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Some of you poo-pooed my idea of surveying economists, pointing out that they have a bad track record of predicting the big things that matter, such as the credit crunch, or oil at $145 a barrel. Does that mean a poll of economists would be useless even if they all agreed?

 

As economists like to say, "It depends."

 

First, let's agree that even if experts such as doctors and lawyers and engineers are often wrong, that doesn't mean they should be ignored. What matters is that consulting with experts produces a better result on average than whatever is the alternative. Depending on the sort of question being asked, economists are likely to be more reliable than the public at large.

 

If the question involves predicting the value of the stock market next year, economists aren't any better than a monkey with a dart board. And they know it. But if the question is whether using food crops for ethanol could hurt the economy more than it helps, or whether free trade is a good idea, or whether a gas tax holiday makes sense, you would be wise to listen.

 

Economists are also historians when it comes to their field. They would know, for example, that government price controls would be a disaster because they have failed in the past. If doing X with the economy caused Y to happen the last three times someone tried it, wouldn't you like to know it? Economists already do.

 

When you are talking about the global economy, making the right decisions just barely more often than before is a huge deal. So the bar is set low for economists. They only need to be right more often than the public and the politicians. Is that so hard?


I'll blog again in a few days.

 

  

 
I often see problems in the world and wonder why someone doesn't fix them. Then I realize that I am someone, and that makes me feel bad because it is all my fault. Obviously I can't fix every problem, but I decided to try and fix one in particular.


The majority of voters say the ailing economy is the most important problem for the next U.S. president to solve. How does a voter who knows little or nothing about economics decide which candidate has the best economic plan?


As you know, the media is worthless in solving this problem because they like to give equal time to both sides, no matter how ridiculous one of the sides might be. Or worse, some media outlets make no attempt to be unbiased. Realistically, the media has no idea which economic plans are likely to work best, so even if they wanted to be objective and informative they don't have the tools or the incentive to acquire them.


The economy is arguably the most important issue in the world, having a huge impact on everything from global warming, to health care, to defense. And voters have no reliable information upon which to make decisions. Someone needs to fix that. Realizing that I am someone, I decided to take a crack at it.


At substantial personal expense I hired a professional survey company to poll professional economists and find out which presidential candidate's plans have the most support. Obviously there is a limit to how unbiased the survey can be, since economists are human, and most of them presumably belong to a major political party. We'll try to take that into account with the survey design. But no matter what the result, I think it will be useful.


For example, the idea of a gas tax holiday was condemned by economists in both major parties. I expect there are other plans that have virtually no support from economists in either camp. That would be useful to know.


But suppose economists are evenly divided on a particular tax plan. Is that useful to voters? I think it is, because the only rational thing for you to do as a voter in that situation is to support the plan that taxes yourself the least. And you can do that with a clear conscience if there is no agreement among experts that taxing yourself more will help the world in the long run.


I think we would all agree that having better information won't influence most voters. If every economist in the survey somehow miraculously supported the same candidate's positions, it wouldn't change the votes of hardcore Democrats or Republicans. But in a close election such as this one, independent voters, who I call the Rational Few, end up making the decision. I am hopeful that for that influential group, better information will lead to better decisions. If the Rational Few are indeed influenced by a poll of economists, and it tips the election, economists will forever be polled before national elections. Problem solved.


And in this way I plan to fix the economy, end the energy crisis, rationally address global warming, and provide low cost health care to all. In return, I expect the public to call me an idiot. I'm pretty sure that's why "somone" doesn't fix problems more often. But I can take it.

The survey will take several weeks to pull together. I'll give you the results when they are in.

On a separate note, I probably won't post an entry until later this week. I'll tell you what I'm up to later. It's not a vacation, but it is a good thing.

 
Later today we're getting a puppy. I haven't had one since I was a kid. Things have changed since then, according to the puppy experts. For one, we found the puppy over the Internet. That's different. But it's only the tip of the iceberg.

The experts say we are not supposed to pick up the puppy and hold it. If the puppy pushes itself out of our arms, it will try to brace its fall with its front legs, and they will break. Apparently this happens a lot.


Instead, we are advised to keep the puppy on a leash if we pick it up. That way, if the dog jumps out of our arms, we can save it by holding the leash, in much the same way the Iraqis saved Saddam Hussein when he fell through the trap door. Sounds safe to me.


We have been advised to get a special type of sugary foodlike product to give the puppy when it arrives on the plane, to prevent it from getting hypoglycemic. This has something to do with the stress of the trip and not eating for several hours. In the old days, when dogs got hungry they would eat something called dog food. But to be fair, our old family dog hardly ever used an airplane for interstate travel, at least not while we were watching.


Our first attempt at buying a little gated fence for the puppy was a failure. The puppy expert said it wasn't high enough. If the dog successfully climbs the fence, it will learn it can climb anything. Before you know it, the dog is on the roof, all hypoglycemic, with the wind ripping off its feeble limbs.


House training has changed too. You no longer whack the puppy with a rolled up newspaper when it relieves itself in the house. Now you do something more humane, called cage training. You put the puppy in a cage so small it can barely turn around. Dogs instinctively won't poop where they have to stand, so it learns to hold it until it poops on your terms.


I ask myself if I would prefer to be whacked with a rolled up newspaper when I pooped on the carpet or be forced to stay in a coffin-sized cage for several hours while desperately squeezing my butt cheeks together to keep the turtle in the shell. Which is more humane? I'm thinking it doesn't make any difference because my parents used both of those methods on me, and I turned out okay.


The dog is an Aussie Toy. According to our research, this is the very best dog in the entire world for us. It is a "working dog," meaning it was bred to be useful, presumably herding very small cows. I plan to train it to fetch tennis balls. I want it to kneel by the net like a ball girl and bring me the loose balls after each point. Maybe it could even keep score.  I haven't consulted with the puppy expert about this idea because I know she will say the dog can't participate in sports unless it is wearing a Kevlar body suit has an asthma inhaler nearby.


I'm just saying dogs are different now.

 
Last night I went with the family to see the American Idol stage show featuring the top ten contestants from the TV competition. You might wonder why anyone would go watch something he has already seen on TV. But this live performance was way different from TV. Let me count the ways:
  1. It was far more expensive.
  2. It was a five hour drive, round trip.
  3. The singers had that bewildered "What am I doing in Sacramento?" look.
  4. The sound system in the Arco Arena was like four winos farting in a steel drum.
  5. From our seats, the singers looked like colorful grains of rice.
  6. Wooden seats.

This did not deter us from our determination to enjoy being in the same zip code with manufactured minor celebrities who could not be heard above the screaming. At least we could see them on the grainy projection screens on each side of the stage. The large screens reminded me of sweet, sweet television, but without the clarity.


Two enthusiastic girls in front of us brought a huge sign that obscured my view of everything but my own clenched fists. I don't mean to be unkind, but even without the signage, these girls chewed up a lot of real estate. They were excited to be within mortar distance of actual celebrities. After letting them have their fun, I finally had to tap them on the shoulders and give the "WTF???" crotchety old coot look. This dampened their enthusiasm for a full half minute before they felt it was time to ignore me and blot out my view of the stage again. It is unlikely they are Dilbert readers, but I still think it is funny that they went to the show hoping to see unimportant celebrities while one was tapping them on the shoulder and wishing they were dead.


Still, I have to say it was worth it just to see (sort of) David Archuleta belt out a few tunes that blew the doors off the stadium and sent 8,000 young girls into premature ovulation. The winner of this year's American Idol, David Cook, ended the show with a demonstration of natural superstar charisma that was a joy to experience.


But television is good too.

 

As you know, fairness is a concept that was invented so that children and idiots could participate in arguments. I was reminded of this when thinking about taxes. According to one source, the people in the top 1% of incomes pay more federal taxes now than at any time since 1979:


http://www.factcheck.org/askfactcheck/what_percent_of_taxes_does_the_top.html


The reason the top 1% are paying more taxes is because they are earning far more money than before. So while the rich are paying a lower percentage than during Clinton's time in office, they are paying more in dollars under Bush.


In other words, each rich person is subsidizing more poor people than ever. Still, each rich person has more left over for himself than ever. If you are on the side that says that isn't fair, what percent of a rich person's income do you think should be distributed by threat of force to those in need?


50%?


75%?


90%?


Keep in mind that a person making ten million a year can get by on one million a year. So is there any good reason not to take 90%? Think about all the people it would help.

 
 

I am not what you would call outdoorsy. If I wanted anything that was outdoors, I'd hire someone to bring it inside where civilization lives. I like my shirts ironed and my plants made of plastic. If I have to go outside, I put on so much sunscreen it forms an encounter suit. I'm fully protected from all contact with nature unless an industrious mosquito tries to penetrate my hull. They usually give up in an hour or two.


Anyway, on my recent trip to Branson, we were staying at a hotel with both an indoor and an outdoor pool and spa. You already know which one I used. As I sat in the hot tub, inside the air conditioned building, I realized I was a full two layers away from nature, and I liked it. The air conditioning protected me from the heat outside, and the warm water of the hot tub protected me from the air conditioning. In time, the hot tub became too hot, and I wished I had some sort of thermos suit I could wear to take the edge off.


It's probably a coincidence, but on the way to the airport the next day I was nearly struck by lightning. It looked like a warning shot, but I'm going to call it a coincidence.

 
There were two types of interesting reactions to my last post. A number of readers think that I'm a closet Obama supporter who would never support a Republican candidate. For the record, I think neither Obama nor McCain come anywhere near the minimum requirement I would like to see in a president. For example, I'd like a president who preferred science over superstition, just to name one thing. So if you think my writing suggests that one of the candidates is slightly less unsuitable than the other, that's unintentional.


I've only once donated money to a politician, and it was McCain. But that's because I made the mistake of telling one of his fundraisers, a friend of mine, that I'd donate money if the surge "worked." Admittedly that was more like paying off a bet than supporting a candidate. But time does seem to be vindicating the surge strategy, no matter what you think of how we got into the mess in the first place.


For the record, I would support a Republican candidate in the mold of Arnold Schwarzenegger, governor of California. As far as I can tell, he supports whatever is common sense and good economics (as experts advise him), doesn't care much about what anyone does in his or her private life, and favors science over superstition. I'm sure he's made his share of policy boners, and you will be happy to point them out, but I use him more as an example than anything else.

In my last post I joked that Obama wants to take my money and give it to people who don't work as hard as I do. As with all gross generalizations, there are plenty of exceptions. But how does it hold up as a generalization?

When I was a kid, I was mowing lawns, working on my uncle's farm, shoveling snow, washing dishes, waiting tables, and anything else I could do to save for college. Meanwhile I worked hard enough in school to graduate as valedictorian, getting a few small scholarships that helped a lot. My mother took a job on an assembly line to help pay for my college, while my dad worked his job in the post office during the day and painted houses on nights and weekends.


In college, I generally had two or three jobs along with my full course load. After college, at my first job, I got in the habit of waking around 4 am so I could put in a good twelve hours before going to night school to learn computer programming. I tried several times to use my meager programming skills to start my own business while continuing to work full time. I almost always worked nights and weekends trying to get ahead.

Eventually I got into graduate school and worked full time while taking classes nights and doing homework most of the weekend. That was the hardest three years of my life, work-wise.


And then there was Dilbert. For the first six years I kept my day job and made Dilbert comics nights, weekends, and holidays. I didn't take a day off for about ten years. At one point I was doing all of that plus writing a book that became The Dilbert Principle. The only time I saw the sun was walking to the mailbox. And I believe that all of that hard work was necessary for the good things that happened.


The average work week is something like 35 hours. For most of my work life I worked about twice that much. I'm writing this blog post on the 4th of July, and have several deadlines to satisfy. So yes, as a generalization, Obama promises to take a large chunk of my hard-earned money and transfer it primarily to people who don't work as hard. That's just a fact.

 

I keep seeing stories about the ignorance of the general public. You usually see this sort of story around election time. The stories typically involve statistics about, for example, what percentage of voters can name the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. (It's John Roberts.) The point of the stories is that the average person is clueless.
While I agree with that point, how does it help the average person to know the name of the Chief Justice?

Another statistic I have been seeing lately is that ten percent of American voters think Obama is a muslim. Your first thought might be that this misunderstanding could influence who becomes the next president of the United States. But ask yourself if any of the people who think Obama is a muslim are likely to vote for a black Democrat under any circumstance. I'm guessing that the ignorance of those voters on that particular point will have no impact on anything.


Realistically, it doesn't matter if you think the sun revolves around the earth as long as you wear sunscreen. Most ignorance is benign. That's lucky because any individual knows a vanishingly small percentage of the things that other people collectively think is important.

If you step it up a level, and consider how many voters understand the complexities of international trade policies, or economics, or national defense, the stakes are higher. If the country gets any one of those things wrong, it's a disaster. But experts always disagree on the complex issues. When knowledgable people can't agree on the best course of action, there's no reason to think ignorance will get you to a worse place than knowledge. The only thing you can know for sure is that the ignorant people wasted less time reading about things that didn't help.

Amazingly, the government still functions, albeit inefficiently, in spite of all this ignorance. It does this simply by observing what didn't work last time and occasionally trying something new next time. Apparently that is enough to limp along. It works for ants and it works for us. Or at least I think it works for ants. I'm actually quite ignorant about ant behavior, but notice how it doesn't matter?


When it comes to picking our next president, I can't decide if I prefer the smooth-talking, inspirational candidate who promises to give my money to people who don't work as hard as I do, or the old, short, ugly, angry guy with one good arm who graduated at the bottom of his class and somehow managed to shag a hot heiress and become a contender for president. It seems dangerous to underestimate that guy.

 

The inflation rate in Zimbabwe just hit 4 million percent. Some people say it is only 165,000 percent, but they are just being stupid.

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20080701/ap_on_re_af/germany_zimbabwe

The tragic situation in Zimbabwe is no laughing matter. That's true for most of the world. So I try to avoid reading any news that would educate me. Nothing good can come from it. But for some reason I broke my rule and allowed myself to read a story about Zimbabwe's 4 million percent inflation rate. Now all I can imagine is a villager with a zebra cart full of cash trying to buy a turnip, and the vendor says, "That was yesterday's price. Today it is two zebra carts full of cash." And I try not to laugh because zebras are funny, yet this is no laughing matter. It's all making me tense.

I don't know how well the school system in Zimbabwe is preparing its citizens, but it takes a lot of math to plan a trip to the market. "Let's see, that's four million percent inflation annually, convert to a daily figure, calculate the time it takes to get to the market, and QUICK, LOAD THE ZEBRA CART!" If you paused for an unscheduled stop at the unspeakably horrible poop hole, you'd have to start all over.


Yeah, I think I've said enough.

 
As regular readers know, my goal is to win a Nobel Prize. I don't care which one. I'm just in it for the money. Last night I came up with an idea that should get it done.


This idea targets The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. I don't have any relevant education in those fields, and I haven't done any research, so I know I need to come up with something big to get the judges past their bias for competence. My idea needs to cure a whole lot of problems. Anything less would be begging for the award committee to snub me once again.


My idea is this: A web site that collects extremely detailed lifestyle habits from volunteers all over the world, including the type of food they eat, how they exercise, exposure to sunlight, and lots of other things. These volunteers will also enter data on any health problems they encounter, from a sniffle to a broken hip. The data would be available to the general public, without association to the identities of the people, so amateur researchers can mine for patterns. For example, we might find that people who have a diet rich in a particular vitamin or mineral don't get cataracts, or tinnitus, or shin splints, or whatever.


This idea is cobbled together from several other ideas floating around in the ether. Most recently, I was wondering why my allergies inexplicably went away in the past year. The only thing I changed, as far as I know, is taking magnesium supplements, and there is some scientific evidence to believe that could help. But it might be something else, such as drinking more Diet Coke than usual. If the database I described already existed, doctors could check to see if people who take magnesium supplements, or drink lots of Diet Coke, have fewer allergies.


I read a book called The China Study that is a lot like this concept, but with less detail than I am proposing, and limited to China. The data from China showed that people who ate a plant-based diet hardly ever got the most common killer diseases such as heart disease, cancer, or diabetes. This past month you might have seen a number of media reports about other research that supports that same point. Wouldn't you like to know if most of the health benefit shown in The China Study came from particular plants? Personally, I don't want to eat any more kelp than I need to.


The other source of inspiration for my idea is the stories about amateur astronomers who have been given access to the vast unviewed archive of pictures of space, so they can help find any anomalies. You'd think that would be boring work that no one would volunteer to do, but apparently so many people are volunteering that the servers initially couldn't hold the load. I think that in a world of 6 billion people, it wouldn't be hard to find a few million who are willing to record their lives in great detail, knowing it would have so much benefit to humanity. And volunteers might end up finding solutions to their own health problems along the way.


The database would do more than discover what prevents health problems. It would also tell you what lifestyle elements promote good moods, or lead to high performance at work, in school, or in sports. It might tell you what elevates testosterone, what improves sex lives, and what keeps you looking younger. The potential is vast.


I'm hoping the idea is so good that someone will build the web site. If you decide to do it, I promise to thank you by name when I am in Stockholm accepting my award.

 
 
 
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