Archive for January 2012

The Media and Cancer Risks

The old saying goes, "where there is smoke, there's fire."  I think we all are at least subconciously suceptible to thinking this way vis a vis the cancer risks in the media.  We hear so much about these risks that, even if the claims seem absurd, we worry if there isn't something there.  After all, if the media is concerned, surely the balance of evidence must be at least close - there is probably a small risk or increase in mortality.

Not so.  Take cell phones.  We have heard for decades concern about cancer risk from cell phones.  But they are not even close to dangerous, missing danger levels by something like 5 and a half orders of magnitude.

Cell phones do not cause cancer. They do not even theoretically cause cancer. Why? Because they simply do not produce the type of electromagnetic radiation that is capable of causing cancer. Michael Shermer explains, using basic physics:

...known carcinogens such as x-rays, gamma rays and UV rays have energies greater than 480 kilojoules per mole (kJ/mole), which is enough to break chemical bonds... A cell phone generates radiation of less than 0.001 kJ/mole. That is 480,000 times weaker than UV rays...

If the radiation from cell phones cannot break chemical bonds, then it is not possible for cell phones to cause cancer, no matter what the World Health Organization thinks. And just to put the "possible carcinogen" terminology into perspective, the WHO also considers coffee to be a possible carcinogen. Additionally, it appears that politics and ideology may have trumped science in the WHO's controversial decision.

The Ultimate End of Social-Democratic Labor Policy

When a country

  • Increases the minimum wage, and therefore the minimum skill / productivity needed for a job
  • Adds substantially to the costs of labor through required taxes, insurance premiums, pensions, etc
  • Makes employees virtually un-fireable, thus forcing companies to think twice about hiring young, unproven employees they may be saddled with, good or bad, for decades
  • Puts labor policy in the hands of people who already have jobs (ie unions)
  • Shift wealth via social security and medical programs from the young to the old

It gets this

 

The bitterly ironic part is that when these folks hit the streets in mass protests, it will likely be for more of the same that put them there in the first place.

 
Want to argue that such policies are hurting workers rather than helping?  Good luck, at least in Italy

Pietro Ichino, a professor of labor law at the University of Milan and a senator in the Italian legislature, is known as the author of several “neoliberal” books and studies recommending that the Italian government relax its extraordinarily stringent regulation of employers’ hiring and firing decisions. As Bloomberg Business Week reports, that means that Prof. Ichino must fear for his life: “For the past 10 years, the academic and parliamentarian has lived under armed escort, traveling exclusively by armored car, and almost never without the company of two plainclothes policemen. The protection is provided by the Italian government, which has reason to believe that people want to murder Ichino for his views.”

Memo to US:  Don't get cocky, you are going down the same path

 Update:  Interesting and sort of related from Megan McArdle

An apparent paradox that frequently puzzles journalists is that Europeans work fewer hours than workers in the United States, while in some countries, hourly productivity appears to be the same, or even higher, than that of American workers.
This is not actually a paradox at all.  Much of the decline in European hours worked per-capita came in the form of unemployment.  Rigid labor laws which make it hard to fire (and thus, risky to hire) shut less productive workers out of the market, particularly the young, and those who had been displaced due to disruptive industry change.  So does anything that raises the cost of labor, like, er, loads of mandatory vacation and leave.  When you exclude your least productive workers from the labor force, your measured hourly productivity will be higher, particularly if you use metrics like GDP per hours worked.

American Ingenuity

My college roommate and long-time beer pong adversary sent me this.

Government War on Pain Medication

The first part in a three-part Radley Balko series is up at the Huffpo.  Good stuff, though hugely frustrating of course.  Watch the media for other stories on this topic -- I challenge you to find one story in the regular media that discusses pain medication that has even one interview of a pain sufferer.  This issues is treated 180 degrees differently from any other story one could imagine about victims of medical conditions being denied medication.   The part that always amazes me is how "addiction" is treated as a bad thing under all circumstances -- what does addiction even mean if the alternative is unbearable pain?  Are AIDS patients addicted to the medication that keeps them alive?

Protectionism -- The Worst Form of Crony Capitalism

Food activists on the Left often point to the use of High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) as one of those failures of capitalism, where rapacious capitalists make money serving an inferior product.  But HFCS resulted from a scramble by food and beverage companies to find some reasonable alternative to sugar as the government has driven up sugar prices through a crazy tariff system that benefits just a tiny handful of Americans, and costs everyone else money

For the last 10 years or so, HFCS-42 has actually traded at a price higher than the world market price for sugur, but lower than the US price for sugar.   There is a lot complexity to prices, but this seems to imply that HFCS would not be nearly as attractive a substitute for sugar if US sugar tariffs did not exist (not to mention subsidies of corn which support HFCS).  This can also be seen in the fact that HFCS has not been used nearly so often as a sugar substitute in markets outside of the US, even by the same manufacturers (like Coke) that pioneered its use in the US.

President Obama used a lot of his state of the union address again teeing up what sounded to me like a new round of protectionism.  Protectionism is the worst form of crony capitalism, generally benefiting a handful of producers and their employee to the detriment of 300 million US consumers and any number of companies that use the protected product as an input.

Public vs. Private

Folks on the Left prefer public institutions over private ones because they percieve them as more "fair."  But the power of lawmaking and police and prisons allows public institutions to be far more abusive than private entities could ever be.  We spent months and years torturing ourselves about accounting abuses at Enron, but these are trivial compared the accounting shenanigans state institutions engage in every day.

Or consider this, from Europe, particularly the first bit

“In the event of default (i) any non-official bond holder is junior to all official creditors and (ii) the issuer reserves the right to change law as needed to negate any rights of the nonofficial bond holder.

.

“We should not underestimate the damage these steps have inflicted on Europe’s €8.4 trillion sovereign bond markets. For example, the Italian government has issued bonds with a face value of over €1.6 trillion. The groups holding these bonds are banks, pension funds, insurance companies, and Italian households. These investors bought them as safe, low-return instruments that could be used to hedge liabilities and provide for future income needs. It was once hard to imagine these could ever be restructured or default.

.

“Now, however, it is clear they are not safe. They have default risk, and their ultimate value is subject to the political constraint and subjective decisions by a collective of individuals in the Italian government and society, the ECB, the European Union, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). An investor buying an Italian bond today needs to forecast an immediate, complex process that has been evolving in unpredictable ways. Investors naturally want a high return in order to bear these risks.

.

“Investors must also weigh carefully the costs and benefits to them of official intervention. Each time official creditors provide loans or buy bonds, the nonofficial holders become more subordinated, because official creditors including the IMF, ECB, and now the European Union continue to claim preferential status.”

This is not to say that bondholders in private entities don't get crammed down in a refinancing or bankruptcy.  But here we are talking about differential treatment of holders of the exact same class, even issue, of securities.

Government Mal-Investment

A reader sends me this editorial from Jerry Jordan at IBD.  It discusses a topic that is one of my favorites - government mal-investment.  By a thousand different mechanisms, from direct investment (Solyndra) to artificial interest rates to monkeying with price signals to economic rule-making (e.g. community banking, ethanol mandates) the government is shifting capital and resources from the allocations a well-funcitoning market would make to optimize returns and productivity to allocations based on political calculation.  We rightly worry about deficits and taxes, but in the long run this redistribution of investment from the productive to the sexy or politically expedient may have the largest long-term negative implications -- just look at what the management of the Japanese economy by MITI (touted at the time as fabulous by statists everywhere) did to that country, with the lost decade becoming the the lost two decades.

It is hard to excerpt but here is how it begins

It usually surfaces with an entrepreneurial adolescent deciding it would be a good idea to sell lemonade at the curbside to passersby

Parents, wanting to encourage the idea that working and making money is a good idea, drive around to buy the lemon, sugar, designer bottled water, cups, spoons, napkins, a sign or two, and probably a paper table cloth.

Aside from time and gas, the outing adds up to something north of $10. At the opening of business the next day, the kids find business is slow to nonexistent at $1 per cup. So, they start to learn about market demand and find that business becomes so brisk at only 10 cents per cup that they are sold out by noon, having served 70 cups of lemonade and hauled in $7.

The excited lunch-time conversation is about expanding the business. A stand across the street to catch traffic going the opposite direction; maybe one around the corner for the cross-street traffic. The kids see growing revenue; the "investors" see mounting losses.

There is a strand of economics, we'll call it the K-brand, that sees all this as worthwhile. They add together the $10 spent by the parents to back the venture and the $7 spent by the customers and conclude that an additional $17 of spending is clearly a good thing. Surely, the neighborhood economy has been stimulated.

To the family it is a loss, chalked up as a form of consumption. If this were a business enterprise it would be a write-off. In classical economics it is a "mal-investment."

 

For Some, There Can Never Be Enough Government Spending

In his New York Times column, Paul Krugman blames the coming British recession on the government's "austerity."  In the Left's parlance, "austerity" means the government is not spending and in particular deficit spending enough.

But it turns out that

a. Of 44 major economies in the world, the British have been running the highest budget deficits of any country except two - Greece and Egypt are higher.

b. British real government spending has risen every year through the financial crisis

Presuming Krugman has access to these basic facts, is his argument that Britain should be deficit spending even more (and if so, wtf is enough?) or is this just political hackery to help Obama dispel concerns about his deficits?

What I Should Have Said on TV About Rail

If I were any good at the two minute sound byte interview, I would have summarized this about the superiority of the current US private rail system vs. the systems in Europe and Japan:

Link here (sorry, for some reason the link did not show up the first time, probably something to do with my iPad)

 

Backpage and Sex Workers

A while back I criticized the notion that Backpage was somehow responsible for murders because one guy in Detroit identified his victims from Backpage ads.  I argued that Conservatives trying to take down Backpage adult ads ostensibly to make sex workers safer should look in the mirror, given that most of the reason sex workers are at risk is because Conservatives have driven their profession underground.

Jacob Sollum at Reason had a similar take the other day

Far from helping victims like Baby Face, prohibition forces the entire market underground, making it harder to enforce the distinction between minors and adults or between willing and coerced participants. Prohibition forces prostitutes to work in dangerous conditions, picking up customers on the street or covertly connecting with them online, and makes it harder for them to seek legal remedies when they are cheated or abused. These hazards, similar to those seen in black markets for drugs and gambling, are not inherent to the business of selling sex; they are inherent to the policy of using force to suppress peaceful commerce. Since these dangers are entirely predictable, prohibitionists like Kristof should be reflecting on their role in perpetuating them, instead of making scapegoats out of businesses that run classified ads.

Public vs. Private Privacy Threats

I am always fascinated by folks who fear private power but support continuing increases in public / government power.  For me there is no contest - public power is far more threatening.  This is not because I necesarily trust private corporations like Goldman Sachs or Exxon or Google more than I do public officials.  Its because I have much more avenues of redress to escape the clutches of private companies and/or to enforce accountability on them.  I trust the incentives faced by private actors and the accountability mechanisms in the marketplace far more than I trust those that apply to government.

Here is a good example.  First, Kevin Drum laments the end of privacy because Google has proposed a more intrusive privacy policy.  I am not particularly happy about the changes, but at the end of the day, I am comforted by two things.  One:  I can stop using Google services.  Sure, I use them a lot now, but I don't have to.  After all, I used to be a customer or user of AOL, Compuserve, the Source, Earthlink, and Netscape and managed to move on from those guys.  Second:  At the end of the day, the worst they are tying to do to me is sell me stuff.  You mean, instead of being bombarded by irrelevant ads I will be bombarded by slightly more relevant ads?  Short of attempts of outright fraud like identity theft, the legal uses of this data are limited.

Kevin Drum, who consistently has more faith in the state than in private actors, actually gets at the real problem in passing (my emphasis added)

And yet…I'm just not there yet. It's bad enough that Google can build up a massive and—if we're honest, slightly scary—profile of my activities, but it will be a lot worse when Google and Facebook and Procter & Gamble all get together to merge these profiles into a single uber-database and then sell it off for a fee to anyone with a product to hawk. Or any government agency that thinks this kind of information might be pretty handy.

The last part is key.  Because the worst P&G will do is try to sell you some Charmin.  The government, however, can throw you and jail and take all your property.  Time and again I see people complaining about private power, but at its core their argument really depends on the power of the state to inspire fear.  Michael Moore criticizes private enterprise in Capitalism:  A Love Story, but most of his vignettes actually boil down to private individuals manipulating state power.  In true free market capitalism, his negative examples couldn't occur.  Crony capitalism isn't a problem of private enterprise, its a problem of the increasingly powerful state.  Ditto with Google:  Sure I don't like having my data get sold to marketers, and at some point I may leave Google over it.  But the point is that I can leave Google .... try leaving your government-enforced monopoly utility provider.  Or go find an alternative to the DMV.

A great example of this contrast comes to us from Hawaii:

There may be some trouble brewing in paradise, thanks to a seemingly draconian law currently under consideration in Hawaii's state legislature. If passed, H.B. 2288 would require all ISPs within the state to track and store information on their customers, including details on every website they visit, as well as their own names and addresses. The measure, introduced on Friday, also calls for this information to be recorded on each customer's digital file and stored for a full two years. Perhaps most troubling is the fact that the bill includes virtually no restrictions on how ISPs can use (read: "sell") this information, nor does it specify whether law enforcement authorities would need a court order to obtain a user's dossier from an ISP. And, because it applies to any firm that "provides access to the Internet," the law could conceivably be expanded to include not just service providers, but internet cafes, hotels or other businesses.

Americans fed up with Google's nosiness can simply switch email providers.  But if they live in Hawaii, they will have no escape from the government's intrusiveness.

Coyote on TV

I will be on Fox Business Channel's Follow the Money, which airs at 8PM EST.  Not sure which part of the program I will be in.

Update: finished taping. I suppose it is good practice, but this 2 minute TV interview thing is really a difficult format for me. Producer said it was on 10est so check your local listings, as they say. Dont blink or you will miss me. I think my forbes column this week may be "what I should have said in Friday night."

Interesting Inspection Technique

Love this story ... hope its not apocryphal

That got me to thinking about a wonderful story of how one of rock's legendary bands ensured that their shows were set up properly - and safely.  Van Halen's contracts would spell out any and everything that had to occur before they would go on stage.  Not surprisingly, since these contracts covered everything but the kitchen sink, it would be nearly impossible to make sure all the i's and lower-case j's were dotted.  So they came up with a smart way to make sure everything was followed to a tee.

In their contracts, they buried a rider in that said that the band would be provided with a jar of M&M's with all the brown ones removed.  The thinking was that if the contract were read thoroughly, the M&M's would be provided sans the brown ones.  If that was done properly, so, likely, would everything else.  So rather than checking to see if everything was taken care of, they simply looked for the jar of M&M's.  If there were brown ones inside, they'd have everything checked top-to-bottom

When you think about it, that's a nearly costless way to check for quality control.  So much for the dumb musician stereotype.

State of the Union: Apparently, Hugh Hefner is Responsible for Abstinence

My column for this week is up at Forbes, and inevitably, deals with the State of the Union address last night.

But the portion that really floored me was Obama’s taking credit for the increase in US oil and gas production over the last several years.  It is certainly true that, against all predictions of peak oil, new technologies have helped drive a surge in US hydrocarbon production.  Combined with a recession-driven drop in demand, America’s oil imports as a percentage of its total use has dropped to 45.6%, the lowest level in over 15 years.

This surge in energy production is a fabulous reminder of how markets work.  For years I have written that the peak oil folks were missing something fundamental by performing an overly static analysis.  They looked at current “proven” reserves of oil and gas and projected forward how many years it would take for these to run out.  But oil and gas reserve numbers only make sense in the context of a particular set of technologies and pricing levels.  As hydrocarbons run short, rising prices tend to spur both innovation and new, more expensive exploration activity.  Oil and gas companies are once again proving Julian Simon’s addage that the only true scarcity is human brain power, and they should be given a lot of credit for the recent production boom.

The one person who deserves no credit for this boom is Barack Obama....

Read it all.

Chickens Roosting in Glendale

Via the WSJ

Glendale, Ariz., is selling about $136 million in debt in the municipal-bond market this week, just days after Moody's Investors Service cut its bond rating because of the desert city's obligations to cover losses on a National Hockey League franchise.

In exchange for the NHL's promise to manage team operations and keep the team in Glendale until a new owner is found, the city agreed to compensate the league, the city's executive communications director, Julie Frisoni, said.

The Coyotes filed for bankruptcy protection in 2009, and that spring, the NHL became the owner of the team. In exchange for keeping the team, the city signed an agreement to absorb up to $25 million of the team's losses in both 2011 and 2012, in anticipation of finding a new owner, Moody's analysts said.

Glendale is slowly sinking itself in a mountain of debt to pursue its insane strategy to subsidize every billionaire sports owner in Arizona.  The town of 225,000 people is spending $25,000,000 to fund the operating losses of a freaking hockey team -- that's nearly $500 a year for every 4-person family in the city.  Nuts.  And this is just their operating subsidy, it does not include debt service on the $300 million stadium it built for the team.

The problem is that the team is worth less than $100 million in Arizona (based on recent sales comps of other NHL franchises in warm cities like Atlanta) but might be worth $300-$400 million if moved to Canada (Jim Balsillie made an offer in this range, including an offer to pay down $150 million or so of the city's debt, before RIM stock started to crash).  The NHL, which owns the team now, has promised owners that they will not take a penny less than $200 million for the team, and that they will not suffer any operating losses.

So, because they simply cannot admit they were wrong to subsidize the team the first time around, to keep the team in Glendale the city must either fund $25 million a year in team operating losses or it must pony up $100 million or so to bridge the team's $100 million value in Arizona and the league's $200 million price tag (something they tried and failed to do last year when the Goldwater Institute pointed out that such a subsidy was unconstitutional in AZ.

I repeat, what a big freaking mess.  How do you avoid it?  The only way is the Wargames strategy, ie the only winning move is not to lay the sports team subsidy game in the first place.

Coyote on TV

Looks like I will be on Fox & Friends at 8:15 EST tomorrow (Wed) to discuss the State of the Union, and specifically the Obama administration and public vs. private investment.  That will make four national TV appearances and 4 entirely different topics (parks, minimum wage, electric car efficiency, and infrastructure investments).  I'm really honing a razor-sharp personal brand.

Sense of Scale -- Keystone XL vs. Wind

One thing that many green energy advocates fail to understand is the very scale of US energy demand in relation to the output of various green sources.

Let's consider wind.

The Keystone XL pipeline would have provided 900,000 barrels of oil per day, roughly equivalent to 1.53 billion kw-hr per day.  A typical wind turbine is 2MW nameplate capacity, but at best actually produces about 30% of this on average.  This means that in a day it produces 2,000*.3*24 = 14,400 kw-hr of electricity.  This means that the Keystone XL pipeline would have transported an amount of energy to the US equal to the output of 106,250 of those big utility-size wind turbines.

Looked at another way, the entire annual output of the US wind energy sector was about 75 terra-watt-hours per year or about 260 million kw-hr per day.  This means that the Keystone XL pipeline would have carried energy equal to over 5 times the total output of wind power in the US.

Of course, this is just based on the potential energy in the fuel, and actual electricity production would be 50-65% less.  But even so, this one single pipeline, out of many, is several times larger than the entire wind power sector.

Easily the Most Awesome Thing I Have Seen For A While

Star Wars crowd-sourced in 15-second intervals, each by a different person, often in completely different styles.

The garbage chute scene at 1:18 is pretty representative of what this is about. We get live action (both high and low quality props), animation, sock puppets and even ferrets.

The opening 20th Century Fox credit change is great - how they missed this idea in the real movie, I will never know.

Debating the Second

I thought this was an interesting discussion of leap seconds.  At its heart, the debate is about a tradeoff between hassle (a lot of programming goes into inserting a second into a day every year or so) and how close we want time to match its traditional association with astronomical observations (e.g. noon is exactly noon at Greenwich).   This is a debate that has occured at least since the imposition of time zones (mainly at the behest of railroads) which for many cities converted "sun time" to "railroad time."  Until then, every town was on a different time with noon set to local astronomic noon.  Now, only a few cities actually have noon at noon.  Of course, daylight savings time took this even further.

Fourth Amendment Win

3D Painting

I like to send my daughter, the artist, examples of people working in new media to help inspire her.  This is pretty amazing -- 3D painting in layers of acrylic.  These are NOT objects embedded in the clear plastic, its all painting in thin layers, like a 3D printer.

All-Purpose Libertarian Cartoon

via

Keystone XL: Voting for the Stone Age

(update: link is fixed)  My new Forbes column is up, and it attempts to strip away the window dressing around the Keystone pipeline decision to get at the core issue -- "a quasi-irrational ('I'm blogging against the modern economy from my iPhone'), almost aesthetic distaste for energy production, the modern industrial economy, and capitalism itself. "  Read it all here.

PS-  the contrast between the Administrations support of the egregious HSR project in CA and its rejection of the takes-no-tax-dollars Keystone XL infrastructure project reminds me of my earlier piece on the Timeless Appeal of Triumphalism.   Politicians love to shift capital from private, boring, productive things like pipelines to sexy taxpayer-funded things that they can put their names on.

In Praise of Utah

I sat through a series of sessions held with legislators today in Utah, and I must say I was pretty impressed with the fiscal sanity that has ruled this state through the last 10 years, and saw it successfully through the recent downturn.  When tax revenues were up last decade, they were doing crazy, nutty things like actually building up their rainy day fund.  And they are already talking this year about contributing to rather than withdrawing from this fund.  They still do silly politician-stuff (the law to name a state gun comes to mind) but overall a good session, facilitated by a terrific, scrappy group called the Utah Taxpayers Association.  These guys had the governor, the Speaker of the House, the President of the Senate, and numerous legislators participating.  I am not sure our larger and much better funded Goldwater Institute in AZ could do as well.

As an added bonus, I found myself sitting with a talking to Billy Casper, two-time winner of the US Open and Master Champion.  Turns out Mr. Casper is in roughly the same business I am, lending his name and time to a large firm that privately manages public golf courses.

Bonus Utah Observation:  You would expect a state with a large LDS influence to have oddities in its alcohol laws, but other than state-run liquor stores (which can be found in a number of other states, alas) I observed nothing too odd.  What I had not thought about was coffee.  There are very few Starbucks here, due in large part to LDS prohibitions on caffeine.  I know a lot of software firms moved here -- I wonder how they even function without large supplies of Mountain Dew Code Red?

Oh, and I know you don't think BBQ in Utah, but Pat's is freaking awesome.  My competitor who is based on the area was nice enough to buy me lunch.  And just in time, as about an hour later it was announced I had just won a large contract from him.

Perfect for Climate Scientists

I propose a similar law for all climate scientists when they are presenting their computer model forecasts.  Actual legislation once proposed in New Mexico:

When a psychologist or psychiatrist testifies during a defendant’s competency hearing, the psychologist or psychiatrist shall wear a cone-shaped hat that is not less than two feet tall. The surface of the hat shall be imprinted with stars and lightning bolts. Additionally, a psychologist or psychiatrist shall be required to don a white beard that is not less than 18 inches in length, and shall punctuate crucial elements of his testimony by stabbing the air with a wand. Whenever a psychologist or psychiatrist provides expert testimony regarding a defendant’s competency, the bailiff shall contemporaneously dim the courtroom lights and administer two strikes to a Chinese gong…

In the case of New Mexico, this was meant as satire and eventually was removed from the final bill, but I think it would be a great adjunct for climate forecasts, better than a surgeon general's warning.