Monday, March 26, 2007

The Future of Books

For those of you who are avid readers or have librarian leanings, here is an interesting article from The Economist on The Future of Books
The biggest advantage I see to digitizing books is that it could make nonfiction, technical books much shorter by, as the article says, actually making a book that should be 50 pages 50 pages instead of 250 in order to make the book marketable. Then again I have a soft spot for long books, so that make not be such as good thing.


That acronym often comes up in discussions of energy and the environment. It stands for:
Not In My Back Yard
A classic example of this is the case of Barbara Streisand fencing off a portion of a public beach behind her house. Apparently she likes public property, just Not In My Back Yard.
This acronym is coming up quite often with regards to energy lately. McLennan County residents are screaming NIMBY regarding coal fire plants, many advocates of wind power are all for the giant windmills, just NIMBY, and I saw a story a few days ago about how some communities are screaming NIMBY to ethanol plants due to heavy truck traffic and other industrial characteristics. (I believe that story was from the Wall Street Journal, but I can't remember.)
First of all, energy has to come from somewhere. There is going to be a plant or generator somewhere in somebody's backyard. So anyone who comments on high energy prices needs to think twice before saying NIMBY to new power sources! Secondly, you have a natural right to property, but you do not have a natural right to control how others use their property. So if person B decides to build a power plant on land that's next to land owned by person A, person A is naturally entitled to compensation from B if the plant damages A's property (pollution, smoke, perhaps even noise and these costs could cause B to not build the plant), but A cannot morally force B not to build his power plant. (A may have a legislative right to stop B from building a plant, but I'm talking about natural, not legislative rights).
(Here's a couple of links for stuff on natural rights and property:
There are many more articles and books on these topics, espcially at
So if property rights are enforced and legislatures do not trump natural rights, NIMBY begins to lose its force.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Teachers, Adminsitrators, Trouble Makers and Incentives

What incentives do teachers, and more specifically school administrators, face when dealing with rowdy, disruptive or violent students?

Let's say that an administrator expels a student for being overly disruptive to the learning environment in some way such as asking loaded questions, having independent thoughts, being bored with dumbed down material, etc. Seriously, lets say that a student is expelled for violence. The costs of this action will be borne by the expelled students and his or her parents. The benefits will be received by the student body and teaching staff as a whole who do not have to deal with the unruly student.

The costs in this case are highly concentrated (all on the expelled student and parent(s)). The benefits are widely dispersed across many students, teachers and administrators. The parents of the expelled student will come to school to plead their case. This could result in the parent agreeing with the administrator or disagreeing with the administrator. If the parent disagrees, this could result in the parent simply pleading their case more passionately or, in the most extreme case, suing the school. This is where the incentives start to show up.

Because costs are concentrated while benefits are widely dispersed, an administrator will be less likely than otherwise to expel unruly students. Just the threat of a lawsuit will cause administrators to think twice about expelling an unruly student, regardless of whether the benefits of this student being gone exceed the costs to the student. Because the costs are so heavily concentrated, those facing the costs will expend significant resources to avoid facing the costs (the parent raising hell or suing to avoid expulsion). Because the benefits are so dispersed across a wider population, those receiving the benefits will each expend few resources to capture those benefits (few parents will attend school board meeting encouraging them to expel our unruly student).

These incentives will result in unruly students not being expelled as often as they should because costs are so concentrated and benefits are so widely dispersed. This scenario certainly applies to administrators at the macro or school level, but also to teachers at the micro or classroom level. Why expel a student and have a parent come chew you out when there are not compensating benefits? Perhaps some people in schools have the nerve to expel such students and some parents fight to keep unruly students out, but my experience, and the incentives faced, tells me that too few are actually expelled.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Today's Vocabulary Lesson

As part of an answer on an exam I just gave, a student (COLLEGE STUDENT!; A HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATE!!!) used the following "word:"

mirch in dice

I have neither added spaces nor modified the "word." On top of that, the "word" had absolutely nothing to do with the correct answer to the question.

If that doesn't scare the crap out of you, then go back and read the "word" again!

The only conclusion I can come to is that state and local authorities are not doing a good job of stopping women from using crack while pregnant.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

What's Wrong with School Vouchers

Here's a piece from the Waco Trib on school vouchers. I like the Trib; it's very soft against the buttocks. (Once again I truly dislike the paper greatly, but can't stop glancing at the website.)

I want to address a few of the writer's points.

"Instead of allowing school vouchers, if we could give public schools the same freedoms that private schools have, the cry for vouchers would be silenced."
As long as there is state or federal money going into local school districts, there will be strings attached to that money. An argument often used against school vouchers is that there is no control on how private schools use the voucher funds. Giving state or federal money to school districts with no strings attached would result in the exact same issue of control.

"I suspect these bills were less about fairness than ploys to gradually grant all private school families tuition breaks."
I can't see how this is a motivation behind school choice legislation. Teachers unions are much stronger politically than private school parents, so even if the purpose of a voucher bill is to eventually grant tuition breaks to private school families, it would never happen politically.

"All citizens must support public education, either through property taxes or through higher rents imposed by property owners. People who don’t have children in the system still pay for public education through their tax dollars."
Whether the writer admits it or not, this is a problem. Costs are widely dispersed and benefits are concentrated. This leads first to spending levels that are higher than socially optimal levels. If someone else is paying for your lunch, why not buy the most expensive thing on the menu? Secondly, there is a problem of people footing the bill that have no say in what happens in a particular school district.

Lets say for instance that I own property in, but don't live in the school district. Because I own property in the district I'm helping to fund the school through my tax payments. However, I don't live in the district so I don't get a vote in school board elections. Even though I'm helping foot the bill, I have no say in what goes on in the school. If I try to walk into the school to investigate teaching methods or student behavior, I'll be ignored at the least and removed by force at worst. (A nice reform might be giving all property owners in a school district voting right in school board elections.)

This disconnect between who makes decisions and who funds the school results in inefficiency. Just imagine what would happen if you paid someone to purchase art work for you but there was no feedback mechanism. The art buyer could purchase pieces of art that you found repulsive, but you would have no way of telling him to stop buying that garbage. It's the exact same situation with school finance. Even though I pay part of the costs, I have absolutely no say in how the school operates unless I happen to live in the district. If I think the school should teach more economics (and force students to read The Misanthropic Economist) and teach less art there is absolutely no way I can make that preference known to the relevant decision making unit. Because the people who fund the school are the not same group that receives benefits from the school, there is little incentive to effectively monitor expenditures and the incentive to provide quality instruction is diminished because the majority of parents can't afford (or won't pay the cost, I'm not sure which is more accurate) to pay for private schooling, the public school doesn't face the prospective of losing revenue if the student leaves.

The writer also brings up No Child Left Behind as a cause of public school underperformance, but that act wasn't present 6 or 7 years ago and the problems were exactly the same.

Once again I'm not saying that school vouchers are a good idea. You would probably have some of the same incentive problems in terms of who funds the schools and who makes the decisions. All I'm trying to point out is that incentives matter. Any amount of wishful thinking or dedication on the part of teachers will not change that.

More Ethanol Stuff

Here's a link to a story from The New Scientist on ethanol. It addresses some of the downsides of ethanol such as the trade off among ethanol, food, and forest as well as the environmental impact of ethanol.

In addition to that story, another reason I don't see ethanol as a viable long term energy alternative, as technology currently stands and the fact that the U.S. can't grow sugar cane like Brazil, is the issue of water. Major growth cities are already worried about the the availability of water in the future. Ethanol would draw more water usage into agricultural uses, diverting it from direct human consumption. The EPA puts the percentage of U.S. water consumption in irrigation at 81%. If water for residential or industrial uses is going to come from anywhere, it's going to come from irrigation. Now whenever someone finds a relatively lower cost method of desalinization, and it will happen eventually, the water issue may not be a problem.

Or the development of water markets and enhanced private property rights in water would also be extremely helpful. If water had a market price it could be directed to its most valued use. See Terry L. Anderson's Water Crisis: Ending the Policy Drought (which you can get online for $2.00).

Monday, March 5, 2007

Smoke If You Got Em (While you Still Can!)

I'm not sure what to make of this, but there is a bill in the Texas House to make throwing a lit cigarette, cigar, or match out of a motor vehicle a Class A misdemeanor, meaning fines of up to $4,000 and up to a year in jail.
There is also a bill to make smoking illegal during Holy Communion (OK I made that one up, but it's a great visual).

On the one hand I support the bill because smokers aren't harassed nearly enough, even though these benevolent people are so generous as to support a huge chunk of the Texas school system (I wish I could figure out to indicate sarcasm in print). Also it is a property issue. If the driver throws anything out of his vehicle onto someone else's property, it's a trespass, whether it's a cigarette butt, gum wrapper, or political advertisement. (By the way, I do support a bill to ban political advertising on public and private property under the reasoning that I don't like seeing political advertising, therefore it should be illegal).

On the other hand, how do you enforce a law banning throwing a lit object from a vehicle? Short of everyone dialing 911 every time they see someone's window go down and a set of fingers flick something, what do you do? Part of the rational behind it is to prevent wildfires, but once again if you can't enforce the law what good is it? If preventing wildfires is the goal, wouldn't banning matches, lighters, lightning (that's right the stuff that cracks down from the clouds), the internal combustion engine (the exhaust system gets awfully hot), and the use of shiny objects during daylight hours be more effective?

Overall, I find this proposed law quite stupid, despite whatever noble and high minded ideals might be behind it. As Charles Murray observed:
"(S)ociety is weakened every time a law is passed that large numbers of reasonable, responsible citizens think is stupid. Such laws invite good citizens to choose knowingly to break the law, confident that they are doing nothing morally wrong."

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Why do people who shouldn't be in college go to college?

Or to universities at least. A sizable fraction of students at most regional and even state universities, I'm going to guess about a third, should be in trade, technical, or community colleges getting very specific training. (There is probably another fifth or so that be better of financially from attaining technical training.) This group has neither the desire nor the ability to attain an education with a sizable liberal arts component or to contemplate the great questions of life such as Why am I here?, What constitutes the good society?, and Is Britney Spears ever going to make it through rehab?

The only conclusion I can reach is that this group of students only goes to college to increase their future earning power, and there may be some social considerations as well such as attaining status or finding a mate. However if this was the case, then they would take actions that would actually increase their earning power like reading and studying.

If employers use a university degree as an indicator of ability, are they looking for the effects of the degree or what caused the degree to be obtained in the first place such a minimum of intelligence, work ethic, and dedication? If a degree acts as an indicator of ability, it would be much cheaper from a social perspective for employers to just hire kids straight from high school at very low wages with short time commitments to determine if they have the necessary attributes instead of society wasting 5 years paying for huge chunk of their college degree.

Or maybe this group of people just goes to college for 4 to 6 years to prolong adolescence.