This Is Why Freaking Republicans Drive Me Crazy

From the WSJ

A little-noticed provision in a bill passed by the House this month calls for relying more on U.S.-flagged ships to deliver food aid to foreign countries—a change backed by labor groups and criticized by the White House.

The measure, tucked into a Coast Guard and maritime bill, would increase the proportion of food aid transported abroad on private ships flying the U.S. flag, which are required to employ primarily American mariners.

The Obama administration opposes boosting the requirement to 75% of food aid, in tons, from the current 50%, saying it would raise shipping costs by about $75 million a year—siphoning off funds that otherwise could be used to send food aid overseas.

Jeez, when President Obama of all people has to lecture you that protectionism and kowtowing to labor groups is costly, you have gone off the rails.   The Jones Act is one of the stupidest pieces of interventionist legislation on the books and the House should be working on its repeal to sort out the oil transport mess.  Instead, here are the Republicans in the House doubling down on it.  With so-called friends of capitalism doing this garbage, who needs enemies?  At least Progressives trash the economy without pretending that they are pro free market.

By the way, here is a bit from the Cato article on the Jones Act and oil and gas prices

First, the Jones Act - a 94-year-old law that requires all domestic seaborne trade to be shipped on U.S.-crewed, -owned, flagged and manufactured vessels – prevents cost-effective intrastate shipping of crude oil or refined products.  According to Bloomberg, there are only 13 ships that can legally move oil between U.S. ports, and these ships are “booked solid.”  As a result, abundant oil supplies in the Gulf Coast region cannot be shipped to other U.S. states with spare refinery capacity.  And, even when such vessels are available, the Jones Act makes intrastate crude shipping artificially expensive.  According to a 2012 report by the Financial Times, shipping U.S. crude from Texas to Philadelphia cost more than three times as much as shipping the same product on a foreign-flagged vessel to a Canadian refinery, even though the latter route is longer.

It doesn’t take an energy economist to see how the Jones Act’s byzantine protectionism leads to higher prices at the pump for American drivers.  According to one recent estimate, revoking the Jones Act would reduce U.S. gasoline prices by as much as 15 cents per gallon “by increasing the supply of ships able to shuttle the fuel between U.S. ports.”

Some of these costs could potentially be mitigated if it weren’t for the second U.S. trade policy inflating gas prices: restrictions on crude oil exports.  As I wrote for Cato last year, current U.S. law – implemented in the 1970s during a bygone era of energy scarcity and dependence – effectively bans the exportation of U.S. crude oil to any country other than Canada.  Because U.S. and Canadian refinery capacity is finite, America’s newfound energy abundance has led to a glut of domestic oil and caused domestic crude oil prices (West Texas Intermediate and Louisiana Light Sweet) to drop well below their global (Brent) counterpart.  One might think that this price divergence would mean lower U.S. gas prices, but such thinking fails to understand that U.S. gasoline exports may be freely exported, and that gasoline prices are set on global markets based on Brent crude prices.  As a result, several recent analyses – including ones byCitigroup [$], Resources for the Future and the American Petroleum Institute - have found that liberalization of U.S. crude oil exports would lower, not raise, gas prices by as much as 7 cents per gallon.

If You Love Net Neutrality, Then You Can't Complain About Lack of ISP Competition and Investment

Kevin Drum laments that net neutrality seems to be dead, as he puts it:

So Google and Microsoft and Netflix and other large, well-capitalized incumbents will pay for speedy service. Smaller companies that can't—or that ISPs just aren't interested in dealing with—will get whatever plodding service is left for everyone else. ISPs won't be allowed to deliberately slow down traffic from specific sites, but that's about all that's left of net neutrality. Once you've approved the notion of two-tier service, it hardly matters whether you're speeding up some of the sites or slowing down others.

At some level, this statement is silly.   Really, does Netflix and Gmail really need the same connection speed?  And by the way, it makes a lot of difference whether investment is to give more speed to certain websites beyond what the consumer gets now vs. slowing down all the non-payers.  What honest consumer could ever see these options as similar?  Trust a progressive to consider cutting down all the tall trees to be equivalent to raising the short trees.

But here is another thought - Drum is among those who frequently complain about his lack of ISP choices and the slowness of developing speedier service.  But if I am an ISP, do I really want to invest billions in extra bandwidth when the benefits of this investment will accrue 100% to companies like Netflix rather than myself? And don't be confused, studies have shown Netflix using a third of all Internet capacity during peak times.  (updated data here, showing Google and Netflix together using more than half the capacity).  This strikes me as a free rider problem that normally the Left would jump right on.

It's hard to guess how things will play out, but there is a case to be made that Netflix and others paying for the bandwidth they consume will be a huge boon to home ISP access.  A second stream of income to ISP's based on bandwidth and speeds may be just what is needed to revitalize that business.  Of course, monopoly providers could just drop the money to the bottom line without doing anything to their infrastructure, but I trust that Netflix and Google will have every incentive to pound the hell out of ISP's who don't actually invest.  They are not particularly happy about this extra expense, so if they pay it, they are gong to make damn sure they get the speed and bandwidth they promised.  We individual customers have in the past had little power to influence ISP's bandwidth and speed investments, but now we have powerful allies.

Don't Say I Didn't Warn You

I warned you that Cliven Bundy's ranch was the wrong hill to fight on over property rights and the role of government ownership on western lands.  And I was right.

This kind of thing should not come as a surprise.  This is a guy who simply did not want to pay his rent, and used the catch phrases of liberty to try to get sympathy.  I could find about a thousand far more sympathetic examples of folks screwed over by government land use regulations -- e.g. people whose puddle in the backyard is suddenly a wetlands that they can't build on.  But for some reason Conservatives all rushed to pile on this one example.  Stupid.  The media can probably be counted on to hide the unsavory back stories of Occupy Wall Street supporters, but there is no way they are going to do so for a "hero" of the right.   The BLM almost bailed Conservatives out of their stupid support for Bundy by their execrable on-site management of the raid, but Conservatives are now getting what they deserve for jumping in bed with this guy.

Problem Endemic To Public Parks Management

Glenn Reynolds is writing about colleges, but he could just as easily be writing about public parks:

Full-time administrators now outnumber full-time faculty. And when times get tough, schools have a disturbing tendency to shrink faculty numbers while keeping administrators on the payroll. Teaching gets done by low-paid, nontenured adjuncts, but nobody ever heard of an "adjunct administrator."

Replace "faculty" with "people actually working in a park" and administrators with "headquarters staff" and he has described the management of public parks exactly.  Most parks agencies are suffering from administrative bloat, with more people in headquarters than out in the field actually running parks.  When they have layoffs, it is always of field staff and not headquarters administrators.   In the parks world they will even ignore major maintenance needs in favor of making sure they have the funds to keep paying headquarters staff.

It is just absurd.  Of course, in my case, we make a business out of this.  We run public parks, and have 300 field employees actually in the parks and 2 in headquarters.  It allows us to cut costs while simultaneously doing a better job.

The Effect of the Black Death on Labor and Grain Prices

Long time readers will know that if I were asked to relive my life doing something entirely different, I would like to try studying economic history.  Today, in a bit of a coincidence, my son called me with a question about the effect of the Black Death in Europe on labor and grain prices ... just days after I had been learning about the exact same part of history in Professor Daileader's awesome Teaching Company course on the Middle Ages (actually he has three courses - early, high, late - which are all excellent).

From the beginning of the 14th century, Europe suffered a series of demographic disasters.  Climate change in the form of the end of the Medieval warm period led to failed crops and several years of famine early in the century.  Then, later in the century, the Black Death came... over and over, perhaps made worse by the fact that Europeans were weakened already from famine.  As a result, the population of Europe dropped by something like half.

It is not entirely obvious to me what such a demographic disaster would do to prices.  Panic and uncertainty usually drive them up in the near term, but what about after that?  Both the supply and demand curves for most everything will be dropping in tandem.  So what happens to prices?

In the case of the 14th century, we know the answer:  the price of labor rose dramatically, while the price of grain dropped.  The combination tended to bankrupt the landholding aristocracy, who went so far as to try to reimpose serfdom to get their finances back in balance (some things never change).  The nobility pretty much failed at this in the West (England, France) and were met with a series of peasant revolts.  They generally succeeded in the East (Germany, Poland, Russia) which is why a quasi-feudal agricultural system persisted so long in those countries.

But why?  Why did grain price go down rather than up?  Why did labor go in the opposite direction?  I could look it up, but that is no fun.

A first answer, which does not satisfy

People who think of all of the middle ages as "the dark ages" miss the boom that occurred between 1000-1300.  Population increased, and technology advanced (just because this technology seems pedestrian to us, like the plow harness for horses or the stirrup, does not make it any less so).  It was the only time between about 300 and 1500 when the population was growing (a fact we climate skeptics will note coincided with the Medieval warm period).

But even without the setbacks of the 1300's, historians probably would argue that Europe was headed for a Malthusian collapse no matter what in the 14th century.   An enormous amount of forest had been cleared and new farmland created, such that by 1300 some pretty marginal land was being farmed just so Europe could barely keep up with demand.  At the margin, really low productivity land was being farmed.

So if there is a sudden 50% population cut, then that means that all that marginal farm land will be abandoned first.  While the number of farmers would be cut in half, production would be reduced by less than half because presumably the least productive farms would be abandoned first.  With demand cut by half and production cut by less than half, prices would fall for grain.

But this doesn't work for labor.  The same argument should apply.  To get everyone fed, we would actually need less than half the prior labor force because they would concentrate on the best land.  Labor prices should fall in this model as well, but in fact they went up.  A lot.  In fact, they went up not by a few percent but by multiples, enough to cause enormous social problems across Europe.

A second answer, that makes more sense

After thinking about this for a while, I came to realize that I had the wrong model for the economy in my head.  I was thinking about our modern economy.   If suddenly, say, online retailing reduces demand for physical stores dramatically, people close stores and redeploy capital and labor and assets to other investments in other industries.  That is how I was thinking about the Middle Ages.

But it may be more correct to see the Middle Ages as a one product economy.  There was agriculture, period.  Everything else was a rounding error.

So now let's think about the "farmers" in the Middle Ages.  They are primarily all the 1%, the titled nobility, who either farm big estates with peasant labor or lease large parts of their estates to peasants for farming.

OK, half the population is suddenly gone.  The Noble's family has lots of death but someone is still around to inherit.  They have a big estate where growing grain supports their lifestyle as well as any military obligations they may have to their lord (though this style of fighting with knights on horseback supported by grants of land is having its last hurrah in the 100 years war).

Then grain prices collapse.  That is a clear pricing signal.  In the modern economy, that would tell us to get out and find a new place for our capital.  So, as Lord Coyote of the Castle Aaaaargh, I am going to do what, exactly?  How can I redeploy my capital, when it is essentially illiquid?  I can't sell the family land.  And if I did, land prices, along with grain prices and the demographic collapse, are falling through the floor.  And even if I could sell for cash, what would I do for a living?  What would I reinvest the money in?  Running an estate is all I know.  It's all anyone knows.  I have to support myself and my 3 mistresses and my squires and my string of warhorses.

All I can do is try to farm the land I have always farmed.  And everyone else does the same.  The result is far more grain than anyone needs with the reduced population, so prices fall.   But I still need the same number of people to grow the food, irregardless of the price it fetches, but there are now half as many workers available so the price of labor goes through the roof.  When grain demand collapsed, there was no way to clear the excess capacity.  It turns out everyone had a nearly vertical supply curve, because irregardless of price, they had nothing else they could do with their time and money.  You can see now why they tried to solve their problem by reimposing serfdom (combined with price controls, a bad idea for Diocletian and for Nixon and everyone in between).

Of course, nothing is stuck forever.   One way capacity cleared was through the growth of the bureaucratic state over the next 2 centuries.  Nobles eventually had to find some new way to support themselves, and did so by taking jobs in growing state bureaucracies.  They became salaried ministers rather than feudal knights supported by agriculture.  At the same time, rising wealth among the 99% non-nobility allowed kings to support themselves through taxes rather than the granting of fiefs, which in turn paid for the nobility to take jobs in the bureaucracy and paid for peasant armies with guns and bows that replaced the lords fighting on horseback.  So in the long term, the price signal was inordinately powerful -- so powerful it helped reshape much of European government and society.

By the way, if you are reading this expecting some point about modern politics, sorry.  Just something I was thinking about and it helped to write it down.  Comments are appreciated.  I still have not cribbed the answer from the history texts yet.

Education and Affirmative Action and "Diversity"

I don't really have much to say about today's Supreme Court decision on affirmative action.  Given that there were 4 different opinions written, the whole issue seems to still be in much dispute.  The continuing Court opinion is, I think, that affirmative action is legal (but as expressed today, not required) in education to address diversity and other goals.

My only thought on this is one I have had a long time about colleges and diversity.  Universities are, if anything, institutions based on ideas and thought.  So it has always been amazing to me that university diversity programs focus not on having a diversity of ideas, but on have a diversity of skin pigment and reproductive plumbing.  In fact, if anything, most universities seem to be aspiring towards creating an intellectual monoculture.  Diversity of opinion, of politics, and of general outlook among prospective students are not even decision-making variables in any educational institution I know of.  And within the faculty, many institutions seem intent on purging from their ranks any single voice that diverges from the majoritarian view.  I could have probably found more diversity of political opinion in a 19th century London gentleman's club than I can today in many campus faculties.

App Addictions of the Day

My kids are working to waste large swathes of my time by introducing me to addictive games

2048, via my daughter

QuizUp, via my son

Those are the quickies.  For more serious gaming on the iPad, I have been playing a bunch of euro-style board game ports, including Lords of Waterdeep, Agricola, Eclipse, Dominant Species, Small World, Ticket to Ride.    All recommended.  I have heard rumors of iOS apps for Dominion and 7 Wonders, two of my current favorite board games, but I have seen anything appear.  Board Game Geek has an iOS blog (beware, the format is uglier than a geocities page).  I downloaded Pandemic but have not played it.  There are also ports of Carcasonne and Settlers of Catan but neither of those are my favorites.

I have also enjoyed the port of Baldur's Gate II to the iPad.  This is still, perhaps with Neverwinter Nights 2, the best AD&D rules RPG for the computer.  The only problem with Baldurs Gate is the graphics on the PC are dated, but they work fine on the iPad.  I downloaded a Master of Orion port the other day but have not tried it yet.

But for REAL time wasting, I look forward to this fall when there is apparently a new version of Civilization / Alpha Centauri coming out.  Trying to have my desk cleared before then.

Climate Alarmists Coming Around to At Least One Skeptic Position

As early as 2009 (and many other more prominent skeptics were discussing it much earlier) I reported on why measuring ocean heat content was a potentially much better measure of greenhouse gas changes to the Earth rather than measuring surface air temperatures.  Roger Pielke, in particular, has been arguing this for as long as I can remember.

The simplest explanation for why this is true is that greenhouse gasses increase the energy added to the surface of the Earth, so that is what we would really like to measure, that extra energy.  But in fact the vast, vast majority of the heat retention capacity of the Earth's surface is in the oceans, not in the air.  Air temperatures may be more immediately sensitive to changes in heat flux, but they are also sensitive to a lot of other noise that tends to mask long-term signals.    The best analog I can think of is to imagine that you have two assets, a checking account and your investment portfolio.  Looking at surface air temperatures to measure long-term changes in surface heat content is a bit like trying to infer long-term changes in your net worth by looking only at your checking account, whose balance is very volatile, vs. looking at the changing size of your investment portfolio.

Apparently, the alarmists are coming around to this point

Has global warming come to a halt? For the last decade or so the average global surface temperature has been stabilising at around 0.5°C above the long-term average. Can we all relax and assume global warming isn't going to be so bad after all?

Unfortunately not. Instead we appear to be measuring the wrong thing. Doug McNeall and Matthew Palmer, both from the Met Office Hadley Centre in Exeter, have analysed climate simulations and shown that both ocean heat content and net radiation (at the top of the atmosphere) continue to rise, while surface temperature goes in fits and starts. "In my view net radiation is the most fundamental measure of global warming since it directly represents the accumulation of excess solar energy in the Earth system," says Palmer, whose findings are published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

First, of course, we welcome past ocean heat content deniers to the club.  But second, those betting on ocean heat content to save their bacon and keep alarmism alive should consider why skeptics latched onto the metric with such passion.   In fact, ocean heat content may be rising more than surface air temperatures, but it has been rising MUCH less than would be predicted from high-sensitivity climate models.

Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis, It is Now Past Time to Google "the Streisand Effect"

The Peoria, IL mayor used the city police to raid and shut down the owners of a Twitter account that mocked the mayor.  The original twitter feed probably had about 12 followers when it was shut down.  I suggest that it is now past time for him to Google the "Streisand Effect"

Streisand_Estate

Too bad she didn't have a police force.

Update:  Told you so.  Popehat has a go

 

Wherein I Almost Agree With Thomas Friedman on a Climate Issue

Thomas Friedman outlines what he would do first to attack climate change

Well, the first thing we would do is actually slash income taxes and corporate taxes and replace them with a carbon tax so we actually encourage people to stop doing what we don't want, which is emitting carbon, and start doing what we do want, which is hiring more workers and getting corporations to invest more in America.

Friedman is a bit disingenuous here, as he proposes this in a way that implies that deniers (and probably evil Republicans and libertarians) oppose this common sense approach.  Some may, but I would observe that no one on the alarmist side or the Left side of the aisle is actually proposing a carbon tax that 1:1 reduces other taxes.  The only person I know who has proposed this is Republican Jeff Flake, who proposed a carbon tax that would 1:1 reduce payroll taxes.

As I said back then, I am not a big fan of taxes and think that the alarm for global warming is overblown, but I could easily get behind such a plan.  Payroll taxes are consumption taxes on labor.  I can't think of anything much more detrimental to employment and economic health.  So Flake's proposed shift from a consumption tax on labor to a consumption tax on carbon-based energy sources is something I could get behind.  I probably would do the same for Friedman's idea of shifting taxes from income to carbon.  But again, no one is proposing that for real in Congress.  The only plan that came close to a vote was a cap and trade system where the incremental payments would go into essentially a crony slush fund, not reduce other taxes.

Of course, since this is Friedman, he can't get away without saying the government should invest more in infrastructure

 the federal government would borrow money at almost 0 percent and invest it in infrastructure to make our cities not only more resilient, but more efficient.

In TARP and the stimulus and various other clean energy bills, the government borrowed almost a trillion dollars at 0% interest.  How much good infrastructure got done?  About zero.  Most of it just went to feed government bureaucrats and planning studies or ended up as crony payments to well-protected entities (Solyndra, anyone?).  The issues with government infrastructure investments, which Friedman has never addressed despite zillions of articles on infrastructure, are not the borrowing rate but

  • The incentive and information problems the government has in making investments of any sort.
  • The vast environmental, licensing, and NIMBY factors that make it virtually impossible to do infrastructure projects any more, at least in any reasonable time frame.

College Tours Summarized in One Sentence

The WSJ has an editorial on college tours, wherein they talk about the sameness (and lameness) of most college tours.

Most colleges offer both an information session and a tour.  We always found the tour, given by students, more useful than information sessions given by the admission department.  I came to hate the information sessions in large part because the Q&A seems to be dominated by type A helicopter parents worried that Johnny won't get into Yale because he forgot to turn in an art project in 3rd grade.

My kids and I developed a joke a couple of years ago about information sessions, in which we summarize them in one sentence.  So here it is:

"We are unique in the exact same ways that every other college you visit says they are unique."

Examples:  We are unique because we have a sustainability program, because we have small class sizes, because our dining plans are flexible, because we don't just look at SAT scores in admissions, because our students participate in research, because our Juniors go abroad, etc. etc.

There you go.  You can now skip the information session and go right to the tour.  Actually, there is a (very) short checklist of real differences.  The ones I can remember off hand are:

  • Does the school have required courses / distribution requirements or not
  • Is admissions need blind or not
  • Is financial aid in the form of grants or loans
  • Do they require standardized tests or not, and which ones
  • If they do, do they superscore or not
  • Do they use the common app, and if so do they require a supplement
  • Do they require an interview or not

My advice for tour givers (and I can speak from some experience having gone on about 20 and having actually conducted them at my college) is to include a lot of anecdotes that give the school some character.   I particularly remember the Wesleyan story about Joss Whedon's old dorm looking out over a small cemetery and the role this may have played in the development of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The biggest fail on most tours is many don't show a typical dorm room, the #1 thing the vast majority of prospective admits want to see.

Bundy Ranch the Wrong Hill for Libertarians to be Dying On

Here is something I find deeply ironic:  On the exact same day that Conservatives were flocking to the desert to protest Cliven Bundy's eviction from BLM land, San Francisco progressives were gathering in the streets to protest tenant evictions by a Google executive.   To my eye, both protests were exactly the same, but my guess is that neither group would agree with the other's protest.  I think both protests are misguided.

In the case of Cliven Bundy, I agree with John Hinderaker, right up to his big "But...."

First, it must be admitted that legally, Bundy doesn’t have a leg to stand on. The Bureau of Land Management has been charging him grazing fees since the early 1990s, which he has refused to pay. Further, BLM has issued orders limiting the area on which Bundy’s cows can graze and the number that can graze, and Bundy has ignored those directives. As a result, BLM has sued Bundy twice in federal court, and won both cases. In the second, more recent action, Bundy’s defense is that the federal government doesn’t own the land in question and therefore has no authority to regulate grazing. That simply isn’t right; the land, like most of Nevada, is federally owned. Bundy is representing himself, of necessity: no lawyer could make that argument.

It is the rest of the post after this paragraph with which I disagree.  He goes on to explain why he is sympathetic to Bundy, which if I may summarize is basically because a) the Feds own too much land and b) they manage this land in a haphazard and politically corrupt manner and c) the Feds let him use this land 100 years ago but now have changed their mind about how they want to use the land.

Fine.  But Bundy is still wrong.  He is trying to exercise property rights over land that is not his.   The owner gave him free use for years and then changed its policy and raised his rent, and eventually tried to evict him.  Conservatives and libertarians don't accept the argument that long-time tenancy on private land gives one quasi-ownership rights (though states like California and cities like New York seem to be pushing law in this direction), so they should not accept it in this case.   You can't defend property rights by trashing property rights.   Had this been a case of the government using its fiat power to override a past written contractual obligation, I would have been sympathetic perhaps, but it is not.

I would love to see a concerted effort to push for government to divest itself of much of its western land.  Ten years ago I would have said I would love to see an effort to manage it better, but I feel like that is impossible in this corporate state of ours.  So the best solution is just to divest.  But I cannot see where the Bundy Ranch is a particularly good case.  Seriously, I would love to see more oil and gas exploration permitted on Federal land, but you won't see me out patting Exxon on the back if they suddenly start drilling on Federal land without permission or without paying the proper royalties. At least the protesters in San Francisco likely don't believe in property rights at all.  Conservatives, what is your excuse?

I suppose we can argue about whether the time for civil disobedience has come, but even if this is the case, we have to be able to find a better example than the Bundy Ranch to plant our flag.

Power of Geologic Forces

The footprints are cool.   But what really had an effect on me is how vividly this picture portrays the power of geologic forces (combined with time).  This wall of rock was obviously once horizontal.

click to enlarge

 

More pictures here.

Wherein I Have Another Great Product Idea Too Late

We increasingly use VRBO to find rental houses when we go on vacation.  The key transfer process seems to be the most awkward.  Either the owner or their representative has to meet you (a hassle for them) or they have an old style mechanical lockbox where a fixed combination opens the box and gives you the key.

All of this strikes me as both a hassle and tremendously insecure.  Most folks do not change their lockbox combinations very often, so I could probably go back to most of them today and get back in the house.  Also, since the owners tend to leave only one key, and my wife and I prefer to have two or three for us and the kids, we tend to go immediately to the local hardware store to make copies.

It would make a lot more sense to have an electronic combination lock whose combination changes automatically, over the Internet, with each rental.  I figured developing such a thing would be pretty easy and the first step I would take would be to try to cut a co-branding deal with VRBO, AirBNB, etc.  You can imagine something like "VRBO Secure" where a home owner would buy the lock via VRBO and would then get a little icon on their listing.

Unfortunately, as is usual with my product brainstorms, someone is already there.  But no one yet seems to have cut a co-branding deal with VRBO or airBNB.  Seems like that would be a win-win for both the lock company and the rental agency.go.

Everything Looks Like a Nail When You Have A Hammer

Kevin Drum quotes Hugo Dixon on the Greek recovery:

Greece is undergoing an astonishing financial rebound. Two years ago, the country looked like it was set for a messy default and exit from the euro. Now it is on the verge of returning to the bond market with the issue of 2 billion euros of five-year paper.

There are still political risks, and the real economy is only now starting to turn. But the financial recovery is impressive. The 10-year bond yield, which hit 30 percent after the debt restructuring of two years ago, is now 6.2 percent....The changed mood in the markets is mainly down to external factors: the European Central Bank’s promise to “do whatever it takes” to save the euro two years ago; and the more recent end of investors’ love affair with emerging markets, meaning the liquidity sloshing around the global economy has been hunting for bargains in other places such as Greece.

That said, the centre-right government of Antonis Samaras has surprised observers at home and abroad by its ability to continue with the fiscal and structural reforms started by his predecessors. The most important successes have been reform of the labour market, which has restored Greece’s competiveness, and the achievement last year of a “primary” budgetary surplus before interest payments.

Color me suspicious.  Both the media and investors fall for this kind of thing all the time -- the dead cat bounce masquerading as a structural improvement.  I hope like hell Greece has gotten its act together, but I would not bet my own money on it.

Anyway, that is a bit beside the point.  I found Drum's conclusion from all this odd:

If this keeps up—and that's still a big if—it also might be a lesson in the virtue of kicking the can down the road. Back in 2012, lots of commenters, including me, believed that the eurozone had deep structural problems that couldn't be solved by running fire drills every six months or so and then hoping against hope that things would get better. But maybe they will! This probably still wasn't the best way of forging a recovery of the eurozone, but so far, it seems to have worked at least a little better than the pessimists imagined. Maybe sometimes kicking the can is a good idea after all.

For those that are not frequent readers of his, I need to tell you that one of the themes he has been pounding on of late is that the US should not be worried about either its debt levels or inflation -- attempting to rebut the most obvious critiques of his strong support for more deficit spending and monetary stimulus.

I would have thought the obvious moral of this story was that austerity and dismantling all sorts of progressive labor market claptrap led to a recovery far faster than expected**.  But since Drum opposes all those steps, his  conclusion seems to be simply a return to his frequent theme that debt is A-OK and we shouldn't be worried about addressing it any time soon.

** I don't believe for a moment that Greece has really changed the worst of its structural labor market, regulatory,  and taxation issues.  This story gets written all the time about countries like, say, Argentina.  Sustained incompetence is not really newsworthy, which is likely one reason we get so few African stories.  They would all be like "Nigeria still a mess."  A false recovery story gives the media two story cycles, one for the false recovery and one for the inevitable sinking back into the pit.

Tracking Changes in Those With Health Insurance

RAND has a study out on changes in people's sources for health insurance.  Once you get the hang of reading it, this is a great table:

click to enlarge

 

This is how to read it -- of the 40.7 million uninsured in September of 2013, 26.2 million remained uninsured, 7.2 million got new employer health insurance (ESI) , 3.6 million joined medicaid, etc.  But then some new uninsured were added back so the new total uninsured is 31.4 million.

One of the first things to notice is the marketplace number of 3.9 million is well below the Administration's claim of 7.1 million.  The Administration's number is not even within the error bar here, so one needs to be skeptical, if he was not already, of Administration sign-up figures.

We also can notice that the individual marketplace seemed to have shrunk from 9.4 million to 7.8 million.  No huge surprise, with all the cancellations that made the news last year.

The really interesting question, of course, is what happened to the uninsured.  We can use this table to look at net changes (millions of people).

2013 Uninsured 40.7
     To Employer -5.1
     To Medicaid -2.6
     To Individual +0.2
     To Exchange -1.4
     To Other -0.3
2014 Uninsured 31.4

To make sure everyone understands the math, 7.2 million left the ranks of the uninsured to get an employer policy, but 2.1 million previously insured by employers became uninsured.  The net is -5.1 million as shown.  All the other numbers are calculated the same way.

I have always had serious questions about the value of the Medicaid signups during this period.   Medicaid is not a limited enrollment product.  You can sign up bleeding on a gurney being rolled into the operating room, and in fact many do -- Hospitals are very good at enrolling people into Medicare as they walk in.  So it was really a misnomer in the first place that someone eligible for Medicaid is "uninsured" -- they are in fact insured, they just have not done the paperwork.  The Medicaid expansion in the PPACA probably helped, but many states that did not expand Medicaid had a lot of signups as well.

The exchange seems to have done little to affect the uninsured.  Net of the reductions in individual insurance presumably driven also by the PPACA, the exchanges reduced the uninsured by 1.2 million.

The really interesting number everyone is  looking at is the huge number of the insured that gained employer coverage.  Three quarters of the non-Medicare related reduction in uninsured (since I don't consider a lot of the Medicare signups a real reduction) were from people going onto employer plans.

Kevin Drum quotes Andrea Mcintyre as saying

If it’s correct, it was probably motivated multiple factors—I hate the word “synergy” on principle, but it comes to mind. The economy has been improving, so some of the previously unemployed have secured jobs with benefits. But CBO built in expectations about economic recovery, so I don’t think it’s quite right to try pinning all (or even most?) of the 8.2 million on that. The individual mandate, while weak in its first year, might be a stronger stick than we expected, nudging people to take their health benefits where they’d previously been opting out. Employers could be helping this move this trend along; the University of Michigan, for example, eliminated “opt out dollars” in 2014 (cash compensation for employees who declined coverage).

Drum add triumphantly

If this finding is confirmed, it's a genuine shocker. Although CBO projected that ESI would stay steady, there's been a lot of chatter about the likelihood of employers dropping coverage thanks to Obamacare. But that sure doesn't seem to have happened. So in addition to the usual sources of coverage—Medicaid, exchanges, sub-26ers—it looks like Obamacare has yet another big success story to tell, one that was almost completely unexpected.

Uh, maybe.  The employer insurance changes could also be an artifact of normal churn and of the odd study period.   The study period is only about half a year.  If there were annual patterns, ie with people losing employer health care early in the year and then gaining it at the end of the year, then only the gains would show up in the study and not the losses.  In fact, there is some reason to believe this is the case, as most corporations have open enrollment periods at the end of the calendar year.

But there is a more interesting issue here.  Folks arguing for Obamacare in the first place sold it by implying that most all the uninsured were uninsured because they could not afford coverage or did not have access.  Now it turns out a large block of the uninsured actually did have access and could afford it, they just chose not to buy it, for whatever reason.  Was this really what it was all about from the very beginning, forcing people to buy a product that they could afford but did not want?

Even an Influential Chart Can Be A Graphics Fail

Presumably most of you have seen this chart frm a study that says that not only do Americans not know where the Ukraine is, but that desire for US intervention there is correlated with such knowledge or lack thereof (the less people understand where it is, the more they support intervention).

click to enlarge

I find the study results both depressing and unsurprising, so I won't comment on them per se.   Though I suppose if you confuse the Ukraine with the Yukon (as a number of respondents seem to), interventionism might make more sense.  My only question is:  where were such studies of domain knowledge vs. policy recommendations in the health care or minimum wage debate?

However much impact this chart has had, though, it is still a graphics fail in my mind.  Why?  Because the author attempts to portray a second variable by the dot color.  But the variable he or she chooses to portray is the distance of the point from the correct location (red being more correct, blue less).  But that is easy to see without the variation in color.  It is redundant information.

A much better chart would have been to color code each dot with that respondent's Ukraine prescription, from blue = intervention to red = non-intervention.  This way the chart would have supported the full findings of the study (link between geographical knowledge and policy prescription) rather than just one aspect (quality of geographic knowledge).

Update:  If so many people got the Ukraine and the Yukon confused, God help us if the next Russian crisis is in Georgia.

Today's Lesson In Unintended Consequences: Safety Mandates That May Reduce Safety

Via the WSJ (emphasis added)

Nomar may be the most extreme example of a problem plaguing 911 response centers nationwide: false emergency calls made from cellphones that no longer have a contract or prepaid minutes with a wireless carrier and so can avoid being tied to a user. Under federal rules these disabled phones, which can't make ordinary calls, must retain the ability to dial emergency numbers.

Abuse of these phones has become enough of a concern that many 911 officials and some in the telecom industry are urging the Federal Communications Commission to shut off or phase out the emergency feature in the interest of public safety.

In the San Francisco Bay Area alone, anonymous dialers have made tens of thousands of false 911 calls since 2007—with Nomar alone believed responsible for over 30,000. (Call-center operators can detect a disabled phone in part because no phone number shows up on their screen.)

During a 24-hour period on Thanksgiving Day 2012, dispatchers at the city's Department of Emergency Management reported 1,527 false 911 calls—more than one a minute. They believed all the calls came from just five phones, based in part on the cellphone towers from which the calls were connected...

At the root of the problem is a 1997 FCC requirement that all carriers include emergency-dialing capability on cellphones whether they have working service or not. Back then, 911 centers supported the feature as a potential lifeline.

"Cell service was still a new thing," said Trey Forgety, director of government affairs at the National Emergency Number Association, a trade group of 911 centers in Washington. "We wanted people in dire straits to have reliable access to 911."

Expensive Legislation Whose Only Benefit is a Politician's Talking Point During Re-election

I absolutely despise legislation like this.  Some legislator wants to pat him or herself on the back during their re-election that they "did something" about human trafficking so they pass this law:

New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez approved a law requiring employers to post a notice containing information about the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline. The new law, H.B. 181, unanimously passed by both legislative chambers, becomes effective July 1, 2014.

Employers subject to the state Minimum Wage Act must post a sign containing the following notice in English and in Spanish and in any other written language where at least 10 percent of the workers or users of a covered facility speak that language:

NOTICE ON HUMAN TRAFFICKING: OBTAINING FORCED LABOR OR SERVICES IS A CRIME UNDER NEW MEXICO AND FEDERAL LAW. IF YOU OR SOMEONE YOU KNOW IS A VICTIM OF THIS CRIME, CONTACT THE FOLLOWING: IN NEW MEXICO, CALL OR TEXT 505-GET-FREE (505-438- 3733); OR CALL THE NATIONAL HUMAN TRAFFICKING RESOURCE CENTER HOTLINE TOLL-FREE AT 1-888-373-7888 FOR HELP. YOU MAY ALSO SEND THE TEXT “HELP” OR “INFO” TO BEFREE (“233733”). YOU MAY REMAIN ANONYMOUS, AND YOUR CALL OR TEXT IS CONFIDENTIAL

Oh yeah, that is going to make a big difference.  Have you seen a labor poster wall lately?  Probably not, because no employees ever look at these things unless they are by the microwave and they have nothing better to do while waiting for their popcorn.  But every time some legislator wants to "do something" about an employment related issue, another poster is added.

Here is the really hilarious part -- do they really think that a person who who is so lawless as to engage in forced labor is going to post this poster?  Seriously?    I have this picture in my head of a southern plantation owner in 1864 tacking the Emancipation Proclamation up in the slave quarters.

I will take a picture of all the posters required in California, because I was just working on it, but here is a list of what has to be posted.

The Progressive View of the First Ammendment

I didn't really pay all that much attention to the Supreme Court's election speech case yesterday.   But as I learn the reasoning that is driving the dissent by the four Justices on the Left, I am left deeply worried about the future of speech rights.

I really haven't put much time in understanding how Progressives justify strong speech protections for non-political activity (e.g. pornography) while eschewing them for political speech (in the form of multiple types of limits on the amount and timing of speech one is allowed prior to an election).  Justice Breyer, in writing for the minority in in McCutcheon, lays out what I suppose is the Progressive position.

First up, here is David Bernstein

But how can liberals, who so expansively interpret other constitutional provisions, narrow the First Amendment so that campaign finance no longer gets protection?

Justice Breyer’s dissent today shows the way, as he revives the old Progressive conception of freedom of speech as serving instrumental purposes (which he calls “First Amendment interests”), rather than protecting individual rights or reining in potential government abuses.  And once we identify those “First Amendment interests,” we must limit freedom of speech to ensure that they are advanced.

Thus, Justice Breyer, writes, “Consider at least one reason why the First Amendment protects political speech. Speech does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, political communication seeks to secure government action. A politically oriented ‘marketplace of ideas’ seeks to form a public opinion that can and will influence elected representatives.”  Just to make sure he’s not being too subtle, Breyer goes back to the source, Justice Brandeis, citing his opinion in Whitney for the proposition that freedom of speech is protected because it’s ”essential to effective democracy.”

Further showing off his affinity for the Progressive statism of a century ago (noted by Josh Blackman and me here), Breyer turns constitutional history on its head, by declaring that the purpose of the First Amendment was not to prevent government abuses, but to ensure ”public opinion could be channeled into effective governmental action.”  ...

Breyer adds that “corruption,” by which he means individuals engaging in too much freedom of speech via campaign donations, ”derails the essential speech-to-government-action tie. Where enough money calls the tune, the general public will not be heard. Insofar as corruption cuts the link between political thought and political action, a free marketplace of political ideas loses its point.”

This strikes me as both tortured and dangerous.  Once one posits that that there is some ill-defined, un-measurable value like "promotion of positive government action" can be balanced against free speech, then the government gets a nearly unlimited ability to limit speech.

James Taranto also highlights parts of the decision

In making the case for the constitutionality of restrictions on campaign contributions, Breyer advances an instrumental view of the First Amendment. He quotes Justice Louis Brandeis, who in 1927 "wrote that the First Amendment's protection of speech was 'essential to effective democracy,' " and Brandeis's contemporary Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, who in 1931 argued that " 'a fundamental principle of our constitutional system' is the 'maintenance of the opportunity for free political discussion to the end that government may be responsive to the will of the people" (emphasis Breyer's).

After citing Jean-Jacques Rousseau's (!) views on the shortcomings of representative democracy, Breyer quotes James Wilson, one of the Founding Fathers, who argued in a 1792 commentary that the First Amendment's purpose was to establish a "chain of communication between the people, and those, to whom they have committed the exercise of the powers of government." Again quoting Wilson, Breyer elaborates: "This 'chain' would establish the necessary 'communion of interests and sympathy of sentiments' between the people and their representatives, so that public opinion could be channeled into effective governmental action."

And here's how Breyer sums it all up: "Accordingly, the First Amendment advances not only the individual's right to engage in political speech, but also the public's interest in preserving a democratic order in which collective speech matters."

What is democratic "order"?  What the hell is "collective" speech?  This is the kind of thing I would expect dictators-masquerading-as-elected-officials to spout as an excuse for suppressing dissent.  After all, doesn't dissent interfere with order?  How can we have collective speech when there are these folks out there disagreeing so much?   Again from Taranto:

It's important to note that when Breyer refers to "collective" rights, what he does not have in mind is individuals exercising their rights by voluntarily collecting themselves into organizations. In fact, the prevailing left-liberal view, most notably with respect to Citizens United v. FEC (2010), is that collections of individuals, at least when they take corporate form, have (or should have) no rights.

The only "collective" that matters to Breyer is the one from which you cannot opt out except by the extreme measure of renouncing your citizenship: "the people" or "the public" as a whole. In Breyer's view, the purpose of the First Amendment is to see that (in Chief Justice Hughes's words) "the will of the people" is done. Individual rights are but a means to that end. To the extent they frustrate it, they ought to be curtailed. You will be assimilated.

Citizens United and Turkey

So now that the Turkish incumbents have been re-elected, the government will allow Twitter to be turned back on in the country.

I think that the vast, vast majority of Americans would agree that this turning off of a communications vehicle several weeks before an election was a pretty transparent dodge to protect incumbent politicians, and that most of us would oppose such steps -- even be outraged by them.

So why the hell was McCain-Feingold's ban on 3rd party ad-based communications 60 days prior to an election any different?   These two steps seem absolutely identical to me, but my guess is most everyone agrees the Turkish actions were bad but the Citizens United decision that overturned the McCain-Feingold restrictions was met with much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

OK, Can You Start Tomorrow?

Bill McKibben suggest climate alarmists go on strike until we start listening to them:

So at this point it’s absurd to keep asking the scientific community to churn out more reports. In fact, it might almost be more useful if they went on strike: until you pay attention to what we’ve already told you, we won’t be telling you more. Work with what you’ve got. We’re a quarter-century ahead – when you deal with the trouble we’ve already described then we’ll tell you what’s coming next.

A Slightly Different Take on High Frequency Trading (HFT)

My guess is that HFT will soon become one of those bogeyman words that people automatically associate with "bad stuff" without ever actually understanding what it means.  But it is worth understanding the underlying problem, and that problem is not high speed or frequency per se.

As I understand it, when an order to buy, say, 10,000 shares of Exxon gets placed, the purchase will get pieced together by searching across multiple servers where offers are listed and putting together the 10,000 shares in bits and pieces from these various servers.  What HFT's are doing (and I am sure this is grossly oversimplified) is that once it sees this order pinging  a server, it runs ahead at high speed to other servers and buys up blocks of Exxon at price A and then offers it up to the pokey buying search when it finally arrives at those servers at A+a bit more.  That "a bit more" may be less than a penny, but the pennies add up and if done right, there is almost no trading risk.

This is bad, though generally not for us small investors but for our mutual fund companies.  For my little trade of 100 shares that might be cleared on the first server, HFT's have no opportunity to play.  Moreover, I may not even notice a penny or two difference in the price I get.  This is a much bigger deal for mutual fund companies and large investors clearing larger trades, where a few pennies can add up to a lot of money.

An exchange always has to be really careful to maintain its image of fairness, and systematically allowing such behavior, called front-running, is not good for the health of the market.   Which is why you are hearing a lot about this.

Here is what you are not hearing, and I will admit that it is all a hypothesis of mine.  But it may well be possible that HFT's actually reduce the total cost of front-running to investors.  It may be that HFT's real crime is that what they are doing is more transparent and visible than what market makers were doing in the past -- ie they are not increasing the volume of front-running, they are just making it more obvious.   I would not be at all surprised if such front-running always existed in market-making (certainly Goldman Sachs has been accused of it) and that HFT's are actually the Wal-Mart or Amazon of front-running -- not doing anything new but doing it cheaper on tighter margins.   Kind of ironically, I suppose this is what efficient markets theory would predict for the market in front-running.

If this is the case, while we would rather see front-running eliminated entirely, HFT's may actually be reducing the cost of front-running and making things more rather than less efficient.

Is Their a Guinsess Record for the Longest Correction?

This correction by Michel Taylor of something called the Australian Independent Media Network has got to be the longest correction in history.  You know it is an incredible correction when this is just a tiny part of the errors admitted:

  • Evans does not believe, and has never believed, that 9/11 was an inside job perpetrated by the Rothschild family, that US President Barack Obama is a secret Jew, that the Holocaust never happened or that Jewish bankers and the Rothschild family have assassinated at least two US Presidents.

The author also admits to getting Evans' education, occupation, organization, and sources of funding wrong.

In part I suppose kudos are owed to Mr. Taylor for being so honest, but seriously, how can one be so comprehensively wrong? (I will actually explain why in a minute).  The correction runs on so long in part because he Taylor also has to correct an earlier correction where he blamed one of his original sources for being intentionally misleading.  He also apologizes for that.

I would likely have posted this anyway just because it is sort of funny.  But it just so happens to tie into what I wrote yesterday here.  Because it is clear that Mr. Taylor's core mistake is that he researched the positions of a climate skeptic (Mr. Evans) solely by asking climate alarmists (and climate alarmist web sites) what this skeptic believed.  He felt no need to hear the skeptic case from the skeptic himself.  And what do you know, the descriptions of Mr. Evans' beliefs as portrayed by his ideological enemies were full of errors, exaggerations, straw men, and outright lies.  Who would have thought?

We can laugh at Mr. Taylor, but at least he admitted his mistakes in great depth.  But outlets such as the LA Times and the BBC have recently made it a rule they will never allow skeptic voices into their reporting.  They have institutionalized Mr. Taylor's mistake.

On Firefox and Wedding Photographers

The OK Cupid website is protesting the Mozilla CEO's past donations to anti-gay-marriage campaigns by asking visitors to use something other than Firefox to browse their site.  Readers will know that I have actually led a past Equal Marriage effort in Arizona, so while sympathetic to the cause here, I don't think I would go so far as to block a browser to my website.  Establishing this precedent that I would boycott services and products based on the political views of company employees (which is the issue here, Mozilla does not have any official position on gay marriage that I know of), I could consume my whole life doing research.  And then I would be stuck with questions like "Are the gay marriage opinions of the Firefox CEO better or worse than Google/Chrome's enabling of censorship in China?  As I have told some folks before, if I really wanted to do do business only with those who agree with me politically, I would find myself stuck for life listening to a couple of Rush albums and watching Firefly and Wire reruns all day.

But anyway, OK Cupid is a private company and I presume they do this with their owner's approval so all's fair in conducting commerce or choosing not to conduct commerce.  Except that just a few weeks ago everyone was arguing that photographers should be forced to serve gay weddings even when they do not wish to do so.  Is this any different?  If we are going to establish a public accommodation standard that a business cannot turn away customers based on political or religious preferences, then don't we have to enforce that in a value-neutral way?