Comments on economics, mystery fiction, drama, and art.

Monday, June 16, 2008


On tonight's (June 16) NBC Nightly News, the US commander of the UN forces in Afghanistan just said that the average age of the Afghan population was less than 10 years of age.

Which would be extraordinary, unprecedented.

But which is also, apparently false.

According to the CIA World Factbook, the median age of the Afghan population in 2008 is 17.6 years. (For contrast, Japan's median age is 43.8, the median age in the US is 36.7, and the median age in Mexico is 26.) If I can find this out in less than one minute, sitting at my desk, why isn't the commander of the UN military forces in Afghanistan able to be as well-informed? How can NBC's news personnel hear that and not ask, "Can this possibly be true?" and then find out?

This sort of mis-information is all-too-common, and all-too-rarely challenged. This particular bit might seem trivia, but talk to any development economist...the median age of the population is important. It affects educational attainment, it affects the proportion of the population that is economically active. It affects social stability.

An average age of less than 10 is inconceiveable. Yet now millions of US television watchers have heard that stunningly inaccurate remark, from a presumed authority, even if they have not grasped the implications.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


I am not all that averse to the expansion of credit, and acces to credit; I thought James Grant's Money of the Mind was somewhat over done and had really perverse distributional implications. Nonetheless, a culture that fosters debt over enterprise is not likely to provide expanded opportunities over the long term. So this column by David Brooks makes some valuable points (and, boy, was that hard to type). I would particularly pair this comment by Brooks:

"Wall Street has played a role. Bill Gates built a socially useful product to make his fortune. But what message do the compensation packages that hedge fund managers get send across the country?"

with this comment by Keynes:

"Speculators may do no harm as bubbles on a steady stream of enterprise. But the position is serious when enterprise becomes the bubble on a whirlpool of speculation. When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done. The measure of success attained by Wall Street, regarded as an institution of which the proper social purpose is to direct new investment into the most profitable channels in terms of future yield, cannot be claimed as one of the outstanding triumphs of laissez-faire capitalism…."

And this'll be the second time I've quoted Keynes on speculation.

(Thanks to Kevin Drum for the pointer to Brooks.)

Robert Rauschenberg

Why I saw nothing about this until today, I'll never know. Robert Rauschenberg, one of the great artists of the late 20th century, died (at age 82) nearly a month ago. The Times provides a clear, insightful overview of his career. This, from the Times obit, is perhaps the best characterization of Rauschenberg (based on what I've read) that I've ever seen:

“Screwing things up is a virtue,” he said when he was 74. “Being correct is never the point...Being right can stop all the momentum of a very interesting idea.”

Interestingly, he was born in Port Arthur, Texas, the same place that Janis Joplin left on her way to blues rock stardom (and, sadly, in her case, much-too-early death).

Monday, June 09, 2008

Your carbon footprint

A brilliant post by Ezra Klein, making clear why some sort of carbon tax (cap-and-trade, etc.) works miles better than expecting individuals to spontaneously monitor how much carbon their activities throw off into the atmosphere. The bottom line:

"You want a low-carbon lifestyle to be effortless, even natural. It can't be a complicated, virtue-based project. Emissions will start going down when we convince companies to change their price tags, not when we convince a fraction of Americans to change their lifestyles."

Monday, June 02, 2008

Some links for today

There's no coherence here, just some interesting things I've come across:


A way of measuring, maybe, economies of scope

Income elasticity of demand at Wal-Mart and Target

Unit pricing in Australia