Posts tagged ‘fed’

Demand Curve? What Demand Curve?

Today's little slice of economic ignorance comes from tech site Engadget, a frequent contributor of such morsels.  Apparently California is considering new penalties on auto makers for not selling enough electric cars, penalties which by their structure will be fed right into the pocket of Tesla, already a gaping maw of government subsidy consumption:

Assemblywoman Autumn Burke tells the Associate Press that she's introducing a bill requiring that car manufacturers sell at least 15 percent zero-emissions free vehicles within a decade. Companies operating in the state already have to hit yearly emissions targets and get credits for sales, but this would require that they embrace electric or hydrogen fuel cell cars in a big way -- not just one or two novelty models. And if they don't sell enough eco-friendly cars, they'd have to either pay a fine to the state or pay rivals that meet the targets. Yes, they might inadvertently help the competition.

If the bill becomes law, it could light a fire under car makers that have so far been slow to adopt emissions-free tech. Only 3 percent of all California car sales are either electric or plug-in hybrids.

The underlying assumption, both by Ms. Burke as well as the article's author, seems to be that lack of electric car sales is entirely a supply-side problem -- low sales are because auto makers don't make enough of them.  While I have no doubt that there would be incrementally more sales if auto makers had a larger variety of models with different combinations of features, all of this seems to ignore the demand side.  Automakers, who are constantly locked in a death struggle over tiny increments of market share, and who already pay penalties for not selling as many electric cars as politicians would wish them to, have every incentive to sell as many as they can.  The issue strikes me as one of demand rather than supply - given current technology limits and costs, and despite large financial incentives from the government in the form of tax subsidies, most buyers have eschewed electric vehicles to date.  Neither Ms. Burke nor the author even pretend that this law will change this demand situation.

Which is why critics rightly argue that this is just another way to funnel other people's money into Elon Musk's pocket, without his actually having to sell any more cars.  Tesla already depends on payments from other auto makers for electric vehicle indulgences for much of its revenue, and this can only go up under this kind of law.

My Nomination for Corporate State of the Year: Napa County, California

Last week I went on a wine-tasting tour in the Napa Valley with a bunch of friends who are passionate about wine.  It was an odd experience, because I am not passionate about wine and do not have the tasting ability to discern many differences between the wine.  I could tell it was a red wine, and maybe if it was dry or fruity, but hints of tobacco and blackcurrent?  Not so much.  It was also weird to be in a place where I really was not very passionate (wine is behind both beer and cocktails in my drinking hierarchy) but I was surrounded by people with a an excess of passion -- by people who seem to build their whole life around wine.  There was a lot of competitive one-upsmanship and virtue signalling going on around wine that I only barely understood.  I would equate the whole experience with my wife's experience at Comicon, standing in line behind two guys passionately arguing about comic book hero backstories.  I tried my hardest to be tolerant of those who had really different interests than I have, though I will say that this tolerance was NOT shared by most wine enthusiasts who treated me as demonstrably defective when I admitted that wine did not do that much for me.

Anyway, at each tour we typically got the whole backstory of the business.  And the consistent theme that ran through all of these discussions was the simply incredible level of regulation of the wine business that goes on in Napa.   I have no idea what the public justification of all these rules and laws are, but the consistent theme of them is that they all serve to make it very hard for small competitors or new entrants to do business in the county.  There is a board, likely populated by the largest and most powerful entrenched wine makers, that seems to control the whole regulatory structure, making this a classic case of an industry where you have to ask permission of your competitors to compete against them.  There are minimum sizes, in acres, one must have to start a new winery, and this size keeps increasing.   Recently, large winemakers have started trying to substantially raise this number again to a size greater than the acreage of any possible available parcel of land, effectively ending all new entrants for good.  I forget the exact numbers, but one has to have something like 40 acres of land as a minimum to build a structure on the land, and one must have over 300 acres to build a second structure.  You want to buy ten acres and build a small house and winery to try your hand at winemaking? -- forget it in Napa.

It took a couple of days and a bunch of questions to put this together.  Time and again the guide would say that the (wealthy) owners had to look and wait for a long time to find a piece of land with a house on it.  I couldn't figure out why the hell this was a criteria -- if you are paying millions for the land, why are you scared to build a house?   But it turned out that they couldn't build a house.  We were at this beautiful little place called Gargiulo and they said they bought their land sight-unseen on 3 hours notice for millions of dollars because it had a house AND a separate barn on it grandfathered.  Today, it was impossible to get acreage of the size they have and build two structures on it, but since they had the barn, they could add on to it (about 10x the original size of the barn) to build the winery and still have a separate house to live in.

This is why the Napa Valley, to my eye, has become a weird museum of rich people.  It seems to be dominated by billionaires who create just fantastically lovely showplaces that produce a few thousand cases of wine that is sold on allocation for 100+ dollars a bottle to other rich people.   It is spectacularly beautiful to visit -- seriously, each tasting room and vineyard is like a post card, in large part because the owners are rich enough to care nothing about return on capital  invested in their vineyards.  The vineyards in Napa seem to have some sort of social signalling value which I don't fully understand, but it is fun to visit for a few days.  But in this set-piece, the last thing the folks who control the county want is for grubby little middle-class startups to mess up their carefully crafted stage, so they are effectively excluded.

I know zero about wines, but from other industries this seems to be a recipe for senescence.  It would surprise me not at all to see articles get written 10 years from now about how Napa wines have fallen behind other, more innovative areas.  I have never been there, but my friends say newer areas like Paso Robles has an entirely different vibe, with working owners on small plots trying to a) actually make a viable business of it and b) innovate and try new approaches.

Postscript:  The winner of the cost-no-object winery award had to be Palmaz.  Created by one of the folks who invented the heart stent, it was a wonderfully eccentric place.   The owner theorized years ago that pumping wine (something that is done at many steps to transfer it between process steps) hurts the wine by breaking up longer chain tannin molecules (search me if this is true).  Anyway, he wanted everything gravity fed, but that meant you needed grapes to come in at the top, with fermenters below that, and filters below that, and wine barrels for aging below that.  Well, if you have been reading this post, you can guess that a building tall enough for this certainly can't be built in Napa.  So he carved it out of a mountain.  Seriously, this place is like NORAD, with probably a mile of underground passages stacked 18 stories deep from top to bottom.  In the center of the mountain is this room:

click to enlarge

In a circle behind the railing are fermenters on a train track that can rotate as a group all around like a giant carousel to position them under the grape chute or over the filters.  The room is carved out with a giant dome, and on the dome are projected process control data about each grape or wine batch.  It was truly incredible.  (More about it online here)

Don't get me wrong, I love this.  It is a pleasant eccentricity, from which others can benefit.  And the wine was good, at least to my admittedly weak evaluation skills.  I just hate it that the arbiters of the Napa Valley feel the need to exclude others who want to use their own land in different ways.

Update:  A Coyote Blog reader writes that they ARE doing things differently making wine in Paso Robles.  Here is his web site and story.

Techniques to Aid Authoritarians: The Supposed Statute of Limitations on Outrage

In the Fast and Furious and IRS scandals, the Administration has purposefully dragged its feet on disclosures.  The strategy is to let as much time pass so that when bad revelations eventually come out, the heat from the original scandal is gone.  Defenders of the Administration will then argue the revelations are "old news", as if there is some statute of limitations on outrage.  This strategy has driven Republicans crazy.

So what do Conservatives do when the torture report comes out after months and months of foot-dragging trying to prevent its release? You got it, they scream "old news".  Scott Johnson:

I confess that I do not understand the rationale supporting the publication of the Democrats’ Senate Select Committee study of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. On its face, it seems like ancient history (of a highly tendentious kind) in the service of a personal grudge. It is not clear to me what is new and it is not clear that what is new is reliable, given the absurd limitations of the committee’s investigation.

By the way, I want to make one observation on this line from attorney John Hinderaker:

Similarly, the report confirms that the Agency’s enhanced interrogation techniques were used on only a small number of captured terrorists, 39 altogether. These enhanced techniques include the “belly slap” and the dreaded “attention grasp.”

Most important, it appears that waterboarding really was the most extreme sanction to which any of the terrorists were subjected (and only three of them, at that). Given all the hoopla about CIA “torture,” one might have expected to learn that far worse happened at the Agency’s dark sites. But, as far as the report discloses, the Agency stuck almost exclusively to its approved list of tactics, all of which the Department of Justice specifically found not to be torture.

Were some of the captured terrorists treated roughly? Absolutely. Their lives must have been miserable, and deservedly so. Some of the 39 were placed in stress positions for considerable lengths of time, doused with water, fed poor diets, left naked in cells. In one instance, a terrorist was threatened with a power drill. In another case, an interrogator told a terrorist that his children may be killed. There were two instances of mock execution.

A few observations:

  • The fact that they were "terrorists" seems to justify the mistreatment for him.  But how do we know they were terrorists?  Because the Administration said so.  There was no due process, no right of appeal, no ability to face witnesses, no third party review, none of that.  A branch of the Administration grabbed the guy, said you are a terrorist, and started torturing them.  I am not saying that they did this without evidence, but I am sure Mr. Hinderaker know from his own experience that every prosecutor thinks every person he or she tries is guilty.  That is why both sides get to participate in the process.
  • "Terrorist" is an awfully generic word to give us automatic license to torture people.  My sense is that there are all kinds of shades of behavior lumped under that word.  Conservatives like Mr. Hinderaker object, rightly, to a wide range of sexually aggressive actions from unwanted kissing to forced penetration being lumped under the word "rape".  But my sense is we do the same thing with "terrorists".
  • In my mind the casualness with which he can accept these kinds of treatments for people he does not like is morally debilitating.  It is a small step from accepting it for one to accepting it for many.  It is like the old joke of a debutante asked if she would have sex for a million dollars and saying "yes", then getting asked if she would have sex for $20 and responding "what kind of girl do you think I am?"  We've already established that, we are just haggling over price.
  • For those on the Right who say that all this stuff about due process does not apply because the "terrorists" were not citizens, then welcome to the Left!  Individual rights are innate -- they are not granted by governments (and thus by citizenship).  The Right generally says they believe this.  It is the Left whose positions imply that rights are favors granted by the state to its citizens.

Emulating North Korea

I have little tolerance for enforced patriotism of any sort.  In fact, having loyalty oaths and singing songs and genuflecting to flags all seem more consistent with totalitarianism than the values of liberty that patriots are nominally trying to promote.  If I were rotting in a crappy Phoenix jail for being caught with marijuana or busted for driving while Mexican, I would be even less patriotic

Dozens of Arizona inmates will eat nothing but bread and water for at least seven days in the latest punishment by one of America's toughest sheriffs.

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio handed down the sentence after inmates defaced American flags hung in each jail cell. He says the men tore the flags, wrote or stepped on them and threw them in the toilet.

The flags are part of a push for patriotism in county jail cells. Arpaio has ordered thatGod Bless America and the national anthem be played daily in every jail facility.

This isn't Arpaio's first controversial move. He made headlines for keeping thousands of inmates outdoors in repurposed military tents in weather that was hotter than 117 degrees. He also made male inmates wear pink underwear.

He banned smoking, coffee and movies in all jails. And he's even put his stamp on mealtime. Inmates are fed only twice a day, and he stopped serving salt and pepper – all to save taxpayers money, he says.

Forgetting the Fed -- Why a Recovery May Actually Increase Public Debt

Note:  I am not an expert on the Fed or the operation of the money supply.  Let me know if I am missing something fundamental below

Kevin Drum dredges up this chart from somewhere to supposedly demonstrate that only a little bit of spending cuts are needed to achieve fiscal stability.

Likely the numbers in this chart are a total crock - spending cuts over 10 years are never as large as the government forecasts and tax increases, particularly on the rich, seldom yield as much revenue as expected.

But leave those concerns aside.  What about the Fed?  The debt as a percent of GDP shown for 2012 in this chart is around 72%.  Though it is not labelled as such, this means that this chart is showing public, rather than total, government debt.  The difference is the amount of debt held by federal agencies.  Of late, this amount has been increasing rapidly as the Fed buys Federal debt with printed money.  Currently the total debt as a percent of GDP is something like 101%.

The Left likes to use the public debt number, both because it is lower and because it has been rising more slowly than total debt (due to the unprecedented growth of the Fed's balance sheet the last several years).  But if one insists on making 10-year forecasts of public debt rather than total debt, then one must also forecast Fed actions as part of the mix.

Specifically, the Fed almost certainly will have to start selling some of the debt on its books to the public when the economy starts to recover.  That, at least, is the theory as I understand it: when interest rates can't be lowered further, the Fed can apply further stimulus via quantitative easing, the expansion of the money supply achieved by buying US debt with printed money.  But the flip side of that theory is that when the economy starts to heat up, that debt has to be sold again, sopping up the excess money supply to avoid inflation.  In effect, this will increase the public debt relative to the total debt.

It is pretty clear that the authors of this chart have not assumed any selling of debt from the Fed balance sheet.  The Fed holds about $2 trillion in assets more than it held before the financial crisis, so that selling these into a recovery would increase the public debt as a percent of GDP by 12 points.  In fact, I don't know how they get the red line dropping like it does unless they assume the current QE goes on forever, ie that the FED continues to sop up a half trillion dollars or so of debt every year and takes it out of public hands.

This is incredibly unrealistic.  While a recovery will likely be the one thing that tends to slow the rise of total debt, it may well force the Fed to dump a lot of its balance sheet (and certainly end QE), leading to a rise in public debt.

Here is my prediction:  This is the last year that the Left will insist that public debt is the right number to look at (as opposed to total debt).  With a reversal in QE, as well as the reversal in Social Security cash flow, public debt will soon be rising faster than total debt, and the Left will begin to assure us that total debt rather than public debt is the right number to look at.

Sandy and Global Warming

The other day I linked my Forbes column that showed that there was no upward trend in global hurricane number and strength, the number of US hurricane strikes, or the number of October hurricanes.  Given these trends, anyone who wants to claim Sandy is proof of global warming is forced to extrapolate from a single data point.

Since I wrote that, Bob Tisdale had an interesting article on Sandy.  The theoretical link between global warming and more and stronger Atlantic hurricanes has not been fully proven, but the theory says that warmer waters will provide energy for more and larger storms (like Sandy).  Thus the theory is that global warming has heated up the waters through which hurricanes pass and that feed these hurricanes' strength.

Bob Tisdale took a look at the historical trends in sea surface temperatures in the area bounded by Sandy's storm track.  These are the temperature trends for the waters that fueled Sandy.  This is what he got:

If he has done the analysis right, this means there is no warming trend over the last 60+ years in the ocean waters that fed Sandy.  This means that the unusually warm seas that fed Sandy's growth were simply a random event, an outlier which appears from this chart to be unrelated to any long-term temperature trend.

Update:  I challenge you to find any article arguing that Sandy was caused by anthropogenic global warming that actually includes a long term trend chart (other than global temperatures) in the article.  The only one I have seen is a hurricane strike chart that is cut off in the 1950's (despite data that goes back over 100 years) because this is the only cherry-picked cut off point that delivers an upward trend.  If you find one, email me the link, I would like to see it.

Is There Not One Single Operations Engineer in the TSA?

I go nuts when I see a bad process.  It bothers me so much I had to stop going to the local bagel outlet because their process behind the counter was so frustratingly awful it made my teeth hurt  (take order here, walk all the way to other end to get bagel, walk all the way back to toaster, then cross back over to get spread, all while nobody is able to pay because the only cashier also seems to be the only one assigned to fulfilling complicated coffee orders).

Because of this, going through TSA screening makes me completely nuts.  Screening is a classic assembly line process with steps that include putting shoes in bin, putting toiletries in bin, putting laptop in bin, shoving bin through x-ray, walking through scanner, retrieving items from x-ray, putting on shoes, putting items back in luggage, stacking bins and returning them to the front.  In many airports, I have observed that the long lines for screening are due to a simple bottleneck that could easily be removed if anyone in the TSA actually cared about service performance.

For example, I was in the San Jose airport the other day.  They had a really large area in front of the scanners with really long tables leading to the x-ray.  I thought to myself that this was smart - give people plenty of time in the line to be organizing their stuff into bins so one of the key potential bottlenecks, the x-ray machine, is always fed with items and is never waiting.

But then I got to the end of the process.  The landing area for stuff out of the x-ray was incredibly short.  When just one person tries to put their shoes on while their bag was still on the line, the whole x-ray conveyor gets jammed.  In fact, when I was there, the x-ray guy had to sit and wait for long periods of time for the discharge end to clear, so he could x-ray more bags.  One might have blamed this on clueless passengers who held up the line trying to put on shoes when they should step out of line and find a bench, but there were just two tiny benches for five screening lines.  The only place to get your stuff organized and get dressed was at the discharge of the x-ray, guaranteeing the x-ray gets held up constantly.

I can almost picture what happened here, but since I don't fly to San Jose much I haven't observed it over time.  But I bet some well-meaning but clueless person thought he saw a bottleneck in the entry to the x-ray, shifted everything to dedicate a ton of space to the entry, and thus created an enormous new bottleneck at the back end.  This kind of thing is stupid.  We are, what, 11 years into this screening?  Can you imagine Texas Instruments tolerating such a mess on their calculator assembly line for 11 years?

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.

Bad Boys, Bad Boys

If nothing else, the OWS movement is helping ordinary Americans see the abuse of power that is so endemic in many police departments.  I am tired of the quasi-cult of police ass-kicking on average citizens, as fed by reality cop shows and folks like Joe Arpaio.  As Radley Balko points out, the casual way that the officer hoses down citizens who are just sitting on a curb with pepper spray is just outrageous.  From past experience, my guess is that these guys were ready to go limp and be dragged off - the pepper spray was just pure torture for the entertainment of the cops.

We would not do this to a terrorist in Gitmo, so why are we doing this to American citizens? I think I get particularly angry and intolerant of this kind of crap because I used to be the kind of law and order conservative that would excuse this kind of behavior, and that embarrasses me. The saying goes that a converted Catholic is often more fervent than a born one, so to I guess for this civil libertarian.

Outright Theft by Public Unions

Though it's a high bar given what has been going on recently, this is the most aggravating thing I have read this week, via Glen Reynolds:

Robert and Patricia Haynes live in Michigan with their two adult children, who have cerebral palsy. The state government provides the family with insurance through Medicaid, but also treats them as caregivers. For the SEIU, this makes them public employees and thus members of the union, which receives $30 out of the family's monthly Medicaid subsidy. The Michigan Quality Community Care Council (MQC3) deducts union dues on behalf of SEIU.

Michigan Department of Community Health Director Olga Dazzo explained the process in to her members of her staff.  "MQC3 basically runs the program for SEIU and passes the union dues from the state to the union," she wrote in an emailobtained by the Mackinac Center. Initiated in 2006 under then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm, D-Mich., the plan reportedly provides the SEIU with $6 million annually in union dues deducted from those Medicaid subsidies.

“We're not even home health care workers. We're just parents taking care of our kids,” Robert Haynes, a retired Detroit police officer, told the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “Our daughter is 34 and our son is 30. They have cerebral palsy. They are basically like 6-month-olds in adult bodies. They need to be fed and they wear diapers. We could sure use that $30 a month that's being sent to the union.”

This is a microcosm of the typical liberal fail -- a group or agency does initial good work (private unions in the early 2oth century, civil rights groups in the 60's and 70's, the EPA in the early 70's) but refuse to go away and declare victory, instead morphing into self-sustaining parasites whose only concern is their own survival.

The Great Bailout

Peter Tchir via Zero Hedge

The AIG moment was the first time that the US threw any pretense of real capitalism out the window.  Bear Stearns at least was done by JPM with government help.  Fannie and Freddie were taken over, but they were always quasi government entities.  It was AIG that was truly special.  The government didn't even attempt to see if the banks had managed their exposures at all.  The government didn't even care if they had.  They panicked and saved the banks from their own folly - they didn't give capitalism a chance.  The US has never truly recovered from that.  The entire system looks to government support more and more.  Since AIG the Fed has been running at least one massive easing program or another constantly.  The government is lurching from spending program to spending program to keep the economy churning.

At the first signs of weakness we beg for the FED or ECB or the government to do something big and fast.  The European credit crisis seemed a final chance to put some capitalism back into capitalism.  To allow dumb decisions to pay the price for failure.  To reward the institutions that had properly navigated through the risks.  There was even a brief moment when it looked like Germany would do that - would force those who failed to pay the price and support those who had taken the best steps.  But now with Dexia bailed out and some super SIV on the way, it looks like we are once again heading down a path of not allowing failure - in fact we are once again rewarding failure and living beyond your means.  It isn't communism, but it certainly doesn't fit any classic definition of capitalism.

Time for Some Individual Action in NY

Folks in the OWS neighborhood in NYC are fed up and want the city to kick out the protesters.  While they grow old waiting for that, I would suggest taking some individual action right out of the army psi-ops manual (actually, its also from a Sopranos episode).

  1. Find some big-ass speakers
  2. Find the biggest amp you can
  3. Place speakers in window, point out at park.
  4. Find the single most annoying recording you can, and play it at volume 11 .. over and over and over and over, day in and day out.  I might try "I'm turning Japanese" or maybe "I want a hippopotamus for Christmas."  Possibly the song they used to play over and over in FAO Schwartz stores, or "It's a small world."   Or maybe something like a Joel Osteen sermon.  It almost doesn't matter once its been repeated 12 times an hour for 3 days.

Health Care Trojan Horse for Fascism

I have been warning you, its coming.  When government pays the health care bills, they can then use that as an excuse to micro-regulate our every behavior.  Because its no longer an individual choice, it affects public costs.

“Denmark finds every sort of way to increase our taxes,” said Alisa Clausen, a South Jutland resident. “Why should the government decide how much fat we eat? They also want to increase the tobacco price very significantly. In theory this is good — it makes unhealthy items expensive so that we do not consume as much or any and that way the health system doesn’t use a lot of money on patients who become sick from overuse of fat and tobacco.  However, these taxes take on a big brother feeling.  We should not be punished by taxes on items the government decides we should not use.”

As an aside, given that Scandinavians tend to have among the world's highest tolerances for taxes, when they get fed up, it must be getting bad.

Penn Jillette Awesomeness

Most of those who read the online libertarian rags have seen this, but its awesome enough to require repitition

What makes me libertarian is what makes me an atheist -- I don't know. If I don't know, I don't believe. I don't know exactly how we got here, and I don't think anyone else does, either. We have some of the pieces of the puzzle and we'll get more, but I'm not going to use faith to fill in the gaps. I'm not going to believe things that TV hosts state without proof. I'll wait for real evidence and then I'll believe.

And I don't think anyone really knows how to help everyone. I don't even know what's best for me. Take my uncertainty about what's best for me and multiply that by every combination of the over 300 million people in the United States and I have no idea what the government should do.

President Obama sure looks and acts way smarter than me, but no one is 2 to the 300 millionth power times smarter than me. No one is even 2 to the 300 millionth times smarter than a squirrel. I sure don't know what to do about an AA+ rating and if we should live beyond our means and about compromise and sacrifice. I have no idea. I'm scared to death of being in debt. I was a street juggler and carny trash -- I couldn't get my debt limit raised, I couldn't even get a debt limit -- my only choice was to live within my means. That's all I understand from my experience, and that's not much.

It's amazing to me how many people think that voting to have the government give poor people money is compassion. Helping poor and suffering people is compassion. Voting for our government to use guns to give money to help poor and suffering people is immoral self-righteous bullying laziness.

People need to be fed, medicated, educated, clothed, and sheltered, and if we're compassionate we'll help them, but you get no moral credit for forcing other people to do what you think is right. There is great joy in helping people, but no joy in doing it at gunpoint.

Who is at the other end of the spectrum?  Well, how about Brad Delong arguing for a return to technocratic rule by our betters

America's best hope for sane technocratic governance required the elimination of the Republican Party from our political system as rapidly as possible.

Technocratic utopia is of course a mirage, a supreme act of hubris, that any group of people could have the incentives or information required to manage the world top-down for us.  If I told an environmentalists that I wanted ten of the smartest biologists in the world to manage the Amazon top-down and start changing the ratios of species and courses of rivers and such in order to better optimize the rain forest, they would say I was mad.   Any such attempt would lead to disaster (just see what smart management has done for our US forests).  But the same folks will blithely advocate for top-down control of human economic activity.  The same folks who reject top-down creationism in favor of the emergent order of evolution reject the emergent order of markets and human uncoerced interaction in favor of top-down command and control.

More on technocrats here and here

This is Absurd

It is folks like this who continue to want to score the stimulus solely based on employment created by stimulus projects, without considering the fact that someone was using the money for some productive purpose before the government took or borrowed it.

David Brin at the Daily Kos via the South Bend Seven

There is nothing on Earth like the US tax code. It is an extremely complex system that nobody understands well. But it is unique among all the complex things in the world, in that it's complexity is perfectly replicated by the MATHEMATICAL MODEL of the system. Because the mathematical model is the system.

Hence, one could put the entire US tax code into a spare computer somewhere, try a myriad inputs, outputs... and tweak every parameter to see how outputs change. There are agencies who already do this, daily, in response to congressional queries. Alterations of the model must be tested under a wide range of boundary conditions (sample taxpayers.) But if you are thorough, the results of the model will be the results of the system.

Now. I'm told (by some people who know about such things) that it should be easy enough to create a program that will take the tax code and cybernetically experiment with zeroing-out dozens, hundreds of provisions while sliding others upward and then showing, on a spreadsheet, how these simplifications would affect, say, one-hundred representative types of taxpayers.

South Bend Seven have a number of pointed comments, but I will just offer the obvious:  Only half of the tax calculation is rates and formulas.  The other half is the underlying economic activity (such as income) to which the taxes are applied.  Brin's thesis falls apart for the simple reason that economic activity, and particularly income, are not variables independent of the tax code.  In fact, economic activity can be extremely sensitive to changes in the tax code.

The examples are all around us -- the 1990 luxury tax tanked high end boat sales.  The leveraged buyout craze of the 80's and housing bubble of the 00's are both arguably fed in part by the tax code's preference for debt.  The entire existence of employer-paid (rather than individual-paid) health insurance is likely a result of the tax code.  And of course there are all the supply-side and incentives effects that Kos readers likely don't accept but exist none-the-less.

Great Moments in Alarmism

From March 21, 1996 (via Real Science)

Scientists studying Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease in the field are still deeply divided about whether BSE can be transmitted to humans, and about the potentially terrifying consequences for the population.

"It's too late for adults, but children should not be fed beef. It is as simple as that," said Stephen Dealler, consultant medical microbiologist at Burnley General Hospital, who has studied the epidemic nature of BSE and its human form, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, since 1988.

He believes that the infectious agent would incubate in children and lead to an epidemic sometime in the next decade.

"Any epidemic in humans would start about 15 years after that in cattle, and about 250,000 BSE-infected cows were eaten in 1990. There could be an epidemic of this new form in the year 2005. These 10 cases were probably infected sometime before the BSE epidemic started."

His worst case scenario, assuming a high level of infection, would be 10 million people struck down by CJD by 2010. He thought it was now "too late" to assume the most optimistic scenario of only about 100 cases.

One of the great things about the Internet is that it is going to be much easier to hold alarmists accountable for wild scare-mongering predictions that prove to be absurd.  Though, I suppose Paul Ehrlich still gets respect in some quarters despite being 0-for-every-prediction-he-has-ever-made, so maybe its too much to hope for accountability.

Who Defused the Population Bomb?

Fred Pearce has a nice article (in Grist of all places) about how the Population Bomb essentially defused itself.

For a start, the population bomb that I remember being scared by 40 years ago as a schoolkid is being defused fast. Back then, most women round the world had five or six children. Today's women have just half as many as their mothers -- an average of 2.6. Not just in the rich world, but almost everywhere.

This is getting close to the long-term replacement level, which, allowing for girls who don't make it to adulthood, is around 2.3. Women are cutting their family sizes not because governments tell them to, but for their own good and the good of their families -- and if it helps the planet too, then so much the better....

And China. There, the communist government decides how many children couples can have. The one-child policy is brutal and repulsive. But the odd thing is that it may not make much difference any more. Chinese women round the world have gone the same way without compulsion. When Britain finally handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997, it had the lowest fertility in the world -- below one child per woman. Britain wasn't running a covert one-child policy. That was as many children as the women in Hong Kong wanted.

This is almost certainly one of those multiple-cause things, and we have always had the hypothesis that wealth and education reduced population growth.

But the author makes an interesting point, that urbanization, even in poorer countries, may a big driver as well.  After all, in the city, food and living space for children are expensive, and there are fewer ways children can support the family (I hadn't thought of this before, but I wonder if industrial child-labor restrictions, which mainly affected cities, had an impact on birth rates by making urban children less lucrative?)  In fact, urban jobs require educations which are expensive  (even if they are free, non-productive family members must be fed and housed for years).

Rorschach Test & Contempt of Cop

It is kind of an interesting exercise to compare the police account of this encounter with the video.   What do your eyes see?

I find it fascinating that so many commenters seem to believe that the police are entirely in the right to physically assault anyone who diss them.    One example:

For the 3 of you who commented above, I hope you never really need the cops.. You have no idea "what's called for" as you have no law enforcement training (watching "police academy" doesn't count). the Metro police go out there and do their job as best they can....

Bottom line, don't mouth off to cops or plan on carrying really good dental insurance.

Or this  (remember, all she did was use words):

She was told to leave, she left and came back and started in with the officer. Too bad for her, she asked for it.

Thanks, police, for making sure we don't ever have to encounter people in public who are not like ourselves

Finally Metro does something right. I ride the Metro regularly and I am sick and tired of this type of behavior. As a senior citizen I get fed up by the unruly behavior of today's youth. ... As for the cop, thank you

Or this one, where it is implied that it is the state's duty to use physical violence to enforce etiquette:

What kind of home schooling did she have? Why is she acting like this? I can't have any pity for her. She needs to take her uncivilized behavior somewhere else. Show some respect please. It appears she has no respect for authority or right or wrong. I feel for her parents if they should see this. Shameful, just shameful. The cop seems to just be doing his job. All she had to do was shut her sailor mouth and act like an adult.

Those who don't show respect for the state will be tackled and taken to jail.  Metro police might as well come on over to my house and drag we away, because I have no respect for you either.

It pains me to admit that 30 years ago I was just such a "law and order" Conservative.  Bleh.

Good for Google

Hopefully this is true, but it appears that Google is fed up with Chinese hijinx and is considering either pulling out of the country or insisting on being more open and less filtered.  I have given Google a lot of grief here for enabling Chinese censorship, so kudos if they are starting to rethink their relationship with China.

These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered"“combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web"“have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.

Charity - Not In My Backyard!

Via a reader, from the AZ Republic:

A Phoenix ordinance banning charity dining halls in residential neighborhoods withstood a challenge by a north-central Phoenix church.

Retired Arizona Supreme Court Justice Robert Corcoran, serving as a hearing officer, ruled Monday that feeding the homeless at a place of worship can be banned by city ordinance. The decision affects all Phoenix churches with underlying residential zoning.

Over the summer, city officials maintained that CrossRoads United Methodist Church, 7901 N. Central Ave., violated Phoenix zoning code by feeding the poor and homeless on its property, a use that can only occur in commercial or industrial zones.

You will be relieved to know that this has nothing to do with a wealthy people fearing that their Xanax-induced equilibrium will be upset by actually seeing a poor person in their neighborhood.   We are assured as such by Paul Barnes, a "neighborhood activist" who presumably participated in the suit to stop the Church from holding pancake prayer-breakfasts:

"It's not a problem with homeless people in wealthy neighborhoods. That would be a matter of prejudice. This issue would be setting churches up to avoid zoning ordinances."

Wow, I am so relieved.  And we all know what a problem it is when churches are organized solely to evade zoning regulations.  Why, just last week the First Baptist Church and Gas Station as well as the United Methodist Church and Topless Bar opened right in my neighborhood.

You will be happy to know as well that the Constitution in no way limits the government in any way when it wants to regulate your property:

In a 19-page opinion, [Judge] Corcoran said the city can restrict where the homeless and poor can be fed and that zoning regulations apply to everyone equally. Additionally, he said that trumping land-use regulations is not a constitutional right.

Whew - yet another assault on the rights of government bureaucrats has been bravely turned aside.

Update: More random embedding of ads by the Republic.  They are putting them between words in the paragraph now.  RRRRRR.  Hopefully it is gone now.

A Tribute to Norman Borlaug

Norman Borlaug, the founder and driving force behind the revolution in high-yield agriculture that Paul Ehrlich predicted was impossible, has died at the age of 98 95.  Like Radley Balko, I am struck by how uneventful his passing is likely to be in contrast to the homage paid to self-promoting seekers of power like Ted Kennedy who never accomplished a tiny fraction of what Borlaug achieved.  Reason has a good tribute here.  Some exceprts:

In the late 1960s, most experts were speaking of imminent global famines in which billions would perish. "The battle to feed all of humanity is over," biologist Paul Ehrlich famously wrote in his 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb. "In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now." Ehrlich also said, "I have yet to meet anyone familiar with the situation who thinks India will be self-sufficient in food by 1971." He insisted that "India couldn't possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980."

But Borlaug and his team were already engaged in the kind of crash program that Ehrlich declared wouldn't work. Their dwarf wheat varieties resisted a wide spectrum of plant pests and diseases and produced two to three times more grain than the traditional varieties. In 1965, they had begun a massive campaign to ship the miracle wheat to Pakistan and India and teach local farmers how to cultivate it properly. By 1968, when Ehrlich's book appeared, the U.S. Agency for International Development had already hailed Borlaug's achievement as a "Green Revolution."

In Pakistan, wheat yields rose from 4.6 million tons in 1965 to 8.4 million in 1970. In India, they rose from 12.3 million tons to 20 million. And the yields continue to increase. Last year, India harvested a record 73.5 million tons of wheat, up 11.5 percent from 1998. Since Ehrlich's dire predictions in 1968, India's population has more than doubled, its wheat production has more than tripled, and its economy has grown nine-fold. Soon after Borlaug's success with wheat, his colleagues at the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research developed high-yield rice varieties that quickly spread the Green Revolution through most of Asia.

The contrast to Paul Ehrlich is particularly stunning.  Most folks have heard of Ehrlich and his prophesies of doom.   But Ehrlich has been wrong in his prophesies more times than anyone can count.  Borlaug fed a billion people while Ehrlich was making money and fame selling books saying that the billion couldn't be fed -- but few have even heard of Borlaug.   Today, leftists in power in the US and most European nations continue to reject Borlaug's approaches, and continue to revere Ehrlich (just this year, Obama chose a disciple of Ehrlich, John Holdren, as his Science czar).

Continuing proof that the world moves forward in spite of, rather than because of, governments.

Update: More here.

Update #2: Penn and Teller on Borlaug

Avoid Jericho, Arkansas at All Costs

Not many people have seen it, but one of my favorite movies is Interstate 60.  It has a story thread through the movie, but what it really becomes is a series of essays on freedom and slavery.  One the best parts is the town where everyone is a lawyer.  The only way anyone makes money is when someone breaks the law, so their laws are crafted such that it is impossible not to break the law.

The town of Jericho, Arkansas sounds very similar.  It has 174 residents, no businesses, but a police force of 6 that tries to find ways to support itself.  Apparently, everyone in town is constantly in court for traffic citations.  When one man got fed up, and yelled at the police in court for their stupid speed traps, the police shot him - right in the courtroom.  In a scene right out of Interstate 60, the DA, after investigating the shooting, couldn't remember the name of the police officer who did the shooting and said no charges would be filed against the police, but that misdemeanor charges were being considered against the man shot.  Probably for littering, due to his bleeding on the floor.

Via Radley Balko (who else?)

Holy *$%&#%

This graph of the US monetary supply is un-freaking-believeable.  Someone please tell me that this is a data error or something.  I guess this is one way to bail out borrowers -- if you create enough inflation, then the real value of principle owed drops.  Sure looks like it is time to borrow long at fixed rates.  Are real interest rates about to go negative?

money

Via Phil Miller

By the way, this really gives the lie to the whole government stimulus effort.  They may be moving large amounts of money around, but they can't create value, and in the absence of real value creation all they are doing is inflating the currency.

In Praise of Price Gouging

As I have pointed out any number of times, when supplies of something are short, you can allocate them either by price or by rationing.  Robert Rapier, via Michael Giberson made the point that combining shortages with tough state price-gouging laws inevitably led to rationing and long lines:

Someone asked during a panel discussion at ASPO whether we were going
to have rationing by price. I answered that we are having that now. But
prices aren't going up nearly as much as you would expect during these
sorts of severe shortages. Why? I think it's a fear that dealers have
of being prosecuted for gouging. So, they keep prices where they are,
and they simply run out of fuel when the deliveries don't arrive on
time. If they were allowed to raise prices sharply, people would cut
back on their driving and supplies would be stretched further.

Neal Boortz made the same point yesterday, as the gas shortages in the southeast dragged out (unsurprisingly) for a second week:

nearly 200 gas stations in Atlanta are being investigated for price gouging.  Don't investigate them!  Reward them!  Price gouging is exactly what we need!  It should be encouraged, not investigated....

The real problem now is panic buying.  People will run their tanks
down by about one-third and then rush off to a gas station.  Lines of
cars are following gas tanker trucks around Atlanta. The supplies are
coming back up, but as long as people insist on keeping every car they
own filled to the top and then filling a few gas cans to boot, we're
going to have these outages and these absurd lines. 

So, how do you stop the panic buying?  Easy.  You let the market do
what the market does best, control demand and supply through the price
structure.  The demand for gas outstrips the supply right now, so allow
gas stations respond by raising the price of gas .. raise it as much as
they want.  I'm serious here so stop your screaming.  The governor
should hold a press conference and announce that effective immediately
there is no limit on what gas stations can charge for gas.  I heard
that there was some gas station in the suburbs charging $8.00 a
gallon.  Great!  That's what they all should be doing.  Right now the
price of gasoline in Atlanta is artificially low and being held down by
government.  That's exacerbating the problem, not helping it.  Demand
is not being squelched by price. 

As the prices rise, the point will be reached where people will say
"I'm fed up with this.  I'll ride with a friend, take the bus or just
sit home before I'll pay this for a gallon of gas."  Once the price of
a gallon starts to evoke that kind of reaction, we're on our way to
solving the problem.  When gas costs, say, $8.00 people aren't going to
fill their tanks.  They also aren't going to rush home to get their
second car and make sure it is filled up either ... and you can forget
them filling those portable gas cans they have in the trunk.  Some
people will only be able to afford maybe five gallons!  Fine!  That
leaves gas in the tanks for other motorists.  Bottom line here is that
people aren't going to rush out to fill up their half-empty tanks with
$8.00 gas.

Here is something else to think of about lines and shortages.  What is the marginal value of your time?  I think most people underestimate this in their day to day transactions.  Some will say it is whatever they make an hour at work, and that is OK, but I will bet you that is low for most folks.  Most folks would not choose to work one more hour a week for their average hourly rate.  Start eating into my free time and family time, and my cost goes up.  That's why overtime rates are higher.   

So let's say an individual values his/her time at the margin for $25.  This means that an hour spent waiting in line or driving around town searching to fill up with 10 gallons raises the cost by $2.50 a gallon.  And this does not include the fuel or other wear on the car used in the search.  Or the cost of that sales meeting you missed because you did not have the gas to get there.  So an anti-gouging law that keeps prices temporarily down by a $1 or so a gallon may actually cost people much more from the shortages it creates.   

Solar Concentrating Plants

For a while, I have been writing that traditional silicon/germanium based solar-electric panels are not yet economic as an electricity source.

I have hopes for other technologies eventually making direct solar conversion to electricity.  However, there seems to be some activity in solar concentrating plants, where solar energy is reflected onto tubes to boil water and drive traditional steam turbines to generate electricity.  Fortune has an article on one such plant opening recently:

The completed solar arrays will be trucked to California where Ausra
is building a 177-megawatt solar power station for utility PG&E (PCG)  on 640 acres of agricultural land in San Luis Obispo County. (To see a video of the robots in action, click here.)
The arrays focus sunlight on water-filled tubes to create steam to
drive a turbine. Ausra manufacturing exec David McKay points to where
standard-issue boiler pipe will be fed into a machine and treated with
a proprietary coating that transforms it into a solar receiver.

I would love for this to work, but the article goes on to say that this approach still requires federal tax subsidies to compete with other electricity sources.  I am not very familiar with the economics of such plants.  Does anyone have a link or source that delves into the economics.  I am increasingly frustrated of late with alternate energy articles that fail to give any of the relevent economic info.  For example, I read an article in the Arizona Republic (sorry, lost the link) about Arizona's first wind project, but I could not get a sense from the article if the power was being purchased at market rates or some special inflated rate.