Baltimore Public Schools May Suck, but They Are Well-Funded And Have Well-Paid Teachers

In response to a Jon Stewart (uninformed) dig about Baltimore schools being crappy because they are poorly funded, we get this:

The National Center for Education Statistics reports the following data on Baltimore City Public Schools and Fairfax County Public Schools, the latter considered among the best school districts in the entire country:

school data2

So what about the teachers? Maybe the schools waste a lot of this money and skimp on teachers' salaries?  Yes on the first part, but no on the second.

To my eye, Baltimore teachers are quite well paid, starting at over $47,000 base salary (plus substantial benefits, likely better than what you have) and ramping up to over $80,000 a year for "professional" teachers which I presume means they have a post-graduate degree of some sort.  I am not sure if these salaries are for 9, 10, or 12 months of work, but if I read page 25 of their union contact correctly, teachers can work no more than 190 days a year vs. about 250 for the typical professional job.  This would make their starting salary equivalent to $61,842 for a full-year job.  Add to that tens of thousands in pension and health benefits, 21 different types of allowed leave time, and a virtual inability to be fired, and that's pretty damn good pay.

Postscript:  I will add that I was fortunate enough to be able to send my kids to top private schools in Phoenix K-12.  We obviously paid less in elementary school and more in high school, but the average private tuition we paid in those 13 years of school, even adjusted for inflation, is well below the $17,196 per pupil spent in Baltimore public schools.  I am simply exhausted with people saying this is about money.  It is about a senescent government monopoly with no accountability and no incentive to improve because it faces no competition.

Joe Arpaio May Finally Get His Comeuppance for Years of Arrogance

Our local Sheriff Joe Arpaio is quite a story.  On the one hand, he shows a casual disrespect for civil liberties, goes on raids where he zip-ties every person with brown skin until their family can produce their birth certificate, and has tried to pin RICO charges on judges who ruled against him.  He likes to haul folks off to jail whose only crime is speaking out against the Sheriff .   He arrested newspaper reporters and editors who wrote critically of him.  This is a man who in his paranoia invented an assassination plot (against himself, of course) and got the city to spend $500,000 protecting him.  If his deputies want to see a defense attorney's working papers, they just take them.  If he can't get a judge to release computer records, he has his posse storm into the County computer center and take it over at gunpoint.  And don't even get me started on the Steven Seagal thing.

On the other hand, despite all this, he has been re-elected by safe margins many times, has actual groupies who fawn over him, and is considered by much of our retiree population as the last bulwark against a Mexican-immigrant-led road-warrior-style apocalypse.  At most local art festivals and other public fairs, he has his own booth where he hands out his trademark pink underwear to his many admirers (he makes prisoners wear pink underwear to try to humiliate them).

Several years ago, upon losing some Federal civil rights suits, a judge ordered as part of the settlement a series of defined actions and prohibitions (e.g. Arpaio had to stop certain immigrant roundups).  He ignored these orders pretty blatantly, and now is in court again.  He has actually essentially admitted to civil contempt of court and is just hoping at this point to avoid criminal charges.  And then it gets weirder:

An upper echelon that willfully defies the orders of a federal judge and may have committed perjury on the witness stand.

A county sheriff and chief deputy with enough chutzpah to "investigate" the U.S. Department of Justice, the CIA, and federal judges, all on the word of a Seattle scammer.

A bogus "investigation" into the wife of the aforementioned federal judge for something that's not even a crime.

This is just some of the ground covered during a four-day hearing before U.S. District Court Judge G. Murray Snow in which Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his chief deputy, Jerry Sheridan, tried mightily to save themselves from criminal-contempt charges in the ACLU's big racial profiling case Melendres v. Arpaio.

Sheridan and Arpaio already have conceded that they are guilty of civil contempt, admitting they did not comply with Snow's December 2011 preliminary injunction in the case, which ordered the MCSO not to enforce federal civil immigration law.

The pair also have copped to defying a direct order from Snow in May 2014 concerning the gathering of thousands of videos taken by deputies, which should have been turned over to the plaintiffs before the 2012 trial in Melendres.

All that's left is for Snow to find that there's enough evidence that Sheridan and Arpaio acted willfully, so he can turn over the matter to another judge and the U.S. Attorney's Office for possible prosecution.

Yep, the best way to defend oneself against contempt of court is to... have all the other parties in court investigated.  Oh year, and the CIA.  Nothing says "mental health" like a local sheriff investigating the CIA.   And don't forget, this is the same guy who used my tax money to take is cold case team and dedicate them for months to investigating Obama's birth certificate.

Police Accountability: Is It An Unfixable Problem?

Despite near-constant pleas for "bipartisanship" in the media, the worst offenses to liberty often occur when both parties agree.  If both parties are stepping on each other to try to beat their chest hardest about an issue, it is time to duck and cover.

This week we have seen how most cities have laws and union contracts that stand in the way of even basic accountability for police.  I fear that this is an unfixable problem, because both Republicans and Democrats conspire to block accountability of police, though for different reasons.

Republicans tend to fetishize police in the same way they do the military, and tend to blindly support the police position in any he-said-she-said confrontation (I know, I used to be one of them).  While Conservatives bemoan the "women never lie about rape" meme on campus, they take the exact same position vis a vis police.

Democrats have generally been better allies of civil libertarians on these issues (though Democrat politicians will throw that all out if they need to buff up their "law and order" credentials for an election).  However, Liberals have a huge blind spot in that they also feel the necessity to be fiercely loyal, even blindly loyal to public unions, which include powerful police unions.  Taking on police accountability would require Democrats to take on a very visible public union, which they are loath to do.   In the past, when faced with a choice of fixing schools or appeasing teachers unions, Democratic politicians have almost always chosen the latter and I don't think they will do anything differently with police.

If you think I am leading up to a silver lining and a proposal, you are wrong.   I don't have one.  Sure, after Baltimore, we may have a lot of talk about reform, but when the cameras turn their attention elsewhere, all the reform will die as quick as they did at the VA and any number of other failed government institutions.

Instead, I think I am going to go home and binge watch The Wire again.  Seems timely.  For fans of that show, everything that has happened this week is entirely familiar.

Update on Applied Underwriter Issues

After my article last week identifying costly aspects of Applied Underwriters' workers compensation insurance policies that are unusual, hard to predict, and totally undisclosed in the market/sales process, I have gotten a lot of feedback.

The first, of course, was from the lawyers at Applied Underwriters who have threatened me with a libel suit unless I take down my comments.  While my blog article wills stay up, Applied Underwriters have apparently managed to get Yelp to hide my reviews in the secret purgatory they maintain for reviews that displease corporate lawyers.

More recently, I have had calls from not one but two different attorneys who are representing Applied Underwriter customers.  The one this morning was especially evocative -- he had years of experience as an attorney and litigating over contracts like this but thought he was crazy because he could not figure out the math on the Applied Underwriters statements until he read my post.  I had had the exact same issue, almost in tears because I could not figure it out, until an industry insider explained to me that the numbers don't add up.  After pages of step by step calculations, there is one step where they simply pull a number out of the air, essentially rendering irrelevant all the calculations that went before.  I will respect their client confidentiality but say that the issues involved were very parallel to those I discussed in my article.

Feel free to contact me if you need help or are considering a policy with Applied Underwriters and I will lend you what knowledge I have.

Soviet Architecture in Arizona

I think it was Tyler Cowen who linked to this photo spread on surviving examples of Soviet architecture.  A few of the buildings are almost compelling.

This was one example, in Bratislava

this-radio-building-in-bratislava-slovakia-took-16-years-to-build--mostly-because-its-basically-upside-down

But you don't have to go to Bratislava to see something like it.  You can find something similar in Mesa, Arizona -- this is the city hall.

Tempe_City_Hall_-_Tempe,_AZKudos to the photographer for getting the shadow on the concrete pylon on the right to be positioned almost perfectly to fill out the missing part of the building.    I actually don't mind the Tempe building, it looks good in context, more public sculpture than building (particularly since this is likely a really inefficient building, with minimal floor space for the money spent to build it).

 

Lack of Hotel is Not a Market Failure -- It Was a Market Success

For some reason, it appears that building hotels next to city convention centers is a honey pot for politicians.  I am not sure why, but my guess is that they spend hundreds of millions or billions on a convention center based on some visitation promises.  When those promises don't pan out, politicians blame it on the lack of a hotel, and then use public money for a hotel.  When that does not pan out, I am not sure what is next.  Probably a sports stadium.  Then light rail.  Then, ?  It just keeps going and going.

I thought we in Phoenix took some kind of prize with this:

The city-owned Sheraton Phoenix Downtown Hotel has lost so much money — more than $28.2 million total — that some city leaders say the hotel must be put in the hands of the private sector.

They also worry that the hotel, Arizona's largest with 1,000 rooms, could harm other projects in the downtown core.

When Phoenix leaders opened the Sheraton in 2008, they proclaimed it would be a cornerstone of downtown's comeback. They had one goal in mind: lure big conventions and tourism dollars. Officials argued the city needed the extra hotel beds to support its massive taxpayer-funded convention center a block away.

But apparently things are even worse in Baltimore:

The city-owned Hilton Baltimore convention center hotel lost $5.6 million last year — a worse performance than 2013 despite its close location to Camden Yards and the Orioles' playoff run.

It was the seventh consecutive year that the hotel has underperformed financially, according to an audit of financial statements presented Wednesday to the city's Board of Estimates. Under the deal's initial projections, the hotel was supposed to be making $7 million in profit by now — pumping that mone into the city's budget....

The hotel has lost more than $70 million since it opened.

I am sure that politicians in both cities called the lack of a hotel a market failure.  But now we see that it was a market success.  All the companies who chose not to build a hotel with private money obviously knew what they were doing, and only the political benefits of pandering the the public at large and a few special interests in specific made it seem like an attractive investment to city politicians.  Which is all pretty unsurprising, since hotels have pretty much been built off every exit ramp in this country, so there seems to be no private inhibition towards building hotels -- just towards building hotels in bad locations.

Couldn't They Make This Guy Look Any More Like A Wermacht Panzer Commander?

the-curfew-is-working-fox-news

Celebrate the Strong Dollar

We are already seeing articles bemoaning the strong dollar as somehow a threat to the American economy.  Don't believe it.  Maintaining a weak dollar is yet another crony government program that benefits a tiny minority of admittedly vocal and politically connected Americans.

First, a bit of an aside.  It is amazing to me that the US dollar can be strong at all right now, given the actions of the Fed.  With its near infinite QE and zero-interest rate programs, one would expect the dollar to be weak (Oversimplifying, driving down the returns on financial assets reduces the overseas demand for them, thus reducing the demand for dollars, driving down the price of dollars).  But it turns out that the rest of the world (esp. Japan and the EU) are actually working twice as hard to trash their own currencies (they are actually heading into negative interest rate territory, not just zero) and thus on a relative basis, the dollar is stronger.

Companies that export or compete a lot with manufacturers in other countries hate the strong dollar.  It makes their domestically produced products more expensive vis a vis products manufactured in other countries.  Many of these companies have powerful political voices, and some have large unions with even more powerful political voices.  They lobby for a weaker dollar.  Part of that lobbying is often to portray other countries as nefariously "manipulating" their currencies to hurt the US.

What these countries that are weakening their own currencies are actually doing is trashing the prosperity of the vast majority of their citizens to protect the earnings of a few politically powerful producers.  Japan is a great example.  Japan is a country in which consumers have been stomped on from decades in order to reduce the price of the country's exports.  Japanese consumers pay far more for everything than we do, all so their exporters can lower their prices in the US.

This is the same in China.  We frequently host visiting Chinese students.  You know what every one of these kids do on their trip to the US?  They bring an empty suitcase that they fill up with electronic and fashion goods they buy here, many of which were actually manufactured in China  (I have never, ever have hosted a Chinese student that did not buy at least one Chinese-manufactured iPhone here).

So, we must oppose this currency "manipulation" that impoverishes Japanese, Chinese, and European citizens in favor of giving much lower prices to Americans -- Why?

We should celebrate the strong dollar.  It makes every one of us richer.  Not just when we buy Chinese electronics, but even when we buy American-made products that now must be less expensive to compete with foreign products and which benefit from cheaper inputs in their own manufacturing.

Years and years ago I wrote a hypothetical post about Chinese interventions to maintain a trade surplus form a Chinese consumer's perspective in a post from our sister publication Panda Blog.  I think it holds up really well.  It said in part:

It is important to note that each and every one of these government interventions subsidizes US citizens and consumers at the expense of Chinese citizens and consumers.  A low yuan makes Chinese products cheap for Americans but makes imports relatively dear for Chinese.  So-called "dumping" represents an even clearer direct subsidy of American consumers over their Chinese counterparts.  And limiting foreign exchange re-investments to low-yield government bonds has acted as a direct subsidy of American taxpayers and the American government, saddling China with extraordinarily low yields on our nearly $1 trillion in foreign exchange.   Every single step China takes to promote exports is in effect a subsidy of American consumers by Chinese citizens.

A Company Called Upskilled Is Still Threatening Me Over Spam They Put on My Site

I got yet another email from blog spammer Upskilled that had a more threatening tone than the last:

We have tried to contact you several times regarding the link on “http://camprrm.typepad.com/” to our site http://upskilled.edu.au/.

This link is in violation of Google's Webmaster Guidelines and must be removed in order to bring our site into compliance with Google's terms.

Like it is something I did that is in violation.  They are now sort of hinting that if I do not respond they will have to put my site on some naughty list sent to Google.  All of which follows this laugh-inducing line from their prior email:

We appreciate your efforts to promote our website; however, we are trying to bring our website within Google’s guidelines.

Yeah, as if I put it there. It is a spam comment they put there years and years ago back when Google rewarded such behavior.   A spam comment not placed by me but in fact placed by them against my wishes. The comment was one sentence repeated out of the post itself and signed with their corporate link.

For those who are not familiar, the original Google secret sauce over older search engines was that they did not rely on metadata in the post itself to assess relevance of the post (back in the day, people used to fill their metadata with "Britney Spears" and similar gunk to attract search rankings).  Instead, they looked at how many other sites linked to you.  The more, the better.

But people are nothing if not innovative in gaming metrics, and quickly web sites started trying to spam links to their themselves all over creation.  They sometimes paid sites for links, but why pay when you can stick links to your site for free in spam comments on blogs.  This is what Upskilled clearly did.

Now, Google has changed their algorithms (actually they change them constantly) and penalize sites for having these spam links.  Which is why this company Upskilled is trying so desperately to convince me that I am somehow responsible for their spam link.  It almost tempts me to create a whole web page that is just the word "Viagra" repeated over and over and linked to their site.

For the record, here is my response to their email I have sent several times to their National Marketing Manager Michael Crump, which they continue to ignore and pretend that I am not answering them:

I no longer control this site at typepad.  I left it 7 years ago for self-hosting.  Typepad continues to display the blog, but I cannot make any changes without paying hundreds of dollars to reactivate my account.

Perhaps I misunderstand the situation, but I must say I have only limited sympathy.  Your company obviously engaged in a marketing campaign where you used automated programs to leave spam comments on blogs -- in this case the comment your bot left was just a quote of some of the text in the post itself.  Such spam comment bots are the bane of us blog owners' existence and we spend a lot of time and money fighting the behavior you engaged in.  In trying to promote your business, you vandalized my blog with digital graffiti.  Now that Google has changed its search ranking rules to penalize this behavior, you want me again spend time and effort doing your cleanup for you.

By the way, now that I read your original email more clearly, I am infuriated with your approach.  "We appreciate your efforts to promote our website; however, we are trying to bring our website within Google’s guidelines".  You are implying that I put up the link rather than you guys.  Insulting.

You want to scare me that somehow I am in violation of Google guidelines.  But in fact you are in violation.  It was you or your paid marketing representatives that put the link on my site, not me.  I didn't even want it there.  And since that sort of spam comment violates the terms and conditions of my site, you put it on my site in violation of my rules and express wishes.

Nestle: Private Company Getting Blamed for Government Incompetence

The story begins with a discovery that the permit under which Nestle's Arrowhead Water has been collecting water in the San Bernardino National Forest expired in 1988.  LOL, oops.  Environmental and other Leftish sites are calling for Nestle's head and somehow blaming Nestle for this.

As a permittee with the US Forest Service (USFS) in California and across the country, I can guess with pretty high confidence exactly what happened here.  For years I was head of a trade group of recreation concessionaires (think lodges and guides and such) who do business in the USFS under permit.  Most of these were located in California.  For years, the biggest problem we have had with the USFS in California is that they are years and years behind in nearly all their permit renewals.  There are literally hundreds of expired permit in the USFS in California alone.

For reasons that probably go to bureaucratic incentives, despite the Forest Service's huge budget, they are loath to allocate resources to renewing these permits -- they want to fill their organization with biologists and archaeologists and arborists, not contracts people.  Making the situation worse, Forest Service and other Federal rules have burdened the permit renewal process with so many legal requirements that each one, even if trivial in size and impact, is absurdly time-consuming to complete.

This is not a new situation -- it has obtained for years.  Almost five years ago I met personally with the Chief of the Forest Service in DC and begged for more resources to be assigned to permit renewals, but to no avail.   I did the same in a meeting barely a month ago with the head of the USFS's Region 5 (basically California).   All of us permittees have been vociferously complaining about this for years.

When you look at these situations, then, what you will see is not some evil private business trying to get over on the public, but a business that is literally screaming in frustration, year in and year out, begging the US Forest Service to address its permit renewal.   Generally, local Forest Service staff will give the company verbal assurances that they should keep operating, so they do, continuing to pay their fees and operate within the guidelines of the old, expired contract.

I would be willing to bet a fair amount of money that this is exactly what happened to Nestle.

By the way, the usual groups seem to be piling on Nestle about bottled water from the Sacramento tap water system.  A couple of comments:

  • Environmentalists seem to obsessively hate bottled water, but ignore what a trivial, trivial percentage of total water use is bottled.
  • Critics are accusing Nestle of making obscene profits on Sacramento tap water.  But if they really think the spread between tap water and bottled water is too large, isn't the real issue that Sacramento is under-pricing its tap water?  After all, Nestle is paying what everyone else in the town is paying for water.
  • Environmentalists have a misguided fetish for local foods, often ignoring that transportation costs and energy are a tiny percentage of most food production costs  (a percentage small enough to be dwarfed by differential productivity of soils and climates).  But here, all they can possibly accomplish is to chase Nestle's bottling plant out of California and then have the water trucked back into the state.  This might be a net gain depending on the differential value of California water vs. fuel, but we can't know that because California water pricing is so screwed up.

OMG, Someone Actually Mentioned Price in an Article in Our Paper About Avoiding Water Shortages

Kudos to Jeff Gibbs for finally bringing to the pages of the Arizona Republic what strikes me as the most economically obvious, but least mentioned, solution to future water shortages:  Price.

My Plan to Help African-Americans

Really, political plans should be to help everyone, and certainly many people beyond African-Americans would be helped by the steps below.  But since the nature of modern politics seems to demand race-specific plans, and since so many destructive policies have been put into place to supposedly help African Americans, I will offer my list of suggestions:

  • Legalize drugs.  This would reduce the rents that attract the poor into dealing, would keep people out of jail, and reduce a lot of violent crime associated with narcotics traffic that kills investment and business creation in black neighborhoods.  It would also reduce the main excuse for petty harassment by police that falls disproportionately on young black men.  No it's not a good thing to have people addicted to strong narcotics but it is worse to be putting them in jail and having them shooting at each other.
  • Bring real accountability to police forces.  When I see stories of folks absurdly abused by police forces, I can almost always guess the race of the victim in advance.  I used to be a law-and-order Conservative that blindly trusted police statements about every encounter.  The advent of cell-phone video has proven this to be supremely naive.  No matter how trusted, you can't give any group a pass on accountability.
  • Eliminate the minimum wage   (compromise: eliminate the minimum wage before 25).  Originally passed for racist reasons, it still (if unintentionally) keeps young blacks from entering the work force.  Dropping out of high school does not hurt employment because kids learn job skills in high school (they don't); it hurts because finishing high school is a marker of responsibility and other desirable job traits.  Kids who drop out can overcome this, but only if they get a job where they can demonstrate these traits.  No one is going to take that chance at $10 or $15 an hour**
  • Voucherize education.  It's not the middle class that is primarily the victim of awful public schools, it is poor blacks.  Middle and upper class parents have the political pull to get accountability.   It is no coincidence the best public schools are generally in middle and upper class neighborhoods.  Programs such as the one in DC that used to allow urban poor to escape failing schools need to be promoted.

** This might not be enough.  One of the main reasons we do not hire inexperienced youth, regardless of wage rates, is that the legal system has put the entire liability for any boneheaded thing an employee does on the employer.  Even if the employee is wildly breaking clear rules and is terminated immediately for his or her actions, the employer can be liable.  The cost of a bad hire is skyrocketing (at the same time various groups are trying to reign in employers' ability to do due diligence on prospective employees).  I am not positive that in today's legal environment I would take free labor from an untried high school dropout, but I certainly am not going to do it at $10 an hour when there are thousands of experienced people who will work for that.  Some sort of legal safe harbor for the actions of untried workers might be necessary.

The Onion on College "Diversity"

From the Onion

Saying that such a dialogue was essential to the college’s academic mission, Trescott University president Kevin Abrams confirmed Monday that the school encourages a lively exchange of one idea. “As an institution of higher learning, we recognize that it’s inevitable that certain contentious topics will come up from time to time, and when they do, we want to create an atmosphere where both students and faculty feel comfortable voicing a single homogeneous opinion,” said Abrams, adding that no matter the subject, anyone on campus is always welcome to add their support to the accepted consensus.

A while back I wrote

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.

The Left and Original Sin

Check your privilege.  You are one of the white oppressors.  You are part of the patriarchy.   These are all frequent rhetorical flourishes from the Left today.  What do they have in common?  Well, beyond the fact that they are all ad hominem and have nothing to do with a person's actual arguments or even character, they all work under an assumption of original sin -- that the sins of past generations somehow accrue to individuals of this generation.  If you are male, you are born guilty for the infractions of all past males.  Your maleness or whiteness or the bank balance of your parents creates a stink that can't be washed off.

There is a certain irony to all this, particularly on gender issues, since many of were often justified on Biblical notions of original sin stemming back to the Garden of Eden.  Which all goes, by the way, to demonstrate my contention that "tolerance" today is not about ending out-groups but about shifting the out-group tag to different people.

Don't believe me?  Well, how else to explain this story about Ben Affleck:

Last week we learned that distinguished Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. compromised his integrity when actor Ben Affleck — a guest on “Finding your Roots,” the PBS documentary on celebrity lineages that Gates hosts — asked Gates to omit a portion of his ancestry.

Affleck, soon to be seen as Batman on the big screen, learned he had a slave-owning ancestor and promptly pushed Gates to spike that detail.

“We've never had anyone ever try to censor or edit what we found,” Gates wrote in an email to Michael Lynton, chief executive of Sony Entertainment, adding: “He's a megastar. What do we do?”

Perhaps I might try to whitewash a story about my parents.  I barely knew my grandparents and can't imagine trying to whitewash their history.  But for what conceivable reason would I whitewash my family history 4 or 5 generations back?  How in the world, unless I were to accept some notion of original sin, would the crimes of a relative more than 150 years ago accrue to me?

A few other thoughts:

  • This concern is also pretty selective.   So an ancestor held opinions about slavery we all would find horrifying today.  But given the times, I can bet that pretty much every relative of Affleck's of that era, slaveholder or no, held opinions (say about women) that we would likely find offensive today.
  • Congrats to Affleck for achieving some negative alchemy here.  He took an issue (his ancestor's slave-holding) that did not reflect on him at all and converted it via some "I am a star" douchebaggery into something that makes him look like a tool.
  • PBS often makes the argument that they somehow have the moral high ground because they are non-commercial and publicly-funded.  Uh, right.  Look at how quickly they caved here.
  • I find it hilarious that any kids in the US feel the ability to say "check your privilege" to someone else.  Even someone at the 20th percentile in the US would be among the richest 20% in many countries.  From the world's perspective, we are all affluent here.

Materials I Use to Teach My 90-Minute Economic Class

I teach one 90-minute class a year in the senior economics elective at my kids' high school.  The teacher gives me a pretty free ability to cover whatever I wish.

Rather than trying to cover some school of thought, I instead focus the class on the seen and unseen (starting with quotes from Bastiat and Hazlitt).  We have about 12 economic problems, where we start with the seen, and then introduce the unseen.  We start with the classic broken window as the first one.

I teach the class with role play.  I give every student a couple of business cards with their role typed on them.  When I call on them I have them advocate for their role.  I have started to give a small food reward at the end of class to the student who best gets into character -- this has helped the role play immensely.   Let's take one example I do towards the end of the class involving price gouging after a hurricane.

We begin with the governor of Florida who has just signed an anti-price-gouging law.  We talk about how everyone hates price-gouging after a disaster.  What could be worse, right?

We then talk about a woman who spends most of her time at home, but rushes out to fill her gas tank right after the storm hits.  She has to wait in line for gas for 2 hours because everyone else has done the same as she, racing to the station, but she doesn't mind because she doesn't have anything else to do and feels better.  If asked if she would have topped off her tank if the price jumped to $6 from $3, she says no way.

Then we have an owner of a roofing company enter the fray.  His men are working 14 hours a day to put roofs on houses.  He is making a lot of money, and doing a lot of good as well.  Nothing is more important to people than fixing the roof before the next rain.  He may be the most important man in Florida at that moment.  But he can't keep up with demand, and worse, his guys are having to sit for 2 hours at a time to fill up their company trucks, when they should be repairing roofs.   He would gladly pay $10 a gallon if he could just keep his men on the job and not in gas stations.

So at this point we discuss "fairness".  It seems fair not to raise prices to "take advantage" of a disaster.  But is it fair to allocate gas away from the busiest and most productive whose time is most valuable to the people who are least productive and have the lowest value for their time?  We discuss how price caps shift rationing from price to queuing, and the people who get the product shift from those who most value it to those who assign the lowest value to their own time.

Finally, we discuss a guy in Georgia who has a tanker of gas he was going to send to a station in Atlanta.  They need the gas more in Florida, but they aren't paying more for it under the new price-gouging law, and so with his higher costs of driving all the way to Florida vs. Atlanta he is going to sell the gas in Atlanta.  If the price of gas in Florida were to rise to $6, he would send his truck of gas to Florida in a heartbeat.

This is the kind of discussion we have.   We will end up in a debate, with kids pointing out all kinds of things -- eg poor people who have a life or death need and might be shut out at $6.  We don't try to resolve things, but want them to understand there are unseen consequences to actions like price-gouging laws that must be considered along with the seen.  They may end up dismissing the unseen as less important than the seen, but it should not be ignored.

If anyone finds themselves in the same situation as me needing to teach a group (it could be adults as well) you are welcome to use my materials.  I actually print the business cards on Avery two-sided business card paper.  Attached are separate files for the front and back of cards as well as a sort of discussion key I use to guide the conversation.  We get into things, at least tangentially, like public choice theory and concentrated benefits / dispersed costs.

If you want to use the materials, you are welcome to email me with questions.  But these are all public domain so help yourself without permission.  (By the way, in trying to match the front to the back of each card in your mind, remember there is a mirroring effect, so the text on the right card on the backs in any given row goes with the front of the card on the left of the same row in the other file).

economics class discussion guide

economics class biz cards front

economics class biz cards back

I Never Listen to Democrats; I Learned Everything I Need To Know About them From Rush Limbaugh

One of my huge pet peeves is when people rely only on their own side for knowledge of their opponents' positions.  The inevitable result of this is that there is a lot of debating against straw men.

As an aside, this is why I really like Bryan Caplan's ideological Turing test.  If you are going to seriously debate someone, you need to be able to state their arguments in an unironic way such that that person's supporters would mistake you for one of their own.  If I were to teach anything at all political, I would structure the course in a way that folks would debate and advocate both sides of a question (that is, of course, if any university would allow me to ask, say, a minimum wage advocate to take the opposite position without accusing me of creating an unsafe environment).

Anyway, a while back I asked if the folks who were protesting the showing of American Sniper on campus had actually seen the damn movie.  I suspected they had not, or at least really interpreted film differently than I do.  Though perhaps pro-soldier, I read the movie as having a pretty stark anti-war message.

Anyway, American Sniper has become a favorite target for banning within our great universities the purport to be teaching critical thinking.  This is from one student group's (successful) appeal for a ban on showing the movie on campus:

This war propaganda guised as art reveals a not-so-discreet Islamaphobic, violent, and racist nationalist ideology. A simple Google search will give you hundreds of articles that delve into how this film has fueled anti-Arab and anti-Islamic sentiments; its visceral "us verses them" narrative helps to proliferate the marginalization of multiple groups and communities - many of which exist here at UMD.

This is not the language people would use if they had actually seen the film.  Instead of taking specific examples from the film, they refer to Google searches of articles, perhaps by other people who have not seen the film (as an aside, this has to be the all-time worst appeal to authority ever -- I can find not hundreds but thousands of articles on the Internet about anything -- there are tens of thousands alone on the moon landings being faked).

I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

If you want proof that folks are using the phrase "sexual assault" differently than you likely are, check this out:

In California, a new bill would require colleges and universities to impose a mandatory minimum sentence for campus sexual assault: two years school suspension. The rule would apply to both public and private colleges that rely on state funds for student financial aid, the same way California's affirmative consent measure operates.

My definition of sexual assault is rape, that is either using force to have sex with a person who is unwilling or having sex with someone who is physically incapacitated.  By my definition, the penalties established by the California bill are absurdly lenient, particularly since California law already establishes a penalty of 3-8 years in prison for rape.

What is going on here is that opponents of certain other behaviors -- sex while drunk, sex that is regretted later, and possibly even speech that is hurtful to women -- have lumped these behaviors into the term "sexual assault" in order to try to increase the punishment for these things.  In California (on campus but nowhere else) sexual assault is "a failure to obtain ongoing, enthusiastic, affirmative consent at each stage of a sexual encounter"

This is a verbal tactic is increasingly common -- note the trend to many colleges to try to label unwelcome speech with which one disagrees as a physical assault or threat.  But it has decided risks.  While the intention is to increase the punishment for unenthusiastic sex to rape levels, the effect can easily just be the opposite -- to reduce concern and punishment of rape by watering down its definition.

I Thought This Was A Spoof At First: "Bitcoin's Problem with Women"

Felix Salmon, guest-blogging for Kevin Drum at Mother Jones, had a post yesterday titled "Bitcoin's Problem with Women."

Men make up an estimated 96% of the Bitcoin community, which means that if Bitcoin does end up succeeding, as its adherents think it will, and if the people who own Bitcoin see their holdings soar in value, then all of the profits will end up going to what Brett Scott calls the "crypto-patriarchy." Not many men, to be sure: as Charlie Stross says, the degree of inequality in the Bitcoin economy "is ghastly, and getting worse, to an extent that makes a sub-Saharan African kleptocracy look like a socialist utopia." But it's not many men, and effectively zero women.

I guess I don't get it.   Is this the result of some sort of active discrimination, or is it just one of those choices that tend to skew male or female (like the decision to become a lumberjack or a health care worker)?   I know most of the cryptography world is dominated by paranoid men, and many of these same folks were the early adopters of Bitcoin.

Beyond one lame anecdote (where one random guy at some Bitcoin function mistook a female VC for a girlfriend of the real VC), the author does not seem to present any evidence of systematic discrimination and exclusion.  Knowing some of these Bitcoin and cyptography people, though, many are from the family of guys who are socially inept and were shunned by girls in high school, so I would not be surprised if they are awkward around women.

If anything, much of his post seems actually be an exercise in gender stereotyping, arguing that men care about politics and ideology and women about community and practicality.  Seriously, under the guise of somehow defending the equality of women, he bares his gender assumptions:

If you talk about Bitcoin with the people who use it, the language they use is always about technology and finance. Bitcoiners tend to think in terms of how things work, rather than how they're used in the real world. Buying and selling Bitcoin is still much more difficult than it should be, despite many years of development, which implies that people aren’t concentrating enough on real-world ease-of-use....

That's a product design job, and frankly, it's a product design job well-suited for women who aren't approaching the problem while grinding the ideological axes so widely held inside the Bitcoin community. As one woman involved with Bitcoin put it to me, "Money is a political issue for Bitcoiners. It's a human issue for everybody else."...

Let's say you wanted to build a mobile savings app in sub-Saharan African. If you asked male Bitcoin developers to build such a thing for a target audience of young African girls, they might have talked about how to maximize the amount of money saved. But, working on the ground in South Africa, the Praekelt Foundation came from a different perspective. Apps like these aren't really about maximizing savings, so much as they're about empowerment. If you can build a product for girls that ratifies their identity and individuality and gives them self-esteem, then you're creating something much more valuable than a few dollars' worth of savings: you're keeping them in school, and you're keeping them healthy, and you're helping themto not get pregnant. That's the kind of way that cryptocurrencies could change the world. The problem is that the men in Popper's book just don't think that way.

But I digress.  The key point is this:  Bitcoin is a freaking open source, anonymous platform.  Anyone can work with it.  No one even has to know your gender (like the old internet joke about no one online knows you are a dog).

Throughout the piece he talks about the "Bitcoin community" as if it is some structured body, the membership in which is required to work with Bitcoin, like saying that one has to be a long-standing member in good standing of the Communist Party to join the Soviet Politboro.  But the Bitcoin community is no such thing.  A better definition of it is "people who happen to be working with Bitcoin today."  You no more need to be a member of the current bitcoin community, or even be known or liked by them, to create your business or service model in Bitcoin than you need to be pals with Tim Berners-Lee to be able to create an Internet company.

The whole point of why we wacky (male) libertarians get all excited about bitcoin is not that it somehow ends gender or racial or any other sort of discrimination, but that it helps makes all of these more irrelevant.  I won't pretend to read Salmon's mind, but if I had to guess, he is frustrated because he sees the capability of Bitcoin to help end discrimination.  If that is true, great.  But many of us assume that bad people with bad motives will always exist, so we seek out anonymous currencies and cryptography so we can live our lives without the permission or even knowledge of these people.

 

It's Hard to Find Partisan Blogs that Actually Try to Engage with the Opposition

I try really hard to read some partisan blogs from the Left and Right so I see what they are saying and don't wallow in some libertarian echo chamber.  I have read Kevin Drum on the Left for year because, while I often disagree with him, he is willing to engage with opposition arguments rather than just dismissing them as the rantings of racist cis-gendered Koch-funded, uh, whatevers.

Unfortunately his guest bloggers seem to be cut from a different cloth (by the way, best wishes to Drum who is struggles with some awful health issues).  Here is Max Sawicky today:

In this post from just last weekend, Kevin links to a bit from Tyler Cowen. That was your first mistake, Brother Drum. I realize linking is not endorsing, though KD offers a limited, tentative 'interesting possibility' type of approval. You see, the prolific and very smart Tyler hails from the zany economics department of George Mason University. No good can come from referencing him. These characters spend all their time excoriating Government and social protection for the working class from tenured, Koch-subsidized positions at a public university. Sweet.

This is unfortunately what substitutes for debate nowadays.  His conclusion seems to be "don't read people that disagree with me, read only folks who work off the same assumptions.  Stay in the echo chamber!"  This is exactly what I try to avoid, but the ubiquity of this sort of ad hominem argumentation is making it really hard.

Bring Back Concubinage!

Until they were purged by the Medieval Catholic Church, many western cultures had marriage alternatives -- legal, contractual, long-term relationships within which children could be reared but which were not until-death-do-us-part marriage.  Ironically, Church father Augustine had a child in just such a relationship.**  Reading articles like this one, it strikes me that it is time for some modern innovation here.

We are in a position where we have just two alternatives -- marriage, which is a full-blown legal merger of two people into one for what is theoretically life -- and nothing.  Given the rise of childbearing in these no-long-term-commitment-whatsoever relationships, the state has taken a few halting actions to bridge the gap, but most of these have been ham-fisted and fraught with problems (our efforts to impose financial responsibility on fathers is one example).

If this were a market, I would say that there is clearly a consumer demand for an alternative product that fits between marriage and nothing, and allows two people to make long-term commitments to child rearing without necessarily commingling assets or making lifetime sexual monogamy vows.

 

** At the time, such concubinage relationships were often to satisfy class issues -- people of certain classes simply were not allowed to marry each other.  In Augustine's case, it allowed him to pursue a 15-year relationship with a woman who was not wealthy but left him available to marry when a rich woman later came along.  In short, it was used for reasons that are mostly irrelevant today.  But that doesn't mean we can't invent marriage alternatives of our own for our own modern reasons.

The Clinton Foundation Appears to Be A Terrible Charity

From the Federalist

Between 2009 and 2012, the Clinton Foundation raised over $500 million dollars according to a review of IRS documents by The Federalist (2012,2011, 2010, 2009, 2008). A measly 15 percent of that, or $75 million, went towards programmatic grants. More than $25 million went to fund travel expenses. Nearly $110 million went toward employee salaries and benefits. And a whopping $290 million during that period — nearly 60 percent of all money raised — was classified merely as “other expenses.”

Now it may be that the "other"expenses are directly benefiting someone but the numbers here are not encouraging.  There are a number of sham charities out there whose income goes mostly to supporting  the lifestyle of their directors and employees so that they can make good money but simultaneously be self-righteous.   I do not know that this is the case here but I think you can be pretty sure the reason they get most of their donations is to curry favor with the Clintons rather than because the organization is particularly efficient or adept at deploying charitable resources.

Best Campgrounds of the West

Sunset Magazine just had its annual "Best Campgrounds of the West" issue and we have four of the campgrounds we operate on the list -- pretty good considering we only operate in two of the four regions they cover (we operate 4 of the 54 campgrounds they recognize in CA, AZ, and NM).

On the list were Sabrina (CA), Big Pine Creek (CA), Cave Springs (AZ) and Sleepy Grass (NM).  We always love getting positive feedback, of course, but are particularly thrilled in this case since the frequent criticism of private operation of public campgrounds is that private companies will somehow ruin the recreation areas for profit.  Exactly how we would make money by destroying the natural beauty which draws paying visitors to these parks is never explained.  But it is good to have confirmation that we private operators are doing a good job.

Consensus Science

The invaluable Carpe Diem blog has a compendium of 18 forecasts of doom that were made on or around the first Earth Day in 1970 -- all of which turned out wrong.   Here is an example:

8. Peter Gunter, a North Texas State University professor, wrote in 1970, “Demographers agree almost unanimously on the following grim timetable: by 1975 widespread famines will begin in India; these will spread by 1990 to include all of India, Pakistan, China and the Near East, Africa. By the year 2000, or conceivably sooner, South and Central America will exist under famine conditions….By the year 2000, thirty years from now, the entire world, with the exception of Western Europe, North America, and Australia, will be in famine.”

9. In January 1970, Life reported, “Scientists have solid experimental and theoretical evidence to support…the following predictions: In a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution…by 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half….”

Participants in the global warming debate today will surely recognize the formulation of these statements as representing a consensus scientific opinion.

For those of you too young to actively follow the news in the 1970s, Mark Perry is not cherry-picking cranks.  These fearful quotations are representative of what was ubiquitous in the media of that time.

My school (Kinkaid in Houston) took speech and debate very seriously and had a robust debate program even in middle school.  In 1975-1976 the national debate topic was this:

Resolved:  That the development and allocation of scarce world resources should be controlled by an international organization

The short answer to this proposition should realistically have been:  "you have got to be f*cking kidding me."  But such were the times that this was considered a serious proposal worth debating for the entire year.  In fact, in doing research, it was dead-easy to build up suitcases of quotations of doom to support the affirmative;  it was far, far harder finding anyone who would argue that a) the world was not going to run out of everything in a few decades and b) that markets were an appropriate vehicle for managing resources.   I could fill up an hour reading different sources predicting that oil would have run out by 1990 or 2000 at the latest.

Putting Neville Chamberlain in Historic Context

One of the hardest things to do in history is to read history in context, shutting out our foreknowledge of what is going to happen -- knowledge the players at the time did not have.

Apparently Neville Chamberlain is back in the public discourse, again raised from the dead as the boogeyman to scare us away from any insufficiently militaristic approach to international affairs.

There is no doubt that Neville Chamberlain sold out the Czechs at Munich, and the Munich agreement was shown to be a fraud on Hitler's part when he invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia just months later.  In retrospect, we can weep at the lost opportunity as we now know, but no one knew then, that Hitler's generals planned a coup against him that was undermined by the Munich agreement.

But all that being said, let's not forget the historic context.  World War I was a cataclysm for England and Europe.   It was probably the worst thing to happen to Europe since the black death.   And many learned folks at the time felt that this disaster had been avoidable (and many historians today might agree).  They felt that there had been too much rush to war, and too little diplomacy.  If someone like Britain had been more aggressive in dragging all the parties to the bargaining table in 1914, perhaps a European-wide war could have been avoided or at least contained to the Balkans.

There simply was no energy in 1938, no collective will to start another war.  Even in France, which arguably had the most to lose from a reinvigorated Germany, the country simply could not face another war.   As an illustration, one could argue that an even better and more logical time to "stop Hitler" occurred before Munich in March of 1936 when Hitler violated the Versailles Treaty and reoccupied the Rhineland with military forces.  France had every right to oppose this occupation, and Hitler's generals said later that their forces were so puny at the time that the French could have stopped them with a brigade and sent them running back across the Rhine.  And the French did nothing.

In addition, Britain and France had very little ability to do much about Hitler's ambitions in Eastern Europe anyway.  How were they going to get troops to the Sudetenland?  We saw later in Poland how little ability they had to do anything in Eastern Europe.

And finally, everyone was boxed in by having accepted Woodrow Wilson's formula of "self-determination of peoples."  Building the entire post-war realignment on this shoddy building block is what really led to disaster.  Emphasizing this essentially nationalist formulation as the fundamental moral principle of international relations -- rather than, say, the protection of individual rights of all peoples -- really empowered Hitler.  In the Saarland, in the Rhineland, in Austria, and in the Sudetenland, it lent him the moral high ground.  He was just fulfilling Wilson's formulation, wasn't he?  These were all majority-German lands coming home to Germany.

Postscript:  Years ago in my youth I used to excoriate FDR for caving into Stalin at Yalta, specifically in giving away most of Eastern Europe.  I still wish he hadn't given his moral authority and approval to the move, but even if we stood on the table and screamed at Stalin in opposition, what were we going to do?  Was there any appetite for extending the war?  Zero.  That is what folks who oppose the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan get wrong in suggesting there were alternatives.  All those alternatives involved a longer war and more American deaths which no one wanted.

Kevin Drum Claims "We" Haven't Learned Anything from Deepwater Horizon. What you mean, "we," Kemo Sabe?'

Kevin Drum claims that "we" haven't learned anything from the Deepwater Horizon disaster (the BP oil rig that exploded five years ago in the Gulf, killing a number of people and creating a large oil spill).

What is his evidence?  Has he looked at oil company drilling practices and found them unchanged since the disaster?  No, he does not mention any evidence based on observed drilling practices one way or another.  His sole evidence that "we" have not learned anything is that the US Government has not shut down drilling in the Gulf and has not passed any new laws.

This is almost a caricature of progressive thinking -- nothing matters except what the government does.  But presumably oil companies have been influenced by the cost of the disaster on BP.  So far BP has paid out about $30 billion (billion with a B) in reparations and restoration expenses and may be facing another $20 or so billion in fines based on a 2014 court decision.  All this ignores the loss of the platform itself, of access to the resource below the platform, and of BP's reputation.

One would presume that the prospect of losing $50+ billion would be enough to get the attention of private companies and cause them to make changes to their procedures.  I suppose it is also possible that they completely ignored this, but Drum offers no evidence one way or another.  To him, anything not done by the government is irrelevant.