At least I didn't land on Bono

A few days ago Joey DeVilla blogged about the OKCupid politics test and, well…I just can’t resist a blend of politics and charts.

type1

Here’s the text the test spit out for me:

Social Liberal (73% permissive) / Economic Liberal (23% permissive)

You are best described as a: Strong Democrat (the test was quite American-centric)

You exhibit a very well-developed sense of Right and Wrong and believe in economic fairness.

I’d say that’s about right. I’d also wager I’m one of the very few people with the letters ‘MBA’ behind my name who’d come in under the 25% mark on economic liberalism.

The test also tries to tries to lump you in to a broad descriptive category:

type3

Again, because of the American focus you could probably substitute ‘Liberal’ for ‘Democrat’ and ‘Conservative’ for ‘Republican’. That would put me on the border between plain old vanilla liberal and socialist, which feels about right.

Finally the test results plot you on a list of famous (mainly American) people, and I agree with Joey that it seems pretty skewed.

type2

I would consider myself more socially permissive and less economically permissive than both Hilary Clinton or Barack Obama (or at least their policies or policy statements), and there’s no way Obama’s at the bottom right extreme. I mean, if the Unabomber and Stalin are corner-dwellers, I don’t think Obama (or Huckabee, for that matter) belong in the same range. Paging Dr. Marx…

Men are from Mars, women are from a different planet with longer grace periods

For a while now I’ve been meaning to blog about some survey results I saw over at The Financial Brand:

A study by Financial Finesse shows stark differences in the ways men and women feel about money. The firm analyzed more than 3,000 responses to an online financial planning questionnaire, revealing trends regarding spending, saving and investing.

Men vs. Women

What do you think? Does this sound right to you? This doesn’t seem to accurately represent my female friends, but I think I have a skewed sample to draw from. Also, question #2 might be misleading: I’m betting people who don’t have/use credit cards were still counted as a “no” response.

Youthanization

Interesting chart in the Economist today:

Interesting, too, this line from the Economist’s blurb accompanying the picture:

“[A] shortage of jobs for the young means that political instablity, in many Arabic countries, is likely to persist.”

Here’s why this is worrying: remember that among the biggest enablers of the ascent of fascism in Europe in the 1930s was economic disarray due to astronomical inflation and then worldwide recession. It usually takes a confluence of economic factors to cause societal distress, one or more of which isn’t a typical part of economic cycles — in Weimar Germany it was the cost of the war and war reparation payments, followed by the Great Depression — and this chart points to the makings of another potential confluence in Arab countries.

By contrast, in the US or Europe today you have an economic downturn, which looks awful and feels awful and is treated on the news and in opinion columns as if it’s different from all the other downturns. It’s not, of course, except perhaps in magnitude. But economies will recover. It’s a natural part of the cycle — we flew too high, now it’s time to bend and scrape. Again, the differentiating factor in Germany’s case was the additional repayment due the Allies combined with the monstrous debt of the four-year war itself which drove hyperinflation, all later piled on top of a worldwide economic crisis. That disrupted the cycle and caused a kind of slow-burn chain reaction, leading to economic turmoil, which led to social unrest. The added political kindling of the threat of Bolshevism (a dictatorship, dressed as a left-wing movement) opened the door for Fascism (equally dictatorial, but perceived as the right-wing enemy of a left-wing enemy and therefore a friend) to take root.

So, back to the Arab countries. For years they’ve had little economic cycle to disrupt, as rich Western countries and corrupt political leaders have kept the wealth (primarily from oil) for themselves. Put another way, the average person hasn’t that much to lose. Still, that inequity in itself is a basis for simmering discontent, if not periodic crisis, and so it lies in wait for an accelerant. When you add in this impending economic crisis of unemployment driven by an incredibly high birth date in Arab countries, you have all the makings of a bomb waiting to go off: persistent economic imbalance and hordes of disenfranchised youth in a region rife with religious fundamentalism and armed conflict. All it needs is one last spark to push it over the edge.

So what happens if that final factor occurs, if the match is lit? In Germany, under such circumstances, desperation led the people to vote themselves a tyrant, and their manufacturing capacity made them a war machine again.  Presumably the reaction in Arab countries would be different. It’s unlikely they would elect a party who would mobilize for widespread war, though that must be precisely the scenario Israel dreads. I’m far from informed on the topic, but my feeling is that there would be a dramatic surge in terrorism, as well as targeted attacks against western workers and corporations in Arab countries, compounding the economic problem and creating a downward spiral.

The Nazis were the result of multiple compounding factors, some controllable, or at least foreseeable, like economic depression and war reparations, and some not, like hyperinflation and Bolshevism. Back to the present day: the economic draining of Arab countries is easy to spot…it’s been going on for decades, so that’s factor #1.  The Economist has made this demographic shift  (which will inexorably lead to mass unemployment) plain to see…and there’s #2. So what’s the unforeseeable event going to be? What unpredictable economic catastrophe would be big enough to light the fuse?

Peak oil, anybody?

The money pit

The Economist‘s most recent daily chart surprised me. From the blurb accompanying the chart: “Comparisons with other rich countries and within the United States show that its [health-care] system is not only growing at an unsustainable pace, but also provides questionable value for money and dubious medical care.”

This runs counter to what I’d always assumed: that the US federal government spent very little on health care, and that the private consumer spent a great deal. Certainly American citizens pay an enormous amount per person, but their federal funds spent per capita is still the highest in the world, odd considering America is notorious for not having socialized medicine. Why is this?

I don’t know the answer, obviously, but I suspect that treating a necessity of life — medical care — as a for-profit enterprise has led to exorbitant prices. Then, if the government increases federal spending to support the poor, injured veterans and so on, they’re throwing good money after bad.

Does a socialized system help prevent that? Maybe. It’s harder to profit from health-care in, say, Canada or the UK than in the US. But I can see why some Americans are so opposed to more federal dollars going into health-care. If it really is good money after bad, then they have reason to oppose spending more tax dollars on it. But the graph above just shows me even proponents of American health-care reform should be opposed to putting more money into the current system.

The reform being discussed isn’t enough. As long as saving lives is a for-profit concern, Americans won’t get their money’s worth.

Chartsngraphs

It’s data! It’s pictures! It’s learning!

First up, from The Economist, we have the rate of new AIDS infections plotted next to condom use.

Not to sound disrespectful or anything, but…suck it, Pope Benedict.

Next, the NY Times shows (or showed, about a month ago I guess) in several countries the relationship between the speed with which we eat (controlling for the average amount eaten, I assume) and the obesity rate.

That gap between the obesity rate in Canada and the US seems about right, matching the representation in this (rather long) graphic courtesy of Mint:

Wow…do the suicide rates and murder rates balance out?

By the way, you should click through to see the rest of that Mint post to see similar charts on the economy, environment and military of these three countries.

For example: "Just another part of the master plan to drive the middle class out of the city."

Today Toronto Hydro announced that they’ll soon charge variable rates for electricity, depending on the time of day.

Toronto Hydro announced Thursday that it will begin charging its customers new higher rates to use electricity when demand peaks, such as summer afternoons, and lower rates in the middle of the night, in an effort to encourage conservation and avoid blackouts.

This isn’t groundbreaking. The policy has been around for ages in Europe. It’s a simple financial disincentive to curb behaviour that can lead to power problems like blackouts (something Torontonians should be more than a little familiar with) and generally reduce power consumption. Given what’s happened in recent summers here in the city, it seems reasonable to dissuade people of the notion that electricity is an unlimited commodity.

Alas, the comment section of the Globe’s website has predictably degenerated into the usual whining about this being 1) a tax, 2) a nefarious plot by David Miller to strip away the rights and freedoms of Canadians, or 3) hippie treehugger goofiness. Or all of the above. Some even blamed the Tamil protestors. Some of that noise will be the knee-jerk response from political cranks who type first & think later, but I wonder how much comes from people who just don’t understand the use of price incentives as a social lever.

I remember Scott Adams writing once that the world seemed to make a little more sense to him once he knew something about economics. Of course economics is massively complex so understanding a little doesn’t give you the whole picture, but it forces you to see see, or at least acknowledge, that money is an enormous system, and this change is just turning one dial to affect the system a tiny bit. Until that point you’d see everything — like a tax increase or variable rate electricity — through the lens of “why are they doing this to me?” and start accusing politicians of robbing you, as if they had you and your buddies in mind.

Economics: the cause of, and answer to, all of life’s problems.

"If there have been two seemingly immutable trends for the American consumer, they're that he's eaten more every year and driven more every year."

Writing this month in Esquire, stats-man extraordinaire Nate Silver writes about The End Of Car Culture:

In January, according to statistics compiled by the Federal Highway Administration, Americans drove a collective 222 billion miles. That’s a lot of time spent behind the wheel — enough to make roughly eight hundred round-trips to Mars. It translates to about 727 miles traveled for every man, woman, and child in the country. But that figure was down about 4 percent from January 2008, when Americans averaged 757 miles of car travel per person. And this was no aberration: January 2009 was the fifteenth consecutive month in which the average American drove less than he had a year earlier.

Could it be that there’s been some sort of paradigm shift in Americans’ attitudes toward their cars? Perhaps, given the exorbitant gas prices of last summer, Americans realized that they weren’t quite as dependent on their vehicles as they once thought they were.

For all the talk we hear about economic green shoots, I think this may be one. Or, at the very least, may lead to one. The hope, and typical result, of an economic downturn is the innovation and investment stemming from the realization than the previous way of doing things — an unswerving reliance on driving, in this case — is unsustainable, or at least uneconomical. Maybe that innovation will be in alternative energy; maybe that investment will extend the reach of mass transit.

The real question becomes whether this shift is only a temporary blip. Silver himself writes in the article that the falloff in miles driven is probably a trailing indicator of extremely high gas prices last year. Since prices fell so drastically almost immediately after, will attitudes revert to “normal” and suburban growth resume? Hard to say, but Silver does throw in a couple of interesting wrinkles at the end:

The exceptionally sluggish pace of new-vehicle sales, moreover, in the face of extremely attractive incentives being offered by the automakers might imply that Americans are considering making more-permanent adjustments to their lifestyles. And the denigration of the brand of the Big Three automakers in light of their financial difficulties — about one third of Americans have generally told pollsters they will buy only an American-made car — might reduce some of the patriotic associations with the activity of driving. Building a light-rail system might not persuade Bubba to get rid of his vehicle — but forcing him to buy foreign might.

That last sentence is a portent of marketing to come. Jingoistic patriotism is already a favourite tactic of car makers in the war against imports; how long before automakers cede that part of the market and swing their attention to another of Porter’s forces: substitutes? That is, if there is a recognizable shift from driving to public transit, then how long before the latter is cast as unAmerican?

I still don't know what "life evaluation" means though

A few weeks ago Richard Florida’s blog ran a whole series of charts showing (American) state-by-state trends in quality-of-life indices — physical health, GDP per capita, etc. — for what Florida has famously dubbed the Creative Class, vs. the Working Class.

In this series, though, Florida wasn’t touting the advantages of the creative class so much as he was worried by the outlook for the working class.

So maybe it’s time to think twice when we hear how important it is to save “good” working class jobs.  Individually, that may well be the case. Some of these jobs pay very well, and lots of people who lose them may find it difficult, perhaps impossible, to find similar work at their pay levels

But from the point of view of society and economic development broadly, it’s important to recognize that states with large concentrations of working class jobs do very poorly in terms of wealth and well-being.

These findings distress me personally. Looking them over and over, I found myself thinking back to advice  my father – who spent more then 50 years as a worker in a Newark eyeglass factory – gave my brother and I long ago. “Boys,” he said, “I do this so you won’t have to. That’s why you have to stay in school, study hard, and go to college.” I understand much better now what he was driving at.

Me too.

"There will be howling anguish, all kinds of pain…"

If you have a chance, skip over to this Globe and Mail interview with Niall Ferguson.

Heather Scoffield: Is a violent resolution to this crisis inevitable?

Niall Ferguson: “There will be blood, in the sense that a crisis of this magnitude is bound to increase political as well as economic [conflict]. It is bound to destabilize some countries. It will cause civil wars to break out, that have been dormant. It will topple governments that were moderate and bring in governments that are extreme. These things are pretty predictable. The question is whether the general destabilization, the return of, if you like, political risk, ultimately leads to something really big in the realm of geopolitics. That seems a less certain outcome.

OK, so he’s not exactly three rays of sunshine or a lollipop explosion, but it’s still good to be informed.