Saturday, September 6, 2014

Swimming Pools Good, Guns Bad

A number of gun advocates use bad statistics and logic to conclude that swimming pools are more dangerous than guns. They make a number of logical mistakes, such as only looking at accidental shootings or focusing on children and thereby deliberately ignoring the adults who are much more likely to be shot and less likely to drown in a swimming pool. Leaving those arguments aside, however, there is another reason they are fundamentally wrong – the health benefits of a swimming pool dwarf the risks, providing around an order of magnitude more lifespan increase via exercise than they claim due to drowning accidents, if not more.

390 children per year under the age of 15 drowned in the nation’s approximately 10.7 million swimming pools between 2009 and 2012. Note that this data is substantially different that the data from 1997 used in the Levitt article cited above (550, 6 million), so we clearly have experienced a dramatically falling death rate the last 15-20 years. I suspect you can blame regulations for that. In any case, data on teens or adults is sparse but the trend of death rates falling rapidly with age clearly continues, at least until very old age. Let's approximate it at 450 total drowning per year in recent years, which works out to one death per 23,778 pools.

Sadly, the average age of the drowning victims – two-thirds are between one and three years old – is very low, so let’s approximate the average as five years. Compared to an eighty year lifespan, this represents 75 years of lost life per 23,778 pools per year. Therefore, the average pool claims 1.15 life-days (or 28 life-hours) each year due to drownings.

So how does this stack up against the exercise benefits? In short, this risk is dwarfed by them. For example, this paper indicates (summary here), that meeting the CDC guidelines of 2.5 hours of moderate exercise (such as playing in a pool) per week extends lifespan by a whopping 3.4 years. If you work through the math on that, you will find that for each hour of moderate exercise, your lifespan is increasing by two hours and fifty minutes, almost three times as much! Vigorous exercise is even better, close to a six to one ratio. This data was specifically for those aged over 40, but it is highly likely that something similar applies to younger people as well.

So assuming that swimming in a residential pool meets the paper’s definition of moderate exercise, which is certainly seems to, and that the benefits of exercise are roughly constant with respect to age, then if a pool generates a mere 10.4 hours of additional moderate exercise per year, it will save more life-days than it will take. While I don’t have any firm data on how many person-hours a typical pool represents each year, surely it is far, far higher than 10.4, probably closer to several hundred, and many thousands for public pools. Clearly, the health benefits win in a landslide, and the net effect of owning a pool is to cause your family members to live substantially longer, not less.

So while pools are risky, they are far less risky than the alternative – your kids sitting around in front of the TV growing fat. Obviously, one should take the risks of pools seriously, follow all relevant regulations, and otherwise act prudently, but getting your kids a pool is ten steps forward for every one back.

In contrast, guns do not have any health benefits that would offset the incredible risks that they bring to bear on your family. To compare them to pools, which are a substantial net positive from a health and longevity perspective, is therefore completely mistaken. Guns do not lower your cholesterol, or prevent heart attacks, or make your sex life better. They just get you and your family members killed, both by dramatically increasing suicide rates in your home, and turning what would have been merely heated arguments into fatal tragedies. If you love your family, you'd sell your guns for scrap today, and use the money to buy a pool.


Addendum: The same logic works for cycling. Others have worked out the math here. Exercise is your friend, folks.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Long Live Peak Oil...

To anyone out there who says the peak oil theory is dead, please note the following:

1: The western hemisphere's largest infrastructure project is an off-shore oil project near Brazil with a projected cost of $237 billion. Yes, that is a "b".

2: That is more than three times the projected cost of the next largest project, the California High Speed Rail system, and almost as much as the US spends on all public infrastructure projects in one year.

3: According to one insider, the break-even cost on that oil is $110/barrel.

When the oil majors are already messing around with dregs like this, what are they going to be doing twenty years from now? Fifty? It ain't going to be pretty, whatever it is. We can either prepare for the inevitable production declines and price surges by carefully nursing our remaining oil reserves, or we can continue to drill-baby-drill until the collapse begins. Which policy is conservative, and which is insane? You decide.

Snatching Defeat on Immigration

Congratulations, President Obama and my fellow Democrats. You have managed to turn a winning issue for our party - immigration - into a losing one. Poll after poll is showing strong opposition to the President's policies with respect to the immigration issue.

It has gotten so bad that the majority of Americans want less legal immigration, and independents have switch solidly into the Republican camp on this issue. How did Democrats screw this up so badly?

By betraying legal immigrants, and selling the farm on behalf of those who are in the US illegally. The Senate "Gang of Eight" bill has little for legal immigrants, and most of what might benefit them is offset by tens of billions of dollars of unfunded and wasteful security spending which will inevitably catch legal immigrants in its net. I especially love how they "solved" the problem of backlogs of up to twenty years for some visa types - not by speeding up the lines, but by eliminating those visa types completely! Brilliant!

What America needs is a full-throated, unabashed pro-legal-immigration party, a party that refutes the false and ugly claim (believed by 63% of Americans) that legal immigration harms the economy. Instead, we have an anti-immigration Republican party, and a Democratic party who only seems to care about securing another round of amnesty. Americans are siding with the former, and despite my extremely pro-immigration attitudes, I can certainly understand why. Hopefully my fellow liberals figure this out soon, or we are going to get hammered at the ballot box.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Immigration and the Lump of Labor Fallacy

One very common (and bi-partisan!) argument I see against immigration is that it will lower wages of American workers. This meme is, fortunately, nonsense, as confirmed by numerous actual studies of real-world data. It is a classic example of what economists call the "Lump of Labor Fallacy" - the idea that there is a fixed pool of jobs, and if someone gets one, someone else does not. While this might be a sensible notion in one's very narrow experience, it is not true in the broader economy. If someone beats you out during the final interview round for a job, it is true that in the very short term, you are still out of work. However, the number of jobs in the economy does not decrease by one. Why? Because that someone will presumably spend their money from their new job, which will in turn create approximately one new job. If there were a million open positions across the US before the final interview round, there will still be a million the next day.

Immigration works the same way. Assuming for a moment that immigrants are more or less demographically matched to the native population in terms of education, age, etc, then any jobs they "take" will be made up for by the jobs they create when they spend their earnings. At first principle, this is a wash. In reality, immigrants are not demographically matched, so they can have impacts in specific labor markets where they are concentrated. If, for example, we were to allow a million dock workers to immigrate to the US, it is obvious that the wages of dock workers would fall. However, this would mean prices for goods passing through the docks would fall, which would in turn mean we'd all have a few more dollars in our pockets each month. When we spend this money, we'd create jobs all throughout the economy. How many? About as many as were lost by native dock workers! Likewise, the push to import a bunch of STEM workers will almost certainly depress wages for native STEM workers, but it means everyone else will be getting STEM products for cheap, saving us cash that we can then spend on other things. So while STEM workers have a right to complain, and may even deserve some sort of compensation or protection, overall, society wins.

If you can't see my point, let's try it another way. It should be obvious that population size of a country has essentially no impact on wages - there are plenty of counties of all sizes which are rich, and plenty which are poor. Therefore, to claim that immigration can lower wages is to claim that the economy somehow differentiates between population growth via border crossings and population growth via vagina crossings. That, of course, is absurd.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Natural Gas Ain't Cheap...

One refrain I have been hearing a lot over the last few years is that natural gas is really cheap right now, and this will lead to some sort of economic bonanza. This would be nice, if the premise was true. Now, natural gas is certainly cheaper than it was in the aughts, but how does it compare historically? The EIA publishes all sorts of data on natural gas production and prices, but unfortunately does not have an inflation adjusted series, which is more relevant from a policy perspective. I have gone about constructing one, so that we can compare today's prices with those in the past.

I've chose to use the EIA's wellhead price, which was its longest running series until it was discontinued at the end of 2012. The prices in red are estimated from the city gate price, using a linear extrapolation based on the overlapping city gate and wellhead data from 2010-2012 using the regression formula

WH = (CG-2.9053)/0.7031

As you can see, wellhead natural gas is not unusually cheap. While it did very briefly touch historic lows near the beginning of 2012, it's average price over the last year of around $3.60 per tcf is similar to or higher than the real prices of natural gas in the late seventies and the period from 1985-2000.

But what about before the mid-seventies, you ask? Well, fortunately the EIA has less granular historical data going back to the 1920s! Again, I had to do the inflation adjustment myself, so here is their data in 2014 dollars.

Well I'll be. Natural gas was lot cheaper from the 1920's through the mid 1970's than it is today! Who would have guessed?

So no, natural gas is not cheap right now, nor does the futures market predict it ever will be again. It is highly unlikely we will ever return to the real price levels of the middle of the last century, or even to the somewhat elevated but still tolerable prices of the mid 80s and 90s. Instead, we will be faced with high prices in good years and insane prices in the rest. You'd better be ready for it.


Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Trouble with Game of Thrones, Season 5 (In One Chart)

Very light spoilers ahead....

The directors of Game of Thrones have said many times they were looking forward to Season 4, and dreading Season 5. Here is why.

By my count, there are currently nine plots running in the series, a "plot" being defined as a cluster of characters in a single location. The three major ones are the King's Landing / Lannister plot, the Jon / Wall plot, and the Daenerys / Slaver's Bay plot. Six smaller plots (Stannis and Company, Sansa/Littlefinger, Arya/Hound, Bran and Company, Brienne/Pod, and Ramsey/Theon/Yarra) round out the story. To film the series, the directors tend to focus on one of the three "main" plots each episode, filled with smaller scenes from some of the minor plots or the other two main plots.

As you can see, though, this breaks down in Season 5. If the books are followed, not only are two new significant plots born, but one of the main three splits into three and births another, one splits in two, and the other combines with an existing minor plot and then proceeds to split into five separate lines. At peak levels, there are many as seventeen separate plots going on simultaneously. Two of these do combine towards the end of book A Dance with Dragons (Book 5), and it is clear that many are converging early in Winds of Winter (Book 6), but as it stands, even with some significant pruning of characters and plots, there are some serious challenges to filming Season 5, as so many characters get divided and scattered to the winds. It will be interesting to see how the directors handle this challenge.

Note that this near-doubling of the plot lines is what underlies most of the criticism of the books A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons. With that many threads going on at once, the pace of the overall plot seemed to slow down considerably.

PS: I'll give a small prize to the first person who can correctly decipher my graph!

Friday, May 30, 2014

Land of The Free, Baby, Yeah (IRS Edition)

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post comparing the Japanese immigration system to America's USCIS. Today, it is the IRS that is in my sights. My accountants just provided me with my US returns for 2013, and for the second year in a row (and completely predictably), the accountants cost more than my entire US tax burden.

How did things break down this year? My US returns were 70 pages long this year, beating out last year's 63 pages. In both years, the US collected a whopping 0.3% of my income*, a tiny tax liability I incurred either by traveling to the US on business or having some small US-source income streams that Japan didn't tax.

In contrast, my Japanese returns for the two years were 6 and 8 pages respectively, including things like cover letters. The actual returns are about as long as a 1040-EZ. The Japanese, of course, actually captured the lion's share of the taxes, around 17% of my income in both years. So just like in the immigration systems, Japan again wins hands-down in terms of simplicity and ease of complying with its laws. There is nothing like living in a true Land of the Free, rather than a false one.

*Note that payroll taxes are an entirely separate issue. I am only talking about income taxes. Fundamentally, I have a choice where to pay payroll tax, and I deliberately choose the US and participate in that system.