Friday, January 28, 2011

Local Government in Pittsburgh

Seems to be a particularly inept day for local government in the Post-Gazette. Both of these are from the front page:

West Mifflin gas card paid for heroin habit

Just consider the volume of purchases (emphasis mine):

A criminal complaint filed this week by West Mifflin police said the ex-girlfriend of a borough employee stole his government-issued gas card early last year, and for months pumped at least $72,000 in gas for people at two local stations in exchange for half the value in cash. The woman, Dawn Veze of Munhall, and an accomplice netted more than $30,000, which she allegedly told police she used to buy heroin.

The purchases started in the last week of April and were not discovered by the borough's new manager until Jan. 12, meaning the card was racking up bills equalling $9,000 monthly without being discovered.

One person's gas card. $9,000 per month in gas. Now that's quality oversight!

Bill aims to curb trash haulers who disturb city resident's sleep

Pittsburgh City Councilman Bill Peduto has introduced legislation aimed at ending the late-night and early-morning Dumpster-emptying known for rattling residents from a sound sleep.

The city code already prohibits commercial haulers from emptying Dumpsters and picking up refuse from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., but based on the complaints he regularly receives, Mr. Peduto believes the restriction is widely ignored.

Alright, fair enough-- I don't like being woken up any more than the next guy. And as long as we're worrying about this, we're not starting programs to give out tax-payer funded gas cards. But here's the kicker:

The restriction now is a zoning law and is supposed to be enforced by city inspectors, but they don't work late-night or early-morning hours.

That means when the law was written, it never could have been enforced. That's fantastic.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

How UPS Reduces Fuel Consumption

By minimizing left-turns!
You wouldn't think of something as benign as avoiding a left-hand turn could conserve fuel, but Atlanta-based United Parcel Service (UPS) swears by it. In fact, the parcel carrier has technology in its systems that help map this out routes that minimize the number of left turns the driver has to make.
I wonder if the USPS has followed suit?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Dilbert on Austrian Business Cycle Theory (or Recalculation Theory)

I think that would be a fair assessment, given that it says "New Capital Investments," but I'll let actual Austrians/Recalculationists clarify in the comments if needed.

Note: There are 3 panels, you will have to click on the comic to see the full thing. Sorry.

Interesting Line of the Day

From Squire (1988) in LSQ:

According to Bell and Price's (1975) study of members of the California Assembly, most legislators take two years to understand the legislative process.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The US/Country Map

I saw this is last week's Economist; the good folks at MR tracked it down online. It's a map of the United States, only instead of the state's names they place the country in the world which has the economy closest in overall size.

Even more fun-- the countries of the world were arranged like this, how would things shake out? Switzerland next to Libya creates an interesting dynamic, as does Australia and Yemen.

There's something bizarrely satisfying about West Virginia as Iraq.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Is the Assessment Process Progressive or Regressive?

That is a question* that has been asked a lot by public finance scholars. My latest paper, forthcoming at Land Economics, argues that it is the wrong question and that we should instead ask what might cause it to be one or the other, rather than thinking about the process as being inherently one-sided. For those interested in the property tax incidence debate, one must be careful about how political opportunism might be submitted as evidence in favor of either side, but more on that to come from me in the future. The abstract:
The previous literature on vertical equity in property assessment has focused on parcel level data within a single area, and has produced mixed conclusions on whether the process is progressive or regressive. This paper advances the discussion to identifying what differences between jurisdictions might account for the mix of findings. Using data from Virginia cities and counties between 2001 and 2007, evidence is presented that indicates having tax maps available online, appointed assessors, and senior citizens all influence the level of regressivity observed between jurisdictions. Overall, the results support the hypothesis that interjurisdictional differences are determinants of vertical inequity.
*The assessment process would be equitable across property classes if they all get the same rate of fractional assessment. For example, if all properties were assessed at 80% of true market value, then this would be vertically equitable despite being inaccurate. If the more expensive properties were only assessed at 70% of true market value, while the low-value property was assessed at a rate of 90%, then we would call this a "regressive" process.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Portugal's Drug Laws

Here is an interesting bit (HT: MR) concerning Portugal's experiment with loosening drug laws. I was surprised by the price responsiveness (presumably) amongst those sampling drugs for the first time-- drug laws do have palpable deterrence effects. Nonetheless, it's all about tradeoffs between policies and this is a great example.

Thursday, January 13, 2011


Here's a bit in the NYT about time outs in football, more specifically the poor strategic use of them in the NFL. I'm very surprised at this:

Many [teams] assign an assistant to be their conscientious clock manager.

Really? I've never heard this mentioned; all I hear are the complaints (generally justified) about a head coach's missteps. I'd be willing to cede that many teams follow this de jure, only to transition to the Cowher method in the heat of the game.

Regardless of the nature of the industrial organization of a football team, isn't it surprising that there are persistent errors with regards to clock management? How has this not been corrected?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Dead(Dog)weight Loss

From Time:
Pierre-Alain NĂ©mitz said he's been overwhelmed by insults and threats since the Reconvilier municipal council he heads informed residents in late December they risked seeing their dogs killed if they don't pay the $48.50 annual tax the village levies per pooch.
Reconviler is a Swiss village.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

What I've Been Reading

- Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. An enjoyable read and an interesting perspective on players within financial markets. I think he's a bit strong in his assertions but, for example, the general point of noise vs. market signal is a salient one. I also like the line (paraphrasing) that small wealth is a function of skill but large wealth is a function of luck. The Black Swan is the subsequent read; has anyone read both? Is the second a significant departure from the first or more of the same?

- Honeybee Democracy by Thomas D. Seeley. It's a bit heavy on the specifics of all experiments-- not that the information is without merit, but the marginal value to a biologist is far grater than to me. Nonetheless, the general idea of how bees make group decisions is an interesting one. I'm on the fence as to whether bees are actually practicing democracy-- to me, a realization of the larger framework of "we need to make a decision and voting is how we're going to do it" is necessary to realize a functioning democracy. Maybe it's a semantic issue between democracy and a democratic process...I could be convinced either way.

- Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. This has been on the to-read list for a few years now, I finally just got it on the Kindle and now I'm looking forward to getting through it. I didn't realize Hamilton was so prolific as a writer-- a complete set of his writings assembled a little while back by a group at Columbia (I believe) came to 32 volumes.

- Moby Dick. Somehow missed this throughout my education; I am likely missing the larger picture issues that make this a classic but it's a surprisingly enjoyable read.

- The Lodger Shakespeare by Charles Nicholl. Not sure how far I'll go with this, but I read the first few chapters and have a feeling that I've secured all likely surplus. In short: We know Shakespeare's stories but have little glimpse of his voice outside of his works. This is the story of a court case in which Shakespeare provided recorded testimony-- thus, the only believed instance of Shakespeare speaking in real life.

- How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll by Elijah Wald. Just started this as well; every time I read music history I realize how much of the world of music I'm completely and utterly ignorant. Nonetheless, it may provide quality fodder to support my assertion that the Beatles are the most overrated rock band in history.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Toilet Economics

Always an outlet for the interesting, the Economic Inquiry that landed in my mailbox today offers the following paper: Up or Down? A Male Economist's Manifesto on the Toilet Seat Etiquette. An ungated version is here. The abstract is as follows:

This paper develops an economic analysis of the toilet seat etiquette, that is, whether the toilet seat should be left up or down. I investigate whether there is any efficiency justification for the presumption that men should leave the toilet seat down after use. I find that the “down rule” is inefficient unless there is a large degree of asymmetry in the inconvenience costs of shifting the position of the toilet seat across genders. I show that the “selfish” or the “status quo” rule that leaves the toilet seat in the position used dominates the down rule in a wide range of parameter spaces including the case where the inconvenience costs are the same. The analysis can be applied to other shared facilities that can be customized to each user’s preference.

I love the second sentence.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Blockquoting X

X = F. A. Hayek, Denationalization of Money (pp. 83-4):
But the present political necessity ought to be no concern of the economic scientist. His task ought to be, as I will not cease repeating, to make politically possible what today may be politically impossible. To decide what can be done at the moment is the task of the politician, not of the economist, who must continue to point out that to persist in this direction will lead to disaster.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Protesting Taxes: Romanian Edition

This from the AP:
Witches from Romania's eastern and western regions will descend to the southern plains and the Danube River Thursday to threaten the government with spells and spirits. Mauve has a high vibration, it makes the wearer superior and wards off evil attacks, according to the esoteric group Violet Flame - which practices on Thursdays.
The policymakers are sincerely concerned, and there is much more delicious bits about astrologers and the Romanian Witch Queen getting in on the act. You should not pass this story up.

Also, I now await to see if anti-tax, anti-immigrant politicians decide that their sentiments for the former are strong enough to grant a special and speedy citizenship process to Romanian witches.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Development Data Blog

Passing along a link from MR, here's a blog devoted to data for development economists.

Team success and jersey color

I'm going to make an effort in 2011 to talk more about papers. We'll see how long it lasts.

Nonetheless, here's a new paper concerning the color of sports team's jersey is a determinant of success-- the abstract:

Baron von Richthofen (the Red Baron) arguably the most famous fighter pilot of all time painted his plane the vividest of red hues, making it visible and identifiable at great distance, showing an aggressive pronouncement of dominance to other pilots. Can colour affect aggression and performance and if so is it observable within team sports? This study explores the effect of red on sporting performances within a team sports arena, through empirical analysis of match results from the Australian Rugby League spanning a period of 30 years. While the descriptive analysis reports a positive relationship, the multivariate analysis provides some mixed results once you control for team effects. Thus, more evidence at the team level is required to better understand whether teams in red do enjoy greater success controlling explicitly in a multivariate analysis for many factors that simultaneously affect performance.

One factor that needs to be considered (and is brought up): If I'm wearing red, presumably the impact is larger upon my opponents than it is on me (as they're viewing my uniform more than I am)-- so it's not an issue of red making me perform better, if the effect exists, but rather making my opponents perform more poorly. Now, granted, the effect may be diminished in team sports-- if my basketball team wears red and I'm on the court, I see five opponents wearing, say, blue, while I only see four teammates wearing red. Individual sports would be the place to find some better natural experiments-- particularly in the Olympics, and they cite a paper that does exactly that. (Which, by the way, has the fantastic policy suggestion in the abstract "that the colour of sportswear needs to be taken into account to ensure a level playing field in sport.") But, to me, it seems that with team sports the problem is just too muddled.

I was surprised that Tiger Woods was not mentioned once.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Economist Screensavers

Here is a folder of portraits of 17 famous economists I created for my Nook's screensaver. They are all 600x800 jpegs, and seem to be of reasonable quality. This seems to be the same recommended properties for the Kindle as well.

Enjoy, and feel free to share any added portraits you dig up.