Sunday, April 28, 2013

About Me

I have an MA in International Economics from Baylor University, and I am a market monetarist. I have traveled and worked across Eastern Europe and Central Asia; I speak Turkish, Azerbaijani, Russian, and some Levantine Arabic (Turkish being the strongest). I am also a market urbanist, a large motivation for my family moving to Ankara, Turkey in 2012-- where we'd like to live again when the time is right for us (Turkey is a magical place).

I was raised in Lexington, KY and earned my BBA from UK. I married my best friend from college in 2005, we now have a 7 year old son with autism; we would consider adoption for more. I am Baptist by theological bent.

I like pondering mathematics, statistics, econometrics, and forecasting. I'm interested in the theology of work and missional business. I love to read non-fiction; I enjoy ancient history the most. I prefer to watch NASCAR because it is the sport with the fewest moral/ethical dilemmas for me. I look at sports very quantitatively, I prefer simulations to the real thing. I like to bass fish. I work out to P90X, Insanity, etc. and do some form of weight lifting daily. I make myself run, too.

While I've worn many hats, I currently work as an economist in the executive branch of state government. I also teach business courses--primarily economics--for universities in the U.S. both in-classroom and online. I'd love to get on board with your SME and improve its analytics and strategy- making.

I am currently located in Central Kentucky waiting for that next door to open...

I blog about all of the above. Follow what I'm thinking and reading on Twitter. Add me on LinkedIn.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Innovation vs. Efficiency

Matt Yglesias wrote a good post on how innovation and efficiency need not be confused. There are plenty of hyperlinks in his piece, so check it out.

There's an underlying belief among classical liberals and MBA types that if you can reduce inefficiency you'll get higher productivity and growth. While in many cases this is provably true, it is not always the case. Reducing red tape doesn't necessarily increase creativity and innovation; innovation is the heart of what makes the real economy grow.

Yglesias' point is that
"it's still a fundamental error to confuse the two, and to think that wringing the inefficiencies out of our resource-allocation system are either necessary or sufficient for fundamental growth."

Google, for example, often seems definitely inept and unorganized-- inefficient.  
"Does Google with its glasses, gigabit fiber, and autonomous cars strike you as a company with unusually "sound" corporate governance and managers who are faithful stewards of their shareholders' interests or a company where geeky managers are letting the staff run amok in pursuit of technological visions that are only loosely related to a return on investment calculus?"
Maybe if Google were more efficient and better-managed it would not produce some of the innovative products that change our daily lives. The argument is that the innovation is worth the cost of less efficiency.

Yglesias is correct that we don't dream of making the argument that authors and artists should be better stewards of their resources and capital-- art is concerned with creativity.

Think about your schedule today: are you more concerned with the efficient way you spend your time and energy, or with what is created from that time? How are the two balanced in your mind?

Addendum: Seth Godin's blog has similar thoughts today. We prize our competency (ie: efficiency) in a certain task and that prevents us from trying something new (ie: innovating) that we will initially stink at. If the market only awards efficiency, it eliminates possibilities for innovation.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Book Review (#8 of 2013) Spirituality According to Paul: Imitating the Apostle of Christ by Rodney Reeves

This book is the best book on or about the Bible that I have read in a long time and if I had the resources I'd give a copy to everyone I know (lending of it is unfortunately not enabled for Kindle). I think every Christian should read it. Dr. Reeves is a Greek expert and Pauline scholar, Dean of the Courts Redford College of Theology and Ministry at Southwest Baptist University. As I mentioned before my encounters with him really influenced me and I've never met a Southern Baptist pastor/theologian/teacher who talks, teaches, and writes like him. I had the privilege of hearing him preach a sermon series on Paul while he wrote this book, and his passion for imitating Paul was quite evident.

Reeves does an excellent job explaining the context of Paul's day and the situations of the churches which received his letters. He lucidly explains various lines of scholarly thought on confusing passages. Reeves asks thought-provoking questions about how we imitate Paul as we do church today. What is this "crucified life" that Paul talked about?

I think as believers we often think of Paul as the greatest preacher who ever lived, who was wholeheartedly admired and respected by believers he came into contact with--the children's Sunday School version of Paul. We also think of the Church in Paul's day as being relatively undivided--non-denominational. In reality, Paul's letters to Corinth tell us that he was not a great public speaker-- far inferior to the famous Corinthian orators trained in rhetoric. Churches looked at Paul's life of hardship--beatings, shipwrecks, etc.-- and wondered if he was under God's punishment rather than blessing.

"(T)he Corinthians had come to despise the messenger. That's because Paul sounded like a fool to them." (loc. 406).
They questioned his teachings. There were plenty of factions and groups who thought their doctrine was superior to others. James and the Judaisers in Jerusalem questioned his Gentile disciples' rights. Paul spent much of his ministry collecting money for the famine-stricken church in Jerusalem (even though there were churches in Greece and Asia likely just as impoverished) likely to try and unite the factions, particularly Jew and Gentile, but scholars are divided as to whether Jerusalem even accepted Paul's gift.

"Paul saw every event in his life, every relationship he had, as opportunities to experience the death, burial and resurrection of Christ Jesus." (loc. 95)
Paul saw Jesus several times in visions and appearances, but we forget he wasn't around Jesus to soak in his teachings while on earth. Yet, Paul's writings and life are such a fantastic reflection of what Jesus' life meant. 

Reeves contrasts Paul's life with the American life-- we're constantly striving to avoid loss and gain security. We're also constantly trying to stand up for our rights. 

"(I)f I spend most of my time protecting my interests and devote much of my energy trying to avoid loss, how will I ever gain Christ?  For those of us who prize comfort, will we ever experience the crucified life?" (Loc. 335).
Christians are often quick to judge a person who they see in poor circumstances as "reaping what he (presumably) sowed" or as suffering due to some secret sin. Reeves reminds us that followers looked at Paul's (and Jesus'!) hardships the same way-- surely these were fools: 

"(T)he cross should make us all reticent to declare who is cursed by God...There was nothing about him that looked like success. I can imagine Paul's converts saying, 'If that's what the cross does to a man, I'll try something else'" (Loc. 206 and 284). 
Reeves expounds on Paul's teachings on marriage, fellowship (particularly the Lord's Supper), legalism, eschatology, and more than I can review here-- I highly recommend reading all of it. One example of a poignant question Dr. Reeves asks the modern church: Has today's church made "family" an idol? We're always reading about liberals' "war on the family" and that "adulthood means marriage; marriage means children." That's not supported by Paul at all, quite the opposite.  Paul urged his disciples to love Christ more than anything, and marriage-- where you have to divide attention among the needs of spouse and children-- was to be avoided given the imminence of Christ's return:

(W)e often misunderstand (or completely ignore) his advice about marriage because we don't share Paul's eschatological outlook...Paul didn't write for posterity, believing one day his advice would become our Scripture. No, he wrote because he believed the time was short" (Loc. 1504 and 1700). 
(Paul) presumes that a man will love Christ more than any woman. He thinks that women won't look for fulfillment in a man because they find everything they need in Christ...In our attempts to make Christian families ideal, we forgot our most important obligation: devotion to Christ (not the family) is what makes a man or a woman a Christian...As far as Paul was concerned, true love isn't found in marriage" (Loc. 1542, 1564, and 1587).
Reeves imagines what it would look like if Paul were doing marriage counseling. Husband and wife bring their grievances to his office and Paul responds with questions about their individual walks with Christ--the heart of the problem, but sadly missing from most books and counseling on marriage and communication. 

In independent-minded America, we often believe we can be Christians by ourselves. That our denomination--our team-- is the "winner." That our sins only have private consequences. Paul's letters overwhelmingly paint the Church as a united family, what helps one is to help all-- what hurts one hurts all (most people never grasp that the "you" in Phil 1:6 is a plural noun). That's the overarching theme of the crucified life-- our old families, customs, beliefs, our rights to ourselves are crucified with Christ.  

"He would encourage us to find a way to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others, even for those with whom we disagree. Paul would remind us that we can't be Christians by ourselves." (Loc. 2827). 
This book is five stars. One complaint I have (besides lending being disabled) with the Kindle version is that the references aren't hyperlinked for easy flipping back and forth. 

Saturday, April 20, 2013

What journalists can't tell you about the Tsarnaev family

Did you know that Neil Armstrong heard the Adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, on the moon? That Americans always elect Jews to the Presidency, including Lincoln, both Bushes, and Barack Obama? That if men would only eat (holy) bread, they wouldn't get weak-- no other food is necessary (and various similar dietary helps)? That populous China doesn't invade much less-populated Siberia because they actually tried that once in the 1980s and secret Russian weapons destroyed the entire army? That America has never done anything to help a Muslim country? That all Jews working in the World Trade Center received a phone call a day before 9/11 warning them of danger

Those of us who have lived in Central Asia long enough know these myths by heart. They're repeated as fact  by well-traveled PhDs as well as the local farmer. Americans have the luxury of going to for debunking help, but if you don't speak English and don't have access, who are you going to trust? Probably not some foreigner telling you that you're incorrect.

Caucasian Muslims are, by and large, nominal Muslims. It's an ethnic heritage more than a religion, and one that is not widely understood. Most people groups have simply pasted Islam over their much more ancient customs-- they may worship ancestors, visit witchdoctors, drink moonshine, and never see a Koran. (I was told on more than one occasion visiting Lezgin villages along the Dagestani border that "Real Muslims drink alcohol," among other things Islam actually forbids.) Hence, they have no love of radical Islamists who forbid what is commonly practiced in their historically pagan cultures. (Full disclosure: In northern Azerbaijan, I was accused of being a Wahabbist simply because I didn't drink or visit prostitutes.)

These are aspects of the Tsarnaev family's world that Americans can't understand. So, when you hear the Tsarnaev's father repeating that his children were framed, that there's a conspiracy by the U.S. government, it sounds quite plausible to many Caucasians or Central Asians. Much stranger conspiracy theories are accepted as truth. It's a fantastic thing that Suspect #2 was taken alive-- else the father's claim that the government was covering something up by killing him get quicker traction. Don't underestimate the presupposition in much of Central Asia that this is just the latest example of an anti-Muslim conspiracy by the U.S. government.

Most U.S. journalists covering this story have never been to Dagestan or the North Caucasus. They may have toured Moscow but be only vaguely aware of how different the rest of the country is. This leads to wild speculation, like this one by David Remnick in this widely-circulated New Yorker piece that
"If Tamerlan did what he is suspected of doing, he might not have got his education, or instructions, entirely through digital means. On January 12, 2012, (Tamerlan) flew from New York to Moscow, a regular target of Chechen rage; he didn’t return until seven months later." (end of paragraph)
The suggestion is that Tamerlan Tsaraev a) stayed 7 months in Moscow and b) it somehow radicalized him to live in the "target of Chechen rage."  However, The same interview that Remnick quotes the Tsarnaev father from, Mr. Tsarnaev says that Tamerlan stayed in Maxachkala with the family for those months, pondering staying there rather than returning to the U.S. where he was reportedly denied citizenship. Fact: You can't fly from the U.S. straight to Dagestan, you have to go through Moscow. Fact: Moscow has 12 million people, including tens of thousands of Chechens and other ethnic Muslims. Terrorist attacks are very few. Many are working there (many illegally) because the wages are higher than just about anywhere else in the former Soviet Union.  I know plenty of Caucasian Muslims who have worked happily in Moscow, it more than fed their families.

So, the fact that Tamerlan Tsarnaev happened to travel through Moscow, or even stayed with his family in Dagestan, means absolutely nothing. Dagestan is such a dangerous place that Russia puts travel restrictions on Westerners who want in. This has little to do with Chechnya and more to do with the massive amount of organized crime and its ongoing violence. Car bombs, kidnappings, and assassinations are rather frequent, and Westerners would make great targets for ransoms. Some pundits on CNN seem to link Chechnya and Dagestan as the same place. Dagestan has 30 different common languages, it's a huge home to dozens of people groups, only one of which are Chechen. They have co-existed for millenia. I recommend Yoav Karney's Highlanders book for ways in which these co-existing peoples are all quite diverse.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Recommended readings on Chechnya, Dagestan, and the North Caucasus

As more information about the Boston bombing suspects unfolds and they apparently were of North Caucasus / Dagestani origin, I thought I'd share a few helpful books about the Caucasus. (I used to live/work along the Dagestani border in Azerbaijan.)

Highlanders is a fascinating take on the hundreds of people groups in the Caucasus region, all with ancient and complex languages and social customs. (Dagestan itself has something like 30 official languages.) Karny travels to various villages in Azerbaijan, Russia, and Georgia to highlight the similarities and differences, telling a few famous legends along the way. This is probably my favorite book because it touches on the lives of the people and their rich cultures and the mystery of where they've come from. I've hiked in places and villages where no American was known to have gone before, and this book has a similar element of uncovering new territory.
   Caucasus: A Journey to the Land Between Christianity and Islam. Griffin's book is a good primer on conflict in the Caucasus. He introduces the reader to Imam Shamil, a Daghestani warrior who resisted the Tsar's Russian army for years before eventually selling out.
   Chechnya Diary. Thomas Goltz' best work is Azerbaijan Diary, his chronicle of the Azerbaijan-Armenia war of the early 90's. That war hardened him for what he saw in Chechnya, chronicled in this book. This is a quick read and if you like war stories from a front-line perspective, then pick this one up. Some people consider Goltz's style to suffer greatly from PTSD. He does give you insights into the Chechen mentality, chronicling a gradual change in the 1990s in the region from Sufism to Wahabbism.

There are also a few books on the Caucasus dating from the 1800's available on Project Gutenberg, which I have yet to read. George Kennan was a famous American traveler in the region, his stories are always worth reading.

*Update*: Joshua Tucker has this list of academic writings on the Caucasus.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Book review (#7 of 2013) Beer is Proof that God Loves Us: Reaching for the Soul of Beer and Brewing by Charles Bamforth

This book popped up as free for Kindle one day in 2010 and I downloaded it because it reminded me of this Keith Walters post on alcohol and Scripture. I hadn't thought about it much until we were in Turkey, where we befriended a Lutheran family via our church, the husband of which is an avid home brewer (as is apparently a requirement of Lutheran males). He hosted  beer-brewing & NFL-watching nights attended by many expat Christians and curious Turks, good times had by all.

Bamforth is a PhD chemist from the U.K. who holds a chair endowed by Anheuser-Busch at UC Davis. He has worked in research and development in the beer industry and has chronicled its development over the last few decades. To my surprise, the book was nothing about God at all, it's simply a treatise on the art and economics of beer brewing.

Bamforth chronicles the merger/buy-outs of the beer industry as centuries-old companies swallow other centuries-old companies. He discusses the economies of scale and what they mean for brewing. He explains some of the history, the quality control, and health benefits of beer. (Beer has many more potential benefits for you than your Coke, Dr. Pepper, etc.) He also provides some anecdotes from his international travels about the various types of beer being produced abroad.

Beer has been brewed for thousands of years (Bamforth claims the Sumerians were first, but this NY Times article last month put forth even earlier dates) and anthropologists consider it to be important to the development of civilization. Bamforth laments that such a sophisticated drink is now marketed as a juvenile product to college-aged delinquents:

"It certainly has been an uphill battle for me endeavoring to spread messages of moderation and that beer ought to be a beneficial, welcome, and wholesome aspect of an adult’s lifestyle when I am confronted by imagery of flatulent horses and soccer ball juggling turtles as an aide to selling beer." (Loc. 1260)
Bamforth has been annoyed by the neo-prohibitionist culture in the U.S., and does spend a chapter or so defending beer consumption from its critics. He points out the irony that the original colonists migrating from England believed that alcohol consumption was essential for their survival (the title of the book is from a Benjamin Franklin quote). Beer was actually not in the crosshairs of early prohibitionists, seen as not a problem compared to stronger alcohol. (The author would find Kentucky's free-smoking but anti-alcohol laws quite annoying, I'm sure). Bamforth is Episcopalian by upbringing. He offers a quote from C.S. Lewis, who was known to enjoy a pint in his day:

"An individual Christian may see fit to give up all sorts of things for special reasons—marriage, or meat, or beer, or cinema; but the moment he starts saying the things are bad in themselves, or looking down his nose at other people who do use them, he has taken the wrong turning." (Loc. 1741)
But for Dr. Bamforth, beer isn't his passion-- it's his job. I appreciated his candidness that although he is a renowned expert on the subject, he could take it or leave it:

"I work with beer as I do the thing that fills me with joy: teach. In truth, it would not matter what I was teaching. My joy is in the performing, the transfer of information."

I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5. If you want to know a lot more about beer than you currently do, check it out. Alas, it appears it's no longer free for Kindle.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

On North Korea

Before yesterday's bombing in Boston, the world's attention was riveted on North Korea. Our local NPR station plays BBC Newshour in the mornings, so I got to hear this fantastic piece about North Korean refugees. I'm always fascinated to hear about NK adults who, for various reasons, flee the country and suddenly are shocked to find their entire realities in North Korea were all fabricated-- lies and propaganda. It takes months and years of therapy to recover. The stories of physical hardship suffered by women fleeing to China and basically being sold into slavery is also a bit disturbing.

There are a few refugees who became Christians in South Korea and they talk of replacing worship of Kim Jong-il with worship of the real God. They mention some of the underground churches in North Korea, and I wonder what it must be like for them. What must it be like for a child in those houses to read in the Bible about a world outside their country, to have faith that those people and places were real even when their schools and government say they were not?

The show reminded me of a couple good North Korean pieces I've read in the last couple years, and I share them here for your own reading fulfillment.

The first is from the Feb. 24, 2011 edition of The Atlantic "North Korea's Digital Underground." It discusses networks of people who smuggle in media content via thumb drives and smuggle out intelligence and footage.  It interviews broadcasters who beam in anti-regime radio broadcasts but have no knowledge if anyone has ever heard them.

Another is from Dec. 18, 2011 penned by "Kenji Fujimoto," who worked for years as Kim Jong-il's chef, while becoming his friend and adviser, and published a memoir about it. "I was Kim Jong-Il's Cook" details the late dictator's eccentricities and sexual perversions. Fujimoto was apparently a helpful source of intelligence to the West.

I would very much like to read Escape from Camp 14 or Nothing to Envy.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The most influential article I've read in the last year- Kevin Drum's article on lead and crime.

Violent crime rates have fallen steadily across the U.S. over the last 30 years, which has been great for America. A few hypotheses have purported as to the "why." There's the "broken window" hypothesis that once cities like New York started to focus on the details they eventually reached a "tipping point" where low-crime areas became easier to perpetuate. Better policing, more money for police, a better economic environment have also been put forth. But econometric analysis debunked everything, especially for the continued fall in crime over recent years.  That brought about the controversial Steven Levitt hypothesis that legalized abortion caused potential criminals from poor mothers to be aborted-- something much harder to test and prove/disprove. I'd often pondered this puzzle when watching the evening news over the years. It seemed like one of the great unknowns around me.

Enter separate coincidental studies by several researchers on lead (the element--Pb) as a cause of violent behavior. Kevin Drum wrote a fantastic article for Mother Jones chronicling the discoveries:

"Put all this together and you have an astonishing body of evidence. We now have studies at the international level, the national level, the state level, the city level, and even the individual level. Groups of children have been followed from the womb to adulthood, and higher childhood blood lead levels are consistently associated with higher adult arrest rates for violent crimes. All of these studies tell the same story: Gasoline lead is responsible for a good share of the rise and fall of violent crime over the past half century."

Drum's article had a huge impact on how I think about the mind and human behavior. I thought about it when I was dealing with very rowdy, often violent children in the Turkish classroom. I think about it when I see adults on the news commit violent crimes that make no sense. "Sin nature" is all too often the simple catch-all that Christians give to describe such things. But the last 30 years haven't seen a decline in the sin nature of people around the world. A person's environment plays a major role in behavior and his ability to control violent urges.  These studies seem to show that pretty clearly.

Drum is well left-of-center, and trumpets that it's government outlawing of leaded gasoline that plays the major role in reducing lead emissions. The market, left to its own devices, may have never banished the lead is the argument. I have no idea what the facts say on that, often industry is already eliminating harmful elements (see: child labor) before government gets involved.

But I highly recommend the article and its follow-ups just for the pure thought-provoking information about the effects of lead pollution on people and society.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Book review (#6 of 2013): Jesus, My Father, The CIA and Me by Ian Morgan Cron

(All reviewed books are Kindle unless otherwise noted). 
Ian Morgan Cron is an Episcopalian adjunct priest and former youth worker with Young Life. This after growing up as the Roman Catholic son of an essentially absent and abusive alcoholic father, a scar from his secret CIA life.

Cron wrote this memoir about his childhood years after his father's death, after he began a long healing process processing long-buried emotions and coming to terms with himself and God.

This book made the Wall Street Journal's bestseller list. Who is the audience? I'd say teenagers, particularly guys, in Cron's youth group struggling with identity and people just curious about what it was like to have a real-life secret spy as your dad. You have to get through much of Cron's wisecracks and humor, he sounds like a corny youth pastor type to me. But the book is interesting and has elements that many men find interesting and worth contemplating.

Cron didn't know his father was a CIA agent until late in his teenage years, after he discovered a picture of his dad playing golf with the President. He never learned many stories from his father, only occasional tidbits. His family always lived in upscale communities, going from wealth to poverty to well-off again while his father checked out mentally for seemingly years at a time. (It makes one wonder how old-school CIA agents were recruited and operated. It resembles the Matt Damon flick The Good Son a lot.)

Cron is raised in Catholic schools and has many stories from it. As a teenager, he's invited to a Young Life club and eventually begins a deeper spiritual walk with God, culminating in his seeking professional counseling after his father dies and his mind frees itself from its silence. He goes on to become an Episcopalian minister and is now seeking his doctorate. 

I give this book 3 stars out of 5. It's well-written, entertaining, and has a message of hope and redemption. It is a little campy at times and makes me wonder "who is reading this book?" other than people like me who found the title intriguing and it was a cheap $1.99 deal on Amazon at the time. I would probably give it to a teenager or college student as an entertaining read that demonstrates the importance of vulnerability, family, and spirituality.

Friday, April 12, 2013

If only UEFA rules were used for NCAA league play and tournaments

Watching UEFA football (aka soccer) league tournaments recently I've come to appreciate the format. Europeans have been doing sports longer than the U.S., might we learn something from them?

Under UEFA rules, teams play a home-and-home and the team with the most goals wins. In the event of a tie, the team with the most away goals wins. If still a tie, you go to overtime and then penalty kicks.

I think this would be great for NCAA basketball (and perhaps football). Most conference teams currently play a home-and-home. Let's declare the one with the most points the winner. An individual game would therefore matter less. The last possession of a game would receive less focus, which is currently the error in thinking in today's game. Teams would rarely play an overtime. An RPI would be less meaningful in favor of (arguably more accurage) rating systems like Sagarin that factor in points scored. We could potentially have less arguing in March about "these two bubble teams split during the regular season, which one is tournament worthy?"

I think you could make the NIT a pilot program for the format to help generate revenue for the schools and draw more interest to that tournament. If people like the format, hey, you could double the number of NCAA tournament games with the new format-- and make the outcome more accurate, similar to a playoff. 

Another problem it would solve: Kentucky was an NIT #1 seed but had to play on the road at Robert Morris due to scheduling conflicts that week (the school was hosting the NCAA first round). Having a home-and-home would have solved that problem, they could have played in Lexington the following week.

How would it affect the strategies of the teams? The first game probably wouldn't be affected at all, but the tempo of the second game would likely be different than it otherwise might be. A team that got blown out the first game could be highly motivated to make up that margin the second. Behold the second half of Galatasaray-Real Madrid this week. Galatasaray went into the second half of the second leg down 4-0 in aggregate. RM then relaxed while Galatasaray attacked, quickly scoring 3 goals and making it quite exciting to watch. 

Here's a fun experiment. Look at one of the home-and-home games your favorite team played this season. Total the points scored by each team and use away goals as tie-breaker. Using this format, who won? Do you think that method of determining the victor is a more accurate one?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The irony of Kentucky's dry counties

Being back in Kentucky, I marvel over a stark contradiction: Many places still do not have smoking bans, particularly the rural areas, and restaurants are often smoke-filled; however, many of those same places prohibit the sale of alcohol. Banning smoking is seen as an infringement on personal liberty, while banning alcohol is not. A further irony is that some counties with liquor bans (or which have had bans until recently) produce bourbon whiskey-- 95% of the world's bourbon is produced in Kentucky, one of the "driest" states in America. 

Some of these dry counties are tourism hotspots. In the lakeside county where my parents resided, it's normal to see confused Yankee tourists asking gas station attendants why they don't sell beer. "You have to drive 10 miles that way, or 30 miles that way" they reply (and the "10 mile" part is only very recent). Maybe the best Italian restaurant in the state is also one of the few Italian places of its caliber in the world unable to serve wine.

Various restrictions exist on restaurants selling alcohol with meals and various exceptions are able to be made for places such as golf courses. The Supreme Court has called the maze of laws "confusing at best" (yes, this topic has its own wikipedia page).

In Kentucky it's illegal to sell distilled spirits and wine in grocery stores. I've heard of one rural grocery where the owner literally closes and locks up one side of his store and unlocks a separate side of his store when someone wants to buy liquor-- classifying them legally as two separate stores.
The county seat we currently reside in recently lifted a ban on packaged liquor sales but few are lining up to sell it. The local CVS pharmacy doubles as the only liquor store in town, whereas CVS stores located in dry parts of the state interpret the law to mean they can't sell liquor because they also obtain "substantial" revenue by selling "staple groceries." The alcohol producers' lobby is all over this issue, arguing in part that prohibition was perpetuated in many counties by bootleggers, police, and even ministers who were all illicitly profiting off the restricted competition (economists love that argument).

So, tourists passing through these areas note the irony-- they are expected to consume others' cigarette smoke while consuming an adult beverage themselves is illegal. It's definitely a throwback to an older era of America. Perhaps Kentucky should market this quirky aspect about itself for tourism purposes?

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Book Review (#5 of 2013) Autism and Asperger Syndrome: The Facts by Simon Baron-Cohen

This is as informative a book in as small a number of pages as I've ever read. Baron-Cohen is Director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge. I first heard of him in a Five Books interview. The ARC website has a great database of scientific research into the nature of the autism spectrum. Baron-Cohen also helped produce The Transporters, a video series designed to teach autistic kids to recognize emotions, which my 4 year old son loves.

Cohen is author of a couple psychological theories about autism, but presents all the main theories and shows their overlap and weaknesses.  He also presents the neuroscience-- what brain scans, chemical tests, and autopsies are telling us about people in the autism spectrum. Cohen is humble in what he presents, and also humble in his skepticism of the quasi-scientific hypotheses that are out there. That's why the ARC website is so critical, you can see what actual well-designed, random, double-blind tests show as opposed to, say, a parental survey presented by opportunistic "experts" eager to make money or sell their diet plan. There is a deficit in qualified research, but the field is rapidly growing.

Our 4 year old is currently on a waiting list for a potential diagnosis, so my wife and I have been trying to get factual information quickly. This book was VERY helpful ad contains links to further resources. I highly recommend it as a starting point. Five stars out of five.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

There is no such thing as a "game-winning" shot.

Reading Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow really changed how I look at the end of basketball games. We spend so much time remembering/talking about the end of a close game, as if that last shot or that last blown call was more important than the others-- they're not. Two points is always just two points. The blown calls at the 8:13 and 12:45 mark were just as consequential as the one at 39:49. The last shot taken doesn't "win the game," the final score is a cumulative outcome of all shots made. If you lost by one point, then any of your missed field goals or free throws would have made the difference. Kahneman calls this obsession with the final moments "the tyranny of the remembering self."

Kentucky fans (myself included) suffer the '92 Laettner shot every year. There's no need. Had he missed any of his shots, or Kentucky made just one more shot or free throw the outcome would have been different. The final play was just one of a large number.

The Michigan economist @justinwolfers reminded me during the championship game that Michigan's benching of Trey Burke after picking up his 2nd foul in the first half was also illogical. It doesn't matter if Burke plays the first 30 minutes or the last 30 minutes of a game, two points are two points whenever they're scored. (This would have taken away the captivating Spike Albrecht show. It was illogical to keep playing Albrecht in second half, something called regression to the mean-- he's not a good player and it showed.) There is no such thing as "crunch time." The end of the game is no more important than the beginning. Invite an economist to watch a game with you whenever you want it ruined.

A booke related to the subject that I'd highly recommend:

Dean Oliver now works for, this book is dated but still the bible of statistical analysis of basketball.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Book Review (#4 of 2013) Told in the Coffee House by Cyrus Adler, Allan Ramsey

This collection of 29 Turkish short stories was first published in 1898. It is a charming look at life in the Ottoman Empire, particularly in Istanbul. What particularly struck me was the co-mingling of Turkish, Armenian, Greek, and Jewish cultures in Turkey in those days. A couple of the stories are credited as being from Armenians and feature Armenians as the protagonists. Anyone living in Turkey should check out this quick historical read as some are timeless, like "The Effects of Rakı," which I paste below in its entirety (those familiar with the "Lion's Milk" can understand the story):

Bekri Mustafe, who lived during the reign of Sultan Selim, was a celebrated toper, and perhaps at that time the only Moslem drunkard in Turkey. Consequently, he was often the subject of conversation in circles both high and low. It happened that his Majesty the Sultan had occasion to speak to Bekri one day, and he asked him what pleasure he found in drinking so much raki, and why he disobeyed the laws of the Prophet. Bekri replied that raki was a boon to man; that it made the deaf to hear, the blind to see, the lame to walk, and the poor rich, and that he, Bekri, when drunk, could hear, see, and walk like two Bekris. The Sultan, to verify the truth of this statement, sent his servants into the highways to bring four men, the one blind, the other deaf, the third lame, and the fourth poor. Directly these were brought, his Majesty ordered raki to be served to them in company with Bekri. They had not been drinking long when, to the glory of Bekri, the deaf man said: "I hear the sound of great rumbling."
And the blind man replied: "I can see him; it is an enemy who seeks our destruction."
The lame man asked where he was, saying, "Show him to me, and I will quickly despatch him."
And the poor man called out: "Don't be afraid to kill him; I've got his blood money in my pocket."
Just then a funeral happened to pass by the Palace buildings, and Bekri got up and ordered the solemn procession to stop. Removing the lid of the coffin, he whispered a few words into the ear of the dead man, and then putting his ear to the dead man's mouth, vented an exclamation of surprise. He then ordered the funeral to proceed, and returned to the Palace.
The Sultan asked him what he had said to the dead man, and what the dead man replied.
"I simply asked him where he was going and from what he had died, and he replied he was going to Paradise, and that he had died from drinking raki without a mézé."
Whereupon the Sultan understanding what he wanted, ordered that the mézé should be immediately served.

It's free for Kindle at Amazon and various formats at Project Gutenberg. 3 stars out of 5.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Firearm liability insurance - my preferred alternative to universal background checks (Part 2)

Part 1 here.
Maybe everyone in America agrees there is too much gun crime. "Too much" is translated into economists' jargon as "negative externality" or "the price is too low." If 30,000 people die in the U.S. every year from firearms, then it must be too cheap to buy, maintain, and use a firearm. The fact that there are an estimated 300 million guns in the U.S. suggests the quantity is far beyond optimal.

Expanding the currently malfunctioning background check system to include private transactions would increase the price and reduce the quantity. But you have a high cost to government of designing a system that is secure and reliable-- something the current system is not. You also are imposing a legal restriction on private citizens-- limiting freedom. To claim that expanded background checks is optimal policy you have to show that the marginal dollar spent to create the system would be better than, say, more money spent on mental health diagnosis and treatment. Given that background checks didn't (couldn't) stop some of the larger mass-shootings that have inspired the policy, I have to wonder if there's a better way. .

Another problem with gun crimes that expanded background checks doesn't solve is the issue of compensating shooting victims. A costly lawsuit that puts the victim's family through a cruel emotional ringer is another negative externality of gun violence. There is also the great cost to police and medical services, which are paid for ultimately by the taxpayer.

Can we find a way to increase the price of the transaction such that the private owners internalize the cost to society of gun violence, including compensation to victims and public services? 

I prefer letting the private market create incentives for people to own fewer guns, rather than the government limiting personal freedoms and restricting voluntary transactions. The government can "nudge" the market in the right direction by imposing a tax-- raising the price of the activity, thereby reducing the amount of the activity.

The Supreme Court recently ruled that requiring people to buy health insurance is legal under Congress' ability to tax. Enter liability insurance for gun owners.

Under current law, owners are not held liable for everything that happens to their gun. If it's stolen and used in a crime, the owner isn't liable. This means owners who don't properly secure their guns aren't necessarily negligent-- as they arguably should be. This article points out that liable-without-fault laws apply to owners of explosives who injure people, no matter how careful they are, and should be applicable to gun owners.

The first step, then, is to hold owners liable-without-fault. That would greatly incentivize even current gun owners to purchase liability insurance on their gun. The NRA currently offers such insurance to their members at quite a low rate, a few hundred dollars a year.The insurance company compensates victims for accidents, pays for legal costs, etc.-- just like your automobile liability insurance.

Anyone who has auto or life insurance knows that actuaries are quite deft at assessing risk. There would be a scale of rates depending on what the gun is typically used for, the history of the owner, his and his ability to secure the gun (safe, locks, etc.). Some good op-eds have been penned on this subject by traditionally conservative sources, so I'll just link to them for longer arguments:
John Wasik at Forbes magazine.
The Economist.
Dan Eastwood

One Democratic lawmaker has introduced legislation in Congress that would charge a $10,000 penalty for not having liability insurance. ($10,000 is pretty cheap compared to what other states have reportedly proposed.) This follows a failure of several state legislatures to pass such laws, claiming that the premiums would be prohibitive enough to violate the 2nd Amendment. But our courts already have no problem denying guns to some people, the only ones facing "prohibitive" premiums would likely be only the very same people. This would obviously also cover current gun owners and not just future ones-- correcting the weakness of expanded background checks.

In short, liable-without-fault legislation combined with a liability insurance requirement would allow people to freely buy and sell guns but hold them responsible by requiring they pay premiums in line with their ability to handle the given gun. This would increase the price of gun, reduce the quantity of guns sold, and provide greater compensation to victims and civil servants.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Firearm liability insurance - my preferred alternative to universal background checks (Part 1)

A NY Magazine piece by Dan Amira claims to debunk "every objection to expanding background checks," but I think it falls short of that mark.

First, Amira dismisses one particular objection-- that universal background checks wouldn't have prevented Newtown, Columbine, or a host of other shootings where the guns were taken from other people who had passed background checks.  Amira says it's "beside the point," but it's exactly the point-- the policy should prevent the unwanted activity.

If I said "Let's prevent forest fires by closing national parks," and Amira responded "But most forest fires aren't started by people in national parks," and I responded "That's besides the point. Some forest fires will be prevented that way," I suspect Amira wouldn't agree I "debunked" his argument.

Design of optimal policy needs to be aided by marginal analysis. Why not aim for optimal policy instead of saying "it might help some" without comparing to cost?   ECO 100 example (from a bestselling textbook):
A town with several traffic lights is considering adding an additional one. Is it worth paying any cost? Rational cities consider costs. The light would cost $10,000. It reduces probability of a life being lost by 0.5% and actuaries value the average American life at $10 million.  The benefit of the light is therefore: .005 x $10,000,000 = $50,000.  Benefit outweighs the cost, the streetlight should be built.

But what's the cost-benefit analysis of expanding universal checks? I haven't seen one.

Our current system requires licensed firearm dealers do background checks using a national registry that depends upon states putting in mentally unstable people into the system. The NRA claims that 23 states still don't submit information to that database as required (There are more specific stories on states' lack of reporting). Since the costs of maintaining or entering data into the current system are evidently too high, why not fix that problem first before requiring more people to use the system? I think it's good that the system is denying some potential murderers weapons, but if the point is to deny more, then fixing the already-existing system seems smarter than further overburdening it. Amira says this line of thinking is "irrelevant."

If I say "12 houses burned to the ground here last year. We should require the fire department buy more trucks," and the Mayor says "But the fire department doesn't have enough manpower or training to use the trucks it already has," I suppose Amira would have to respond "that's irrelevant, buy the trucks."

Licensed dealers already accept the burden of background checking. Licensed alcohol venders also require ID (a much smaller transaction cost). But the universal background check would put the onus on private parties. Something that has always been sold as easily as a baseball card now requires a much larger transaction cost to be legal-- it's hard to think of a similar precedent. Grandpa George trying to trade his old .22 rifle on Craigslist? The system has to be designed so he can use it and be confident that he won't be held liable if a crime is committed or the background check was wrong. The current holes in the nationwide registry don't leave me with such confidence. The system also has to protect the buyer from potential identity theft-- giving his Social Security number to Grandpa George might not be such a good idea, for example.

And what of the 300 million guns out there that have registered owners-- some of which are dangerous or unstable but bought their guns before background checks were required? Universal background checks wouldn't prevent their future crimes. Is there a system that might be more likely to deal with the guns already in their hands?

I think so, and I'll get into it in Part 2.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Book Review (#3 of 2013) The Yogurt Man Cometh by Kevin Revolinski

This post is taken from our Tapps' Turkish Travels blog.

Some friends of ours lent us a copy of The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey as it's a humorous read about an American's crash course in living in Ankara and teaching at the same K-12 school where I taught. We highly recommend the book to anyone living in Ankara or planning to visit there.

Ankara was Revolinski's first real foray outside the U.S., he has since become a travel blogger. He captures the hilly slopes, the perils of public transit, and the difficulties of trying to teach English to private school students very well. Kevin was able to make friends quickly and accomplished a lot of sightseeing in Turkey, Cyprus, and Syria in just a year's time, despite getting seriously ill in the process. The experience takes place in 1997-1998 and it's interesting to see how much the city has grown and changed even in just 15 years.

The book is a quick read, it's like a series of blog posts. It's the book that will get you closest to what our lives look(ed) like in Ankara. Trust us, you'll enjoy it even if you never plan on visiting.