

Meanwhile, John, while aware of Q's existence, is rather more infatuated with Z., who happens to have been a bit physically rough with John for a while a few months ago — since corrected to Z.'s parents' credit. While Daddy blogs, John comes up and says "See babies! Pictures of [Z.]," a demand that to see the contents of the iPhoto database containing, among other things, a few pictures of Q. and Z. On election afternoon, I took John to one of our local parks to blow off some toddler steam, when who should arrive but Z. and Z.'s mom. John, who had been busy sliding up to then, stopped playing and looked on slackjawed from about 20 feet as Z. did her thing.

Some underdog bias makes me want to pull for Q.

Mark A. R. Kleiman is Very (but Appropriately) Shrill

by Tom Bozzo

If your blog travels don't already take you there, please read these:

1. Is there a Social Security "crisis"? No.

2. Should Democrats compromise with Republicans on Social Security "reform"? Hell no.

3. What can you say about Donald Rumsfeld? Nothing appropriate for a family audience.

4. Will the Department of Homeland Security be a model of bad government for future generations of public policy students? Almost certainly.

(Update: oops, I see from my morning travels that Brad DeLong, whose blog is for some reason looking a lot better in Safari than Firefox, says almost exactly the same thing.)

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Glad to Have a Hot-Running Laptop

by Tom Bozzo

From the BBC, word that men using laptops on their laps typically reduce their fertility by increasing temperatures in the scrotum.

This has not been a problem for me.(*) This blog is written, and other affiliated computing is performed, on an Apple Titanium PowerBook (400 MHz, Rev. A; the last technological device for which I was an early adopter), call it the "Gray Lady" if you will, the lower case of which gets quite hot without air flowing underneath. Thus, when used as a "laptop," it's typically balanced with a knee and/or lower thigh under each side to allow airspace underneath the unit. Which, I suppose, might be a fertility-enhancing posture.

(Via Pandagon.)


(*) Not that I'd care at this point. Two is enough.

Eating Bon-Bons Across the Ocean?

by Tom Bozzo

No, not that Ocean.

Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution quotes a recent Cato Institute book, Cowboy Capitalism: European Myths, American Reality by Olaf Gersemann, which claims that

On average, a working-age German works about 2 hours and 35 minutes per calendar day.

Wow. A good question is what we are to make of this statistic. Does it suggest that Germans are twiddling their thumbs most of the day while Americans have their noses to the grindstone? This just demands a back-of-the-envelope estimate for the U.S.

How about this, using the BLS's November Employment Situation Summary:

average workweek [private sector, Establishment Survey] x employment-population ratio [Household Survey] / 7


33.7 hours x .625 / 7 days = 3 hours and 32 seconds per calendar day.

The difference of 25 minutes per day — if it were to stand up to a proper apples-to-apples comparison — isn't insubstantial, but what would the impression have been if the U.S. figure were posted without further comment? Working 152 hours a year less on average to achieve the German standard of living might not be all that bad.

The book, which claims to take "common misperceptions of the American economy and demonstrat[e] how misleading they are," would seem to be ripe for a good once-over by a liberal economist with more free time than me.

One seeming example of a bait-and-switch, the Cato article leads off enumerating, among the "misperceptions," that

[w]e hear, too, that average families can maintain their standard of living only because both parents work

And then are given as the first item in a list of "myths vs. the reality":

Myth: Many people in the United States need two or three jobs to make ends meet.
Reality: As of May 2001, only 1.5 percent of all working Americans held multiple jobs to stay afloat. (page 126) [emphasis in original]

Note the shifting of terms, as we're treated to how many individuals work multiple jobs, not how many families are dependent on multiple incomes. In fairness, it's a 260-page book that I haven't read, so just maybe the multiple-earner family issue is addressed somewhere. But other "myth" checking on subjects like income inequality using income tax statistics (see Max Sawicky, e.g. here, for coverage of the relevant issues) suggests that a good bit of the "reality"-checking might be shown to be presented to disingenuous effect.

Comedy Genius

by Tom Bozzo

From David Cross's (Arrested Development, Mr. Show) "It's Not Funny" (Sub Pop Records):

"If the terrorists hated freedom, then the Netherlands would be f***ing dust."

Hat tip, The Onion AV Club's Best Albums of 2004 review.

The Amazing Advance of Mass Luxury

by Tom Bozzo

The Wisconsin State Journal reports that the local BMW dealership is moving in January. A serendipitous shared cab ride (*) from the old location — which would not have happened if the Saturn and pan-European stores were not co-located — greatly hastened the end of my single days and subsequent life changes. So the current location is somewhat special to me, even if there may be benefits from not having to jockey for space in the service department with Mercedes people.

Then this bit of Madison auto sales history jumped out from the article:

"When we first purchased the BMW franchise from Tom McGann and Jon Lancaster in 1991, they had two locations in town, but were only selling about 18 new BMWs per year in Madison," [Tom] Zimbrick said. "This year, we're on track to sell roughly 300 new BMWs and about 100 used, which is 14 percent better than we did in 2003."

BMW sales in the U.S. as a whole have increased dramatically over the time period in question, along with rapid growth of the broader market for high-end cars, but not by anything approaching a factor of 15. I found Zimbrick's explanation interesting:

"For some reason, Madison luxury car buyers have traditionally been more import- oriented than domestic- oriented when it comes to buying premium-priced vehicles," he said. "Over the past 15 or 20 years, our European and Asian high performance and luxury models have experienced a steady sales increase."

My gut is that this gets at the first derivatives of the changes in the area's car market, but as to levels, the question is "more import-oriented" than what — the surrounding Midwest, I'd gather. When I arrived here, this was not my impression at all. Compared to the Washington area, which was almost as import-besotted as the west coast, I thought Madison was awash in domestic cars at both ends of the market. That is, you'd see Saturns driven by young people instead of Hondas or Toyotas (though I thought at the time that the Acura Integra was a good candidate for Official Car of Madison, since displaced by VW and Subaru models), and Cadillacs driven by people who were not obviously retired.(**)

I doubt that changing tastes account for much of the 15-fold BMW sales increase, though. I think much of the credit there must go to technology and product advances. First, the adoption, starting in the mid-to-late 90s, of traction and stability control systems greatly improved the compatibility between BMW's rear-drive models and local winter driving conditions. Second, the introduction all-wheel-drive models (including SUVs) couldn't hurt. A majority of the spec 3's on the showroom floor, I gather, have been AWD "xi" models. Both allow us BMW folk to satisfy our tastes or, as the case may be, pretensions without risking life and limb five months of the year.


(*) Cab rides to work for customers without alternative arrangements are included in the price of service at the dealership group.

(**) The other conspicuous feature of the local car scene was the absence of most older cars, presumably reduced to iron oxide from winter road salting.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Regular Reading

by Tom Bozzo

Paul Krugman interrupts a book-writing hiatus to set the record straight on the Social Security funding situation. Ahhh, Krugman fix.

Nina has amazingly extensive coverage of her adventures in Poland. Her description of Warsaw reminds me of post-unification Berlin, which I visited for a job talk in '95. Seeing a TGI Friday's on the Alexanderplatz showed that the Cold War had been won, and corporate America was the victor.

Ann Althouse (a liberal reading a conservative? It happens...) asks how Downtown Madison can be built up without, as Rob Zaleski of the Capital Times complains (in a linked column) destroying the postcard views of the state Capitol. My view is that the cat is long out of the bag, as a number of undistinguished-to-godawful tall buildings have long marred if not blocked the skyline views; the new County Courthouse's main offense is its own emergent ugliness. However, the city would be advised to act to preserve the $205 million view of the Capitol dome from the Overture Hall lobby.

Meanwhile, we're still wishing a quick and complete recovery to Jeremy Freese's father.

Those Eyes, That Nose

by Tom Bozzo

Sunday morning on Highway 12 between Madison and Cambridge (Wisconsin), cruising along in the wagon with Suzanne at the wheel, something approaches in the other direction. My head turns as it flashes by. Suzanne says, "Was that..."

"Yes," I say, "that's the new A6." Viewed in less dramatic light, of course.

"Do you like that?" asks Suzanne, with a little wrinkling of nose.

Pause. "Uh." Long pause. "Well." Longer pause. "I guess I don't hate it."

And so goes another chapter in the saga of this era of bold design for upscale cars, which less charitably might be called designers run amok. BMW design chief Chris Bangle is Public Enemy #1 in some circles over the latest redesigns of the 7 and 5.

Audi sought not to be outdone, with its design head Walter de'Silva decreeing that a version of the above grille -- originally seen on a 2003 Geneva show car, the Nuvolari quattro, a large coupe with TT influences -- would grace the entire model range in time (specifically, MY'06, when updates of the A4 and TT are expected).

The question is, should Audi and BMW marketers really want their owners (the wagon is an A4 Avant) debating the freakishness of their new models? I don't think so, but I don't know the limits to modern marketing counterintuition.

For two data points, Autospies reports plummeting 7-series sales in November, though in the same period the new A6 was the only bright spot for Audi.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

That Irrational Economics Job Market

by Tom Bozzo

Another interesting recent post at Crooked Timber reviews some sociological research into the mechanisms of academic job "markets." Why the scare quotes on "markets"? The sociologists claim to be able to show that grad students are exchanged according to status hierarchies that may or may not reflect a rational assessment of all job candidates' performance. Kieran Healy notes that, according to one paper, the discipline with the least economic market-like behavior is... economics:

My own intuition is that uncertainty about future productivity creates sufficient anxiety that departments tend to choose the safer candidates in the short run — i.e., the ones coming out of their peer-group departments... Indeed, according to Han’s paper [no longer available at the UIUC link provided, darnit -- MU ed.], the discipline that does the most to take the market out of the market — to make it more like a hierarchical queueing procedure, instead, where the top departments get first pick of the candidates — is Economics. This is also a field where it’s conventional for candidates go on the market without any publications.

I think this rings true, though I wish I could readily access the source paper (short of a trip to the UW library) to see how one might empirically identify the "hierarchical queuing" hypothesis from what could be characterized on the economics side as a signaling/screening procedure -- assuming it isn't already a feature of the analysis.

Certainly, my alma mater, which embarked on a reputation enhancement program starting around the time of my arrival (1990) and bought its way up, or sought to, now has a junior faculty drawn from a narrower and higher-prestige array of economics graduate prorams (MIT, Chicago) than the "legacy" senior faculty (Johns Hopkins, Duke, Wisconsin).(*)

What's also interesting is how private sector economics jobs seem to fit into the hierarchy, which appears to be below even some lower-tier academic jobs.(**) Among other things, I'd expect that the lower-tier academic jobs don't come with especially high salaries relative even to unglamorous consulting gigs, and the signaling consequences of failing to get tenure in such a position are potentially more serious than failing to get tenure at a Harvard or MIT, which I expect often results in a soft landing in a tenured position at a lower-tier department.(***) I think the explanation here is not within the realm of rational choice, as I've both been leaned on to seek academic employment and seen the effects of such leaning on job candidates at the office.

So it's probably the case that decent economists are leaving $20 bills on the floor -- stacks of them, in fact. Does this make them less good economists?


(*) While there were some old-timers from Harvard and Stanford, both still high-prestige economics departments, they were generally not highly mathematical economists in the contemporary sense. So a consequence of the transition was that classmates who based their studying patterns for the macro prelims from the warm and fuzzy old macro prelims to the detriment of their understanding of dynamic optimization methods got very nasty shocks.

(**) Jobs within the Federal Reserve System and some high-prestige regulatory positions seem to be on par with upper-tier academic appointments, as may be some highly remunerative Wall Street jobs for time series jocks so inclined.

(***) The case of one job candidate I can recall from a few years back was not at all helped by his failure to get tenure at a snowbound low-tier university despite a good pedigree. Though it was his weak job talk that actually ended his chances.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Becker/Posner Blog: So Far, So What?

by Tom Bozzo

Portions of the world have been atwitter over the new blog by famed Chicago economics pseudo-Nobel laureate Gary Becker and famed jurist Richard Posner. I confess to idle curiosity.

Now come the first two posts, rather shallow comments (one from each) on the justifiability of preventive war, and they're already being roasted for being no more, and arguably less, insightful than the rest of us monkeys with computerized typewriters. Kieran Healy further argues that the apparent disconnection between the eminence of the authors and the quality of the posts suggests a put-on.

While Healy's riposte (and another discussing the inevitable response from the Medium Lobster at Fafblog!) is plenty entertaining, the problems seem more basic and subject to less extraordinary explanations. A big part of the problem is that the lawyer wrote what amounts to an economics post and the economist wrote an international relations post.

So Becker can say what he wants to say about whether modern terrorism has changed the decision process for engaging in pre-emptive war, but the authority of what he says would appear to derive almost exclusively from force of academic personage (as I can't locate any relevant scholarship on Becker's homepage), which those Chicago economists obviously don't lack. The previous mass-consumption writing (partly) authored by Becker that I'd seen was a Wall Street Journal op-ed a while back on the miracles attributable to tax cutting, which should have lowered the rational expectations of anyone else who read it.

Posner's is the more difficult case. He gets rapped in the Crooked Timber comments for some shallowness of his understanding of economics. I haven't read Posner's law-and-economics scholarship to evaluate, though some of his defense-of-economics writing, quoted by Brian Leiter in one of Prof. Leiter's economics-bashing posts, is less than awe-inspiring. What seems possible is that the idea that there could be an expected cost-expected benefit justification to preventive war might have seemed like a novel thing to post, when in fact every economist already knows that it's just a matter of having the right costs, benefits, and probabilities. This focuses a lot of attention on other details, and that's what brings out the Medium Lobster.

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