Posts tagged ‘Russia’

Why I am Suspicious of Immigration Restrictionists -- They Have Been Wrong So Many Times in History

From Eugenics and Economics in the Progressive Era by Thomas C. Leonard (link via Don Boudreaux, I think).

It was a scholarly fashion, circa 1890, to declare the U.S. frontier “closed” and to sound a Malthusian alarm about excess American population growth. But the professional economists who wrote on immigration increasingly emphasized not the quantity of immigrants, but their quality. “If we could leave out of account the question of race and eugenics,” Irving Fisher (1921, pp. 226–227) said in his presidential address to the Eugenics Research Association, “I should, as an economist, be inclined to the view that unrestricted immigration . . . is economically advantageous to the country as a whole . . . .” But, cautioned Fisher, “the core of the problem of immigration is . . . one of race and eugenics,” the problem of the Anglo-Saxon racial stock being overwhelmed by racially inferior “defectives, delinquents and dependents.”

Fear and dislike of immigrants certainly were not new in the Progressive Era. But leading professional economists were among the first to provide scientific respectability for immigration restriction on racial grounds.2 They justified racebased immigration restriction as a remedy for “race suicide,” a Progressive Era term for the process by which racially superior stock (“natives”) is outbred by a more prolific, but racially inferior stock (immigrants).

Note that the authors of the time were not using race as we do -- by "other races" whose immigration into the US was going to destroy us, they meant Southern Italy, Russia, Austria, Hungary, and the rest of Eastern Europe.   Fifty years earlier, they would have meant the Irish.   All of who we would today consider part of the backbone of America.  Why do we have to take these ideas seriously today when they have been wrong so consistently in the past?

Hiroshima in Historical Context

Well, its that time of year again and folks on the Left are out there with their annual rants against the bombing of Hiroshima as a great crime against humanity.

All war is a crime against humanity by those who start them.  And I am certainly uncomfortable that we let the atomic genie out of the steel casing in August of 1945.  But I think much of what is written about Hiroshima strips the decision to drop the bomb from its historical context.  A few thoughts:

  1. We loath the Hiroshima bombing because we in 2015 know of the nuclear proliferation that was to follow and the  resulting cloud of fear that hung over the globe for decades as most everyone was forced to think about our new ability to destroy humanity.  But all that was in the realm of science fiction in 1945.  And even if they knew something of the Cold War and fear of the Bomb, would many have had sympathy, living as they were through a real war that represented possibly the worst self-inflicted catastrophe man has ever faced?
  2. Several other bombing raids, notably the fire-bombing of Tokyo, took more lives than Hiroshima.  Again, we differentiate the two because we experienced the Cold War that came after and thus developed a special fear and loathing for atomic weapons, but people in 1945 did not have that experience.
  3. The ex post facto mistake many folks make on Hiroshima is similar to the mistake many of us make on Yalta.  Lots of folks, particularly on the Right, criticize FDR for being soft on Stalin and letting him get away with Eastern Europe.  But really,what were they going to do?  Realistically, Russia's armies were already in Eastern Europe and were not going to leave unless we sent armies to throw them out.  Which we were not, because folks were absolutely exhausted by the war.  This war exhaustion also plays a big part in the decision at Hiroshima.  Flip the decision around.  What would have happened if a war-weary public later found out that the government had a secret weapon that might have ended the war but refused to use it?  They would have been run out of office.
  4. I once heard a government official of the time say that it was odd to hear people talking about the "decision" to bomb Hiroshima because there was not a decision to make.  We were in a long, horrible, bloody war.  We had a new weapon.  It was going to be used.
  5. The Japanese were not showing a willingness to negotiate.  Yes, some members of the Japanese state department were making peaceful overtures before Hiroshima, but they had no power.  None of the military ruling clique was anywhere in the ballpark of surrendering.  Even after Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, and the Russian declaration of war, the government STILL would not have voted for surrender except for the absolutely extraordinary and unprecedented  intervention of the Emperor.  And even then, the military rulers were still trying to figure out how to suppress the Emperor or even take him hostage to stop any peace process.
  6. It is argued sometimes that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were irrelevant and that the Japanese surrendered when the Russians declared war.  The Russian declaration was certainly an important part of the mix, but I find it hard to believe the Emperor would have taken his unprecedented actions without the atomic bomb attacks.  Besides, even if the Russian declaration was critical, it could be argued the bombs played a huge role in that declaration.  After all, we had tried to get the Russians to make such a declaration for years, and it suddenly came coincidentally a couple of days after the atomic bombs start dropping?  I doubt it.  A better theory is that the Russians were waiting for signs that the war was nearly won so they could jump in and grab some costless booty from defeated Japan, and the bombs were that sign.
  7. It is argued that the invasion of Japan would have cost fewer lives than the bomb.  This is a crock.  Sorry.  There is absolutely no way to look at military and civilian casualty figures from Iwo Jima and Okinawa and come to any conclusion other than the fact that the invasion of Japan would have been a bloodbath.
  8. It is argued that we could have blockaded Japan to death.  This is possible, but it would have 1. Taken a lot of time, for which no one had any patience; 2. exposed US ships to relentless Kamikaze attacks and 3.  likely have cost more Japanese civilian lives to continued conventional bombing and starvation than the atomic bombs did.
  9. It is argued that we dropped the bombs on Japan out of some sort of racial hatred.  We can't really test this since by the time the bombs were ready, Japan was our only enemy left in the field.  Certainly, as a minimum, we had developed a deep hatred of Japanese culture that seemed so alien to us and led to atrocities that naturally generated a lot of hatred.  For the soldier, the best simple description of this culture clash I ever heard (I can't remember the source) was a guy who said something like "for us, the war was about winning and going home.  For the Japanese, the war just seemed to be about dying."   In a time where racism was much more normal and accepted, I would say that yes, this cultural hatred became real racism.  But I would add that it was not like we entered the war with some sort of deep, long hatred of Asians.  If anything, we stumbled into the Pacific War in large part because Americans felt a special friendship and sympathy with China and would not accept Japan's military interventions there.

Minimum Wage Deja Vu

This letter to customers from San Francisco bookstore Borderlands is making the rounds.  Apparently, the new "living wage" legislation in San Francisco is killing this store:

In November, San Francisco voters overwhelmingly passed a measure that will increase the minimum wage within the city to $15 per hour by 2018.  Although all of us at Borderlands support the concept of a living wage in [principle] and we believe that it’s possible that the new law will be good for San Francisco – Borderlands Books as it exists is not a financially viable business if subject to that minimum wage.  Consequently we will be closing our doors no later than March 31st.  The cafe will continue to operate until at least the end of this year.

I find the authors surprisingly open to the Progressive assumptions behind this bill, despite the death of their business.  I don't know if this is a pair of hipsters destroyed by their own cause, or if the nods towards Progressivism are merely boiler plate that is required in any San Francisco conversation, like having a picture of Lenin on your wall in Soviet Russia.

Anyway, I found the language here familiar because I spent most of last year writing such letters to angry customer bases.  In our case, fortunately, we had the ability to raise prices so the letters were to defuse customer irritation rather than to announce a closure.  Here is one example I wrote in Minnesota:

Labor and labor-related costs (costs that are calculated as a percentage of wages, like employment taxes) make up nearly 50% of our costs.  The Minnesota minimum wage is set to rise from $7.20 to $9.50 in the next two years, an increase of 31%.  Since wages and wage-related costs are half our expenses, the minimum wage increase raises our total costs by 15.5%. This means that all by itself, without any other inflation in any other category of expenses, the minimum wage increases will drive a $3.10 increase in our camping fees (.155 x $20).  Note that this is straight math.  The moment the state of Minnesota passed their minimum wage increase, this fee increase was going to be required.

One of the problems with these minimum wage increases is that the people behind them, with their hazy assumptions and flawed understanding of economics, typically think that companies will just absorb the increase.   Our net profit margin runs in the 4% range, so it difficult to see how any such retail company can absorb a 15+% cost increase, but it happens all the time.  After some trial and error, the "this is straight math" phrase seems to work the best in communicating the need for price increases.

Let's Make Employment of Low-Skill Labor Profitable Again

Brink Lindsey of Cato is gathering academic essays on the topic "If you could wave a magic wand and make one or two policy or institutional changes to brighten the U.S. economy’s long-term growth prospects, what would you change and why?"  I am by no means in the distinguished academic company that were invited to contribute, but I thought it was an interesting topic.  Here is my (uninvited) contribution.

The question of skills and the American workforce is typically tackled in only one direction:  that we need more high-skilled workers to meet the challenge of emerging industries and business models that are increasingly driven by technology.  A recent report by the OECD, and as summarized in the New York Times, is a typical example of this concern.  As Eduardo Porter writes in the Times:

To believe an exhaustive new report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the skill level of the American labor force is not merely slipping in comparison to that of its peers around the world, it has fallen dangerously behind.

The report is based on assessments of literacy, math skills and problem-solving using information technology that were performed on about 160,000 people age 16 to 65 in 22 advanced nations of the O.E.C.D., plus Russia and Cyprus. Five thousand Americans were assessed. The results are disheartening....

“Unless there is a significant change of direction,” the report notes, “the work force skills of other O.E.C.D. countries will overtake those of the U.S. just at the moment when all O.E.C.D. countries will be facing (and indeed are already facing) major and fast-increasing competitive challenges from emerging economies.”

A lot of head scratching goes on as to why, when the income premium is so high for gaining skills, there are not more people seeking to gain them.  School systems are often blamed, which is fair in part (if I were to be given a second magic wand to wave, it would be to break up the senescent government school monopoly with some kind of school choice system).   But a large portion of the population apparently does not take advantage of the educational opportunities that do exist.  Why is that?

When one says "job skills," people often think of things like programming machine tools or writing Java code.  But for new or unskilled workers -- the very workers we worry are trapped in poverty in our cities -- even basic things we take for granted like showing up on-time reliably and working as a team with others represent skills that have to be learned. CEO Jeff Bezos, despite his Princeton education, still learned many of his first real-world job skills working at McDonald's.  In fact, back in the 1970's, a survey found that 10% of Fortune 500 CEO's had their first work experience at McDonald's.

Part of what we call "the cycle of poverty" is due not just to a lack of skills, but to a lack of understanding of or appreciation for such skills that can cross generations.   Children of parents with few skills or little education can go on to achieve great things -- that is the American dream after all.  But in most of these cases, kids who are successful have parents who were, if not educated, at least knowledgeable about the importance of education, reliability, and teamwork -- understanding they often gained via what we call unskilled work.   The experience gained from unskilled work is a bridge to future success, both in this generation and the next.

But this road to success breaks down without that initial unskilled job.   Without a first, relatively simple job it is almost impossible to gain more sophisticated and lucrative work.  And kids with parents who have little or no experience working are more likely to inherit their parent's cynicism about the lack of opportunity than they are to get any push to do well in school, to work hard, or to learn to cooperate with others.

Unfortunately, there seem to be fewer and fewer opportunities for unskilled workers to find a job.  As I mentioned earlier, economists scratch their heads and wonder why there are not more skilled workers despite high rewards for gaining such skills.  I am not an economist, I am a business school grad.   We don't worry about explaining structural imbalances so much as look for the profitable opportunities they might present.  So a question we business folks might ask instead is:  If there are so many under-employed unskilled workers rattling around in the economy, why aren't entrepreneurs crafting business models to exploit this fact?

A few months back, I was at my Harvard Business School 25th reunion.  Over the weekend, they had dozens of lectures and programs on what is being researched and taught nowadays at the school.  I can't remember a single new business model discussed that relied on unskilled workers.

Is this just the way it is now?  Have the Internet and computers and robotics and complex genomics made unskilled work obsolete?  I don't think so.  I have been running a business for over a decade that employs more than 300 people in unskilled positions.  I will confess that the other day I came home tired from work and told my wife, "Honey, in my next company, I have to find a business that doesn't require employees."  But that despair doesn't come from a lack of opportunities to deliver value to customers with relatively unskilled labor.  And it doesn't come from any inherent issues I might have running a large people-driven service company -- in fact, I will say there has been absolutely nothing in my business life that has been more rewarding than seeing a person who has never had anything but unskilled jobs discover that they can become managers and learn more complex tasks.

The reason for my despair comes from a single source:  the government is making it increasingly difficult and costly to hire unskilled workers, while simultaneously creating a culture among new workers that short-circuits their ability to make progress.

The costs that government taxes and rules add to labor have been discussed many times, but usually individually.  Their impact is clearer when we discuss them as a whole.  Let's take California, because that state is one I know well.  To begin, the minimum wage is $9 (going to $10 an hour in 2016).  To that we have to add taxes and workers compensation premiums, both of which are high because because California does little to police fraud in unemployment and injury claims.  For us, these add another $3.15 an hour.  We also now have to add in the Obamacare employer mandate, which at a minimum of $3000 per full-time employee (accepting the penalty is cheaper than paying for health care) adds another $1.50 an hour.  And the new California paid sick leave mandate adds another 45 cents an hour.  So, looking just at core requirements, we are already up to a minimum of $14.10 an hour, less than 2/3 of which actually shows up in the employee's paycheck.

But these direct costs don't even begin cover the additional fixed costs of hiring employees.  We pay a payroll company thousands of dollars a year to make sure that regulations on taxes and paychecks are followed.  We spend so much time making sure our written plans and documentation on safety meet the requirements of OSHA and its California state equivalent that we barely have the capacity to actually focus on safety.  In California we have to have complex systems in place to make sure our employees don't work through their lunch break, that they have the right sort of chair and that they sit in them frequently enough, that they follow all the right procedures when the temperature outside goes over 85 degrees, that they get paid for sick leave and get their job back after extended medical leave.... the list goes on and on.

In a smaller company, we don't have lawyers and a large human resource staff.  In fact, we tend to have little staff at all.  If some new compliance issue arises -- which happens about every day the California legislature is in session -- the owner (me) has to figure out a solution.  In one year I literally spent more personal time on compliance with a single regulatory issue -- implementing increasingly detailed and draconian procedures so I could prove to the State of California that my employees were not working over their 30 minute lunch breaks -- than I did thinking about expanding the business or getting new contracts.

Towards the end of last year I was making a speech to a group of business school students, and someone asked me what my biggest accomplishment had been over the prior year.  I told them it was probably getting the company down from hundreds of full-time workers to less than 50, converting everyone to part-time.  And it was a huge effort, involving new systems and a number of capital investments to accommodate more staff working fewer hours.  And it had a huge payout, saving us hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in Obamacare penalties and compliance costs.  But come on!  How depressing is it that my biggest business accomplishment was not growing the business or coming up with a new customer service but in cutting the working hours for good employees?  But that is the reality of trying to run a service business today.  The business couldn't be profitable until we'd adjusted our practices to these new regulations, so there was no point in even thinking about growth until we had done so.

Labor-based business models that work at a $7 or $8 total labor cost may well not work at $15, and they certainly are not going to grow very fast if the people responsible for seeking out growth opportunities are instead consumed in a morass of legal compliance issues.  But there is perhaps an even more damaging impact of government interventions, and that is to the culture of work.  I will confess in advance I don't have comprehensive data to prove my hypothesis, but let me tell a couple of stories.

Until 2010, we never had an employee sue us.  We had over 8 years hiring 350 seasonal workers a year, mostly older retired folks, without any sort of legal issues.  Since 2010, we have had eight employee suits threatened or filed, all of which we have won but at a legal cost of $20-$25 thousand each (truly Pyrrhic victories).  So what changed around 2010?  Well, our work force composition changed a lot.  Before that time, we typically hired older retired folks, because the seasonal nature of the job is simply not very appropriate for a younger person trying to support themselves without other means (like retirement or Social Security).   However, after 2009 when a lot of younger folks were losing their traditional jobs, they began applying to our company.  Our work force shifted younger, which actually excited me because I felt it would help us in attracting a younger demographic to the campgrounds we operate.    But all eight of these legal actions were by these new, younger employees.  I asked one person who was suing us over what was a trivial slight, really a misunderstanding, why they did not just call me (my personal number is in their employee handbook) to fix it.  They said that if I had fixed it, they would have lost the opportunity to sue.

I mentioned earlier that we had struggled to comply with California meal break law.   The problem was that my workers needed extra money, and so begged me to be able to work through lunch so they could earn a half-hour more pay each day.  They said they would sign a paper saying they had agreed to this.  Little did I know that this was a strategy devised by a local attorney who understood meal break litigation better than I.  What he knew, but I didn't, was that based on new case law, a company had to get the employee's signature every day, not just once, to avoid the meal break penalties.  The attorney advised them they could get the money for working lunch AND they could sue later for more money (which he would get a cut of).  Which is exactly what they did, waiting until November to sue so they could get some extra money to pay for Christmas bills.  This is why -- believe it or not -- it is now a firing offense at our company to work through lunch in California.

Hopefully you see my concern.   I fear that we have trained a whole generation that the way one gets ahead is not to work hard and gain new skills but to seek out and exploit opportunities to file lawsuits.  That the way to work in an organization is not to learn to manage the inevitable frictions that result from different sorts of people working together but to sue at the first hint that you have been dissed.  As an aside, I think this sort of litigiousness, both of employees and customers, is yet another reason employers are reluctant to hire low-skilled employees.  If as a business owner one is absolutely liable for any knuckle-headed thing your most junior employee might utter, no matter how clear you are in your policies and actions that such behavior is not tolerated, then how likely are you to hire a high-school dropout with no work experience?

Is it any surprise that most entrepreneurs are pursuing business models where they leverage revenues via technology and a relatively small, high-skill workforce?  Uber and Lyft at first seem to buck this trend, with their thousands of drivers.  But in fact they prove the rule.  Uber and Lyft are very very careful to define themselves and their service in a way that all those drivers don't work for them.  I would go so far to say that if Uber were forced to actually put all of those drivers on their payroll, and deal with they myriad of labor compliance issues, their model would fall apart

We cannot address the skill gap unless people have entry level, low-skill-tolerant jobs to take the first steps up the ladder of success.  If the government continues on its current course, it will become impossible to run a business that employs unskilled workers.  The value of the work performed will simply not justify the cost.  We may be concerned about income inequality today, but if we kill off the profitability of employing unskilled workers, then we are going to be left with a true two-class society -- those with high-skill jobs and those on government assistance --and few options for moving from one to the other.

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).

WordPress / Site Hell, Hopefully Getting Better

All of my websites have been a mess this weekend as there has a been a worldwide brute force attack occurring for several days on WordPress admin accounts.  I avoid most of the common mistakes (using the default user name, simple passwords, etc) so I don't think anyone has breached a site but the constant calls of the login function acts effectively like a DDOS attack, flattening my server.

I have put in place some extra code to detect brute force attacks and temporarily and even permanently ban IP's.  Since attackers don't just sit in a single IP in Russia any more but use shifting and spoofed IP's, you may at some point find yourself locked out.  Email me if that happens.

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)?

Another Reason to Love Fracking

Anything Vladimir Putin fears can't be all bad

Whilst it is exceedingly difficult to summon up much sympathy for either Russia’s state-owned natural gas monopoly Gazprom or Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin, the dynamic rise of natural gas produced by hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking,” has raised alarm bells in the highest reaches of the Kremlin.


Because Gazprom’s European customers, tired of being ripped off by Gazprom, are avidly exploring the possibilities of undertaking fracking to develop their own sources of the “blue gold,” and nowhere is interest higher than in the Russian Federation’s neighbors Ukraine, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and China.

Ayn Rand, Illegal Immigrant

Interesting story via Reason

As a vehement anti-Bolshevist, she knew that she would die waiting in line if she applied for permission to permanently relocate to America, although that’s exactly what she intended to do. Temporary tourist visas were easier to land, but only for those who could prove they didn’t plan to settle here. So what did Rand do? She committed perjury. She convinced an American visa officer that she had a fiancé waiting for her in Russia whom she intended to marry after a six-month visit with her relatives in Chicago.

But Rand instead married an American citizen in 1929, gaining a path to citizenship. According to Mimi Gladstein’s biography, Rand timed her wedding before her visa, which she had gotten extended, finally expired.

However, others doubt that Uncle Sam would have handed a three-year extension to a Russian passport holder, raising suspicions that Rand might have been—gasp!—an illegal immigrant when she got married.

Global Warming Hype Process

Here is the current global warming hype process as it exists today:

  1. Identify a 2 or 3 sigma weather event.  Since there are 365 days in the year and hundreds of different regions in the world, the laws of probability say that some event in the tail of the normal distribution (local high, local low, local flood, local drought, local snow, local tornado, local hurricane, etc) should be regularly occurring somewhere.
  2. Play weather event all over press, closely linked as often as possible with supposition that this is due to manmade CO2.  If the connection to global warming is too outlandish to make with a straight face (e.g. cold weather) use term "climate change" or "climate disruption" instead of global warming.
  3. Skeptics will point to actual data that this event is not part of a long term trend, e.g. there is no rise in tornado activity correlated with 20th century rise in temperatures so blaming one year of high tornadoes on global warming makes no sense.    Ignore this.
  4. Peer reviewed literature will emerge 6-12 months later demonstrating that the event was not likely due to man-made global warming.  Ignore this as well.  Never, ever go back and revisit failed catastrophic predictions.
  5. Repeat

Last year's Russian heat wave is a classic example.  Here is an example of the hype and the tie to man-made global warming in Time.  And here, 12 months later, is the study saying that weather was just weather:

Dole, R., Hoerling, M., Perlwitz, J., Eischeid, J., Pegion, P., Zhang, T., Quan, X.-W., Xu, T. and Murray, D. 2011. Was there a basis for anticipating the 2010 Russian heat wave? Geophysical Research Letters38: 10.1029/2010GL046582.

The authors write that "the 2010 summer heat wave in western Russia was extraordinary, with the region experiencing the warmest July since at least 1880 and numerous locations setting all-time maximum temperature records." And as a result, they say that "questions of vital societal interest are whether the 2010 Russian heat wave might have been anticipated, and to what extent human-caused greenhouse gas emissions played a role."

What was learned
The nine U.S. researchers determined that "analysis of forced model simulations indicates that neither human influences nor other slowly evolving ocean boundary conditions contributed substantially to the magnitude of the heat wave." In fact, they say that the model simulations provided "evidence that such an intense event could be produced through natural variability alone." Similarly, on the observation front, they state that "July surface temperatures for the region impacted by the 2010 Russian heat wave show no significant warming trend over the prior 130-year period from 1880-2009," noting, in fact, that "a linear trend calculation yields a total temperature change over the 130 years of -0.1°C." In addition, they indicate that "no significant difference exists between July temperatures over western Russia averaged for the last 65 years (1945-2009) versus the prior 65 years (1880-1944)," and they state that "there is also no clear indication of a trend toward increasing warm extremes." Last of all, they say that although there was a slightly higher variability in temperature in the latter period, the increase was "not statistically significant."

Not sure I find the computer model work comforting one way or the other but the complete lack of any observational trend seems compelling.

Forced to Goof Off

Kevin Drum seems upset that the US Government does not mandate paid time off for all US workers

The map below shows this starkly: the United States is virtually alone in not mandating any annual time off for employees, right along with such economic luminaries as Burma, Guyana, and Nepal. More charts on American overwork here.

I could take the same map and make this statement: "unlike such freedom-loving luminaries as Iran, Russia, Mali, and Chad, the United States government does not interfere in private decisions about vacation pay policies."

By the way, why is it for statists that the lack of a government mandate for something desirable is considered equivalent to the desirable policy being non-existent?  In fact, Kevin Drum himself says his employer has a good paid leave policy.  Wow, how could such a thing have happened without a government mandate?

Current Law Requires Bastiat's Unseen to Remain Unseen

I find it hard to be surprised nowadays by how low trade policy can sink.  So I was depressed rather than surprised when I read this update on Magnesium trade.

Those of us who complain about protectionism often complain that its proponents mindlessly cite the seen (ie jobs lost to foreign competition) without taking into account the unseen (numerous consumers and consumer industries benefited by imports).  What I did not know is that this is not just bad economics, but is cemented into legislation:

In 2005, U.S. Magnesium Corporation, the sole producer of magnesium in the United States, succeeded in convincing the U.S. International Trade Commission and U.S. Commerce Department to impose duties on imports of magnesium from competitors in Russia and China. Before toasting this outcome with some clichéd or specious utterance about how the antidumping law ensures fair trade and a level playing field for U.S. producers, it is important to understand that downstream, consuming industries (those U.S. producers that require for their own production the raw materials and intermediate goods subject to the antidumping measures) have no legal standing in these cases. Statute forbids the U.S. International Trade Commission from considering their arguments or projections about the likely consequences of prospective duties. Statute requires that the ITC consider only the conditions of the petitioning industry.  In other words, the analysis is slanted.  The antidumping law codifies these evidentiary asymmetries, which makes it easier for U.S. suppliers to cut-off their U.S. customers’ access to alternative sources of supply.

In other words, in the case of magnesium, on the interests of the US Magnesium Corporation can be considered by the US Government in evaluating trade policy - the interest of the other 300 million of us is illegal even to mention.

This was also funny, from the government as Abbot and Costello files:

But on trade policy formulation, it seems that the right hand doesn’t always know what the left hand is doing. Last year, while magnesium imports from China were subject to U.S. antidumping duties, the Obama administration launched a WTO case against China for its restraints on exports of raw materials, including magnesium. That’s right. The U.S. government officially opposes China’s tax on exported magnesium because it imposes extra costs of U.S. consuming industries, but it insists on enforcing its own antidumping duties on magnesium imported from China despite those costs.

The Last Days of the Tsars

Some really nice pre-WWI color photography from Russia.  I am a sucker for old color photos.

America Bought Me for 20 Tons of Wheat

A Russian immigrant  (escapee?) discusses how he got out of Russia as part of an ongoing series of videos pleading with Americans not to head down the path to socialism.

Mark Perry on US Manufacturing

I could link Mark Perry almost every day, and have to restrain myself.  If you like my blog, you should be reading his too.  Anyway, here is his take on US manufacturing figures:

If the U.S. manufacturing sector were a separate country, it would be tied with Germany as the world's third largest economy. It would also be larger than the entire economies of India and Russia combined. As much as we hear about the "demise of U.S. manufacturing," and how we are a country that "doesn't produce anything anymore," and how we have "outsourced our production to China," the U.S. manufacturing sector is alive and well, and the U.S. is still the largest manufacturer in the world.

I'd Hate to See Winter

There is some discussion over at Climate Audit about Ojmjakon, Russia in the context of trying to debug some recent NASA temperature measurement glitches.  But I could not get past this data, which really seems a bit nippy for late Autumn:


Well, as long as its sunny.

I Think I am Voting for Obama

I am tired of watching the free markets trashed by people who claim to champion capitalism and free enterprise.  Better, I am starting to think, to have free markets trashed by someone who does not pretend to support them.  Besides, the Republicans in Congress tend to be much stronger supporters of small government, low taxes, and light regulation when they are in opposition.  Except possibly for Jeff Flake, who always seems to have his head in the right place.


it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some other country where
they make no pretense of loving liberty - to Russia, for instance,
where despotism can be taken pure, without the base alloy of hypocrisy."

            -- Abraham Lincoln

Wealth and the Olympics

One of Megan McArdle's readers wonders why India, which in population is larger than any other country save China, has so few Olympic medalists.  I think the answer is fairly easy:  wealth.

It's a situation very parallel to the Italian Renaissance.  Then, the issue was the proliferation of so many great artists rather than athletes, but the fundamentals were fairly similar.  For a society to be able to give up its strongest and most talented youth to non-productive (meaning they don't contribute to food, clothing, or shelter) occupations like painting or competitive swimming requires a lot of wealth and leisure time.  Subsistence farmers can't give up a strong back from the fields, much less pay any kind of specialized training costs.  The explosion of artists in the Italian Renaissance was made possible
by an explosion of wealth in the great Italian city-states of Florence
and Venice and the like.   Further, wealth also means better neo-natal care and better childhood nutrition which leads to bigger and stronger adults. 

As with Renaissance painters, modern Olympic athletes need either a family that is wealthy enough to give up their labor and support him or her; or, they need a wealthy patron; or, they need support of the government.  US Olympic athletes generally have some of all three, though the role of the government is smaller than in other nations thanks to corporate patrons and the relative wealth of the American middle class.  China, and before it Russia, were successful because, lacking the first two, they had the government shoulder the entire burden.  India has chosen not to go the government route, which is fine.  It will have its successes in time, as the exploding middle class will raise kids who have the time and money to pursue excellence in various sports.

The World's Safe Haven

We have rising oil prices and falling housing prices.  Mortgages are defaulting and stocks have been falling of late.  The dollar is in the tank.  But at the end of the day, the world still sees the US as the safest and most productive place to invest its money:

Its odd to me that from time to time we go through periods of angst (e.g. the late 1980s panic that the Japanese were "buying up America") about this effect, but we should instead be assured by this vote of confidence from the rest of the world.  One might argue that folks are simply buying US assets today because they are cheap, and certainly the dollar's fall makes US assets relatively less expensive.  But assets are cheap in Russia and Nigeria and Venezuela too, and you don't see the world rushing to invest a few trillion dollars in those locales. 

Postscript:  This foreign ownership of US assets also makes the world a more stable place.  I am always stunned when people argue that Chinese ownership of a trillion dollars of US debt securities gives them power over us.  Huh?  Since when does holding someone's debt give you power?  I don't think Countrywide Mortgage is feeling too powerful today.  The fact is that holding our debt and owning US assets gives China (and other nations) a huge shared interest in our stbility and continued prosperity.

Rewriting History

I was watching the History Channel last night and watching a show on the nuclear arms race.  Interestingly, they described the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba as happening before JFK took office, and then discussed the Cuban Missile Crisis as JFK's first interaction with Russia.  I find this to be really odd revisionism, and if it were not for Coyote's Law, I would ascribe this to the ongoing Kennedy family effort to polish JFK's historical legacy.  But, having written Coyote's Law, I will just assume the show's producers were ignorant.

Update: I take the point that the Bay of Pigs invasion was a CIA plan in the Eisenhower presidency.  However, JFK was deeply involved in the planning and decision to go ahead, and in fact he and his advisers actually modified the plan, including the invasion site, in ways that hurt the probability of success (if there ever was any).

Open Up to Cuba

The Bush administration is in the unenviable but not historically unprecedented position of not really being able to accomplish much of anything over the next two years.  Bush's credibility is such that a solid majority in Congress may oppose any plan he suggests, just because he suggested it.  Also, it is unlikely that any third-rail-type reforms will be considered in a presidential election cycle.  And I am generally OK with government legislative inaction.  In fact, it would be great if the Democrats chose to pursue impeachment hearings, not because Bush is any more or less a lying sack of shit than other politicians, but because it would divert Congress onto an enforced lassaiz faire path on every other issue.

However, one thing Bush could productively accomplish is to open up relations with Cuba.  If we are ready to pull out of Iraq after five years, even at the cost of being seen as "losing," we should be ready to reconsider our cold war with Cuba after over 46 years.  After all, our cold war with Russia, if dated from the end of WWII, only lasted 44 years.  We trade freely with communist China, and even with communist Vietnam, despite the fact that we were in a shooting war with them more recently than the Castro takeover.  And what have we accomplished?  Cuba is nowhere close to an anti-communist revolution, and its people suffer.  In fact, I think the embargo on Cuba, by turning Cuba's attention away from its natural trading partner the US, causes it to look for allies in places like Venezuela.

I think history has proven time and time again the power of open commerce and interchange in bringing closed, unfree societies into the modern age.  I can't for the life of me figure out why we still pursue the proven-pointless embargoes against Cuba except:

  • The sugar lobby like it that way
  • The Cuban expat community, operating on wounded latin pride, have stubbornly made it clear that anyone who suggests opening up to Cuba will lose the typically tight vote for Florida's key electoral votes.

With GWB's lame-duckracy and his brother moving on from the Florida governor's mansion, no Bush has to run for election in Florida again. With Castro's death (I'm not dead yet - yes you are, you'll be stone dead in a moment) the anti-Castro movement in the expat community loses focus, and might be reshaped into what it should be, that is pro-Cuba rather than anti-Castro.  I think these two stars are lining up to provide a unique opportunity to do something about Cuba, and in fact might be a useful step in counterpoint to Hugo Chavez's recent actions. 

Cool Map

I am having trouble tracing this map all the way to its source, but I thought it was cool enough to show here (via TJIC and Carls Blog).  The map renames each state with a country that has approximately the same GDP as that state.



Check out Russia / New Jersey.  And is it really saying New Zealand and the District of Columbia have the same GDP?

Update:  If you enjoyed this post, check out our (free) comprehensive
guide to the skeptics arguments concerning man-made global warming.

Update: Children in European Restaurants

Not really forewarned about this social trend in advance, my family was surprised to find that many restaurants in smaller English towns would not let us in with our children.  I wrote about the strange Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang-esque reactions we got to our children here.

Reader Tom Van Horn sends in this update from Newsweek:

a recent British study showed a house's value drops by 5 percent if
neighbors move in with teenage kids. Hotels are catering to the
childless, too; Italy's La Veduta country resort promises, "Your Tuscan
holiday will not be shattered by the clamor of children." In Rome, many
restaurants make it clear that children are not welcome"”in some cases
by establishing themselves as "clubs," where members must be older than
18 to join.

*shrug*  There are times when my wife and I like to get away from kids too, and we have a couple of them.  I know a few couples who have chosen to remain childless and I can assure you they are sick and tired of being asked about their childlessness like it was some kind of disease.  I am sure they will welcome a sense of normalcy for their chosen way to live.  Combining this trend with my observation that Parisians will take their dog anywhere, it is probably not long before there are public places in Paris where dogs are welcome but kids are not.

That doesn't mean that everyone shares my willingness to let folks live in peace like they choose.  Certain politicians around Europe seem to want to intervene (and isn't that why people become politicians in the first place -- to force other people into making choices that they would not have made for themselves?)

Politicians and religious leaders warn darkly of an "epidemic" of
childlessness that saps the moral fiber of nations; they blame the
child-free for impending population decline, the collapse of pension
systems and even the rise in immigration. In Japan, commentators have
identified the "parasite single" who lives off society instead of doing
his duty to start a family

In Germany, where the childless rate is the
highest in the world, at 25 percent, the best-seller lists have been
full of tomes forecasting demographic doomsday. In "Minimum," the
conservative commentator Frank Schirrmacher describes a "spiral of
childlessness," where a declining population becomes ever more
reluctant to have kids. Media reports have stigmatized the "cold career
woman""”one such recent article came with mug shots of childless female
celebs"”accusing them of placing their jobs before kids. Never mind that
Germany trails its neighbors in the availability of child care, or the
amount of time men spend helping around the house.

Germany to Russia, there is increasing talk of sanctions against the
childless. In Slovakia, a leading adviser on the government's Strategic
Council on Economic Development proposed in March to replace an
unpopular payroll tax with a levy on all childless Slovaks between the
ages of 25 and 50. In Russia, where the birthrate has dropped from 2.3
in the 1980s to 1.3 today, a powerful business lobby has called for an
income-tax surcharge on childless couples. In Germany, economists and
politicians have demanded that public pensions for the childless be
slashed by up to 50 percent"”never mind that such pensions were invented
as an alternative to senior citizens' having to depend on their

World's Largest Banana Republic

Unfortunately, it is behind the WSJ paid firewall and not on their opinion journal site, but Gary Kasparov has a very interesting editorial that confirms my fears about Russia:

Russia may not have much industry or democracy left, but we do have
massive amounts of oil and gas plus other natural resources. When
combined with our nuclear weapons, these resources are sufficient to
buy entry into the G-8 despite Mr. Putin's transformation of Russia
back into a one-party dictatorship. This newfound international sway is
also having serious repercussions inside my country. Many here would
like to believe that Mr. Putin is ushering in a return to our Soviet
superpower glory

He tells some pretty amazing tales of self-dealing by government officials on a massive scale. 

In perhaps the best example, the giant energy company Yukos was
dismembered and its chairman jailed. Next, Yukos assets were put up for
auction and the crown jewel, oil unit Yuganskneftegaz, was purchased at
a bargain price by the state-owned company Rosneft, which received
billions in mysterious loans. On July 14, Rosneft had an IPO in London
to sell these stolen assets and, of course, the money didn't go into
the treasury. This isn't nationalization, it's simple robbery. In
Russia the expenses are nationalized and the revenues are privatized.

That last line is a great one.  I for one have scratched my head at why Bush as consistently given Putin a pass.  My only guess is that he has prioritized his war with Muslim fundamentalism so high that he needs Putin as a potential ally in the area, though Kasparov presents evidence that Putin is likely exactly the opposite.  He concludes:

The West is making a terrible mistake by mixing realpolitik with a
battle of values. Drawing and defending moral lines is the first and
most essential step in combating extremism and there is no room for
double standards. If the West is keeping track of its friends, it's
time to take Mr. Putin off the list.

Bush: The Worst Communicator

ABCNews is running a series on some interesting documents found among released Hussein-era Iraqi government docs.  I am not going to react to them in terms of how they affect the decision to go to war, in part because we have no idea how representative 6 or 7 damning documents are out of thousands that we have not yet been shown (a similar problem the Enron jury will soon face).  Also, for reasons below in the footnote**.

My main reaction to these revelations was "wow, how badly does the Bush administration suck at communication?"  After taking three years of criticism over exactly some of the issues addressed in these documents, and presumably others we have not yet seen, the administration just sat on this stuff and refused to release it?  Clinton's folks would have had one of these presented each morning of every day for a year to the press with a little bow around it.  I am flabbergasted that there are so many conspiracy theorists who think this administration has some special Karl-Rovian-mad-science to orchestrating events.  To me, their PR successes look more like Peter Sellers accidentally avoiding numerous assassins in The Pink Panther Strikes Again.

** In the end, I think the Iraq invasion will be looked at as "worth it" historically if its effects resonate beyond Iraq, e.g. it provides a beacon of democracy around which other democratic elements in the middle east coalesce and grow stronger.  If Iraq turns out to be just about Iraq, the world will be well-rid of a nasty dictator but the US will have spent a great deal of its available armed forces and treasure and influence and prestige on a single screwed-up dictatorship, while ignoring tens of others who also brutalize their people and who also support terrorism.  Against this definition of success, the recently revealed documents don't do much for me one way or the other.  They do, however, strongly effect my opinion of Russia.  Why Bush continues to give Putin a pass is beyond me.