On Displaying the Confederate Battle Flag

The Supremes are going to discuss whether displaying a confederate battle flag on your custom license plate is protected by free speech.

In 1980 when I went up north to school I had a Confederate battle flag on my wall.  I keep calling it the battle flag because in fact the flag you are thinking about (the one on the Dukes of Hazard's car) is not actually the flag of the Confederate nation.  Most folks could not describe the original Confederate flag under torture (here it is).

So the flag you are thinking about, and the Supremes are considering, was actually based on the battle flags of certain state militias, like that of Virginia and Tennessee.  It was also used by the Confederate Navy, and was incorporated into a redesign of the official Confederate flag late in the war.

Anyway, there were a couple of reasons a young Texan might put up this flag in his northern dorm room.  First, it is awesome looking.  There are a lot of bad flags in the world, but this is a great-looking flag.  Second, at the time it represented the southern pride of a lot of us who found ourselves displaced and living in that odd northeastern college culture.  It never represented (at least at the time) anything racist for me.  For southerners (many of us raised, without knowing it, on the Lost Cause school of Civil War historiography) it represented pride and pluck and scrappy determination.

Anyway, I don't remember getting any pushback on the flag at the time.  Over the years, though, I came to recognize that the flag was seen by many as a symbol of racism.  Part of that was my increasing awareness but a large part was shifts in society and its perceptions -- remember the Dukes of Hazard was a real, popular network show that could likely never get made today.   I suppose I could have retained the flag as a symbol of what I thought it was a symbol for, and just ignored other peoples' opinion.  But at some point, I realized that other peoples' good opinion of me had value and that I needed to acknowledge how they saw the flag and put it away in a box.

Which brings me back to license plates.  If a state is going to create a license plate program where people can make statements with their license plates, then people should be able to make the statement they want to make.  I know there are folks in the south who honestly still cling to the symbolism I used to attach to the Confederate battle flag.  But let's leave those folks aside.  Let's assume for a moment that everyone who wants to display this symbol on their car is a racist.  Shouldn't we be thrilled if they want to do so?  Here would be a program where racists would voluntarily self-identify to all as a racist (they would even pay extra to do so!)  What would be a greater public service?

I make this same argument when people want to ban speakers from campus.  If people are willing to come forward with evil thoughts and intentions and announce them publicly, why wouldn't we let them?  Its is fine to want to eliminate evil from the Earth, but shilling hateful speech doesn't do this -- it only drives evil underground.

Postscript:  I actually started thinking about this driving down I-40 from Knoxville to Nashville yesterday.  In a bend in the road, on a hill, there is a large home.  Their land goes right out to the bend in the highway, and on that bend they have put up a huge flag pole with a big Confederate battle flag.  You can see it from miles in each direction.  I didn't get a picture but there are plenty on the web. From searching for it, there are apparently similar installations on private land in other states.  As I drove, having nothing else to do, I thought a lot about what message they were trying to send.  Was it just southern pride?  Were they really racists?  If they weren't racists, did they know that many would think them as such?  And if so, did they even care -- was this in fact just a giant FU?

 

Banning Rugby

Via Reason, a college rugby team has been banned because, gasp, they sang boorish songs when drunk:

The University of Mary Washington permanently cancelled its student rugby team after evidence surfaced that team members had engaged in sexist chanting at an off-campus house party. All members of the team were also required to attend sexual assault training.

But while UMW's rugby team has 46 players, only 8 of them were even in attendance at the party—meaning that not only did a public university punish a few students for engaging in inappropriate (though constitutionally-protected) speech, it also punished other students who had nothing to do with said (again, constitutionally-protected!) speech.

The microaggression unfolded last November at a house party near the Fredericksburg, Virginia, campus, according to Jezebel's Erin Gloria Ryan. Some students, likely drunk, sang a demeaning song about raping corpses and "wiggling it" inside whores—inappropriate stuff, to be sure, though not really targeted at a specific entity in a threatening way. The chant apparently has its origins in rowdy "pub" songs. It's a curious tradition, though not one intended to inspire actual malice, it seems.

I played rugby for several years (for Harvard Business School, of all places) and never encountered a rugby club that did not have a repertoire of raunchy pub songs.  It was a tradition, which I presume was copied from the mother country, that teams would share in singing of these songs over many drinks after a match.   While often crude and offensive, they were known to all to be so.  I can't remember anyone being somehow confused between what was in those songs and what was a correct way to comport oneself in society.  We sang crude songs for a few hours, and then went back to crafting strategies for water meter manufacturers.

Leaving aside the first amendment issues and whether there is really any harmful behavior here, think for a moment about the nature of crime and punishment here.  College rugby teams have comported themselves as such for literally scores of years without any blowback except for occasional disdain from the blue bloods (the inciting of which is probably half the reason for the exercise in the first place).  No laws or written rules were broken and the team was comporting themselves in a way that had been at least implicitly tolerated for generations.  Then all of a sudden the team is disbanded.  No advance warning, no discussion in advance that such behavior would now be treated in the future as illegal.

Setting Terrible Legal Precedents Just To Hammer on People We Don't Like

First, we got FCC title II regulation of the Internet because a lot of people hate Comcast and saw net neutering as the perfect way to stick it to Comcast.  Now, we get a terrible copyright precedent because people don't like Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke.

The Internet appeared to rejoice that Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke lost their lawsuit to the estate of Marvin Gaye over alleged copyright infringements in their mega hit song "Blurred Lines." It's not that the notoriously copyright-unfriendly Internet culture found religion on intellectual property privileges but that the Internet doesn't seem to like Robin Thicke. Fair enough. But as a number of commentators have noted, it's a silly reason to support such an awful ruling. And that ruling is awful even if you believe in relatively expansive intellectual property rights because it wasn't based on any copyright Marvin Gaye's estate owns on paper....

As the author notes, are we going to soon have competing claims (and lawsuits) claiming origination of the four chord progression?

Net Neutering: Isn't It Great That This Old Lady Is Going To Take Us To Her House And Give Us Candy?

I read a number of tech sites like Engadget every day, and am just shocked at the continued happy puppy reactions to the FCC's takeover of the web.  The articles can all be summarized as "Hey, isn't it awesome this old lady is taking us to her house in the woods and giving us free candy?"

Daniel Henninger shares my reaction:

Washington’s seizure of the Internet is one of the great case studies in the annals of political naïveté.

Over several years, leading lights of the Web—among them Netflix,Google and Tumblr—importuned the Obama White House to align itself with the cause of net neutrality.

“Net neutrality,” like so many progressivist-y causes—climate change, health care for all—is a phrase designed to be embraced rather than understood.

But net neutrality had real meaning. Its core idea was that the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, a Washington agency whose employees have been regulating communications since 1934, should design and enforce a price mechanism for the Internet. Up to now, nobody did that.

In February the FCC did, and on that day the Little Red Riding Hoods of net neutrality found out what big teeth grandma has. The FCC said its plans to regulate the Web were in a 332-page document, which no one can see until the agency is ready....

Mr. Karp and the rest of the 20-something and 30-something Peter Pans in the app development world should find their way to the 80-something communications lawyers and lobbyists retired in Florida for a tutorial on what it’s like trying to get Washington off your back once it has climbed on. Here’s the tweet-length version: You are going to pay and pay and pay. To save you, Washington will bleed you....

No one can do business until they first run it through the Beltway bosses. For the K Street corridor, it’s the golden age all over again.

As I wrote before, isn't anyone in tech worried that the government used a semi-imaginary problem that perhaps required a flyswatter to address to justify acquiring 16-inch naval guns?

Cronyism, State by State

I get sent a lot of infographics and I generally just delete them but I thought this one was pretty good.  The largest recipients of corporate welfare from state governments.  Perhaps appropriately given the tilt of our economy here, our largest recipient in AZ is a real estate developer.

click to enlarge

The Face of Cronyism

Via Reason:

Billionaire John Catsimatidis is NY: Geraldo Rivera Hosts Wife Erica's 40th Birthday Partyworking to slip a biofuel mandate that would add $150 million to New Yorkers’ heat expenses into the state budget just as a company he owns completes construction of the largest biofuel plant in the region.

The New York Post reports that Catsimatidis’ lobbyists are putting the pressure on State senators to slip a provision that would require all heating oil sold in New York to contain “2 percent or more of soybean oil and/or spent vegetable oils.”

He is a close friend of the Clintons.  Expect a total crony feeding fest should Hillary get elected President,

The Problem with Email is That It's Free

Yeah, I know, free is always supposed to be better.  But the problem of spam is caused entirely by its being free.   Here is an example:

According to the indictments, between 2009 and 2012 Nguyen and Vu hacked at least eight email service providers -- the companies that collect your data under slightly more legitimate circumstances -- to steal marketing data containing over a billion email addresses. After that, they worked with Da Silva to profit from the addresses by sending spam with affiliate links for a company he controlled, Marketbay.com.

At least according to the DoJ, all of that work netted around $2 million in affiliate marketing fees.

We don't have any idea how many emails they sent to each of these billion addresses.  But let's say they sent 10 spams to each (probably a low guess).  That is 10 billion spam emails for a net revenue of $2 million, or around $.0002 per email sent in revenue.

Long ago I proposed that (and I am not sure how to do this technically) emails should cost $0.001, or a tenth of a cent, to send.  For you and I, say if we sent 200 emails a day (an email copied to 5 people would be 5 emails for this purpose) it would cost us 20 cents a day or about $75 a year, not much more than we pay for security software and updates.  But if you could make it work, spam would be reduced drastically.  No way there is any profit in sending an email for $.001 for an expected return of $.0002.

I have no idea in the current structure of the Internet how one would even do this.  The charge would have to come from the receiving end, somehow refusing to deliver it if it does not get payment information.  However, anyone who is going to steal a billion email addresses could likely hack the payment system.

I was going to call this tragedy of the commons, but that is not really quite right.  Tragedy of the commons is sort of related to free public resources, but is more of an issue of lack of property rights than of the zero price.

Scenes from the Last Chapters of Atlas Shrugged

I have always read Atlas Shrugged not as a character story (and thus I don't get bent out of shape by the stiff black and white characters) but as a story about the world itself changing and crashing under socialism and cronyism.  As such, my favorite scene in the book is the hobo's tale of the socialist experiment on the 20th Century Motor Company.

Anyway, the final chapters of the book are full of more and more outrageous state interventions that build to a point that they are hard to believe anyone would actually ever try such things.   Unbelievable, until one looks at Venezuela

Venezuelans soon may need to have their fingerprints scanned before they can buy bread and other staples. This unprecedented step was proposed after Maduro had the brilliant idea of proposing mandatory grocery fingerprinting system to combat food shortages. He said then that "the program will stop people from buying too much of a single item", but did not say when it would take effect.

Privacy concerns aside (clearly Venezuelans have bigger, well, smaller fish to fry) there was hope that this plunge into insanity would be delayed indefinitely, as the last thing Venezuela's strained economy would be able to handle is smuggling of the most basic of necessities: something such a dramatic rationing step would surely lead to.

Unfortunately for the struggling Venezuelan population, the time has arrived and as AP reported over the weekend, Venezuela "will begin installing 20,000 fingerprint scanners at supermarkets nationwide in a bid to stamp out hoarding and panic buying" as of this moment.

The government has been selectively rolling out the rationing system for months at state-run supermarkets along the western border with Colombia where smuggling of price-controlled goods is a major problem.

On Saturday, President Nicolas Maduro said that seven large private retail chains had voluntarily agreed to install the scanners.

Last month the owners of several chains of supermarkets and drugstores were arrested for allegedly artificially creating long queues by not opening enough tills.

It gets better: Maduro also accused Colombian food smugglers of buying up price-controlled goods in state-run supermarkets along the border.

What a mess.  An entirely predictable mess.

Matt Walsh on Net Neutering

Matt Walsh has an epically good article on why we should fear having the same folks who freaked out over Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" running the Interntet

Republicans Are Crazy for Wanting Dynamic Scoring at the CBO

Dynamic scoring of budget proposals has been on the Republican wish list for decades.  They have always been frustrated that tax cut proposals look like such budget losers with static scoring.  In their supply-side bones, Republicans know that tax cuts will stimulate economic activity and thus increase future tax revenues.  Taking this second order effect into account is what they mean by dynamic scoring (see: Laffer Curve).

I have some sympathy for this argument, but in making it Republicans are falling for the "this will work great when our guys are in charge" fallacy  (I need to find a name for that).  Democrats fall into this all the time, expanding government power only to be shocked at what their political enemies do with this power once in charge.

Because it is pretty clear what dynamic scoring will mean in a Democratic Congress.  Remember that stimulus bill?  Democrats all thought that expanded the economy, so its costs would, by their Keynesian assumptions, appear much lower under dynamic scoring.  The Left thinks the auto bailout was stimulative.  They even think that Obamacare was stimulative.  Do you really want some BS Keynesian fudge factor obscuring the true cost of such proposals in the future?

Related:  Greg Mankiw discusses why, if I read him right, dynamic scoring is impossible to do correctly

 

LMAO -- My Kid Learns About the Cold

My Arizona-raised, thin-blooded son was convinced that he had no problem with cold weather when he departed for Amherst College several years ago.  That, of course, was based on exposure to cold via a couple of ski trips.  What he likely underestimated was the impact of cold that lasts for like 6 freaking months.

So it was with good-natured parental fondness for my child that I was LMAO when I read this:

Amherst, MA has coldest February in recorded history.  or here if you hit a paywall.

The average temperature in Amherst in the past month was 11.2 degrees, the lowest average monthly temperature since records were first kept in town in 1835. It broke the previous record of 11.6 degrees set in 1934, according to Michael A. Rawlins, an assistant professor in the department of geosciences and manager of the Climate System Research Center at the University of Massachusetts.

As it turns out, I have made a climate presentation in Amherst so I actually have historic temperature charts.  It is a good example of two things:

  1. While Amherst has been warming, it was warming as much or more before 1940 (or before the era of substantial CO2 emissions) as much as after
  2. Much of the recent warming has manifested as increases in daily minimum temperatures, rather in an increase in daily maximum temperatures.  This is as predicted by warming models, but poorly communicated and understood.  Possibly because fewer people would be bent out of shape if they knew that warming translated into warmer nights rather than higher highs in the daytime.

click to enlarge

New Business Opportunity: Lolo's Eagle and Waffles Next to Large Solar Plants

From ReWire via Anthony Watts

A test of a solar power tower project in Nevada resulted in injuries to over one hundred birds, the federal government is reporting, though the project's owners say they've fixed the problem.

On January 14, during tests of the 110-megawatt Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project near Tonopah, Nevada, biologists observed 130 birds entering an area of concentrated solar energy and catching fire. That's according to Rudy Evenson, Deputy Chief of Communications for Nevada Bureau of Land Management in Reno.

Evenson suggested that the birds may have been attracted by a glow the concentrated solar energy created above the project's sole tower.

...

According to Evenson, workers testing the plant moved approximately a third of the project's ten thousand mirrors to focus sunlight on a point 1,200 feet above the ground, approximately twice the height of the power tower at Crescent Dunes.

The test started at 9:00 a.m. on January 14, Evenson told Rewire. By 10:30, biologists working on the site began noticing what have become known as "streamers," trails of smoke and water vapor caused by birds entering the field of concentrated solar energy (a.k.a. "solar flux") and igniting.

By the time the test ended for the day at 3:00 p.m., biologists had counted 130 such "streamers." A subsequent test on January 15 reduced the number of mirrors aimed at the focal point above the tower, said Evenson, and that apparently ended the injuries to birds.

Oops.  It is amazing how solar gets a pass on things that other industries would be hounded into bankruptcy over.  ExxonMobil was fined by the Feds for 85 bird deaths at the company's natural gas facilities.  These deaths were spread out over 5 states and over 5 years.  This solar plant killed at least 130 birds in one location in 6 hours.  ExxonMobil was fined $7000 per dead bird.  Anyone want to bet on what the solar guys will be fined?  Vegas has set the over-under at zero.

The Dangers of Bipartisanship

The media loves to talk about the joys of bipartisanship, but libertarians run for the hills whenever we hear that word.  Because it means that true legislative suckage is probably on the way.   The horrendous war on drugs is just one example.

Here is another -- freedom to buy alcohol where it is most convenient.  Living in AZ, I have come to expect that I can buy some tequila at my grocery store, but apparently this is a very limited freedom in the US:

AlcoholGroceryStores_Liquor4

There are two reasons.  First, this is where you get one of those left-right coalitions, with Republican social conservatives wanting to limit liquor availability and Democratic big government types wanting to keep sales to a small group that can be tightly regulated (and strip-mined for campaign donations), or even better, to state-run liquor stores.  The second reason is that once any regulation is in place that restricts sales, the beneficiaries of those restrictions (e.g. liquor stores or unionized employees at state-run stores) fight any liberalization tooth and nail to protect their crony rents.

Net Neutering and Innovation -- Would Google Even Exist Under These New Rules?

From Gordon Crovitz at the WSJ 

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler justified Obamanet by saying the Internet is “simply too important to be left without rules and without a referee.” He got it backward: Light-handed regulation made today’s Internet possible.

What if at the beginning of the Web, Washington had opted for Obamanet instead of the open Internet? Yellow Pages publishers could have invoked “harm” and “unjust and unreasonable” competition from online telephone directories. This could have strangled Alta Vista and Excite, the early leaders in search, and relegated Google to a Stanford student project. Newspapers could have lobbied against Craigslist for depriving them of classified advertising. Encyclopedia Britannica could have lobbied against Wikipedia.

Competitors could have objected to the “fast lane” that Amazon got from Sprint at the launch of the Kindle to ensure speedy e-book downloads. The FCC could have blocked Apple from integrating Internet access into the iPhone. Activists could have objected toAOL bundling access to The Wall Street Journal in its early dial-up service.

Among the first targets of the FCC’s “unjust and unreasonable” test are mobile-phone contracts that offer unlimited video or music. Netflix , the biggest lobbyist for utility regulation, could be regulated for how it uses encryption to deliver its content.

Until Congress or the courts block Obamanet, expect less innovation. During a TechFreedom conference last week, dissenting FCC commissioner Ajit Pai asked: “If you were an entrepreneur trying to make a splash in a marketplace that’s already competitive, how are you going to differentiate yourself if you have to build into your equation whether or not regulatory permission is going to be forthcoming from the FCC? According to this, permissionless innovation is a thing of the past.”

This is yet another example of an effect I have observed before -- why is it that the media is willing to raise concerns about an expansion of government power only after that expansion has passed.  We saw it before on ethanol and the stimulus bill, and now I think we are going to start to see it on net neutering.  A cynic might say that the media wants these expansions of power to occur, but also want to be able to point to their own prescience when these expansions inevitably cause problems.

Wow -- Two Obama Administration Economists Write Paper Saying Obama Administration Policy Was Great

I followed a link the other day to this academic paper purporting to show that the bailout of GM and Chrysler was a success.  I was flabbergasted to see that the authors are Austan D. Goolsbee and Alan B. Krueger.  WTF?  These folks were part of the Obama Administration.  This is their own policy they are passing historical judgement on.  This is roughly equivalent to a economics journal seeking a paper on the success or failure of Obamacare and having Valerie Jarrett write it.  How does this kind of conflict of interest pass any kind of muster?

I only skimmed the paper.  I know these are two smart guys but it seems to include exactly the sort of facile analysis you would expect from a political hack, not two smart economists.  I can't believe these guys would have accepted many of the assumptions they make here had they not been directly involved.  Just to pick two things at random:

  • They seem to stick with the assumption that millions of jobs would have simply gone *poof* had the government not intervened.  Yes, this happened at Solyndra, but in most cases industries operate almost seamlessly in bankruptcy.  The odds are, for example, that you have flown on an airline in Chapter 11 and didn't even know it.  They make a specific argument that somehow it would be bad to have both in bankruptcy at the same time, but I can remember several times when there were multiple major airlines in bankruptcy.  In fact, if both went bankrupt at the same time, one could argue it would lessen their market share loss since a major competitor was in the same boat.  To the extent that the companies would have continued to operate under Chapter 11, which is 99.9% likely, then all the government did was insert itself into the bankruptcy process to overrule laws about who gets what in a bankruptcy to redirect spoils to their favored constituencies
  • Yes, GM and Chrysler are doing OK now, but they usually do OK at the top of a business cycle.  To my eye though, nothing fundamentally changed about how they are managed and operate.  The same structural and cultural problems that existed before exist today.  The same under-utilization of talented workers and valuable assets that existed before exists today.  No real reckoning occurred -- in fact the bailout looked to me at the time as an exercise to use taxpayer money to avoid a true housecleaning.  These companies have done OK, but what would they have done with a more thorough housecleaning?

Wow. IRS Caught in a Huge Lie

I had no problem assuming the "lost" IRS emails were incompetence rather than criminal evidence tampering.  After all, how hard is it to believe the government is incompetent?

But it may be in this case it really was fraud.  Suddenly the emails have been found, and they were apparently always there  -- despite all protestations to the contrary, no one in the IRS had even asked for them.  From the WaPo:

The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration testified at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on Thursday that it tracked down nearly 33,000 emails from ex-IRS official Lois Lerner.

The records date back to 2001, which is 10 years beyond what the IRS has said it could access for investigators.

The inspector general’s office said it is working to identify any messages that the IRS has not already sent to congressional investigators, who are examining the Lerner’s involvement in the IRS targeting scandal.

The watchdog agency found the backed-up emails by consulting with IRS information-technology specialists, according to TIGTA Deputy Inspector General for Investigations Tim Camus.

They were right where you would expect them to be,” he said at the rare late-night hearing, which lasted until about 10 p.m.

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen testified before Congress last year that the backups were no help in recovering Lerner’s lost emails, in part because the IRS overwrites them every six months.

Camus said the IRS’s technology specialists told investigators that no one from the agency asked for the tapes, raising doubts about whether the agency did its due diligence in trying to locate Lerner’s emails, or possibly greater troubles.

 

The Biggest Lie in the FCC's Net Neutering* Actions

When I write about the dangers to innovation, competition, and price discovery from the FCC's decision to regulate the Internet into Ma Bell, supporters of net neutering are quick to point out that the FCC promised to only use a fraction of the power it is giving itself.

Ha!  When has this happened, ever, with the government?  If they have the power, they are going to use it.  In fact, to call the FCC as somehow careful about staying within bounds of their power is a joke anyway, since this entire regulation likely exceeds their legislative mandate.   Even if the current commissioners are honest that they will never use all this new power, how can they possibly bind future commissioners?

I am reminded of the income tax, which was sold to the country with the promise that it would only ever apply to the top few percent of earners.  In other words, they were asking for the power to tax everyone but promised only to use a fraction of that power

when initially imposed, the income tax, despite its progressive rates, appeared rather straightforward and not all that burdensome—almost benign. Of course, appearances can be deceiving.

There were, of course, warnings about the dangers of a progressive tax structure. But people supported the income tax because it was originally meant to impose only very low tax rates on only the highest incomes. Proponents argued that the 16th amendment to the U.S. Constitution would force the so-called “robber barons” to pay taxes. It was not supposed to provide a mechanism for Washington to reach into most Americans’ pockets.

...

The original income tax was obviously not meant to be paid by most citizens, nor were rates high enough to significantly undermine the spirit of enterprise. For example, under this system single taxpayers today would pay no tax on any earnings up to almost $45,000 and married couples on earnings up to almost $60,000. A one percent tax rate would be in effect on incomes up to about $300,000. The top rate of 7 percent would not take hold until earnings hit almost $7.5 million.

 

* "Net Neutrality" is an Orwellian term that bears no relationship to what is actually going on.  I will use "net neutering" going forward.

My Response to Triumphalism over Turning the Internet into a Utility

Engadget is celebrating the fact that the Internet just got turned into Ma Bell.  Here was my response in the comments:

 This is utter madness.  Since when has "free" ever meant "tightly controlled by the government"?  Regulation like this always locks in current competitors and business models.  Hate Comcast?  You just guaranteed them their infinite existence and profitability.  They will be the Ma Bell of your generation.

New competitive models and technologies will now have to be vetted by government bureaucrats who will soon be captured by the industry itself.  It literally always happens this way.  How much innovation did you ever see in the landline phone business?  My telephone at my birth in 1962 was identical to the one in my dorm room in 1984.  Power companies?  Water companies?  Cell voice service?  What innovation have you ever seen?  What new competitors have you seen pop up to challenge the old guys?  Only in cellular data has there been any innovation, and that is to date the one place in phone communications the FCC has not regulated with this model.

I am exhausted with people justifying these heavy-handed government regulations based on the good intentions of their supporters rather than the actual facts of how these regulations always play out historically.  We will look back on this day as the beginning of the end of the wild, open Internet we loved.

I will say that folks can really be rubes.  Playing on the fear of one narrow issue that would have been easy to legislate (that broadband companies might block or limit access to certain sites), the government used this niche concern to drive through a total takeover of the Internet.  Way to go sheeple.

Update:  Some additional comments I made:

This problem of blocking web sites is almost entirely hypothetical, and to the extent it has been used at all it merely has been a negotiating tactic between big boys like Netflix and Comcast who can take care of themselves.    It could have easily been fixed with a narrow bit of rulemaking but in stead we get this major regulatory takeover.

Doesn't it bother you that this is a problem that could have been solved with a fly-swatter but instead the regulators demanded they be given a 16-inch naval gun.  Don't you worry why they need all that regulatory power to swat a fly?  Aren't you at all suspicious there is more going on here?

Wherein I Come Clean to Representative Grijalva

Here is the letter I wrote today (pdf) to Representative Grijalva confessing my climate funding biases.  The image is below.  I feel so much better.

grijalva-letter2

I wrote this in support particularly of Roger Pielke, who has educated a lot of people about climate and is not even really a climate skeptic and who has been pretty upset by this scrutiny.  Call it the "I am Spartacus" strategy.

My earlier post on funding and bias is here.

On Funding and Bias in Climate

I really, really did not want to have to write yet another post on this.  99+% of all climate funding goes to alarmists rather than skeptics.   Greenpeace laments donations of funds to skeptics by Exxon of a million dollars or so and wants to drive out all such funding when Greenpeace and Tides and the US Government are giving literally billions to alarmists.  Despite this staggering imbalance, the only stories you ever see are about the dangers and bias introduced by that measly 1% skeptics get.  I guess that 1% is spent pretty well because it sure seems to have people running in circles declaring the sky is falling.

One would think that at some point the world would wake up and realize that criticizing the funding sources behind an individual does not actually rebut that individual's arguments.

Potential bias introduced by funding sources (or some other influence) are a pointer -- they are an indication there might be a problem warranting deeper examination of the evidence introduced and the methodology of collecting that evidence.  Such potential biases are not themselves evidence, and do nothing to rebut an argument.  A reasonable way to use such biases in an argument would be something like:

I want to begin by noting that Joe may have had a predisposition to his stated conclusion even before he started because of [funding source, political view, whatever].  This means we need to very carefully look at how he got to his conclusion.  And I intend to show you that he made several important errors that should undermine our acceptance of his conclusions.  They are....

Unfortunately, nowadays people like the New York Times and our own Arizona Representative Raul Grijalva seem to feel like the job is done after the first sentence.  They have decided that the best way to refute recent scientific work by a number of climate scientists is to try to show that some of their funding comes from fossil fuel companies.

Beyond the strange implicit assumption that fossil fuel funding would automatically "disprove" a research paper, there is also an assumption that oil company funding is "unclean" while government or non-profit environmental group funding is "clean".  Remember the last time you saw a news story about a climate alarmist's funding?  Yeah, neither do I.

There is no justifiable reason for this asymmetry.  Funding does not potentially introduce bias because it is sourced from for-profit or non-profit entities.  In fact, the motivation of the funding source is virtually irrelevant.  The only relevant questions related to bias are:

  1. Did the funding source demand a certain conclusion at the outset of the study as the price of the funding -- or --
  2. Is there a reasonable expectation that the source would deny future funding if the conclusions of the study don't go their way

My sense is that #1 is rare and that the real issue is #2.

But #2 is ubiquitous.  Sure, if a group of skeptical scientists suddenly started writing papers about 8 degree warming predictions, Chevron is going to be less likely to fund their future research.  But on the flip side if Michael Mann suddenly started saying that future warming will only be a modest 1-2 degrees, do you think that he would continue to get funding from Greenpeace, the Tides Foundation, the WWF, or even from an Obama-run Federal agency?  No way.   There is absolutely no less bias introduced by Chevron funding than from Greenpeace funding, because in each case there can be a reasonable fear by the researcher that future funding would be denied by that source if the "right" answer was not reached.

Postscript & Disclosure of Biases:  I have never received any outside funding for this blog or my climate work.  However, if Chevron were to send me a check for a million dollars, I would probably cash it.  I do own individual shares of ExxonMobil stock as well as shares of the Vanguard S&P500 index fund, which includes equities of a number of energy companies.  I also am a frequent purchaser of gasoline and electricity, as well as a number of other products and services whose prices are tied to energy prices (e.g. air transportation).  As a consumer, I would rather not see the prices of these products rise.  I buy a lot of food, whose price might be improved by longer growing seasons.  My camping company tends to benefit from rising gasoline prices, because rising prices causes people to stay closer to home and camp at the type of places we operate.  It is hard to predict how regional climates will change if overall global temperatures rise, but since many of my campgrounds are summer escapes at high altitude, they would probably benefit somewhat from rising temperatures.  I own a home in Arizona whose value would probably be lessened if the world warmed 2-3 degrees, because it would make winters in the northeast and midwest more bearable and thus hurt Arizona as a location for a winter second home.  Global warming may reduce the life of my dog as we are less likely to walk her when it is over 100 degrees out which makes her less healthy.  I own land in Hawaii that might be more valuable if sea level rises puts it 6-8 inches close to the ocean.  I am planning a vacation to see the tulips bloom in Holland and changes in climate could shift the blooming date and thus cause me to miss the best colors.  Fifteen years from now my daughter would like a June wedding and changes to climate might cause it to rain that day.  My daughter also owns 5 shares of Walt Disney and their earnings might be helped by global warming as nostalgia for cooler weather could greatly increase DVD sales of "Frozen".

Phoenix Wants to Double the Light Rail Tax

Our great city is proposing to double the sales tax increase dedicated to light rail and make the increase permanent.  This all so we can spend more money to shift people from busses to a mode that is more than 10x more expensive per passenger mile.

Brava, Deirdre McCloskey, For Avoiding The Primary Rhetorical Failing of Our Times

Deirdre McCloskey wrote a truly massive review, and in some senses a rebuttal, of Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century

I am not really going to comment on the details of her paper -- many prominent economists have already done so.  I will say that I learned a lot from it not just about Piketty's proposition but about economic history in general.  It is an interesting read.

No, what I wanted to comment on -- in this era when rebuttals usually take the form of impugning the other person's funding, integrity, honesty, and motivations rather than their actual arguments -- is that she begins her article with this:

It has been a long time (how does “never” work for you?) since a technical treatise on economics has had such a market. An economist can only applaud. And an economic historian can only wax ecstatic. Piketty’s great splash will undoubtedly bring many young economically interested scholars to devote their lives to the study of the past.....

It is an honest and massively researched book. Nothing I shall say—and I shall say some hard things, because they are true and important—is meant to impugn Piketty’s integrity or his scientific effort. The book is the fruit of a big collaborative effort of the Paris School of Economics, which he founded, associated with some of the brightest lights in the techno-left of French economics. Hélas, I will show that Piketty is gravely mistaken in his science and in his social ethics. But so are many economists and calculators, some of them my dearest friends.

Interesting Home Sales Chart

Don't have an opinion on what this means, but it is interesting.  Via Zero Hedge

new home sales vs median home price

The Government's One Cost Advantage: It Can Exempt Itself from Regulation

Greg Patterson brings us this example from the AZ legislature, but this sort of thing is ubiquitous:

Just before I got to the Legislature, there was a big move to regulate day care facilities.  Naturally, the government has a role in establishing basic health and safety standards for facilities that take care of young children, so I thought it was a good move.

Then a funny thing happened.  The Legislature established one set of standards for private day care facilities and a different (lower) set of standards for public or non-profit day care facilities.  Some Legislators dared to ask why the health and safety rules would be different depending on what type of entity owned the facility.  After all, if a rule is really in place to keep a child healthy and safe, why should a publicly owned facility be exempt or have a lower standard?

The answer, of course, is that there's no reason for publicly owned facilities to have a different regulatory regime than private facilities and that these bills were really just disguised attempts to ensure that private day cares couldn't compete with public ones

We are facing something similar in my world.  As you may know, my company operates government parks and campgrounds on a concession basis (which means we get no government money, we are paid by the user fees of visitors).  This makes sense because we can do it less expensively and usually better than the government agency.

Recently, the Obama Administration has imposed an executive order that we concessionaires on Federal lands have to pay a $10.10 minimum wage.  Since most of our costs are labor, this is causing us to have a to raise fees to customers substantially to offset the higher costs.

In response to these fee increases, the US Forest Service in California is in the process of taking back traditionally concession-run campgrounds to run themselves, in-house.  Their justification is that they can do it cheaper.   Part of this is just poor government accounting -- because many costs (risk management/insurance, capital assets, interest on investments) don't hit their budgets but show up on other parts of the government's books, what appears to be lower costs is actually just costs that are hidden.  But their main cost savings is that since the Federal government is exempt from labor law and this new executive order, the Forest Service can staff the park with volunteers.  They are allowed to pay a minimum wage of ... zero!

This is just incredibly hypocritical, to say with one statement that private companies need to pay campground workers more and with the very next action take over the campground and staff it with people making nothing.

When Media Cheers for Corporate Welfare -- Local Film Subsidies

I am always amazed that the media will credulously run stories against "corporate welfare" for oil companies (which usually mostly includes things like LIFO accounting and investment tax credits that are not oil industry specific) but then beg and plead for us taxpayers to subsidize movie producers.

I wish I understood the reason for the proliferation of government subsidies for film production.  Is it as simple as politicians wanting to hobnob with Hollywood types?  Our local papers often go into full sales mode for sports team subsidies, but that is understandable from a bottom-line perspective -- sports are about the only thing that sells dead-tree papers any more, and so more local sports has a direct benefit on local newspapers.  Is it the same reasoning for proposed subsidies for Hollywood moguls?

Whatever the reason, our local paper made yet another pitch for throwing tax dollars at movie producers

Notwithstanding a recent flurry of Super Bowl-related documentaries and commercials that got 2015 off to a good start, Arizona appears to be falling behind in a competitive and lucrative business. The entertainment industry pays well, supports considerable indirect employment and offers the chance for cities and states to shine on a global stage.

Seriously?  I am sure setting up the craft table pays better than catering a party at my home, but it is a job that lasts 2 months and is then gone.  Ditto everything else on the production.   And I am sick of the "shines on the world stage thing."  Who cares?  And is this really even true?  The movie Chicago was filmed in Toronto -- did everyone who watched Chicago suddenly want to go to Toronto?  The TV animated series Archer gets a big subsidy from the state of Georgia.  Have they even mentioned Georgia in the series?  Given the tone of the show, would they even want to be mentioned?

When government subsidizes an industry, it is explicitly saying that resources are better and more productively invested in the subsidized industry than in other industries in which the money would have been spent in a free market.  Does the author really have evidence that the money I would have spent to improve the campgrounds we operate in Arizona is better taken from me and spent to get a Hollywood movie shot here instead?  Which investment will still be here 6 months from now?

Arizona is one of 11 states that don't offer tax incentives, primarily in the form of income-tax credits, and that's the core of the problem. There's also no state film office to help out-of-state crews obtain filming permits, locate vendors, hire temporary staff and so on.

Arizona's tax incentives expired after 2010 and the film office closed in the wake of a recession that hit the state especially hard and necessitated tough spending choices. Although bills to revive those programs have been introduced, they're not given high odds of success in the current session as the governor and lawmakers struggle to close $1.5 billion in deficits over this year and next.

"Right now, there's nobody to call, the phone isn't being answered and nobody responds to e-mails," said Mike Kucharo, a local producer and director who serves as the state-government liaison for the Arizona Production Association, an entertainment trade and networking group. "We need a film office."

Yeah for us!  While all the lemmings in other states bid up the price of a few politicians being able to get their picture with Hollywood types on a production set, we have chosen not to play.  Good for us.  Only an industry insider clown with a straight face could say that we need a taxpayer-funded film office.  Really?  Do we need a taxpayer-funded florist office to attract flower sales?

Years ago I wrote an article calling sports team subsidies a prisoners dilemma game, where the only winning move was not to play.  The NFL has 32 teams, mostly in the largest cities.  Without subsidies the NFL would have ... 32 teams, mostly in the largest cities, and taxpayers would have saved billions of dollars.  The same is true for film:

Indeed, the number and size of incentives escalated from just two states offering $2 million in combined incentives in 2003 to 40 states offering $1.2 billion just six years later, according to the Tax Foundation.

So subsidies have gone up by over a billion dollars a year, and yet roughly the same films are being made.  This is one of the best examples I can think of where politicians are using taxpayer money to increase their personal prestige.  The AZ Republic should be embarrassed they are out front actively encouraging this behavior.

Postscript:  For all of its flaws in teaching real-world relevant business topics, the Harvard Business School was very good, at least when I was attending it, at teaching business strategy.  My memory may be fuzzy here, but I am pretty sure that "40 other groups have all jumped into this activity and have ramped up their spending by a factor of 50 in just six years and all 40 competitors are really focused on winning almost irregardless of the price they pay" is not a very good pitch for investing money in a new field.

Postscript #2:  All of this is a wonton violation of the AZ state Constitution, though of course big government advocates are really good at totally ignoring Constitutional limits on government power.  Here is what our Constitution says:

Section 7. Neither the state, nor any county, city, town, municipality, or other subdivision of the state shall ever give or loan its credit in the aid of, or make any donation or grant, by subsidy or otherwise, to any individual, association, or corporation, or become a subscriber to, or a shareholder in, any company or corporation, or become a joint owner with any person, company, or corporation, except as to such ownerships as may accrue to the state by operation or provision of law or as authorized by law solely for investment of the monies in the various funds of the state.

Update:  From the Manhattan Institute, film tax breaks return 30 cents for every dollar spent

Similar to most targeted tax breaks, movie production incentives routinely fail to deliver on the economic promises made by their proponents. Supporters frequently claim movie incentives create jobs and lead to net gains in tax revenue. However, data from several states find movie production incentives generate less than 30 cents for every lost dollar in tax revenue.

Providing tax breaks specifically to the film industry is an example of government working to choose winners and losers in the marketplace. States could attract almost any industry if they paid for a quarter to a third of its expenditures, but such a policy would be fiscally unsustainable. A better system would be to lower state tax rates for everyone, encouraging economic growth.

Film is a particularly poor industry to subsidize because it does not create long-term employment and other lasting economic benefits for states. Even though a well-made film might boost tourism, productions only offer short-term employment and the workers are highly specialized. Production and workers can easily move from one location to wherever better deals are offered.

Update #2:  The AZ Free Enterprise Club was on this last month