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Comment Re:I know this is Slashdot, but... (Score 1) 529

I don't think American business elites' desire to make fuller use of kids' intellectual capacity is authoritarian. It mostly likely flows from their own experiences as gifted kids, wasting years of their childhood in schools that were, to put it charitably, not designed to maximize anyone's potential.

Childhood is a rare time when you're primed for learning, have enormous amounts of free time, and few competing responsibilities. We should be leveraging that as best we can, not just for the gifted, but for every student.

It's more important than ever, given the increasing automation away of many jobs, and the increased competition globally for work. We're not just talking about helping people who will get PhDs. We're also talking about helping ensure kids who will never get PhDs make full use of their talents. This helps not only on the job, but when transitioning careers as your old job becomes obsolete, as well as performing better in basic duties of citizenship.

It's also a better time than ever to reform. The Internet makes it possible for the best lecturers to deliver to kids everywhere, and for kids to follow their interests and stay engaged in a way never before possible. Classroom technology will increasingly enable teachers to get real-time feedback on what each individual in their class is struggling with, enabling far more individualized feedback and tutoring. It can allow teachers to learn from a far larger set of their own peers about what works.

We have the potential to maximize the potential of EVERY student - not just the "average" student, but special-needs and gifted kids too. Better yet, it's not a zero-sum game pitting gifted kids against special-needs kids. It's the ability to deliver individually-tailored instruction to every child at affordable cost, unlocking a vast amount of human potential that today is simply wasted.

It'll take experimentation and innovation to evolve the right tools and practices, which is why if we get behind it I think we'll do better than the authoritarian regimes you mention. I just hope we don't allow bureaucratic inertia and fears over inequality to thwart progress. Inequality can be addressed through methods other than keeping kids ignorant, and it's far from clear that inequality would actually incease. While the gifted would benefit, I suspect the less-gifted and disadvantaged will benefit even more, simply because the current schooling approach offers such unequal opportunities for development.

Comment incoherent arguments throughout (Score 2) 537

First, a brief correction: the author of the op-ed is not an economist. He's a journalist and former financial analyst who writes on economics topics for the NY Times.

Second, the op-ed makes a number of errors:

1. He asserts without evidence that non-government currency is inherently inferior to government currency, without defining the purposes for which it is supposedly inferior and in what ways. Medium of exchange? Unit of account? Store of value?

2. His argument relies upon his unsubstantiated belief that "no bank or bitcoin-emitter can be as public-minded as a government", and that "no private power can raise taxes or pass laws to unwind monetary excesses". This ignores the signficant body of research on the not-so-public-mindedness of public officials. It ignores the fact that the "monetary excesses" he needs to unwind are frequently caused by government monetary policy, rather than being inherent to currency. It also ignores the fact that Bitcoin's cap on supply was designed precisely to avoid such monetary excesses. Perhaps Bitcoin's design in this regard is deficient, but the author apparently could not be troubled to make any argument detailing how.

3. He criticizes "private money" such as Bitcoin for having uncertain value, and for its potential to lose value if users lose faith, despite these problems applying to state-backed currencies as well. It's not as if we've never seen runs on banks, unexpected inflation or even hyperinflation with government fiat currency.

4. He further criticizes Bitcoin for its alleged anonymity and thus a potential for tax evasion, neglecting the fact that Bitcoin is less anonymous than the goverment paper currency known as "cash".

5. He repeatedly makes the argument that because we've had state-backed currencies for a long time, they must be superior. This neglects the possibility that effective non-government currencies were not feasible at scale in the past simply due to a lack of technology (crypto and global instant communications). And it neglects the possibility that the future of currency is not either-or, but both.

This is what happens when the poltical-media establishment tries to shoehorn a story about technology and economics into the same tired left-vs-right, government-as-perfection vs. government-as-catastrophe narratives. You get an incoherent, poorly researched, poorly argued mess. The author may end up being right that Bitcoin won't last, but he's not given us any sound argument to support his claim.

Comment Re:True, but misleading. (Score 1) 476

It seems to me that if mining gold is worth something (for whatever reasons people value that particular commodity - electronics, jewelry, or just as a collector's item), then by burying it that value is destroyed. Mining and burying are opposites, if one has positive value the other must have negative value.

Also, paying people to do useless things means they have less time (and perhaps incentive) to look for real work, and less time to retrain for the jobs that are available. By prolonging the mismatch between the skills workers have with the skills jobs require, we could prolong the recession.

Now did that happen in this case? I don't know. But I do think quality is a relevant and neglected consideration in stimulus discussion, mostly because nobody bothers to plan for it until we're in a crisis.

Comment Re:True, but misleading. (Score 1) 476

If you are paying interests below inflation, you should pile up debt, if possible long term, as much as you can.

It's true that sub-inflation interest rates means the lender is paying you to take the loan. But exploiting that without screwing yourself means more than just taking the loan.

Most importantly you need to find someplace to save or invest the received loan money so that it doesn't disappear before you need to pay the loan back. Ideally something that gives you a positive return. Yes, you can roll over the debts to new lenders as the bonds mature, for quite a long time. Perhaps even indefinitely if you have a stable level of debt to income.

The problem of course is that many Western countries do not have stable debt levels, they keep taking on more. That works until your ability to repay gets called into question. At some point lenders see the risk as too high, and won't lend except at high interest rates. Then your repayments or new interest burdens give you a nasty shock to your standard of living, which could have been avoided by either investing the loan prudently (human capital or infrastructure gaps, for example) or by avoiding the loan altogether. Sadly politicians do not seem particularly adept at this task.

Also, in a semi-depressed economy, any kind of spending by the government, even on inane things, will turn out to help recovery, provided enough people get to dip in. Of course if you spend on unemployment benefits and on re-training of workers, you get much more immediate returns.

The first sentence is the subject of considerable debate by professional economists. There are lots of studies in both directions ("multipliers" less than, or greater than, 1).

I think your second sentence is getting at the right idea - the effect you get is a function of the quality of the spending. Stimulus that gives a well-connected person the ability to buy a house on a tropical island somewhere is unlikely to help your local economy, and indeed will hurt because the tax money to fund it came at the expense of some other (probably more useful) function. On the other hand, stimulus that helped displaced workers retrain in more in-demand fields would likely help.

Comment Re:When you're cooking the data ... (Score 1) 476

Consider revising your assumption that the 2010 paper's data was "cooked" and not simply that mistakes were made (which the authors have acknowledged), given that:

1. A more recent (2012) study published by Reinhart & Rogoff, using data going all the way back to 1800, shows results that look almost identical to the latest Herndon, Ash, and Pollin data. There's no use "cooking" the data in 2010 just to uncook it yourself in 2012, well before the HAP results.

2. Even HAP's supposed debunking of the 2010 R&R paper shows largely the same conclusions, which is that high debt loads lead to lower economic growth. The dispute is over the magnitudes, particularly for countries over the 90% debt/GDP ratio.

Debt/GDP Mean Growth Rate (1945-2009)
0-30 R&R=4.1, HAP=4.2
30-60 R&R=2.8, HAP=3.1
60-90 R&R=2.8, HAP=2.9
90+ R&R=-0.1, HAP=2.2

Historically the US has had about 3% annual growth. If our debt loads drops GDP growth to 2%, that's a HUGE loss in job prospects as well as in public tax revenues.

Source data is here (free registration required I think):

Comment Re:The Stupidity, It Hurts! (Score 1) 1006

Times do change, and we have an amendment process by which the Constitution can too. In practice we also have a system of judicial interpretation that often has the same practical effect as amendments (for better or worse, perhaps both).

But just as some ignorant people refuse to adapt to new circumstances, other ignorant people insist on repeating their ancestors' mistakes. The Constitution has lasted a long time (unlike its predecessors and some contemporary constitutions in other nations) because it was designed around fundamental insights into human nature. Insights that in most cases remain true today.

It no doubt has flaws (some of which have been addressed through amendments). But its success means we ought to at least understand where it's worked. where's it's not, and WHY before we casually dismiss one of the great accomplishments of practical politics as merely a few rules from the 1780s.

Comment Re:jury trials cost more money (Score 1) 897

The media isn't asking "pointed questions", they're asking for black and white answers when most peoples' views are gray.

Take for example Medicare cuts. Everyone claims they want to cut spending, but nobody wants to cut the big stuff like Medicare, right? All the polls and the media say so. But if you actually have a little curiosity about your fellow citizens, and dig deeper rather than assume the populace are merely being hypocrites, you find that many of the same people who oppose cuts in the generic sense support them if you simply ensure that everyone gets out at least what they paid in. Given that Medicare pays out way more than people paid in, that's a big cut with majority support.

But you wouldn't know it listening to Big Media. They're too busy telling us that our fellow man is ignorant or hypocritical or both. Sells better I guess, but fortunately the truth isn't quite so grim.

Comment Re:Suicide boats is not Iran's primary weapon (Score 2) 969

Except that the US could just wait the Iranians out - time is on the US side, which is why the Iranians are the ones saber-rattling.

New oilfields are starting to be developed on the huge reserves of "tight oil" in the Americas, which we only recently developed the technology to extract. Once those fields are running, Iranian influence is greatly diluted.

In a decade the Iranian regime may well topple due to civil strife, as some of its neighbors in the region have.

Iranian threats so far have only served to unite the Middle East against the Iranians. It used to be Israel that was isolated in the region, now it is Iran.

The best outcome for Iran would be a North-Korea-style deal in which the US supplies economic aid in return for a stop to Iran's nuclear program. The problem for the Iranians is that the US got played by Kim Jong-Il, and is thus unlikely to try that approach again.

The threats to close the Strait are nothing more than a frustrated Iranian regime trying to gain leverage it simply doesn't have.

Comment Re:Except (Score 4, Informative) 151

He's not being a troll.

The concern is not simply that they're American-made. It's that the executive branch (you know, the one Obama and his appointees lead) intentionally sold those 2000+ guns to known members of Mexican drug cartels. They knew at the time that these people were murderous thugs. But the officials overrode the objections of the gun dealers and some of the field agents to sell them anyway. This was allegedly to track where the guns would go, but A) the operation lost track of where most of the guns went, until B) some of those weapons were later used to kill a Border Patrol agent, not to mention in numerous Mexican crimes.

The debacle was called "Operation Fast and Furious". While investigations are ongoing, it's been reported that at least one of Obama's Cabinet members knew of the program - Attorney General Holder was briefed mid-program, in contradiction of his testimony to Congress.

Comment Re:Bitterness (Score 4, Insightful) 1799

To determine a course of action, first we need to diagnose the problem. My take is this:

1. Both parties in Congress have become largely unresponsive, over the past decade at least, to the will of the people.

2. They have become less responsive because they have gerrymandered district lines to an insane level. The popularity of Congress has been hovering around a mere 20% for years, yet the last 3 elections (2006, 2008, 2010), heralded as huge sweeps, saw roughly 85% of incumbents keep their seats. The voters are no longer picking their politicians, the politicians are picking their voters.

3. Because of this dilution in voter power, the power of moneyed interests has increased (certainly in relative terms, maybe in absolute terms too). We see both parties increasingly enmeshed in cronyism, in which they attempt to give subsidies to allies while levying taxes or regulations against opponents. Even after the biggest financial disaster since the Great Depression, on a bipartisan basis Congress proved unable or unwilling to tackle Too Big To Fail. If that's not a sign that Congress has freed itself from the will of the voters, I don't know what is.

Doing something about gerrymandering would seem to be a step in the right direction. An example would be to put responsibility for district lines into a nonpartisan commission's hands, perhaps aided by algorithms to help maximize competitiveness. That has the advantage of being something that folks from across the political spectrum could get behind.

An additional response to Congressional misdeeds is to stop allowing Congress to meddle in as much as it does, thus limiting the damage. But that has several downsides: 1) the left in the US seems reluctant to constrain the power of Congress, and 2) the right in the US, despite its rhetoric, has been extremely ineffective in electing members who actually would limit Congress, perhaps because 3) there is currently very little incentive for Congress to constrain itself.

Comment Re:Disagreement with Value of Online Classes (Score 1) 261

As a student (and working professional) I disagree. I've taken a number of both types of courses. In-person was fine when I was a full-time college student with time to burn (it's how I got my BS and MS degrees). Now I work full-time as an engineer, and take classes on the side to continue my professional development. I've found online courses to be far more valuable in my current situation.

Let me tell you why. In-person courses require me to travel to the university campus, which is time I could be using to study or be with my family. In-person lectures by necessity have pacing issues when the students' technical backgrounds or abilities are heterogeneous. You either hold up the lecture for the subset of the students that don't get a particular topic, or you fly through it and that subset misses out. With online (recorded) lectures, there is flexibility for the student to pause the main lecture to think something through, rewind, or even to go look at supplementary materials on that particular subtopic. They can browse the online help forum for answers to common questions. And the other students need not wait for them to catch up.

Online also offers schedule flexibility, so if you need to delay watching the lecture by a few hours because your kid got sick or you have a tight work deadline, you can do so.

Comment Re:How you define compensation (Score 1) 382

Even so that's still not all the relevant costs to consider, if you want to truly know whether it is more cost-effective to contract or perform the work in-house.

The authors of the study note many big gaps in their data in their methodology section, yet they go on to proclaim the government is "wasting billions" by contracting instead of hiring directly. The lack of data is so grave that such a conclusion - or in fact any conclusion as to whether the contracts were worth it or not - cannot be justified. For example:

The contractor rates used as comparison were ceilings, not the actually negotiated rates paid (which are not published).

The authors did not have access to government documents containing the analysis and justifications for decisions to contract work out.

The study did not include contractor "overhead" costs - facilities (expensive in the DC metro area), supplies, administrative costs, etc. These easily add up to be more than the cost of the IT/engineering worker, even for a relatively small (read: lean) contractor. This overhead rate gets wrapped into the rate billed to the government, which is why you see multipliers like in the article. If the contractors were government employees, most of those costs don't go away.

They did not include the costs of executing the contracts themselves.

They did not include the costs associated with firing employees in government vs eliminating a contractor or telling the contracting company to provide a different worker. That includes the question of whether many contractors' being based in Virginia (a right-to-work state) rather than DC itself has any effect on such costs.

They didn't have data on how much fluctuation in contract needs exists: If a government organization's needs fluctuate a lot, requiring different skill sets each year, then contracting for those skills as-needed makes more sense than creating a large churn in the government workforce. Conversely, if the roles required are usually the same, there may be advantages to building up the institutional knowledge in-house. This issue was ignored.

They didn't have sufficiently detailed data to determine whether the government or the contractors had higher quality, more experienced, etc workers.

The list could go on. There are way too many significant unknowns to draw much of a conclusion.

Comment Re:Stop (Score 1) 694

In the US, those electric cars run on electricity generated in many cases by coal plants. So they just change where in the lifecycle the pollution occurs, not whether or not it occurs.

The real elephant in the room is something Bill Gates brought up in a recent interview on Wired. He said we're spending 90% of our green-energy subsidies on deploying the current, economically uncompetitive technology, rather than research to make the technology competitive. Is it any wonder these "green" companies aren't taking off? Flip those proportions around - put 90% into research - and we'll have better odds of actually getting to that green energy future we always talk about. A nice side bonus is then you don't need much subsidy to get companies to deploy it, because it'll already be economically competitive, not to mention better for their reputation.

The question is whether we'll have the patience as a society to make the research investment, or whether our rush to do something means we end up doing things that are actually less beneficial.

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