Saturday, December 07, 2002

Percents of Percents

If you heard your income tax was going to rise (or fall) by 5%, what would you assume? Would you think that 5% more (or less) of your total income would be taken by government? Or perhaps, if you understand the marginal structure of the progressive income tax, that 5% more (or less) of your last dollar of income would be taken by government? I suspect that these answers are what most people would think, assuming they thought about it at all. But often, the percentages are actually percentages of percentages, so that the effect (whether from an increase or decrease in taxes) is actually much smaller than it appears.

Most recent example: this article from Citizens for a Sound Economy, an organization I once interned for and generally admire, says that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently signed into law an 18.5% increase in the property tax. Now, I don't know how high property taxes are in NYC, but I can't imagine they're high enough for that figure to be a percentage of actual property values, which tells me that it must be a percentage of a percentage. If, say, the property tax just rose from 5% to 6%, that would be about a 20% increase in the percentage (6% minus 5% divided by 5%).

The article doesn't actually claim that we're talking about 18.5% of your property value being taken by government, so the article isn't grossly misleading. And in any case, CSE is just following the general practice of politicians, journalists, and think tanks in discussing tax changes and proposals. But unless I'm terribly underestimating the American public, I'll bet that a lot of people are misled by statements like this. And at least sometimes, I think the deception is intentional. For instance, when a Republican politician wants to reduce the top marginal tax rate from 35% to 30%, Democrats will say, "The Republicans want to reduce rich people's taxes by over 14 percent [5 as a percentage of 35]"; they will almost never say, "The Republicans want to reduce rich people's taxes by 5 percentage points." (Of course, even the latter statement is misleading, as it overlooks the marginal tax structure - but that's not the point I'm getting at here.) Take note: using percentages of percentages is an equal-opportunity deception: those who want lower taxes will use it to overstate the size on an increase, while those who want higher taxes will use it to overstate the size of a decrease.


Friday, December 06, 2002

The Strength of Our Convictions

Eugene observes that in some jurisdictions, public defenders are elected. He speculates on what sort of campaigns there would be for such elections ("soft on crime" or "minimum constitutionally adequate defense"?). The seeming problem with electing public defenders is the apparent conflict of interest, as the general public is typically on the side of the prosecution, not the defense. So, here's my modest proposal: Why not have public defenders elected by the prison population, or perhaps by all persons who have been convicted of felonies? They would seem to be the appropriate constituency.

I'm only half serious, but the more I think about it, the more sense it makes. Matching the constituency to the interests represented by the office seems quite natural to me, and it would at least partially overcome the conflict of interest problem (if that problem is indeed serious, which it may not be). In many states, felons are actually denied the right to vote, so there would be a nice symmetry to having at least one election in which they are the *only* people who can vote. On the other hand, all of us have the *potential* to be on the wrong side of the law -- or more importantly, to be *accused* of being on the wrong side of the law -- so we all have some interest in having good public defenders. But the plain fact is that most Americans don't seem to consider that possibility until they find themselves there, whereas the already convicted have faced the reality.

I'd better stop before I convince myself.


Thursday, December 05, 2002

Economic Reasoning With a Hand Up Your Butt

On Friday night I watched "It's a Very Muppet Christmas," and I found it more entertaining than most of Henson Productions' recent output. As a longtime fan of the Muppets, I'm willing to forgive some of their more recent failures (e.g., "Muppets Tonight," an unfortunate attempt to resurrect "The Muppet Show") and give them another chance from time to time. "A Very Muppet Christmas" had me chuckling most of the way through -- especially when I saw that the Muppets' Christmas spectacular was called "Moulin Scrooge."

Unfortunately, the show was marred by its misguided political-economic message. The plot revolves around the efforts of an evil banker (Joan Cusack) to take away the Muppet Theater unless the Muppets make their overdue loan payment by midnight of Christmas Eve (the contractually specified deadline). If she succeeds in repossessing the theater, she plans to turn it into (horrors!) a skeezy nightclub.

Since the primary viewers of the show were probably Muppet devotees like myself, this was a safe message. The Muppets are great -- who would want to see the Muppet Theater get shut down? But here's the problem. If the public really loves to watch the Muppets, then the Muppets should be able to raise enough revenue to cover their operating costs and pay off the loan. If they can't, then clearly people don't want to watch the Muppets, in which case they *should* lose the theater. Resources should be allocated to their most valuable uses, as determined by the revealed preferences of consumers. In the real world, the Muppets are bankable enough that Henson Productions is unlikely to close its doors (though it has been bought and sold a handful of times). But in the fictional world created by the show's own plot, apparently the Muppets aren't so bankable after all.

Predictably, the Muppets stage a huge Christmas show that will bring in *just* enough money to pay off the loan -- which suited me fine. If they can generate the cash, then their existence is economically justified after all. In addition, Cusack's banker proves to be not merely profit-seeking, but actually unethical as well: after somehow getting her hands on both copies of the loan contract, she alters them to move the payment deadline to 6:00pm instead of midnight. That little maneuver enabled me to set aside my ideological objections and accept Cusack as a suitable villain for the remainder of the movie.

Until the end, that is. At the last minute, as Cusack basks in her triumph and orders the Muppets to evacuate the theater, one of the Muppets (an amusing Mexican-stereotype shrimp named Pepe) saves the day. How does he do it? Does he find another copy of the contract? Does he find a means of proving that Cusack had altered the originals? Nope -- he petitions the City Council to declare the Muppet Theater an historical landmark, thereby prohibiting Cusack (or any future owner) from ever using the site for anything except, well, Muppet theatrics. In the end, good prevails over evil -- not because the truth comes out, not because the good creatures of the world demand justice, not because promises are honored and legitimate contracts enforced, but because our friend the government steps in to curtail private property rights!

I know, I know, it probably seems like I'm overreacting. And I am. Still, I can't help but think that plots like this affect young minds (and older ones, for that matter). Pop culture does influence people's political and economic beliefs. Movies and television shows that perpetually cast the businessperson as the bad guy, and the proponents of special privileges from the government as the good guys, do the public a disservice. I believe the Muppets can do better.


Wednesday, December 04, 2002

Jack Frost Roasting on an Open Fire

This is the informal poll that I've been giving to all my friends, and that I'm now opening to the public: What is the best Christmas song of all time, and what is the worst Christmas song of all time? I'm accepting nominations in two categories - classic and modern, where modern includes recent covers of old carols. (For the mathematically challenged, that's a total of four songs: best classic, worst classic, best modern, and worst modern.)

I'm not going to draw a sharp line between classic and modern, because I don't know enough about when most of these songs were written anyway. Just specify which category you're nominating each song for. (Kind of like the Oscars: there's no threshold amount of screen time that distinguishes Actors from Supporting Actors. It's just a matter of how they get nominated.)

Send me an email (link to the right) with your nominations. I'll publish the results here in, oh, a week or two. I'll hold a run-off if the numbers justify one. I have my own nominees, of course, but I wouldn't want to bias the results...


Tuesday, December 03, 2002

More Pesky Facts

I can't seem to start any blog fights with ideological enemies, but my friends seem to find plenty to argue about. Amy informs me that I'm wrong about the relative prevalence of wife-beating and husband-beating, and she points me to a bunch of evidence indicating that husband-beating is just as common. Rather than point you to the URLs, I'll just point you to Google and let you do a search on "husband beating." A plethora of articles will show up, although they do all seem to rely on the same one or two studies (specifically, Steinmetz 1977). I'm still skeptical. There's such an incredible array of evidence that men are generally more violent than women (just look at any statistics on violent crime or incarceration rates) that it's hard for me to believe things would be any different behind the marital veil. But lacking any specific facts to refute the Steinmetz conclusion, I guess I'll just have to grumble a little bit and admit that I could be wrong. Feh. Anyway, Amy agrees with the broader point of my last post, which is that objections to the term "wife beater" on grounds of offensiveness or discrimination are pretty silly.


Low-Brow Lexicography

According to this article, there is a minor fracas over the possible addition of "wife beater" (in the sense of an armless undershirt) to the Oxford English Dictionary. Apparently some people find the term offensive. The fracas is minor because the OED's mission is to document, not to dictate, word usage; the word "nigger" also appears in its pages, along with every other offensive term in the English language. I don't think anyone's seriously suggested that the OED's editors should exclude "wife beater" on grounds of political correctness.

But some critics do have a problem with the term itself, and their criticisms make little sense to me. NOW president Kim Gandy claims that using "wife beater" to refer to a garment "trivializes" domestic violence. I fail to see how. My sense is that people who use the term do so derogatorily; they intend to put down those who wear sleeveless undershirts as the kind of cretins who might beat their wives. Clearly, wife beating is seen as a bad thing.

Warren Farrell, a "men's advocate," has an even less comprehensible problem with the term: he says it's offensive to men because it excludes them. "We are so conscious of things like wife beating, but we are not conscious at all about husband beating. Domestic violence is equal opportunity. I wouldn't feel good about people wearing 'husband beaters' either." I don't get it - does Farrell think the term "wife beater" implies that husband beating doesn't occur? Besides, husband beating (and for that matter, anyone beating) is a serious matter, but I can't imagine it's anywhere near as common as wife beating. More common problems naturally get more attention.

And then there's the strange rejoinder of OED editor Jesse Sheidlower: "Apart from fashion writers writing about this, there's no evidence that this term is being used in an offensive way…. People who use this word are not using it to put anyone down." What? Of course they're using it put people down! In its origin, at least, the whole point was to say a person trashy enough to wear a shirt like that would probably beat his wife, too. The term "wife beater" is offensive and meant to be - but toward the beaters, not the wives.


Monday, December 02, 2002

History Lesson

Oops. My friend Tim Lee (who does not, to my knowledge, have a blog) informs me that my Roman history below is in error.
Actually, the story I learned was rather different. Most of the wandering into the hinterlands that occurred was in the early years of the empire, from Caesar's conquest of Gaul in the late first century BC to the conquest of Germanic tribes in the first century AD and the conquest of Britain in the second century.

When Augustus died in 14 AD, he decreed that the boundaries of the empire should remain as he left them, and with a few minor modifications (Britain being one of the biggest), they did. The Germanic tribes that Augustus failed to conquer were pretty much left alone for the rest of the empire's existence. I believe it was also Augustus who dramatically reduced the Roman military forces by almost half from its peak during the civil wars-- an enormous peace dividend-- and the size of the Roman military was roughly fixed thereafter.

The Romans literally built a giant wall across the continent of Europe, and stationed Roman legions along it. This strategy worked for more than 200 years-- the interior of the empire was more or less safe from marauding invaders from Augustus's death in 14 AD until sometime in the third or fourth century.

According to my history professor, the major causes of the collapse of the empire were internal. First, the Roman government developed a sort of proto-welfare state, which required raising taxes and eventually led to open warfare between tax collectors and wealthy Romans.

Secondly, the Roman legions stationed along the border became more loyal to their local commanders than to the emperor, since many had lived in a particular military outpost for several generations by the third century. As a result, it became increasingly common for a legion to march on Rome to install their commander as emperor. There are periods when Rome got a new emperor every year, each supported by a different regional faction within the army.

Finally, over time the barbarians became more civilized, at least in terms of military tactics and technology. Those closest to the border had the greatest contact with the empire, and so picked up new technologies the quickest. By the time Rome fell, the Germanic tribes just outside of Rome were using essentially the same weapons and tactics as those inside the empire.

When the barbarians finally succeeded in breaching the borders and looting the empire, there was for all intents and purposes no empire left. Rather, there was a patchwork of squabbling factions, with no meaningful control from Rome. At that point, it wouldn't have mattered what Rome had done militarily, because Rome wouldn't have been able to muster much of an army anyway, and they'd have been as likely to turn it on rebellious citizens as invading barbarians.
Tim later added the following addendum:
Most of the German territories were captured under Augustus in 12-9 BC, and Britian was first conquered by Claudius in 43-44 AD. So Rome's borders didn't change much from AD 44 until its fall 300+ years later.
Tim asked me to emphasize that he is not an expert on Roman history - but since I haven't taken a single course covering that subject since high school, I'll happily defer to his authority. I don't think this alters the larger point I was making, though. Engaging in unnecessary battles abroad can distract attention from the real threat banging at our door; while that may not have been the Romans' error, I think it's an error nonetheless.