Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Just give them the money?

How much does the Federal government spend on programs to help poor people every year?

According to the National Priorities Project, 14% on "income security" and 4% on "education, training, employment and social services."

18% of 2 trillion dollars (the total Federal budget) is 360 billion dollars.

That's a darn convenient number-- the total number of people below the poverty line is about 36 million (according to the census bureau). Divide dollars by people and you get a nice, even $10,000 spent for every man, woman, and child under the poverty line. $40,000 for a family of 4, $30,000 for a family of 3, $20,000 for a family of 2.

Which is pretty astounding, considering:
the weighted average poverty threshold for a family of four in 2006 was $20,614; for a family of three, $16,079; for a family of two, $13,167; and for unrelated individuals, $10,294.
Why isn't it as simple as:
1. Everybody fills out an income tax form.
2. If your income is below the poverty line, then the IRS sends you a check to make up the difference, including any taxes you had to pay.

Then we can argue about where the poverty line should be drawn, and whether it's moral to increase the poverty line for people lucky enough to be born US Citizens (or lucky enough to manage to immigrate here) from $10,000 to $12,000 when most of the world's population survives on less than $1,000 per year.
UPDATE: I asked the National Priorities Project what "Income Security" means, and it is NOT all for helping poor people. It's:
Income security is a 'function area' defined by the federal government that includes general retirement and disability insurance (excluding social security); federal employee retirement and disability; unemployment compensation; housing assistance; food and nutrition assistance; and some other stuff (e.g. TANF, child care, foster and adoption services, supplemental security income).

Why don't caregivers get Social Security?

I'm reading Riane Eisler's "The Real Wealth of Nations"; the idea of "Creating a Caring Economics" caught my eye when I saw it in the new books section of the Jones Library.

So far, I'm underwhelmed. She seems to cite all the same doom-and-gloom statistics I've seen other liberal-leaning people cite, like:

+ US lags in child mortality. But that's probably because of the way child mortality is measured (stillborn and premature babies are counted in the US stats, I've seen claims that other countries do not count those in their child mortality stats), not because our pediatricians suck.

+ Wages for working-class people have been going down. True, but total compensation (wages+benefits) have been going up. Health care costs are skyrocketing, mainly because the market for health care is screwed up (most people don't pay directly for their health care, so most people overconsume health care).

... and so forth.

She does ask a very good question, though: if you spend your whole life homeschooling your kids or (maybe) taking care of a sick/elderly relative, why isn't all that hard work valued when it comes to Social Security? You don't get any Social Security benefits unless you've had a traditional job with a paycheck.

Why doesn't our social safety net value the work caregivers do?

I haven't yet read how she thinks we could fix this problem. People who homeschool their kids save the rest of us a bunch of money; giving them Social Security credits makes sense to me. Ditto for people who take care of old/sick relatives who would otherwise cost the Medicare/Medicaid programs lots of money.

Maybe we should give tax credits to encourage these kinds of caregiving. A $5,000 per year tax credit, along with Social Security benefits, for homeschooling your kids would probably encourage lots more homeschooling, with corresponding savings in public school budgets.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Recycling. Aluminum: good. Glass: bad.

I'm listening to a couple of economists talk about recycling. The conversation was humorous and entertaining, and I found two bits of it really interesting:

First, a prediction by Prof. Munger that in 100 years we will see strip-mining of old landfills to recover plastic (which we'll burn to produce energy, since oil will be very expensive by then). I agree; I think old landfills will be a great very-long-term investment, there's all sorts of good stuff in there that is currently too expensive to recover and reuse. But in 100 years, I bet we'll have the technology to efficiently extract all sorts of valuable stuff from old garbage dumps (if the history nuts will let us; maybe they'll all be declared "archeologically valuable" and put off-limits).

Second, insights into the "recycling religion." Some environmentalists put an essentially infinite value on "Virgin Mother Earth." It doesn't matter what the cost is to recycle (of human time, energy, water, ...), in their view it is ALWAYS worth it to recycle rather than "take precious, irreplaceable resources from Mother Earth." Recycling has become Religion, and we're judged by our neighbors if we don't go along with the Holy Rites and put our bright blue and red containers by the curb with our trash.

News flash: paper comes from trees that are grown for that purpose, just like we grow wheat to make bread. Glass comes from sand. Sand comes from rocks. And rocks are being created all the time.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Right back at ya, Rudy

Rudy Giuliani sent me a letter today. He wants me to send him money, because (he says) I'll be safer from the Terrorists if he's President.

Here's my response:

Thanks for paying the postage, Rudy!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Don't worry, your kids are safe

We went car-camping in Arlington, Vermont this past weekend, and somehow the topic of child abductions came up. It was the first time I'd heard the urban legend about a child being nearly abducted at Disney World (and the first time I'd heard an urban legend recounted as "this happened to a friend of mine...").

I knew that child abductions are waaaaay down the list of things I should worry about; the kinds of abductions that make headlines are very rare. I was curious to see what I should be worried about as a parent of two kids (who are 5 and 7 years old), and some google searching led me to the CDC Health Data for All Ages Child and Adolescent Mortality by cause.

And the answer is: I'd have to be pretty darn unlucky for my white, northeastern kids to get killed by anything in the next few years. Here's the data from 2002-2004; look at the 5-9 year old column:

Only 251 kids aged 5-9 died per year in the Northeast between 2002 and 2004. That's out of a total of 2.3 million kids that old in the Northeast (that 2.3 million number's not in the above table, you'd have to go to the website and play with the live version to see).

4 per year were murdered. Twice as many kids aged 5-9 died of heart disease in that time period! And only 10 TOTAL non-hispanic white, Northeastern kids died of asthma (go figure, I woulda thought that number would be much higher).

It's tragic when any child dies, but I find these cold, hard statistics comforting. On average, the statistics say that about 1 child aged 1-17 will die from ANY cause in Amherst each year. Our kids are much safer than we are; mortality rates for adults (even 18-34 year old adults) are much higher than for kids.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Fight Evil or Do Good

From John McCarthy, on ideology:
For many politically active people, perhaps most, fighting evil is perceived as more important than doing good.

That's probably just another way of looking at the libertarian/statist axis of political thought, since both lefties and righties like to (irrationally, in my opinion) Fight Against Evil. It's just Evil Corporations for the lefties, and Evil Terrorists (used to be Evil Communists) for the righties.

What is it about computer geeks?

I ran across two other computer geeks with very interesting ideas today on my daily wandering around the Internet.

Robin Hanson is a former computer geek who's now an economics geek. He's a polymath with lots of interesting ideas about lots of things-- his ideas on health and medicine will keep me thinking for quite a while.

Then there's John McCarthy, a retired computer science professor at Stanford who has lots of information about why human progress is sustainable. I've written before that I'm optimistic about the future; I think I'm being rational about that, but maybe it's just the computer geek in me that makes me think the way I do.

What is it about computer geeks that makes us think we're more rational about social problems than people who were History and Sociology and Politics majors? Good computer geeks have lots of problem-solving skills; we're good at taking a big, hairy problem, then applying logic and reason to figure out:
a) what's causing the problem
b) what's not causing the problem
c) how we can fix the problem without causing further problems.
We even have a name for this: "debugging"

Good computer geeks also have the ability to create generic solutions to a set of specific problems, and to figure out how to "scale up" a solution that works for 10 people so it will work for 10,000,000 people. Is it rational to believe that those skills might apply to real-world problems, too?

There is at least one ginormous difference between computers and the real world-- computer geeks are, quite literally, gods over their computers, making them do just about whatever we want them to do. Maybe this god-like power we have over computers has gone to our heads, and we're fooling ourselves that we might be able to invent better political, economic, and social institutions than currently exist.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Does the Scientific Method apply to Politics?

I'm a Skeptic. If you want to convince me of something, show me logic, or numbers, or a double-blind, placebo-controlled scientific study. Anecdotes or arguments that appeal to emotion are entertaining, but, to me, never convincing.

I've been reading and listening to a lot of progressive media lately, and the skeptic in me has been wondering if it's even possible to apply the scientific method to political questions. I think it is possible. Take Venezuela and Hugo Chávez, for example:

1. Develop a hypothesis: "modern socialism" works-- it makes the ordinary citizen healthier and wealthier.

2. Design an experiment to test the hypothesis: measure economic growth in Venezuela, factoring out external forces (like the price of oil). This is the tough part...

3. Run the experiment, and see if the results confirm the hypothesis or not.

I'd like to see more discussion between lefties and righties on what their fundamental political hypotheses are, and see if they can agree on ways of measuring whether or not those hypotheses are correct.

Of course, even if lefties and righties agree on steps 1 and 2, they can always endlessly argues about (3), arguing that real-world factors make the experiment invalid. Most people agree that Communism is a failed economic ideology, but die-hard Communists will argue that it failed in Russia and China only because the governments there did not apply the principles properly, or were corrupt, or....

I predict that Venezuela's economy will be a shambles when Pres. Chávez leaves office. I believe that it's extraordinary growth over the last few years is due entirely to the rise in the price of oil, and has very little to do with the socialist policies of the government1. Resource-rich countries tend to be cursed with rampant corruption in huge State bureaucracies, and I predict that Venezuela will be no different.

1 Spending oil money on education for everybody is a great idea, and a good long-term investment in a country's future. But I don't think it will be enough to overcome the negative effects of Chávez' other socialist economic policies.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Blog-reading 101

I'm a Google-head. Over the last couple of years I've been switching from PC-based applications to Web-based applications. I used to use Eudora for email, now I use Gmail. I need a spreadsheet once in a blue moon, so I now use Google Documents instead of Excel. I use Google Bookmarks to keep track of web pages I like, and so on. I use two different Macs and one PC on any given day, and keeping most of my "stuff" on Google's servers is darn convenient.

My home page is the Google Personalized Home Page, aka iGoogle. I read about 30 different blogs, and use iGoogle's tabs to organize and keep track of them; for example, the "Amherst" tab looks like this:

A neat feature: I can share all the stuff in a tab by clicking on the little triangle in the tab and choosing "Share this tab." If you've got an iGoogle home page, follow this link and you'll be asked which of my favorite Amherst blogs you'd like to add to your iGoogle page.

I do have one criticism of iGoogle-- they make it downright tricky to subscribe to a blog when you have a link to the blog's RSS feed. You have to poke the "Add Stuff" link, then the teeny-tiny "Add by URL" link on the Add Stuff page. Easy when you know how, but it took me a while to figure out that it was even possible to add blog entries to my Google home page.