Archive for the ‘Current events’ Category

How many casualties in today’s Baghdad bombing?

October 25, 2009

The New York Times is currently reporting 130 dead and 520 injured.  This picture has around 110 people in it:

About 110 People

Imagine that every one of these people was killed in the blast, and each person’s two parents, two children and spouse were also maimed.  That is about how many casualties there were in Baghdad today.

Bombing is a terrible tactic.

Edit: Today the New York Times reports that there were an additional thirty children killed in the playground of the Ministry of Justice.  There are exactly thirty kids in this picture:

30 kids


Smell the supply and demand?

May 17, 2008

The New York Times says Japan is running out of engineers. My response:

The red line is the number of people who study engineering. The blue line is the number of engineers that Japanese industry demands at the given salary. If we are at the light blue line, firms want more engineers than Japanese universities produce. In this situation, firms will raise the salary they pay to engineers, more students will enter the now more lucrative field, and we will end at the market clearing yellow line.

My guess is that the equilibrium used to be a a higher number of engineers, and the government is worried. In an efficient market, labor will go where it is most socially useful. The New York Times seems to think that the migration of workers to the arts and service industries is a bad thing, but here in Taiwan Japanese art is everywhere, from the fashion on the streets to the J-Pop on the radio. If Japan is a cultural force here in Asia, why not let that part of the economy grow stronger?

One of the key early insights in Economics was that in any voluntary transaction, both parties are made better off. Markets aren’t zero-sum games. If Japanese are choosing to pursue non-engineering careers, it might change the composition of Japan’s economy, but that isn’t a bad thing. In fact, students’ choice of other careers is making the Japanese (as a whole) better off.


May 15, 2008

The recent natural disasters in Burma and China not only destroyed the food stocks of the disaster areas, they also ruined many planted fields. On top of all this, there may be a famine looming in North Korea. Will these tragedies exacerbate already high food prices?

Why not ask the people who have money on the line? Check out this summary of Powershares DB Agriculture, an ETF tracking agricultural futures markets. On May 2 and May 12, the respective dates of the Burmese and Chinese disasters, the fund was flat. It looks like the disasters weren’t enough to buck the general downward trend over the last six months. Apparently farmers worldwide are expecting bumper crops, so agricultural products are expected to become cheaper after harvest this fall.

Interpreting Large Numbers — Sichuan Earthquake Edition

May 13, 2008

The New York Times is currently reporting at least 10,000 dead in the Sichuan earthquake yesterday. The Times article on the quake contains 7,500 characters (not counting spaces). Take a look, and imagine each of the letters representing a victim of the earthquake.

I lived in Sichuan for a couple of months years ago. I hope the people I knew then are alright.

Clerics Schmerics

May 12, 2008

I posted the following comment to Edward Luttwak’s editorial on the New York Times website:

Although it is true that even if Mr. Obama becomes president the United States will be viewed with distrust abroad, Mr. Luttwak’s analysis of how Muslims will perceive Mr. Obama is wide off the mark. The Middle East is not a monotone swath of fiery clerics and their mindless followers. I spent last year in Turkey and met a wide variety of Muslims. Many Turks both enjoy their national alcoholic beverage raki with fish and attend mosque services on Friday afternoons. The idea that Turkish police would refuse to protect Mr. Obama because of some obscure Sunni cleric’s sharia decision is patently ridiculous.

Mr. Luttwak gives examples of state persecution in Iran and Afghanistan. Those two countries are indeed very repressive Islamic states. Most Muslim countries are not devastated war zones like Afghanistan or run by clerics like Iran. Judging how Mr. Obama will be perceived in the Middle East by referencing “jurists of all Sunni and Shiite schools” is like judging how President Gul of Turkey will be received in the United States by reading what the far Christian right thinks of Islam.

Religions are not monolithic unchanging institutions, and culture isn’t easily deciphered by reading religious scripture in Maryland. However Mr. Obama’s religion is perceived abroad, the very fact that he is not President Bush will instantly improve America’s image throughout the Muslim world.

Luttwak’s mistake is seeing the world as more black and white than it really is. This common misperception is apparently also one of the reasons that conservatives are happier than liberals.

Interpreting Large Numbers: Myanmar Cyclone Edition

May 7, 2008

Imagine 44 full double-decker 747’s:

Myanmar Death Toll

If all these airplanes crashed with no survivors, the death toll would equal that of Myanmar’s cyclone as reported this evening (500 passengers and crew per plane x 44 planes = 22,000 victims).

Experts Schmexperts

May 5, 2008

ABC News reports:

Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., declined this morning to name a single economist who backs her call for a gas tax suspension.

“I’m not going to put my lot in with economists,” Clinton said in an exclusive appearance on a special edition of “This Week” from Indianapolis.

Can we expect Senator Clinton to follow this logic further? Will she not put her lot in with doctors when she needs surgery, not put her lot in with accountants when doing her taxes, or not put her lot in with lawyers when going to court?

If you are relatively uninformed on a particular topic, it is rational to heed the opinions of experts. Experts won’t be correct all the time, but they will be correct more often than you are. Virtually all economists oppose the gas tax holiday as at best useless in lowering gas prices for consumers and at worst as a transfer of American government revenue to OPEC.

I suspect Clinton doesn’t expect the tax holiday to work, but she expects the rhetoric of the debate to cast her as being on the side of poor Americans. Maybe she would denounce her doctor’s opinion if she thought that would get her elected.

For a summary of economists’ opinions about why the gas tax holiday is a bad idea, check out this Economist blog.

Hat tip: Greg Mankiw

The Pritchett Club

April 20, 2008

If you read Greg Mankiw’s blog, you know that (in between his daily textbook adverts) every few weeks he unilaterally inaugurates a new member into his “Pigou Club”.  Usually he does this when someone famous espouses carbon taxation.

I’ve decided it’s time for another Economics related club.  I hereby found the Pritchett Club, after Lant Pritchett.  The club will restrict its membership to enlightened individuals who realize that if rich countries allowed more open immigration policies, the gains to the world’s poor would be enormous.

Let me begin by accepting Bryan Caplan.  He blogged earlier today about a quick, effective fix for Haiti’s food shortage.

The Pope is also currently under consideration.


April 15, 2008

Tragedy of the Commons, Egyptian style:

  • “It’s not enough to make you crazy, but it is very tiring,” said Essam Muhammad Hussein, as he sat in a cracked plastic chair outside the corner food shop his family has owned for 50 years. He was shouting as he talked about the noise, though he did not seem to realize it.  “What are we going to do?” he asked. “Where is the way out?”
  • “The noise bothers me and I know it bothers people,” said Abdel Khaleq, driver of a battered black and white taxi, as he paused from honking his horn to stop for passengers.  “So why do you do it?” he was asked.   “Well, to tell you I’m here,” he said. “There is no such thing as logic in this country.” And then he drove off, honking.
  • Moustafa Abdel Aleem, who works in the booth with Mr. Omran, said, “The noise is not something I want, but I can’t do anything about it; it’s forced on me.” So he turned on the radio in search of a song he liked, and of course, turned the volume up.
  • “Life is like this,” said Ahmed Muhammad, 23, who makes his living delivering metal tanks of propane to homes. He hangs four tanks off the back of a rusted bicycle, then rides with one hand on the handlebars, the other slamming a wrench into one of the tanks to announce his arrival to the neighborhood. “Making money is like this,” he said. “What am I going to do? This is how it is.”

More from the New York Times.

4000 pages

April 6, 2008

A month or so ago I read Innumeracy by John Allen Paulos, a popular mathematics book from the 1980’s.  One of Paulos’ recommendations had to do with rationalizing the size of numbers.  His point was basically that we all hear large numbers thrown around everyday, but we don’t really understand their size.  A casual perusal of today’s New York Times netted an article about the Swiss bank UBS, which had to write down $37 billion in losses.  The article was about a meeting of 6,000 UBS shareholders.  The Times reports the bank has $3.1trillian in assets.  For most people, once a number gets over a certain threshold, it is just a large number.  However, when you look at these numbers in a different way, their difference becomes more clear.  6000 people means a person for every second for the last 1 hour and 40 minutes.  $37 billion means a dollar for every second for the last 1173 years.  $37 trillion is every second since 1,173,262 years ago, around the appearance of Homo Erectus.

The reason I am bringing this up is that I am reading a large book about Nazi Germany’s economy.  It is a tome, with 800 pages total.  As I was reading, I got to thinking about how 4000 US soldiers have died so far in Iraq.  If each page of my book was a soldier, it would take five copies of the book to make a page for each soldier.  Flipping through the pages and imagining a face for each page is incredibly disconcerting, and really drives home the human cost of the war.   I recommend you go right now to your bookshelf, pick out the thickest book, and have a try yourself.