Thursday, November 29, 2007

Russian Elections

Everyone should check out this NY Times article: Russia's Election Is for Parliament, but the Real Vote is on Putin and especially watch the 2 campaign commercials on the left. They're for United Russia, obviously Putin's party. Russian parliamentary elections are on Sunday, and Putin is slated to be at the top of his party's ticket.
Constitutionally, he can no longer run for President because you can't serve 3 consecutive terms. Now, he will become Prime Minister and United Russia will have enough seats in Parliament (as many as they want) to change the Constitution to give PM the majority of power (if they want).

Rumor has it that he's going to step down as President (see last paragraph), let someone else serve out the term, then run again for President in March arguing that, because he stepped down he, won't be serving a 3rd consecutive term. In a televised address, Putin said (among other things):
"We cannot allow the return to power of those who once tried but failed to rule the country," referring to the liberal politicians who advised his predecessor Boris Yeltsin.-- BBC

Enjoy the campaign commercials. For those of you who are unaware, over 70% of Russians really are VERY pro-Putin. He's got a cult of personality, with a youth organization ("Nashi") ready to do whatever it takes to see him keep power. They credit the booming economy and growing political clout solely to him. It's kind of like if America's economy was booming like the 1990's and Iraq had been a 6-month easy victory, and Osama Bin Laden had been captured-- Republicans would still dominate the government and Bush would be the most popular President ever.

Meanwhile, Putin decided to limit the number of election observers to 30-40, then OSCE observers were denied visas, which the U.S. quickly condemned. Afterwards, Putin blamed the U.S. State Department for telling observers not to go in order to make Russia look bad.

(Sorry, I didn't take the time to provide links to all my sources. Most are public media and most are linked in the 20 or so Russia blogs I subscribe to in my Google Reader).

This morning, I woke up singing this song. It sort of pokes fun at Putin but also shows his popularity. It was very popular earlier this year among Russians and ex-pats:

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Writers' Strike

I have no idea if the Writers' Strike affects what TV looks like in America. All I know is that it is preventing any new episodes of The Office and Friday Night Lights, the only 2 shows worth watching, from being aired.

At the risk of opening my blog up to a ridiculous number of hits and harrasment, I post the following links to 2 blogs:

1. UnitedHollywood.blogspot.com—the official blog of the Strike.

2. The Alliance of Motion Picture and Theater Producers (AMPTP-- the "bad guys").

I’ll start with the AMPTP's op-ed in the LA Times supporting their position:

“In short, the guild is demanding an unjustifiable increase in the residual rate that writers receive for downloads, money they receive in addition to the salary they were paid in the first place (the WGA’s 4,434 working members make an average of $200,000 per year). They are also demanding a percentage of the advertising revenue earned by the networks from ad-supported streaming.

However, the WGA’s contract is not with networks, it is with producers, who receive no proceeds from these advertisements, just as they receive none of the revenue achieved by networks through commercial television…Regardless of whether a show or a movie is a hit or a flop, the writer is paid.”

It’s a good tactic to let America know that the average writer is quite wealthy and receives Grade-A health insurance to boot.

Now, UnitedHollywood: This post features the story of a 12 year old boy who is picketing along with the writers. Why? I’m not sure he even knows! He thinks they’re “superheroes.”

I think, like any union, the writers saw a way they weren’t getting money and decided to go after it, betting they could get the nation to support them through media campaigning. Of course actors jump on their side because without writers they can't act, and if they don't act they don't get paid!

My personal solution:

Offshore all writing to China and India. That’d be easy for reality shows, but for sitcoms it gets a little trickиer. But, I’m willing to deal with some Bollywood movies as long as I can see Steve Carrel act in them. “Michael Scott” already speaks English badly, so Тhe Office would still be funny. Friday Night Lights will probably become about soccer or, better yet, cricket!

And with the amount of money that Hollywood could save, maybe they could make all of their shows even cooler—more special effects, explosions, car chases…Sounds good to me.

What? You want to tell me that sitcom writing is a non-tradable good?

Sports Myths

Reason #839 why I love economics: So many economists publish papers dealing purely with sports data. I've illustrated this once to help diffuse the myth of the value of punting.

The latest "sports economist" to gain attention is Trevor D. Logan at The Ohio State University. His new paper's title is: "Whoah, Nellie! Empirical Tests of College Football's Conventional Wisdom." (Hat tip: Freakonomics).

Logan uses AP poll data along with 25 years of data from 25 different teams to examine the following widely-quoted conceptions about polls and declares them myths:

1. It's better to lose early in the season than late.
2. Voters reward wins over tough opponents.
3. Blowing out your opponent is rewarded more than narrowly beating them.

Logan finds that:
1. Voters re-rank teams that lose later higher than they would have if they had lost earlier in the season.
2. Strength of your opponent only matters if you lose. Losing to a tougher opponent allows you to be ranked (slightly) higher than you would be had you lost to a bad opponent.
However, beating a good opponent doesn't affect your ranking more than beating a bad opponent.
3. Likewise, blowouts only matter if you lose. Blown-out teams are ranked lower than narrow-loss teams. But, the winning teams in blowouts are not ranked higher (or lower) or rewarded for throttling the other team.

I'll compare Logan's working paper with Gene Wojciechowski's ESPN column today about "BCS myths." Wojo uses no data, only his opinion, but some of them are funny:

Wojo's myths are:
1. The BCS Works.
We're stuck with the BCS and its weekly standings weirdness. For example, Missouri is your No. 1 team in the country. This is like Homer Simpson picking up Eva Mendes at a Chi Omega party. Nothing against Mizzou and quarterback Chase Daniel, but the Tigers aren't the No. 1 team in the country. They aren't even favored in Vegas to beat No. 9 Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship (Mizzou is a 3-point dog).


2. Heisman Trophy voters know what they're doing.
There are 925 Heisman voters -- 870 media, 54 living Heisman winners, one collective fan vote. The more voters, the more probability of the dreaded Knucklehead Factor... Twenty years ago, a Heisman voter once told me he never cast a first-place vote for an African-American player
3. Nebraska is an elite coaching job.


I find the regression analysis to be more enlightening than just a pundit's opinion. One asks "What does the data say?" while the other just says what he thinks.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Who You'll Vote For

I find this little tool from ABC News to be handy. Take the quiz, it tells you who your answers indicate you'll be voting for (assuming you're an informed voter, that is).

My top 2 candidates ended up being Mike Huckabee and John McCain (McCain and I should not be surprising). McCain has been gaining momentum in the past couple months, but Huckabee looks like he could charge ahead now that Chuck Norris is on his side (hat tip: Rynoman):



Who did the Match-O-Matic say you're voting for? If you'd like to know the right answers to the quiz, let me know. :-)

Friday, November 23, 2007

Churches that own for-profit businesses

A must-read article in the NY Times: Megachurches Add Local Economy to Their Mission.

I haven't found the knee-jerk reaction among Christian bloggers to this article yet.

I have a couple thoughts:
Business, like the rest of creation, cries out to be redeemed. Redeeming business (using them for God’s glory) should be the mission of Christian businesspeople.
These churches have used their economies of scale to buy businesses, transform them, provide jobs for local believers, and evangelize their communities through those businesses. They’re able to use some of the revenue to support church functions. The paradigm shift is that the businesses are owned by the church body rather than individual believers.

The article points out that churches pay taxes on these for-profit businesses. That gets complicated.

Doug Rieder, the church business administrator, said WC Properties files a federal tax return and pays property taxes on the commercial space at the mall.

But Mr. Rieder acknowledged the difficulty of allocating space, staff time and expenses to the appropriate tax category. “We’re very intertwined — it gets tough day to day,” he said adding, “I have to constantly ask myself whether I am accurately allocating our costs.”


If you're interested in redeeming businesses for the glory of God, check out the Business As Mission Network, www.businessasmissionnetwork.com.

I thought about this for Moldova... churches here are amazing at raising would-be capital (money) and they use it mainly to build buildings. What if a church here bought a McDonalds and used some of the revenue to fund the church, and allowed Christians to evangelize there regularly? (just as an example)

The company I work for is Christian-operated. The board is made up of Christian business leaders and local pastors, including the head of one denomination here. The CEO of the company's response to the NY Times article, however is:

"Somehow I think that the Bibilical model is for Church members to be involved in business in order to generate revenue and support the Church and the ministry."

IE: not the other way around, as in the article. This sums up the mission of his company.

I've recently read a book (that I hope to soon get as many people as possible to read and discuss) in which a Christian economist argued that the "Biblical model," isn't very easily applicable to our times as there was no notion of capitalism until just a few hundred years ago.

Another opinion:

"I think that the Church will slowly move away from what it was intended for by the Lord if it will continue this way. My personal subjective opinion is that Church has to preach the word, take care of spiritual needs of people, take care of orphans and widows, bring people to the Lord and partner with other entities to achieve the Biblical mission. I don't think that the Church as Christ's bride is suppose to get involve in business or politics itself, but it's members individually can do it."

Raise your hand (ie: comment!) if you agree with the above opinion. I know you're out there.

Some of the activities listed in the Times article deal with real estate and the running of retirement homes. This is seen as the Church ministering by taking care of the elderly, and supporting the Church community. Do we separate those profitable activities from, say, running a McDonalds or a bookstore?

We desperately need a discussion among Christian businessmen, Christian workers, pastors, missionaries, and economists about these issues. There's a lot of money, opportunity, and potential problems/pitfalls at stake.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

A Thanksgiving Story

John Stossel gives us a Thanksgiving lesson:

When the Pilgrims first settled the Plymouth Colony, they organized their farm economy along communal lines. The goal was to share everything equally, work and produce.

They nearly all starved.

Why? When people can get the same return with a small amount of effort as with a large amount, most people will make little effort. Plymouth settlers faked illness rather than working the common property. Some even stole, despite their Puritan convictions. Total production was too meager to support the population, and famine resulted. Some ate rats, dogs, horses and cats. This went on for two years.

The solution? Privatization (really just establishment of property rights).

"Because of the change, the first Thanksgiving could be held in November 1623."

It appears the early Pilgrims were behaving rationally rather than purely spiritually. I'm thankful to John Stossel for dispelling myths by asking "what does the data say?"

Monday, November 19, 2007

Back-to-Back!

Jimmie Johnson wins his second Nextel Cup. The Jimmie Johnson era has begun! Very pleased for my favorite driver and my favorite crew chief.

Hendrick MotorSports dominantly finishes 1, 2, and 5 in The Chase. (Jeff Gordon finished second).

Joni and I have greatly enjoyed watching most of the races and we are sad that the season is over.
Can't wait until next season starts and we welcome possibly my new favorite driver to the Hendrick fold!:Woo hoo, I'm excited already! Racing really is the only true sport.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

He's right you know...

"We simply cannot go on being as dumb as we wanna be." --Thomas Friedman in his common-sense op-ed today.

He cleverly cites Greg Mankiw to get the attention of fans like me.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Data Says...(War on Terror edition)

Congress' Joint Economic Committee leaks their report to the media:

The economic costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are estimated to total $1.6 trillion -- roughly double the amount the White House has requested thus far.

The $1.6 trillion figure, for the period from 2002 to 2008, translates into a cost of $20,900 for a family of four, the report said. The Bush administration has requested $804 billion for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined, the report stated.

Future economic costs would be even greater. The report estimated that both wars would cost $3.5 trillion between 2003 and 2017. Under that scenario, it would cost a family of four $46,400.

This report factors in "hidden costs" like future health care for veterans, and interest on the loans we take out to pay for the war.

You hopefully would ask: If it costs $1.6 trillion and the President has only requested $804 billion, then who is paying for this? If it ends up costing us $3.5 trillion, where will we get the money?

One of a few correct answers:


With interest, of course.

Your CHILDREN'S tax dollars at work.

Worth Reading Today

A well-educated Pakistani decries the current situation, courtesy of Registan.net.

"The powerful spy agency (ISI-- Pakistan's FBI/CIA)knows very well that the US-led war in Afghanistan is unable to root out the Taliban. Therefore, they are simply counting down the days till the end of the Western war in order to return to the old policy of installing the client regime dominated by extremist mullahs in Afghanistan. This is the core reason why the ISI has staked its future with the Islamists, by keeping clandestine links with the Taliban and Pakistani religious parties who act as a go-between for the Taliban and military rulers in Islamabad."

I've harped enough on Pakistan this week, how about another country? Here's one on how proud Russians are of one of their most famous spies in America; someone who most Americans never heard about.
"The spy’s success hinged on an unusual family history of migration from Russia to Iowa and back. That gave him a strong commitment to Communism, a relaxed familiarity with American mores and no foreign accent."

Wal-Mart makes concessions in their health care policies, hires liberal advisers, the liberal world applauds them for it, and everyone seems better off.
"The changes in its policies have accomplished what once seemed impossible. Many of its most ardent critics have put down their pitchforks...Executives sought out policy analysts like Len Nichols, a health economist at the New America Foundation, which supports universal coverage, asking him, among other questions, 'What would the liberals say?'"

Dr. Blake uses his blog to share some truth. Good for you, Dave.

A pastor named Joe Thorn gives Six Rules of Cultural Engagement that are both practical and challenging.

Mark Thoma, the most-read economist blogger in the world, posts on how the falling dollar has done what the DEA could not do: hamper drug smuggling in America.

Justin Timberlake will host a PGA tour event in Las Vegas.
"The four-time Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter, record producer and actor will serve as host of its Las Vegas event in 2008, becoming the 14th celebrity to host an official tournament. 'I couldn't be more excited,' said Timberlake, who plays to a 6-handicap, according to a Golf Digest ranking that was released earlier this year."


"What goes around comes back around. I shoulda told you. Yeah."

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Elasticity of Demand for Your Favorite Team

I think in the mind of some fans, the demand for their favorite team HAS to be very inelastic. That means they’ll pay whatever price is necessary to consume and anyone who doesn’t have that same inelastic demand curve isn’t a “true fan.” Their curve looks like this:

Even if their team is a terrible loser, they’ll still consume the team (through time, watching, ticket prices, etc.). Any fan that doesn’t consume at a given price is insultingly labeled “fair weather" fan or “not real.”

“Fair-weather” fans, however, are making a rational economic choice. The marginal cost of consuming at the given price is higher than the marginal benefit. The “fair-weather” demand curve looks more like this: Kentucky fans booed and left early at the Gardner-Webb game. This shows an elastic demand curve among these fans: At the given price, the marginal cost of being at the game and approving the play was higher than the marginal benefit of watching their team get beat soundly. This gets the ire of other die-hard fans who accuse these fans of not being “real fans.”

“Former Kentucky player and athletic director C.M. Newton said college fans are always wrong to boo.

"I don't care how much the ticket cost or the money you pay for priority seating," he said. "That, to me, is bush league."

ESPN analyst Jay Bilas watched the entire game. He thought the fans were booing the performance, not the players. New coach. New system. He suggested the performance has plenty of time to improve.

Bilas is smarter than the average commentator—I think he took an economics class or two.

I argue that team management needs a signal to respond to. If it puts out a losing product and everyone still consumes it happily, then what incentive do they have to improve it? This has been the basis of the argument about why the much-loved Chicago Cubs will never win a World Series, their fans support the team financially no matter what so management has no reason to work hard and produce a winner.

By refusing to consume at a given price, “fair weather” consumers send the signal that the price is too high for what they’re getting. Management then has to lower the price, or improve the product. In college sports, there are boosters who take up this role. Boosters support a large part of the athletic budget, and if they are no longer willling to pay then management will respond by making changes. A booster tends to be seen as a “die-hard,” whereas his demand curve is likely much more elastic than a true “die hard.”

My conclusion: ELASTIC demand curves for consumption of sports make our teams better. Athletic boosters have fairly elastic demand curves and therefore help improve the program more than the “die hard” fans who have inelastic demand curves.

So, next time you see fellow fans of your favorite team booing and leaving an arena early, or rooting for their team to lose so that the coach will be fired, know that they’re doing more to improve your team than the die-hard fans who will bear any price to support the team. “Die hards” should embrace their die-hardness but not criticize “fair-weather” fans and boosters for improving the team.

Why I thought about this: I read that A-Rod is demanding a $300 million contract from the California Angels. $300 million for one guy. I asked: At what point do I quit supporting a team financially because of the poor choices its management makes?

Am I a “fair-weather” fan if I choose to not support (ie: consume) my favorite team because the price of support becomes higher than the product the team produces? If I was an Angel fan, I would stop buying tickets.

A similar question has been asked in College Station the past couple football seasons. You may be unhappy with the team’s play, see no long-term benefit in keeping a coach, but you love your team and want to root for them… what do you do? Fortunately, enough Aggies stepped up and said “Either you change the coach, or you can forget our money,” and Tubby, er Dennis Franchione gets fired.

Don’t knock the boo-birds or those who stop buying tickets. It doesn’t mean they don’t love the team, it means they’re making a rational economic choice that will actually improve the team in the long-run.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Dominance

Eye-catching story in the NY Times today about the Smith Center High School football team.
"Last month, they received national notice when they scored 72 points in the first quarter against Plainville."

The refreshing part:

“We aren’t proud of it,” said (Coach) Barta, who was born and raised in Plainville. “They had some turnovers that we took for touchdowns, and it just snowballed.”

Barta pulled his starting offense after his team’s third touchdown. He played his freshmen, but the touchdowns kept coming. So he told his young players to run out of bounds or fall to the ground if they got loose. Still, the final score was 83-0.

They are a high school football team, a superb one that has won 51 games in a row and three consecutive state championships, and has outscored opponents this season, 704-0. They are more than that, however, to the 1,931 people here who all know one another’s names: The Redmen are proof that hard work and accountability still mean something.

The trading cards, for example, are not about hero worship. Each player and cheerleader signs a contract pledging to remain alcohol-, drug- and tobacco-free. If they break that promise, they must go to the elementary school to explain to the children why they were kicked off their team, and their cards are revoked. "

Admittedly, I also like this part:

Barta’s scouting report for the coming opponent also becomes the hot topic of discussion throughout the week. This week for Oakley, it runs 28 pages and kicks off simply with, “This is the real deal, we must prepare well and quick.”

“We get it on Monday night,” said Joe Windscheffel, the Redmen’s senior quarterback. “As soon we get home, our dads start devouring it, and pretty soon, wherever you go in town, that’s all anyone is talking about."

Play hard, be more prepared than the other guy, and have class. Good formula there.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Bhutto, Pakistan, and what comes next?

I wrote most of this post before Bhutto was arrested as part of a wider crackdown.
"Across Punjab Province on Thursday an estimated 500 workers of Ms. Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party were arrested in the government’s latest sweep of its opponents. By Friday morning, party officials said, the number detained in the past three days had climbed to 5,000."
Benazir Bhutto wrote an Op-Ed for the NY Times on Wednesday. Is it political grandstanding or sincere patriotism? She was almost killed by a bomb last week, so I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt.

“The United States alone has given the Musharraf government more than $10 billion in aid since 2001. We do not know exactly where or how this money has been spent, but it is clear that it has not brought about the defeat of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, nor succeeded in capturing Osama bin Laden, nor has it broken the opium trade. It certainly has not succeeded in improving the quality of life of the children and families of Pakistan.

The United States can promote democracy — which is the only way to truly contain extremism and terrorism — by telling General Musharraf that it does not accept martial law, and that it expects him to conduct free, fair, impartial and internationally monitored elections within 60 days under a reconstituted election commission. He should be given that choice: democracy or dictatorship with isolation.”

Apparently, all the lobbying worked.

I’m in the middle of Karl E. Meyer’s The Dust of Empire: The Race for Mastery of the Asian Heartland. It’s a combination of histories of Central Asian countries. There was a lot about the making of Pakistan that I did not know.

Benazir Bhutto is the descendent of a long line of powerful, wealthy Pakistanis. Her father was a ruler who was ousted and executed. He and she herself are/were often accused of “corruption,” a vague charge that everyone is apparently guilty of.

Meyer writes:

“With Benazir Bhutto, one encounters another major recurring theme—the persistance of a powerful landowning elite that colides repeatedly with the meritocratic military, a competition that gives bargaining leverage to the third major force in Pakistan, the Islamic establishment, with its political parties and its ubiquitous religious schools.”

In the end, who or what will rule Pakistan come February?

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

If I were a NASCAR crew chief, who would I be?

As I've stated before, I'm a Hendrick MotorSports and Jimmie Johnson fan. The team is methodical, smart, and dominant. Hendrick has already broken the record for the highest % of wins in a season by a single team in NASCAR history. Here's an article contrasting Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief, with Steve Letarte, Jeff Gordon's chief. Here's a pic of Johnson and Knaus.

Chad Knaus is definitely my kind of guy:

"Chad Knaus gets to work at 6:45 (ie: early) every morning, arriving at the Hendrick Motorsports shop with his shirttail tucked in, his face shaven, his mind completely focused and expecting each of his crewmen to appear the same way...an ultra-intense gearhead who feeds on data and is obsessed by performance...He's a very intense guy, he's very quiet, very reserved, very to the point...He's all about the technology and the details...Knaus is the kind of crew chief who beats himself up over calls that don't work out, who will go back and review tape in an effort to improve his performance, who obsesses over issues until they're taken care of."

So, maybe I'm really rooting for Knaus moreso than I am for Johnson. It's like rooting for the Patriots because you like Bill Belichick, and not because you just like to watch Tom Brady or Randy Moss.

The #48 team has won 3 consecutive races, including Texas last weekend and swept races at 3 different tracks this year. (I've been able to acquire several of the races since we've been in Moldova, and Joni and I have greatly enjoyed watching them together. NASCAR is the way to go, I'm telling you).

Monday, November 05, 2007

I was mad enough to come back

After a long personal blogging hiatus, my frustration with the lack of Truth out there finally got to me.

First, I read this:Musharraf imposes emergency rule, and conveniently Pakistan Rounds Up Musharraf's Political Foes.
Yes, 6 years and $10 BILLION later and the Taliban is stronger than ever in Pakistan, their self-proclaimed President decides to quote Abraham Lincoln while suspending the Constitution, and the U.S. is left in the position of condemning him while still cutting him checks.
I should call this blog "Your Tax Dollars at Work."

The reason for the indifference on Pakistan I am sensing among Americans made even more sense after I saw this and this, courtesy of Registan.net.

From the March edition of Time Magazine. Compare the cover of the international issues to the one sold in the U.S. A picture truly is worth a thousand words. When the barbarians reach the gate of America we'll be too busy debating what shape and color our gate should be rather than realize why it's about to be taken from us altogether.

Then, I read this over at Rynoman's blog. Stunned silence.

Thankfully, Greg Mankiw is here to help clear up some truth-twisting on U.S. health care by political candidates in EVERY party. He gives us "the rest of the story" from other economists whose research have been manipulated and misrepresented by EVERY candidate. Every voter should read this article.

The Truth is out there.