Posts tagged ‘france’

Solar Roads -- Remember These When Environmentalists Accuse You of Being "Anti-Science"

I have written about the horribly stupid but oddly appealing idea of solar roads many times before, most recently here.  As a quick review, here are a few of the reasons the idea is so awful:

 Even if they can be made to sort of work, the cost per KwH has to be higher than for solar panels in a more traditional installations -- the panels are more expensive because they have to be hardened for traffic, and their production will be lower due to dirt and shade and the fact that they can't be angled to the optimal pitch to catch the most sun.  Plus, because the whole road has to be blocked (creating traffic snafus) just to fix one panel, it is far more likely that dead panels will just be left in place rather than replaced.

But the environmentalists are at it again, seem hell-bent on building solar roads with your tax money;  (hat tip to a reader, who knew these solar road stories are like crack for me)

France has opened what it claims to be the world’s first solar panel road, in a Normandy village.

A 1km (0.6-mile) route in the small village of Tourouvre-au-Perche covered with 2,800 sq m of electricity-generating panels, was inaugurated on Thursday by the ecology minister, Ségolène Royal.

It cost €5m (£4.2m) to construct and will be used by about 2,000 motorists a day during a two-year test period to establish if it can generate enough energy to power street lighting in the village of 3,400 residents.

The choice of Normandy for the first solar road is an odd one, given that:

Normandy is not known for its surfeit of sunshine: Caen, the region’s political capital, enjoys just 44 days of strong sunshine a year

Wow, nothing like a 12% utilization to really bump up those returns on investment.

The article follows the first rule of environmental writing, which is to give the investment required or the value of the benefits, but never both (so the return on investment can't be calculated).  This article follows this rule, by giving the investment but stating the benefits in a way that is impossible for the average person to put a value on, e.g. "enough energy to power street lighting in the village of 3,400 residents".  Since we have no idea how well-lighted their streets are or how efficient the lighting is, this is meaningless.  And by the way, they forgot to discuss any discussion of batteries and their cost if they really are going to run night-time lighting with solar.

But, the article does actually give something close to the numbers one would like to have to evaluate another similar investment, and oh boy are the numbers awful:

In 2014, a solar-powered cycle path opened in Krommenie in the Netherlands and, despite teething problems, has generated 3,000kWh of energy – enough to power an average family home for a year. The cost of building the cycle path, however, could have paid for 520,000kWh.

As a minimum, based on these facts, the path has been opened 2 years and thus generates 1500 kWh a year (though probably less since it likely has been open longer than 2 years).  This means that this investment repays about 0.29 percent of its investment every year.  If we ignore the cost of capital, and assume unlimited life of the panels (vs a more likely 5-10 years in this hard service) we get an investment payback period of only 347 years.  Yay!

Dear Conservatives: This Is Why We Hate All Your Civil Rights Restrictions in the Name of Fighting Terror

Because about 5 seconds after they are passed, government officials are scheming to use the laws against non-terrorists to protect themselves from criticism.

Twenty-four environmental activists have been placed under house arrest ahead of the Paris climate summit, using France’s state of emergency laws. Two of them slammed an attack on civil liberties in an interview with FRANCE 24....

The officers handed Amélie a restraining order informing her that she can no longer leave Rennes, is required to register three times a day at the local police station, and must stay at home between 8pm and 6am.

The order ends on December 12, the day the Paris climate summit draws to a close....

Citing the heightened terrorist threat, French authorities have issued a blanket ban on demonstrations – including all rallies planned to coincide with the climate summit, which Hollande is due to formally open on Monday.

This justification is about as lame as them come:

AFP news agency has had access to the restraining notices. It says they point to the “threat to public order” posed by radical campaigners, noting that security forces “must not be distracted from the task of combating the terrorist threat”.

Note that the police had absolutely no evidence that these folks were planning any violence, or even that they were planning any particular sort of protest.  This was a classic "round up the usual suspects" dragnet of anyone who had made a name for themselves protesting at green causes in the past.

Postscript:  Yes, I know that these protesters and I would have very little common ground on environmental issues.  So what?  There is nothing more important than supporting the civil rights of those with whom one disagrees.

And yes, I do have the sneaking suspicion that many of the very same people caught up in this dragnet would cheer if I and other skeptics were similarly rounded up for our speech by the government.  But that is exactly the point.  There are people who, if in power, would like to have me rounded up.  So it is important to stand firm against any precedent allowing the government to have these powers.  Else the only thing standing between me and jail is a single election.

Update:  Think that last bit is overly dramatic?  Think again.  I can guarantee you that you have some characteristic or belief that would cause someone in the world today, and probably many people, to want to put you up against the wall if they had the power to do so.  As proof, see:  all of history.

My Five Causes of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Rocochet asks this question over the weekend:  What are your top 5 causes of the fall of the Roman Empire.  OK, I will take a shot at this from my decidedly amateur perspective:

  1. Demographic collapse, caused by a series of plagues (perhaps even an Ur version of the black death) and possibly climate change (colder) that depopulated the western half of the empire
  2. A variety of policies (e.g. grain dole) that shifted population from productive farms to the cities.  In the 19th century, this shift was to be growth-inducing as farm labor was moving into growing factories, but no such productivity revolution existed in Roman cities.  The combination of #2 with #1 left huge swaths of farmland abandoned, and the Romans dependent on grain ships from North Africa to feed the unproductive mouths in large Italian cities.  It also gutted the traditional Roman military model, which depended strongly on these local farmers for the backbone of the army.
  3. The Romans lost their ability to be innovative in including new peoples in their Empire.  The Romans had a bewildering array of citizenship and tax statuses for different peoples who joined or were conquered by the empire.  For hundreds of years, this innovation was hugely successful.   But by the 4th and 5th centuries they seemed to have lost the trick.  The evidence for this is that they could have solved multiple problems -- the barbarians at the gates and the abandonment of farm land and the need for more soldiers -- by finding a way to settle barbarians on empty farm land.  This is in fact exactly what the barbarians wanted.  That is why I do not include the barbarian invasions as one of my five, because it did not have to be barbarian invasions, it could have been barbarian immigration.  Gibson's thesis was that Christianity killed the Roman Empire by making it "soft".  I don't buy that, but it may have been that substituting the Romans' earlier incredible tolerance for other religions in their Pagan period with a more intolerant version of Christianity contributed to this loss of flexibility.
  4. Hand in hand with #3, the Roman economy became sclerotic.  This was the legacy of Diocletian and Constantine, who restructured the empire to survive several centuries more but at the cost of at least an order of magnitude more state control in every aspect of society.  Diocletian's edict of maximum prices is the best known such regulation, but in fact he fixed most every family into their then-current trades and insisted the family perform the same economic functions in all future generations.  Essentially, it was Ayn Rand's directive 10-289 for the ancient world, and the only reason these laws were not more destructive is that the information and communication technologies of the time did not allow for very careful enforcement.
  5. Splits in the governance of the empire between west and east (again going back to Diocletian) reduced the ability to fund priorities on one side of the empire with resources from the other side.  More specifically, the wealthy eastern empire had always subsidized defense of the west, and that subsidy became much harder, and effectively ended, in the century after Diocletian.

I will add, as a reminder, that to some extent this is all a trick question, because the Roman Empire really did not totally fall until the capture of Constantinople in 1453.  So I should have stated at the outset that all of the above refers to the fall of the western empire in the late 5th century, which in part explains why #5 is there in the list.

And, if you were in a room of historians of this era, you could quickly get into an argument over whether the western Roman empire really fell in the late 5th century.  For example, the Visigothic Kingdom in the area of modern southern France and Spain retained a lot of Roman practices and law.  But I have gone with tradition here and dated the "fall" of the empire to 476 when the Roman Emperor was deposed and not replaced.

France Arrests Entrepreneurs for Crime of Innovation. Is it Any Wonder the Economy Sucks?

CEO of Uber France has been arrested because, uh, his competitors have resorted to violence to defend their inferior product.  The fact that the victim rather than the perpetrators of violence is getting arrested speaks volumes to how far governments will go to block innovation that hurts politically-connected incumbents.

After days of violent protests and defiance on the part of Uber's French management, two of the company's employees were taken into custody for "illicit activity" today. Uber France CEO Thibaut Simphal and Uber European GM Pierre-Dimitri Gore-Coty were arrested for running the company's ride-sharing service illegally. TechCrunch reports the pair is also being held under suspicion of "concealing digital documents." Last week, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve took legal action to shut down UberPOP, the service that employs non-professional drivers to provide rides, in response to protests that blocked key transportation hubs.

... While UberPOP was banned in France earlier this year, an appeals court said it could continue to operate until the final decision was handed down in September.

Putting Neville Chamberlain in Historic Context

One of the hardest things to do in history is to read history in context, shutting out our foreknowledge of what is going to happen -- knowledge the players at the time did not have.

Apparently Neville Chamberlain is back in the public discourse, again raised from the dead as the boogeyman to scare us away from any insufficiently militaristic approach to international affairs.

There is no doubt that Neville Chamberlain sold out the Czechs at Munich, and the Munich agreement was shown to be a fraud on Hitler's part when he invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia just months later.  In retrospect, we can weep at the lost opportunity as we now know, but no one knew then, that Hitler's generals planned a coup against him that was undermined by the Munich agreement.

But all that being said, let's not forget the historic context.  World War I was a cataclysm for England and Europe.   It was probably the worst thing to happen to Europe since the black death.   And many learned folks at the time felt that this disaster had been avoidable (and many historians today might agree).  They felt that there had been too much rush to war, and too little diplomacy.  If someone like Britain had been more aggressive in dragging all the parties to the bargaining table in 1914, perhaps a European-wide war could have been avoided or at least contained to the Balkans.

There simply was no energy in 1938, no collective will to start another war.  Even in France, which arguably had the most to lose from a reinvigorated Germany, the country simply could not face another war.   As an illustration, one could argue that an even better and more logical time to "stop Hitler" occurred before Munich in March of 1936 when Hitler violated the Versailles Treaty and reoccupied the Rhineland with military forces.  France had every right to oppose this occupation, and Hitler's generals said later that their forces were so puny at the time that the French could have stopped them with a brigade and sent them running back across the Rhine.  And the French did nothing.

In addition, Britain and France had very little ability to do much about Hitler's ambitions in Eastern Europe anyway.  How were they going to get troops to the Sudetenland?  We saw later in Poland how little ability they had to do anything in Eastern Europe.

And finally, everyone was boxed in by having accepted Woodrow Wilson's formula of "self-determination of peoples."  Building the entire post-war realignment on this shoddy building block is what really led to disaster.  Emphasizing this essentially nationalist formulation as the fundamental moral principle of international relations -- rather than, say, the protection of individual rights of all peoples -- really empowered Hitler.  In the Saarland, in the Rhineland, in Austria, and in the Sudetenland, it lent him the moral high ground.  He was just fulfilling Wilson's formulation, wasn't he?  These were all majority-German lands coming home to Germany.

Postscript:  Years ago in my youth I used to excoriate FDR for caving into Stalin at Yalta, specifically in giving away most of Eastern Europe.  I still wish he hadn't given his moral authority and approval to the move, but even if we stood on the table and screamed at Stalin in opposition, what were we going to do?  Was there any appetite for extending the war?  Zero.  That is what folks who oppose the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan get wrong in suggesting there were alternatives.  All those alternatives involved a longer war and more American deaths which no one wanted.

Krugman on the Minimum Wage

Via Don Boudreaux:

Bluecravat found something telling that I missed a few months ago, namely, Paul Krugman explaining back in August that one potential cause of the high unemployment rate in France is that country’s “high minimum wage.”  As Bluecravat exclaims after quoting from Krugman’s August post: “Excuse me?  What was that?  Minimum wage levels impact employment?”

Of course, it could be that France’s minimum wage is too high compared to the one that Krugman advocates for the U.S.  Krugman supports Pres. Obama’s call for a $10.10 hourly minimum wage.  So how does the employment-discouraging minimum wage in France compare to the allegedly prosperity-enhancing, non-employment-discouraging minimum wage that Krugman, Obama, et al., support for the U.S.?  According to Bluecravat, France’s current minimum wage, when adjusted for purchasing-power parity, is $9.30 per hour, a rate that is lower than the minimum-wage rate advocated by Krugman, Obama, et al.

The minimum wage is terrible anti-poverty policy.  The thing to remember is that A. The majority of minimum wage earners are not poor (or in the poorest 20%); and B.  The majority of the poor don't earn minimum wage.  In most cases, the poor are poor because they don't get enough hours or don't have a job at all, a situation that will only be made worse with a higher minimum wage.

A Small Silver Lining in the Very Black Torture Cloud

Well, the Senate torture report is out and it is every bit as bad, perhaps worse, than expected.   There are summaries all over but this one seems as good as any.  And here. Essentially the CIA:

  • Tortured and detained more people than they ever admitted
  • Were more brutal than they ever admitted
  • Were more haphazard and incompetent than can be believed (losing suspects, outsourcing torture to a couple of outside psychologists with no interrogation experience or credentials)
  • Achieved far less than they bragged from the torture, with results that now appear to approximate zero
  • Lied about everything to everyone, up to and including Congress and the President

The CIA needs a forced enema of its own, though I am skeptical they will get it.

I will say that there is nothing really particularly surprising here to a libertarian.  This sort of lawlessness often occurs in fairly transparent government agencies (think VA) so it should be no surprise that it occurs in an agency like this that has zero accountability (because it can yell "classified" as the drop of a hat).  An agency empowered to hide stuff and keep secrets is going to hide stuff and keep secrets.  I am not even sure that if we really could turn the CIA upside down that this would be the worst thing we would find.

At the risk of diluting the totally appropriate horror with which this report should be received, I will observe a couple of positives:

  1. Three cheers for partisanship and divided government.  They get a bad rap because gridlock, but without confrontational, competitive, even polarized rivals for power, this sort of thing would never have come out.  You can see pretty clearly from the minority comments that Republicans would have buried this had they controlled the Senate.
  2. One cheer for American exceptionalism.  Yes, the hubris and arrogance that often accompanies American exceptionalism went a long way to contributing to these errors.   But there are not many countries in the world that would publish this report.  Forget for a minute Russia or China or Mali.  Even among western democracies there are not many countries that would voluntarily call for penalty strokes on themselves.  I can't imagine, for example, France ever making such an admission (and not, I think, because the DGSE's hands are particularly clean).

D-Day More Important in Containing the Soviets than Defeating the Nazis

Over time, my understanding of the importance of the D-Day invasions has shifted.  Growing up, I considered these events to be the single key event in defeating the Nazis.  Listening to the radio this morning, this still seems to be the common understanding.

Over time, I have had to face the fact that the US (or at least the US Army) was not primarily responsible for defeating Germany -- the Russians defeated Germany, and what's more, would have defeated them whether the Allies had landed in France or not.  Check out the casualties by front, from Wikipedia:

click to enlarge

The Russians defeated Germany.  Period.   And I don't think the western allies would ever have had the stomach to inflict the kind of casualties on Germany that were ultimately necessary to defeat her without Russian help.  To me, this is the great irony of WWII, that it was not ultimately a victory for democracy.  Only totalitarian Russia could defeat totalitarian Germany.  This thought often bothers me a lot.  It doesn't fit with how we want to view the war.

However, D-Day did have an important effect -- it kept Western Europe out of Soviet hands.  We did not know it at the time, but I would argue in retrospect that from mid-1944 on we were competing with Russia to see how Europe would get divided up after the war.  D-Day allowed the western allies to overrun most of Western Europe and keep it out of Soviet hands, perhaps an even more important outcome than just speeding the defeat of the Germans.  Sure, FDR gets grief for giving the farm away to Russia at Yalta, but what could he do?  The Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe at that point was a fait accompli.  What would have been FDR & Churchill's negotiation position at Yalta if their armies were not even on the continent (excepting Italy, where we might still be fighting in 2014 and getting nowhere)?

The Effect of the Black Death on Labor and Grain Prices

Long time readers will know that if I were asked to relive my life doing something entirely different, I would like to try studying economic history.  Today, in a bit of a coincidence, my son called me with a question about the effect of the Black Death in Europe on labor and grain prices ... just days after I had been learning about the exact same part of history in Professor Daileader's awesome Teaching Company course on the Middle Ages (actually he has three courses - early, high, late - which are all excellent).

From the beginning of the 14th century, Europe suffered a series of demographic disasters.  Climate change in the form of the end of the Medieval warm period led to failed crops and several years of famine early in the century.  Then, later in the century, the Black Death came... over and over, perhaps made worse by the fact that Europeans were weakened already from famine.  As a result, the population of Europe dropped by something like half.

It is not entirely obvious to me what such a demographic disaster would do to prices.  Panic and uncertainty usually drive them up in the near term, but what about after that?  Both the supply and demand curves for most everything will be dropping in tandem.  So what happens to prices?

In the case of the 14th century, we know the answer:  the price of labor rose dramatically, while the price of grain dropped.  The combination tended to bankrupt the landholding aristocracy, who went so far as to try to reimpose serfdom to get their finances back in balance (some things never change).  The nobility pretty much failed at this in the West (England, France) and were met with a series of peasant revolts.  They generally succeeded in the East (Germany, Poland, Russia) which is why a quasi-feudal agricultural system persisted so long in those countries.

But why?  Why did grain price go down rather than up?  Why did labor go in the opposite direction?  I could look it up, but that is no fun.

A first answer, which does not satisfy

People who think of all of the middle ages as "the dark ages" miss the boom that occurred between 1000-1300.  Population increased, and technology advanced (just because this technology seems pedestrian to us, like the plow harness for horses or the stirrup, does not make it any less so).  It was the only time between about 300 and 1500 when the population was growing (a fact we climate skeptics will note coincided with the Medieval warm period).

But even without the setbacks of the 1300's, historians probably would argue that Europe was headed for a Malthusian collapse no matter what in the 14th century.   An enormous amount of forest had been cleared and new farmland created, such that by 1300 some pretty marginal land was being farmed just so Europe could barely keep up with demand.  At the margin, really low productivity land was being farmed.

So if there is a sudden 50% population cut, then that means that all that marginal farm land will be abandoned first.  While the number of farmers would be cut in half, production would be reduced by less than half because presumably the least productive farms would be abandoned first.  With demand cut by half and production cut by less than half, prices would fall for grain.

But this doesn't work for labor.  The same argument should apply.  To get everyone fed, we would actually need less than half the prior labor force because they would concentrate on the best land.  Labor prices should fall in this model as well, but in fact they went up.  A lot.  In fact, they went up not by a few percent but by multiples, enough to cause enormous social problems across Europe.

A second answer, that makes more sense

After thinking about this for a while, I came to realize that I had the wrong model for the economy in my head.  I was thinking about our modern economy.   If suddenly, say, online retailing reduces demand for physical stores dramatically, people close stores and redeploy capital and labor and assets to other investments in other industries.  That is how I was thinking about the Middle Ages.

But it may be more correct to see the Middle Ages as a one product economy.  There was agriculture, period.  Everything else was a rounding error.

So now let's think about the "farmers" in the Middle Ages.  They are primarily all the 1%, the titled nobility, who either farm big estates with peasant labor or lease large parts of their estates to peasants for farming.

OK, half the population is suddenly gone.  The Noble's family has lots of death but someone is still around to inherit.  They have a big estate where growing grain supports their lifestyle as well as any military obligations they may have to their lord (though this style of fighting with knights on horseback supported by grants of land is having its last hurrah in the 100 years war).

Then grain prices collapse.  That is a clear pricing signal.  In the modern economy, that would tell us to get out and find a new place for our capital.  So, as Lord Coyote of the Castle Aaaaargh, I am going to do what, exactly?  How can I redeploy my capital, when it is essentially illiquid?  I can't sell the family land.  And if I did, land prices, along with grain prices and the demographic collapse, are falling through the floor.  And even if I could sell for cash, what would I do for a living?  What would I reinvest the money in?  Running an estate is all I know.  It's all anyone knows.  I have to support myself and my 3 mistresses and my squires and my string of warhorses.

All I can do is try to farm the land I have always farmed.  And everyone else does the same.  The result is far more grain than anyone needs with the reduced population, so prices fall.   But I still need the same number of people to grow the food, irregardless of the price it fetches, but there are now half as many workers available so the price of labor goes through the roof.  When grain demand collapsed, there was no way to clear the excess capacity.  It turns out everyone had a nearly vertical supply curve, because irregardless of price, they had nothing else they could do with their time and money.  You can see now why they tried to solve their problem by reimposing serfdom (combined with price controls, a bad idea for Diocletian and for Nixon and everyone in between).

Of course, nothing is stuck forever.   One way capacity cleared was through the growth of the bureaucratic state over the next 2 centuries.  Nobles eventually had to find some new way to support themselves, and did so by taking jobs in growing state bureaucracies.  They became salaried ministers rather than feudal knights supported by agriculture.  At the same time, rising wealth among the 99% non-nobility allowed kings to support themselves through taxes rather than the granting of fiefs, which in turn paid for the nobility to take jobs in the bureaucracy and paid for peasant armies with guns and bows that replaced the lords fighting on horseback.  So in the long term, the price signal was inordinately powerful -- so powerful it helped reshape much of European government and society.

By the way, if you are reading this expecting some point about modern politics, sorry.  Just something I was thinking about and it helped to write it down.  Comments are appreciated.  I still have not cribbed the answer from the history texts yet.

Government Regulation and Incumbent Business Protection

Scratch "consumer" protection laws and you will almost always find the laws are really aimed a protecting incumbent businesses and traditional business models.  This time from France:

To the surprise of virtually everyone in France, the government has just passed a law requiring car services like Uber to wait 15 minutes before picking up passengers. The bill is designed to help regular taxi drivers, who feel threatened by recently-introduced companies like Uber, SnapCar and LeCab. Cabbies in the Gallic nation require formidable time and expense to get their permits and see the new services -- which lack such onerous requirements -- as direct competitors.

This is the interesting political ground where the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Tea Party have a lot of overlap.  That is why the Chamber of Commerce, which represents all these incumbent businesses, is working with both parties to keep the cozy corporatists in power against challenges from the Left and Right.  If you are a business owner, eschew the Chamber and join the NFIB and support the IJ.

Good God, How Does This Help Anyone Except Perhaps Helping Government Officials Feel Powerful

Via Reason

A Paris appeals court this week ordered the French cosmetics chain Sephora to close its flagship boutique on the iconic Champs Élysées boulevard at 9pm, angering salespeople who say they have freely accepted to work until midnight for years and now risk losing their jobs.

Following a trend among other businesses on Paris's most celebrated street, Sephora began extending its opening hours in 1996. Its designer perfumes, makeup and other cosmetics were, until this week, sold until midnight between Monday and Thursday, and as late as 1am on Friday and Saturday.

Citing labour laws that restrict night-time work, France’s largest unions collectively sued the shop. An administrative court sided with Sephora on December 6, 2012, allowing the cosmetics giant to keep its exceptionally late hours on the Champs-Élysées.

However, the appeals court overturned that decision on Sunday, agreeing with unions that the store’s “normal activity” does not “make night-time work a necessarity,” as the law states.

War and Stimulus

I had an argument about the (economic) stimulative effect of war the other night.  As usual, I was not entirely happy with how I argued my point in real time (which is why I blog).  Here is an attempt at an improved, brief answer:

One of the reasons that people often believe that war "improves" the economy is that they are looking at the wrong metrics.  They look at unemployment and observe that it falls.  They look at capacity utilization and observe that it rises.  They look at GDP and see that it rises.

But these are the wrong metrics.  What we care about is if people are better off: Can they buy the things they want?  Are they wealthier?

These outcomes are hard to measure, so we use unemployment and GDP and capacity utilization as proxies for people's economic well-being.  And in most times, these metrics are reasonably correlated with well-being.  That is because in a free economy individuals and their choices guide the flow of resources, which are dedicated to improving what people consider to be their own well-being.  More resources, more well-being.

But in war time, all this gets changed.  Government intervenes with a very heavy hand to shift a vast amount of the resources from satisfying people's well-being to blowing other people up.  Now, I need to take an aside on well-being in this context.  Certainly it is possible that I am better off poor in a world with no Nazis than rich in one dominated by Nazis.  But I am going to leave war aims out of the concept of well-being.  This is appropriate, because when people argue that war stimulates the economy, they are talking purely about economic activity and benefits, and so will I.

What we find is that in war time, unemployment is down, but in part because young people have been drafted (a form of servitude) to fight and die.  Are they better off so employed?  Those who are left find themselves with jobs in factories with admittedly high capacity utilization, but building things that make no one better off (and many people worse off).  GDP skyrockets as government goes deeply in debt to pay for bombs and rockets and tanks.  This debt builds nothing for the future -- future generations are left with debt and no wealth to show for it, like taking out a mortgage to buy a house and then having the house burn down uninsured.  This is no more economically useful than borrowing money and then burning it.  In fact, burning it would have been better, economically, as each dollar we borrowed in WWII had a "multiplier" effect in that it destroyed another dollar of European or Asian civilian infrastructure.

Sure, during WWII, everyone in the US had a job, but with war-time restrictions and rationing, these employed people couldn't buy anything.  Forget the metrics - in their daily lives Americans lived poorer, giving up driving and even basic staples.  This was the same condition Soviet citizens found themselves facing in the 1970s -- they all had jobs, but they could not find anything to buy.  Do we consider them to have been well off?

There is one way to prosper from war, but it is a terrible zero-sum game -- making money from other people's wars.  The US prospered in 1915 and later 1941 as Britain and France sunk into bankruptcy and despair, sending us the last of their wealth in exchange for material that might help them hang on to their existence.  Ditto in 1946, when having bombed Japanese and German infrastructure into the stone age. we provided many of the goods to help rebuild them.  But is this really the way we want to prosper?  And is this sort of vulture-like prosperity even possible with our inter-woven global supply chains?  For example, I can't see a China-Japan war being particularly stimulative for anybody nowadays.

Why Re-importation Won't Lower Prices

Just the other day I was making the point that reimporting pharmaceuticals from other countries where they are sold cheaper is not any sort of long-term solution to bringing down US drug costs.  Sure, it's frustrating that the US pays almost all of the fixed cost of drug development while other countries get these drugs closer to marginal cost.  But there is no solution to this that has everyone paying marginal cost -- unless, that is, we are willing to give up on all future drug development by sending the signal that these costs can no longer be recovered in market pricing.   All drug reimportation will do is raise the overseas cost of pharmaceuticals and hurt millions of poorer people.

I always find it ironic that drug reimportation is a favorite solution of many liberals, who are absolutely offended at paying higher costs in the US than what is paid in other countries.  Well, welcome to being rich.  You may think you are safely not-rich when you are advocating various soak-the-rich tax policies, but on an international scale, even many of America's bottom quartile would be considered well-off in poorer nations.  Compared to the US, even countries like France are substantially less wealthy.

Anyway, this was all brought to mind by this useful analysis of re-importation by Megan McArdle, though in this case it is in the context of textbook prices.

I'm Happy About the French Election

Apparently, the fall of the Soviet Union is far enough in the rear view mirror that its time for another object lesson in the real effects of communism.   It's incredible to me that any country would want to actually emulate Greece, but France seems hell-bent to do so.  So all I can say is "way to go, France!  Better you guys than us."

Apparently Obama is already cozying up with Francois Hollande.   These two may be the socialist-corporatist answer to Reagan and Thatcher.  It is interesting that Europe seems to produce an analog to the American President in each generation (or vice versa).    Reagan-Thatcher, Clinton-Blair, now Obama-Hollande.

Great Moments in Bad Ideas

Via the Weekly Standard (with video):

Gene Sperling, director of the White House's national economic council, said today at an official meeting that "we need a global minimum tax":

Pegging our tax rates to France is almost as good an idea as pegging our exchange rates to Greece.

Also, this statement is a hilarious mass of contradictions

“He supports corporate tax reform that would reduce expenditures and loopholes, lower rates for people investing and creating jobs in the U.S., due so further for manufacturing, and that we need to, as we have the Buffett Rule and the individual tax reform, we need a global minimum tax so that people have the assurance that nobody is escaping doing their fair share as part of a race to the bottom or having our tax code actually subsidized and facilitate people moving their funds to tax havens," Sperling said.

He wants to lower rates for people investing, but he wants to institute the Buffett Rule, which effectively raises taxes on people whose income is substantially dividends and capital gains, ie people who invest.  He wants special rates for creating jobs and extra special rates in manufacturing, but he wants to get rid of loopholes, most of which were created at least with the nominal intent of spurring investment in certain sectors, particularly manufacturing.

The Mapmakers Petition

This could have also been labelled as from the files of "anti-trust is not about consumers."  Apparently, a mapmaker in France has successfully sued and won damages from Google for unfair competition, ie from providing Google Maps for free.

Just as in the Microsoft anti-trust case and just about every anti-trust case in history, companies who brought the suit are really trying to stop an up-start competitor from trashing their business model, but they have to couch this true concern in mumbled words about the consumer.  Specifically, they raise that ever-popular boogeyman of jacking up prices once the  monopoly is secured.  The next time this happens, of course, will be the first time.  Its a myth.  For example, in Google's case, left unsaid is how they would jack up their prices when at least two other companies (Bing, Mapquest) also provide mapping services online for free.

How Governments Solve Problems

This is hilarious, all the more so because the actors involved have absolutely no self-awareness of just how bad this looks

This week alone has seen a ratings downgrade for Spain as well as a threat by agencies to review France's AAA status -- and the markets have taken notice. Once again, it would seem, ratings agencies are making things difficult for European countries.

Now, the European Union is considering doing something about it.

European Internal Market Commissioner Michel Barnier is considering a move to ban the agencies from publishing outlook reports on EU countries entangled in a crisis, according to a report in Thursday's issue of the Financial Times Deutschlandnewspaper

This is not even a content neutral ban on speech - it obviously will only be applied to bad reports, not positive ones.  No wonder Obama has always been so admiring of the Europeans.

I Too Found This Puzzling

The other day I was reading an article on the crash of Air France flight 447, discussing recovery of the black box (two years after the crash).  It was suspected that the air speed measurement devices may have failed, thus impairing the automatic pilot, but it was not understood why the pilots were unable to fly the plane manually.  Was something else going wrong?  Did automatic systems, operating off bad data, override manual controls somehow?

The article said that the black box showed the plane went into a stall, and the pilots spent much of the fall pulling back on the yoke to regain altitude.  This made zero sense to me.  A stall occurs when the wing is angled to steeply.  The wing generates lift because the air on top of the wing must follow a longer curve than the air on the bottom of the wing, and thus must move at higher velocity.  This higher velocity results in lower pressures.  In effect, the plane is sucked up.  When the wing is too steeply angled, the air on the top of the wing breaks away from the surface, and lift is lost.

It is therefore absolutely fundamental in stall situations to drop the nose.  This does two things -- it decreases the wing angle out of stall territory, and it increases speed, which also increases lift.

Apparently, the experts are just as befuddled as I was reading the data.  Dropping the nose in a stall is on the first page of pilot 101.  This is not some arcane fact buried on page 876 of the textbook.  This is so basic I know it and I don't have a pilots license.  But apparently the pilots of 447 were yanking up on the nose through the whole long fall to Earth.

Government Agencies Run For Their Employee's Benefit

About 20 years ago I did a rail transit study for McKinsey & Company with a number of European state rail companies, like the SNCF in France.   With my American expectations, I was shocked to see how overstaffed these companies were.  At the time, the SNCF had more freight car maintenance personnel than they had freight cars.  This meant that they could assign a dedicated maintenance person to every car and still get rid of some people.

Later in my consulting career, I worked for Pemex in Mexico, where the over-staffing was even more incredible.  I realized that in countries like France and Mexico, state-run corporations were first and foremost employment vehicles run for the benefit of employees, and, as  distant second, value-delivery vehicles and productive enterprises.

Over the last 20 years, I have seen more and more of this approach to public agencies coming to the US.  If nothing else, the whole Wisconsin brouhaha hopefully opened the eyes of many Americans to the fact that public officials and heads of agencies feel a lot more loyalty to their employees than they do to taxpayers.

I see this all the time in my business, which is private operation of certain state-run activities (e.g. parks and recreation).  I constantly find myself in the midst of arguments that make no sense against privatization.   I finally realized that the reason for this is that they were reluctant to voice the real reason for opposition -- that I would get the job done paying people less money.  This is totally true -- I actually hire more people to staff the parks than the government does, but I don't pay folks $65,000 a year plus benefits and a pension to clean the bathrooms, and I don't pay them when the park is closed and there is not work to do.  I finally had one person in California State Parks be honest with me -- she said that the employees position was that they would rather see the parks close than run without government workers.

Of course, if this argument was made clear in public, that the reason for rising taxes and closing parks was to support pay and benefits of government employees, there might be a fight.  So the true facts need to be buried.  Like in this example from the Portland transit system, via the anti-planner.

In 2003, TriMet persuaded the Oregon legislature to allow it to increase the tax by 0.01 percent per year for ten years, starting in 2005. In 2009, TriMet went back and convinced the legislature to allow it to continue increasing the tax by 0.01 percent per year for another 10 years. Thus, the tax now stands at $69.18 per $10,000 in payroll, and will rise to $82.18 per $10,000 in 2025.

At the time, TriMet promised that all of this tax increase would be dedicated to increasing service, and as of 2010, TriMet CFO Beth deHamel claims this is being done. But according to John Charles of the Cascade Policy Institute, that’s not what is happening.

Poring over TriMet budgets and records, Charles found that, from 2004 (before the tax was first increased) and 2010, total payroll tax collections grew by 34 percent, more than a third of which was due to the tax increase. Thanks to fare increases, fares also grew by 68 percent, so overall operating income grew by about 50 percent, of which about 7 percent (almost $20 million) was due to the increased payroll tax.

So service must have grown by about 7 percent, right? Wrong. Due to service cuts made last September, says Charles, TriMet is now providing about 14 percent fewer vehicle miles and 12 percent fewer vehicle hours of transit service than it provided in 2004 (comparing December 2004 with December 2010). TriMet blamed the service cuts on the economy, but its 50 percent increase in revenues belie that explanation.

By 2030, according to TriMet’s financial forecast (not available on line), the agency will have collected $1.63 billion more payroll taxes thanks to the tax increase. Yet the agency itself projects that hours and miles of service in 2030 will be slightly less than in 2004.

Where did all the money go if not into service increases? Charles says some of it went into employee benefits. TriMet has the highest ratio of employee benefits to payroll of any transit agency. At latest report, it actually spends about 50 percent more on benefits than on pay, and is the only major transit agency in the country to spend more on benefits than pay. This doesn’t count the unfunded health care liabilities; by 2030, TriMet health care benefits alone are projected to be more than its payroll.

Michael Moore Propaganda Too Much Even for Castro

Via the Guardian.  No commentary really necessary (via Q&O)

Cuba banned Michael Moore's 2007 documentary, Sicko, because it painted such a "mythically" favourable picture of Cuba's healthcare system that the authorities feared it could lead to a "popular backlash", according to US diplomats in Havana.

The revelation, contained in a confidential US embassy cable released by WikiLeaks , is surprising, given that the film attempted to discredit the US healthcare system by highlighting what it claimed was the excellence of the Cuban system.

But the memo reveals that when the film was shown to a group of Cuban doctors, some became so "disturbed at the blatant misrepresentation of healthcare in Cuba that they left the room".

Castro's government apparently went on to ban the film because, the leaked cable claims, it "knows the film is a myth and does not want to risk a popular backlash by showing to Cubans facilities that are clearly not available to the vast majority of them."

In continues:

The cable describes a visit made by the FSHP to the Hermanos Ameijeiras hospital in October 2007. Built in 1982, the newly renovated hospital was used in Michael Moore's film as evidence of the high-quality of healthcare available to all Cubans.

But according to the FSHP, the only way a Cuban can get access to the hospital is through a bribe or contacts inside the hospital administration. "Cubans are reportedly very resentful that the best hospital in Havana is 'off-limits' to them," the memo reveals.

According to the FSHP, a more "accurate" view of the healthcare experience of Cubans can be seen at the Calixto Garcia Hospital. "FSHP believes that if Michael Moore really wanted the 'same care as local Cubans', this is where he should have gone," the cable states.

A 2007 visit by the FSHP to this "dilapidated" hospital, built in the 1800s, was "reminiscent of a scene from some of the poorest countries in the world," the cable adds.

The memo points out that even the Cuban ruling elite leave Cuba when they need medical care. Fidel Castro, for example, brought in a Spanish doctor during his health crisis in 2006. The vice-minister of health, Abelardo Ramirez, went to France for gastric cancer surgery.

Ditto Hamburgers

Apparently, the folks in France are at it again, valiantly trying to retroactively create trademark rights that don't exist.  I saw this link below:

Which leads to this site, which says in part:

When it comes to wine, there is no ingredient more important than location. The land, air, water and weather where grapes are grown are what make each wine unique. That is why we, as wine enthusiasts, demand that a wine's true origin be clearly identified on its label in order for us to make informed decisions when purchasing and consuming wine. This ensures we know where our wine comes from and protects wine growing regions worldwide.

Use the form below to sign the petition to protect wine place and origin names:

I hereby sign the Wine Place & Origin Petition. In doing so, I join the signatories of the Joint Declaration to Protect Wine Place & Origin - Champagne, Chianti Classico, Jerez, Napa Valley, Oregon, Paso Robles, Porto, Sonoma County, Tokaj, Victoria, Walla Walla, Washington State and Western Australia - and a growing list of consumers in supporting clear and accurate labeling to better ensure consumers will not be misled by wine labels.

Some countries like Germany cannot use "champagne" or "Cognac" to describe similar products.  Do you know why?  These conditions were actually thrown in to the Treaty of Versailles at the end of WWI.  Since the US never signed the treaty, it and its citizens and growers are not bound by this restriction.

In the same spirit I demand that:  1) Hamburgers only be made in Hamburg 2)  Franfurters can only be made in Frankfort 3) Wiener Snitzel can only be made in Vienna 4) Hollandaise Sauce can only be made in the Netherlands  5) Boston baked beans can only be made in Boston.  Obviously we consumers are all duped, thinking our hamburger was actually made in Germany.  Had I only known!

Sideways Protectionism

Apparently, legislators in California can't get away with just passing a law that says something like "no damn foreigners can build trains for us."  So they repackage their protectionism by finding a way to disguise it, in this case with a truly screwball piece of fiddling-while-Rome-burns legislation:

A bill authored by Assemblymember Bob Blumenfield (D "“ San Fernando Valley) requiring companies seeking contracts to build California's High Speed Rail system to disclose their involvement in deportations to concentration camps during World War II gained final approval from the state legislature today. AB 619, the Holocaust Survivor Responsibility Act, passed the Assembly on a vote of 50 "“ 7 and was sent to the governor, who will have until September 30 to act on it.AB 619 would require companies seeking to be awarded high speed rail contracts to publicly disclose whether they had a direct role in transporting persons to concentration camps, and provide a description of any remedial action or restitution they have made to survivors, or families of victims. The bill requires the High Speed Rail Authority to include a company's disclosure as part of the contract award process.

Apparently they have in mind specifically the SNCF, the French national railroad.  Its loony enough to blame current corporate management and ownership for something the entity did three generations ago, but the supposed crimes of the SNCF occurred when France was occupied by the Nazis.   Its like criticizing the actions of a hostage.  And even if there were some willing collaborationists, they almost certainly were punished by the French after liberation, and besides the US Army Air Force did its level best to bomb the SNCF's infrastructure back into the stone age, so I am certainly willing to call it quits.

Glass Houses

I thought this French socialist reaction to France's World Cup humiliation, which included the team going on strike and refusing to practice just 48 hours before their make-or-break final match, was funny:

Some opposition politicians said the players' behavior represented the selfishness fostered by the governance of President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had been called President Bling Bling for his flashy style.

"It's all about individualism, egotism, everyone for themselves, and the only way to judge human success is the check you get at the end of the month," Jérôme Cahuzac, a Socialist Party member of France's National Assembly, said in a radio interview, according to Reuters.

Certainly no French socialist ever went on strike when other people in France were counting on them.  I kindof thought the team sucked, but in total unison and solidarity.

Rommel Was an Illegal Immigrant in France

I have written on several occasions about how the data demonstrate pretty conclusively that immigrants are not driving a crime wave in Arizona (here and here).  The one exception to this may be well-armed quasi militaristic gangs raiding near the border.  These guys are certainly running rampant in Norther Mexico and conflicting reports have them making certain US border regions nearly unlivable.

OK, but how is this crime a justification for state laws that harass day laborers and companies that hire immigrants, while requiring law enforcement to check immigration status at traffic stops?  One could technically describe the German army in 1941 as illegal immigrants in France, but I don't think this euphemism would trick anyone into thinking that Arizona-style immigration laws would have saved France from Guderion, Rommel and company.

There is zero in SB1070 that will do one little thing to phase such gangs.  So how can people with a straight face use such crime as justification for the bill?

Atomic Welfare

Jerry Taylor echos my point I made last week that supposedly conservative supporters of nuclear power are ignoring the problem of huge government subsidies.

There is an interesting phenomenon in public discourse that I don't have a name for.  Take nuclear power.  Many of the people who oppose nuclear power do so for some pretty flawed reasons.   I think there is a natural tendency to take the other side of the argument when one sees this happening, even if by first principles one should joining the opposition to nukes but for different reasons.

I know I was pulled into having some initial sympathy for the Iraq war for just this reason, because the war-opposition arguments seemed so stupid (e.g. France won't like us as much!)  The correct argument on Iraq was not that Iraq didn't suck (it did) but that so many countries suck just as bad it was an impossible task to start knocking them off using large portions of the US Military, thousands of lives, and trillions of dollars each time out  (I call it the "cleaning the Augean Stables argument).