Monday, August 16, 2010

Book Review (#13 of 2010)

Hard Heads Soft Hearts: Tough-Minded Economics for a Just Society by Alan S. Blinder.
This book from 1987 was recommended to me a couple times by a grad school professor of mine. Blinder is writing at the end of Reagan's presidency and is reflecting back on the good and bad economic policies that emerged from that era. Blinder is a Democrat.

"Hard-headed" policies are those that promote efficiency-- greater economic growth and higher utility for society overall. "Soft-hearted" policies are ones that deal more with equity-- dividing up the economic pie more equally. Economists and policy makers struggle to promote both efficiency and equity, and Blinder illustrates several examples where the two can meet in the middle.

He is highly critical of the supply-side arguments that won the day in 1981, and also critical of conservatives' attempts to rid the world of all forms of Keynesian thinking. He does a good job of showing that the schools of thought in economics are not so black-and-white easy to define and are constantly evolving. Modern "New" Keynesian economists have incorporated the virtues of the Lucas critique and rational expectations into their models. New Monetarists have abandoned many of the core beliefs held by Phelps and Friedman in light of the 1980s experience. And conservatives in both the rational expectations and monetarist schools of the early 1980s were highly critical of the supply-siders' claims that tax cuts could pay for themselves. The vast majority of Keynesians never believed that "money doesn't matter," and have common ground with monetarists on that important point. While you still have your hyper-rationalists, hyper-Keynesians, and hyper-monetarists, the majority of the macroeconomics profession is in the "neoclassical synthesis" that's found in the middle.

Chapter 5 deals with the history of tax reform from 1985-1986. Reagan's Treasury Department submitted a proposal to radically change the tax code-- including a plan that looks similar to the John McCain campaign plan of taxing employer-provided insurance as a benefit and giving vouchers or tax credits to people to purchase their own health insurance. That plan was butchered by Congress and special interests, but then somewhat salvaged by the Senate Finance Committee led by Bob Packer and Bill Bradley to be (almost) really sensible tax reform including a PAYGO rule.

Blinder holds up the 1986 tax reform as an example where sometimes sound economics can trump insider greed and lobbying. Blinder also gives some basic economic suggestions for dealing with pollution-- like an emissions tax, a cap-and-trade system and other ideas that are now part of the vernacular, and makes the strong case for free trade.

It's important to remember that even liberal economists like Blinder stand against harmful policies like rent controls, minimum wage laws, trade barriers (Blinder has recently retreated on his position here, though), subsidies and other policies typically touted by more left-leaning politicians. That often gets forgotten in all of the debate and vitriol-- economists still have a lot of common ground.

In all, I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5. It's almost as relevant to today as it was in 1987.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Review: P90X Phase 1

My wife and I purchased P90X back in January after trying it out with some of her family members. We had both finished spent the fall working out with various DVDs (The Biggest Loser and Jillian's 30 Day Shred), and I was pretty much already at my target weight, having lost about 50 pounds since August. But I wanted "more" and so we bit the bullet.

Throughout the spring, I would say I worked out "casually" maybe 3-4 times a week. I felt I didn't have time for the full P90x routine, so I would split the hour-long workouts into two 30-minute days. I might have gone in the prescribed order but did so slowly and skipped the Yoga X and Plyometrics workouts, substituting in Cardio X and Jillian's Shred Level 3 on those days instead. 1 I also used bands for the chin-ups instead of a chin-up bar. 2

I slacked off at the end of spring semester while work got busy, and then we moved and had a vacation. On return from vacation, I was determined to do Phase 1 completely and not skip days. I bought a chin-up bar.

Initially, I still subbed in Jillian's Shred and Cardio X for the Plyo-X and Yoga X. But then I added Plyo back in on Week 2, and did the Yoga X both days on Week 4.

My opinion is that P90X works. While I haven't lost much weight (I was already at my "target" weight) I have definitely started changing shape. Here are some thoughts if you're looking to do it:

  • Adding a pull-up bar makes all the difference for your shoulders, arms, back, and core.
  • Yoga X is totally worth the 90 minutes. It gets easier as you do the other exercises, and makes the other exercises (like wall-sits) "easier."
  • The more you do the workouts the longer they will take. This seems counter intuitive, but as you set and meet goals for your number of reps, you have to keep adding more reps. That means pushing pause, finishing your set, and then moving on. It's also true when lifting weights where you might not have the money/option of moving to a heavier weight-- you do more reps with what you've got.
  • I use 20 pound weights for most exercises. 10 pounds for the exercises you do on days like Plyo X. Those have been perfectly adequate for Phase 1.
  • X-Stretch is also a good idea. It helps you heal and will also help your Yoga X.
  • It takes time. You have to commit to 90 minutes one day a week, 75 minutes three days a week, and 60 minutes the other three days. Carve out that time. I was able to do that easily only because I am a teacher who gets summers off.
  • Keep pushing play, keep pushing play. If you're completely winded and it's break time, no shame in adding another minute of break to get your heart rate down a bit.
  • Expect to be sore ALL the time. Working out intensely 6 days a week every week is tough on your muscles.
I look forward to starting Phase 2, but work starts for me this week. I am already working my schedule to carve out the time I need to continue. Once you start getting results, you just want more.

1I found Plyo X initially really killed the arches of my feet. I'm not sure whether this was because I was on my feet teaching most of the day, or had new workout shoes, or because of the carpet in our house or what. We moved to a new house with different carpet and I haven't been teaching and I haven't had nearly as much pain. Yoga X was just awkward, uncomfortable, and time-consuming the first time I did it. My mind just wasn't "open" enough. But after a few weeks of serious P90X, I found it wasn't so bad. Highly recommend it.

2Some people use bands rather than free weights, and I would imagine it's time consuming to set that up every set. I bought a Golds Gym set of 3 bands that you can either use together or separately (using them together is more resistance). Before buying the bar, I used all 3 bands together for the chin-up/pull-up sets. You could sit and do that all day and not get the same workout as just doing a few pull-ups.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

What I'm Reading

Since I've mentioned before I'm reading a lot more these days due to great apps like Instapaper, I thought "why not share what I'm reading?" If you subscribe to this RSS feed, it should show you all of the articles that I have stored for later reading. I try to clear my cache at least every two weeks.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Day of Politics

Today was primary voting day in Missouri and it's seemingly campaign season everywhere else.

I happened to re-activate my Facebook account for a few minutes today. First thing I see, someone (not in Missouri) who is an online PR person for a Republican running for congress, a big "Christian Conservative" type, has this as her status update:
"Some people. I saw a woman with 6 kids today. She said her oldest is 14. She's the same age as me, so do the math." (she's 28).
There were several responses "Wow, how much of our tax dollars do you think she gets?" "There should be a law..." "Glad to know I'm working to feed her family," etc., stereotypical conservative responses. Encouraged by the poster (or at least not discouraged. She did acknowledge the mom "at least" had a job).

Then, her husband writes:
"The best thing would be to just let her kids die so they don't use up any more of my tax dollars." Then all these other people chimed in with "likes" and "what he said!"

I thought about it later and went back to take a screenshot just to submit it to some liberal website or the Democratic opposition for their own use...thinking maybe it shows up on MSNBC tonight or something--just out of spite because I found it cruel. (BTW-- I think the Democratic incumbent is very unqualified for office and I would vote for the Republican if I lived there).

But she had deleted it, apparently because someone in the campaign figured out that someone like me might do that.

I think it's a shame because:
a. It was deleted not because it was thoughtless and uncompassionate, or because she had a change of heart, but because it might be seen as reflecting negatively on her candidate. God judges the heart, not what's publicly posted.
b. I doubt she and her husband are in the minority of people who actually owed income taxes this year or any year, so that family isn't likely currently using any of his tax dollars anyway.
c. It feeds the stereotype that political conservatives are hard-hearted. "If the poor around us would just die, we'd all be better off."

And I quickly re-deactivated my Facebook account.