National Public Radio



I’ve listened to 247 podcasts of Planet Money over the last several years–about 80 hours. This show is the best way I’ve found way to learn about economics in fun, thought-provoking, 20-minute bursts.

I just finished a show called “The No-Brainer Economic Platform,” about six economic reforms that apparently almost all economists agree on, regardless of ideology. The major point of the show was that even though there is agreement, political candidates will not consider running on them. And if they did, they would stand no chance of winning.

One of the major points (though probably unintended) of my 80-hour economics education has been that economists are much closer to political pundits than scientists. The “facts” vary widely depending on their political stance. That’s why this show was so exciting: There actually are six things that economists agree on across the political spectrum!

1) Eliminate the home mortgage interest deduction. It is extremely regressive and distorts the housing market in bad ways. They make it sound here like almost all economists are in favor of eliminating all tax loopholes and deductions, though the point is less clear. Read on, though, and you’ll see that loopholes and deductions would become mostly obsolete under this platform.

2) Eliminate the deduction for employer-provided health insurance. It’s one of the main reasons for high healthcare costs in the US.

3) Eliminate taxes on corporations. If you want to tax rich people, do it directly. The idea is that tax rates serve as incentives/disincentives. Don’t tax things we like. We like American businesses making money.

4) Eliminate the individual income tax and payroll tax. We also like individuals making money and we like businesses creating jobs. Make up for the loss by taxing consumption, I think especially on luxury items–make it progressive in some way.

5) Tax things we don’t like. Use taxes as disincentives for things like cigarettes and pollution.

6) Legalize drugs, or at least marijuana. The war on drugs is basically a massive waste of money that makes drug cartels rich. Without it, we’d have another kind of consumption that we don’t like to tax.

Again, the major point of this show was that these ideas are political non-starters, but I wonder if that is true. Each plank on its own would have entrenched detractors, but as a system of reforms it’s more appealing. Pay more for your mortgage and gasoline, but pay no income tax. You would have to show people a model of it working.

Here’s a challenge for any math-oriented readers: Give us some examples. How much would we need to charge for cigarettes, pot, gambling, fossil fuels, yachts, and mansions to make up for the loss of all income taxes?

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I heard a segment recently on NPR about gas prices and it reminded me of the link between driving speed and gas mileage. According to the story, driving over 60 miles per hour is equivalent to paying $.25 more per gallon for each five miles an hour faster. So if you paid$4.00 for a gallon of gas, but burn it at 65 miles an hour, it’s like having paid $4.25. Seventy miles an hour makes it $4.50, etc.

It seems funny that it’s very easy to imagine Americans complaining about the price of gas, but very difficult to imagine them driving the slightest bit slower in order to save that same money. In fact, I can easily imagine an American burning a 70-mile-per-hour gallon of gas to go out of their way to save $.25 cents per gallon at the pump. (It could be a good economic decision to do so, I suppose, depending on how many gallons of gas you need to buy, and how much your time is worth, but it still seems funny.)

If I remember my physics correctly, I think the loss of efficiency is actually not that linear, that a 75-mile-per-hour gallon probably costs significantly more than the $4.75 that NPR’s equation predicts. It has to do with the amount of force each particle of air hits the front of our car with–it’s the same principle we (if we are from the desert) use to remember to drive slowly or stop during a sandstorm, to save our windshields from getting sandblasted. Any physicists in the audience care to explain the mechanics of it?

In his excellent lecture “Climate Change Recalculated,” engineer Saul Griffith tells about how he gave an intern this incredibly boring job: Drive his wife’s Honda Insight in 100 mile stretches around a runway at constant speeds, twelve 5-mile-per-hour increments from 20 to 75 miles per hour. Seventy-five miles per hour was the worst, obviously, at about 40 miles per gallon, and the most efficient speed, at about 85 miles per gallon, was 30 miles per hour.

That’s pretty slow, but three times as fast as the average driving speed for large urban areas, he points out. I’ve been thinking about making my next trip to Portland at 30 miles an hour, to see how little gas I can use to get there. It’ll take 4 hours to get there, so I’d better bring some good company.

I once heard an interview on NPR with a woman who had been born a slave in the US. What struck me most about it was that it had been recorded after I was born, in 1971. I had never even considered the possibility that my lifespan had overlapped with anyone who had seen the Civil War! One lifespan between me and the Civil War–that means two lifespans between me and the Declaration of Independence. A 90 year old could have seen both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, and a 101 year old could have seen both the Civil War and me. I’m about halfway through my life, so that makes the US about two and a half lifespans old.

This was my first taste of what a young country the US is. When I learned about it in school, the Civil War seemed so long ago. People dressed funny, talked funny, and so many of them still thought slavery was a good deal. But that stuff just goes to show how fast fashion and ethics can change.

Before this experience, racism always seemed like this inexplicable anachronism: Where do these backwards idiots come from? We figured this stuff out ages ago! But the last Americans who actually owned slaves, bought and sold people, died only about 20 years before I was born.

My second taste was when I house-sat for a family who were Laura Ingalls Wilder fanatics. I re-read some of her books and watched a bunch of Little House on the Prairie episodes and started researching her life a little. She was born in 1867, just after the Civil War ended, had her log-cabin, covered-wagon young life, got married in 1885, and died in 1957. Laura Ingalls Wilder wasn’t just around for Manifest Destiny and the destruction of the last Native American societies. She saw cars, radio, television, airplanes, and  the Jazz Age. She saw World War I, World War II, the atomic bomb, communist revolutions, Fascism, the Great Depression, Hitchcock movies, nuclear submarines, the Korean War, and DNA.

Even if Kurzweil and company are wrong about an exponential change trajectory, linear change would be dizzying enough. If Laura went from covered wagons to nuclear submarines, what am I going to see as an old man in the 2060s? Let’s hope for sustainability, teleportation and compassion, not creepy geo- and bioengineering disasters!

I like to know what everyone thinks is going on. To this end, about a year ago, I filled up my igoogle home page with feeds from a bunch of different news sources. They are political news sources, for the most part. I don’t care at all about sports or celebrities. I tried to pick stuff from the hard left and hard right and then some mainstream stuff, thinking I could read headlines every day or two and read the articles that grabbed my attention.

It’s not working out that well. I’m too busy to read much. I do glance over the headlines a bit, but there are a lot of them and often my eyes just glaze over. And while I want to know about the rest of the world, I’m even more interested in what my friends and family are doing. If my sister-in-law, Maya, has posted on her blog, or my mom on hers, my brother Benjamin on his, or my friend Jeannie on hers, or my friend Ethan on a couple of his blogs (one about everything and one about his wife Susannah’s struggle with leukemia–both amazing), or several other friends and family with blogs have posted, that’s what I read while I’m brushing my teeth or during whatever scanty extracurricular-reading time appears.

So I need to cull. I’m considering getting paring it down to the few feeds that I actually click on. That would look like this:

Paul Krugman and Thomas Friedman columns at NYTimes.com–occasional reads.

Wall Street Journal feed–very occasional reads.

NPR’s political feed–pretty regular use, but usually just audio clips from “All Things Considered,” plus a nearly-daily five-minute news overview, also audio.

A google news feed gathered from a bunch of sources–very occasional reads.

Plus PsychCentral‘s Mental Health News and Children/Parenting News feeds–pretty frequent reads, a few a week–and Nildoctrine‘s feed for his hilarious feminist political vlogs.

And plus my podcasts, which I have absolutely no problem keeping up with: Left, Right and Center, Planet Money, This American Life, Radiolab, and The Long Now Foundation’s Seminars About Long Term Thinking. These I love the most.

I’d call that a US-centric, left-leaning-centrist list. I’d be ditching my right-winger stuff besides the Wall Street Journal–FrumForum which looked pretty good when I checked it out, but I just haven’t been checking it out, and National Review, whose cartoony headlines and terrible writing meant that I almost never looked at it, and regretted it when I did. I’d ditch quite a bit of left-winger stuff–The New Republic & Mother Jones (cartoony headlines again), Truthdig (generally good but not catching me), and Democracy Now! which I think is great but consistently depressing. Also The Onion, which is hilarious but I’ve stopped looking at it, and a CNN feed, which is weak.

That list doesn’t really do what I originally wanted–covering hard left to hard right–but it seems OK for now. What do you think? I’m interested in the media-intake schemes of anyone who made it this far through my post. How do you make these decisions? Do you think I’m missing anything crucial? Make me some recommendations!

Also, anyone interested in my actual media diet can look at my reading list here.

I listened to a story on NPR a couple days ago about a how high divorce rates and teen-pregnancy rates are correlated to the state’s political ideology. Republican states have significantly more divorce and teen pregnancy. In fact, as a whole, the US divorce rate has been holding steady since the mid-90s, while the “red state” divorce rates (and teen-pregnancy rates) continue to rise. That means the blue states make up the difference and their rates are falling. NPR speculated that it’s because in family-values states, people get married earlier because of social pressure or so they can have sex, but choose badly because they don’t know themselves as well as they would several years later, when Democrats tend to get married. They also note that states that are swinging Democratic, like New Hampshire, are starting to have less divorce and teen pregnancy too.

It makes some sense, though I wouldn’t have guessed it. There are a couple of things not made explicit in the story that I wonder about. First, I wonder if the Republican fixation on “family values” issues is being driven by this phenomenon; to someone living in a Republican state, divorce and teen pregnancy are really pressing issues, because their ideology and behavior are not matching up. It could even be a vicious cycle: Values driving divorce driving values…. Second, I wonder how much of this has to do with money. Social class, really. Red states tend to be poorer, and poverty puts serious stress on a marriage. And poverty is correlated with a lot of other stressors, like substance abuse, domestic violence, and child abuse. Also, they mention that the demographic whose divorce rates are dropping the most are women who have graduated from college. I’ve been attending a state university for a few years now, and I can tell you that it’s not full of poor people. These kids (‘ parents) have money.

My friend Jeannie posted about the band OK Go a while ago, but I my internet was down at the time (thanks, Qwest) so didn’t watch the video she embedded. It took me until hearing about them on NPR (here’s the story) to look them up again. They have ditched their label (EMI/Capitol) in favor of independent internet distribution–a very cool business model for bands who are well known enough to get away with it. And others, too, who have the ambition, stamina, and talent to get to a high level of recognition on their own. OK Go is clearly set. They write good, catchy tunes, and their videos range from very good to amazing and get viewed many millions of times each, on Youtube. They tend to use a single, long shot to catch an elaborate, surprising sequence. I’ll put in three below. Two are for the same song. The first is the EMI version, and the second, with the Rube Goldberg machine, is their independent version, financed by State Farm. It took 60 takes to get, and they only counted a take if they got past the dominoes and ball-bearings-on-the-tabletop sequences, which they called “very flakey.” It sounds like they recorded different versions of the song (“This Too Shall Pass”) for the videos, too.

Oh, right. The NPR story was partly about how EMI is not letting anyone embed their version of the video… Well, you can still use this attempt to embed as a link to the video on Youtube:

Rube Goldberg version:

The Treadmill video, also financed by EMI, so you’ll have to use the link: