Sunday, August 30, 2009

Words of Wisdom from Seth Roberts

Professors teach how to be professors. Most students don’t want to be professors. Every Berkeley prof I ever met was extremely good at research; a few were extremely good lecturers. And every one of them sounded like an idiot the moment they started talking about how they taught “critical thinking” or whatever grand-sounding term they had for it. “Teaching students to think” was a common way to describe teaching students how to be professors. To say such a thing to a psychology professor is like saying to a chemistry professor that the world consists of four elements (earth, air, fire, water). “Are you aware how stupid you sound?” I felt like saying. But instead I would say that there are many kinds of thinking.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


This may be good news, if it pans out.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Atul Gawande

I enjoyed this Harvard Magazine profile of surgeon and medical writer Atul Gawawnde.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

My Qualm about Universal Health Insurance

Just going by personal interest, I should be wildly in favor of universal health insurance. But as to the country at large, I worry about the rationing issue.

To be clear, I'm not worried that there will be too much rationing, I'm worried that there won't be enough. For a wide variety of reasons, I'm suspicious of the value of a lot of so-called "healthcare." Healthcare (not the lack of it) is one of the leading causes of death in America (doctor error, risks of surgery, hospital-borne infections, etc., etc.). And many treatments lack valid evidence that they even work.

Will there be enough rationing in a universal system? Probably not. Many people are frantic that there might be rationing (in the form of a refusal to pay for any requested service whatsoever), and the response of liberals is usually to proclaim that there will be less rationing under a government program than in the private market. So both sides will be on board for trying to limit rationing.

Thus, a universal system in America would, thanks to the political forces at work, serve to increase the total amount of healthcare consumed. Even though some people would benefit from more healthcare, that wouldn't be an average effect: lots of people would be harmed by having more healthcare. Thus, the American population would probably become less healthier on average, while paying more.

Not a good deal. There's got to be a better way to subsidize catastrophic insurance for the means-tested portion of the population that is most likely to need help there.

Friday, August 07, 2009

1950 Childhood vs. Today

In an excellent post, Bryan Caplan points out that childhood is far safer in many ways today compared to 1950, a supposedly idyllic time of "Leave it to Beaver," etc. I suspect that the availability heuristic may play some role here. As childhood risks become lower, they ironically become better fodder for the news media, which tends to focus on rare sensational stories. In turn, the average person tends to overestimate risks that have been the subject of news coverage, and that are readily called to mind.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Cost of Raising a Child

Journalists seem to love the recurring story about how much money it takes to raise a child to age 18 (currently $221,000). Reducing the cost of a child to such a figure, however, misses the fact that expenses are lumpy and that this affects marginal costs. If you live in a small apartment, and having children makes you decide to move to an house that costs 3 times as much, then that's an expense of raising children. But if you already live in a house and having a child merely means using the spare bedroom or putting two kids in a bedroom, then the marginal cost of having a child is much, much lower. Also: if you have one child, and buy new clothes and shoes for every age, that's a lot of expense. But if you have a second child who can wear the same clothes and shoes as hand-me-downs, the marginal cost drops much lower again.

It's not meaningful to talk about the "average" cost of a child . . . it all depends on your family's pre-existing circumstances.