Quotulatiousness

November 30, 2017

Bitcoin

Filed under: Economics, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Charles Stross explains why he’s not a fan of Bitcoin (and I do agree with him that the hard limit to the total number of Bitcoins sounded like a bad idea to me the first time I ever heard of them):

So: me and bitcoin, you already knew I disliked it, right?

(Let’s discriminate between Blockchain and Bitcoin for a moment. Blockchain: a cryptographically secured distributed database, useful for numerous purposes. Bitcoin: a particularly pernicious cryptocurrency implemented using blockchain.) What makes Bitcoin (hereafter BTC) pernicious in the first instance is the mining process, in combination with the hard upper limit on the number of BTC: it becomes increasingly computationally expensive over time. Per this article, Bitcoin mining is now consuming 30.23 TWh of electricity per year, or rather more electricity than Ireland; it’s outrageously more energy-intensive than the Visa or Mastercard networks, all in the name of delivering a decentralized currency rather than one with individual choke-points. (Here’s a semi-log plot of relative mining difficulty over time.)

Bitcoin relative mining difficulty chart with logarithmic vertical scale. Relative difficulty defined as 1 at 9 January 2009. Higher number means higher difficulty. Horizontal range is from 9 January 2009 to 8 November 2014.
Source: Wikipedia.

Credit card and banking settlement is vulnerable to government pressure, so it’s no surprise that BTC is a libertarian shibboleth. (Per a demographic survey of BTC users compiled by a UCL researcher and no longer on the web, the typical BTC user in 2013 was a 32 year old male libertarian.)

Times change, and so, I think, do the people behind the ongoing BTC commodity bubble. (Which is still inflating because around 30% of BTC remain to be mined, so conditions of artificial scarcity and a commodity bubble coincide). Last night I tweeted an intemperate opinion—that’s about all twitter is good for, plus the odd bon mot and cat jpeg—that we need to ban Bitcoin because it’s fucking our carbon emissions. It’s up to 0.12% of global energy consumption and rising rapidly: the implication is that it has the potential to outstrip more useful and productive computational uses of energy (like, oh, kitten jpegs) and to rival other major power-hogging industries without providing anything we actually need. And boy did I get some interesting random replies!

June 29, 2017

Words & Numbers – Just Say No to the War on Drugs

Published on 28 Jun 2017

Ted Cruz recently asserted that the United States military needs to be sent to Mexico to attack the drug cartels head-on.

This is a bad idea. But so is the drug war itself, both constitutionally and logically.

Forty-six years and one trillion dollars after its start, President Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs is still going, with 300,000 people currently in jail on drug charges. Meanwhile, 26 times as many people suffer from alcoholism as do heroin abuse, and eight times as many die from alcohol abuse as do heroin.

Many who support the war do so with the best of intentions, but has it really helped? Or has it done more harm than good, like the Prohibition of the 1920s? Is this war even legal in the first place?

James Harrigan and Antony Davies discuss these questions in this week’s Words and Numbers. Watch the conversation below or on our YouTube channel, or listen to it on SoundCloud.

June 15, 2017

Words & Numbers: What You Should Know About Poverty in America

Filed under: Economics, Government, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 14 Jun 2017

Poverty is a big deal – it affects about 41 million people in the United States every year – yet the federal government spends a huge amount of money to end poverty. So much of the government’s welfare spending gets eaten up by bureaucracy, conflicting programs, and politicians presuming they know how people should spend their own money. Obviously, this isn’t working.

This week on Words and Numbers, Antony Davies and James R. Harrigan delve into how people can really become less poor and what that means for society and the government.

April 7, 2017

Unintended consequences of “good” policies

Filed under: Economics, Government, Health — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Megan McArdle discusses when some otherwise nice-seeming policy changes have not-so-nice unforeseen side effects:

What happens when you suddenly offer parents generous family leave benefits, paid at the expense of the government? You can probably think of dozens of outcomes. But here’s one you might not have been expecting: people die.

That’s the finding of Benjamin Friedrich and Martin Hackmann, in a new working paper at the National Bureau of Economic Research. The culprit? Nurses, who skew female, provide a lot of vital health care, and made heavy use of Denmark’s new paid family leave benefit when it passed in 1994. Since the supply of nurses was limited, and their skills could not easily be replaced, hospital readmissions went up, and more troublingly, mortality spiked among elderly patients in nursing homes.

Advocates of paid parental leave are no doubt bristling at the implication that their favorite benefit might kill people. But that’s not quite the right implication to take away from this paper. What it really highlights is how difficult it is to know how a given policy will turn out. Had officials understood that in advance, they might have taken steps to mitigate the effects — such as training extra nurses beforehand. The problem, in other words, wasn’t necessarily family leave policy, but the limited visibility policymakers have into the outcomes of their plans.

To see why, consider what the paper actually found. When parental leave came along, it reduced the supply of nurses. But that impact wasn’t felt evenly. In hospitals, where doctors make more of the medical decisions, it seems to have been costly to patient health. But in nursing homes, where nursing staff have more power over daily operations, it seems to have made a much bigger difference. Meanwhile, nursing assistants seem to have been little impacted by the change in leave policy; while they were also likely to make generous use of the leave, health-care facilities seem to have had little difficulty replacing them.

September 21, 2016

Pathological altruism

Filed under: Business, Law, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Amy Alkon on the mainspring of some (possibly many) altruistic actions:

I write about this sort of thing in Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck. It’s called “pathological altruism,” and describes deeds intended to help that actually hurt — sometimes both the helper and the person they’re trying to help:

    [Dr. Barbara] Oakley notes that we are especially blind to the ill effects of over- giving when whatever we’re doing allows us to feel particularly good, virtuous, and benevolent. To keep from harming ourselves or others when we’re supposed to be helping, Oakley emphasizes the importance of checking our motives when we believe we’re doing good. “People don’t realize how narcissistic a lot of ‘helping’ can be,” she told me. “It’s all too easy for empathy and good deeds to really be about our self-image or making ourselves happy or comfortable.”

One example of this is The New York Times series on nail salons — intended to help the workers but actually keeping a number of them from being able to get work…work they were able to get before the crackdowns the NYT piece led to. From Reason‘s Jim Epstein:

    Salon owners have also stopped hiring unlicensed workers, whether they’re undocumented or not. By law, every manicurist working in New York State must complete 250 hours of training at a beauty school, which costs about $1,000, and then obtain a government-issued license. This is a barrier to entry, and some aspiring manicurists can’t afford the time or tuition. There are some salon owners in the industry who, up until recently, were willing to hire them anyway because they were desperate for employees and the state rarely checked. Cuomo’s task force changed that.

    Kim sponsored a state law, passed in July, that attempted to remedy the situation. The bill made it legal for nail salons to hire workers as apprentices receiving on-the-job training. After a year, they’re eligible for a state license without attending beauty school.

    Few are utilizing the apprenticeship program. “It needs tweaking,” Kim admits. Despite assurances to the contrary from state officials, Kim says he’s hearing on the ground that when signing up for the program, applicants are being asked their citizenship status, which is scaring off many would-be apprentices.

    Licensed workers legally working in the U.S. have also been hurt by the inspections. “Workers themselves prefer to be paid in cash, and it’s not just at nail salons,” says Kim. Salon owners have started recording every dollar that passes through their shops to avoid getting fined. The inspection task force has had “unintended consequences,” he says.

    The biggest victims, however, are people like Jing Ren, the main character in the Times series. Ren, 20, is undocumented, penniless, and “recently arrived from China.” Instead of paying $1,000 for salon school, she signed on as a trainee at a shop in Long Island. By the end of the article, she’s making $65 per day in base wages.

    When weaving its cartoonish tale of evil bosses and oppressed workers, the Times never considers what would happen if all of the nail salons willing to hire Jing Ren disappeared. Would future immigrants like her be better or worse off?

Oops.

August 18, 2016

QotD: The environmental and economic idiocy of the ethanol mandate

Ever since the beginning of the ethanol mandate it was obvious to anybody with eyes to see that the whole thing was a boondoggle and a huge waste for everybody except ADM. What the Greens failed to understand is that if you prop up corn prices by buying, distilling and burning massive amounts of corn whisky in cars, two things are going to happen. One the price is going to go up, making things like cow feed and other uses of corn more expensive and 2. farmers are going to, without restraint, plant ever larger amounts of corn, which will 1. push out other crops like wheat and 2. require more land use to plant even more corn. Which is why you can now go from Eastern Colorado to Western NY and essentially see nothing but corn. Millions of acres of corn, across the country, grown to burn. Somehow this was supposed to be environmentally friendly?

J.C. Carlton, “The Law Of Unintended Consequences Hits Biofuels”, The Arts Mechanical, 2016-08-07.

July 3, 2015

The unintended consequences of a bottled water ban

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Economics, Health, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Mark J. Perry talks about the outcome of a well-intended ban of bottled water at the University of Vermont:

Here’s the abstract of the research article “The Unintended Consequences of Changes in Beverage Options and the Removal of Bottled Water on a University Campus,” which was just published in the July 2015 issue of the American Journal of Public Health (emphasis added):

    Objectives. We investigated how the removal of bottled water along with a minimum healthy beverage requirement affected the purchasing behavior, healthiness of beverage choices, and consumption of calories and added sugars of university campus consumers.

    Methods. With shipment data as a proxy, we estimated bottled beverage consumption over 3 consecutive semesters: baseline (spring 2012), when a 30% healthy beverage ratio was enacted (fall 2012), and when bottled water was removed (spring 2013) at the University of Vermont. We assessed changes in number and type of beverages and per capita calories, total sugars, and added sugars shipped.

    Results. Per capita shipments of bottles, calories, sugars, and added sugars increased significantly when bottled water was removed. Shipments of healthy beverages declined significantly, whereas shipments of less healthy beverages increased significantly. As bottled water sales dropped to zero, sales of sugar-free beverages and sugar-sweetened beverages increased.

    Conclusions. The bottled water ban did not reduce the number of bottles entering the waste stream from the university campus, the ultimate goal of the ban. With the removal of bottled water, consumers increased their consumption of less healthy bottled beverages.

[…]

Wow, nothing worked out as expected by the college administrators at the University of Vermont: a) the per capita number of bottles shipped to the University of Vermont increased significantly following the bottled water ban, and b) students, faculty and staff increased their consumption of less healthy bottled beverages following the bottled water ban. Another great example of the Law of Unintended Consequences. And the bottled water ban was not costless – the university paid to modify 68 drinking fountains, they paid for a publicity campaign, and they paid for lots of “free” reusable water bottles; and what they got was more plastic bottles on campus of less healthy beverages!

Powered by WordPress