22 thoughts on “Monday Message Board

  1. Can anyone give me good references (print, online, learned journals, whatever- English or French language) on any of these topics:

    1) When I did undergraduate level economics about a decade ago, the consensus among labour market economists and macro guys appeared to be that a minimum wage would ceteris paribus be employment-decreasing. We had increases (small ones) in US minimum wages when Clinton was in, and we’ve had a minimum wage for the last seven years in the UK: no decline in employment, indeed quite the opposite. I remember from the mid-90s onwards there were some US studies suggesting that empirically there was no good basis for linking minimum wage increases to falls in employment, but has anybody looked at the US/UK evidence and done any theoretical rethinking? Sure, it could just be that ceteris paribus hasn’t applied, and that other effects, like a general strengthening of demand or other pro-labour-market-flexibility measures, have outweighed the effects of the minimum wage, but has anybody actually tried to rigorously argue this?

    2) Anybody know anything about the scheme to buy up Turkish opium to prevent it reaching the illegal heroin market? Figures especially welcome here; also good journalism.

    3) Staying with the drugs markets: what are particularly good economics or sociology takes on the War on Drugs? Learned journal articles especially sought. Also good independent stats or estimates on international illegal drug production, purchase, prices etc.
    Also any good history papers- I’m looking for learned journal refs if possible- on Nixon’s declaration of the War on Drugs, and on the evolution of the Bureau of Narcotics into the Drugs Enforcement Agency?

    4) A stat which is thrown around with gay abandon in a lot of books and papers on international development, politics, conflict studies etc is some variant on this: ‘between 1789 and 1914, 90% of casualties in war were military; since 1914, (sometimes since 1939 or since 1945) 90% of casualties in war have been civilian.’ I have seen this repeated ad nauseam: Mary Kaldor’s ‘Old and New Wars’, etc. I was actually fired from a job from a ridiculous think tank because someone had heard me questioning the inclusion of this figure in a report.

    I’m researching this, and I have to say that apart from the suspicious ‘90%/90%’ neatness, the lack of any margin of error, etc, I have never seen this sourced to any research. The more I read on the history of military and civilian casualties, the more I suspect that it was pulled out of someone’s backside to make a point about the increasing awfulness of war. I think that when the research gets done it might well prove that there has been a rise in the proportion of civilian casualties caused by war since 1939, and maybe a rise but also maybe a fall in that proportion in wars since ’45. Still, I really can’t see things being as simple as that stat. There were some horrific civilian casualties in a number of 19th Century wars, and anyway most wars’ casualties are so slackly counted that all this ‘90%’ precision is deeply unconvincing.
    Anyone know where this stat originates, and with whom? Be helpful if anyone who has seen this stat quoted anywhere could just email me the title and author of the reference- I might just contact a lot of these writers and ask them were they got it from, and see if it really does have any basis in research.

    Many thanks.

  2. One more request:

    5) Anyone know of any research into the effect of the discovery of diamonds on Botswana’s economy, and on why Botswana seems (so far) to have escaped the ‘curse of natural resources’?

  3. Here’s a survey of the literature on minimum wages bySteve Dowrick and me. It was prepared in support of a minimum wage increase – I think there are some references to the other side of the debate you may want to follow.

    The big news here was the Card-Krueger paper about ten years ago, which undermined the old consensus. This post has some useful links.

  4. On the war casualties, the obvious starting point for this claim is the difference between WWI and WWII. I think the 90 per cent military casualties claim would be defensible for WWI, if you ignore increased mortality due to food shortages, and exclude the postwar conflicts (Turkey-Greece and Russian Civil War).

  5. Something that may or may not have come to your attention: Microsoft ends Hotmail’s free Outlook access

    The interesting thing about this is they claim it is an anti-spam measure, ie. making users pay for the service will put a monetary disincentive on spammers for sending spam in this way. Many (eg. Bill Gates) have essentially suggested that the way to get rid of spam completely is to charge senders a small fee for every piece of email sent. Obviously there are some issues associated with this, but I wonder if anyone would like to comment on the effectiveness of charging users as a disincentive.

    Where do you draw the line between stopping spam, discouraging normal non-spam sending users, and making a profit. It appears to me in this case, Microsoft are just out for a buck, despite their anti-spam rhetoric.

    (disclaimer: making Outlook access to Hotmail is charged is something that annoys me greatly as essentially it is a charge for those of us who prefer to actually SAVE microsoft (and ourselves) some bandwidth by downloading email without the overhead of the pretty hotmail web based GUI. Grr.)

  6. I am interested in the readability of material on the Web and for that matter in Powerpoint slides in a classroom. This bears on the extent to which material on a blogsite or a Web page can substitute for written material. Some evidence suggests it is a poor substitute.

    The average screen resolution on a computer is 72-96 dots per inch whereas a printed document is 600 dots per inch and a glossy magazine is 2400 dots per inch. It is therefore more difficult to read from a screen — hence the reason most people download documents and print them.

    Presumably better quality monitors will reduce this problem.

    There is also evidence that people in fact don’t read online, they scan and rush through material. Partly this reflects the fact that people are users of the web not readers. S. Krug’s book “Don’t Make Me Think” suggests ferwer than 20% of users read word for word.

    I think its interesting to consider blogs and web pages as information transmission media and to assess their advantages as well as disadvantages. The main message of course is that messages need to be kept short and that readers need to concentrate hard to avoid the propensity to skip.

  7. Re effects of wage floor on employment, Ian Watson of Sydney Uni has interesting material in:
    A needle in a haystack. Do increases in the minimum wage cause employment losses?.PDF

  8. “Don’t Make Me Think” is the unstated plea of a large majority of students. They imagine that there’s an implicit contract that goes like this: I will put in a respectable number of hours doing mechanical tasks like copying out notes, putting numbers into fomulas and memorising definitions, and you will give me a Pass; I ask no more than this, you are not allowed to insist that I think.

    So I don’t believe it has much to do with the web, Harry.

    But for the twenty percent who are willing to read actively and think, web material doesn’t seem to be a problem, even with scanned documents. In more advanced courses where students need to read journal articles I put links on the WebCT site to high resolution PDF files in JSTOR.

  9. James, I know students these days seem to demand a lot in relation to putting stuff on the web but this isn’t what I am writing about. Normalise for quality and still evidence is that people read about 20% more slowly on the web. This seems to be largely related to the physical characteristics of the medium, particularly the ‘dots per inch’ issue.

    It is a fact that most of us don’t read at length from the web but print off material and read from a printed copy. This suggests web material is an imperfect substitute for the written word.

    Krug is concerned with designing web pages. He claims people generally don’t read, they scan. People don’t follow instructions, they click etc.

    A difficulty I have is with PowerPoint presentations. They tend to put me to sleep. I wonder if this is related to image quality.

  10. Harry, there are also some interesting ergonomics issues that reduce readability for some people. Having the screen too far away on the desk, having the computer near a bright window, or using a small notebook screen all make reading uncomfortable.

    Points 1 and 2 are typically the preserve of older people, senior management and politicians. They put the screen at the back of their desk to keep the desk area free for traditional work, and they’re the ones that typically have window offices. Bright light causes the user’s eye muscles to continually contract and expand the iris as the eye tries to adjust to the dim screen then the bright ambience. This is a common cause of “computer headache,” since the user’s eye muscles become tired.

  11. Just read your latest post. The practice of printing material before reading is actually old-fashioned, and may suggest your screen is suffering from some of the problems I mention. I never print material.

    The issue about Powerpoint is well recognised and generally attributed to the sloppy analytical capabilities of the average business executive and perhaps academic. There is actually a school of thought that lambasts Microsoft for giving scope, via Powerpoint, to boring jerks.

  12. Regarding casualty rates in time of war, i would like to say the divide between civilian and military isn’t always as clear as it was in the days of uniformed trained troops defending a nation. Wars in Iraq and Afganistan, Somalia and Vietnam all resulted in high death rates for “enemy combatants”. Often the bombs being dropped on enemy targets would kill the toilet cleaner at a military base, or a kitchen hand at an outpost, instead of just frontline troops. These sorts of people are counted as military casulaties, despite the fact they may have no plans on fighting. Then take the civilians, who in moments of desperation, pick up a gun and take military action. In Iraq its popularly believed that we’ve killed about 150,000 of which about 15,000 are civilians. My point is that the 135,000 military personnel weren’t all enemies, while some of the civilans probably were 🙂


  13. Tony, a word in defense of PowerPoint, which I rely on heavily for for classes. My typical presentation has about a hundred slides, but the majority are charts, analytical diagrams (PPT is fantastic for building these up gradually), pictures of Keynes etc, and key terms and other unfamiliar words.

    There are no slabs of text, and ther’s not a bullet point in sight. Indeed, people who use powerpoint, or overheads for that matter, to project slabs of text which they then proceed to read (or worse still, do not read), should be rounded up and bulldozed into the ocean.

    I’m sure I am a boring jerk, but not for that reason.

  14. James, I’m sure you’re NOT a boring jerk. I certainly didn’t mean to imply everyone who uses Powerpoint uses it badly. Of course it has its uses.

    My comment probably has more resonance in corporate environments.

  15. On war casualties, I hate to be a pedant, but I think you have to distinguish between civilians killed by direct military action (eg, bombing), and those caused by disease or starvation (the latter causes a lot of the former). D&S proportionately probably killed more people pre the invention of vaccines (though vaccines massively increased the numbers of military deaths – there could not have been WW1-scale trench warfare without vaccination since never before had it been possible to put so many men in the field without disease killing most of them).

    An quick example that comes to mind is the 30 years war (1618-1648). It’s reckoned somewhere around seven million German speaking people died (worse than WW1+2), and I would estimate greater that 95% from D&S from the general devastation of the country side (apparently by the end of it you could walk from Prague to Vienna and not see a soul).

    But as someone else said in this thread, it’s a lot of guesswork to measure civilian deaths from war. But you’re dead right to think that “90/90” rule is complete and utter bullshit.


  16. John, thanks for the minimum wage stuff. I don’t want to get into the wearisome business of starting another row about history, but what you’ve written about the casualties is just missing the point. I have seen time after time the assertion that pre-1939 wars caused ‘90% military casualties’- the timescale of choice is usually ‘1789-1918’ or just ‘the Nineteenth century’. Nobody is making your more restricted (and quite possibly accurate) claim about the First World War. The detailed reading I have done and am doing indicates that the nineteenth century, like the twentieth, was tragically full of mass-civilian-casualty wars, with the Tai’Ping rebellion and the War of the Triple Alliance actually as bad as anything that the 20th Century saw (WW2, Cambodia and Rwanda included). God knows what the proportion of civilan casualties was in the 19th Century, but when the adding-up’s been done I will be staggered if it’s anywhere near as low as 10%. We’ll see.

    alphacoward makes a good point. Personally I think that ‘indirect’ deaths caused by war-induced starvation, epidemic etc should count as war casualties. But among the problems of the literature on war casualties are the facts that often writers don’t say what proportion of casualties were ‘indirect’ and what ‘direct’ (ie killed or died of wounds); don’t give the statistical basis for their calculations, and probably haven’t consulted demographers’ models to get realistic figures; don’t try to calculate what deaths in peacetime from hunger and disease might have been. Nice happy topic this- feel free to thank me.

  17. Dan, I was going to correct myself in any case. The Armenian genocide alone would push WWI civilian casualties over 10 per cent if common estimates are accepted (1.5 million dead vs 10 million military for the war as a while).

  18. The discussion about screen readability is fascinating, particularly Tony’s remarks about ergonomics. I am using one of the now obsolete pudding iMacs with a fine grained flat screen which can be adjusted in most dimensions to vary position. It is so much easier to read in long sessions.

    The 72 dpi issue only works for images of course – the crispness of print comes from the computer and it can be very good. Using the web on a data projector varies with the equipment – heaven help anyone using an old video projector in a lecture theatre.

    I flat out do not believe the Nielsenish assertions about people’s dislike of reading on the net and my own site has great chunks of text on it for that reason. Just go to the Atlantic or the NYRB or the New Yorker to see big articles with fat paras which you want to read carefully. It is just quality writing.

    One of the truly endearing aspects of the blogosphere is that it brings out the genuine writer in a lot of people, so the quality of text is often great. In places like this, I am awed by quick, lucid writing about complex matters.

    But we are self-selected for quality. Most web writing occurs either in marketing departments or by people who know stuff so they post stuff. And it is very bad. Test people with this, and of course they skip. To make matters worse, a lot of it is actually hard to communicate. The manual on MT databases would be an example.

    Having said that, I have to force myself to edit without printing. In an office I print reams of stuff and store it physically. That is a function of my generation – I didn’t start using a computer until I was 35.

    But then, if my handwriting was not so atrocious, I would prefer not to keyboard first drafts. The reason is to do with tactility. Writing down, marking up, spreading pages, turning them over and referring back engages additional sensory dimensions which help me manage my concentration. The end of a story is at the back of the sheaf. I can flick through and find something. I can even – gasp – cut and paste with scissors. Something complicated like a documentary film is still usually managed with index cards tacked to the wall.

    I sometimes think it is the difference between using a violin and a synthesiser. Playing the violin engages your whole body in multisensorial concentration.

    The other reason is neural. While the traditional rituals of writing enhance my concentration, the newer forms interrupt it. Automated nerve activity moves up into my consciousness. What key code? Damn – Caps Lock. Where is that other web page? What did I call that file? Have I saved that draft? If you learn it young, this is automatic; learn it as an adult and it always gets in the way.

    The eBook is coming.

  19. John, not to get into David Irving territory, but I don’t think there is a generally accepted death toll for the Armenians- it might be 1 million, 1.5 million or even half a million. Again, I need to read up on this. I suspect that civilian casualties on the Eastern Front were very high, but again seem to be largely uncounted.

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