Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Have a very merry DDR Christmas!

Last year, I made a video of myself doing the Christmas- and Winter-themed dances from the video game series Dance Dance Revolution (DDR), and put it on my YouTube page. But back then, I didn't have a rockin' blog to link it from!

Since Christmas is going to hit soon, here's the video, the most viewed on my page:

Monday, December 22, 2008

A non-conspiratorial explanation of oil's price history

As you're probably aware, oil this year surged to $147 a barrel and then fell to, as of today, about $40 -- over a 2/3 drop in less than six months. And its peak was over a 100% increase from the previous year. With a lot of the decline shortly before the election, this roller-coaster ride has prompted quite a lot of conspiracy theories.

Well, recently on another (private) forum, I summarized the significant reasons why oil acted like that, without reference to any conspiracy. I'll repeat it here:

1) China was buying a lot of oil and stockpiling it. Unlike the general "growth in emerging markets", this actually came as a surprise to a lot of speculators, which is why it was such a fast rise instead of a gradual one since 2000. China was doing this in order to burn less coal and make the air cleaner for the Olympics. Now that that's over, a significant source of demand is gone.

2) Because of the credit crunch, speculators were significantly less able to borrow and bid up the price of oil. Once it hit, they had to significantly unwind their positions.

(Now, I'm all for the right of people to make speculative purchases; however, what we had there was *far* from a free market. For one thing, the government's bailing out of banks that had hedge funds doing the speculating, eliminated the strong negative downside to hype-based, stupid speculation. Also, a lot of the *naked* shorts and longs were very corrupt where if one party lost money, the brokerage would act like it can't find the original contract and try to reverse the sale. Things like this artificially amplified the price premium due to hype [as opposed to rational estimations of future developments] and crowded out wiser investors.)

3) The global economic downturn significantly revised investors' estimates of future oil demand.

4) The president's, and then congress's, termination of the ban on offshore drilling also significantly changed expectations about future oil availability. These helped prod oil down.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Setting externalities straight: the elephant in the room

A recent comment on Megan McArdle's blog gave me a chance to explain (again) what I think is wrong with "glibertarian" (glib libertarian) solutions to the problem of externalities.

Basically, I think that when people complain about negative externalities, what they are really complaining about is a negative externality that they also find morally objectionable, but for well-grounded, intuitive, practical reasons. To suggest that the victim of such shenanigans should have to pay off the wrongdoer, thus misses the point. That is exactly the reasoning I elaborate on in the comments section of that post.

So, to the discussion. Jim Glass said:

... *if* transaction costs were zero *then* "externality problems" like pollution would be bargained away in the market, but these problems aren't bargained away in the market, *thus* transaction costs are large -- and should get a lot more attention from economists and other social planners than they do.

So I responded:

Jim_Glass: actually, as I said above, I think the problem people intuitively have with this Coasean reasoning is that it's not true, even in the pure case of no transaction costs.

Think about it this way: what if while you were sleeping I came close to your window -- though still outside your property, and revved my motorcycle loud enough to keep you from sleeping. And let's say that, because of some technicality, there's no law or property right you can invoke to make me stop.

Would you seriously try to pay me to go away, thinking, "hey, problem solved!" Hopefully, you're not that stupid. Because then you just created the incentive for people to extort more money out of you. Yet economists would pat themselves on the back and say, "See? Because of property rights, this so-called 'problem' has an efficient solution."

But it's a load of crap.

Now, as an economist, you might admit that, okay, sure, you suffered a bit -- you lost some of your consumer surplus. But that "doesn't matter" because it's "just" a transfer payment. You lost, and I gained. Only when there are are *no* gainers do we see an "inefficiency" and therefore a problem. Here, there is no problem.

Hell yes there is! A system in which people can extort money this way is a system in which people just don't make as big investments in property [which results in less wealth for everyone], knowing that that will just make them a better target for extortion. It's a systematic weakening of property rights.

So no, Jim_Glass, the appropriate solution is not to "get transaction costs to approach zero, and let bargaining take over." The appropriate solution is to require those who try this extortion to pay up for it!

Deliberately annoying people should *not* be a path to wealth. People see this intuitively. And for the exact same reason, the victims of global warming should *not* be the ones that have to buy out the polluters, even if the transaction costs would be zero.

The thing is, in these internet debates, people who object to e.g. pollution, are doing so in a way perfectly consistent with the basis I laid out -- yet rarely do the participants get around to identifying these underlying assumptions! Instead, they just throw the same non-responsive points at each other, and ultimately miss identifying the optimal solutions -- both in the moral and economic senses. I seem to be the only being in the world capable of actually seeing what the dispute is ultimately about.

So, again I have to ask: is the world insane, or just me?

Monday, December 8, 2008

Now I'm even famouser*!

Bob Murphy mentions me in a Buffalo News opinion piece. And promotes me to "financial commentator"!

For those of you who got here after wondering, "Huh? Who's Silas Barta?": welcome to my blog! Since you're probably not aware, Bob and I have had some pretty vicious disputes over the issues, so it's quite honorable of him to mention me. He said he felt he owed it to me because I originally suggested the point to him.

Don't worry though, I'll be back criticizing him in no time at all! Like, what's with the sudden reversal of his position on not making conditional endorsements of government intervention "because it might confuse the readers"? More on that later.

*Not actually a valid conjugation in proper English