The Agenda

Stray Links for 4 March 2013

1. I was going to write in praise of Christina Romer’s mostly excellent column the minimum wage, but Patrick Brennan beat me to it.

2. Stephen Smith raises a worthwhile question — while it’s a good thing that New York city seems to have embraced denser waterfront development, why allow enormous towers on the waterfront while barring modest multi-story construction a few minutes further inland?

3. Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn argue that MOOCs will succeed to the extent that they allow for customized learning that can meet the needs of a diverse workforce with an appetite for just-in-time mini-courses.

4. Though I’m very sympathetic to Andrew McAfee’s appeal to employers to stop requiring that job applicants have college degrees, part of the problem is that we don’t have a well-developed market of firms that can certify that a job applicant has the right mix of job-specific skills. Given that the cost of hiring and firing workers is nontrivial, particularly for small and young business enterprises, many employers use a college degree as a signal of reliability, etc., because they don’t have good low-cost alternatives, particularly when staffing entry-level positions.

5. Kudos to Derek Khanna for drawing attention to the legal status of cellphone unlocking — the White House has now called for allowing consumers to unlock their cellphones once they have fulfilled the terms of their contracts, thanks in no small part to the petition that Khanna has tirelessly promoted.

6. Keith Hennessey offers thoughts on the sequester, and on President Obama’s strategy for the 2014 midterm elections. And he explains, indirectly, why there was never a serious possibility that the Obama administration would accept Toomey-Inhofe, the GOP proposal to replace the sequester’s “meat axe” with a “scalpel.”

7. Mexico’s Peña Nieto administration continues to surprise by seeking to increase competition in the telecommunications sector. If there is going to be a U.S. economic revival, robust growth in Mexico will be an important part of it.

8. John Cochrane of Chicago Booth has an enthusiastic review of Anat Admati and Martin Hellwig’s The Bankers’ New Clothes in the Wall Street Journal. Apart from being very well-regarded in his field, Cochrane is something of a guru to Republican lawmakers like House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, so this is potentially politically significant. 

9. Robert Puentes, Adie Tomer, and Joseph Kane propose a number of reforms designed to reduce Amtrak’s dependence on taxpayer subsidies. They find that Amtrak’s short-distance inter-city corridors are flourishing while its long-distance routes are hemorrhaging cash. Among other things, they call for state governments to play a bigger role in funding and promoting passenger rail routes and exploring more public-private partnerships. What surprised me, however, was that the authors didn’t really address work rules and pension costs that have proven very burdensome to Amtrak and FRA regulations that have sharply increased the cost of rolling stock. For more on Amtrak, I recommend revisiting the work of Joseph Vranich. A former Amtrak employee, Vranich wrote extensively on Amtrak reform in the 1990s and 2000s, most notably in 1997′s Derailed and 2004′s The End of the Line, and he anticipated some of Amtrak’s successes as well as its disappointments. 

10. In a new article on the Affordable Care Act, Paul Howard and Yevgeniy Feynman observe that while health-care spending out-of-pocket is 25 percent of total health-care spending in Switzerland, it is only 11 to 12 percent of total health-care spending in the U.S. — the fifth-lowest percentage in the OECD.

11. I’m serving on the Bipartisan Policy Center’s new Commission on Political Reform. We are having our first public hearing on March 6th at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library, so I’ll be working for part of this week from Los Angeles, my second favorite city in the United States. And I’ll be there for the mayoral election, which will be a pleasure. 


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