Archive for May 2010

We Have No Idea What We Are Doing

Its pretty clear from this summary of the Obama administration legal brief that the Administration has no idea what its own immigration policy should be.  I don't agree with all of the author's statements (for example, I am not a fan of e-Verify, as it just reinforces to me that the government has gotten itself in the business of licensing labor) but its a pretty interesting summary of just how muddled the Obama administration is on this topic.  While I don't support our newest immigration law here in AZ, its easier to see why states like AZ feel the need to take some independent leadership on the topic.

In this brief, the Obama administration is challenging an earlier AZ state law that requires, as a condition to retain one's business license, that companies use e-Verify to check new employees legal work status  (here and here).  Unfortunately, Obama's head of Homeland Security (and thus all immigration-related activities) actually signed the law into being and the administration wrote a brief in favor of the law just 9 months ago, about the same time Congress reauthorized e-Verify without doing anything to strike down AZ implementation practices).  I am not much of a legal scholar, but states use compliance with Federal programs all the time as minimum requirements for retaining business licenses -- e.g. non-payment of Federal taxes can cause one to lose his state business license, but no one has ever argued that is an illegal intrusion of states on federal powers.  If the Feds want to argue all of these provisions are unconstitutional, fine by me.  Anyway, the article linked above is highly entertaining.

Postscript: Here is the e-Verify post one must post in his business to be legally compliant:

This is fairly Orwellian for those of us who believe that all people have the right to work, irrespective of the country they were born in, and this right does not flow from any national government and therefore does not stop or start at any border.

Creating the American Pravda

It is a beautiful day here, so I really don't have the time or desire right now to summarize the absolute mess that is the FTC discussion draft for the "reinvention of journalism," reinvention being a synonym apparently for government takeover.  Almost every proposal is fraught with unintended (or perhaps intended but hidden) consequences, faulty economics, and unprecedented attacks of the first amendment.  If you don't have the time to read it, I will try to summarize it next week, but just open it and scroll the bold headers with the proposals.  Its really outrageous.  Here are just some quick highlights:

  • Substantial narrowing of fair use, with particular focus on how search engines and other online sites (e.g. blogs) use and/or have to pay for access to news sites
  • Expansion of news copyrights on breaking news - ie certain papers will own the copyrights to certain news events if they are the first mover on it
  • Increased government funding of news organizations along multiple vectors, from subsidies to guaranteed loans to income tax checkoffs to lower postal rates to Americorps programs for for journalists.
  • Simultaneously reduce private funding of journalism through taxes, including a tax on advertisers
  • Shift the organizational model of journalism from profit corporations (which rely on satisfying individuals to get their revenue) to non-profit organizations dependent on the government for funding
  • New taxes on and licensing of the Internet.   New taxes on broadcast spectrum to subsidize print media (shifting money from media that are more hostile to the administration to print media and non-profits that are more sympathetic to the administration).

Here is the intro that was missing from the report:  "The New York Times and Newsweek can't figure out a profitable business model in the Internet age.  We propose the government step in with all means at its disposal to limit competition to these print media companies and create new government subsidies for their business.  Once their companies' profitability is absolutely dependent on these government mandates and subsidies, the Federal government will have a powerful source of leverage to protect itself from criticism in these outlets.  Once we have this situation in place, we will have a strong inventive to quash more independent outlets and maximize the market share of media companies beholden to the government.  In a large sense, our recommendations build off the success of the tobacco settlement experiment, where a few large companies agreed to pay the government large percentages of their future profits, and then the government worked diligently to quash new tobacco competitors to maximize the market share of those companies paying it settlement money."

Update: South Bend Seven makes an interesting comparison to campus newspapers.

This Sort of Explains a Lot

Via TJIC:

By the way, where does the government get the money to fund all these immensely useful programs? According to a Fox News poll earlier this year, 65 per cent of Americans understand that the government gets its money from taxpayers, but 24 per cent think the government has "plenty of its own money without using taxpayer dollars." You can hardly blame them for getting that impression in an age in which there is almost nothing the state won't pay for.

Conservatives are Screwing Up

Conservatives, nominally supporters of smaller government and free markets, are yet again torpedoing these principles in the name of short term political expediency.  In order to score a few fleeting points against Obama, they are calling him out over the BP oil spill, saying that this is his Katrina, a massive failure both in regulation and response.

That's stupid.  One can certainly raise some questions about the government -- why have they been collecting an oil spill cleanup tax but not any oil spill cleanup capability or equipment, why are we driving oil companies out of easy oil in shallow waters to crazy-hard oil in deep waters.  But this is not Obama's fault nor the government's fault.  This is BP's fault.  They screwed up and started the spill, and it was they that had no contingency plan for such a disaster.  And its going to cost them a staggering amount of money, as it should.

After all, what are the feds going to do?  They certainly can't be expected to maintain the expertise to deal with this kind of thing, particularly in cutting-edge deep water.  Which is why Obama has had to resort mostly to joggling BP's elbow demanding that hey hurry.

We have the incredible sight of Conservatives, rightly, saying that more regulation could not have prevented the financial crisis because regulators are any better than industry participants in spotting problems when entering uncharted territory.  But here we have exactly the same situation and Conservatives are hammering on Obama for not being authoritarian enough or regulating enough.

Postscript: One of the few things the Obama administration has done is demand BP stop using a certain oil dispersant chemical because it is toxic.  Duh.  So is all the oil.  Which is probably why BP ignored him.  Government is terrible with this type of decision.  We have something really bad happening that we can't control.  But we can make it less bad by doing X, but X has some downsides as well.   In the heat of battle, when discretion is required, government will choose the sin of omission (letting more oil reach the shore) over the sin of commission (using a toxic dispersant), even if this decision is irrational.  In their incentive system, the sin of commission is impossible to sluff off on someone else.  The sin of omission can always be blamed on BP, or Bush, or whoever.  This is one reason why government bureaucratic rules are often so detailed and prescriptive -- given these incentives, certain decisions will never be made in the heat of battle by bureaucrats unless their actions are guided by detailed rules, which then give them cover.

Postscript #2: I think the media has tended to underestimate the difficulty here.  5000 feet of water is really deep and complicated to work in, orders of magnitude harder than shallow water, which in turn is orders of magnitude harder than on land.  In a way, its actually kind of amazing that BP has sealed this thing, given that the Soviets, in much less difficult leaks, reportedly had to resort to nukes to seal the well.

The Immigration Debate Summarized

Conservatives want immigrants to work, but not vote.

Liberals want immigrants to vote, but not work.

My Speculation on North Korea

Of all the foreign policy analysts in the world, I am probably in the bottom quartile.  Or decile.  So take this for what its worth.

We have heard rumors for months, even years, that the internal situation in North Korea is desperate, or more accurately even more FUBAR'd than usual.  There have even been hints of open popular opposition to the government, definitely an unusual occurrence.  I look at the attack on the South Korean ship in the context of domestic problems.  This was Kim's "wag the dog" response.  The classic totalitarian response to domestic problems is to seek out distracting foreign adventures.  I think what we may be learning is that the domestic situation is even worse than has been supposed.

Discuss.

Wake Me Up When They Actually Put Any Income at Risk

From the AZ Republic:

Zack de la Rocha has issued a statement on behalf of an organization called the Sound Strike urging music fans and fellow artists to boycott Arizona "to stop SB 1070," which he labels an "odious" law.

Among those artists joining de la Rocha's boycott are Conor Oberst, Kanye West, Rage Against the Machine, Rise Against, Cypress Hill, Serj Tankian, Joe Satriani, Sonic Youth, Tenacious D, Street Sweeper Social Club and Michael Moore.

So it turns out that at the local Best Buy here in Phoenix, Arizona, I find many examples of these folks' work still for sale.  Moore's videos, for example, still seem to be available for purchase.  Possibly their requests to have their merchandise removed from store shelves in Arizona have not reached the sales floor yet, but my guess is that these guys have absolutely no intention of actually pulling their product from Arizona stores.   My guess  (and please tell me if I am being unfair) is that most of these folks, at best, are committing to cancel tour dates that for most of these bands are not even scheduled yet.  This is about as much of a sacrifice as me promising to cancel my next date with Gisele Bündchen.  This kind of statement is the moral equivalent of Hollywood stars who decry global warming from the steps for their private jet.

I think folks know I am a proponent of open immigration, and so, as in the war on drugs, I don't condone adding more government powers to enforce a pointless prohibition.  But there are many folks here who have supported far more authoritarian legislation than the AZ immigration law.  For God sakes in Sicko Michael Moore wrote a long love note to Castro's Cuba.

I Was Wrong

I like to prominently highlight when I have been wrong.  In the past, I have said that the US follows a double standard on our Mexican and Canadian borders.  Where are the Canadian wall proposals?  Where are the Canadian workers getting handcuffed by Joe Arpaio.

But apparently I was wrong.  The US is working hard to apply an equal level of obnoxiousness to Canadians.

The Immigration Non-Crime Wave

Proponents of tougher immigration enforcement often use crime as their big scare factor in trying to influence people to their point.  Only tougher laws and Joe Arpaio, they caution, stand athwart the coming immigrant rape of Phoenix.

But when the case is built on one or two high-profile crime where the perpetrator has not even been identified, rather than statistics, we can be suspicious of how strong the case is.  I have cited historical figures here, but the WSJ has the new figures for 2009:

Violent crime fell significantly last year in cities across the U.S., according to preliminary federal statistics, challenging the widely held belief that recessions drive up crime rates.

The incidence of violent crimes such as murder, rape and aggravated assault was down 5.5% from 2008, and 6.9% in big cities. It fell 2.4% in long-troubled Detroit and plunged 16.6% in Phoenix, despite a perception of rising crime that has fueled an immigration backlash....

In Phoenix, police spokesman Trent Crump said, "Despite all the hype, in every single reportable crime category, we're significantly down." Mr. Crump said Phoenix's most recent data for 2010 indicated still lower crime. For the first quarter of 2010, violent crime was down 17% overall in the city, while homicides were down 38% and robberies 27%, compared with the same period in 2009.

Arizona's major cities all registered declines. A perceived rise in crime is one reason often cited by proponents of a new law intended to crack down on illegal immigration. The number of kidnappings reported in Phoenix, which hit 368 in 2008, was also down, though police officials didn't have exact figures.

And just to head off the obvious straw man, 2008 was not somehow a peak year, it was actually well below historical levels.

Grim Milestone

Via the USAToday

Paychecks from private business shrank to their smallest share of personal income in U.S. history during the first quarter of this year, a USA TODAY analysis of government data finds.

At the same time, government-provided benefits "” from Social Security, unemployment insurance, food stamps and other programs "” rose to a record high during the first three months of 2010.

Those records reflect a long-term trend accelerated by the recession and the federal stimulus program to counteract the downturn. The result is a major shift in the source of personal income from private wages to government programs.

Buried in the ariticle is a quote that I have to cite as perhaps the worst analysis I have ever seen:

The shift in incomeshows that the federal government's stimulus efforts have been effective, says Paul Van de Water, an economist at the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

"It's the system working as it should," Van de Water says. Government is stimulating growth and helping people in need, he says. As the economy recovers, private wages will rebound, he says.

How does the income shift prove the stimulus worked?  The problem is, as usual, a difficult one of evaluating what the economy would have done without the stimulus.  The mere shift in income is a necesary outcome of the stimulus -- all it means is that we have succesfully robbed Peter to pay Paul -- it says nothing about whether Peter and Paul are more wealthy in aggregate had we not moved money around by force.  In fact, proponents of the stimulus never, ever address a very simple fact - someone was using the money to run a business or invest or buy things or employ people before the government took it for stimulus programs.  And it is really, really hard to look at the body of stimulus programs and come to the conclusion that the private sector was investing the money worse, which is the only way stimulus would occur.

Stealth Public Option

I have not read the relevant text of the law, so this may be an exaggeration, but it sure would not surprise me:

Remember when Obama and congressional Democrats made a big show of dropping the public option government insurance program that was supposedly going to give private insurers competition and drive rates down? The truth is the public option is alive and well, residing in Section 1334, pages 97-100, of the new health care law. That section gives the U.S. Office of Personnel Management "” which presently manages the federal civil service "” new responsibilities: establishing and running two entirely new government health insurance programs to compete directly with private insurance companies in every state with coverage for people outside of government.Quoting the new law, former OPM director Donald Devine notes that it makes the OPM boss a health care czar, with power to set ""˜profit margin premiums and other such terms and conditions of coverage as are in the interest of enrollees in such plans.' That's open-ended. You can do anything." Dan Blair, another former OPM director, calls the new program "nothing but a placeholder for the public option." Indeed, the OPM head is also given the authority to "appoint as many employees" as needed to run the program, and to spend "such sums as may be necessary" to establish and administer it.

Avoiding Accountability

Police officers long for the days when they can make up any facts they wish about an encounter with the public and make them stick.  That is why, even if the public were required to videotape police, my guess is that officers would still find a reason to arrest them for wiretapping.

Germany's Ban on Short-Selling

It is pretty much a law of nature that issuers of securities hate short-selling.  They have tried for years to paint it as somehow unethical or at least unseemly, though it has always befuddled me as to why short-selling is any different than taking a long position on a security.  In both cases one is making a bet on future prices of the underlying asset, the only difference is in the direction.

But issuers of securities, whether they be corporate equities or government bonds, generally have strong personal incentives to see asset prices go up, or at least remain flat.  No CEO thinks short-selling is justified, but in fact the ability to sell short is critical to having quality pricing signals (see below for a discussion of how short-selling helps limit bubbles).

Of course, Corporate CEO's may gripe about short sellers, but they basically have to just live with them.  But governments are different.  They can actually ban what they don't like and have done so now in Germany.  What's next, a law saying that once you have bought a government security you are never allowed to sell it?

Postscript: Here is an example of how short selling reduces volatility.  First, some background

Chester Spatt, who was chief economist at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission from 2004 to 2007, said that Germany's short-selling ban would probably end up causing more market turbulence and not less.

"Like many types of well-intentioned regulation, this is likely to misfire," he said in an interview. "During our financial crisis in 2008, there was a ban on short-sales for about three weeks .... That ban was very counterproductive. It didn't help stabilize asset prices at all."

Here is an example of why this happens, as I discussed in an earlier post during that temporary US ban:

At the start of the bubble, a particular asset (be it an equity or a commodity like oil) is owned by a mix of people who have different expectations about future price movements.  For whatever reasons, in a bubble, a subset of the market develops rapidly rising expectations about the value of the asset.  They start buying the asset, and the price starts rising.  As the price rises, and these bulls buy in, folks who owned the asset previously and are less bullish about the future will sell to the new buyers.  The very fact of the rising price of the asset from this buying reinforces the bulls' feeling that the sky is the limit for prices, and bulls buy in even more.

Let's fast forward to a point where the price has risen to some stratospheric levels vs. the previous pricing as well as historical norms or ratios.  The ownership base for the asset is now disproportionately made up of those sky-is-the-limit bulls, while everyone who thought these guys were overly optimistic and a bit wonky have sold out. 99.9% of the world now thinks the asset is grossly overvalued.  But how does it come to earth?  After all, the only way the price can drop is if some owners sell [remember, we are discussing a world where naked shorting is banned], and all the owners are super-bulls who are unlikely to do so.  As a result, the bubble might continue and grow long after most of the world has seen the insanity of it.

Thus, we have short-selling.  Short-selling allows the other 99.9% who are not owners to sell part of the asset anyway, casting their financial vote for the value of the company.  Short-selling shortens bubbles, hastens the reckoning, and in the process generally reduces the wreckage on the back end.

Without short-selling, the only folks involved in the price-discovery process are those who have self-selected as being more bullish than average.  Short-selling vastly broadens the number of people, and thus the perspectives and information, involved in the pricing process.

I think "cargo cult" is a great moniker for this kind of regulation.  The price of European bonds are declining as lots of people sell?  Then lets ban selling, that will take care of the problem.   Just ignore that large government deficit behind the curtain.

How You Gonna Keep them Down on the Farm?

A reader sent me this interesting story about immigration within Cuba:

"I was caught because I was an illegal," explained a bicycle taxi driver as he gripped the rusted blue handle-bars of his vehicle in Havana's Central Park. "And because I'd been here several times before, I was deported back."

But the driver working his trade in the capital city did not arrive in Cuba from another country. Instead he is among the thousands who have come from rural provinces in search of work and a place to live - but who have been deported back because of "Decree 217."

The 1997 law restricts rural migration to Havana, making this taxi driver an illegal resident in his own capital city.

"If you're illegal you can't be here in Havana," said the driver, originally from Cuba's eastern Holguin province. "You don't have an address here in Havana."...

Economic conditions were generally worse at the eastern end of the island, according to Cuba analyst Edward Gonzalez, a professor emeritus at the University of California Los Angeles.

"[The eastern region] has always been the less affluent, impoverished part of the island," he said, "heavily dependent upon agriculture, less on tourism, and also happens to be more black and mulatto."

The effort to keep migrants out and prevent overcrowding in Havana may have resulted in police discrimination against darker-skinned Cubans presumed more likely to be illegal, Gonzalez said.

Stossel on Hulu

Google Home Page is Awesome Today

Actually a working version of Pac-Man (use arrow keys).

Green Rent Seeking Update

More here on the failure of European green energy subsidies.

At a speech a while ago, I told this to an investing group a while back:  Do the math.  You can't build a growth company on public subsidies.  It may be possible to grow at first when the subsidized activity (e.g. solar) is a tiny percentage of the market.  But once it starts to grow, the projected subsidies are astronomical.  The German solar subsidy is something like 50 cents per KwH -- to give one a sense of scale, the typical electricity price from fossil fuels there or here is something like 8-10 cents per KwH.  Subsidizing just 20% of US electricity production at this kind of rate would cost $50 billion a year.  Subsidizing all production would cost a quarter of a trillion dollars a year.

Take a company dependent on subsidies, figure out what their implied size is in 10 years based on current stock multiples, and then calculate what the public subsidy at current rates would have to be to support that size and a reasonable market share (because competitors are following the same model).  Investors who do this will quickly figure out that the subsidies needed to support their favored company are unsustainable.  Phoenix-based FirstSolar, a sometimes-darling of Wall Street, has had  a rocky year.  Its stock price has had several steep falls, each one just after rumors that Germany would cut its solar subsidy rate (actually its feed-in tariff, but the same idea).

My advice to the group was that if you were investing in green energy, either your company had a three year plan to reduce costs to be able to compete profitably in a subsidy-free environment, or else you are investing in pets.com.

Update: If you have Nancy Pelosi's husband on your board, you can probably extend your window to five years.

Common Cause

I will tell you, those who agree with me on the immigration issue in the Democratic Party are trying as hard as they can to turn me against immigration.  This same thing happened in the Iraq war.  I was against the war, as I thought it a poor use of resources (there are just too many bad governments in the world to take them all down that way).  But when my fellow anti-war travelers agreed with me for stupid reasons (we must defer to Europe, Sadam is not a bad guy, etc.) it almost made me change my mind.  If the people who agree with me are idiots, is that a bad sign?

TJIC has similar thoughts here, and I watched in amazement as the Mexican President yesterday criticized US immigration policy for being to harsh, despite the fact it is far more open than Mexico's own immigration policy.

Green Rent Seeking

I am a little late on this but want to link it none-the-less:

As predicted was inevitable, today the Spanish newspaper La Gaceta runs with a full-page article fessing up to the truth about Spain's "green jobs" boondoggle, which happens to be the one naively cited by President Obama no less than eight times as his model for the United States. It is now out there as a bust, a costly disaster that has come undone in Spain to the point that even the Socialists admit it, with the media now in full pursuit....

La Gaceta boldly exposes the failure of the Spanish renewable policy and how Obama has been following it. The headline screams: "Spain admits that the green economy as sold to Obama is a disaster."

This is a failure of every single number ever published by supporters of government stimulus programs.  They always fail to acknowledge that the money for these programs came from somewhere.  It was being employed by someone to buy something or to invest in something or to pay someone's wages.  Every private company in the world seems to understand this concept of opportunity cost, so it is amazing that it is so hard to grasp in the media which breathlessly reports every BS number Obama has spit out.

Libertarians and Burritos

I found this new blog called Whiskey and Car Keys by accident -- I actually am working on a regular writing column and thought about this as a title for the column (from the PJ O'Rourke quote about giving power to government being like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boy).  Anyway, they ticked me off by grabbing a good name ahead of me, but I can't stay mad at a young group blog that seems to be focused on libertarian issues and burrito reviews.

The Corporate State

Life is too short to spend much time on the Democratic Underground, but this article by Ernest Partridge popped up in one of my Google watch lists.  I highlight only because it contains this straw man:

The dogmatism of free market absolutism resides in the belief that the unregulated market never fails to be beneficial to all; the belief, in other words, that there are no malevolent effects of unconstrained market activity, no "back of the invisible hand." From this belief follows the insistence that the free market is self-correcting, and that there is thus no need for regulation � that, in Ronald Reagan�s enduring words, "government is not the solution to our problems, government is the problem."

I can't think of any thoughtful defender of capitalism and free markets that ever would have said that the market "never fails" or that it is "beneficial to all" or that there are never bad outcomes or that the market is perfectly self-correcting.

Bad, stupid shit happens all the time in free markets.  For example, BP idiotically dumps a few zillion barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.  In a free society, BP will be out billions of dollars in cleanup costs and damage settlements -- it might even bankrupt itself if governments allow that to happen, and thus will never again be able to do something so careless.  Markets can't prevent a first dumb action, like huge leveraged bets on ever-increasing housing prices, but markets can make sure the folks involved don't have the resources to do it again -- that is, except if governments bail them out from their mistakes.

The point is not that markets are perfect -- the point is that they are superior in both function and the retention of personal liberty to the alternative of giving governments coercive power to use force against individuals to change market outcomes.  The point is not that individuals don't do destructive things within the context of free markets.  The point is that they have a lot less power to do harmful things over long periods of time than if one gave that person coercive power in a government job backed by police forces and armies.   There is only a limited amount of damage anyone can do when they depend on the uncoerced cooperation and agreement of their counter-party.   A tobacco company CEO doesn't have a hundredth the power to ruin peoples lives as does one member of Congress. Fifty years of slimy cigarette advertising doesn't have the power of one Congressional mandate.  Go to Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore -- which has been worse for these cities -- the private campaign to sell cigarettes or the government led war on drugs?

Its clear from later in the article that the author is yet another person with a list of pet peeves who wants to use force on the American citizenry to get his way.  The author doesn't like cigarettes, so intervention with tobacco companies is a valid role for government.  OK, well I can't stand reality TV shows, so much so that I would rather be in a room of smokers than a room with "the biggest loser" on TV, but you don't see me wanting to give government power to do something about it.

But what is amazing to me is how much his examples actually make the libertarian point for limitation of government.  Try his first one:

Private Prisons. Good for the corporations: more prisoners, "three strikes" laws, mandatory sentencing. The cost to society: less rehabilitation and early release, increased government expenditures and taxes. It is noteworthy that the United States has the largest prisoner to population ratio in the industrialized world.

You have to really re-read history to come to the conclusion that American incarceration rates are mainly driven by privatization of prisons.   My sense is the causality is the other direction - we have passed crazy drug laws and mandatory sentencing for sometimes petty crimes and have had to turn to private actors with private capital to keep up with the demand to construct new prisons.

Like the author, I hate this incarceration trend, but its really a stretch to blame this on privatization.  And, I am the first to deride the symbiotic relationship between powerful corporations and the government.  I have written on any number of occasions that both political parties in this country seem to be trying to build a European-style corporate state.  So, even if I don't think he has history quite right here, I am willing to concede the point.  Because, in fact, this seems to me an indictment of exactly what he is trying to defend -- the government interventionist state.

The only reason corporations lobby the government is that the government has the unique power to coercively intervene in markets.  Corporations try to engage this power for their own benefit and to step on competitors, both current and future.  The root cause failure here is not the fact that private companies try to engage this power, but that this power exists at all.

Amazingly, he makes the same argument about war:

War, Inc. Good for the corporations (i.e., the military-industrial complex and "private contractors" such as Halliburton and Blackwater): more wars, expenditure of rockets, bombs and ammunition (requiring restocking of inventories). Cost to society: avoidance of diplomatic solutions, increased military budget and battlefield casualties, disobedience to international law (e.g., the Geneva and Nuremberg protocols).

I am staggered to see that someone who is defending giving more power to the government is simultaneously highlighting examples where this power is misused so horribly  (and what could be a more despicable crime by legislators than incarcerating more people or starting wars just to help a favored corporate interests).  I don't think wars are started primarily to help armaments manufacturers, but if they are, then this kind of failure by politicians is FAR worse than any he could point out in unregulated markets, only making my point for me.  Markets are not perfect, but the cure of government use of force is worse than the disease.

Since the author dwells on cigarettes, just look at the so-called tobacco settlement.  Supposedly, this was the great government hammer wielded against cigarette companies to punish them for years of selling a dangerous product.  But in fact, all the settlement did was cement the market position of largest tobacco companies.  The settlement effectively made government a financial partner with tobacco companies, and since it was implemented, the government has wielded its power to protect the companies who were involved in the settlement against competition (particularly from low-price upstarts) so as to protect its own cash flow.  The position of the major tobacco companies has never been as secure and profitable.

I think the author's response would be that if we ban corporate election spending, then all would be well.  This does not pass any kind of smell test.  First, corporate giving has been effectively banned (or at least severely limited) for 20 years, and we see the staggering influence corporations have none-the-less.  We only have to look at Europe, where the troika of politicians, large corporations, and large unions run those states to their own benefit, to the detriment of all others (e.g. smaller businesses, business without political contacts, workers outside of favored fields like autos, young workers, etc.)  This symbiotic relationship occurs without campaign cash being a major element.

If you want to understand how this works, just look at recent legislation like cap-and-trad and health care.  Legislators propose some populist interventions in a market to help themselves get re-elected.  Corporations who might naturally oppose such interventions agree to support legislation in exchange for a number of subsidies and special protections. Trades occur that have little to do with campaign contributions.  Just look at the influence GE wields in getting special deals for itself.

The GM bankruptcy was a classic example.   GM is given a big taxpayer bailout and some cuts in labor costs.  In exchange for labor cost cuts, unions get the government to squash secured creditors of GM in their favor in dividing up ownership and also get some special considerations in pending health care legislation.  Secured creditors allow this to occur because they got TARP funds from the government.   Politicians get active support from GM and the UAW in getting out the vote, positive PR, etc.  The only people who lose are taxpayers, all the other automobile competitors, and workers in every other industry who must pay taxes to support auto workers special deal.

By the way, don't tell me that this is not what you want, that if only we have the right people (e.g. yourself) in power this will never happen.  Wrong.  It always happens.  Every dang time.  The incentives are overwhelming.  Given politicians the power to do that one good intervention you want, and you have also given them the power to do a thousand that you don't want.

Postscript: By the way, please do not ever take a "progressive" seriously when they say they care about the poor.  Take this for example:

Outsourcing of jobs. Good for the corporation: increased profits and return on investment of stockholders. Cost to society: poverty, loss of educational opportunities, redistribution of wealth "upward," shrinkage of customer base, economic depression.

Another way of stating outsourcing is say that it is "transferring a job from a rich American to a poor person in a developing nation."  As a country becomes richer and more educated, low-skilled jobs are not going to continue to get done by college grads.  PhD's, in general, are not going to stitch underwear.  Low skilled jobs in a wealthy society do get outsourced, and these new low-skilled jobs in developing nations become the seed or the catalyst for future wealth-creation and development.

This is one ironic problem that progressives in this country have -- even the poorest Americans would be middle class in many of the countries of the world.  If progressives really want to transfer wealth from the rich to the poor, everyone in the US would pay and no one would receive a dime, it would all flow to other countries.

Job Claims "Unexepectedly" Rise

That's the headline from the Arizona Republic today.  Do editors realize this is becoming a national running joke?

The number of people filing new claims for unemployment benefits unexpectedly rose last week by the largest amount in three months. The surge is evidence of how volatile the job market remains, even as the economy grows.

Overzealous Prosecution

It sure looks like the Feds are bending over backwards to make sure R. Allen Stanford, accused of massive investment fraud, is not allowed to defend himself.  The Feds are running the whole playbook at him, from onerous pre-trial detention requirements to asset forfeiture (the latter to the point that the Feds are working to make sure the insurance policy he had to pay for his defense in such actions is not allowed to pay him.)  I understand that a guy who has substantial interest in offshore banking centers might be a flight risk, but this is absurd:

Mr. Stanford has been incarcerated since June 18, 2009 and was moved to the [Federal Detention Center] on September 29, 2009. Immediately upon his arrival at the FDC, he underwent general anesthesia surgery due to injuries that were inflicted upon him at the Joe Corley Detention Facility. He was then immediately taken from surgery and placed in the Maximum Security Section "” known as the "Special Housing Unit" (SHU) "” in a 7' x 6 1/2' solitary cell. He was kept there, 24 hours a day, unless visited by his lawyers. No other visitors were permitted, nor was he permitted to make or receive telephone calls. He had virtually no contact with other human beings, except for guards or his lawyers.

When he was taken from his cell, even for legal visits, he was forced to put his hands behind his back and place them through a small opening in the door. He then was handcuffed, with his arms behind his back, and removed from his cell. After being searched, he was escorted to the attorney visiting room down the hall from his cell; he was placed in the room and then the guards locked the heavy steel door. He was required, again, to back up to the door and place his shackled hands through the opening, so that the handcuffs could be removed. At the conclusion of his legal visits, he was handcuffed through the steel door, again, and then taken to a different cell where he was once again required to back up to the cell door to have his handcuffs removed and then forced to remove all of his clothing. Once he was nude, the guards then conducted a complete, external and internal search of his body, including his anus and genitalia. He was then shackled and returned to his cell. In his cell there was neither a television nor a radio and only minimal reading material  was made available to him. He remained there in complete solitude and isolation until the next time his lawyers returned for a visit.

In short, Mr. Stanford was confined under the same maximum security conditions as a convicted death row prisoner, even though the allegations against him are for white collar, non-violent offenses. He is certainly not viewed as someone who poses a threat to other persons or the community, nevertheless, he has been deprived of human contact, communication with family and friends, and was incarcerated under conditions reserved for the most violent of convicted criminals. Officials at the FDC informed counsel that this was for Mr. Stanford's "own protection" and to minimize their liability.  .  .  .

Remember, he has not been convicted -- this is pre-trial detention.  The sole goal, legally, is supposed to be to keep him from fleeing before his trial.

I am sensitive to this from my climate work.  My gut feel is that people who are truly confident in their case do not work overtime to make sure their opposition is not allowed to make their case.

Someone in Massachussetts Has Been Reading Atlas Shrugged

How else could they have gotten the idea for the hospital unification plan, except by modeling it after the steel and railroad plans in Ayn Rands novel.

The Massachussetts plan:

In hopes of bringing down the state's skyrocketing health care costs"”which are currently growing about 8 percent faster than the state's GDP"”the Massachusetts Senate is reportedly considering a bill that, among other things, would "require hospitals in better financial shape to put money back into the health care system to lower premiums." At first glance, this might sound like an easy way to bring down prices: Cut into provider profits to bring down insurance premiums. And the AP article doesn't provide much in the way of detail about how the provision would work, so it could be basically harmless. But it looks to me like the Senate is pushing for a system in which hospitals that set prices and contain costs successfully enough to find solid financial footing subsidize those that don't. Does this strike anyone else as an odd way to attempt to curb costs?

From the Atlas Society, describing a scene from Atlas Shrugged:

In one scene government dictators explain to steel magnate Hank Rearden how they intend to save his industry as a whole"”read his incompetent competitor"”through a Steel Unification Plan. All income from steel producers will be placed into a common pool and distributed to manufacturers based on how many furnaces each company owns. Follow the math here for a moment as an incredulous Rearden explains their own plan to them:

"Orren Boyle's Associated Steel owns 60 open-hearth furnaces, one-third of them standing idle and the rest producing an average of 300 tons of steel per furnace per day. I own 20 open-hearth furnaces, working at capacity, producing 750 tons of Rearden Metal per furnace per day. So we own 80 "˜pooled' furnaces with a "˜pooled' output of 27,000 tons, which makes an average of 337.5 tons per furnace. Each day of the year, I producing 15,000 tons, will be paid for 6,750 tons. Boyle, producing 12,000 tons, will be paid for 20,250 tons"¦ Now how long do you expect me to last under your plan?"

Rearden can't believe that these bureaucrats actually believe such nonsense. And their only answers are "In times of national peril, it's your duty to serve" and "You must make certain sacrifices to the public welfare" and "You'll manage."

Civil Forfeiture

This is an issue that has been around for a while, and one of the illiberal legacies of the war on drugs.  Police have broad powers to seize your property with very little due process, and the incentive to do so as they are generally allowed to keep the proceeds of these seizures in their budgets.  John Stossel writes about the problem in his column today.  Unfortunately, I see little bleed-through of this issue our of libertarian blogs into the partisan ones, though I do remember Kevin Drum doing something on it a while back.  Knowing politicians, I hold out little hope that in a time when government budgets are under assault, politicians will voluntarily give up the power to grab operating funds off the street.

Most of the stories in the article were familiar to me, though this expansion of the concept was new:

[Radley] Balko has reported on a case in which police confiscated cash from a man when they found it in his car. "The state's argument was that maybe he didn't get it from selling drugs, but he might use that money to buy drugs at some point in the future. Therefore, we're still allowed to take it from him," Balko said.

Sounds like that Tom Cruise movie "Minority Report," where the police predict future crimes and arrest the "perpetrator."