Monday, August 30, 2010

The 'Landes Law' on imperialism and its domestic corollary.

Historian David S. Landes
In his New York Times bestseller The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are so Rich and Some so Poor, David Landes claims
"a law of social and political relationships, namely, that three factors cannot coexist: (1) a marked disparity of power; (2) private access to the instruments of power; and (3) equality of groups or nations." [63]

Penned in 1998, this writing still sheds some interesting light on our recent foreign policy adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq. Conspiracy theories and "blood for oil" slogans aside, private companies did have a large involvement in immediate invasions as well the as follow-up occupations. Along with industry lobbying and corporate connections in the White House, condition (2) seems to have been justified. The marked disparity of power and inequality between groups hardly even need discussion.

On face, the principle at work here seems accurate. As Landes argues, "Where one group is strong enough to push another around and stands to gain by it, it will do so." However, this incentive isn't limited to foreign policy. I'll propose the following corollary to Landes Law:

Welfare State Corollary: three factors cannot coexist: (1) a marked disparity of specialized interests; (2) private access to the instruments of government; and (3) national government running a balanced budget.

In other words, when an interest group (e.g. farmers, doctors, bus-drivers, etc.) has enough political influence, it will push others around through the legislative process, as long as it stands to gain by doing so. When a multitude of such interests exist, satisfying all their demands will flout any efforts at a balanced budget (unless taxes are incredibly high, and there's an interest group against that too).

While Landes' Law poses a serious challenge to efforts at global peace, the Welfare State Corollary has implications on our current political system's ability to respond to the current financial crisis. I'll leave it to the reader to decide on the accuracy of this analogy.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Statistical Fallacy #317: Holding Constant that which Changes. See: 'median household income'.

"Torture numbers, and they'll confess to anything."*
  Our inquisitionist of the day hails from Bloomberg. In an article today, Venessa Wong wrote the following:
While many Americans dream of a windfall that will take care of their financial needs for life, the sobering reality is most of us are not getting far: U.S. Census Bureau data show median household income barely changed in the 10 years following 1998 as the price of housing and other goods increased. In consumer price index-adjusted dollars, the median household income in 2008 was $50,303, compared with $51,295 in 1998. [Emphasis added.]
 What's wrong with the above? In a fairly common maneuver to paint a doom-and-gloom image of the times, average household size is treated as a constant to compare incomes over time. That just isn't the case.

The problem with using 'median household income' as a measuring stick is that it's actually a factor of two other variables: combined income, and number of people per household. The latter aspect is conveniently overlooked by pessimists, who are looking to demonstrate a negative trend over time. When everything is considered, a different picture emerges.

In 1915, the average number of people sharing a house was 4.5. By 1967, that number had declined to about three. Greater mobility, less social pressure for early marriage, and a general rise in affluence all played a role in reducing the amount of people per household.  In other words, more kids are leaving the parents' basement, and more elderly people remain self-sufficient without their kids.

How does this impact the analysis by Ms. Wong? Based on Census Bureau data, there have been significant changes in persons per household, even in the limited span of 1998 to 2008. This is displayed in the graph above. In 1998, there were an average of 2.62 persons per household, and by 2008, that number was 2.56. When you're talking averages from a nation of 300 million people, those small differences add up quickly.

By performing some mundane mathematical operations, we can see what the statistics really say about income between 1998 and 2008. Correcting for changes in household size over that time, we find that the average income per household member actually went up, contrary to the dour picture from the Bloomberg article. An almost $100 gain per household member - averaged across the entire nation - isn't too bad (especially since it's adjusted for inflation and includes non-working people such as children).

It's fairly obvious why otherwise-intelligent people would overlook such a simple flaw in their statistics. The news headline "Things Generally Improving, but Slowly" doesn't sell much copy. Worry and concern is what draws readers, and if the numbers don't support that, they'll have to be twisted until they do.

*Quotation attributed to Gregg Easterbrook.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Busting the 'egg scandal' wide open.

These eggs were not broken to make an omelet.
Recently, Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms, both located in lovable Iowa, have come under fire for "poisoning" the public with salmonella from their eggs. An egg source for 13 different retail brands, this news has rocked supermarkets nationally, and an even wider recall might be in the works.

"The history of ignoring the law makes the sickening of 1,300 and the forced recall of 550 million eggs shockingly understandable," says William D. Marler, a Seattle attorney representing someone who became ill from a 'dangerous' egg salad. (They're all dangerous in my opinion, especially on a hot day).

The numbers above got me wondering. What proportion of the recalled eggs were contaminated with salmonella? If 550,000,000 eggs resulted in 1,300 people becoming sick, the chance of any one egg making someone ill is .000236% . Eat a whole dozen, and your odds skyrocket to .0028%, a roughly one-in-35,000 chance of becoming ill from a tainted egg.

Surely, if you're one of those 1,300 people, hearing the numbers won't cure your stomach-ache and flu symptoms, but it should be reassuring for the other 99.99% of the population. Salmonella can be dangerous for the very young and very old, but many cases are so mild they aren't even reported.

Some media outlets, such as the Huffington Post, have taken this story and run with it, using those salmonella cases as a biting indictment of mass-produced food. Their title "Cheap Food Makes You Sick" seems to capture the gist pretty well. One thing they leave out is that cheap food can also make you healthy. Eggs are an excellent source of B-12, omega fatty acids, and other vitamins essential for good health. When you compare rickets, scurvy, and beriberi to a mild risk of salmonella, puking for a few days might be the healthiest decision.

Basically, it's all very well and good for rich people to say that everyone should drop $4.99 for a carton of organic eggs, and who cares about the cost of sending back 550,000,000 potentially tainted eggs? Yes, it'd be tragic if someone died from eating a bad egg, but it's also terrible for the Iowa farm workers, their families, and the agricultural community in general which will likely bear the cost of this recall. Additionally, thanks to the hype surrounding those few salmonella cases, consumers might be deterred from eating their eggs into the future, harming both the farm economy and public health.

Roughly 40,000 salmonella cases are reported per year in America, which makes the egg issue look like a drop in the bucket. Instead of a costly recall, more measured responses could have been taken to contain the "outbreak" of salmonella. Perhaps the best advice on the subject yet: avoid cookie dough and cook your breakfast thoroughly. I may have to give up Eggs Benedict for a few days, but in the larger scheme that's not such a big deal. I'm not sure the same can be said for wasting billions of dollars in eggs. Think of the sad chickens, if nothing else.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Don't recycle your green glass, plastic or paper. That's right, trash it for the planet.

Recently in the news, the Mayor of New York expanded the state's recycling program to encompass more plastics; supposedly, this will divert 8,000 tons of plastic from landfills each year. My question is, what's so bad about throwing garbage in the trash?

With all our trash in the Dakotas, as it should be.
Maybe this makes sense to New Yorkers -- their state did birth the "trash crisis" myth which has followed American politics home like a stinky dog. However, recycling has remained a national craze, even though landfills are generally cheap and available across the country. Fun fact: If all American trash were brought to one huge landfill, and "you keep filling up this landfill for 100 years, and if you assume that during this time the populations of the United States doubles, then the landfill will cover about 160,000 acres, or 250 or so square miles, with trash 400 feet deep." Source. That may seem like a lot, so to put it in perspective, see the attached diagram which compares the 3,717,813 square miles of the lower 48 to this hypothetical landfill. Doesn't look so big now, does it?

Recycling colored glass, paper and plastic isn't just unnecessary; it's also inefficient. Let's count the ways:

Green Glass:
Glass is made from sand, perhaps the most cheap and plentiful stuff you can find other than dirt. We're not running out of it. Making glass is relatively simple: heat the glass, shape it, then allow it to cool. Recycling glass that has color added becomes much more complicated. It takes chemical processes I can't even spell in order to clean out the waste products and allow the glass to be reused... generating even more byproducts that are released into the environment. There's a glut of ground green glass (try saying that three times fast) and no one wants to use it, so basically all that recycling was wasted effort.

The problem with plastics is that there's so many different kinds of them; each comes with a little number on the bottom which the consumer is supposed to reference and then recycle accordingly. The time lost, just from millions of people going through this mundane and unnecessary exercise, probably outweighs any economic benefit from reusing those plastics. Even discounting people's valuable time, recycling plastic doesn't save natural resources; "when the equation includes the energy used to synthesize the plastic resin, making plastic containers uses as much energy as making glass containers from virgin materials." The source for this is a Berkeley environmental organization, so you know it's not just angry libertarians. In other words, hug a tree, then throw that plastic bottle away.

Speaking of trees, we've got lots of them.  In fact, American forests have expanded substantially over the last century, largely thanks to improvements in agricultural productivity which allowed more land to return to its natural state. Paper pulp mostly comes from tree farms these days, so the environmental impact of virgin paper is pretty small. Recycling that paper pulp after it's had inks, dyes, and other junk added to it is another story. All those chemicals have to go somewhere, so the recycling process creates its own little clean-up problem afterward. I'm no chemist, but I'm pretty sure it's harder to dispose of dioxins than old newspaper.

Bottom Line:
If recycling were efficient, private companies would send trucks around asking for your trash, and government wouldn't need to promote it. This will never happen, which shows that recycling is popular not because it helps anything but because it makes us feel good inside to "do our part" for nature. With environmental campaigns bombarding the general public with guilt appeals and claims of impending disaster on a near-daily basis, it's no surprise people need something to clear their conscience. I think it It's time to buck the trend, and feel good about disposing of trash the efficient way - in the garbage - instead of making every can, bottle, and paper product into a pointless political statement. Being wasteful never felt so good.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Money Melts the Pounds Away -- an in-depth look at The Biggest Loser outcomes.

No, this is not veiled commentary on my social life.
Obesity is a growing issue in the industrialized world generally and the United States in particular. The science behind obesity is still developing, but the popular culture response has already begun. Reality television, which has previously attempted to resolve our lovelessness, joblessness, and lack of fashion has now begun to confront the ‘American lifestyle.’ 

Television network NBC’s hit reality series “The Biggest Loser” takes a group of overweight individuals and sequesters them in a large housing and gym facility. There, under the oversight of expert personal trainers and medical personnel, they attempt to lose weight as quickly as possible. Taking place within a competitive team setting, at the end of each week the people who lost the least weight risk being eliminated. At stake is $250,000 cash for the winning player and a $100,000 prize for the eliminated player losing the most weight by the finale.

The Biggest Loser's game-show world bears only loose relation to the reality of an average person looking to drop a few pounds. However, its dramatic format and inspiring message have proved a global success, with the creation of Biggest Loser UK, Biggest Loser Australia, and Biggest Winner Arab (to name a few). The American version of the show has produced nine seasons since 2004, with a tenth being filmed as of this writing. 
With each contestant’s weight loss announced weekly, this television series provides a wealth of data on weight loss under ideal and controlled conditions. With 6 to 8 daily hours of exercise, a rigidly structured diet organized by top-rate personal trainers along with a strong monetary incentive, participants on The Biggest Loser have every advantage in losing large amounts of weight. Some drop over twenty pounds, or over 5% of their body mass, in a single week. The vast majority go on to change their lives by adopting healthier eating habits and frequent exercise. These results demonstrate weight loss at the absolute limit of human capacity. 
While every participant on The Biggest Loser puts in a monumental effort to lose weight, there can only be one winner. Contestants experience different outcomes in weight loss in spite of a generally high standard of effort. There have been many debates in the bio-medical field on whether obesity is caused by genetics, culture, age, or something else entirely, and a consensus has yet to emerge. With its wide demographic variety, The Biggest Loser provides an opportunity to test how these differences impact optimal-scenario weight loss. 


The format of the Biggest Loser lends itself to data collection. The first half of each episode follows the contestants through a competitive challenge and their daily exercise. During the latter half, each person is weighed in and their amount is compared to the previous week's measurement. The grand prizes are based on a total percentage of weight lost, so as not to advantage larger contestants. For this study, a similar method was used to balance out starting weight differences between participants. Data was taken from the first nine Biggest Loser U.S. episodes, which featured a total of 158 people. A fuller explanation of the variables continues below. 
Sample RWL Calculation for Helen (Season 8)
Dependent Variable: Rate of Weight Loss (RWL) 

In order to compare outcomes across demographics, it was first necessary to condense each person's weight loss up to the finale into a single figure. For each week, every contestant's total weight loss up to that time was recorded. That number was divided by their base weight at the start of the season to arrive at their total percentage lost. Plotting all those points to a graph, then imposing a line of best fit results in a graph for each participant like the one seen here. The slope of the line is the average rate of weight loss (hereafter RWL) for that person across the time they were on The Biggest Loser. In the example above, the slope is 2.309. This is interpreted to mean that Helen (our sample contestant) lost an average of 2.309% of her base weight each week she was competing on The Biggest Loser. She entered weighing 257 pounds, and on average she lost 5.9 pounds each week until the finale. 
Independent Variables:

Age: The Biggest Loser draws from every age group, with contestants from the age of eighteen up to over sixty. Age can play two conflicting roles. The first factor is maturity; with age comes experience, determination and mental resilience. A mature person will be more likely to conquer the mental and physical strain of rapidly losing weight. The second factor is infirmity; older people are more likely to enter the contest with pre-existing injuries and are also slower to recover if they are hurt while exercising. While minor injuries are common for nearly all Biggest Loser contestants, being young and healing rapidly is an advantage that plays against maturity. 
Base Weight: While all Biggest Loser contestants are “overweight”, both their degree of obesity and general body types vary greatly. Heavier contestants have more weight to lose, but may also be in worse physical shape to start, which slows exercise. It's expected that a higher base weight will have a negative effect on rate of weight loss.

Height: Taller overweight people have two factors working against them. First, having a larger frame increases strain on joints and muscles, increasing the risk of injury. Second, tall people have more bone and muscle mass, making it more difficult to lose a high percentage of weight. Shorter Biggest Loser contestants are expected to have an advantage.

Gender: The effects of male-female differences are difficult to predict, because sex is interconnected with many other demographic variables. Men are on average taller, and generally enter the show with a higher base weight than women. Additionally, many of the male contestants were former athletes (wrestling and football being to most common) so they have more endurance to start. Based on the sample, it's expected that men will have an advantage in rate of weight loss.

Ethnic Background: Contestants were divided between four categories: Black, Hispanic, Asian, or none of the above (“white”). There are limitations to this approach; ethnic differences are clearly more subtle than these categories encompass. Many of the people considered “white” were of Italian origin but American born. The “Asian” category was geographically broad; Heba from Season 5, who was of Egyptian heritage, was classified as Asian. As a result, the results of ethnic background on weight loss are unpredictable. 
Marital Status: Contestants with spouses have two contradictory factors at play. Having someone for emotional support during many weeks away from home is a huge advantage. Some seasons of The Biggest Loser were “Couples” themed, and some married couples worked together to lose weight. The majority of married participants were separated from their spouses, however. Missing home hurt the morale of some contestants and made them more willing to leave The Biggest Loser campus. 
Kids: Many of the married contestants also had children at home. The number of children is expected to have an ambiguous effect on weight loss. However, it is most likely correlated with age, as older people have had more years to produce children. 
Weeks on “Campus”: Perhaps the ultimate advantage in losing weight is more time with the trainers and specialized diet provided to Biggest Loser contestants. More weeks on campus is expected to correlate strongly with a high rate of weight loss. At the very least, people who stay in the longest are also the ones who have the highest, most consistent rates of weight loss.


Irrelevant Variables: 
Race: varying ethnic origins did not have a measurable impact on rate of weight loss. The majority of participants were white, and some ethnic groups (e.g. Asians) had very low representation, so statistical significance was hard to achieve.

Northwest, Southwest, Northeast: three of the location dummy variables did not have any statistically significant difference from the base case (the generic “Midwest”). 
Season: not discussed much before, the season did not strongly impact weight loss. 
Spouse: being married did not make a measurable difference. The contradictory factors at play for a married person canceled out, leaving the variable statistically irrelevant.

Relevant Variables: (in order of greatest statistical significance)

Weeks: as expected, staying on the show longer was a sign of faster weight loss. The extremely high t-stat for this variable shows that more weeks on campus corresponds almost exactly with higher rates of weight loss, other factors being constant.

Male: men had a substantial advantage in losing weight quickly. Anecdotal observation supports this – the majority of seasons were won by men, and most of the finalists were also men. Women did better in the later seasons, but men in general had the advantage.

Southeast: for whatever reason, people hailing from the southeast part of the country had a lower rate of weight loss. None of the other regional variables had a measurable impact, which makes this result especially surprising.

Age, Age2: as anticipated, an older and more mature person has an advantage, but at a certain point, the indignities of age start to impede weight loss. 
Base Weight: a higher base weight correlates to lower rates of weight loss, other factors being held constant. While intuitively, it would seem that heavier players have more to lose and should drop it quickly, that was not evident in the data. Being in worse physical shape and having less stamina for sustained exercise was a disadvantage for heavier contestants.

Height: taller participants did not lose weight as quickly as shorter ones. Other factors being constant, a lower stature was an advantage.


Combining all these factors together, we can generate a profile of the “perfect” Biggest Loser participant. Such a person would be: male, middle-aged, below average in height, and lack a Southern accent. Why? I'm not sure, ask a sociologist. My economics work here is done. 

Potential Flaws: 
  • Calculating the RWL requires knowing how long between the last episode of the show and the finale. Contestants are sent home for between two and four months (depending on the season) and the exact amount is not always clear. For three of the seasons, it was necessary to extrapolate the number of weeks before the finale based on the seasons prior and following. 
  • Some participants chose not to attend the finale, so their final weight loss totals are unknown. The number of contestants not appearing was less than five between all nine seasons, but calculating a rate of weight loss based on a different span of time would have introduced serious inconsistencies into the model. To compensate, the weight loss at their last episode in the game was recorded for absentee players as their finale weigh-in total. 
Questions, comments, or suggestions for more analysis are welcome.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The case for a private military -- let the market take a shot.

At the end of a previous blog post, I speculated on the possibility of an all-private military. The idea: instead of having the DOD do the work of recruiting, training, and then deploying our military personnel, the federal government could just handle the top-level strategy then hire out for troops to implement it. Unconventional? Yes. Effective? Possibly.

Currently, the U.S. army is staffed on an all-volunteer basis. People have to willingly choose to put their life on the line. That system just isn't working -- the military is facing a serious recruitment shortage. When you look at the numbers, it's obvious why:

An enlisted Private with less than two years experience will receive $17,366 for a year's service (not including benefits etc.) After becoming a Captain and serving for more than six years, pay would be $61,405 -- if you survive that long. Compare that to the median pay for a security guard at $29,854 with a built-in job benefit of not being shot at regularly, and the recruitment shortage starts making a lot more sense.

There are more reasons for joining the military than to make money. Some people believe strongly in serving their country, have no other way to go to college, or need to support a family. Those are noble thoughts, but the upper-crust Senators and executive bureaucrats who send our service-men and -women into harm are not nearly so noble. Army recruiters are not above lying to get young people to sign their life away for causes they may not even understand. Applicants are told they'll have desk jobs, never see a fight, and can expect to live the high life abroad on Uncle Sam's dollar. It's truly repugnant to send people into battle not knowing the risks they're taking, but it's become common practice in the face of growing troop shortages.

I'm not trying to single out army recruiters here; they're given an unenviable job, and have to complete it to the best of their ability. The real problem is that the government isn't willing to pay enough to convince most people to put their lives on the line. Right now, the only way to fill that shortage is to lie, coerce, or otherwise fool people into saying yes against their better judgment. There's a reason private military contractors get paid up to ten times more than similarly ranked army officers -- that's what people think it's actually worth to go into a war zone and risk losing it all.

When Congress has a large standing army at its disposal, there's always a temptation to use it. They're paying the soldiers one way or another; might as well have them do something. With a private military, the government has to pony up the cash right away and justify it to the public. Having to allocate funds for each military expedition would shine a spotlight on each deployment, bringing greater wisdom and restraint to the decision. An all-private military would help avert the adventurist tendencies that have gripped recent administrations. America's military power would be used more sparingly, and only when the costs were truly justified.

Paying the market price for soldiers wouldn't be cheap, but no one claims the current method is saving money. In fact, with a private military, the massive DOD bureaucracy could be trimmed down substantially, and spending decisions streamlined. Private military contractors have a profit incentive to find the best balance of high technology vs. cost, a trade-off the DOD has hardly ever considered. Military funds could be better used by private industry, perhaps bolstering our ailing economy, instead of being frittered away by DOD inefficiency. The current DOD budget of $533.8 billion could do much more good in private hands.

Isn't it dangerous to put our national security in the hands of private corporations? Many people implicitly trust the government, and think the market is subject to corruption or abuse of power. The string of lies leading up to the Iraq war should reveal that these fears have been misplaced. Many politicians have no qualms about deceiving the public if it will serve their personal goals. Privatizing the military would provide another check and balance against misuse of power, because they'd have to justify their actions to another interested group - the soldiers - instead of sending them to fight and die with no influence in the matter.

If you get a private paycheck, you can quit when the risk seems too high. Do that in the military, and you go to jail. The forced aspect of military service can make sense in a national emergency, but often it's just coercive and unfair. Even if the recruiter lied, and convinced someone to join under false pretenses, it doesn't matter -- you're stuck. A private company would have to increase wages to keep soldiers around, instead of threatening them with prison. America was built on freedom and choice, and we shouldn't abandon those principles if we expect others to follow them.

Couldn't a private military hold our government hostage, refusing to fight when the nation was in danger? Logic does not support that possibility. If America fell to a foreign power, private contractors would lose their primary employer. The incentive is to not bite the hand that feeds you. Also, there are enough different private military companies - so many that they need their own directory service - that competition for business would get at least some to fight. Finally, the control of our nuclear deterrent and second-strike forces would still be in the executive's hands, which is enough to avert major conflict with foreign powers.

The most pressing danger to American security is blowback from our overly-aggressive foreign policy. The 9/11 attacks were a response to our overweening military presence in the Middle East, which has continued to spark resistance and insurgencies since then. Our military is not well-equipped to deal with the policing role it has been thrust into. Transitioning to private forces would avoid causing terrorist attacks by restraining our foreign presence, and also ensure that the right people for the job are on the ground to deal with insurgents who hate us already.

I'm not saying we should abolish our standing military tomorrow. What's needed is a slow transition, region by region, to see if the idea works. For example, if the federal government were to withdraw all enlisted army troops from Iraq and/or Afghanistan and leave private troops there, it would be a perfect test case to see the idea in practice. As an added benefit, the troops would be freed up to deter other threats around the globe. Pulling some active-duty troops back home would ensure that in the short-term, America is able to use them for what they're actually trained in - fighting an open war - instead of the relatively new task of insurgency control and winning 'hearts and minds'. Private contractors with experience in the region could fill-in for those jobs easily. It's a win-win situation: if withdrawal of active duty troops was a failure, they could always be reinstated, but if it were a success, that smaller experiment would become a model for our overall troop policy and provide the political spark for a broader transition.

Most of the current objections to private military contractors - hurting troop morale, expanding executive power, or dodging accountability - would be resolved by switching away from a mixed military presence, and making all our forces private. Pay disparities would disappear, Congress would be able to oversee their actions more easily, and competition in the industry would hold private soldiers to an even higher standard of behavior.  Facing serious troop shortages, America is left with only bad options; either slog along with our currently insufficient military forces, or institute a draft to get the troops we need. As Vietnam demonstrates, forced service is likely to spur even harsher resistance to the military, and further undermine our international power and image. Paying the market rate for soldiers would allow America to sustain a balanced global presence and mitigate conflicts, without risking overstretch and total collapse of leadership (which seems to be the current path). It's unlikely to happen soon, but it's time to consider relinquishing the business of war to the market.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Why won't the U.S.P.S. just go out of business? Oh wait, they're not allowed to.

Ah, the Postal Service. Famous for friendly service, reasonable fees, and murderous rampages. In spite of birthing the saying "going postal" the USPS has still taken the coveted "most trusted government agency" for the last five years (probably because you have to give them your things before they break and steal them, unlike most other federal agencies). What I wonder is, if everyone trusts them so much, why can't they turn a profit? Let's find out.

The current hard times haven't been kind to the Postal Service, but their problems started even before that. The USPS was never expected to turn a profit, perhaps the only goal which they have met and exceeded. The intent was for them to be "revenue neutral" but the reality has been more like "revenue rat-hole." The taxpayers have shelled out billions of dollars to keep the agency afloat, but in spite of this, "USPS could reach its $15 billion statutory debt limit by fiscal year 2011" [from the GAO]. Can't we just close the doors and outsource to FedEx already?

When private businesses run into hard times, they cut costs, streamline their processes, and reduce rates to draw business from their competition. The Postal Service has chosen the opposite strategy by continually increasing the cost to send mail, then whining about "the ailing economy" as a primary reason that mail volume has gone down (strangely enough, UPS is doing just fine). To the right, you can see the cost of sending a letter over the last 35 years. That upward line isn't just inflation talking -- "rate increases have averaged about 70 basis points greater than CPI annually." If the price of a dozen eggs had gone up similarly, it would cost $3.54 in 2011, about double the actual price. Somehow, I'm pretty sure that the quality of mail service hasn't improved by a factor of 4.6 to compensate.

Of course, my sour disposition toward the USPS doesn't have anything to do with recent experiences moving. After packing 15 flat-rate boxes full of plates, silverware, and other items only to have them delivered two days late after being run over by a semi-truck (my best guess at least) I can't say I was too excited on the Postal Service policy of smashing all sentimental and/or fragile items into every hard object between Seattle and Virginia. No, that's completely unrelated. Back to the economics...

You might say, why even expect the Postal Service to run like a business? It's a government agency, silly! That may be true, but the USPS has a lot of powers beyond what government is typically able to do. To name just a few:
  • to sue and be sued in its official name;
  • to adopt, amend, and repeal rules and regulations...
  • to enter into and perform contracts...
  • to determine and keep its own system of accounts...
  • to construct, operate, lease, and maintain buildings...
Source. In spite of its "pseudo-business" status, the USPS is still exempt from federal taxes. This should give it a substantial advantage, but it hasn't been enough to overcome the bureaucratic mindset, inefficiency, and general incompetence which have generated substantial losses for years.

Now, I won't have it be said that I complain about a problem, then do nothing to fix it. Out of sympathy for the Postal Service's budget woes, I'll make a point of using their services a little extra. That's why I've decided to flat-rate box as many bricks as I can fit, then send it to my old address in Spokane. If there's a God, karma, or some other universal force out there, then the morons who broke all my stuff will drop that 50 lb. box on their slow, stupid feet. Repeatedly. Hope it's worth the $10.50, jerks.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Is Hoarding a disease, or just un-economic? Some advice for the cluttered.

Who doesn't need 70,000 empty beer cans?
People with their finger on the pulse of reality TV (like myself) are shocked and disgusted by the spate of shows surrounding the issue of "hoarding." For the unexposed: the premise of such a show is that people with a serious clutter problem ("hoarders") ask for help from the reality television deities to clean their places. Then, the audience gets to be amused and disgusted as the hoarder whines, moans, and otherwise impedes the cleaning crew from taking out the junk. Apparently it's a successful formula, because several different networks are now doing "Hoarder" themed shows.

Economics does a lot of theorizing about consumption, and generally the assumption is that more = better. Presumably, a person will only buy something if it makes them happier or brings them some sort of utility. TV about hoarders is a case study in diminishing returns from possessions. In other words: the first 10 antique lamps and teddy bears were wonderful, but after there are 500 and you're sleeping on a single chair while living in fear of death by trash-alanche, then more stuff has become a dis-utility.

While the hazards of living in a house overstuffed with molding garbage seem all too apparent from an outside perspective, to a hoarder this can become normal or even desirable. On the show, the hoarders often strongly resist parting with anything, even if its broken, useless or unsanitary. Some have strong emotional attachments to objects other people wouldn't give a second glance. As one woman says to her daughter, who's trying to throw away rusted garbage on the lawn: "Well, you're not always here. The stuff is always here!" [paraphrasing]. When people choose objects over their family, it's easy to consider it a disease.

The problem is, the "disease" analogy (especially in the case of hoarding) takes agency away from the people with the clutter problem, and allows them to blame a messy house on factors "out of their control." In reality, there's nothing you have more control of than what you choose to purchase and keep in your home. If a person can't imagine themselves in charge of their own possessions, how can they run any part of their life?

Lots of people have a little clutter. Lots of people have sentimental attachment to their items. It's when these are taken to an extreme or inconvenient level that it's classified as "hoarding." It's tough to separate out the 'clinical cases' who need outside assistance from the 'messy people' who just can't be bothered to clean up. The danger is, as psychologizing clutter becomes more popular, more borderline cases may choose the shrink instead of the dumpster.

I'm moving across the country in a few days, and I can say for sure: nothing makes you think about valuing your things like paying to send them someplace. A lot of items - books I'd already read, old CD-ROM computer games, a large selection of cheap kitchen appliances - had to face the "postage cost vs. future enjoyment" test, and quite a few didn't pass. Watching Hoarders, I'd always had a little contempt for the people who couldn't give up anything. Now, I can relate a little more, as I've had to cut my possessions down or risk balancing the USPS budget deficit by myself. It was a lot of work clearing out my one bedroom apartment; hard to imagine downsizing a whole house.

One positive aspect I've found: giving stuff away is fun. Either it goes to someone you like so they can enjoy it, or it goes to someone you dislike and clutters their place up instead. I've never considered myself much of a "better to give than receive" sort of person, but it's been enjoyable lately to clean out my unneeded possessions.

If clutter is complicating your life, I have a few suggestions:
  • Reconsider spending habits. On the show, lots of people describe how they get a rush from the purchase and then don't know what to do with the item. Sometimes in periods of stress it's reassuring to buy new things, but this isn't a sustainable strategy. Only purchasing stuff you have an immediate use for is a better use of money than funding a yacht for every yard sale in town.
  • Try the "postage vs. enjoyment" experiment for yourself. Imagine you had to pack all of your belongings and pay to ship them, or leave them behind. What would you bring? Which items are easily replaced, you have a lot of, or no longer need? The result should be some hierarchy of what you value the most, and hopefully a lot of items that aren't worth the hassle anymore.
  • Just clean up. Seriously. Start in a small corner, then work outward. Many of the hoarders wanted their place clean, but they got overwhelmed and couldn't do it. Overcome this mental barrier by setting small, achievable steps (insert generic self-help advice here).

It seems fitting this is the last post I'll make before packing my computer in a box and shipping it across the country. I'm sitting in an empty apartment now; the only furniture left is my desk, a chair, and an old dishwasher. All I can say is... don't you wish you were so lucky?