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Year of Ideas

- December 11, 2007

Every year I look forward to NY Times Magazine’s Year of Ideas. This issue has some really interesting ideas. For example, Airborne Wind Turbine that floats 1,000 feet above the ground to supply energy to areas off the electric grid; or The Biofuel Race which discusses the advances in the development of biofuels with the potential to ultimately compete with petroleum in five to seven years; or Wireless Electricity that could replace cords from lamps to laptops and provide energy on highways to power electric cars.

However, I was a little disappointed in the “ideas” offered by the social sciences. The first comes from economics. The Height Tax is based on a paper by Greg Mankiw, an economics professor at Harvard (and former chairman of President George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers) and his graduate student Matthew Weinzierl (see Mankiw’s blog entry about The Height Tax getting noticed). They ask the (rhetorical) question, should taller people be taxed more because they have higher incomes (paper)? The article summarizes their findings:

Using optimal-taxation formulas, Mankiw and Weinzierl crunch the numbers and come up with a “tall tax” amounting to 7 percent of a tall person’s income. Short people would receive a 13 percent rebate. Do Mankiw and Weinzierl actually endorse such a system? Far from it. Rather, they argue, the proposed tax clarifies our thinking about taxation in general. They say that height is a “justly acquired endowment”: it is not unfairly wrested from anyone else, so the state has no right to seize its fruits.

The second comes from political science (via psychology).

Here’s something to keep in mind as election time approaches: Study the politicians. Not their dossiers or their domestic policies, but their faces. According to new research by Anthony Little, a psychologist at the University of Stirling in Scotland, faces may decide elections … Die-hard Republicans or Democrats will vote for whoever’s leading their party,” Little says. But uncommitted voters are another story: “Those are the voters more likely to be swayed by visual appearance,” he says. “They’re also the ones who really swing elections.

I know Mankiw, Weinzierl and Little are all wicked smart, and their papers are interesting, but are these the best ideas the social sciences have to offer in 2007? If you had the ear of the NY Times Magazine editor, which papers or books would you nominate?