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What I know

(04/11/14 8:30am)

In the past five years, I have published over 100 columns, film reviews, film features and editor’s notes in The Chronicle. From my first efforts as a freshman to my contemporary work as an alum, I have learned a lot as a writer. I’ve also stumbled more than a few times, like the time I wrote a column arguing for fewer laboratory requirements in introductory science classes. Several years later, as a research technician currently pursuing a career in science and academic medicine, I think it’s safe to say that I opened my mouth on that one a bit too wide and a little too soon.

House of Cards imitates life

(02/28/14 9:58am)

On Valentine’s Day, Netflix premiered the entire second season of its increasingly popular political thriller “House of Cards.” The series, which was the distribution service’s first foray into acquiring and providing original programming, saw its second season consumed in its entirety over the next 72 hours by more than half a million people, with almost twice as many watching at least the first five episodes on Valentine’s Day alone. According to a Citi analysis, online searches related to House of Cards have nearly doubled since last year.

Markets for a neutral net

(01/31/14 7:04am)

Some of the less dramatic supporters of the FCC’s net neutrality measures concede that price discrimination and provider favoring work well within private networks, but there is a sense among them that the Internet derives its value from the very fact that it is different. Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School and an expert on net neutrality, says that the Internet is a platform that offers more value when it is less specialized and sub-divided. “The idea,” he writes on his personal website, “is that a maximally useful public information network aspires to treat all content, sites and platforms equally.” Wu likens the web to the electrical grid, which delivers the same degree of electricity regardless of which type of appliance is plugged into it. This neutrality, he argues, is one of the reasons for the success of public utilities, and we should think twice before abandoning it online.The arguments Wu and others like him make for net neutrality legislation are generally nuanced and insightful, articulating both problems we may face and proposing solutions as well. That being said, however, it is worth noting that the pro-legislation position suffers from some empirical and theoretical shortcomings. In a 2007 analysis of the mobile broadband industry, for instance, Wu identified what he perceived to be a litany of market failures, calling unsuccessfully for heavy regulatory intervention to establish an environment of “wireless net neutrality.” But his fears were unfounded. As an industry trade group pointed out in a direct response to Wu three years later, the lack of state regulation did not stop the wireless industry from utterly erupting with competition. “Contrary to the professor’s view of how the ecosystem would evolve, in the absence of regulation, every element of the wireless ecosystem has expanded,” wrote CTIA–The Wireless Association in a letter to the FCC. CTIA cited hundreds of devices, hundreds of thousands of new applications, multiple operating systems and the proliferation of open source platforms and initiatives all as evidence that the free market in mobile broadband has been a remarkable success and, above all else, a boon to consumers.Similarly, others claim that net neutrality legislation represents a “fix” to a problem that may not even exist. Gerald L. Faulhaber, formerly of the Wharton School and Penn Law School, cites the research of the FCC itself as evidence that an unregulated broadband industry has been relatively free of abuse. “In over a decade, there were only four examples of purported misconduct…for the entire broadband ISP industry,” he explained in 2012. “By any standard, four complaints about an entire industry would seem to be cause for commendation rather than restrictive regulation.” In the policy report from which that quote is taken, Faulhaber argues that neither the pre-2010 history of unregulated broadband nor the current industry trends provide any indication that government intervention is required to protect the web.Far from ineffective, in fact, it’s possible that a legislative approach to net neutrality could actually make things worse. As economists Art Carden and Steve Horwitz argued in a 2013 editorial, the idea that imperfect market outcomes—or “market failures”—provide self-evident justification for government intervention overlooks the possibility of government failures. “We are left to wonder which of two imperfect systems will serve us better: the ‘failed’ market or the ‘failed’ political process,” the two write, citing numerous historical and theoretical examples to illustrate their point that the case for intervention is far from self-explanatory. “We have many reasons to think markets will outperform governments in this regard, even in less-than-perfect conditions.”It’s certainly possible that a free market in broadband ISP could result in sub-optimal outcomes, and the arguments presented above are admittedly less than sufficient to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt otherwise. Moreover, some citizens, even after examining the relative strengths and weaknesses of states and markets, would undoubtedly still choose to place the government in charge of overseeing and maintaining net neutrality. Reasonable people, in other words, will disagree.Too often, though, this debate has eschewed observation and comparative analysis for hyperbole and melodrama. We would do well to avoid the nightmare scenarios of a perfectly non-competitive, corporate dystopian web and at least consider the historical and theoretical evidence behind market approaches to maintaining Internet freedom.Chris Bassil, Trinity ’12, is currently working in Boston, Mass. His column runs every other Friday. Send Chris a message on Twitter @HamsterdamEcon.

But who will block the roads?

(01/17/14 10:22am)

Much has already been made about how the scandal surrounding the September closures of the George Washington Bridge will affect New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s chances for a future run at the presidency. Despite all of the attention that 2016 has received, however, it’s worth noting that this fiasco actually invites a far more interesting and important conversation—one that centers on how we handle the issue of the roads, in general, within our society and whether or not that system is in need of some changes.

Our climbing health care costs

(12/09/13 9:03am)

It is common knowledge with respect to the American health care system that prices communicate relatively little information. In other areas of the economy, the price system works wonders when it comes to coordinating an unfathomable number of goods, resources and consumer desires across space and time, while at the same time adapting from moment to moment to changes in these and other underlying fundamentals. As consumers of health care, though, most of us would probably say that whenever we do see a price—a rare occurrence in American medicine today—just about the only thing we can say for sure about it is that it’s unrealistically high. As early as 1992, libertarian health policy analyst and economist John Goodman explained that “most patients in the hospital marketplace cannot find out what the cost will be prior to admission and cannot read the hospital bill upon discharge.” More recently, New York Times writer Elisabeth Rosenthal has maintained an ongoing series entitled “Paying Till It Hurts,” which details the exorbitant and widely varying fees for a range of procedures in the American health care system.

Socialist in Seattle

(11/26/13 9:54am)

Earlier this month, multinational aerospace corporation Boeing threatened to relocate production of its 777X commercial jets away from the Seattle area if the union that represents its workers did not agree to its provisions for an eight-year contract extension. The proposed contract would have included a $10,000 signing bonus and replaced pensions with higher matches for 401(k) savings plans, but the local branch of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers expressed concerns over high health insurance costs and limits on pay raises to 1 percent every other year. Local IAM president Tom Wroblewski went so far as to physically tear up a copy of the contract at a union meeting, later explaining that by rejecting the deal he had “preserved something sacred.” In response, Boeing immediately began soliciting bids from other regions of the country interested in providing a home for 777X production and is expected to announce its decision at some point in early 2014.

Who’s afraid of health reform?

(11/12/13 10:48am)

In March of 2010, President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law. A month later, he stood in front of citizens and journalists in the East Room of the White House and addressed the effects that the ACA was going to have on the health insurance market. “Starting in September, some of the worst abuses will be banned forever,” the President announced. “No more discriminating against children with pre-existing conditions. No more retroactively dropping somebody’s policy when they get sick … those days are over.”

Ignore the online exchange glitches

(10/29/13 8:25am)

It is by now no secret that the federal government’s rollout of its online health insurance exchange market—one of the key provisions of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act—has been nothing short of a total disaster. Pundits initially diagnosed the problem as high demand leading to heavy web traffic. The fact that visits to the site have dropped 88 percent and it remains inoperable, however, suggests that the problems are largely structural.

How I learned to start worrying about the bomb

(10/01/13 10:17am)

In January of 2014, Stanley Kubrick’s seminal film “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” will celebrate its 50th anniversary. In anticipation of this upcoming milestone—and given all of the arguments that are sure to surround potential negotiations between the United States and Iran on nuclear policy—it is worth revisiting Kubrick’s characterization of Cold War-era nuclear policy as the height of absurdity.

An insult to anarchists

(09/17/13 8:00am)

Late last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid expressed his frustration at the failure of the Senate to pass a measure related to energy efficiency. Speaking from the Senate floor, Sen. Reid took the opportunity to broadly criticize tea party Republicans in particular. “The anarchists have taken over,” he explained. “They’ve taken over the House, and now they’ve taken over the Senate… People who don’t believe in government—and that’s what the tea party is all about—are winning, and that’s a shame.” 

Should Snowden stand trial?

(09/03/13 7:57am)

Ever since Edward Snowden fled the United States, calls have come from all ends of the political arena for him to come home, stand trial and do time for his crime. New York Times reporter Tim Weiner, whose reporting on the Pentagon’s secret budget won him the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting, has surprisingly condemned Snowden as a coward. Fellow New York Times writer David Brooks even claims that Snowden betrayed honesty, integrity, the Constitution and “the cause of open government” itself. There can be little doubt that these two writers speak for many Americans. 

The war for California

(06/06/13 5:39am)

Since the passage of the Affordable Care Act just over three years ago, the heated debate surrounding the law’s effects on health care and insurance boils on between its critics and proponents. The controversy has recently settled on California, where a relatively large uninsured populace resides—more than 20 percent of the state’s population—making the Golden State especially vulnerable to rising prices as the ACA is implemented. 

Apples to interest rates

(05/16/13 8:03am)

Last week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) added to her reputation as a populist heroine when she brought her first piece of stand-alone legislation to the Senate floor. The bill, which she calls the “Bank on Students Loan Fairness Act,” aims to drastically reduce the interest rate attached to federal student loans. It would force the government to lend to students at the same low rate it sometimes offers to major investment banking institutions, appealing to supporters of federal student loans and skeptics of the financial industry alike.

Open access academia

(04/10/13 7:42am)

In the late 19th century, when prestigious journals such as Science, Nature and others first appeared, their exclusive subscription-based business models made sense. The readership for scientific scholarship was limited, and each copy a journal printed represented a cost to the publisher. As a consequence of this, a second feature of the scientific journal was born: in order to keep costs down and subscriptions up, they agreed to publish only those articles they felt would be of greatest interest to the scientific community.

But it might work for us

(04/03/13 7:07am)

In the fictitious world of television series “Battlestar Galactica,” a popular religious refrain holds that “all of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.” The series, which is otherwise short on phrases that can be charitably interpreted as relevant to economic history, holds a special significance given the state of the economy today.

Krugman, Warren and the minimum wage

(03/27/13 10:13am)

In his most recent State of the Union address, President Barack Obama advocated for an increase in the minimum wage. “Let’s declare that, in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full time should have to live in poverty,” he said, “and raise the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour.” In the aftermath of that address, debate has bounced back and forth on the effects that such a policy might have, and supporters of both sides have flocked to make their opinions on the matter heard.

Minimum wage wars

(02/27/13 9:26am)

In his recent State of the Union address, President Barack Obama advocated for a raise in the minimum wage, from $7.25 an hour to $9.00. The president’s call for federally mandated higher wages was met with a flurry of response from all sides of the political sphere, and debate has raged in its aftermath.