Friday, 24 April 2015

All your health is belong to us

If the one paying the piper calls the tune, be careful who you let pay for dinner.

Britain's NHS is considering rationing healthcare by a measure of deservingness. Here's The Guardian:
The NHS plans to dramatically increase rationing of patients’ access to care and treatment in an effort to balance its books, a new survey of health bosses reveals.

Almost two in five of England’s 211 clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) are considering imposing new limits this year on eligibility for services such as IVF, footcare and hip and knee replacements.

Smokers and those who are obese will be among those denied surgery and other treatment, according to a survey of 80 CCG leaders conducted by the Health Service Journal, in an extension of the controversial policy of “lifestyle rationing”.
So. We get tobacco excise taxes to defray the health costs of the public health system. You cannot opt out of the NHS but through the costly route of paying for NHS through your income taxes and excise taxes and then paying separately for private health care. Then smokers could be denied service because of the smoking.

Meanwhile, more paternalism's being rolled into welfare services. There are pretty reasonable justifications for targeting paternalism towards those who've demonstrated a need for extra help in financial planning. Plus, a strongly paternalistic approach could have similar effect to the kind of separating equilibrium that Mill talked about. But it's still not a nice call. If you've been stuck in a crappy school and then disemployed by minimum wages above your marginal product, you then get choice taken away from you on more of the remaining margins.

Now think about Guaranteed Income Proposals. I wonder what private behaviours would become of public regulatory interest when we all reckon not only that the neighbour is doing something we don't like, but that we're helping subsidise him to do it.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Cycling benefits?

So, would a new $156 million Christchurch cycleway really provide an 8:1 benefit to cost ratio? Here's Lois Cairns at The Press:
A $156-million Christchurch cycleway plan is under attack from two economists, who say the city council could buy new cars for every convert to cycling for the same amount of money.
University of Canterbury finance professor Glenn Boyle and PhD student James Hill have analysed the Christchurch City Council's business case for the major cycleways programme and say it is "excessively optimistic".
Boyle said the 18,000 increase in cycling trips expected as a result of the new cycleway network roughly translated into an additional 9000 people cycling. For $156m, the council could buy all those people brand new Suzuki Altos. 
"Every Christchurch household is faced with an average bill of at least $1100 in present value terms for facilities that are predicted to only attract a relatively small number of cyclists, will result in more cyclist accidents and deaths, have at best zero impact on congestion, and yield highly uncertain health benefits," the pair said.
The cost of building Christchurch's proposed major cycleway network has jumped in price from an original estimate of $69m to $156m but a business case presented by the council earlier this year claimed every dollar invested would give a $5 to $8 return. 
Boyle and Hill studied the assumptions those figures were based on and have concluded the likely return was almost certainly less than $2 and probably less than $1.
Boyle and Hill's paper is here. A couple fun bits:

  • The original cost-benefit analysis depended on a 40% increase in real fuel costs. Maybe that would happen if we had a large and sustained depreciation in the NZ dollar, but nobody's betting on that right now.
  • The time savings estimates amount to 6 seconds per trip, but those are aggregated up to being worth $316m; Boyle and Hill dismiss these as too small to matter. On this point, I'll thank Julie-Anne Genter for having pointed me to Metz last year.
I like this part of the executive summary:
The overall prognosis looks grim. Every Christchurch household is faced with an average bill of at least $1100 in present value terms for facilities that are predicted to attract only a relatively small and insignificant number of new cyclists, will result in more cyclist accidents and deaths, have at best zero impact on congestion, and yield highly uncertain health benefits. At current expected capital costs and cycleway uptake, it would be cheaper to provide every projected new cyclist with a Suzuki Alto.
I still would love to see a cycleway from New Brighton along the abandoned Avon River through to downtown, but not at any price.

For a contrary view on Boyle and Hill's work, Cairns has this:
University of Canterbury geography professor Simon Kingham said he had read Boyle and Hill's research and believed they had gone into it determined to pick holes in the business case.
I tend to think that Christchurch could use a few more people willing to pick holes in shonky business cases.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Utilitarian abortion

Pro-life utilitarians are very scarce.  A philosophy professor recently told me that he knows of zero pro-life utilitarians in the entire philosophy profession.  
This is deeply puzzling.  While I'm not a utilitarian, the utilitarian case against abortion seems very strong.  Consider: Even if a pregnant woman deeply resents her pregnancy, she is only pregnant for nine months.  How could this outweigh the lifetime's worth of utility the unwanted child gets to enjoy if he's carried to term?  
I expect it hinges on your model of whether abortion simply changes the identity of which children a woman bears or the number of children that would be born.

I don't have any strong priors on which is true on average, but in some cases it would simply be a shifting in timing of births where a woman intends on having a family of fixed size and isn't ready yet to start it. In those cases, and where the woman has reasonable expectations that a child later would be happier than a child now, pro-choice utilitarianism makes a lot of sense.

If instead we're considering options where the number of children isn't fixed and where abortion reduces the number of kids who get to be born, then Bryan's puzzle holds - but doesn't utilitarianism run into trouble where n isn't fixed?

20 years ahead

New Zealand filmmaking inspires Canadians. Here's the Winnipeg Free Press's Randall King:
At the newly launched Bandwidth Theatre on the corner of Sherbrook and Ellice, a new film from New Zealand has the potential to show aboriginal Canadian filmmakers the way.
Since it opened late in 2014, the Bandwidth has been playing an assortment of movies, from low-budget horror to high-minded documentaries. But as it's connected to the Adam Beach Film Institute, it also has an agenda, under the stewardship of founding partners Beach, producer Jim Compton and filmmaker Jeremy Torrie, to inspire young filmmakers, especially young First Nations filmmakers.
In that capacity, The Dead Lands is not just an exciting movie, it's a fine example of how an indigenous culture can tell its stories on film, Torrie says.
"The Maori are 20 years ahead of us as far as cinematic storytelling," Torrie says. "We absolutely should be seeing these kind of films here. We've got all these great locations. The problem is they've had the opportunity to make films; we've not had that opportunity."
The story notes that Torrie's writing a Canadian adaptation of Once Were Warriors.
"In New Zealand, they have a much greater budget with their equivalent of Telefilm Canada, the New Zealand Film Commission," Torrie says. "They also have a language fund in Maori, that organization has been around for 15 years or more and they've become another important equity source for Maori film, whereas we can't do that yet. There's a lot of institutional barriers."
Always interesting to note how other countries see what goes on here.

One cringey and wrong bit, though:
In New Zealand, the remnants of Maori tradition are primarily visible to the world in rugby matches, where the national team, the All Blacks, perform the haka, a dance designed to terrorize opponents, going back to warrior tradition.
The haka would be the bit known outside of New Zealand. Inside of New Zealand, well, it's a bit more than that.

HT: Mom.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

A new eating disorder

Paul Henry's show this morning highlighted Orthorexia Nervosa: an eating disorder characterised by an obsession with healthy eating.

I'd not heard of it before.

I'm far more familiar with its hitherto unnamed, and more serious, cousin. I'll call it XenoOrthrexia Nervosa: an obsession with other people's healthy eating.

It seems endemic in the Anglosphere countries. Can't we get these poor souls the help they need to relax about other peoples' diets? In its extreme form, it's even been associated (in film) with starting nuclear wars.

Empty houses?

Metro Mag ran a feature on empty houses in Auckland, pointing a finger at empty houses with overseas owners as a cause of Auckland's skyrocketing housing cost.
In Auckland, more than 33,000 houses were registered as unoccupied in the most recent data from 2013. A breakdown shows about a third had residents away. The remaining 22,152 properties are listed as empty.

Who owns them and why no one lives there is information that’s not readily apparent, although ask around and you’ll hear all sorts of theories – from land banking by foreign investors who see New Zealand as a bargain-priced bolt hole to families future-proofing their children’s education by buying a second house in a desirable school zone.

Whatever the real story, it’s not that the owners (or tenants) just happened to be out when the collectors knocked at the door. Census workers are given clear criteria on the various definitions of an “unoccupied” house and need evidence no one lives there (the appearance of the property, talking to neighbours) before it’s officially classified.
The rest of the article is pretty heavy on anecdote. Little of it made sense to me: why would you forgo rental earnings in a house you'd decided to buy as an investment or bolt-hole? Maybe legislation being too tenant-friendly could do it, but it seemed odd.

So I checked the figures. From Auckland Council's report on the 2013 census.
2.3 Very small increase in number of unoccupied dwellings 

There was almost no change in the number of unoccupied dwellings in Auckland between 2006 and 2013 – the number increased by only 30 to a total of 33,360 across the region. This was a significantly smaller increase than the previous inter-censal period, when the number of unoccupied dwellings had increased 3,744, or 12.7 per cent, and was also significantly smaller than other regions across New Zealand.

This could be a reflection of the housing shortage in Auckland at a time of economic slow-down and a contraction in the construction sector.

In 2013, the local board areas with the highest number of unoccupied dwellings were:

• Rodney - 4,185 unoccupied dwellings
• Waitematā – 3,696
• Hibiscus and Bays – 2,274
• Franklin – 2,055
• Orākei – 1,929

A third of unoccupied dwellings in Auckland (33.6%) were due to the residents being away, while two thirds (66.4%) were empty. The five local board areas with the highest proportions of empty dwellings were:

• Great Barrier – 87.4 per cent of unoccupied dwellings were empty (396 empty dwellings)
• Rodney - 80.6 per cent (3,375 empty dwellings)
• Waiheke – 73.4 per cent (1,323 empty dwellings)
• Ōtara-Papatoetoe – 73.0 per cent (615 empty dwellings)
• Franklin – 72.8 per cent (1,497 empty dwellings)
If the number of unoccupied houses increased by 30 from 2006 to 2013, the proportion of unoccupied houses would have dropped significantly. Further, if there are about 470,000 dwellings in Auckland and about 22,000 were unoccupied at the time of census, that's under 5%. That's not really inconsistent with houses being empty during sale or between tenancies, is it?

How can a decreasing proportion of empty-on-census-night houses be the cause of increasing housing costs in Auckland?

Monday, 20 April 2015

Theories about Conspiracy theories

Four nationally representative survey samples collected in 2006, 2010, and 2011 indicate that over half of the American population consistently endorse some kind of conspiratorial narrative about a current political event or phenomenon and that these attitudes are predicted by supernatural, paranormal, and Manichean sentiments. These findings suggest that conspiracism is not only an important element in American political culture, but also is expressive of some latent and powerful organizing principles behind American mass opinion.
So say J. Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood in the AJPS, in an article I missed when it came out last October.

Read this table and weep.
TABLE 1 Percentage of Americans Agreeing with Various Conspiracy Theories, 2011
Conspiratorial NarrativeHeard Before?Strongly AgreeAgreeNeitherDisagreeStrongly Disagree
The U.S. invasion of Iraq was not part of a campaign to fight terrorism, but was driven by oil companies and Jews in the U.S. and Israel (Iraq War)44 6 13 33 22 27
Certain U.S. government officials planned the attacks of September 11, 2001, because they wanted the United States to go to war in the Middle East (Truther)67 7 12 22 1841
President Barack Obama was not really born in the United States and does not have an authentic Hawaiian birth certificate (Birther)94 11 13 241438
The current financial crisis was secretly orchestrated by a small group of Wall Street bankers to extend the power of the Federal Reserve and further their control of the world’s economy (Financial Crisis)478 17382017
Vapor trails left by aircraft are actually chemical agents deliberately sprayed in a clandestine program directed by government officials (Chem Trails)17 45 282142
Billionaire George Soros is behind a hidden plot to destabilize the American government, take control of the media, and put the world under his control (Soros)31 9104416 21
The U.S. government is mandating the switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs because such lights make people more obedient and easier to control (CFLB)174 7 2424 41
Note: N = 1,935 cases.
Source: Modules of the 2011 Cooperative Congressional Election Surveys.

Table 3 is even worse: 27% believe we're in End Times; 33% believe in ESP.

All that's left is figuring out how to do away with Manichean dualism and superstition; education seems to be the strongest preventative measure, along with having political knowledge.

Or maybe that's just what they want us to believe.

Really, all the voting boxes are rigged and that the Illuminati are not only making sure your vote won't count but also keeping track of how you vote? Haven't you noticed that the chemtrail planes are concentrated in areas where your preferred party's support is undercounted because of the Illuminati? Think about it. Voting's dangerous. Chemtrails.