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August 2008

Good question; good answer

"However, if you eventually confront your demons, and defeat them, only one problem remains: what to do next?"

Brian Wilson is touring.

His 10-piece band, rightly acclaimed for their zesty recreations hitherto, attacked tunes such as You're So Good to Me, Do You Wanna Dance and I Get Around with infectious enthusiasm. With three guitarists to provide the surfy twanging, and an abundance of divine voices to attack the harmonies, they gave a masterclass in early-Sixties rock and roll - a rare pleasure, 45 years after the fact.

Good vibrations, indeed.

Maybe the "end of the beginning" for Ebola

Scientific American, 7/10:

In a breakthrough that could eventually help tame one of the deadliest viruses known to man, researchers have laid bare the key to Ebola's power: a lone protein that resides on its surface. The discovery paves the way for new treatments that target and destroy the designated culprit, rendering impotent a virus that, though rare, can kill up to 90 percent of the people it infects.

Supermarket News's top North American retailers, 2008

When I was in college and graduate school a number of prominent economists and other observers were quite concerned about grocery retailing in the U.S. They claimed "entry barriers" were high; concentration in many cities was "high and rising"; and then there were concerns about "multimarket contact". (I may, later, provide cites for these claims. For now, trust me.)

Why bring this up? The other day I happened across a list of the "Top 75 North American Food Retailers" in 2008 as compiled by one of the leading trade publications, Supermarket News. Some things of interest:

--A number of entries on the list either weren't around 25 years ago or weren't, I believe, retailing very much food. Examples: Wal-Mart (#1), Costco (#3), Dollar General (#18), BJ's (#19), Whole Foods (#22), and Trader Joe's (#23).

--Formerly mighty A&P, one of the oldest chains in the U.S., has fallen to #17.

--There have been some significant ownership changes. Foreign-owned companies are now #8 (Ahold), #10 (Delhaize), and #25 (Aldi).

--Some firms operating in regional and even sub-regional areas have, through consistently good management, managed to survive and, apparently, to prosper. Examples: H. E. Butt (#14), Giant Eagle (#21), Wegman's (#30), Raley's (#35), and Weis (#50).

This merits more attention than I want to give it now. But I hope to revisit this. My tentative hypothesis is that grocery retailing in the U.S. has proved to be much more competitive than was forecast 25 or 30 years ago.

DeLong's proposal

In keeping with the beginning of the Democrats' political convention, Brad DeLong has issued his economic platform. He states that under current policy, the federal government will tax about 20% of GDP over the next seventy-five years and will spend about 28% of GDP. The difference is the "fiscal gap".

He proposes a five-point plan to close the gap. It involves 1) letting the Bush tax cuts expire, 2) raising Social Security taxes and reducing the growth in benefits, 3) cutting defense, 4) reducing the "excess" cost growth in Medicare and Medicaid, and 5) raising taxes as necessary to close any gap that remains.

I strongly oppose cutting defense as much as he wants, and I question, except for #2, the other elements of the plan. But leave that aside. Suppose we sign up for his plan to achieve long-run fiscal balance. I have one question: what makes him--or anybody--think that after achieving said balance, the Congress won't just spend its way, or tax-cut its way, into another hole?

Put differently: if Ricardian Equivalence holds approximately, then deficit spending doesn't matter (much). If RE doesn't hold, if the public and Congress view debt as different--somehow less burdensome--from taxes, why won't there be a permanent bias toward deficits?

I'm probably missing something, but I'm willing to learn. (I think.)

Party on, Garth

The University of Florida ranks this year as the "best party school in the country" (by Princeton Review).

I can only imagine how long and uphill the road was to beat those party animals in Tallahassee (#10 this year). Congratulations, Gators!

The U. of Florida administration has responded by proposing ". . . a ban on drinking games, kegs and other activities on the Gainesville campus. Fraternity and sorority houses would also be affected." Lots of luck with that. (Link via SI.)

Speaking of partying, here's an interesting bit reported by Tara Parker-Pope in the New York Times:

Sociologists at Bowling Green State University in Ohio examined data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health . . .

During adolescence, the prospect of attending college was positive. The researchers found that college-bound youth were less likely to be involved in criminal activity and substance use during adolescence than kids who weren’t headed for college.

But college attendance appears to trigger some surprising changes. When male students enrolled in four-year universities, levels of drinking, property theft and unstructured socializing with friends increased and surpassed rates for their less-educated male peers.

The reason appears to be that kids who don’t go to college simply have to grow up more quickly. . . .