Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Road Trips With Kids

3 years is a long time. It's the difference between 1st grade and 4th grade. It's the difference between the end of your freshman year of high school and graduation. Those spans of 3 years seem like forever. So it's a bit of shock to me that it's been more than 3 years since I posted a blog. But the posts don't lie and I just have to accept that as I get older, time seems to be passing by more quickly.

The truth of the matter is that I probably wouldn't be writing this post at all and my blog would be sitting dormant for an even longer span of time. Except that, unexpectedly, a complete stranger requested that I blog something. So here it is.

A little context, I am an aspiring poker player. And to get better, I listen to The Thinking Poker podcast. And on a lark I happened to read the blog today where I saw this article. And having made an annual trip to Wisconsin for the last ten years (*), I thought I might share some of the things that make the drive much more survivable, and occasionally, pleasant. Here are the fairly quick thoughts that I had:

1) Break up your trip into 3 hour segments, with scheduled stops for at least 10-15 minutes to let the kids get pent up energy out. Regardless of your dietary requirements, McDonald’s playlands are blessings… except in Indiana where they’re apparently outlawed, since none seem to exist. Plan things like lunch and dinner around these stops.

2) Travel no more than 9 hours per day... meaning 9 hours on the road with kids belted in their seats. Stops will increase the total trip time. But doing this we can usually make about 500 miles a day.

3) At least once per travel day, give the kids some new thing to explore. Puzzle books and books on tape have worked for us. Self contained toys work also. Movies are an option but we try to limit those.

4) Have an ample supply of snacks. But ration them.

5) When you stop for the night, have options for the kids to do something fun. Looking forward to the evening’s activities is a benefit for both adults and kids. Swimming is (by far) our kids favorite.

6) Pack destination bags and overnight bags. The destination bags can remain in the vehicle not to be taken out until you get there. The overnight bags are the only things you should have to unload when you stop overnight. Eases the unpacking & repacking the vehicle when stopping.

The trip that we take is an 18 hour trip, and takes us 2 days each way. I’m not sure if these ideas can scale to a cross-country trip. But if I were going to make such a trip, I would start with this but then be flexible enough to decide if it’s wearing thin by day 4-5.

(*) Holy crap, we've been doing this for 10 years!?

Saturday, April 09, 2011

This picture is amazing to me. It really makes a very strong case for the budget resolution from the House of Representatives.

I recall both President Bush and President Obama arguing that the increased spending was a temporary measure required in a time of economic crisis. This is Keynesian economics. In the time of reduced aggregate demand, the government can temporarily increase its spending to restore aggregate demand until consumer spending comes back to normal. I dont personally grok this argument. There are a lot of economists who disagree with it. Strongly. They suggest, instead, that increasing spending will simply prolong the problem, and they point to data that shows the great depression didnt actually end until after WWII, some 15 years (or so) after it started.

But in this case, it matters little. The spending measures were made into law. And we cant go back and change that.

Heres the thing, though. If you buy the Keynesian argument that the spending increases were necessary and temporary, then shouldnt we acknowledge the temporary part? You can argue that they may still be necessary. But if, as the administration proposes, the spending increases stay in place until 2021 (and beyond) on the idea that theyre still necessary that far out, doesnt that give credence to the original criticism of the spending increases? That theyve prolonged, and will continue to prolong the problem?

When I look at this chart, I can see no justification at all for continuing spending at these levels. If you believe these spending increases continue to be necessary, then how can you justify that theyve helped. If they are no longer necessary, then how can you justify keeping them?

What possible reason could we have for not returning (eventually) to the spending levels that we had prior to the crisis?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Government vs Corporate Power

I play poker with a group of guys once a month. Mostly these guys are pretty darn "liberal". Meaning that they tend to share my distrust of corporate power, but they tend, instead to trust government as a counterbalance to that power. E.g. an increase in government power is an effective means to neutralize corporate power.

I tend not to express my opinions in this group. Mainly because I'm grossly outnumbered. Any time I have tried to express my opinion, I get 3-4 people arguing over me, and I never really get to finish my thought. It's basically pointless. I don't think they're interested in listening anyway, so I just bite my tongue. It's not that these are bad guys. In fact, I really enjoy their company. They're smart and funny and (unfortunately) much better than I am at poker. But when it comes to politics, we don't see things similarly. And there doesn't seem to be much willingness on either my part or theirs to see each other's point of view.

Tonight, I managed to accidentally start a rant session when one of the guys suggested that soda should be illegal. I responded saying that I wasn't particularly fond of telling other adults what to do. I was about to say that I was totally in favor of telling kids what to do, but, predictably, I wasn't able to finish my thought while I was being told how that was wrong. I immediately shut up, because all that could happen was that tempers would flare - most likely including my own.

This eventually turned into one of the guys ranting about how bad it was that corporations bought politicians. And on that topic I couldn't have agreed more with him. The purchase of politicians is a huge problem. But it was interesting how differently he and I would approach a solution. His response was that we should demand all campaign finance be opened up completely. And in general I don't have a problem with that. But he seemed to think that it was the root cause of the problem. And there I disagree. I tend to see this as a symptom of a different problem rather than the root problem.

I think the root cause of the problem is politicians with too much power. Corporations attempting to purchase those politicians are just a symptom of that root problem. Because, of course, if you're a corporation, you don't lobby those who don't have power. There's no point. You lobby, and bribe, and attempt to influence those who have the power to make changes in your favor. If you give politicians more power - e.g. the power to regulate campaign finance, or the power to regulate financial markets, or the power to rescue GM - what you'll end up with is *more* attempts by those with money to purchase those with the power. You'll end up stoking the problem that you're trying to solve.

I imagine my friend's response to be that we need to elect the "right" people so that they will stand up to this corporate influence. And maybe that'd work. The problem is that the people who are most likely to win an election are the ones who are the most duplicitous - the ones who can promise everything to everyone, knowing that they can't keep those promises. The winners in politics are very rarely - in fact almost never - the "right" people. Politics rewards people who are best at being two-faced. As a result relying on electing the right people seems unlikely to improve anything.

IMHO, the way to remove the negative influence of corporations purchasing politicians is to reduce the power of the politicians. Reduce their regulatory authority. Make it harder for politicians to create laws and regulations. If the politicians don't have power, corporations will not be interested in influencing them.

There are, of course, two problems with this answer. First, you have to elect politicians who's goal it would be to reduce their own power. What incentive will such politicians have? Once they're elected they will face a set of incentives that pushes them towards increasing their power. Put another way, my solution also requires electing the "right" people. Which I've already mentioned is pretty unlikely. Still my "right" people are fundamentally different than my friend's "right" people. My right people would go in with the goal of reducing government power, while my friend's "right" people would be smart and able to gather more power so that they could put the right solutions in place to curtail corporate influence. I believe the latter to be impossible, even if the former is highly unlikely.

Second, my friend would probably respond that this would allow corporations to run amok over the public with nothing to counterbalance corporate power. At this point, we would be at a standoff. If I were able to get to this point without being shouted down and outnumbered, I suspect that I could get no further. Because I think that individuals making voluntary choices with their money would act as better regulators of corporations than a government. And I suspect that this would be a very difficult - if not impossible - topic to sway my friend's opinion.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Quick Thought

I follow several very popular people on Twitter... well popular in my world. I like economists. I was quite thrilled recently when I got to have a conversation with @asymmetricinfo. I've also previously got to chat (via Twitter) with @EconTalker, @willwilkinson, @russnelson and @tylercowen.

But I'm also a Packer fan. So getting to tweet with @jasonjwilde, @mitchnelles, @TomSilverstein, and @TomOatesWSJ was pretty thrilling, too. At the same time, I follow @AaronRodgers12, @GregJennings, @ClayMatthews52 and @NickBarnett - Packers players. It's really quite cool to be able to read what they're thinking and occasionally get to chat with them.

Prior to about 2005 or so, the ability of popular, or powerful, people to communicate with almost everyone was limited by expensive resources. Specifically, newspapers, radio & television. A couple of things came about because those resources were scarce:
  1. Someone behind the scenes had to ensure that the best, most clear possible message got out. Hence editors.
  2. It was too difficult to have a conversation. Responses and clarifications were expensive. Hence you spent a lot of time avoiding conversation with the media unless and until you were certain you knew what you were going to say.
With the advent of twitter, it's become dramatically cheaper for those same people to communicate with everyone. And moreover to engage in conversation, despite the 140 character restriction. And I suspect that no matter who you are, those conversations are enjoyable. Those conversations make both parties better off. They fulfill a basic human need to connect with other humans. But until twitter, that connection was limited for stars in the world by the technology we had available.

It will likely take a while for all of us in society to get used to how to understand tweets. If you're popular you're likely to end up crossing what was a line using previous technology. Take photogate for example. But this line is less useful given today's technology. If you want more context of what was meant, just keep reading the twitter stream. More will come. And if you don't see it, you can ask. You don't have to rely on a reporter to ask the question on your behalf. You can ask yourself. You won't always get an answer, but you can still ask. And if enough people ask, you'll probably get that answer.

My quick thought is this: twitter really changes communication between the popular and the not. We have less need for 3rd party intermediaries like TV, radio & newspapers.

But this is only a guess.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Ten Bucks

Have you ever wondered what $10 can buy? Its fairly likely that youre going to spend much more than $10 just today. Heres a few things that I found that you could buy for $10:


Now, of course, in the US, we have a pretty high standard of living. Most Americans will spend $10 on trivial stuff.

Every.
Single.
Day.

At the same time, that same $10 can make a huge difference in another persons life outside the US. Which is why Im writing this. Id like to give you the opportunity to use $10 to help rewrite the stories that some kids are living.

I am going on a missions trip the Philippines as part of a team from my church. Some of the details of this trip can be seen here


Im going for a couple of reasons.

First, my mom is from the Philippines, and Ive been there twice: once when I was 12 and again about 7-8 years ago. These trips have changed my perspective on things. I was exposed to poverty on a level that Id never seen before. It made me appreciate how incredibly wealthy we are in the US.

Second, I read a book called A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller. Ive mentioned this before on my blog, but Ive become convinced that living a good life means doing things that are hard that serve a good purpose. The International Justice Mission is working with My Refuge House to build a facility in Cebu, Philippines that will act as a safe place for women and children to escape from sex trafficking.

Initially, I just assumed that I would fund this entire trip myself. It was something that I thought Id do as a way to share with kids who are in a situation that I can barely imagine. And up to this point, I have funded all of it. But then it struck me that if one of my friends were doing something like this, that I would love to get involved. In fact, Ive done this exact thing before. I couldn't participate by going, but I could participate by helping fund them. So maybe, I should let my friends know that Im doing this. Maybe this is something youd react to like I did. Not like youre obligated to help, but that youd be disappointed if you didnt get the chance to help.

So thats what Im doing. This is your opportunity to join with me on this trip. To help by using a tiny bit of our wealth to change these kids stories.

And let me make this perfectly clear: I will fund this entire trip on my own. But if you feel moved to help, I wont turn you away. Just click on the paypal link below. Im recommending a $10 donation. Of course, if you wish to donate more, youre welcome to do so.


Now, no matter what happens, I am funding the majority of this trip out of my own pocket. If, by some miracle, I find myself with donations in excess of $1000, the excess will go to other members of the team to help them fund their trips. Additionally, I will be creating a facebook group that people who donate will get access to see. I will (apparently) have internet access while in the Philippines, so I can post pictures and video pretty quickly.

For those of you that are moved to help, thank you!

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Why I'm Not Voting

I had a discussion with a friend today who is preparing himself to vote in the November midterm elections. I applaud his vote. He’s a smart guy and will inform himself of the candidates and make a vote that makes sense. Even if I might disagree with who he picked. He’s the kind of guy I want voting.

But I won’t vote. Here are my reasons:
  1. I think that being an informed voter is important. I think that being an ignorant voter is destructive. If you're not going to be informed, you can either vote randomly, which seems silly, or you end up voting your biases. Bryan Caplan has written a book called, “The Myth of the Rational Voter”. In it he documents how destructive it is to vote on bias alone.

  2. The benefits of voting are really quite minimal
    1. A sense of having performed a civic duty
    2. An infinitesimally small chance of influencing the results – put another way, odds are *incredibly* high that my vote won’t impact what happens in the election.

  3. The effort to become an informed voter is high. I really don’t know who the candidates are. I *am* an ignorant voter. I could become informed, but at what cost? Studying candidates requires time. Time that I’d rather use for:
    1. Being a better husband & father
    2. Being a better employee
    3. Studying economics – something that sharpens my mind
    4. Time contemplating God and his will for me
    5. Watching my favorite sports teams – something that may be of less social value than voting, but of much more personal value to me.
    6. Hanging out with friends. Ironically, some of whom will discuss politics.
In short, I’m an ignorant voter because I have better uses for my time than to study candidates and wait in line to cast a vote that will have almost no influence on the outcome and give me an “I voted” sticker. Moreover, I believe strongly that voting ignorantly is socially destructive and I won’t do it.

So enjoy your votes everyone… but please only vote if you’re informed.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Magical Machine

Imagine that there was a gigantic machine that sat in Iowa. This machine is somewhat amazing. Magical, in fact. Into it you place things like corn and steel and beef and all the things that we produce in the United States. This machine churns for a little bit and then spits out things like cars and computers and champagne and rice – all kinds of things that are not produced in the US. The machine is really quite useful, because we put into it stuff that we do produce and we get back stuff that we don’t produce. W00t!

Now imagine that the input to that machine or the output from that machine changes. If the input decreases, but the output stays the same, we should be pretty happy. We have to work less to get the same level of stuff from the machine. Perhaps the input stays the same and the output increases. Again, we’re happy. We don’t have to work any harder, but we get more back from this wonderful machine.

On the other hand, maybe the input stays the same, but the output decreases. That’s sad news for us. We have to produce the same amount but we’re getting back less. Maybe the output stays the same, but now to get that output, we have to put more of our stuff in. Again, this is sad news for us. We have to work harder to get the same amount of stuff back from the magical machine.

So for us good news is when the machine is producing more than we are. Bad news is when we are forced to produce more than the machine does.

Now the magic in the machine doesn’t really have anything to do with it being placed in Iowa. The machine continues to work just fine if it’s in San Francisco. It’s a little less convenient for people from the east coast because they have to travel farther to get to it. But it turns out that we can easily put another one of these machines on the east coast, too. And another one in Texas.

And again what we want from these machines is for them to produce more than we do. If the machines produce more and we produce less, we’re better off. We’re richer because we expend less energy & resources while getting back more.

Now, of course these machines don’t exist. They’re fanciful chunks of my imagination. And (hopefully) now yours. But it turns out that I’m lying to you. Because the machines do exist. They’re called ports, and the mechanism by which they operate is trade.  The port in San Francisco deals primarily with trade to and from the far east – primarily China. And the machine is no less magical once it’s called a port. It does exactly what it did when we were calling it a machine. We put stuff into it that we produce and, as if by magic, other stuff that we don’t produce comes out.

But here’s the key: the rules of the port the same as the machine. If we import more than we export, we’re better off. We’re richer. We don’t have to work as hard and we get back the same or more.

Remember this when you hear people bemoan the trade deficit. The trade deficit measures how much work we have to do in order to get back work and products from other people. We are better off when we work less and get more.

The criticism to this view is that “working less” masks what’s really happening – people are losing their jobs. And that’s true. Working less means people losing jobs. But while this is a problem, it’s less of a problem than you might think.

First, people who are unemployed today are dramatically better off than if they were unemployed 100 years ago. Part of this is a result of government unemployment benefits. But those benefits exist only because our society is so wealthy that we can afford to grab some money from the employed and give it to the unemployed. If we were not wealthy enough to afford this, no amount of government imposed rules could make it happen. You simply aren’t going to be able to make the desperately poor better off by taking money from the slightly less poor. To help the unemployed, you need wealth. The point is this: even the unemployed are reaping huge benefits from the trade deficit. Unemployment today is a ton better than it was even just 30 years ago.

Second, while unemployment does cause pain, necessity is the mother of invention. The unemployed are incented to find some niche of production that hasn’t been brought to market yet. So they go searching for something to do. Most will just go looking for another job. But the jobs available to them will have changed. There’s a likelihood that they’ll work in a different industry than they previously had. That different industry is almost certainly newer than the one that they left. It is this mechanism by which entirely new wealth comes into existence. New industry emerges from a new idea that had never existed before. And that new idea, if it’s a good one, makes us all better off.

Don’t be confused: I’m not trying to minimize the difficulty of people losing their jobs. I’ve lost mine before and it sucks. There’s no way around it. But it’s part of a process. And that process is the society of humans re-inventing itself over and over again. Each time slightly better than the last time. And those slight improvements accrue into big changes over time. So much so that, just like today’s unemployed are better off than (probably) everyone from 100 years ago, I would expect that 50 or 100 years from now, the unemployed will likely be better off than most (if not all) of the employed today.

And the key thing at the heart of all this: trade. The more free it is, the more we do, the better off we are. Trying to level the trade deficit will kill the goose that laying the golden eggs.

N.B. I can’t take credit for coming up with the idea of equating a machine with trade. I first read this idea from David Friedman, and more recently read about it from Matt Ridley in “The Rational Optimist”. The purpose of my post here is to solidify the lesson in my head. I’ve discovered that there are a lot of things that I may think I understand conceptually, but that I don’t until I’ve actually written it down. Feel free to point out any errors you find.