Monday, October 20, 2014

Odd, I checked and I'm not homeless

For years I've seen left-wing advocates share maps claiming that there are no places in America where someone can afford to live in an apartment on minimum wage.

Click on the blue map above and to the left for the actual numbers of the claim.

I always rejected this on the assumption that they simply mean a person without roommates. As Bryan Caplan wrote on the social safety net and roommates:

To put it more concretely: Before anyone starts collecting welfare, it is more than fair to ask them - for starters - to try to solve their own problem by taking on some roommates. Is it beneath their dignity to live like college students? I think not.

That always seemed to satisfy me, and refute a lot of the Nickel and Dimed crowd bellyaching about it being impossible to live on minimum wage. These were people who weren't willing to make lifestyle sacrifices and wanted the government to subsidize their Starbucks and beer.

Well, it turns out I was giving the activists too much credit. A piece I stumbled across this week showed the numbers being used are dishonestly mislabeled:

It’s conventional wisdom in personal finance that housing costs shouldn’t exceed 30% of your income. What this chart is actually measuring isn’t how many hours you would have to work at minimum wage to afford a two bedroom apartment, it’s measuring how many hours an individual would have to work for an apartment meant to house two people – and have it only consume 30% of their income. 
The chart thus doesn’t measure how many hours of work it takes to pay for rent, it measures the amount of hours it takes to earn rent – times three!

Hmm, sometimes figures are presented misleadingly and we gloss over the fine points when we read a chart or graph. However, in this case the chart merely states "Hours needed to afford apartment" and later on says this is in a week, not a month. That's a completely dishonest way to say one needs to keep the rent in the 30 percent bracket.

Notice another detail that was left out - this is for a two-bedroom apartment, not a single apartment. That's an easy way to inflate figures, but not relevant when most minimum wage workers aren't the sole earner in a household.

But wait, there's more.

Politifact didn't respond to this map, but last month it did respond to a related viral image that claims "There is no state in the U.S. where a 40-hour minimum wage work week is enough to afford a two-bedroom apartment," While it rated this "mostly true," it went into the 30 percent detail that was glossed over and exposed another crucial detail: This is the average Fair Market Rent, not the average rent people pay.

The group left out a key distinction from the study they cite: Minimum wage workers can’t afford a two-bedroom apartment at Fair Market Rent, a number determined by the federal government for each region set at the 40th percentile of all rents in that area. 
That means that in some areas, minimum wage earners would be able to find and afford housing that is cheaper than the Fair Market Rent. Though, in states where rent is more expensive, minimum wage earners would not be able to afford apartments even well below the Fair Market Rent.

I'm a little confused why they generously rated this as "mostly true" when Megan Bolton of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a spokesperson for the activist group that crunched the numbers for this claim, admitted that someone can live alone for minium wage. Using their 30 percent figure, that gives a full-time minimum wage worker $377 to spend on rent in a month.

"Absolutely, certainly there are places with rents at $377, especially if you’re in smaller areas, and they may be of okay quality," Bolton said. "If a minimum wage earner can get an apartment at that price, it would be affordable for them."

So there are indeed places where in American where someone can afford an apartment on minimum wage. Sounds like "mostly false" to me.

The above chart being passed around represents 2012 numbers. Click here for the 2014 numbers from the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Notice that the chart starts by saying, "In no state can a minimum wage worker afford a two-bedroom rental unit at Fair Market Rent, working a standard 40-hour work week, without paying more than 30% of their income." That lakes the bite of the popular claim that no one can afford to live in an apartment on minimum wage, but at least they are being upfront about what the numbers represent.

However, I'm still not convinced its accurate. Matt, Palumbo, showed that the numbers don't make sense in New Jersey where he lives. Looking at their related chart of what a full-time worker needs to make to pay rent, I can see that in my apartment in Massachusetts I must make $24.08 to be able to pay my rent.

When I first moved here in 2011, I was making $13.50 an hour, hardly minimum wage but still below what they say is needed to live. I was also living in a one-bedroom apartment. With what I'm making now, this chart says I'm still only making five-eighths, or about 62.5 percent, of what it would cost to have a second bedroom, despite the difference in rents between single-and-double apartments being rather small.

So how come I'm not homeless? I'll admit, I'm still on my parents cell phone plan, but I'm not getting any government assistance or regular outside source of income. Perhaps these numbers are horribly skewed by the high rents in Boston. Either way, I've been living below what they say is possible for a long time.

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Saturday, October 18, 2014

How to actually convince conservatives to fight global warming

Scott Alexander has penned a compelling and thought-harvesting piece on political tribalism and biased thinking, with specific examples including the Ferguson shooting, the ISIS violence campaign and the Rotherham rape scandal. He said people's positions on current issues are heavily determined by the narrative advanced by the two major political sides, liberal and conservative.

What stood out the most to me is when he took to task the condescending examples of counter-narratives written to get conservatives to get involved in the fight against global warming. I had also seen these new narratives in reporters on a recent Stanford University paper that showed a Jonathan Haidt-style to moral reasoning.

First, Alexander penned this as the blue tribe narrative on global warming:

Global warming proves that unrestrained capitalism is destroying the planet. Global warming disproportionately affects poor countries and minorities. Global warming could have been prevented with multilateral action, but we were too dumb to participate because of stupid American cowboy diplomacy. Global warming is an important cause that activists and NGOs should be lauded for highlighting. Global warming shows that Republicans are science denialists and probably all creationists.

Thats an accurate summary of the left-wing view, and when asked if global warming is caused by pollution, conservatives are largely being asked if they accept that narrative. Alexander argues that's a big part of why so many say "No" despite the overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. I completely agree with him.

The Stanford study in question attempted to create a useful conservative narrative that would allow right-wingers to accept climate change science without compromising their world view. Sadly, the results were uninspired and disingenuous:

Being pro-environmental allows us to protect and preserve the American way of life. It is patriotic to conserve the country’s natural resources.

Ugh. As Alexander said, "I can’t imagine anyone falling for this." Yet, the study showed conservatives were more likely to get on board the climate change resistance when presented with this narrative. Like Alexander, I found the proposed narrative too contrived.

His solution was to pen a political diatribe that would actually work to get conservatives on board. I don't use this word very often, but what he wrote is epic.
In the 1950s, brave American scientists shunned by the climate establishment of the day discovered that the Earth was warming as a result of greenhouse gas emissions, leading to potentially devastating natural disasters that could destroy American agriculture and flood American cities. As a result, the country mobilized against the threat. Strong government action by the Bush administration outlawed the worst of these gases, and brilliant entrepreneurs were able to discover and manufacture new cleaner energy sources. As a result of these brave decisions, our emissions stabilized and are currently declining.

Unfortunately, even as we do our part, the authoritarian governments of Russia and China continue to industralize and militarize rapidly as part of their bid to challenge American supremacy. As a result, Communist China is now by far the world’s largest greenhouse gas producer, with the Russians close behind. Many analysts believe Putin secretly welcomes global warming as a way to gain access to frozen Siberian resources and weaken the more temperate United States at the same time. These countries blow off huge disgusting globs of toxic gas, which effortlessly cross American borders and disrupt the climate of the United States. Although we have asked them to stop several times, they refuse, perhaps egged on by major oil producers like Iran and Venezuela who have the most to gain by keeping the world dependent on the fossil fuels they produce and sell to prop up their dictatorships.

We need to take immediate action. While we cannot rule out the threat of military force, we should start by using our diplomatic muscle to push for firm action at top-level summits like the Kyoto Protocol. Second, we should fight back against the liberals who are trying to hold up this important work, from big government bureaucrats trying to regulate clean energy to celebrities accusing people who believe in global warming of being ‘racist’. Third, we need to continue working with American industries to set an example for the world by decreasing our own emissions in order to protect ourselves and our allies. Finally, we need to punish people and institutions who, instead of cleaning up their own carbon, try to parasitize off the rest of us and expect the federal government to do it for them.

Please join our brave men and women in uniform in pushing for an end to climate change now.

Bear in mind, Alexander isn't approaching this narrative as an accurate, fair take on the world, but as a narrative that conservatives would swallow. It is still well done, and it shows a lot more effort and familiarity than trying to cram "patriotism" in where it doesn't belong.

Hat tip to Tyler Cowen for the link. 

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Thursday, October 16, 2014

Affirmtive consent is the new Patriot Act

I've been writing against "consent" campaigns for years, as they promote the idea that all sex is assumed to be rape unless any female participants blatantly declare they want to partake. I even wrote about this when I was a college student myself.

Last month it become an actual law in California, although it strangely only applies to college students. In my conversations with supporters of the law, I was constantly told that it will not be used against innocent people, that it sets a reasonable standard for bedroom behavior and absolutely will not declare loving couples to be mutual rapists.

In short, I was told that the law is well-written and there will not be any negative side effects.

Well, Ezra Klein completely threw that narrative out the window this week. He confirmed that all of my fears would come true, called the law "terrible" but then he went ahead and said it's worth it.

For example, Klein wrote:

It tries to change, through brute legislative force, the most private and intimate of adult acts. It is sweeping in its redefinition of acceptable consent; two college seniors who've been in a loving relationship since they met during the first week of their freshman years, and who, with the ease of the committed, slip naturally from cuddling to sex, could fail its test.

But, Klein claims, it's all worth it because there is an ongoing epidemic of rape on college campuses. That's a dubious claim, but suppose it were true. He's saying that since we're in the middle of a crisis we need to sacrifice civil liberties and due process to protect people.

Does it sound like the Patriot Act yet?

If the Yes Means Yes law is taken even remotely seriously it will settle like a cold winter on college campuses, throwing everyday sexual practice into doubt and creating a haze of fear and confusion over what counts as consent. This is the case against it, and also the case for it. Because for one in five women to report an attempted or completed sexual assault means that everyday sexual practices on college campuses need to be upended, and men need to feel a cold spike of fear when they begin a sexual encounter.

Okay, now he just sounds like a supervillain talking to a chained-up hero.

Klein's remarks drew a lot of criticism, prompting a second post where he doubled down and argued even louder that there's an ongoing crisis, then made some bogus claims about the legal system, which drew even more criticism.

This same week, 28 Harvard law professors, including Alan Dershowitz, penned a joint statement criticizing efforts to bring affirmative consent laws to Harvard. The New York Times put the law professors head to head with social justice undergrads in an article featuring non-insightful comments like, “It just seems like they’re defending those who are accused of sexual assault."

Guilty as charged on this accusation, among other things. I completely confess that opponents of these witch hunts are indeed motivated by wanting people accused of terrible crimes to have a fair legal defense.

I want to live in a free country, and you can't have a free country where loving couples are labeled rapists if they refuse to follow a seduction checklist provided by puritanical busybodies.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Why Jean Tirole won the Nobel Prize

French academic Jean Tirole has been announced as the sole winner of this year's Nobel Prize in Economics, officially known as the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.*

Tirole's work has splashed into many areas, including game theory, finance and behavioral economics, but most of his contributions have been in industrial organization, which is a branch of economics dealing with how firms, industries and markets work and interact.

He has changed the way experts think about regulating large businesses. He papers show over and over again that different industries need to be regulated in very different ways, but there are a few themes that run through his work.

For one, he saw a large principal-agent problem with regulators. That is to say, The government and the people it hires to regulate private firms are different groups of people who have have different incentives from one another. The government will want the regulators to make sure the private companies protect the public interest, but the regulators may find it more profitable to join forces with the private companies they are supposed to be watching over.

That is known as regulatory capture and many of his papers are different techniques to prevent that from happening. He also repeatedly deals with asymmetrical information problems, where the regulators know less about specific operational details likes costs than the companies they are regulating. This can lead to cheating, lying and bribery, and Tirole found ways to discourage those bad behaviors.

For example, in a heavily-regulated monopoly such as a power utility company, the private firm needs permission from the regulator to increase the prices it passes on to consumers. If the company becomes expensive to run, it will honestly inform the regulators that its costs have gone up. On the other hand, if it suddenly becomes cheaper to run the company, the utility will have no reason to inform the regulator about the cost savings. The firm could make higher profits by keeping those savings a secret from the regulator, or bribing the regulator outright.

So how does Tirole propose we stop that? There's a few ways, such as minimizing the difference between what the company charges when operating costs are high and what it charges when operating costs are low. This kills the incentive to cheat. Alternatively, the government could reward the regulator when it reveals proof of cheating from the firms. This would make the cost to bribe higher.

Conomist Tyler Cowen wrote about Tirole:

Many of his papers show “it’s complicated,” rather than presenting easily summarizable, intuitive solutions which make for good blog posts. That is one reason why his ideas do not show up so often in economics blogs and the popular press, but they nonetheless have been extremely influential in the economics profession. He has shown a truly remarkable breadth and depth over the course of the last thirty or so years.


It's been all but engraved on a plaque that Tirole would have shared the award with his mentor and frequent collaborator Jean-Jacques Laffont, who died of cancer in 2004 and was thus ineligible as only living persons can be nominated.

Tirole has two engineering degrees in addition to economic and math degrees, and I'm fond of how Tore Ellingsen, chair of the economic sciences prize committee, summed him up:

Like an engineer, [Tirole] offers a tool kit for problem-solving,

His recommendations walk a lot of tightropes in saying how much regulation is appropriate and what form it should take. For more examples of what's in Tirole's tool kit for regulating industries, see the Nobel Prize Committee's two summaries. There's a piece written for a general audience and a longer, more technical version.

* That's because it is not one of the the original five Nobel Prizes dreamed up by Mr. Nobel and wasn't first awarded until 1969.

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Sunday, October 12, 2014

You can't kill ideas with bullets...

...But you can help spread them.

I wonder if the cowardly gunman who shot Malala Yousafzai in 2012 has heard she received the Nobel Peace Prize for her fight to make sure girls are educated too.

More importantly,I wonder if he is aware that his attempt to kill her is what made her fight international news in the first place and directly lead to the Nobel. Strictly speaking, her crusade would have remained obscure if he hadn't drawn attention to it.

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Friday, October 10, 2014

Whiny humor isn't funny

I'm a consistent Buzzfeed.com hater, as inspired by the website's bad science fearmongeringunexamined superficial politics and "articles" that are just a collection of stupid GIFs.

One of the other trends I've noticed is Buzzfeed's collection of social justice complaints presented as comedy videos. Examples include If Black Women Said The Stuff White Guys SayIf Lesbians Said The Stuff Straight People Say and If Asians Said The Stuff White People Say.

They feature quick cuts of minority actors and actresses saying stupid, offensive things to other people ad nauseam. Somehow, it manages to get old and repetitive in less than two minutes

Satire and humor have long been tools used to advance ideas and political positions, but in this case the execution is too hamfisted and preachy to be funny. Go on, watch one. Are we really supposed to believe that white people in conversations with Asians regularly say "Look at me, I'm Asian" and slant their eyes with their fingers? Are we supposed to knowingly laugh in response, saying to ourselves how true and insightful this is?

Whining isn't funny, and the prevalence of these videos suggest that social justice humor isn't really about humor.




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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Take Mitch McConnell with you

Please oh please let Mike Huckabee's follow through on the threat he made on a radio station Tuesday, where he criticized the GOP for not fighting hard enough against gay marriage, and potentially giving up on the issue.

If the the Republicans want to lose guys like me and a whole bunch of still God-fearing, Bible-believing people, go ahead and just abdicate on this issue and while you're at it, go ahead and say abortion doesn't matter either. At that point, you lose me. I'll become an independent. I'll start finding people that have guts to stand.

Does he mean it? If so, not only would the Republicans lose a major social conservative leader, but he could potentially siphon off a large portion of similar party members. Imagine that, we could potentially have Republican leaders who focus on economic issues and don't get bogged down holding back science and human rights.

Who knows, some of them might even try to cut spending, instead of merely cutting taxes

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