Archive

September 11th, 2016

Computing the social value of Uber. (It's high.)

    How much would be lost if Uber simply went away? That's actually happened in Austin, Texas, and the service has faced legal troubles in France, Spain, Germany and parts of India.

    How much is really at stake? A new paper by Peter Cohen, Robert Hahn, Jonathan Hall, Steven Levitt (of "Freakonomics" fame) and Robert Metcalfe comes up with a pretty good, dollars-and-cents measure of how much UberX, the main Uber service, is improving the lives of its users.

    Based on their study, here are a few ways of framing the value of Uber ride services to Americans:

    - For a typical dollar spent by consumers on UberX, they receive $1.60 worth of gain.

    That's an unusually high amount of "consumer surplus," as it is called by economists. It means there aren't that many close substitutes for Uber at prevailing prices, as moving people around is something the U.S. does not do especially well.

    - UberX produces daily social value of about $18 million.

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Britain's experts are invested in disaster

    David Davis, the U.K.'s new Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, made a statement to the House of Commons this week on the meaning of "Brexit means Brexit." Commentators were roundly unimpressed. If I may be allowed to say, their apparent determination to be unimpressed is beginning to grate.

    To be sure, the complaints were partly justified: Davis could have said more about basic objectives. But Britain is at the start of a long negotiation. Neither he nor anybody else can know, much less dictate, the outcome. At this point it's ridiculous to demand a detailed description of Britain's future relationship with the EU.

    The press continues to focus on the government's declared aim of restoring national control of immigration policy -- contrary to the EU's core principle of free movement of workers -- while maintaining maximum access to the union's single market. The EU's standard position has been that you cannot have both. To be a member of the single market you have to accept free movement.

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As a mental health provider, I ask all my patients about guns. Here's why.

    Few topics stir more controvery in this country than guns. Mass shootings and urban gun violence inflame public passions. Gun control measures divide our political leaders, and elections often hinge on candidates' views of guns.

    I struggle with issues related to firearms every day, but in a different way. To me, it's not about politics or elections. It's part of my daily job. As a mental health provider, I have to ask all my patients about guns.

    I spend many of my days and nights caring for patients with psychiatric crises in emergency departments. We address a variety of clinical problems, from hallucinations to delusions to addiction. Suicidality is one of the more common ones. Too often, patients want to hurt themselves or have already tried to do so.

    So why do I ask about guns?

    Because when I think about how patients might harm themselves, guns frighten me the most. As a resident physician in psychiatry, I see some pretty terrible things. Suicidal patients talk about hanging themselves, overdosing, throwing themselves into traffic, and a host of other awful ways to end their lives.

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September 10th

Roger Ailes' empty lawsuit threatens free speech

    The defamation lawsuit that Roger Ailes's lawyer is threatening against New York magazine would seem to have no chance of legal success.

    So why has the former chairman of Fox News bothered to hire the lawyer who brought down Gawker on behalf of Hulk Hogan? The answer is that the threat puts the magazine on the defensive -- and that's a problem for free speech. The First Amendment has been interpreted to protect even defamatory speech against public figures. But as the Hogan case shows, not every court applies the constitutional standard correctly. In that environment, even legally empty threats have a chilling effect.

    First, the law: under the landmark 1964 New York Times v. Sullivan decision, a libel case against a public figure can only succeed if the defamatory statements are both false and made with actual malice. Malice means that either the publication knew the statements were false or else recklessly disregarded the truth.

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Putin is popular in part because he crushes dissent, which Trump doesn't shy away from endorsing.

    Russian President Vladimir Putin is very popular in Russia. Polling from the Levada Center puts him at an 82 percent approval rating as of last month. He hasn't been beneath 60 percent since he rose to national attention in 1999.

    Putin's recent low point was in early 2014. What turned it around? Putin's annexation of Crimea. In recent months, his numbers have been inflated by another military incursion, Russia's efforts against the Islamic State in Syria.

    It is easy to dismiss Putin's popularity as the sort of artificial metric we're used to from, say, North Korea. But that's an overly simple explanation. The Washington Post's Monkey Cage blog explained in November why the numbers aren't Kim Jong Un-esque. Researchers ran a study to measure the extent to which people may have been lying to pollsters, finding that Putin's broad support appeared to be genuine.

    During NBC's "Commander-in-Chief Forum" on Wednesday night, Donald Trump used Putin's popularity to argue that the Russian president must be doing something right.

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What Congress does to the U.S. economy

    Since World War II, Democratic presidents have generally had significantly better economic records than Republican presidents. But can those records be affected by who controls Congress? Have Democratic presidents gotten a boost from a Republican Congresses, or did Democratic Congresses drag down Republican presidents?

    Some people believe Congress is the real driver of economic policy, because it approves spending and passes regulations, as well as tax increases and reductions.

    After comparing economic performances of all postwar presidents based on 17 indicators, it turns out it does matter whether there are Democratic or Republican majorities in the House and Senate. But it matters less than which party controls the presidency.

    On that score, Democratic presidents' economies perform better no matter which party controls Congress.

    In my book "The President as Economist," I measured the economic performance of presidential administrations. For this analysis, I used the same quantitative method to evaluate Congress's performance by party majority alongside the president.

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Washing Our Hands of Toxins

    Some people love to hate government regulations. Many believe they’re just bureaucratic barriers that waste our time. But the Food and Drug Administration just passed a new regulation that’ll actually protect us, and may save you a few bucks and an unnecessary purchase at the store.

    If you’re one of the millions of Americans who buys antibacterial soaps, you’ve been, at a minimum, duped. But more importantly, you’ve been exposed to harmful chemicals.

    Antibacterial soaps sound good. After all, no one wants to imagine their hands teeming with bacteria.

    We are utterly covered in microorganisms. That idea grosses us out, and some of that bacteria can make us sick. Kill them all, we think.

    But in reality, we couldn’t survive without beneficial bacteria, some of which help protect our immune system. And antibacterial soaps are no better at preventing disease than regular soap and water.

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Trump's campaign is a house of cards

    With Labor Day now behind us, the final drive for the presidency has begun. But there seems to be a kind of pause in the race as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton circle each other before their first nationally televised debate at Hofstra University less than three weeks away.

    In terms of key policy issues, Trump continues to parade his plan to build a great wall across our southern border and have Mexico pay for it. Clinton, meanwhile, focuses on her wide governmental experience and his total lack of it.

    Trump offers little, however, on how that wall will be built, who will build it and how he will make Mexico pay for it. In a terse tweet after a meeting with Trump in Mexico City, President Enrique Pena Nieto flatly rejected the notion that his country would shell out for it.

    Trump's guarantee that the anti-immigration wall will be built comes in the form of his customary "Believe me" assurance. Presumably his oft-touted mastery of "the art of the deal" will somehow turn around the Mexican president.

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Trump’s Tall Tax Tales

    An old saying asserts that falsehoods come in three escalating levels: Lies, damn lies, and statistics. But now there’s an even higher category of lies: a Donald Trump speech.

    Take his recent address on specific economic policies he’d push to benefit hard-hit working families, including an almost-hilarious discourse on the rank unfairness of the estate tax.

    “No family will have to pay the death tax,” he solemnly pledged, adding that “American workers have paid taxes their whole lives, and they should not be taxed again at death.”

    But workers aren’t taxed at death. The first $5.4 million of any deceased person’s estate is already exempt from this tax, meaning 99.8 percent of Americans pay absolutely zero. And the tiny percentage of families who do pay estate taxes are multimillionaires — not workers.

    Of course, Trump knows this. He’s shamefully trying to deceive real workers into thinking he stands for them, when in fact it’s his own wealth he’s protecting.

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Trump and Clinton Take Up Arms

    There’s nothing like veterans’ issues to make politicians go a little loopy.

    It’s partly guilt. Most candidates for high office are grateful to veterans for their service, and a little uneasy if they didn’t serve themselves. That second part is not true of Donald Trump, who stressed that he had made “a lot of sacrifices” for his country during his fight with the parents of a slain military hero. Pressed on the nature of said sacrifices, he mentioned something about real estate development.

    Hillary Clinton has on occasion told a story about having gone to a Marine recruiting office when she was 26 or 27, and being rejected as too old to sign up. This was when she was teaching law in Arkansas, and about to get married. She’s never explained what was on her mind.

    Some of her friends thought she might have been testing the Marines to see how they’d treat a female applicant. Maybe she had a fight with Bill and was looking for a way out. It’s a strange story, one way or the other. However, there is no sign that Clinton went away feeling she had just made a lot of sacrifices for her country.

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