The bafflegab that is economics

Many years ago a paper by a Brown University economist was referred to as economic bafflegab in Newsweek magazine. I vaguely recall it having something to do with the economic tradeoffs of loving your family members or some such nonsense. The term economic bafflegab stuck with me.

To many economists, every problem is an economic problem. This leads to the application of economic thought to all kinds of situations. Here are some examples.

  • Hurricanes are good for economic growth. That’s right. Economic growth is measured as Gross Domestic Product, the sum of all expenditures on new goods and services. When a hurricane destroys a community, it devastates wealth, the stock of old goods. The recovery causes a surge in spending on new goods and services causing a temporary spike in GDP. It’s hard to remember this when the roof of your house just blew down the street.
  • Economists love to point out perverse incentives or, as the rest of humanity calls them, unintended consequences. Take seat belts for example. With a seat belt (and airbags and other safety features), drivers can drive faster and more recklessly with reduced adverse consequences. This is called the Peltzmann effect. Which led economists Gordon Tullock to propose, presumably with tongue firmly in cheek, to have a sharp metal spike installed on the middle of steering wheels. In fact, if you sit in a car made in the 1950s you’ll find all sorts of nasty stuff like toggle switches and metal dashboard that should have scared anybody into driving like a nun. I’ve heard that there are some people who say that wearing a bicycle helmet may be dangerous. The reasoning is that motorists are less careful around helmeted bicyclists than unhelmeted bicyclists. To offset this bit of unpleasantness, I always carry a bicycle death ray when I ride.
  • Another example is the case of the murderous economist. Apparently displeased with his spouse, an economist bludgeoned his wife in their kitchen with a baseball bat, killing her. Realizing what he had done, he went about trying to make it look like an intruder had done the deed. He then called the police to report that his wife had been murdered. When he called the police, he didn’t use the 911 emergency line, because, as he explained to the authorities, there was no emergency; his wife was already dead. (I am not making this up.) He was convicted of manslaughter. (Full disclosure: I met the economist when he was a visiting professor at Brown. He seemed like a nice guy which is what people always say about the killer next store, isn’t it?)
  • Our latest installment of economics gone batty is the case of the everyday bicyclist. This is the person that uses their bike instead of a car for regular transportation. This paper by a Wharton professor finds that people who substitute bikes for cars may actually do more harm than good. While it is true that using a bike instead of a car has the obvious positive effect of reducing energy consumption, there is a downside. The everyday bicyclist tends to live a longer and healthier life, thereby increasing population. Darn it if more people don’t consumer more energy. (I confess I only read the abstract. I didn’t delve into whether the increased population was caused by better health or that bicyclists are friskier than non-bicyclists.)

Of course, economics offers all kinds of interesting solutions for public policy problems. We all know that we consume far more health care resources in our old age than in our youth. The solution of course is to hand out cigarettes and whiskey to college kids.

Of perhaps we can paraphrase some Shakespearean advice: the first thing we do is kill all the economists.

I don’t know about you but I’m going for a bike ride, environment be damned.

Bike Stuff I Like – Park Tool PW-4 Pedal Wrench

Putting on and taking off pedals is often difficult. The threads on the pedals go in the direction of the pedal. If you don’t grease the threads and take them off once in a while they practically fuse themselves to the crank arms. I found this out at Bike Virginia. The transport crew was loading our bikes onto a truck bound for the start of the ride in Lexington, Virginia. They tried and tried and tried to remove the pedals from my trusty old Trek 1200. Finally, they gave up.

They were probably using a pedal wrench with an opening at 3 and 6 o’clock or at 6 and 12 o’clock. When you look at these wrenches you think, “Works for me.” Well, no. If your pedals are stuck, these wrenches will only succeed in knuckle scrapes and frustration. I know. I have three different kinds of these wrenches. They suck.

Instead you need a wrench that has an opening at 10 or 2 o’clock. For some mysterious reason this gives you just the right amount of mojo to loosen even the tightest pedal. After years of hassle, I finally coughed up the dinero and bought a Park Tool PW-4 wrench. It has a long, beefy handle for leverage and the offset openings are trademarked by Hogwarts because they can do magic. You just put it on the pedal and pop! the pedal threads release. No muss. No fuss.

Park Tool sells them for $35.

Worth it.

Bike Stuff I Like – Light and Motion LED Bike Lights

When I started grad school, I was a bike rider. Then winter came. Back in the Carter Administration the only reasonably priced, lightweight bike lights were “be seen” lights. They had a tiny incandescent bulb backed with a bit of reflective metal. You could see about three feet in front of you. They were good for walking home in the dark. They were powered (using the term loosely) by AA batteries than seemed to drain with each pedal stroke.

Bike lights were so useless that I became a runner. Seriously.

Many years later halogen lights came on the market. Dang were these awesome. They were much brighter. They were powered by a battery pack, originally the size and shape of a water bottle. If memory serves, these lights faded slowly as the power ran out. I used a NiteRider halogen light for many years, going through a couple of batteries in the process. They were a vast improvement. The batteries had an annoying habit of dying if you didn’t keep them charged.

Halogen lights have been supplanted by LED lights. These are smaller, charge faster, and are lighter weight. After my last halogen light died, I bought bought a Light and Motion Stella LED light. It had a small head lamp that I put on my helmet. The battery was the size of a deck of cards and was attached via a small cable. I loved the light but finding a place for the deck of cards was sometimes a problem. When I wasn’t wearing a vest or jacket, I’d stick it down the back of my pants. Eww.

The cord eventually broke and Light and Motion discontinued the Stella so I bought the closest substitute. This was similar in design except the cable now detached from the battery instead of from the light. And the battery was now an odd lumpy shape.

The cable on that light began to fray (it still works though after about eight years) so I bought an Urban 500, a different design. The light is in a tube that contains the battery. It can mount it on handlebars or helmet. Like the Stella, this baby puts out some serious light so you need to be mindful of blinding on-coming traffic on trails. Newer models are even more powerful. The all-in-one design means you can use them in camp at night or when the power goes out at home. Your family will love it when you burn their retinas out in the living room.

One advantage to this design is that you can take it off your helmet and mount it on the handlebars. I prefer helmet mounting because the light goes where my head and eyes are pointed. When the light is on your handlebars you can miss things like critters lurking near the trail. That said, these lights tend to have a narrow beam. I realized after riding until midnight in North Dakota in 2018 that I had absolutely no idea what I was riding past.

Here’s what this design looks like. This Rando model is very similar to the Urban 500. Specs on various Light and Motion lights vary. Some are brighter, charge faster, and such.

Recently, I bought the Vis 360 Pro which is a different design, intended for mounting on a helmet. The headlamp looks like the one on the Stella. It comes with a rear light (which contains the battery). The light works fine but I prefer the simplicity of the all-in-one tubular design.

The Vis 360 is intended to be left on your helmet. The Urban/Rando style lights can be removed quickly for safe keeping.

The only downside to LED lights that I have used is the fact that they go dark without much warning, instead of fading out like the halogen lights did. In any case, to my way of thinking, bike lights are the biggest improvement in cycling equipment in the last three decades. Most of my nighttime riding is to and from DC on unlit trails. Any of these Light and Motion lights is up to the task.

I have no idea what other manufacturers lights are like these days. If you shop around and wait for sales, you can get a high-quality headlight for under $100.

Bike Stuff I Like – REI Junction Hybrid Pants

I hate tights. They never keep me warm and seem to muck up my pedaling mechanics. For cold (mid-Atlantic, that is) weather, the only alternative I’ve had was to wear my Showers Pass rain pants. These work fine but they are rather heavy and restrictive.

Last fall I stumbled upon an alternative. REI’s Junction Hybrid Pants. They look like pants but they feel like tights. They work perfectly with the bike shorts liners I normally wear with an outer shell during warm weather. They have a zipper at the bottom of each leg so they go on quickly. There is a reflective stripe along the zippers for visibility. The waist closes with a drawstring.

I found these pants great in windy conditions, much better than tights. I haven’t ridden them in a hard rain, but I imagine they’d be up to a light mist or drizzle.

I have worn these pants in temperatures from 30 degrees to 60 degrees and felt comfortable. That’s a pretty good temperature range for my neck of the woods. I didn’t wear them below 30 degrees because I retired from cold weather cycling when I quit work.

There are a couple of minor drawbacks to these pants. They they lack pockets. Since I always wear them with a jacket or vest, this isn’t much of a problem. And, there is no zipper for making water. Ay god, Woodrow. Then again, the shorts I wear underneath don’t have a pee pee hole either so no big deal.

They sell for $90 which sounds like a lot but I have worn one pair since November and they still look new. The salesperson at the REI store said she liked them so much she bought three pairs. She gets a discount so she can afford this. After a couple of months I ordered a second pair, discount be damned. These pants are good stuff.

One odd note of warning. The REI site didn’t have the men’s pants listed. I used the google to find the link on the REI site.

It’s Never Too Early to Plan a Tour

Yesterday I did a shakedown cruise on The Mule. I recently had it fixed up for my tour by the good folks at Bikes at Vienna. The bike rides fine, although it feels a little different now that it has Schwalbe Marathon Plus Tour tires on it. These tires weight 50 percent more than the Schwable Mondial tires I have been using since the pandemic hit. But the weight is worth it, because they have a beefy tread that is nearly puncture proof (knock wood).

I road The Mule to DC and back, about a 30-mile round trip. The gears and brakes work fine. I did notice that my front rack was a tad wobbly. This is not surprising as I haven’t tightened the bolts in a few years. I need to dig out my wee bottle of Loctite to make sure the bolts stay tight.

The beefier tread means that my bike computer needs to be recalibrated. I think I have it figured out but I want to do one more check before moving on to other things such as,

  1. Tent – I need to set up my tent and see if I want to use it on this trip. It’s a Big Agnes lightweight backpacking tent that is not freestanding. This is a pain. Also, the inside mesh sags. I miss my big old tent but had to abandon it when, despite, seam sealing, it leaked on me one too many times. I might buy a 2-person, freestanding tent and use that instead.
  2. Panniers – My Ortlieb roll top panniers are pretty beat up. They lost their waterproofing a long time ago. I need to go over them and cover any weak spots with duct tape. I’ll bring some plastic bags to use as liners just to be safe.
  3. Maps and Routing – I have to buy several maps from Adventure Cycling. I need maps for one segment of the Lewis and Clark Route (this will get me from the start to Nebraska). I need to do some research on how to ride across Nebraska to Colorado Springs where I will meet up with my 2019-tour friends Mark and Corey. The three of us will ride the remainder of the Trans America Route from Colorado to the Oregon coast. Mark has an extra set of six maps for this section that he’s offered me, but I’ll need to buy one map segment (from West Yellowstone to Missoula) because this was recently updated.
  4. Bike Transport – My wife and I are driving to Missouri for a wedding in May. I hope to use my Saris Bones rack on her Subaru Outback but she is resisting because she can see the marks on the paint of my Accord. An alternative would be to fold down the back seats and put the bike inside but I fear this will damage my fenders. We’ll figure something out. In any case I just bought new straps for the rack. The old ones are pretty worn out.
  5. Engine performance – Bless me father for I have slacked. It’s been three years since my last bike tour. During that time I have endured a disturbing number of cortisone shots. As of today, I can ride my bike pain free for hours. Walking, however, presents some problems. I’m scheduled for a few more shots to deal with this aspect. I have also experimented with edibles but they haven’t done a thing, except put me to sleep. Some recent experiments with yoga seem to be helping, although I have my doubts based on past experience.
  6. Engine weight – Do you know who Charles Taylor was? He built the light-weight aluminum engine used in the Wright Brothers’ planes. Without him, the Wright Brothers would be just another couple of geeky bike shop owners in Dayton OH. Let’s just say that my engine could use Taylor’s help. Every pound I don’t have to haul up into the Rockies, the better.

There are plenty of other things to worry about. Bison, elk, wolves, bears, wildfires, soul-sucking headwinds, brutal climbs, land whales (RVs), floods, withering heat, and overbooked campsites. Who’s idea was this anyway? Look on the bright side: at least I won’t have to contend with parachuting spiders.

It Was 50 Years Ago Today – C’mon Get Happy

As you go through life, unexpected things happen that you never forget. Usually these are things that you hear about on the news or, these days, through social media. Rarely are you an eye witness to something that stays with you for the rest of your life.

Easily the most unforgettable event of my life happened 50 years ago today. It was about 8:30 on a dreary Friday night. My friend Owen and I, two high school kids, were walking down the main road around our neighborhood in Albany, New York. We were heading toward a retail strip across the street from a hospital. I can’t recall why. Our neighborhood was in the flight path to Albany Airport. Most of the planes back in those days were props so we were very familiar with their sounds and light patterns as they passed overhead.

One of us remarked, “Nothing ever happens around here,” the lament of bored high school kids everywhere, I suppose. Then something happened.

A plane came overhead. There was heavy overcast. From its running lights and loud engine noise, we could tell that the plane was flying lower than normal. Also, the pattern of the lights didn’t seem right. It sounded “off” too. After it passed, Owen and I impulsively ran after it down a side street. A few moments passed then we heard a THUD in the near distance. Owen said, “It crashed.” I said, “No way. We would have heard an explosion.” Owen insisted that it “fucking crashed.” We decided to call a friend whose home was in the general direction of the plane’s path. We ran as fast as we could to the retail strip and used a payphone. He didn’t hear a thing. Then we did. Sirens from every direction. Ambulances, police cars, fire trucks sped past us.

“Gotta go!” We hang up the phone and ran maniacally down a major cross street and stuck out our thumbs. A man in a Mustang pulled over and we sped north. After a half mile we jumped out of the car at a red light. I remember the door wouldn’t close. We apologized and we ran as fast as we could to the west.

After another several blocks we could tell we had overrun the crash sight, because people were streaming towards us. We doubled back and soon came upon the creepiest scene ever. The turboprop plane had crashed into a house. It had speared the house, its tail incongruously standing up next to a car in the driveway. Hundreds of people stood and stared at the rescue and recovery operation. I looked at the large tree and the utility lines directly across the street. They were untouched. Somehow this plane just plunked down into the house. There was no fire. Just a plane in the driveway. Honey, I’m home.

It occurred to me that something was missing from all this insanity. Music. I was in a horror movie without an ominous Max Steiner soundtrack.

Seventeen people died. One was a tenant whose room was directly above the point of impact. The home owner and his family lived; they were watching television when the plane hit and blasted them out of their family room through a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows into the backyard.

They owe their lives to The Partridge Family.

It doesn’t get more surreal than that.