Wednesday, November 03, 2004

What I'm Reading 

The Gimli Glider Incident
Most of you probably know that I really hate flying. It's a totally irrational fear, since I am quite well-informed about how safe it is. For some reason, I found this article strangely reassuring.

New York City Picks New Streetlight Design
I saw this on Fark. New York City just had a competition to design a new streetlamp for the city's inventory, with the eventual goal of replacing most of the city's lights. I actually really like the winning design. It looks cool, and I like the way they put the grooves up the stem of the lamp so that signs and signals can be attached without having to wrap those ugly metal bands around the whole post. Most interesting to me was the fact that they're designed to be powered by LEDs. Given the power usage of conventional streetlamps, and the fact that they need to be on at all times during the night, the power and cost-savings of converting those to LEDs could be substantial. UCSB's Materials department probably has at least one more Nobel prize headed its way some day for this invention.

The Idea Trap
This article by Bryan Caplan argues that there are two equilibria for policy: good and bad. Good policies reinforce themselves by creating growth and thus lead to reasoned debate and more good policies, while bad policies reinforce themselves by creating misery and desperation, which leads people to open themselves to nonsensical policies. There's no rigor here, and I don't think I buy his arguments, but there does seem to be at least a kernel of truth in what he's saying from a psychological standpoint...I'm sure we can all think of similar examples from history or life.

I think this paper is ultimately too simplistic, though; there are many countries that have bettered their lot by simply realizing that their policies were bad and copying those of countries with better outcomes. He says that that's due to luck, and in a sense it is (so are all good things), but it doesn't give credit to people who make changes through rational thought. Or to put it in his framework, if things get bad enough, people who dogmatically believe in certain bad policies might open themselves up to "crazy" policies like those that seem to be working elsewhere, which undermines his point. Also, I reject his simplistic notion of good and bad policies. Different people in different places would consider different things to be "good" policy.

In general, attempts to categorically summarize the situation of diverse sick and developing economies always fails. There are too many variables to boil it down to a simple framework like this, and even Jeffrey Sachs, for all his successes, has had his failures. So always be suspicious of such simplicity.

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