And the media is right on time

You may recall that in RGD, I wrote that the mainstream media would begin seriously throwing around references to the Great Depression before the end of 2010:

This is starting to throw off more echoes of the Great Depression, where you have a sequence of crises, each touched off by the ones that came before, like dominos falling into some diabolic design. Europe and America thought they’d seen the worst of things by the end of 1930, only to be knocked back down even harder by the contagion of the Creditanstalt crisis. In the US, the crisis ultimately triggered a string of bank failures worse than those sparked by the initial stock market crash, and the worst two years of the Great Depression were 1932-3.

I don’t want to lean too hard on this, as economic commentators (maybe including me) have started seeing Creditanstalt everywhere–in Dubai, in Greece, now in Ireland and maybe Spain. It’s entirely possible that we’ll eventually muddle through without a second major event. But it’s worth remembering that these things take a long time to unfold, and that we are often most vulnerable just when we think we have time for a breather.

The difference, of course, is that the Great Depression 2.0 is going to be much wider, and probably somewhat deeper, than its predecessor. The main reason is that the last time, only the USA attempted to fight it with major government intervention. This time, practically all the governments around the world are doing so. I’m a little off in terms of the timeline since the depression has not been publicly recognized yet, but I have no doubts that we are in it already.

The Fed defends the banksters

This is about as shameless as it gets:

The Truth in Lending Act from 1968 gives borrowers the “right of rescission,” the ability to undo a home refinancing or home equity loan within three years of the closing if the lender did not make proper disclosures — generally of the loan amount, interest rate and repayment terms. The law makes allowances for mere mistakes by the lender, but otherwise requires strict compliance, as well it should: disclosure is the main — often the only — consumer protection in the mortgage market….

The Fed proposal would change all that. Citing concern over banks’ compliance costs, it would require a borrower to pay off the remaining principal before the lender gives up its security interest. That would be clearly impossible for troubled borrowers. So the Fed’s proposal would benefit the creditor who violated the law rather than the borrower, paving the way for foreclosures that otherwise could be avoided.

In other words, the Fed wants to change the law to force a borrower to pay off his mortgage even if the mortgage bank doesn’t hold a legitimate interest in the house. This is sheer insanity. It should be clear from this that the Fed not only knows about the vast extent of the mortgage fraud, but is seeking to further victimize the victims of it. And it is no longer even pretending to be interested in the fate of the homeowning American public anymore.

The opportunity cost of sex

Since Spacebunny mentioned that the previous post was of the sort to cause most people to feign death rather than risk inadvertantly entering into the discussion, I thought I’d post Susan Walsh’s rather different take on the opportunity cost study. I suspect it is much more likely to prove interesting to the non-economists in our midst. Not that pedantic debates over opportunity cost versus net utility calculations aren’t stone cold sexy, you understand.

One of the most valuable key economic concepts is that of opportunity cost. It’s the cost of not choosing something, the benefits left behind on the road not taken, and it’s an important component of any choice you make. Sometimes the tradeoff is obvious – if you choose to date Brad, you’re giving up the opportunity to date Jonathan, for example. Often times, though, opportunity costs can be hidden, which can lead to making irrational decisions….

Women often figure they have nothing to lose by staying in a disappointing arrangement until something better comes along. This is a terrible strategy for three reasons:

It’s not just women who make this mistake. As I’ve told some of my male friends time and time again, women should not be confused with jobs. While the best way to find a new job is to have a job, the best way to find a wife is not to have a wife. If you want to meet women, you are much better off being out, about and unattached than caught up in a half-hearted relationship with a girl that you plan to trade in for someone better on the off-chance that you happen to meet them on one of the nights that you’re not sitting at home watching re-runs of Sex in the City with a woman you don’t even particularly like. It’s not fair to her and it’s not utility maximizing for you.

UPDATE: We’re not talking about pre-selection here. We’re talking about the sort of man who is in a “serious relationship” but doesn’t want to be and is simply waiting around for someone else to come along before he can break it off with her.

An incompetent economist at the NYT

It’s little wonder they can’t figure out that we’re in a depression.

Virtually all economists consider opportunity cost a central concept. Yet a recent study by Paul J. Ferraro and Laura O. Taylor of Georgia State University suggests that most professional economists may not really understand it. At the 2005 annual meetings of the American Economic Association, the researchers asked almost 200 professional economists to answer this question:

“You won a free ticket to see an Eric Clapton concert (which has no resale value). Bob Dylan is performing on the same night and is your next-best alternative activity. Tickets to see Dylan cost $40. On any given day, you would be willing to pay up to $50 to see Dylan. Assume there are no other costs of seeing either performer. Based on this information, what is the opportunity cost of seeing Eric Clapton? (a) $0, (b) $10, (c) $40, or (d) $50.”

The opportunity cost of seeing Clapton is the total value of everything you must sacrifice to attend his concert – namely, the value to you of attending the Dylan concert. That value is $10 – the difference between the $50 that seeing his concert would be worth to you and the $40 you would have to pay for a ticket. So the unambiguously correct answer to the question is $10. Yet only 21.6 percent of the professional economists surveyed chose that answer, a smaller percentage than if they had chosen randomly.

This is completely wrong and the 27.6 percent of economists who answered (d) $50 were correct. Remember, the question posed states that the opportunity cost is the total value of everything you must sacrifice to attend the Clapton concert. The total value of the Dylan concert to you is $50. In attending the Clapton concert, you do not attend the Dylan concert which you valued at $50. Therefore, the opportunity cost to you is $50 even though not going to see Dylan meant that you didn’t have to pay the $40 you would have otherwise had to pay for a ticket. Opportunity cost is a cost, it is not the net of cost minus implied savings.

In order to incorrectly claiming the correct answer is $10, Robert Frank has to change his definition of opportunity cost from “the total value of everything you must sacrifice” to a nonsensical one that factors in things that you might have otherwise had to sacrifice but didn’t. Based on the example given, it doesn’t matter what the cost of the Dylan ticket is. Whether the Dylan ticket costs $5 or $500, the opportunity cost of going to see Clapton for free is still $50 because that is the value that you place on seeing Dylan and you did not see him. The fact that you didn’t spend $40 on a Dylan ticket is irrelevant; why not throw in $5 for the pizza you didn’t buy and another $150,000 for the Lamborghini you didn’t buy either as well: by Frank’s bizarre reckoning, the opportunity cost of seeing Clapton will leave you with a profit of $150,015!

To put it in terms that even non-economists should be able to understand, let us consider Archie’s Dilemma. When contemplating choosing Veronica (who is on the pill) over Betty (who isn’t), the opportunity cost of nailing the brunette is NOT not banging the blonde less the price of a condom, it is simply not banging the blonde.

Like most Keynesians and monetarists, (and most mainstream economists are one or the other), neither Frank nor the authors of the study understand that value is subjective, not objective, and so they make their usual mistake of running arbitrary numbers through meaningless formulas and ending up with a result that is not so much inaccurate as indefensible and irrelevant. I strongly suspect that a basic mistake was made in formulating the question, since a more meaningful way of structuring the question would be to attach a price to the Clapton ticket.

If, for example, both concert tickets cost $40, then the opportunity cost of going to the Clapton concert would have been $90, $40 for the Clapton ticket and $50 for the sacrificed value of the unattended Dylan concert. Either the study’s authors meant to trick the AEA economists by posing an incredibly simple question or they made a rather stupid mistake. Regardless, Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution ends up with the right answer although I don’t think he quite grasped the precise problem with the question and Mr. Frank, the study’s authors, and 21.6 percent of the AEA economists are wrong.

If Paul Krugman had posted this conundrum, the correct answer would have been (e) opportunity cost and the limits of the space-time continuum are barbarous right-wing relics so borrow $40 and attend both concerts.

UPDATE: Since various people are tripping all over their various attempts to define “opportunity cost” instead of paying attention to how it was defined in the question, I will highlight the relevant portion of the question posed by Frank here.

“The opportunity cost of seeing Clapton” is the total value of everything you must sacrifice to attend his concert – namely, the value to you of attending the Dylan concert.”

The value of attending the Dylan concert to you is $50. This means the value of the discount on the ticket is $10. Now, it’s vital to note that Frank assigns TWO distinctly different definitions to “the opportunity cost of seeing Clapton” in his question, thus conclusively proving his point that economists, especially economists writing in the New York Times, don’t understand opportunity cost. Naturally, there are two different answers to the two different questions-in-the-question. The answer to question (A) the “total value of everything you must sacrifice”, is $60 since you’re giving up both the value of the Dylan concert and the value of the discount in order to see Clapton. The answer to question (B) the “value to you of attending the Dylan concert” is $50. However, the four multiple choices provided make it clear that Frank is looking for an answer to question (B) rather than question (A), which is why the correct answer is (d) $50.

Lest Ireland forget

Daniel Hannan’s little photo essay reminds everyone that the Irish government and all the major Irish parties forced the Irish people to vote a second time on the EU ConstitutionLisbon Treaty and sold it to them on the basis of economic recovery, specifically including more “jobs and investment”.  And he asks “Well, guys, here we are a year on. How’s the recovery working out for you?”

One has to wonder about a “bailout” courtesy of governments who are already robbing pension funds in order to continue their maddened spending:

>Asset managers will have the chance to get billions of euros in mandates in the next few months for the €36bn Fonds de Réserve pour les Retraites (FRR), the French reserve pension fund, after the French parliament last week passed a law to use its assets to pay off the debts of France’s welfare system….

The move reflects a willingness by governments to use long-term assets to fill short-term deficits, including Ireland’s announcement last week that it would use the country’s €24bn National Pensions Reserve Fund “to support the exchequer’s funding programme” and Hungary’s bid to claw $15bn of private pension funds back to the state system.

Don’t worry, it’s not as if the US government is heavily indebted or would ever even contemplating the seizure of pensions or tax-free retirement funds….

The heroism of WikiLeaks

And the lunacy of Government Newspeak. We have truly reached a point of no return if the provision of accurate information to the people about what their supposedly democratic government is doing is equated with terrorism by their so-called leaders:

The incoming chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee says WikiLeaks should be officially designated as a terrorist organization. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), the panel’s presumptive next head, asked the Obama administration today to “determine whether WikiLeaks could be designated a foreign terrorist organization,” putting the group in the same company as Al Qaeda and Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese cult that released deadly sarin gas on the Tokyo subway.

“WikiLeaks appears to meet the legal criteria” of a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, King wrote in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reviewed by CNET. He added: “WikiLeaks presents a clear and present danger to the national security of the United States.”

If WikiLeaks meets the legal criteria of a “U.S.-designated terrorist organization” then so does Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica. Governments always want to operate in the dark and keep their subjects in ignorance, which is why Julian Assange should not be assailed by the American people, he should be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, regardless of whatever his motivations in making all of this information available to the public might be.

WikiLeaks is nothing more or less than a technological blow for American freedom. Assange is no traitor; the accusation doesn’t even make sense considering that he has absolutely no connection with the United States. But it should come as no surprise to the readers of this blog that the verbal attack against the organization is being led by one of those freedom-loving Republicans.

Moreover, the crocodile tears of those in the media who fear that the release of information to the public will “get people killed” is absolutely ludicrous given their support for the ongoing military occupations that have killed hundreds of thousands more people than any number of leaks possibly could. In fact, to the extent that WikiLeaks permits Americans to force an end to their leaders’ pointless and unpopular wars, it will almost certainly save lives. After all, when one considers that numerous American leaders have waxed bellicose about the need to go to war to prevent Iran getting nukes, wouldn’t it be pertinent for them to know that China is actively helping Iran obtain them?

“More than 250,000 classified State Department reports made public on Sunday reveal that China was urged to stop shipments through Beijing of missiles from North Korea to Iran, and that Saudi Arabia’s monarch urged the United States to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.”

Mailvox: an atheist reconsiders

A former atheist sends a note regarding his abandonment of atheism:

I write today to point out that, despite the criticisms to which I am sure you are subjected, your writing does in fact have an effect. At about the age of 15, like so many other teenagers, I flatly rejected the concept of God and refused to acknowledge the validity or presence of religion as a determining force in human life. I believed that science and materialism had all the answers and that the very idea of God was ridiculous, having been disproven quite thoroughly by scientific examinations of, for example, the Big Bang and evolution.

However, as I grew older and (hopefully) wiser, and moved from Asia to Britain and then America, I came face-to-face with the natural consequences of secular materialism. I came to understand fully the true horrors that Godless secularism has inflicted upon Man, and as I read and learned more I came to realise that science does not, in fact, offer true answers but only raises more questions. That isn’t a bad thing- but pretending that science can answer all questions most certainly is.

It wasn’t until I became a libertarian and started reading the writings of other libertarians that I came across your blog and your books. Eventually, I did read The Irrational Atheist late last year after reading one of Richard Dawkins’s books. I was much struck by the fact that while I remembered almost none of Dawkins’s arguments in The God Delusion, and found the few arguments that I did remember to be quite poor, I remembered and found myself agreeing with far more of your arguments from a much shorter and more precise book. It was at that point that I fully and flatly rejected the arguments of the New Atheists.

Now that I have started reading the Bible, have watched Lee Strobel’s documentaries The Case for Christ and The Case for Faith, and have read more widely around the issue, I simply cannot call myself an atheist any longer. I’ve no doubt that you have a fair amount of contempt for agnostics- you probably view them as being a bit wishy-washy, and I’ll readily admit you’ve got a point- but that’s about as close as I can come so far to calling myself religious. It’s just that, as I realised not much more than a few months ago, I’ve made my peace with God- or at least, the Judeo-Christian conception of God.

And that brings up my final point in this missive: I’ve discovered that religions are not, in fact, created equal, and I now wonder why it took me so long to figure that out. For instance, the God of the Old Testament strikes me as having a massive case of OCD, judging by His incredibly obtuse fussing over the details of the Ark of the Covenant, His Temple, and the manner in which He is to be worshipped in the Book of Exodus. The various pagan religions of the world are often deeply disturbing in their lack of respect for human life, and offer only conflict between one divine entity and another as the answer to even the most basic questions about “why things happen”. And I have a particular dislike of the anti-Semitic, delusional, sociopathic, warmongering, deceitful paedophile that Allah calls his “prophet”. I doubt I can fully accept Christianity either, but I guess I’ll figure that out as I go along.

So I write to you simply to say thank you for forcing me to think more clearly about economics and faith. I think I’m a better man for it, and I doubt I would have been able to do so had it not been for your blog posts and books. I don’t always agree with what you write, but I do find your arguments to be thought-provoking, and that’s what’s important. I hope you continue to write and educate others, and look forward to much more of your writing in the future.

First, let me be clear in stating that it is Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists who think poorly of agnostics, not me. (For example, Dawkins addresses what he calls “the poverty of agnosticism” and describes it as “fence-sitting PAP”.) Having been an agnostic for more than two decades, I am deeply sympathetic to those who can neither believe nor disbelieve. And second, while I primarily write for my own entertainment, I am pleased to learn that from time to time some individuals believe it to have a salutary effect on their intellectual development.

On a tangential note, one thing I found particularly interesting was the age at which the emailer decided he was an atheist. It appears many atheists become atheists in their late childhood and early teens; this was the case for both Dawkins and Hitchens, among others. This is potentially signficant because in many cases, it also appears that their intellectual and emotional development largely comes to a halt at that point. One cannot read the New Atheist books without marveling at how fundamentally juvenile they are despite the age of the authors. The possibility of a connection between these two observations makes an amount of sense given how much more certain we are of our knowledge in our youth than we are once we have the benefit of more experience. And following this train of thought, it becomes apparent that it may even explain, at least in part, the disproportionate number of atheists in academic science. It is at least the very possible that this over-representation is more the result of a dearth of real-world experience than a surfeit of high intelligence.