iBooks in LaTeX, anyone?

In case you had not noticed yet, Apple announced a rather smart move into the textbook market, among other things by releasing an app that allows you to create your own (iPad compattible) iBook. 

Interesting move. But, what about all the stuff you have written in LaTeX? Ok, first the bad news: the app is not compatible with LaTeX (interestingly enough, this sparked a widespread debate on the web, immediately after the announcement). Come on, you Cupertino people, get with the program (or rather, the markup language)!

However, all is not lost: searching for some alternatives, I came across one that seems very interesting indeed. Pandoc is a program that allows you to convert documents, from one type to another. There is a catch, but it is not a big one: the document has to be of the 'markup' type. However, since pretty much any decent text editor uses markup these days, that is not much of an issue. 

The very cool LaTeX stuff ...

In a recent search for a LaTeX newsletter style, I came across Gerben Wierda's TeX showcase. Basically, it is a collection of all the cool, not-so-ordinary things you can do with LaTeX, from covers to maps, from diagrams to moving pictures. Übercool is the appropriate word to use, I guess (Übergeeky being a close second, of course….).

Valuing nature

At ECCE, one of the main projects of the past years has been the development of GRESB, the Global Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark. If there is one thing that an applied economist such as myself knows, it is that it is really hard to put a number on a lot of things. And, yes, I am aware of the irony there. 

But just because it is hard, does not mean it should not be done… Why? For one, without numbers, many discussions … float, and it is much harder to decide on actions. Without numbers, progress is hard to measure. And, most importantly perhaps, without numbers there often is no (real) discussion. The last point is of particular importance, because it does not apply that the numbers have to be 100% correct, all the time….

In a recent post, Adventure journal gives the floor to Yale Environment 360, who report on a project called TEEB: The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity. Set up by Indian banker Pavan Sukhdev, the project follows - to some extent - in the footsteps of the (in)famous Stern report, in that it tries to a put a number on things - things being, in this case, nature. 

It is worth checking out, if only to find the answer to the question Sukhdev asks: “When did the bees last send you an invoice for pollination?” You can find the report here.

Krugman on the political economy of US debt

A bit late for me to mention, but in his January 1 column, Paul Krugman reflects on the misinterpretations of government indebtness. In so doing, he raises two interesting and - importantly! - related points.

First, he discusses the costs imposed by taxes, "if nothing else by causing a diversion of resources away from productive activities into tax avoidance and evasion." Of course, in Krugman's view taxes need to be levied (mainly) to pay the interest on debt; economic growth and time will take care of the rest. 

Second, he considers the importance of stable, "responsible" governments. What does responsibility mean in this respect? In Krugman's view, it is the willingness "to impose modestly higher taxes when the situation warrants it."

So is it just willingness? Or is it a different worldview that explains why some are afraid to raise taxes (modestly, as Krugman says) or not? Let's turn then, to the 'wisdom' of Wikipedia. There is a clear distinction between default, insolvency and bankruptcy. The latter, in most cases, is not relevant for governments. As Wikipedia states, insolvency "is a legal term meaning that a debtor is unable to pay his or her debts." Default, on the other hand, "essentially means a debtor has not paid a debt which he or she is required to have paid." Is that what it comes down to, then? One party is afraid of insolvency, the other of default?

Debt, true debt, debt payments and what about raising taxes?

In a recent blogpost, Bruce Bartlett, who served both Ronald Reagan and Bush Sr., discusses the US government debt. Bartlett bases his analysis on an often ignored source: the Financial Report of the United States Government, published annually by the treasury. 

A couple of lessons stand out, from the analysis:

  1. Government debt is more than just federal debt. Much more, in fact. That may seems obvious. But wait until you read the numbers. In 2011, Federal debt (past deficits summed up, minus past surpluses summed up) was USD10.2 trillion (on September 30). However, add to that USD5.8 trillion owed to federal employees and veterans, unfunded social security liabilities of USD9.2 trilion (over the next 75 years) and Medicare's unfunded liabilities of USD24.6 trillion. 
  2. The effect of cutting future expenses on the net debt position is marginal. To see why, consider the chart from the report, reproduced below. Most of the debt spending is on interest. 
  3. In the words of Bartlett: "[T]he critical point is that interest on the debt is not just another government program that can be cut. It can be reduced only by running a budget surplus, selling assets to reduce principal or reducing the interest paid on the debt.

Reproduced from Financial Report of the United States Government

So what about those options? Well, interest rates are not going to drop much more (they cannot). And reducing the maturity of the debt (another way to lower interest rate payments) has already - successfully - been pursued since the Clinton years. Selling assets? Not likely given the current state of the economy. 

Bartlett does not say it out loud, but the numbers suggest that raising taxes to facilitate in running a surplus and reduce the net debt position may seriously be worth considering … Especially (have another look at the above chart) since every dollar used that way will lead to a reduction in future interest spending for a long, long time…..

© J.W.B. Bos 2014