Friday, November 23, 2012

More reader praise for ExMormon!!

This is from an email a reader sent me. I'm posting it here to my blog with permission:

I just wanted to tell you that I've just read Exmormon and that I've liked it a lot. It feels so realistic that I had to remember that you must have fictionalized parts of the story, and that anyway you couldn't have been each of the different narrators :-)

Also, I was actually surprised to find the story so engrossing, since I'm not usually so much into "people" stories (I'm more for the sf, "big ideas" kind). My initial interest was in the deconversion / leaving-religion-and-what-this-entails aspect of it, but I soon found myself simply caring about the characters and wanting desperately to find them again in each new story. I think you've written your book very well. Anyway, once I've finally started to read it, I couldn't put it down (can one say this for a pdf file?) and it was over in a couple of sittings. So thanks a lot! Now I'm suggesting to my wife to read it, too.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Rethinking Economics 2: Lessons from Switzerland!!

See here for part 1 on the private sector vs. the public sector.

Reading a post on a favorite blog, I learned that the far-right wing news outlet World News Daily recently wrote an article praising Switzerland and Sweden for having strong economies despite the current economic problems throughout the developed world.

Said the WND author: "Other governments could learn something." I agree wholeheartedly. I have learned some fantastic ideas from observing how things are done in Switzerland!! Mostly a simple point that absolutely can and should be applied elsewhere.

First off, what I learned is totally outside the box of the current Republican-Democrat polarized thinking in the United States today. WND naturally looks for interpretations from inside its ideological box -- but even on face-value that's a little absurd. Sure the Swiss political system is economically right-wing by European standards (though, still, practically flaming communists by American standards), but Sweden? Does there exist a country that is more Socialist? Clearly what we learn can't be simply that the Republicans' ideas are right and the Democrats' are wrong (or vice-versa). Maybe it's something else!

Now, I don't know much about Sweden, but Ed Brayton (linked above) points out that while they have low public debt, they also have one of the highest effective tax rates in the world, so maybe the lesson is to actually pay for government spending rather than repeatedly borrowing in order to cut taxes again...? Seems as good an interpretation as any. But, anyway, back to the country I know something about: Switzerland.

Before attempting to apply the Swiss model, it's important to understand the ways in which Switzerland is unique. The key point is that Switzerland is a tiny country with a ton of money. And the fact that the country is relatively less socialist than its neighbors is in large part the result of the wealth rather than the cause. How Switzerland became wealthy is a long and complicated story -- I'll just mention that the highly lucrative and questionable banking industry played a non-negligible role, and staying neutral during WWII didn't hurt either.

Then, when more people have the means to find their own individual solutions to things (like quality child-care and early-childhood education, for example), there's less push to find common solutions. So, for example, if you have small children and don't happen to be wealthy, you're better off in neighboring France.

But the interesting part of Switzerland's story isn't so much where the wealth originally came from as what they've done with it.

Switzerland supports an astonishing amount of scientific research. The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH) gets more than a billion Francs per year (a Franc is about a dollar), and several other universities in Switzerland have comparable budgets. In addition to hosting CERN (a multi-national nuclear physics research organization), there's also the Paul Scherrer Institute (which I have toured) -- full of particle accelerators as well.

The research performed at these institutions gets applied in real-world practical applications. For example, the Paul Scherrer Institute studies proton therapy, which is better than traditional radiation therapy for certain types of tumors. Additionally, ETH provides assistance for people to start their own companies based on research done there. I've seen how effective their programs are -- I work for one such company. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Also, remember how amazed I was by French public transportation? Well, Swiss public transportation is even better. If you haven't lived it, I can hardly describe how quick and convenient it is to go anywhere in the country (including wilderness) without ever getting behind the wheel of a car.

Additionally, Switzerland is a world leader in healthy, organic, sustainable agriculture, and a trend-setter in terms of buying local, seasonal foods (or, failing that, buying fair trade items).

In the US, economic health is constantly viewed in terms of consumer spending. But most of these consumer goods we're talking about are fundamentally disposable, and typically aren't even produced in the US. A wise economist once said that you don't pay people to dig holes and fill them back in again just to fuel the economy.

Suppose that one country (say, Finland) chooses to make education the top priority, and turns "teacher" into a highly-respected, well-paid, coveted position. Suppose another country (say, Germany) chooses to create incentives to power the country with solar energy. Suppose another country (say, Switzerland) funds world-class science research institutions, plus a super-efficient rail network, and creates incentives for sustainable agriculture. Suppose another country (do I need to name names here?) chooses to buy a mountain of junk from China.

All of these purchases fuel their respective countries' economies.

But at the end of the day, one of these countries has a highly-educated populace. One of these countries has extensive renewable power (and all of the security that goes with it). One of these countries has a robust and innovative tech industry, not to mention highly efficient transportation and a clean environment. And one of these countries has an enormous landfill and massive debt to China.

That's what I learned from Switzerland.

The US needs to stop seeing spending for the sake of spending as a good thing -- especially going into debt to do it. America's children would be better off if the American people could find the political will to make it a priority to spend wisely for the future.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Rethinking economics 1: the private sector is the only true sector

Blogger Brent (of "A Mormon in the Cheap Seats") wrote an excellent post for faithful Mormons about how social services for the poor in the US are more about levelling the playing field than about creating dependency. While I agree with his main points, one thing that has repeatedly struck me about recent American political discourse is that discussion of government social spending has been framed almost exclusively in terms of helping the poor (and whether they deserve it, etc.). Yes, keeping people from starving on the streets is an important component of functioning modern society -- but it's not the only role played by the public sector.

Let's take a step back and talk about some basic economics. In a modern society, most goods and services are provided either by the private sector (individuals, corporations, private organizations) or the public sector (government, at the local, state, or national level). Each of these two sectors has its advantages and disadvantages (as I discussed here). Any good American can tell you that there are plenty of goods and services that are produced a lot more efficiently by the private sector, motivated by private profits. However, it seems like most Americans are unwilling or unable to accept that there exist critical goods and services that can be provided better by the public sector.

I know this sounds crazy, but hear me out. I think the classic example from economics 101 is the lighthouse. In a costal city, no private individual or corporation profits enough from the lighthouse to pay the entire cost of building it, but the entire city profits from the trade that is made possible by affording ships safe access to the local harbor.

A modern society has a lot of lighthouses (metaphorically speaking). Scientific research is a big one. Technology a cornerstone of modern industry, and scientific research drives technological advances. However, the private sector is horrible at scientific research because the profitable kind is the kind that sets out to prove "my product works and is safe". I assume that I don't have to explain that if you set out to prove a pre-selected conclusion, at best you will get something that superficially resembles science, but without the accuracy.

Another lighthouse is education. A modern society benefits from having an educated populace. However, there are (at least) two big ideological obstacles to having successful public education in the United States. The first is that people seem to believe that public education is some sort of "entitlement" -- which, in Americanspeak, means "Some free-loader getting undeserved money, goods, or services on somebody else's dime." The second is a pervasive American belief that the government can never do anything right.

This belief is so pervasive that many Americans aren't even aware that it is an assumption that they are making. For example, if the government provides some service badly (say, for example, public transportation) many Americans will immediately conclude that the problem is that the government is inherently incompetent -- rather than looking beyond that idea for other causes for the particular problem, or looking for examples of other governments that have provided the same service well (for possible ideas to emulate).

It surprises me how many people take it as an unquestioned article of faith that "we need to cut the government smaller." Regardless of what the problem is, that's always the solution. Now, certainly, there exist countries that absolutely would benefit from cutting their government smaller. But in the United States, after many decades of acting on this belief, maybe more random hacking at it (solely for the purpose of making it smaller) isn't helpful. Why not change to insisting on competence? Insisting that what the government does, it should do it well.

I know that "government regulation" is a dirty word in American English. But I would like to make the radical suggestion that while it's possible for government regulations to be done badly (causing inefficiency), it's also possible for government regulations to be done well -- achieving desirable goals for your society.

I saw an interesting illustration of this idea in a recent article in Bloomberg Businessweek. (Why was I reading Bloomberg Businessweek? Somebody left a copy of it in the train, and it turned out to be surprisingly interesting...) Anyway, the thing that struck me in the article was that in the US, government regulations are/were preventing people who want solar energy from installing it, whereas government regulations in Germany were instrumental in building a huge (largely private) investment in a solar network that is cost-effective, despite Germany not being a particularly sunny country. And the US public utility companies looking out for their short-term profits were a large part of the problem, so privatizing (a popular solution to government inefficiency) would do the opposite of helping. It's time to expect government competence instead.

How did Americans come to believe that the private sector is the only true sector? Here's my guess:

The cold war had a huge impact on American thought. A lot of what it means to be American is tied up in being the opposite of the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union crumbled from within, it was almost universally interpreted by Americans as proof that the American way is the right way and the Soviet way was the wrong way. And this leads many people to the conclusion that the public sector is always wrong and the profit-driven private sector is the only true sector of the economy. (A secondary/related factor: too many educated people mistaking Ayn Rand novels for Economics textbooks instead of taking an actual Economics course.)

The problem with that logic is that just because having the entire economy run by a centralized public sector doesn't work, that doesn't imply that having the private sector run the whole economy does work. The culprit may well be a lack of balance. Indeed, the US seems dead set on becoming the example to illustrate that leaning too far in the other direction doesn't work either.

See also part 2: Lessons from Switzerland!!