Thursday, January 7, 2010

SuperFreakonomics best critic ever

Superfreakonomics has generated a lot of fuss. Whatever is your position on the issue, this is one of the best line in the history of blogging, from Dan Davies:

if you find yourself writing, in all seriousness, as a practical proposal, the phrase "pumping large quantities of sulphur dioxide into the Earth’s stratosphere through an 18-mile-long hose, held up by helium balloons", it is probably time to take a step back and ask yourself if something has gone a little bit wrong with your life.

Israel airport security

Annie Lowrey discusses the differences between Israeli and US airport security. This is a topic that has been around for a couple of days, and this article makes a good summary of the pros and cons.(the article here for instance just makes fun of American new security measures, that one is a bit more objective but slightly).

Lowrey explains that

By every available metric, Israel's system works better at preventing violent attacks. The country, under constant terrorist threat, hasn't faced a hijacking incident since 1969. A plane leaving Ben Gurion, the airport through which I traveled, never has. The latest deadly security incidents have involved attacks within airports, rather than from planes.

Why? For Lowrey,

And it works, Israelis say, because it relies on the so-called "human factor." Israel attempts to stop dangerous people before they come anywhere close to an airliner, profiling to assess each individual's risk

The profiling there is less of a bad word than in the US. There's no mention in either her article of the one linked above, of profiling depending on the country of origin or religion. They are profiling on attitudes. From her experience
Once inside, a team of pleasant airport employees approached me and asked if we could speak for a few minutes. 
So here is the trick. They seem to do a better job. What I like also is that they seem to do a more sensible job in their profiling process. But obviously, having to talk to the security guards has its price:

Israel values its security, and pays for it. According to an analysis by Bloomberg News, Israel spends around 10 times more per passenger than the United States does(...)Say each passenger flying through a U.S. airport received on average 10 minutes of questioning from one guard. That would work out to 7.35 billion minutes, or 123 million hours, of work annually. We'd need 3 million full-time guards to perform it. That's 200,000 more people than the total number of active and reserve military personnel, and twice the number of U.S. Wal-Mart employees. It would cost somewhere north of $150 billion a year.

That's quite worth a reading

Auctioning committee positions

As I am reading papers and writing a paper about the importance of committee placement in the House of Representatives on donations by Political Action Committees, I am wondering whether the process of assigning members to committees is optimal, and how it could be changed in fancy and efficient ways.

For now, committee assignment is a pretty closed process, from  what I understand. Here is what we get from the Office of the Clerk of the House:


Before Members are assigned to committees, each committee's size and the proportion of Republicans to Democrats must be decided by the party leaders. The total number of committee slots allotted to each party is approximately the same as the ratio between majority party and minority party members in the full Chamber.

Members are then assigned to committees in a three-step process. Each of the two principle parties in the House is responsible for the assigning its members to committees, and at the first stage, each party uses a committee on committees to make the initial recommendations for assignments. At the beginning of the new Congress, Members express preferences for assignment to the appropriate committee on committees. Most incumbents prefer to remain on the same committees so as not to forfeit expertise and committee seniority. These committees on committees then match preferences with committee slots, following certain guidelines designed in part to distribute assignments fairly. They then prepare and approve an assignment slate for each committee, and submit all slates to the appropriate full party conference for approval. Approval at this second stage often is granted easily, but the conferences have procedures for disapproving recommended Members and nominating others in their stead. Finally, at the third stage, each committee submits its slate to the pertinent full Chamber for approval, which is generally granted.

Has there been any discussion on whether an auctioning process could lead to a "better" outcome?("better" has to be clearly defined though).

Intelligence in Afghanistan

Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, "the top military intelligence officer in Afghanistan" and "the top military intelligence officer in Afghanistan" wrote a strong indictment of the US counterinsurgency strategy and the collection of intelligence. Namely, the issue here is that the US is only collecting intelligence for military purposes and not for social reconstruction. Anyway, one very interesting bit from the report is this: 


An NGO wanting to build a water well in a village may learn, as we recently did, about some of the surprising risks encountered by others who have attempted the same project. For instance, a foreign-funded well constructed in the center of a village in southern Afghanistan was destroyed -- not by the Taliban -- but by the village's women. Before, the women had to walk a long distance to draw water from a river, but this was exactly what they wanted. The establishment of a village well deprived them of their only opportunity to gather socially with other women.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Term limits

Ezra Klein has a weird post on term limits. He argues that term limits are a "folly"  (as it seems, in the governors case) because multiple terms are a good thing to build experience. Reading his piece, it looked like you can't build experience in other public offices. Here is what I commented:


First, I sympathize with the argument that experience is primordial. However, you seem to assume that before an office term, the politician was not assuming any other public function. Likewise, you seem to assume that after the term, due to term-limit, the politician leaves the public administration in its entirety. Experience could be built in other offices/functions, so I don't really understand your point.
Second, there has been an interesting couple of papers written by Kroszner and Stratmann(2000, 2006) about the committee structure in Congress as a way to reduce an imperfect information problem.
The idea is that Political Action Committees cannot pay legislators to represent them. If they could, they would. Because such contracts are not possible/enforceable, the legislator that gets paid by the PAC(e.g. for campaign financing) has no incentive whatsoever to actually defend the interest of the PAC as soon as it gets the money. Likewise, the PAC has no incentive to pay the legislator if the guy defended the PAC interest on one law.
However, we have a repeated game: congressmen can indeed engage in reputation building. Here is why I think it is linked to your post: one problem with term limits is that you hamper reputation building.
One good thing with reputation building is that you correct the information imperfection: if the legislator does not satisfy the PAC requirement once he has been paid, he can't expect the PAC to pay for his/her campaign in the future.
The committee system is good in this sense because it gives more information on the field of interest/influence of a legislator, and also because usually legislators stand in the same committee over time.
Those papers have been written for congress, but I guess some kind of reputation-building might be at stake with governors and state legislatures too