Archive for August 2009

Another Grim Milestone: Federal Workers Now Make Twice What Private Workers Earn

Via Chris Edwards at Cato, from recent government data:

200908_edwards_blog2

I Am Pasting This To My Wife's Computer Tonight

Server Problems

Having the dreaded WordPress WP-Cron bad behavior with my server resources, causing my host to be less than amused.  Working on it....

Good Job With Those Layers Of Editing

From the AP today, whose editors obviously all failed chemistry

apco

Must be edited by Mr. Mom -- CO, CO2, whatever it takes.

Your Government At Work: Buying Dollar Bills for $3

From Edmunds:

Consumers who traded in their clunkers through the program also benefitted financially, generally speaking. Based on preliminary data, Edmunds.com estimates that the average cash value of the traded-in clunkers was $1,475. The owners of those vehicles earned rebates for either $3,500 or $4,500, depending on the replacements vehicles they chose. Edmunds.com Senior Analyst David Tompkins, PhD, points out that many will also save money on gas each month, thanks to their more efficient new purchases.


So the government is paying consumers $4500 for assets with a market value of $1,475.  Well of course it's a popular program with its participants -- Obama is buying up dollar bills for $3.

Left undetermined is whether consumers have been enticed into more expensive cars they cannot afford by this $3000 windfall.   It seems like just yesterday when the Obama administration was slamming credit card companies for enticing people into debt with low teaser rates or slamming mortgage companies for enticing people into mortgages they could not afford.

By the way, someone needs to explain the economics behind the theory that lining auto dealers pockets with taxpayer money is stimulative to the economy:

"Our analysts have determined that dealers are enjoying a 20 percent increase in gross profit per sale involving a clunker trade-in since the program launched."

But What Keeps McDonalds From Charging $100 for a Big Mac?

Jesse Jackson, Jr. is freaking brilliant.   When Larry King challenged him (well, not really, King never challenges anyone, particularly on the left) that people see the public option as health care by the Post Office, Jackson replied:

Look at it this way: There's Federal Express, there's UPS, and there's DHL "¦ The public option is a stamp; it's email. And because of the email system, because of the post office, it keeps DHL from charging $100 for an overnight letter, or UPS from charging $100 for an overnight letter.

This is really a weird view of the world, particularly given the history of how Fedex started.  It's amazing, given this logic, that McDonald's doesn't charge $100 for a Big Mac, given that there is no government competitor in that market.

The reality of course is that the relationship works the other way around - Fedex and UPS keep the Post Office in check.  Many of the Post Office's most recent service offerings were copied from UPS and Fedex.  After decades of trying, the USPS still can't emulate these companies' most basic service offerings, such as offering door-to-door tracking of packages.

By the way, here is a graph of the USPS keeping a lid on the industry's costs (via Carpe Diem):

stamps
It should be noted that the Post Office is still losing money at the current stamp price.

Also from Carpe Diem is this little service parable

The stamp vending machine at the downtown Flint Post Office no longer sells stamps, it sits there empty. Right next to the dark, empty vending machine for stamps sit two fully operational, bright and shiny vending machines, one for soft drinks and one for snacks, presumably owned and operated by a private, for-profit vending machine company (see photo above).

Cojones

The Kennedy's have never been shy about using the government as their own personal plaything:

Senator Ted Kennedy, who is gravely ill with brain cancer, has sent a letter to Massachusetts lawmakers requesting a change in the state law that determines how his Senate seat would be filled if it became vacant before his eighth full term ends in 2012. Current law mandates that a special election be held at least 145 days after the seat becomes available. Mr. Kennedy is concerned that such a delay could leave his fellow Democrats in the Senate one vote short of a filibuster-proof majority for months while a special election takes place...

What Mr. Kennedy doesn't volunteer is that he orchestrated the 2004 succession law revision that now requires a special election, and for similarly partisan reasons. John Kerry, the other Senator from the state, was running for President in 2004, and Mr. Kennedy wanted the law changed so the Republican Governor at the time, Mitt Romney, could not name Mr. Kerry's replacement.

"Prodded by a personal appeal from Senator Edward M. Kennedy," reported the Boston Globe in 2004, "Democratic legislative leaders have agreed to take up a stalled bill creating a special election process to replace U.S. Senator John F. Kerry if he wins the presidency."

Jobs Data Question

In 1946, a factory might employ its own cafeteria staff, the people who cleaned the bathrooms and windows, the folks who painted the building, even mechanics for the motor pool.  Today, all that stuff is outsourced.  The work and jobs are still there, but the jobs have been outsourced to service companies so the factory can focus just on production.

Are manufacturing jobs numbers smart enough to take this into account, or is the (relative) decline in manufacturing jobs in part attributable to unwinding of vertical integration and outsourcing of work to service companies?

To be very specific:  Is an accountant in a factory a manufacturing job, or a service job in the government numbers?  Certainly this person is a service worker if he is an independent contractor working for the factory, but what if he is employed in the factory with an office in the factory on the factory's payroll?

Anyone know?

Light Rail Uses Twice the Energy as Driving

One of the justifications for diverting highway money to ridiculously expensive light rail systems is that light rail supposedly reduces energy consumption.  Really?  This is via the most recent report from the DOE's Transportation Energy Book, as highlighted by the Anti-Planner (click to enlarge):

light-rail-energy

The figures for cars are from tables 2.12 and 2.13 of the same report.  Even the best light rail systems are not substantially more efficient than cars, and this gap will likely continue to close, as it has for years, as cars get more efficient.

A Note on Freight: By the way, passenger rail promoters in the US always point to the Europeans as having a better rail system.  But while the Europeans put more of their passengers on rail than does the US, they put less of their freight there.  I would argue that the US system is much more "green", as the differences in energy use between a ton mile of freight on road vs. rail is much larger than the difference in energy use of a passenger mile on road vs. rail.  And besides, from a lifestyle standpoint, would you really want more freight on the roads?  (This is a real tradeoff -- unless one spends the absurd amount of money to build two separate systems, a rail network can be optimized for freight or passengers -- the two do not coexist very well on the same tracks).

Postscript: Just to head off the obvious rhetorical battles -- the incremental energy efficiency of moving one driver to a light rail rider of an existing system is very high.  The car consumption goes away and the train does not incrementally increase its energy use much with one more passenger.  So at the margin, it is correct when someone tells you that it saves energy to shift your commuting to an existing light rail line.  However, it does not make sense, from an energy perspective, to build a light rail line in the first place.  The investment is too high, the energy savings are negligible or non-existent, and the operating cost are so high that light rail tends to crowd out bus operations that help the poor.  As I have written before, for every light rail system I have checked, the cost to build the system is enough to buy every daily rider a Prius and the operating deficit enough to keep every one of these Prius's filled with gas.

Update:  I further understand that cars in the city likely have lower gas mileages than these averages, particularly for commutes that might be substituted by light rail.  But light rail is sold as if it is substantially more energy efficient, and it really would have to be orders of magnitude more efficient to justify the capital costs that are so much higher than for an equivalent capacity of roadway.  The efficiency is just not there.

My Answer on Private Health Insurance

A Cafe Hayek Reader asks:

Imagine we had entirely private health insurance market "“ no Medicare or Medicaid.  If I live to be sixty-five, I will probably have a personal and/or family history that indicates a strong probability of developing an expensive chronic condition. I would wager that is true of almost all sixty-five year olds.

So here is my question: which insurer in their right mind would take on my risk?

I suspect none. Once philanthropy and savings were exhausted, I would surely risk a painful life and preventable death.

Do I want this? Does anyone? Isn't "socialized" medicine for older people an unpleasant moral necessity for our wealthy society? Please note I am deeply suspicious of most arguments cast in moral terms in discussions of politics and economics. I ask these questions guardedly.

I answer in the comments:

Imagine we had entirely private life insurance market "“ no government options at all. If I live to be sixty-five, I will probably have a pretty high probability of dieing in the next 15 years or so. I would wager that is true of almost all sixty-five year olds.

So why would anyone insure me?

Because the life insurance market has developed a very reasonable solution to this -- you negotiate a term life rate for X number of years. Your rate might be Y a year for 10 years, or 1.5Y a year for 20 years, or 2Y a year for 30 years. The longer the rate guarantee, the higher the rate. You are explicitly paying higher rates than you might have in younger, less risky years to make sure you get a coverage guarantee at an affordable rate in later, risky years.

Of course, if you play the grasshopper and never buy insurance until you are 65, your price is going to be awful. But I don't think it is a reasonable role for government to do all kinds of individual-liberty-defying and costly things just because you did not take responsibility for your old age earlier in life. However, saying that, I of course know that this is EXACTLY what the government does with Social Security.

I have a high deductible individual insurance plan from Assurant who specializes in insuring individuals, and they have been evolving to a pricing model sort of similar to the term life model I listed above, though they are not quite there yet.

To the folks that say this is no solace for folks already 65, that is an implementation transition issue, not an argument against the market's ability to deal with this. Certainly a lot of folks have paid Medicare taxes for years and are counting on it. Some kind of phase out, possibly where the government redirects Medicare funds to make up the difference in policy prices for having not started locking in earlier, is possible. But the question was not an implementation question - it was a question of whether the market inherently fails for 65-year olds, and I think the answer is that it does not. We have a perfectly serviceable analog in life insurance to prove it

I call this the "failure of imagination" argument against free markets.  Some sector of the economy (such as education) has been dominated by government for so long that folks can't imagine a private model.  For example, when I argue for private grade school education, I can't tell you how often people say "private schools are all really expensive, no one could afford them."  Private schools are expensive because in the current government model, the only market niche for private schools is for families that can afford to pay the government for education they don't use and then pay a second time for a private school.

Eeeek!

Readers probably remember that I am against the death penalty.   My main objection is that it effectively short-circuits appeal rights.  Sure, people sent to death row get a lot of appeals, but those appeals are relatively narrow in time, say over 8-10 years.  Would 10 years of appeals help a black man put wrongly on death row in Alabama in 1955?  It wasn't until 20-30 years later, or even 50 years later, that both society and technology have changed enough to free a lot of people in jail.  Just look at how many people the Innocence Project has helped to free, and how many are starting to be freed with DNA.

In this context, I found this statement (via Stephen Littau of the Liberty Papers) particularly frightening.

"This court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is "˜actually' innocent. Quite to the contrary, we have repeatedly left that question unresolved, while expressing considerable doubt that any claim based on alleged "˜actual innocence' is constitutionally cognizable." "“ From the dissenting opinion by Justices Scalia and Thomas on the question of whether death row inmate Troy Davis should receive a new trial after 7 eye witnesses against him recanted their testimonies against Davis.

If innocence does not matter, what the hell does??

Congress Is Listening... Sort of

Congress now understands that the majority of the public has deep concerns about their government health care bill.  So, they are responding by ... finding new and creative legislative approaches to a) avoid public scrutiny of what they are actually putting into the bill and b) reduce the number of votes they need for passage.  Kevin Drum explains the game:

The latest trial balloon from the Democratic leadership is that they might split healthcare reform into two bills.  The first would have all the controversial provisions and would go through the reconciliation process, where it needs only 50 votes.  The second would go through the normal process and therefore need 60 votes, but since it includes the stuff that's widely popular it would pass anyway.

I told you weeks ago they were going to pass this pig no matter what it took.  So now the only real floor vote will be on percieved benefits (more coverage, more spending, consumer mandates) while the costs, taxes, and individual restrictions will get done in the back room, where blue dogs can disavow any responsibility.

If this becomes unstoppable, I think the Republicans should make a high profile effort to move the implementation date up from 2013 to well before the next presidential election.   You can always tell whether legislators know in their hearts if something they are passing is really going to suck for a lot of people.  They push the implementation date back  (despite the fierce moral urgency to hurry up on this, as we are told) to after the next election.

Government and Architecture

This is apparently the strange palace the US Government built to house Civil War pension records (c. 1918)

29723upreview

To my untrained eye, it reminds me of  this resort swimming pool in Florida (they sure don't build 'em like this any more):

4a03475apreview

By Hatchet, Axe, and Saw

In case you weren't sure what progressives were after:

The outgoing leader of Greenpeace has issued a call for the suppression of economic growth in the U.S. and Western nations. Under questioning by BBC reporter Stephen Sackur on the August 5, 2009 "Hardtalk" program, Gerd Leipold, the retiring leader of Greenpeace, said "the lifestyle of the rich in the world is not a sustainable model.

Excerpt from NotEvilJustWrong.com: "Leipold told the BBC that there is an urgent need for the suppression of economic growth in the United States and around the world. He said annual growth rates of 3 percent to 8 percent cannot continue without serious consequences for the climate."

"We will definitely have to move to a different concept of growth. ... The lifestyle of the rich in the world is not a sustainable model," Leipold told the BBC.

"If you take the lifestyle, its cost on the environment, and you multiply it with the billions of people and an increasing world population, you come up with numbers which are truly scary," Leipold explained.

Left unexplained by Leipold is how environmental conditions in the US have improved substantially over the last 100 years, not just coincident with but because of economic growth and growing wealth.   Our country looked like China 100 years ago, but growing wealth gave us the ability not only to produce, but to produce much more cleanly.   On virtually every metric you can name, the US is cleaner than it was even 30 years ago.  On many key metrics, like water quality and sulfur dioxide production, we are cleaner even than Europe and certainly cleaner than most Third World nations.

By the way, if you really want to tick someone off at Greenpeace, you should observe that the person most responsible for saving the whales was not anyone at Greenpeace, but was John D. Rockefeller.  Greenpeace may have saved a few by jumping their boat in front of some Japanese or Russian harpoons, but Rockefeller made whaling unprofitable.

Which brings us full circle to the "growth killing the planet" issue.  I made fun of this static view of man and technology here when  I wrote a hypothetical 1870 post on the Peak Whale Theory

As the US Population reaches toward the astronomical total of 40 million persons, we are reaching the limits of the number of people this earth can support.    If one were to extrapolate current population growth rates, this country in a hundred years could have over 250 million people in it!  Now of course, that figure is impossible - the farmland of this country couldn't possibly support even half this number.  But it is interesting to consider the environmental consequences.

Take the issue of transportation.  Currently there are over 11 million horses in this country, the feeding and care of which constitute a significant part of our economy.  A population of 250 million would imply the need for nearly 70 million horses in this country, and this is even before one considers the fact that "horse intensity", or the average number of horses per family, has been increasing steadily over the last several decades.  It is not unreasonable, therefore, to assume that so many people might need 100 million horses to fulfill all their transportation needs.  There is just no way this admittedly bountiful nation could support 100 million horses.  The disposal of their manure alone would create an environmental problem of unprecedented magnitude.

Or, take the case of illuminant.  As the population grows, the demand for illuminant should grow at least as quickly.  However, whale catches and therefore whale oil supply has leveled off of late, such that many are talking about the "peak whale" phenomena, which refers to the theory that whale oil production may have already passed its peak.  250 million people would use up the entire supply of the world's whales four or five times over, leaving none for poorer nations of the world.

Post title from here (lyrics here)

Being Slower and More Beauracratic Than GM Can't Be Good

One of the reasons GM entered bankrupcy was that its slow and ponderous beauracracy couldn't handle the pace of the modern marketplace.  But one thing even than beauracracy could do was produce dealer rebate checks in a timely manner.  When many of your dealers are running on only a thin cash flow margin, even GM knew it was important to get rebate checks to dealers quickly.

So it is a bad sign that the government, who wants to run the auto industry, the banking industry and soon the health care industry, can't seem to process checks in a timely manner:

Some New Mexico auto dealers have backed out of the cash-for-clunkers program and more may do so as the federal government takes its time providing cash reimbursements.

Dealers across the state are owed more than $3.6 million, according to a dealers' group which says that so far Uncle Sam has only written three checks totaling about $14,000....

Dealerships put up the cash for the rebates after being told by the Obama administration they would be paid back within 10 days of the sale.

And here:

Hundreds of auto dealers in the New York area have withdrawn from the government's Cash for Clunkers program, citing delays in getting reimbursed by the government, a dealership group said Wednesday.The Greater New York Automobile Dealers Association, which represents dealerships in the New York metro area, said about half its 425 members have left the program because they cannot afford to offer more rebates. They're also worried about getting repaid....

Schienberg said the group's dealers have been repaid for only about 2 percent of the clunkers deals they've made so far.

Many dealers have said they are worried they won't get repaid at all, while others have waited so long to get reimburse

The problems cited in other analyses are two that I see all the time in dealing with the government:

  1. Obsession with minute paperwork errors, and rejection of applications for the smallest errors.  For a variety of reasons, government clerks in this kind of program seldom have the knowledge, the incentives, or even the ability to parse between errors and omissions that matter and errors and omissions that are irrelevant.   In fact, if the same application comes back 5 times, that's just more job security.  I have discussed this a number of times, as state liquor license boards have rejected our applications repeatedly for ridiculously small, meaningless errors (here and here, for example)

    Here is my prediction:  You will soon see someone inside the government blaming the dealers, saying it is all because they are not following the 300-page process correctly or not filling out the forms correctly.

  2. Absolute unwillingness to write a check.  Some of you know that I am in the odd position of being a libertarian who does a lot of business with the government, a result of my effort to privatize the operation of public recreation.  I am in the position of sometimes paying the government money (I typically don't get paid to operate a facility, I operate it for profit and pay the government a rent or concession fee) and sometime in the position of getting paid.  The government always demands all of its money owed to it well in advance (think of withholding, where you pay the government your taxes months before the true April 15 deadline).  The government only pays in arrears, and sometimes well in arrears.  Last winter, my funding troubles (when my bank holding my line of credit went bust) were aggravated by the fact that the government took 15 months to pay us $175,000 they owed us, at the same time it demanded an additional $500,000 in advance rent payments on the next year.

By the way, since every post related to the government this month must be related to health care in some way, what they government is doing on cash for clunkers is highly related to the difference in overhead costs between Medicare and private insurance companies.

The cash for clunkers processing is taking a long time in part because the government is worried about fraud and wants to make sure every car it pays out on was really qualifying and destroyed properly.  This takes time and manpower and overhead.  But this is exactly what private medical insurance companies spend their overhead on -- making sure that claims are real and justified and are not padded.  Medicare has lower overhead costs, in part because of government accounting hides some overhead, but in part because Medicare does not do any due diligence before it cuts a check.  It gets a form, it sends out a check.  It does little checking to see if the claim is real.

The Older I Get...

It used to be said that it was the young who distrusted police and authority, while as people aged they became more conservative and comfortable with authority and the police, ostensibly because they had more wealth and position to protect.  Al Franken had a sketch on SNL where he explicitly poked fun at this, saying something like "when I was young, I opposed the draft, but now that I am over draft age, I support the draft to protect me, Al Franken... etc. etc."

Oddly enough, I have had exactly the opposite progression.  In high school I was a police-loving, authority trusting, border-closing little conservative, cheering on Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson in 1970's movies where loan heroes fight against the degradation of police departments by civil libertarian pinko bleeding hearts.

The older I get, and the more experience I gain, the less I trust any authority and in particular the less I trust police officers who are given the power to use force and the authority to cover up its misuse.  Yet another good example.  So Dirty Harry and Death Wish have been replaced in my favorites list by the Wire.

Open Letter to Whole Foods Boycotters

It is good to see that you have found a tangible way to respond to the editorial written by the Whole Foods CEO.  Your ability to pursue such a boycott is one of the great things about a free market. There are literally hundreds of food shopping choices in a large city, with a variety of value propositions from the low-cost but ambiance-challenged Wal-Mart or Target to the farmers market. Its great to see folks exercising their choice in the free market to take their business elsewhere.

Besides, if nothing else, it provides the majority of us entertainment value as we enjoy the irony of people exercising their free choice shopping in the highly competitive and diverse grocery marketplace to boycott someone who advocated maintaining choice and a diversity of options in the health care market. Hope all of you have great success boycotting the single payer medical system you long for when you don't like something it does, and I hope the single one-size-fits-all insurance option you have happens to match your individual preferences.

Anyway, I give you an A for political activism but an F for marketing if you believe Whole Foods customer base is all liberal or progressive. It may be so in downtown SF or Seattle. But most of Whole Foods stores are in places like Scottsdale, and Houston, and Dallas. For a large portion of Whole Foods customers, it is not some progressive statement, but it is simply a premium-priced grocery store selling premium quality foods. Though I suppose the Scottsdale country club mom in her new Jag gets some psychic boost from shopping there, kind of like buying a carbon offset.

Seriously -- I bet that most of Whole Food's most profitable customers just don't care about this progressive stuff. They don't go looking for fair trade coffee, or whatever. They don't care Whole Foods buys all wind power (in Texas, where the market allows this). They don't know how the employees are treated and paid. I shop there and I had no clue as to their HR policies until this week when they have been in the news.

Whole Foods does this stuff because Mackey and most of his team really believe in it. They are truly passionate about it, not like some company like Kraft who creates an organic cheese SKU because the consultants said there was a market niche for it. Really, are there 5 other corporate CEO's in the Fortune 500 whose beliefs and the way they manage more closely match what progressives would want to see? Is there even one? But this is the guy y'all are choosing to go after, this one company out of all the Fortune 500, because he disagreed with the progressive orthodoxy on a single piece of legislation? Jeez, this is like conservatives boycotting Fox News because they put a single liberal pundit on from 2-2:30AM.

Maybe Corporations Are Finally Learning

Obama is offering broadband companies billions of dollars in other peoples money.  However, with a number of high profile examples out there of the control the Administration intends to extract in exchange for the money, the companies are probably are going to turn the money down.

Good.  I wish the government would place ridiculously onerous terms on all its farm and industrial subsidies so that everyone would turn the money down.

Time To Pull Out Those 19th Century Constitutional Law Books

I may just be showing how ignorant I am on the subject, but my sense has always been that state nullification of federal laws is a tool not much tried or used since the first half of the 19th century.  While a number of our Founders, particularly Jefferson, saw state nullification (not the Supreme Court) as the key check on arbitrary or unconstitutional Federal legislation, the whole subject sort of gained a taint, along with states rights, by its association with the South's defense of slavery.

Anyway, state opposition to the Real ID law has been an pretty interesting and frankly, for this libertarian, exciting re-invigoration of this potential check on Federal power.  We have also seen efforts in states like California and Colorado to effectively nullify certain Federal drug laws.  Now Arizona, among other states, is seeking to nullify bits of the proposed Federal health care legislation:

Right on the heels of a successful state-by-state nullification of the 2005 Real ID act, the State of Arizona is out in the forefront of a growing resistance to proposed federal health care legislation.

This past Monday, the Arizona State Senate voted 18-11 to concur with the House and approve the Health Care Freedom Act (HCR2014).  This will put a proposal on the 2010 ballot which would constitutionally override any law, rule or regulation that requires individuals or employers to participate in any particular health care system.

HCR2014, if approved by voters next year, also would prohibit any fine or penalty on anyone or any company for deciding to purchase health care directly. Doctors and health care providers would remain free to accept those funds and provide those services.

Finally, it would overrule anything that prohibits the sale of private health insurance in Arizona.

Five other states "” Indiana, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Dakota and Wyoming "” are considering similar initiatives for their 2010 ballots.

I have zero idea if this is legal or possible, but I am all for trying.   And I say this knowing that as an employer, the legal mess it may create for me could be awful.  I could easily see a situation where it is required under Federal law that we enroll employees but illegal to do so under state law.  I can easily see a situation developing similar to what medical marijuana growers face in California, pulled back and forth between state and federal law.

I Feel Like I'm Taking Crazy Pills

Just as a brief aside, it is sometimes entertaining to be a libertarian without an affiliation to either the Coke or Pepsi party.  It's amazing, from the perspective of standing off to the side on a point of the political spectrum that most civics books don't even acknowledge exists**, how much of political discourse is team-loyalty politics rather than meaningful policy discussion.

The posts that happened to set me off down this path were a pair from Kevin Drum about poor Barney Frank having to meet rowdy protestors and a lament on the frustrations of cloture in the Senate, but I am not particularly singling him or the left out.  In fact, I read Drum because he is less bad on the team politics angle than others.  I force myself to read a couple of political blogs on the left and right to see what they are saying.  A few observations:

  • Both teams are absolutely convinced that they are occupying the high ground and it is the other side that is resulting to personal attacks, negative campaigning, astroturfing, whatever.  Seriously, its really hilarious -- I see exactly the same posts written about "our side is losing because we don't resort to the low tactics of the other side" written by bloggers on both sides of the political spectrum on the same day.
  • Both teams are absolutely convinced that the media does not give their side the coverage or respect they deserve.
  • Both teams are guilty of trying to block dissent through clever rhetorical games without having to actually answer policy critiques.  Team red did it with the Iraq war, saying it was wrong to criticize a President in wartime, a useful concept when it is combined with the theory that the President can declare any time to be wartime.   Team blue takes a different approach, by claiming any opposing argument on subjects like climate or health care are being raised as part of plots funded by nefarious interest groups, and so therefore don't deserve a response.
  • Both teams hold up wacky members of the opposing team's fringes and attempt to portray them as representative of the mainstream opposition.  (OK, I may have been guilty of this once or twice myself)
  • Both teams can be loud and strident where they are energized and ticked off (this is a good thing).  Both teams have recently compared the opposition president to Hitler.   Both teams have been "obstructionist" as the minority in Congress.  Both teams have dreamed of changing the filibuster rules in the Senate while in the majority.  Both teams have freaked at suggestions the filibuster rules in the Senate would be changed while in the minority.  Both teams have promised bipartisanship when they were in the majority and not delivered on it.  Both teams have members who are corrupt.  Both teams have members who have had affairs.
  • Both teams have supposed evil genius schemers in the background (Rahm Emanuel meet Karl Rove).  Both teams have found it convenient to make concerted personal attacks on individual opponents (Sarah Palin meet Bill Clinton).
  • Both teams have promised respect for the Constitution in the Executive office and not delivered on it.  Both teams have promised a less interventionist foreign policy and never delivered on it (people forget GWB first campaigned almost as an isolationist against Clinton's Kosovo interventions).  Both teams have Presidents who are addicted to signing statements.  Both teams have really gone after selected Supreme Court nominees.
  • Both teams have Congressmen who support ethanol subsidies, which thoughtful people agree are stupid.  Both teams have Congressmen who support farm subsidies, which thoughtful people agree are stupid.  Both teams have Congressmen who support trade interventions (e.g. sugar tariffs) which thoughtful people agree are stupid.  Both teams have actively supported ratcheting up the war on drugs, which some thoughtful people may agree with but I think is stupid.  Both teams have voted in the last 15 years for major government interventions in medicine, education, and limitations on personal freedoms in the name of security.  When team blue was in power, it supported a law that was basically the Patriot Act, but had it voted down due to team red opposition.  When team red was in power, it forcefully pushed through the Patriot Act which it had previously opposed, this time against the opposition of team blue members who had previously supported it.

All this is not to say that libertarians are necessarily better people.  If we had a real team that wasn't a political joke, we'd probably engage in similar behaviors.  Of course, the difference is that we would be trying to lower the stakes of the political game rather than continue to raise them.

** Footnote: I don't know about you, but my civics textbooks in elementary school described a 2-dimensional political spectrum that ran from "fascism" on the political right to "communism" at the extreme of the left.  How does a libertarian even place himself on a spectrum that ranges from totalitarian statism to totalitarian statism?   I haven't seen such textbooks lately, so I don't know if this "heads statism wins, tails freedom loses" approach to the political spectrum still exists.

By the way, I have been reading a book called The Vampire Economy by Gunter Reimann, published in 1939.  It is a description of the economic policy of Nazi Germany, a subject that gets very little coverage because, frankly, later Nazi atrocities are such a magnet for attention.

I challenge anyone to read that book and find any substantial point of differentiatoin between Hitler's economy and a strongly socialist country.  And the section on strong-arming the banking industry for political goals was especially entertaining the context of the last 2 administrations.

Hitler approached his later war with Russia as an ideological war to the finish between polar opposites, but in fact it was really a feud between blood brothers.

Full Quote Referenced in the Title from Zoolander: "The man has only one look, for Christ's sake! Blue Steel? Ferrari? Le Tigra? They're the same face! Doesn't anybody notice this?  I feel like I'm taking crazy pills!"

When You Look Up "Ungrateful" In the Dictionary, You Will Find This Lady

Via Overlawyered, from here:

Lisa jumped out of the plane with Robin Rohemo, her tandem partner, and that's when it got really thrilling - the main parachute failed to deploy and Lisa hurtled toward the ground, somersaulting in the air, terrified of imminent and certain death when she'd smash into the [ground] at 100 miles per hour.

Luckily for Lisa, Mr. Rohemo knew exactly what to do during this mid-air free fall. First, he tried to cut the failed main chute off. Failing that, he told Lisa he needed her to stand on his knees and hold on. Lisa's words: "So I am holding as tight as I possibly could standing on his knees as we are falling to our death and I just felt this tremendous pressure pull on my hand ... and I figured we were going to die ...." Rohemo was able to free up the back-up chute, he and Lisa floated down to safety and no one died that day.

Whew, what a thrill. Maybe Lisa should've paid extra for the additional thrill. Instead, because her third and fourth fingers were fractured during the fall, she lawyered up and sued SkyDive claiming that Rohemo - her savior - had wrongfully told her to hold tight to a dangerous area of the parachute he was trying to cut away and then never told her to let go at an appropriate time. This, she and her lawyer claimed, presented Lisa with an enhanced risk not assumed or inherent in a tandem jump.

I don't know enough about parachuting to understand if she should be ticked off her main chute was packed wrong or something, but since that is not the basis of the suit, I assume that was not the issue.  Nevertheless, I would be sending Mr. Rohemo a case of scotch every Christmas for the rest of his life.  Lisa is suing him.

US Medicine -- Best In The World

Supporters of government medicine often quote a statistic that shows life expectancy in the US lower than most European nations with government-run health systems.  But what they never mention is that this ranking is mainly due to lifestyle and social factors that have nothing to do with health care.  Removing just two factors - death from accidents (mainly car crashes) and murders - vaults the US to the top of the list.  Here, via Carpe Diem, are the raw and corrected numbers:

lifeexpectancy

The Mark Perry post linked above has links in turn to the study itself and its methodology.  You may have seen stats that say that, using raw data, the US has the best life expectancy once you reach age 65.  This is just another way of correcting out higher accident and murder rates, as these tend to affect younger folks.

My guess is that if one corrected for other lifestyle issues and environmental factors that increase the incidence rates of things like heart disease in the US (discussion here), then the US lead would be even more stark.  If one takes the left at its word that the US starts in a health care "hole" with poor diet, obesity, environmental problems, etc., then the US medical care system, despite starting in a hole, is able to still raise US life expectancies above other countries.

One big reason is cancer survival rates, which dwarf those in Europe.  It is at such leading and expensive edges of medicine where one might expect the US system to get much better results, and it does.

But it is often said that this is only for the rich -- that the poor in the US don't benefit.  Well, this is a difficult proposition to test, as income mobility (which is very real in this country no matter how much the left denies it) makes correlation of income (say by quartile) and life expectancy impossible.  During a person's lifetime, they might inhabit several different quartiles.

A proxy I think the left might accept is one  of race.  If one assumes that African-Americans are among the systematically disenfranchised in the health care system, then it should show up in their stats.  The results are something that gives ammunition to both sides of the debate.

cancer

Clearly, there are two tiers, as African Americans have poorer cancer survival rates than white Americans.  But, for many types of cancer, African-Americans have higher survival rates than they would in many European countries.

This is the endless do-loop of inequality debates.  Is inequality OK if it results the folks lower on the totem pole being better off than in a more egalitarian society.  For me, the answer seems obvious.  Absolute well-being seems far more meaningful than relative well-being.  But I am not necessarily in the strong majority on this.  I had a professor that used to poll his class -- he would ask them if they would prefer a society where the gap between rich and poor was narrower but where the poor were, on an absolute basis, worse off than in the less equal society.  He reported the vote almost always split about 50/50.  (of course the is a purely utilitarian formulation of the question.  Adding in individual liberties issues makes the question far more stark, as to achieve an egalitarian society one must give up both wealth and liberty.)

Moolah for Mainframes

from a reader:

The White House is secretly planning to follow "Cash For Clunkers" with a new scam called "Moolah For Mainframes" that will reward CIOs for replacing mainframes with smartphones and turning data centers into wetlands. The top-secret plans also say the Administration will launch a government-run IT company in 2010 "to keep those greedy private IT companies honest."

Since the White House has already made incursions into banking, the car industry, insurance, mortgages, and healthcare, the Administration sources said that a number of top executives in the IT industry "have become kinda jealous and angry" about the government's lack of direct ownership in the tech business.

Using air quotes liberally, another White House source said, "The President is on "friendly terms" with many "techie CEOs" and he says they feel there's been a "breach of etiquette" with all those other industries getting "stimulus" while the IT industry has had to "battle it out" in the marketplace with only customer revenue to "fall back" on."

Boycotting Whole Foods

I don't tend to shop at Whole Foods because they offer a value proposition that does not appeal to me.  Their prices are too high for products that generally don't seem noticeably better than ones I can get in other stores.  To some extent the placebo effect of having "all natural" on the package does not really work for me, though I do buy most of my fish and meat there  (and not just because I like the irony of buying only meat products from a store populated by vegans).

That said, I like having the choice in stores.  I even drop by a farmers market once in a while, though generally the hassle is not worth it for me.  The same is true in beers -- I am seldom in the mood for something as dark and rich as a Belhaven, I love the explosion of choices in beer we have seen since the dark days of the late 70's/early 80's.  Other people will make different choices.  Cool.

Which makes it all the more ironic that those who benefit from the explosion in retail choice in the free marketplace are using that choice to protest the CEO of Whole Foods for advocating similar levels of choice in health care.  Anyway, I would write more but Radley Balko did a much better job here.

You see, he shared his ideas on health care reform, thinking that you, being so famously open-minded and all, might take to a few of them, or that it at least might start a conversation. I guess he felt he'd built up some cache with you, and wanted to introduce you to some new ideas. His mistake wasn't in intentionally offending his customers. He's a businessman who has built a huge company up from the ground. I'm sure he knows you don't deliberately offend your customers. His mistake was assuming you all were open-minded enough consider these ideas without taking offense"”that you wouldn't throw a tantrum merely because he suggested some reforms that didn't fall in direct line with those endorsed by your exalted Democratic leaders in Washington. In retrospect? Yeah, it was a bad move. Turns out that many of you weren't nearly mature enough to handle it.

Its hard even to understate the how absolutely nuts self-styled "progressives" have gone over this pretty tame and sober editorial in the IBD.  Here is just one example -- this is a mainstream green blogger and not some weird comment to a Kos post.  I honestly thought this was satire at first:

I agree with CEO John Mackey that it's okay to make money by making your green business big. But Mackey crossed the line with an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal this weekend, whose very publication put him in the company of the lunatic right-wing fringe who edit the paper's opinion section.

The op-ed reads like a page from the Republican playbook, touting individual responsibility for one's health. What a load of unorganic crap!

Holy brothers-keeper Batman - He's advocating individual responsibility!!  Here, since I have not reproduced it before, are the "lunatic" ideas of Mr. Mackey:

"¢"‰Remove the legal obstacles that slow the creation of high-deductible health insurance plans and health savings accounts (HSAs).

"¢"‰Equalize the tax laws so that employer-provided health insurance and individually owned health insurance have the same tax benefits.

"¢"‰Repeal all state laws which prevent insurance companies from competing across state lines.

"¢"‰Repeal government mandates regarding what insurance companies must cover.

"¢"‰Enact tort reform to end the ruinous lawsuits that force doctors to pay insurance costs of hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.

"¢"‰Make costs transparent so that consumers understand what health-care treatments cost.

"¢"‰Enact Medicare reform.

"¢"‰Finally, revise tax forms to make it easier for individuals to make a voluntary, tax-deductible donation to help the millions of people who have no insurance and aren't covered by Medicare, Medicaid or the State Children's Health Insurance Program.

The tort reform area is one where Obama is particularly disingenuous. It is just amazing that anyone could write about the cost of medicine being driven by too many useless procedures without once mentioning the words malpractice or defensive medicine.  I wonder if this might explain Obama's silence on tort reform (via maggies farm)

legal

Increased Education Spending Going to Administrators

For years, I have suspected that a lot of increased per pupil spending in public schools has gone to increasing numbers of administrators rather than teachers or facilities.  I just have to compare the administration numbers at my kids private school and those at the local public school and the contrast is just amazing.

Mark Perry demonstrates a similar effect in state-run college education:

This decade has been good for associate vice chancellors at UNC-Chapel Hill. Their numbers have nearly doubled, from 10 to 19, and the money paid to them has more than tripled, to a total of nearly $4 million a year. The university now admits that some of these people were in jobs that were not vital. They represent the rapid management growth in the 16-campus UNC system that has added tens of millions of dollars to annual payrolls.

Now, with a tough economy and sinking tax revenues, UNC officials and state lawmakers say these jobs need cutting first.

Systemwide over the past five years, the administrative ranks have grown by 28%, from 1,269 administrative jobs to 1,623 last year, UNC-system data show. That's faster than the growth of faculty and other teaching positions -- 24% -- and faster than student enrollment at 14%. The number of people with provost or chancellor in their titles alone has increased by 34% the past five years, from 312 in 2004 to 418 last year. The cost was $61.1 million, up $25 million from five years before.

Perry also show similar numbers in his own university in Michigan.

Kudos to the UNC system for at least considering cuts in these bloated administrator positions.  You never see public grade schools systems ever suggest such cuts - when forced to economize, they always suggest cutting something inflammatory like textbooks for high school or crayons for kindergarteners.  One difference is that UNC faces competition from a myriad of other public and private colleges, while most local grade school districts do not.

I would still like to find similar staffing numbers for our local public school district, breaking out teachers from principals, assistant principals, and administrators, but they seem loath to share such detail.