Friday, December 21, 2007

What women want

Via the Freakonomics blog:
Richard Gray at the U.K. Telegraph reports that Sir David King, a University of Cambridge chemist, staunch global warming activist, and one of Britain’s top government scientists, gave the following advice to a woman who asked him what she could do to curb global warming:
“Stop admiring young men in Ferraris.”

A general point here is that I don't think women fully realise the massive collective influence they have on (heterosexual) men via their sexual decisions. Men are very powerfully motivated by the desire to impress women, I think even more than they generally, half-jokingly admit. David King touches on one male behaviour pattern he'd like to see changed, I'm sure you can think of many more. Advantaged men playing fast and loose with the rules, dodging taxes, ripping people off? Disadvantaged young men showing no interest in learning things and instead wreaking havoc on the streets? Men being generally violent, whether outside the pub or with their own families? How different would the motivations to engage in these kinds of behaviours be if within the relevant social groups women treated such men with complete sexual indifference? That is, in each case, if the behaviour led to the man being treated as though he were short, fat and profoundly ugly. Note that in all three cases, if the anti-social behaviour were pointed out, many women would disapprove, but what matters is what they do - revealed preference in econ jargon - and in all three cases I'd argue that it's not the case that such men are shunned. You could even make a case that (perversely) some aspects of these kinds of behaviours are rewarded by women.

Of course, even if it were true that women could exert some influence in this fashion, it would not follow that they ought to. It is the men in these cases who are at fault. But it's an interesting thought that women collectively have a powerful policy lever available.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

DRiving Me nuts

Itunes' Digital Rights Management (DRM) is driving me nuts. For various reasons I'm sick of the Ipod, but if I switch to a different player, I won't be able to listen to the many songs I bought on Itunes. This is ridiculous: it would be like buying a CD in a Virgin store and only ever being able to play it on a Virgin-branded CD-player. I know there're ways around this, but that's not the point. The point is that DRM as currently implemented on ITunes is immensely clunky.

I'm a guy who loves music and is very happy to pay for it. I want a seamless, easy experience, but that is not what I'm getting. The result? I buy far less music than I might otherwise, because the whole business now just has this association with aggravation in my mind. I can't be the only one: and as bad as I am, I'm surely not the least tech savvy user out there. What all this means is that the music companies are losing out on good business: they're throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

This rant's been bubbling nuder for a while, so I was delighted to find that computer security expert Bruce Schneier (speaking of course from a much better informed position) broadly agrees with me:

So what's going on? Schneier says "I don't see the market righting this wrong", and I have to agree. The prize at stake is near-monopoly control of a sector for at least a while. Apple have it right now with digital music; Microsoft want it with movies. For consumers the problem is this: every company, no matter how innovative, wants to push out it's competitors any way they can: what is most profitable for an individual firm may not be the best route for the industry as a whole or for consumers generally. So paradoxically, today's innovators can turn into tomorrow's monopolists.

In my view, this is what's happening to Apple. Given the technology available today, it's a crying shame that digital music is such a pain. At the very least there ought to be multiple online music vendors with industry-wide catalogues, and open standards giving the ability to play purchased songs on any piece of hardware. This would in turn trigger off intense competition on the part of (i) the online stores, who would have to strain every creative sinew to provide a fantastic music browsing experience, and (ii) the manufacturers of players, who'd be competing on hardware alone.

Maybe the only solution is from outside the market: regulation to make it mandatory to allow purchased digital music to be played in standard formats. Then, let the market work its magic.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Counterintuitive data: strikes edition

Check out this graph from the Economist:

I find these data pretty surprising:
* Three countries - Germany, Netherlands and Sweden - with strong labour protections lose fewer days to strikes than the US or UK
* Germany and Japan seem to lose something like an order of magnitude fewer days to strikes than the US (!)
* France is just a touch above the OECD average, losing a little bit more than the US, but fewer days than either Australia or Ireland

Is it just me or are these numbers just a little counter-intuitive? I would have expected countries with strong labour protections to lose more days to strikes, and for France in particular to be an outlier. I would have expected the US, and to a lesser extent the UK, Australia and Ireland, all thought of as places where it's easy to hire and fire workers, to lose far fewer days to strikes.

But that's not what we see in the graph. Are these numbers right? Or is this one of these things like unemployment where off-the-shelf numbers need careful interpretation?

(The right would expect easy hiring and firing, weaker worker protections etc. to mean less unproductive striking, with the market taking care of who should get how much etc. The left would expect more strikes in countries with the "worker friendly" policies they like, but they'd view those strikes positively as a mechanism by which workers collectively express preferences. Surely both camps would find these data a little surprising?)

Monday, December 03, 2007

Relative and absolute poverty

I've never understood the notion of absolute poverty, as opposed to relative poverty. The absolute poverty rate is defined by Wikipedia as quantifying "... the number of people below a poverty threshold, and this poverty threshold is independent of time and place. For the measure to be absolute, the line must be the same in different countries."

But what is it that is absolute about absolute poverty? As I understand it, absolute poverty is calculted using a basket of goods type of argument: if you can't afford to buy enough to feed yourself (say) you're absolutely poor. But the amount and quality of food which counts as "feeding yourself" changes with time and place. How much is enough? Raw calories? Enough protein? Fresh fruit and vegetables? The first two were a luxury until recently, the fact that they're now regarded as things everyone should be able to afford is an inherently relative concept. Most people can afford to obtain them, so you are poor if you cannot.

What of education for your child? I suppose being unable to buy books or send your child to school would count as absolute poverty (if education was private, and formed part of the basket of goods and services). But again, these are things which were a luxury not too long ago and still are in many places. So why do we draw the line where it is, and not at say access to violin lessons or playing fields or small class sizes?

My point is that the notion of poverty is inherently relative. The absolute poverty line is determined by social convention, implcitly relative to what others in society can afford. How large a gap is tolerated between those at the poverty line and the median, or some higher rank position, is convention and nothing else. Surely all poverty is relative, or am I missing something?

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Tucked away in the FT...

Tucked away in the Financial Times:

By Simon Briscoe, Financial Times
Published: Mar 18, 2006

The proportion of French youths without work is more in line with other countries than suggested by official figures that put French youth unemployment at more than 22 per cent, compared with 11, 12 and 13 per cent in the UK, US and Germany, writes Simon Briscoe, Statistics Editor.

FT research suggests that 7.8 per cent of under-25s are out of work in France. This is only slightly above 7.4 per cent in the UK and 6.5 per cent in Germany.

The discrepancy reflects the fact that France has a much smaller youth labour force than other countries because a greater proportion go on to higher education after the age of 16, delaying their entry to the labour market.

Now, think of how often you've heard the factoid that 1 in 4 French youths is unemployed or whatever, and how rarely you've heard the point made above. I repeat, for emphasis "7.8 per cent of under-25s are out of work in France. This is only slightly above 7.4 per cent in the UK and 6.5 per cent in Germany" (the corresponding number in the US is around 7.4%, as far as I know).

Why is one particular and highly misleading spin on the numbers so widely disseminated? Your guess is as good as mine, but it's weird.