Archive for August 2006

Shifting Nature of Income

Kevin Drum takes the following statistic:

As a result, wages and salaries no longer make up the smallest share of
the gross domestic product since World War II. They accounted for 46.1
percent of all economic output in the second quarter, down from a high
of 53.6 percent in 1970 but up from 45.4 percent in the spring of 2005.

And declares it to be a bad thing.  He doesn't really explain, but as a frequent reader of his site I can guess his issue is that he interprets this statement as a sign of the weakening fortunes of the American wage earner.

Isn't it really dangerous to leap to such a conclusion?  I can think of a number of perfectly innocuous, even positive trends that would cause such a shift:

  • Aging of population means more people retirement age who take their income in form of dividends, investment returns, pensions, social security, etc., none of which are included in "wages"
  • Ownership of investment assets, and thus income from these assets, has spread from just the rich to the middle class, meaning most people get more of a share of their personal income from investments and asset (e.g. house) appreciation
  • Entrepreneurship rates are way up since 1970.  This means many more people, particularly in the middle class, have given up working for someone else for a wage and now work for themselves for a business profit.

I know Drum wants to interpret it as a "the poor are poor because the rich take all the money" zero sum game.  Anyone know what is really going on behind these numbers?

Like Finding Out Kennedy Was Killed By Lee Harvey Oswold

Holy foregone conclusions, Batman.  It turns out the secret hold on the earmark transparency bill was finally traced to two senators:  Ted Stevens and Robert Byrd.  Knock me over with a feather.

The Skeptical Middle Ground on Warming

I did not see the ABC special the other night on climate, but I am told that as a skeptic of the extreme global warming scenarios, I was compared to both a holocaust denier and a tobacco executiveBoy, you gotta love free scientific inquiry!

One of the tricks of all debaters, not just climate folks, is to create a straw man opponent who is easy to knock down.  Now apparently this show did not even bother to interview a skeptic at all, but they chose as their straw man "people paid off by the oil companies who believe man has no effect on climate."

Well, gee, I certainly can see how with current state of knowledge it is getting tougher to credibly sell the "no impact at all" argument, but I would say that with climate and all its vagaries its still a position that a person can stake out and not be a wacko

There is, though, a middle ground of skepticism that falls somewhere between "man has no effect" and "temperatures will rise ten degrees and the world will end unless we make Al Gore our economic dictator."

One of the things they never explain on shows like ABC's is that most
climate scientists agree that when other variables are held constant
(more in a minute), increases in CO2 will only increase global
temperatures by 1-2 degrees, some of which we have already seen.  It is
seldom mentioned in the press that there is a strong diminishing return
relationship between CO2 levels in the atmosphere and warming (leaving
everything else equal for a moment).  So, the next doubling in CO2
concentrations will have substantially less impact on global
temperatures than the last doubling.  This is something that most
reputable climate scientists will agree with.

So, how do climate researchers get 6-8 degress of additional warming or
more in their models?  They get it from positive feedbacks.  Most of
Nature's processes are negative feedbacks -- push a pendulum one way,
nature tries to bring it back to the center.  Positive feedback is like
a rock balanced on the top of a mountain -- one little push and it
starts rolling faster and faster.

Climate scientists posit (but as yet have not observed and can't prove)
a number of feedback processes that might tend to amplify or dampen the
effect of increase atmospheric CO2 on global temperatures.  The easiest
to understand is the effect of water.  As temperatures rise due to CO2
concentrations, one might expect clear air humidity to go up worldwide
(as higher temperatures vaporize more water) and you might expect cloud
cover to increase (for the same reason).  If water vapor goes mostly to
humidity, then global warming is accelerated as water vapor in clear
air is a strong greenhouse gas.  One to Two degrees of warming from
increased CO2 might then become four or six or eight.  If instead vaporized water mostly
goes to cloudcover, the effect of CO2 is instead dampened since more
clouds will reflect more sunlight back into space.

Generally, one can make two observations about how most of the climate models
that make the news treat these positive and negative feedback loops:

  • Climate scientists tend to include a lot of positive feedback
    loops and downplay the negative feedback loops in their models.  Some
    skeptics argue that the funding process for climate studies tends to
    reward researchers who are most agressive in including these
    acclerating effects.
  • The science of these accelerating and decelerating effects is
    still equivocal, and their is not much good evidence either way between
    positive and negative feedback.  We do know that current models with
    heavy positive feedback loops grossly overestimate historic warming.
    In other words, when applied to the past, these positive-feedback-heavy
    models say we should be hotter today than we actually are.

My much longer article on the same topic is here, where I also address other things that may be happening in the climate and reasons why a poorer but colder world may be worse than a warmer and richer world.  I recommend to your attention this article, which is the best statement I can find of the skeptical middle ground. 

Ignoring a Positive Cancer Test

Baseball Crank reports:

In ... Gulino v. New York State Education Department (2d Cir. Aug. 17, 2006),
the Second Circuit reinstated a race discrimination suit against the
New York State Education Department based on the theory that a test of
"basic college-level content" that asks applicants to get just
two-thirds of the questions right is racially discriminatory because it
has a "disparate impact" on African-American and Latino teachers. The
test, developed in response to a 1988 task force report on problems with teacher quality, is described at pages 11-13 of the opinion.

There is nothing surprising, really, about this.  This theory, that a test that shows African-Americans performing more poorly than whites is by definition racist, has been floating around by decades.  It is particularly popular with various African-American leadership groups.

I have no problem with various ethnic and racial groups bringing expertise to bear to weed out poorly worded questions on exams.  But making this their only reaction to the test - ie the test shows we as a group may have a problem so lets throw the test out - is insane.  By way of explanation, here is a little play to consider:

Doctor:  I am sorry to tell you that you have cancer.  If untreated, it can be fatal.  The good news is that it is treatable, but the treatment will take time and can be quite difficult and painful.

Patient:  Your test is bad.  If other people don't have cancer, then I don't either.  I am going to ignore the result and ask the government to make sure that no one else is allowed to take the test either.

Doctor:  But that's crazy!  The cancer is treatable, but only if we get to work on it right now.

Patient:  You will be hearing from my lawyer for the pain and suffering your bad test has caused me.

I fully believe that the average African American wants her kids to be well educated, and has deep concerns about the quality of the education her kids are getting.  So I will limit my comments to African American "leadership".  Is what these leadership groups are doing in trying to legally strike down tests that show that the education they are getting as a group is failing really any different than a patient ignoring a positive cancer test?

Postscript:  In the article I linked, I do not share the author's concern about political T-shirts at school.

Free Market Does Not Mean Pro-Business

I hate the term "pro-business."  In my mind, it helps to define what is wrong with the political choices we are presented with in this country.  All of us in civics class were taught the statist "heads I win, tails you lose" political spectrum from left to right.  On this spectrum, everyone is in favor of government intervention and the sacrifice of one group of people to another.  The only thing that varies across the scale is who is the beneficiary of the plunder and the targeted areas of intervention.  For years, most of the politicians who have called themselves "pro-business" were not free market capitalists -- they spent much of their time in office sending their businessman-buddies slices of pork, zoning variations, special permission to trash other people's property (e.g. via pollution) etc.

Beyond the fact that we small government libertarians and anarcho-capitalists are given no spot on the civics class political spectrum, I have always been frustrated at being lumped together with "pro-business" politicians, and have been asked to defend (which I won't and can't) various subsidies and corporate welfare.  An example of my attacks on this type of corporate welfare crap are here and here.

So, without further comment, I present this great except from an article by Gary North of the Mises Institute:

The idea that businessmen are strong defenders of the free
enterprise system is one which is believed only by those who have never
studied the history of private enterprise in the Western, industrial
nations. What businessmen are paid to worry about is profit. The
problem for the survival of a market economy arises when the voters
permit or encourage the expansion of government power to such an extent
that private businesses can gain short-term profits through the
intervention into the competitive market by state officials. Offer the
typical businessman the opportunity to escape the constant pressures of
market competition, and few of them are able to withstand the
temptation. In fact, they are rewarded for taking the step of calling
in the civil government.

The government's officials approve, but more to the point, from the
point of view of the businessman's understanding of his role,
shareholders and new investors also approve, since the favored
enterprise is initially blessed with increased earnings per share. The
business leader has his decision confirmed by the crucial standards of
reference in the market, namely, rising profits and rising share prices
on the stock market. No one pays the entrepreneur to be ideologically
pure. Almost everyone pays him to turn a profit.

This being the case, those within the government possess an
extremely potent device for expanding political power. By a
comprehensive program of direct political intervention into the market,
government officials can steadily reduce the opposition of businessmen
to the transformation of the market into a bureaucratic, regulated, and
even centrally-directed organization. Bureaucracy replaces
entrepreneurship as the principal form of economic planning.
Bureaucrats can use the time-honored pair of motivational approaches:
the carrot and the stick. The carrot is by far the most effective
device when dealing with profit-seeking businessmen.

Those individual enterprises that are expected to benefit from some
new government program have every short-run financial incentive to
promote the intervention, while those whose interests are likely to be
affected adversely "” rival firms, foreign enterprises, and especially
consumers "” find it expensive to organize their opposition, since the
adverse effects are either not recognized as stemming from the
particular government program, or else the potential opponents are
scattered over too wide an area to be organized inexpensively. The
efforts of the potential short-run beneficiaries are concentrated and
immediately profitable; the efforts of the potential losers are
dispersed and usually ineffective.

Fluorescent Bulbs

I have to echo this post from Glen Reynolds about fluorescent replacement bulbs for the home.  If you have not bought any in the last two years, they have come a long, long way.  They are much cheaper - home depot was running a screaming deal on multi-packs here this weekend.  The buzzing fluorescent sound is gone.  And the ones at Home Depot came in a range of three color temperatures - from warm white, which comes close to matching the light color and temperature of incandescent bulbs, to bright white and daylight.  The latter have a brighter, cooler (blue-er) light that you might more closely associate with fluorescent.  I use the warm ones indoors and the cooler white ones outdoors.  I can barely tell the difference even for bare bulbs in my ceiling cans between the newer warm fluorescent and the older incandescents.  And if the bulb is in a lamp under a shade, I really can't tell the difference.

These are a total no-brainer.  They pay for themselves in longer life alone, and the 70-80% energy savings comes on top of that.  Highly recommended.

Countdown: 8 Days Until Your First Ammendment Rights Are Put on Hold

Eight days from now, all of our first amendment rights will be put away in a box for 60 days, hopefully to be retrieved after the election is over.  During those 60 days, and in an astronomical violation of the intent of our Constitution and Bill of Rights, none of us, unless we are operating under the banner of certain organizations like official political parties, will be able to pay to publicly criticize the *cough* fine *cough* men and women who serve as elected officials in this country.  Once the election is over and their jobs are safe and the criticism is moot, then you will get your speech back.

Thank you very much John McCain, Russ Feingold, all the Congressmen who voted for this, GWB who signed it, and the Supreme Court who astoundingly declared it constitutionally A-OK.

Update: Here is an example.  I use it because the people involved are try to fund ads to support a law I absolutely oppose (I have no desire to give the Feds more power over the free movement of US citizens across state lines).  But I totally support their right to advocate their position on TV.  In this case, their public speech is great even for folks like me who oppose what they support, because I didn't even know this proposed legislation existed until they started talking about.  Their ad informs me, even if it is sending me the message that I need to counter their message.  And that is what political dialog should be in a free society.

I am constantly irritated by efforts to ban a certain speaker from speaking or to drown out their message with taunts and chanting.  If you think someone is advocating something so terrible - let him talk.  If you are right in your judgment, their speech will likely rally people to your side in opposition.  As I like to tell students who want to ban speakers from campus -- Hitler told everyone exactly what he was going to do if people had bothered to pay attention.

The Surgeon General Should Switch to Climate Science

From Michael Siegel, with a hat tip to Reason's Hit and Run (use of colored text in the original):

An article in the current issue of JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association),
reporting on the recent Surgeon General's review of the health effects
of secondhand smoke, brings to the forefront the controversy over
whether the Surgeon General misrepresented
the science in his public communications surrounding the report's
release ...

controversy stems from the press release and other ancillary materials
released by the Surgeon General to accompany the report itself.

Here is what those ancillary materials stated:

According to the Surgeon General's press release:

brief exposure to secondhand smoke has immediate adverse effects on the
cardiovascular system and increases risk for heart disease and lung
cancer, the report says."

According to the Surgeon General's remarks to the media:

secondhand smoke for even a short time can damage cells and set the
cancer process in motion. Brief exposure can have immediate harmful
effects on blood and blood vessels, potentially increasing the risk of
a heart attack."

According to the Surgeon General's accompanying fact sheet:

secondhand smoke for even a short time can have immediate adverse
effects on the cardiovascular system, interfering with the normal
functioning of the heart, blood, and vascular systems in ways that
increase the risk of heart attack."

And according to the Surgeon General's accompanying brochure:

a short time in a smoky room causes your blood platelets to stick
together. Secondhand smoke also damages the lining of your blood
vessels. In your heart, these bad changes can cause a deadly heart

These claims are markedly different from those
made in the Surgeon General's report itself, which concludes that
chronic exposure to secondhand smoke increases the risk for heart
disease, but does not conclude (or even present evidence that) a brief
exposure to secondhand smoke can cause lung cancer, heart attacks, or
heart disease.

This is a classic technique used today in scientific reports on global warming, where the report itself is often full of cautionary language about potential problems in the models and the uncertainties in predicting climate, but the summary and press releases make doom and gloom statements with absolute certainty that aren't actually supported by the research they purport to summarize. 

In both cases, the principles justify the exaggeration of the public message as all in a "good cause", which of course is the justification every lying politician uses.  Even Ted Stevens.

A New Reason to Vote Democrat

If true, the notion discussed here that the media will portray the same economy as better if a Democrat is in the office and worse if a Republican is in the office may be as good a reason as any to vote Democrat.  Then the media will get off the current silly "worst economy in forever" meme and maybe the presure on the goverment to step in with some sort of silly, ill-considered, and long-term destructive intervention will be reduced.  Viva gridlock and divided government!

World's Ugliest Currency

My vote for the world's ugliest bank note is the new US $10 bill (click for larger pictures)



Really these images don't do justice to just how butt-ugly this bill is.  I understand the need to introduce color and anti-counterfeiting technologies.  I also understand that they are trying to maintain elements of the historic greenback.  But this bill marks the point where it is now impossible to sustain both these goals.  If we need color, then its time to go color -- maybe Peter Maxx could design a new bill.

Really, who designed this thing?  The combination of colors is god-awful. And what's that blank oval on the back that looks like a misprint?  This thing is a mess.

(Note to my wife:  Yes, I am actually blogging about this.  She thinks that some of the things I get worked up about are kind of trivial.)

Update:  One of the commenters reminded me that there were for a while calls to replace Hamilton with Reagan.  I guess Hamilton was singled out because like Franklin, he is a non-president.  Which is kind of ironic, since Hamilton probably knew more about money and banking than all the presidents on the other bills combined.  I'd be a lot happier if they instituted some kind of waiting period, like for the Hall of Fame, of say 50 years before you can get your face on currency.  Besides, everyone know that the Gipper is supposed to be on the quadrillion dollar note.

Update: Children in European Restaurants

Not really forewarned about this social trend in advance, my family was surprised to find that many restaurants in smaller English towns would not let us in with our children.  I wrote about the strange Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang-esque reactions we got to our children here.

Reader Tom Van Horn sends in this update from Newsweek:

a recent British study showed a house's value drops by 5 percent if
neighbors move in with teenage kids. Hotels are catering to the
childless, too; Italy's La Veduta country resort promises, "Your Tuscan
holiday will not be shattered by the clamor of children." In Rome, many
restaurants make it clear that children are not welcome"”in some cases
by establishing themselves as "clubs," where members must be older than
18 to join.

*shrug*  There are times when my wife and I like to get away from kids too, and we have a couple of them.  I know a few couples who have chosen to remain childless and I can assure you they are sick and tired of being asked about their childlessness like it was some kind of disease.  I am sure they will welcome a sense of normalcy for their chosen way to live.  Combining this trend with my observation that Parisians will take their dog anywhere, it is probably not long before there are public places in Paris where dogs are welcome but kids are not.

That doesn't mean that everyone shares my willingness to let folks live in peace like they choose.  Certain politicians around Europe seem to want to intervene (and isn't that why people become politicians in the first place -- to force other people into making choices that they would not have made for themselves?)

Politicians and religious leaders warn darkly of an "epidemic" of
childlessness that saps the moral fiber of nations; they blame the
child-free for impending population decline, the collapse of pension
systems and even the rise in immigration. In Japan, commentators have
identified the "parasite single" who lives off society instead of doing
his duty to start a family

In Germany, where the childless rate is the
highest in the world, at 25 percent, the best-seller lists have been
full of tomes forecasting demographic doomsday. In "Minimum," the
conservative commentator Frank Schirrmacher describes a "spiral of
childlessness," where a declining population becomes ever more
reluctant to have kids. Media reports have stigmatized the "cold career
woman""”one such recent article came with mug shots of childless female
celebs"”accusing them of placing their jobs before kids. Never mind that
Germany trails its neighbors in the availability of child care, or the
amount of time men spend helping around the house.

Germany to Russia, there is increasing talk of sanctions against the
childless. In Slovakia, a leading adviser on the government's Strategic
Council on Economic Development proposed in March to replace an
unpopular payroll tax with a levy on all childless Slovaks between the
ages of 25 and 50. In Russia, where the birthrate has dropped from 2.3
in the 1980s to 1.3 today, a powerful business lobby has called for an
income-tax surcharge on childless couples. In Germany, economists and
politicians have demanded that public pensions for the childless be
slashed by up to 50 percent"”never mind that such pensions were invented
as an alternative to senior citizens' having to depend on their

Suppresion of Scientific Enquiry

From the Boston Globe today:

"We do not understand the natural internal variability of climate
change" is one of Lindzen's many heresies, along with such zingers as
`"the Arctic was as warm or warmer in 1940," "the evidence so far
suggests that the Greenland ice sheet is actually growing on average,"
and "Alpine glaciers have been retreating since the early 19th
century, and were advancing for several centuries before that. Since
about 1970, many of the glaciers have stopped retreating and some are
now advancing again. And, frankly, we don't know why."

Lindzen published similar views in The Wall Street Journal this spring,
environmentalist Laurie David, the wife of comedian Larry David,
immediately branded him a "shill." She resurrected a shopworn slur
first directed against Lindzen by former Globe writer Ross Gelbspan,
who called Lindzen a "hood ornament" for the fossil fuels industry in
a 1995 article in Harper's Magazine....

For no apparent reason, the state of California, Environmental
Defense, and the Natural Resources Defense Council have dragged Lindzen
and about 15 other global- warming skeptics into a lawsuit over auto-
emissions standards. California et al . have asked the auto companies
to cough up any and all communications they have had with Lindzen and
his colleagues, whose research has been cited in court documents.

"We know that General Motors has been paying for this fake science exactly as the tobacco companies
did," says ED attorney Jim Marston. If Marston has a scintilla of
evidence that Lindzen has been trafficking in fake science, he should
present it to the MIT provost's office. Otherwise, he should shut up.

is the criminalization of opposition to global warming," says Lindzen,
who adds he has never communicated with the auto companies involved in
the lawsuit. Of course Lindzen isn't a fake scientist, he's an
inconvenient scientist. No wonder you're not supposed to listen to him.

My position on global warming and the state of global warming science is here.

Feds also Channeling Enron

A while back I wrote that the State of Arizona was continuing to maintain, year in and year out, an expensive process demanding overtime and extra work just to avoid "giving back" a one-time budget gain they took several years ago.  It appears the feds are playing the same game:

The bureaucratic brainstorm was straightforward "”
simple-minded is, perhaps, a more appropriate description "” don't pay
doctors, hospitals and their army of auxiliaries tending to indisposed
old folks and the afflicted disabled for their labors in the last nine
days of the current fiscal year. Instead, send them a check for what
you owe them, sometime after the first of October, the start of the
government's fiscal '07. In essence, those doctors, hospitals et al.
are making an involuntary loan of nine days' pay without interest.


That way, point out the gleeful budgeteers and Medicare pooh-bahs,
all of whom presumably are glowing with health, Uncle Sam's Medicare
tab this fading fiscal year will be $5.2 billion less than it otherwise
would have been. Or at least would seem to be $5.2 billion less "” in
Washington, as we all know, appearance and reality are not invariably
the same phenomena.

My only objection to Drum's post is his implication that this is a uniquely Bush-White-House maneuver.  I get tired of partisans on both sides of the aisle that try to blame crap like this on the other party.  This kind of thing is inherent in politics and government.  The Arizona example, which is entirely parallel and perhaps even worse given the year-after-year costs, was an invention of a Democratic governor.

Ramsey Back to OJ Mode

The Ramsey family is back to OJ mode, bravely searching for the "mysterious third party" that killed JonBenet, since the Boulder police have dropped all charges against their latest suspect.  OK, I'll say it, I told you so.  We just have to keep looking for the mysterious stranger who happened to know the Ramsey's were southern, knew how large the Ramsey's bonus check was, knew that Ms. Ramsey used the back stairs rather than the front to come to breakfast, had the balls to remain in the Ramsey's house for hours writing the ransom notes and arranging the scene....

Advertising Backfire

Many marketing analysts will argue that the famous Pepsi challenge advertisements helped Coke as much as Pepsi, by defining it in consumers minds as the standard to which other beverages should be compared, and by giving it nearly as many mentions to support name recognition as Pepsi gave itself.   The GAO reports that anti-drug advertising may be encountering the same type failure:

A Government Accountability Office report on research tracking the
impact of the federal government's $1.2 billion anti-drug ad campaign concludes
that "the evaluation provides credible evidence that the campaign was
not effective in reducing youth drug use, either during the entire
period of the campaign [1998 to 2004] or during the period from 2002 to
2004 when the campaign was redirected and focused on marijuana use."
The GAO adds that "exposure to the advertisements generally did not
lead youth to disapprove of using drugs and may have promoted
perceptions among exposed youth that others' drug use was
normal....Westat's evaluation indicates that exposure to the campaign
did not prevent initiation of marijuana use and had no effect on
curtailing current users' marijuana use, despite youth recall of and
favorable assessments of advertisements." In fact, during some periods
and for some subgroups, exposure to the ads was significantly
associated with an increased tendency to smoke pot.

Immigration Opponents Depend on Bad Public Schools

I have been spammed several times with messages breathlessly telling me I have to watch this video about why the free flow of people from poorer nations into the US looking for opportunity is so disastrous.  I had nothing else to do in my hotel room, so I watched a bit.

The video clearly relies on the fact that American students have had crappy education into US history.  He uses the period of 1925-1965 as his base period, to show how much higher immigration rates are today than in these years.  To try to make current immigration seem out of line, he gives us the first real whopper of the video - he actually calls 1925-1965 the "golden age of American immigration", implying it was an era of free and open immigration and representative of a high rate of immigration.  Anyone with any sort of history education should be able to smell a rat - after all, wasn't the late 19th and early 20th century the real period of immigration into this country? 

In fact, 1925-1965 was, on the metric of immigration as a percentage of US population (the correct way to index the number) the LOWEST and most restrictionist period of immigration in our entire history.  In fact, 1925-1965 was the golden age of xenophobic restriction laws (aimed mainly at that time at southern and eastern Europeans).

So, after the lecturer began his talk by saying that white is black, I was obviously not really interested in the rest  (not to mention the fact that he for some reason reminded me of across between Rutger Hauer and Crispin Glover playing a creepy takeover-the-world villain).  He tries to take an environmental approach, I guess to try to lure the Left into the nativist camp.  I will say his upward sloping population charts are pretty funny, given that they have absolutely no relationship to any credible forecast.  He seems to take the global warming modeler's approach to shifting assumptions to get that big hockey stick.  His argument is ridiculous, though.  If you believe that a unit of population brings with it a measure of environmental harm, then immigration doesn't really change the net harm to the globe, it only moves its effects around.  And I would argue that the US with its wealth and attention to environmental matters is in a far better position to mitigate these effects than say Mexico.  I addressed this conservative retread of Paul Ehrlich population bomb panic here.

Iraqi Dead Man's Switch

I was thinking on the airplane today about how to categorize our current situation in Iraq.  Its hard to draw exact conclusions about where we are there, because I don't think anyone is giving the whole story.  I am willing to believe that we have done a better job than the media has portrayed of rebuilding infrastructure and schools and wells and all that stuff, though at a horrendous cost.  I am also willing to believe that the Bush administration is downplaying crucial problems of factionalism and tribalism that they grossly underestimated before getting involved there.

My fear is that we have turned Iraq into a big dead man's switch, with the US army's finger on the button to keep things from blowing.  My fear, and I think a lot of people share it, is that as soon as we leave, and take our finger off that figurative switch, the whole place is going to blow up.  And, to overextend the metaphor, I can't see what the US is doing or can do to disarm the thing.  Its a lose-lose, as far as I can see, with a costly long-term occupation leaving us open to the "imperialism" meme on one hand, and reduced long-term credibility on the other, with a pull-out letting future allies and enemies alike know that there is a point at which we give up.  Its back to the old Wargames conclusion:  "Strange game -- the only winning move is not to play."

Another Thought on Wages

The NY Times is working to help the left coalesce its strategy for the upcoming elections, and it is pushing the notion that Wal-Mart represents everything that is wrong with the economy and that the Wal-Mart effect (supposedly holding down wages to augment profits) has caused real wages and middle class earnings to stagnate.

I have been addressing some of this piecemeal
, but it also occurred to me that something is different over the last two decades that radically effects average wages - that is, immigration.  This is not the "immigration drags down other people's wages" argument, something that most economists have debunked.  But since immigrants, legal or not, are new in the labor force, have fewer skills, and don't always have good English skills, their wages are lower.  My guess is that these lower immigrant wages bring down the average, and are one reason for apparent stagnation of wages.

The solution to this would be to do a time-series study - don't look at the average, but look at the same people and see what happened to their wages.  My sense is that most everyone in the pool is experiencing improving wages, but the fact that new people are entering the pool at the bottom of the wage ladder keeps the average wages for the whole pool flat.

Progressives in Their Own Words

From Kevin Drum, it's good when progressives make it clear to everyone what they want:  Control!

[emphasis added]  It's just that, left to their own devices, both humans and corporations
tend to act solely in their own self-interest. That's why we have laws
to control human behavior
, and it's why we need laws and regulations to
control corporate behavior. I prefer a society in which people don't
gun each other down in the streets, and I also prefer a society in
which middle class workers prosper when the economy grows. I support
laws that encourage both.

Woah!  Can't let all those damn individuals do whatever they please of
their own voluntary self-interest.  Don't they know they are supposed
to do what we intellectuals think best for them?  I want to repeat
this line:

That's why we have laws
to control human behavior

Actually, in governments with a strong grounding in individual rights,
we have laws to prevent people from acting using force or fraud on
other individuals.  So yes, we do have laws to stop people from
shooting each other, but these laws are philosophically a long step away from
laws that tell people what wage they can and cannot legally accept.   Preventing someone from using force against another is waaaaaaay different than using government force to prevent one or more individuals from acting voluntarily in their own self-interest.  The whole point of government in a free society is to prevent people
from trying to control each other by force, not, as Drum wants, for the
government to be the very agent of this control and coersion. 

People who root for more government control need to learn their lesson.  Both parties tend to set up mechanisms of control as if their own guys are going to run this machinery forever, only to freak out when the opposition party takes over and uses this machinery of control for its own purposes.  Thus Democrats lament that the machinery they built to control the drug market gets taken over by Republicans to ban the morning after pill, and that the public education system Democrats so love is co-opted by ID curriculum.  As I wrote here:

Again we hear the lament that the game was great until these
conservative yahoos took over.  No, it wasn't.  It was unjust to scheme
to control other people's lives, and just plain stupid to expect that
the machinery of control you created would never fall into your
political enemy's hands.

Drum makes these statements in the context of arguing that moderate Democrats should be irate about Wal-Mart and should be seeking to have the government sit on Wal-Mart in some way:

And one of the things that's changed is that Wal-Mart has gotten a lot
bigger, unions have continued shrinking, working class wages have
stagnated, and corporate power has grown tremendously. It's perfectly
rational for even moderate, pro-business Dems to look at the record of
the past couple of decades and conclude that things have gotten pretty
far out of whack and that Wal-Mart is a good symbol of this imbalance

One problem with this meme beyond the others I have pointed out in the past is that Wal-Mart is generally not supplanting (with one exception) unionized retailers.  In fact, the implication that Wal-Mart is somehow setting back unionization is actually a complete reversal of how Wal-Mart used to be hammered by critics.  Traditionally, Wal-Mart has been blamed for replacing small stores and family businesses which certainly aren't unionized, usually don't have health plans, and often pay lower wage scales than Wal-Mart does.  Now they are trying to reverse history, and claim instead that Wal-Mart has somehow been supplanting high-paid union jobs.  The only place where this could be argued to occur is in the supermarket business, where strong unions have dominated.  But these old-line unionized supermarkets were falling to competition from other supermarkets even before Wal-Mart came along.  And as to all those Chinese imports, well, I would LOVE to see a liberal try to twist themselves into a pretzel to make a progressive argument for why an impoverished person in China counts for less than a middle class person in the US.

The only real change in employee's fortunes is that employees who work for Wal-Mart are now more visible than they were when they worked for thousands of tiny local retailers, but are they really worse off and more powerless, or just a better target for populist rhetoric?  In fact, even if pay and benefits are the same as in a small store (and I think Wal-marts are probably better), Wal-Mart also offers opportunities for advancement and training far, far beyond the ma and pa store.

By the way, you know its election time when you hear this:

The American economy has changed for the worse over the past couple of decades if you're part of the working or middle class

Ahh, it reminds me of those heady days when Clinton was able to portray a modestly growing economy under Bush 1 the "worst economy since the great Depression."   Election rule to remember:  Republicans try to get elected by running down the morality of Americans, Democrats do so by running down their economic success.

Postscript:  I will admit there is one group who sometimes must accept wages that are not the result of pure voluntary agreement with an employer: Illegal immigrants.  Those who read this blog a lot will know I am very pro-immigration, and would like to see full, open immigration and there be no such thing as an "illegal" immigrant, except in narrow cases of convicted criminals, etc.  Illegal immigrants in many ways have the same problem as prostitutes, in that they have only limited legal redress when they are victims of force or fraud in their work.  Making currently illegal immigrants legal would do more to help disenfranchised workers than any slate of goofy government legislation to try to reinvigorate unions.

Update:  My past response to charges of widening income distribution was:  So what?  Also alot more links here.


The Government Disaster Monopoly

I have written a number of times that one of the problems with the Katrina aftermath was not that the federal government did too little, but that they try to do too much.  For example:

While turning down offers to help, when everyone agrees not enough
is being done, may seem unthinkable, these are actually predictable
outcomes from a [government] bureaucracy of technocrats.  Technocrats value process
over results, order and predictability over achievement.  More
important than having problems fixed is having an ordered process,
having everything and everyone under control.  In this context, you can
imagine their revulsion at the thought of having private citizens
running around on their own in the disaster area trying to help
people.  We don't know where they are!  We don't know what they are
doing!  They are not part of our process!  Its too chaotic! Its not
under control!

Nearly everyone who is in government has a technocratic impulse -
after all, if they believed that bottom up efforts by private citizens
working on their own was the way to get things done, they would not be
in government trying to override those efforts.  But most emergency
organizations are off the scale in this regard.  99% of their time,
they don't actually have an emergency to deal with - they are
planning.  They are creating elaborate logistics plans and procedures
and deployment plans.  Planners, rather than people of action,
gravitate to these organizations.  So, once a disaster really hits, the
planners run around in circles, hit by the dual problem of 1) their
beautiful plans are now obsolete, since any good general can tell you
that no plan ever survives first contact with the enemy and 2) they are
by nature still planners, trying to get order and process underway and
create a new updated plan, rather than just getting every possible
resource out there fixing the dang problem.

Kerry Howley in Reason's Hit and Run discusses a similar problem in Southeast Asia in the aftermath of the deadly Tsunami:

A year and a half after the deadliest tsunami in recorded history, a
pan-Asian warning system seems about as likely as, say, competent
airport security stateside. So Sri Lankans have poured donations into
DIY monitoring stations, using the Web and volunteers to watch for quakes...

How do officials react to the exciting new world of distributed warning technology?

But the government does not want ad-hoc tsunami warning centres handing out advice to local communities.

"Only the Met Department is authorised to give tsunami warnings and
evacuation orders. They cannot do it. It is illegal. That creates
unnecessary panic," Darmaratne said.

Just as in the Katrina aftermath, the government answer is that we would rather have nothing happen than positive efforts occur that we don't control (or take credit for).

I R Stoopid

About a year ago, after years of driving cleanly, I had a spate of 3-4 traffic tickets, mostly photo radar (in the same dang spot!) plus this silly one.  I received a warning that further tickets in the next year would lead to revocation of my license for a year.  Gulp.  So I have been driving like a grandmother, until yesterday when I got nailed for 45 in a 30, while arguing with my kids in the back seat. 

Now I will have to see if there is any way to mitigate or reduce the threatened punishment.  A one year's revocation, which by the way is longer than they give first time DUI's in this state, is a pretty harsh and financially burdensome penalty.  Especially given my small business requires a lot of driving to our remote locations and I contribute a lot to driving our kids.  I'll let you know how it goes, but if anyone is experienced with these situations in Arizona, feel free to comment or email.

More of Wal-Mart as Satan

I guess Exxon must be happy that after a really long run, they may finally be handing off the title of the left's great Satan to Wal-Mart.  Ezra Klein thinks government intervention to change the practices of Wal-Mart's managers, consumers, and employees is one of "the two or three most important issues facing the country" (hat tip: Instapundit).

Eegad!  My response in his comments:  "My guess is what is really worrying to you is that there is a large
group of people voluntarily and by individual choice making decisions
you don't agree with (e.g. to shop at Wal-Mart or to work at Wal-Mart)
and you are frustrated that no one has yet allowed you to become
economic fuehrer so that you can override by government coersion the
actions of individuals so you can force them to make decisions the way
that you think they should."

I have pointed out the great irony before that those who call themselves "progressive" are actually inherently conservative, hating capitalism for its chaos and unpredictability.  They hate new business models and often make common cause with incumbent competitors to get the government to halt such new competition (e.g. protection of US auto and steel vs. imports).

Update:  Sabastion Mallaby has an editorial in the Washington Post criticizing moderate Democrats for jumping on the anti-Wal-mart bandwagon

Update#2:  I realized that I forgot my usual caveat in my defense of Wal-Mart:  That is, Wal-Mart totally pisses me off in their rent-seeking from local government, benefiting from tax breaks and even eminent domain actions their competitors do not get the benefit of.  Also, I think their stores are aesthetic hell-holes I enter only under duress.  Wal-Mart has problems, I just don't agree they are the ones their critics harp on.  Tim Worstall's article reminded me I forgot this part.

Correlation Not Equal Causation

Apparently there is a new study being trumpeted by social conservatives to help them begin a new attack on raunchy song lyrics.  The Rand study to be published in the journal Pediatrics did phone interviews with a bunch of teenagers, asking them about their sexual habits and what songs they listen to.  They found a correlation that teenagers tend to listen to more sexually-degrading music also are more likely to subsequently begin having sex (or having more sex).  The articles reporting on this study have headlines like this:

Study: Raunchy Music = Earlier Sex

The implication is that listening to sexually-charged* music causes more early sex.  But in fact, they don't know that.   Before it starts to rain here in Phoenix, the sky goes dark and the winds pick up.  Does this mean that darkening skies and increasing winds cause rain?  Or are darkening skies and winds merely a leading edge symptom of a broader phenomena that also includes rain, which we might call "a thunderstorm moving through town."

Does interest in sexually degrading lyrics actually cause teenagers to have sex when they might not have otherwise?  Or is this interest in such music merely a leading indicator, a symptom on the leading edge of a larger phenomena that one might label "adolescence" or "hormone overload."  As an alternative hypothesis to explain the data, one could argue that listening to this music is merely an early low-risk form of sexual experimentation, like sneaking a peek at the Playboy magazines at the local 7-11, which then gets followed up by (but doesn't cause) physical sex. 

I don't know the answer.   Though few would describe me as a puritan, I certainly won't let some of that crappy music in the house (I do check what the kids are downloading on iTunes).  On the other hand, "Don't Fear the Reaper" was one of my favorite songs for years and I never felt the slightest urge to kill myself. 

What I do know is that you absolutely have to beware of the media when they report studies and statistics, and correlation=causation is their absolute favorite mistake to make.

* the article makes a second mistake, in that the study authors found a difference between the correlation of teen sex with sexually degrading music vs. just music with sexual content.  The media also misses this distinction.

Postscript:  This article about professional wrestling leading to teenage violence seems to make the same mistakes

Gee, at Least They Have Their Priorities Straight

I am trying to picture the discussion in the Colorado legislature.  Our public schools are struggling, what should we do?

A Jefferson County geography teacher was placed on paid administrative
on the second day of school for hanging several flags from other
countries in his classroom.

Eric Hamlin said the flags were part
of a world geography lesson plan at Carmody Middle School and refused
to take them down. The school's principal escorted Hamlin out of class
Wednesday morning after he refused to remove the flags of China and

The school district placed him on administrative leave
for insubordination, citing a Colorado law that makes it illegal to
display foreign flags permanently in schools.

"Under state law, foreign flags can only be in the classroom because
it's tied to the curriculum. And the principal looked at the
curriculum, talked to the teacher, and found that there was really no
curriculum coming up in the next few weeks that supported those flags
being in the classroom," said Jeffco Public Schools spokeswoman Lynn

It all reminds me of this guy.  Colorado has elected a number of strong nativists to their public offices, and they have taken the lead in many anti-immigrant efforts (that's the nativists whose ancestors immigrated from Europe over the last couple of centuries, not the nativists who were actually, you know, here first).  I think its helpful to see where following these idiots will take us.  Anyone still want to argue that strong immigration opponents aren't xenophobes?

Hat tip: Reasons Hit and Run

Waiting for My Disaster Relief Check

Phoenix hit with rains and flooding.  Where's FEMA?  Where's Bush?  Where's my $2000 Visa card?  The government is intentially ignoring us because, uh, we're all rich white people with plastic surgery.  I heard that tens of refugees were all trapped in a local Hooters for hours and hours with no national gaurd to protect them. 

Below is the Indian Bend Wash mentioned in the article, which is next to my house:


LOL, the whole town was laughing at the national coverage our morning rainstorm got.  Drive time DJ's were particularly mocking Wolf Blitzers breathless commentary.  They were interviewing people who had panicked calls from out of town relatives who had seen the coverage, only to meet with confused shrugs of local residents who may not even have noticed.


The rain lasted barely longer than an hour, and the streets were dry by the time I went to get the kids from school.  We did have flash flooding in our "washes" (what we call dry river beds) but that is to be expected since desert soil does not absorb water quickly and so you get a lot of water runoff.  Also, Phoenix has few storm sewers -- it accepts the fact that things flood once every two years or so, and accepts the costs involved as cheaper than building more infrastructure, which I think is correct.  The golf course is flooded (creating a new island-green) because that's where we put golf courses here - in the dry river bottoms.  The grass grows better there and the land can't be used for anything else and its only a couple of adays a year they get flooded out.

(By the way, yeah, I know I screwed up stitching together the panorama - some of the tree trunks don't match.  I was in a bit of a hurry)