It's Gonna Be a Long Primary Season

A recent tweet from Tim Pawlenty:

Seriously? This is the kind of childishness it takes to compete for the tea party vote these days? "Aren’t there any grown-ups left in the GOP?" asks Mark Kleiman.

School Reform in New Orleans

Alex Tabarrok links to a New Orleans Times-Picayune story showing the dramatic effects of school reform in New Orleans following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It's impressive. Statewide, the number of kids scoring at basic or above went up about five percentage points. In New Orleans it went up around 25 points in the charter-oriented Recovery School District.

Still, be careful. New Orleans has changed a lot in the past six years. The median income has increased from $31,000 to $40,000. The black share of the population has decreased by five percentage points. And the share of residents living in high poverty neighborhoods has gone down by nearly ten percentage points. Those are pretty big changes, and all of them are well known drivers of test scores.

At a glance, the New Orleans test scores look even more impressive than you'd expect when you take those demographic changes into account. But we'll need a considerably more detailed analysis before we can genuinely conclude that their educational reforms have really worked.

The Future of Solar Power

GE is bullish on solar power:

Solar power may be cheaper than electricity generated by fossil fuels and nuclear reactors within three to five years because of innovations, said Mark M. Little, the global research director for General Electric Co.

“If we can get solar at 15 cents a kilowatt-hour or lower, which I’m hopeful that we will do, you’re going to have a lot of people that are going to want to have solar at home,” Little said yesterday in an interview in Bloomberg’s Washington office.

....GE, based in Fairfield, Connecticut, announced in April that it had boosted the efficiency of thin-film solar panels to a record 12.8 percent....The cost of solar cells, the main component in standard panels, has fallen 21 percent so far this year, and the cost of solar power is now about the same as the rate utilities charge for conventional power in the sunniest parts of California, Italy and Turkey.

Now all we have to do is find lots of sunny places to put it all.

Hotels and Their Pervs, Revisited

Let's revisit the issue of pervs in hotel rooms. Why not, after all? It started with a New York Times op-ed by Jacob Tomsky, in which he told us that housekeepers are flashed or otherwise sexually accosted by male guests "more often than you’d think." My off-the-cuff reaction was to suggest a zero-tolerance policy for this kind of thing: "Do it once and you're thrown out and blacklisted forever. What's the justification for extending even the slightest forbearance toward this kind of behavior?" Megan McArdle had an answer:

I travel a lot, and I've had housekeepers walk in on me in various states of undress, especially in hotels with turndown service....Not a big deal for me, but I'm sure it could happen to a male traveler perfectly innocently. So could a wardrobe malfunction — the robes in many hotels are not exactly overgenerous, especially for the burgeoning middle-aged physique of a chairborne warrior.

....Maybe there should be a blacklist for serial offenders, but again, I was a serial offender at a certain hotel in LA with early turndown hours — I assume they didn't report me because, well, women don't usually do that sort of thing.

That's a fair point. Mistakes can happen. Still, I'll bet I know exactly what Megan's reaction was when this happened. It was, more or less, some version of "eek!" And I'll bet the reaction of your average perv isn't "eek!" And I'll bet that your average housekeeper can tell the difference with about 99% accuracy. That's why Megan never got a call from a hotel manager about this. Belle Waring puts it this way:

You, as a woman, know when you’re being flashed vs. when you accidentally walk in on someone who hasn’t heard your knock. Really. Big difference. A man showing you his penis on purpose has a certain way about him, let’s just say. Do I really have to go there?

In other words, if we're willing to take housekeeper reports of perv activity seriously — and we should be — there's a pretty slim chance of blacklisting an innocent man. Still, it's true: mistakes can happen. And if you have made a mistake, this really isn't the type you want to punish with instant banishment.

So how about this instead: Get reported once and you're given a warning. My guess is that if you just forgot to deadbolt the door, you'll never forget again after that. Do it again and you're blacklisted for a couple of years. After all, everyone deserves a chance to turn over a new leaf. So let them back in after two years, but tell them that a third strike means they're banned for good.

If this were the policy in a high-end New York hotel, it might not have much effect. You'd just make up a story about why, say, you'll never stay at the Plaza again. But what about the big chains? Here, for example, is a partial list of Marriott brands:

  • Marriott
  • JW Marriott
  • Marriott Courtyard
  • Residence Inn
  • Fairfield Inn
  • Ritz-Carlton

As a former business traveler, I can tell you that you'd be in trouble if you got your ass kicked out of all of these. There are just too many cases where one of them is by far the most convenient to your destination, or worse, where one of them is literally the only hotel within 20 miles of your destination. Or it's a convention hotel and everyone in your company is staying there. What's more, there's really no way to make up a plausible story about why you refuse to stay at any Marriott property anywhere in the country. So this would be a considerable motivation to stay on good behavior when you're traveling.

So why don't the big hotel chains have policies like this? It's possible there are legal problems, but I imagine a private corporation has very wide latitude about whom it serves and whom it doesn't as long as it has good evidence that it's not discriminating based on age, race, ethnicity, etc. Beyond that there are practical problems: to effectively ban someone you need more than just a name. I'd be plenty annoyed if some skeev named Kevin Drum got banned by Marriott and I ended up having to prove I wasn't him every time I made a reservation. But hotels routinely take credit card numbers and driver's licenses, and those could be used to prevent ID mismatches. That's not enough to make it impossible to evade a blacklist, but it would make it pretty difficult.

So....why not? Are there other good reasons that this would be unwise or unworkable? There might be. Seems worth thinking about, though. Big hotel chains are public companies that are susceptible to public pressure, and I'll bet most of them already ban guests who trash rooms or otherwise cause them trouble. So they know how to do this. Why not do it to give their housekeepers a decent working environment too?

The Graying of America

Will Wilkinson, in a post that sadly fails to recognize the merits of means testing Medicare after death instead of before, also says this:

I would add: that nearly a third of the voting public is 65 or older does not quite capture the overwhelming electoral heft of seniors. Retirees are disproportionately likely to actually show up at the polls. Moreover, the interests of seniors are more unified than those of younger voters....America's silver foxes constitute a more or less consolidated force fighting for the protection of old-age entitlements.

I was all ready to make a point about this, but then I looked up the numbers and they aren't nearly as bad as Will thinks. According to the Census Bureau, the 65+ crowd accounts for about 17% of the voting-age population. And according to the 2008 exit polls, that same group accounts for about 16% of the total votes cast. I'm surprised at this, but it appears that not only are America's seniors not that huge a voting bloc, but they don't really vote in extra big proportions either.

(And my original point? I was just going to say that things are worse than Will thinks, because once you hit 55 or so you start to realize that retirement is looming and you start voting as if you're 65 already. And the 55+ share is obviously even bigger than the 65+ share. However, it turns out that the 55+ share comes to about a third of the population, so it's no worse than Will thinks after all. It's merely as bad.)

(And what is it he doesn't get about the benefit of means testing Medicare after death instead of before? I wasn't planning to write another post on this subject since it obviously has no political feasibility, but maybe I will over the weekend. Sometimes a little bit of blue-sky nattering is a good way of exercising the brain cells.)

Your Dental Hygienist Questions Answered!

Earlier this morning we considered the burning question of whether regulation of dental hygienists has contibuted to an increase in income inequality. Before I staked out a position on this I wanted to know if hygienist regulation had increased over time, but sadly, uncredentialed proles like me are denied access to the relevant academic paper unless we fork over $5, thus transferring wealth from me to the economics profession and increasing income inequality along the way. Luckily, reader JR bravely defied the relevant IP laws and sent me a copy. So now I have an answer for you.

The specific question at hand is whether hygienists are increasingly being required to work for dentists, which would decrease their earning power and increase the profits of dental practices owned by wealthy dentists. The answer is no. From the paper:

Until 1988, when Colorado first allowed hygienists to practice without the direct supervision of a dentist, hygienists have been required to work for or be under the direction of a dentist. Since that time, seven states have allowed hygienists to be self-employed without the direct oversight of a dentist.

....In order to show the growth in hygienists’ autonomy over time, in Figure 1 we develop and show a box-and-whisker graphic analysis of state regulation, which gives the mean and spread of the regulation of hygienists over the period 2001–2007. Panel A shows the overall ranking of dental hygienists’ professional practice environment that is allowed by statute or legal rulings.

This is followed by lots of Greek letter math that no sane person would try to understand. However, charts are easy to understand, so I've helpfully reproduced Panel A on the right, adding a bright red arrow showing the increase in hygienist autonomy over the past decade. The basic shape of things is clear: despite pushback from the dental profession, over the past couple of decades hygienists have been allowed to perform more and more tasks and have been unshackled entirely from the dental profession in seven states. This is (probably) a triumph of improved public policy and a counterweight to growing income inequality. So now you know.

Chart of the Day: Initial Unemployment Claims

Initial unemployment claims, which have been dropping since 2009, have recently spiked a bit. Mark Thoma:

Every time claims go up we hear about holidays falling at unusual times, seasonal adjustment problems, weather related problems —- there seems to be no shortage of reasons to dismiss weakness in labor markets. So I'll be interested to see what excuse policymakers come up with this time to ignore the unemployment crisis.

As the attached chart shows, this is hardly the first time there's been a short spike during an economic expansion. You can see big ones in 1977, 1992, and 2006 and smaller ones in several other years. If this one only lasts a month or two, it's no big deal. But if it lasts longer, the excuses are going to start to wear pretty thin.

Gated Academic Papers Are Inefficient

Matt Yglesias notes that, compared to states where dental hygienists are required to work in a dentist's office, dental hygienists earn about 10% more in states where they're allowed to work independently. Likewise, dentists in those states earn less and have slower employment growth. The obvious conclusion is that in states where hygienists are required to work for dentists, dentists capture some of their earnings:

There’s been a lot of interest over the past ten years among progressives in the subject of the political origins of growing income inequality. But I find there’s been less interest in trying to explore specifically what those origins might be. It’s not all overregulation of dental hygenists (obviously) but it’s also not all Bush tax cuts and Commodity Futures Modernization Act either.

This is interesting stuff, but it lacks one thing: a time function. Occupational licensing like this might transfer income upward in some cases (though the hygienist example is sort of unique in the way it works), but it would only contribute to growing income inequality if this particular type of hygienist regulation has increased over the years. Unfortunately, the paper Matt cites would cost me $5 to read, so I'll probably never know if it has.

UPDATE: Now I've read it! All your questions are answered here.

The GOP State of Play

I can't believe I'm writing a post about a Gallup poll on the GOP primary race in May 2011. I made a firm rule years ago not to engage in nonsense like this. But rules are meant to be broken, and today is a slow news day, so here it is.

Is there anything interesting here? Not really. Sarah Palin is in second place at 15%, but that's a lot worse than it seems. She's basically in Ron Paul territory: tons of name recognition and the benefit of a small band of dedicated fanatics. Everyone knows there's a sizeable group of Palinistas out there who would vote for her even if she ran the entire race dressed up in a Mickey Mouse costume, and now Gallup has confirmed this. Big deal.

Newt Gingrich? He's in big trouble. He's been around forever, he has fantastic name recognition, he's on TV constantly, and he still can't pull more than 9%? He's doomed.

Herman Cain?  There's always a blowhard who knows nothing and just loudly spouts lots of "common sense" during the early debates in order to attract attention. This year that's Cain. His bubble will burst soon enough.

As for the rest, Michele Bachmann is just a Sarah Palin wannabe, Huntsman is running for 2016, and Johnson and Santorum are vanity candidates. Basically, it still looks to me like a race between Romney and Pawlenty, with lots of spoilers to make things interesting. I just don't see a path open for any of the others to win.

How Much is the Internet Worth to You?

I'm always a little unsure whether McKinsey reports are just nicely formatted collections of bollocks or genuine sources of useful information. I guess it probably depends on the report. In any case, Tyler Cowen points us today to a new McKinsey report that says the internet accounts for 3.4% of GDP in a group of countries that it recently studied (nine rich countries plus the BRICs). Sweden is highest at 6.3% because — well, who knows? They really, really like Angry Birds in Sweden? They lead the globe in hosting pirate sites? I'm not sure. The United States is about average for rich countries at 3.8%.

However, we value the internet pretty highly here. As this chart shows, the internet generates consumer surplus in the U.S. of about 19 euros per month per person, or a little over $300 per year. But that's just the average. If you're reading this blog, you probably value it quite a bit higher:

In general, this surplus is generated from the exceptional value users place on Internet services such as e-mail, social networks, search facilities, and online reservation services, among many others. This value far outweighs the costs, both actual costs such as access and subscription fees and annoyances such as spam, excessive advertising, and the need to disclose personal data for some services. In the United States, for example, research conducted with the Interactive Advertising Board 13 found that consumers placed a value of almost €61 billion on the services they got from the Internet, while they would pay about €15 billion to get rid of the annoyances, suggesting a net consumer surplus of about €46 billion.

So there you have it: Value of internet – cost of internet – annoyances of internet = €46 billion. But I wonder if they also accounted for the stupendous amount of time we all spend trying to fix the internet when it breaks? More comments from Tyler here.