Archive for the 'General' Category

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If You Were Bill Gates, How Would You Solve Poverty?

If you were Bill Gates and had ten billion dollars to spend to solve poverty, what would you do? David Henderson, an economist at the Naval Postgraduate School, posed precisely that question to various economists at his school and those of us that read his blog. This is what I wrote:

I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot lately. What is the best form of charity? Clearly, just giving a bum on the streets money is a waste. He’ll probably just spend it on alcohol and is he really reformable? Clearly you want the money to go to something that is an investment – that grows, like paying for a poor persons college. Not only do you give them money, but its money that actually solves their problems – long term. But even that has its flaws. After all, they are living in the United States – our “poor”, are richer than 90% of the world.
So then the answer has to do with the worlds poor – not USA’s poor. India, Africa, China, places like that. But you dont want to just give it away either – it robs them of the dignity that comes with “earning”. One thing that I thought about is that when you visit poor countries, and someone offers you a service – say wash your windows, or clean your tires – you tip BIG. Not only are you hitting the target group, but you are rewarding them for a service, and having people participate in the economy makes us all better.

But now were at three qualities of efficient charity: a) targets the clearly truly poor, b) an investment that grows and solves their poverty long term and c) one that gives dividends to the rest of us.

As contrarian as it sounds, I am convinced that the best form of charity is giving jobs and education to the worlds poorest countries – like China’s new growth and capitalist turn. As Tyler Cowen mentioned in his book Economic Stagnation, you get alot of immediate growth and return when a poor population is brought into the world economy – through education, jobs and industrialization. China is at the same stage that the United States was say 100 years ago. And we can expect the same returns – as more and more people are given the opportunity to advance through higher education and innovation. Not only does this make the poorest people better off, but the rest of the world gets alot of the dividends (think of all the added medical innovations, technological innovations, and general increase in standard of living we will experience because of China’s 1 billion+ citizens increased standard of living).

So in the end: what would I do? Probably spend it on whatever makes businesses MORE likely to invest in China, India and other poor countries that bring them further into the economic fold and pull them and their people out of poverty. Maybe invite Intel to open up a training center and design center in a growing country – if the decision ends up losing money, you promise to refund them their losses. If not, you entice another company.

Something like a company insurance policy with the goal of targeting especially poor countries. That is what I would do.

Inequality In Context

World Inequality

George Mason University economics professor explains:

Along the horizontal axis are within-country income percentiles running from the bottom 5% (1st ventile) to the top 5% (20th ventile). Along the vertical axis are world income percentiles.

The graph shows that the bottom 5% of Brazilians are among the poorest people in the world but the top 5% are among the richest. Thus the vertical range of the curve tells us about within-country inequality.

Comparing between countries we see that the poorest 5% of Americans are among the richest people in the world (richer than nearly 70% of other people in the world). The poorest 5% of Americans, for example, are richer than the richest 5% of Indians.

Oil Economics

Economist David Henderson, in a book review, states oil economics that many environmentalists lack:

Another problem, state Hubbard and Navarro, is that America’s heavy oil dependence makes our economy far more vulnerable to slower growth and recessions triggered by sudden price increases. But because oil is traded in a world market, we are vulnerable to price increases whether we import all or none of our oil. So whether we produce all or none of the oil we use, an oil price increase hurts our consumers the same amount. To be sure, if we imported less oil and produced more domestically, a price increase would help our producers. But how would we put ourselves in the position of having more production? By guaranteeing a higher price to domestic producers. By insisting on higher-cost domestic production, we would avoid the possibility of more-expensive oil when prices spike for the certainty of more-expensive oil all the time.

The full review can be found here.

In Defense Of For-Profit Colleges

One of the biggest blind spots of policymakers and pundits is the inability to take target market into account. For example, you can’t just compare the wages of employees at Hilton Hotels vs Motel 6’s and conclude that Hilton Hotels are superior because the employees are paid more. You have to take the companies vastly different target market into account. Motel 6’s target a much poorer and cost sensitive segment of the economy, and so it’s understandable that they pay their employees less. In addition, Motel 6’s also hire from a lower socioeconomic level than does Hilton Hotels, so again you’d expect their pay to be lower (in exchange for lower productivity, ie education, ability to speak English, etc). What seemed like a bad wrap for the poor without taking target market into account, turns out to be an overall net gain when it’s included (who doubts that from the poor’s perspective, Motel 6’s are better than Hilton hotels?).

The same blind spot is apparent in the Wal-Mart vs union run grocery stores debate. Wal-Mart caters to a lower socioeconomic class, by hiring and providing cheaper products to those at the lower end of the income distribution. So it makes sense that their employees are paid less than their union run grocery stores counterparts, who cater to a higher socioeconomic class. Seen in that aspect, Wal-Mart is no different than the Motel 6. And since it’s our ghettos and poor areas that are plagued by unemployment, empty lots and general lack of opportunities, the Wal-Mart model is a superior model for the ghettos and poor areas.

The same blind spot resurfaces when talking about for-profit colleges. When comparing for-profit colleges to non-profits, critics will primarily focus on graduation rates and default rates, taking nothing else into account. But what happens when you take target market into account?

For-profit colleges tend to cater primarily to the marginalized segments of society: working mothers, high school drop outs, older people trying to change careers, and people who are in a rush to graduate. In other words, the riskier segment of society. The very same people that the non-profit education system often ignores.

Seen from this perspective, it’s expected that for-profit schools will be worse than non-profits when it comes to student debt. It’s expected because they cater to riskier students, so they are going to have a larger variance of outcome – whether that is graduation rates, or student loan repayment. But catering to a riskier segment of the population is not something that should be punished, it should be encouraged. Lets remember, for-profits are actually doing what we berate businesses to do – serve those at the bottom, often forgotten by others. They are a lot better at helping students who may have messed up through high school and want to change their lives around.

And this is without even mentioning all of the other benefits that come from for-profit colleges vs traditional colleges. For example, a significantly shorter time to graduation (averaging 3 years, when non-profits are getting closer to 6 years – a huge gain in opportunity cost), more income oriented majors (even the worst of the for-profit colleges will never have such time wasted majors like Chicano Studies, for example) and a clear path towards graduation. All benefits that primarily help the marginalized segments of society.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I graduated from a for-profit institution. I got my BS in 3 years. Before that I was a high school drop out (in 10th grade) with about a 2.0 GPA. I had only a GED and no community college credits. I was also the child of a poor single mother, living in Compton, Ca. The group of friends I currently run with all have similar stories – all of us grew up poor, are minorities and graduated from the same for-profit college. None of us received any grants (my mom refused to fill out the FAFSA – she always hated anybody knowing how much she made and was convinced I would find out). More importantly, in the for-profit college I went to there were others – not a majority, but certainly a strong minority – in the same situation I grew up in. It’s the privileged kids that were the exception at the for-profit college, not the the poor minorities.

All of us, also, are currently successful engineers. We all make around 6 figures a year or more. All of us with just the bachelors degree from the for-profit college (I have some undergraduate and graduate work at UCSD, but never completed a full degree there). Without a doubt, graduating from that for-profit college was the single best thing I could have done for my life. Without it, my life would have been very different.

Update: Matt Rognlie makes a similar point here.

Two Arguments In Favor Of Immigration