Posts tagged ‘USA’

How Newspapers May Survive

Local blogger Greg Patterson writes:

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Gannett will soon be adding USA Today to it's local papers.

With this change, the Republic and USA Today are essentially a hybrid.  As print revenue continues to slide the USA Today side will grow and the Republic side will shrink.  Eventually, your morning Republic will consist of a copy of USA Today with enhanced local coverage.

This is a change I have expected for a long time.  The wire services have always existed as an attempt by local papers to share costs in national and international news gathering, but I would have expected this next step of national consolidation some time ago.  The internet allows not just the text, but the entire layout of newspapers to be transmitted instantly across the country.

The whole situation reminds me of television broadcasting, where local affiliates exist mainly as a byproduct of past technological limitations in signal transmission.  Satellite and cable have eliminated these restrictions, but still local affiliates exist, in part because there is some demand for local content but in part because of the fact that the government protects their existence (by law, cable and satellite operators must give you the local affiliate, they cannot give you the national feed).

This is what I wrote back in 2009

I actually think the problem with newspapers like the Washington Post is the "Washington" part.  Local business models dominated for decades in fields where technology made national distribution difficult or where technology did not allow for anything but a very local economy of scale.  Newspapers, delivery of television programming, auto sales, beverage bottling and distribution, book selling, etc. were all mainly local businesses.  But you can see with this list that technology is changing everything.  TV can now be delivered via sattelite and does not require local re-distribution via line of sight broadcast towers or cable systems.  Amazon dominated book selling via the Internet.  Many of these businesses (e.g. liquor, auto dealers, TV broadcasting) would have de-localized faster if it had not been for politicians in the pocket of a few powerful companies passing laws to lock in outdated business or technological models.

Newspapers are ripe for a restructuring.  How can one support a great Science page or Book Review section or International Bureau on local circulation?  How much effort do the NY Times, Washington Post, LA Times, SF Chronicle, etc. duplicate every day?  People tell me, "that's what the wire services are for."  Bah.  The AP is 160 years old!  It is a pre-Civil War solution to this problem.  Can it really be that technology and changing markets have not facilitated a better solution?

The future is almost certainly a number of national papers (ala the WSJ and USA Today) printed locally with perhaps local offices to provide some local customization or special local section.  Paradoxically, such a massive consolidation from hundreds of local papers to a few national papers would actually increase competition.  While we might get a few less stories about cats being saved from trees in the local paper, we could well end up not with one paper selection (as we have today in most cities) but five or six different papers to choose from  (just look at Britain).  Some of these papers might choose to sell political neutrality while some might compete on political affiliation.

USA Today: Shutdown Has Trivial, Unmeasurable Impact on Economy

OK, actually, they did not use the words "trivial" and "unmeasurable."  But they could have.  What they actually said in a story splashed across the front page:

The 16-day government shutdown cost the economy jobs, delayed mortgages and lost retail sales — at least $12 billion worth, and maybe as much as $24 billion

$12-24 Billion is between 0.08% and 0.15% of GDP.  This is for a shutdown of the government for 4.4% of the year (16 days divided by 365).   That hardly seems like a substantial impact, and not at all in line with the scare stories in advance of the shutdown.  (And this is coming from someone who was impacted a lot, though due to illegal actions by the administration).

Coyote on Fox and Friends Discussing Parks

When old guys like me go out to play pickup basketball, we all lay out our excuses before we start playing:  My knee is acting up, my job gives me no time to practice, etc. -- you know the drill.

So here are my excuses for the following video:  I had just arrived in Orlando to run a 10 mile race with my daughter, it was really early in the morning, I was jetlagged, I only had 4 hours of sleep, live TV is hard, live TV from a remote broadcast staring into the camera is harder, my earpiece was loose, I didn't like the questions they asked, etc.

That being said, here I am

 

Also, I missed it on Monday but I got a brief mention in the USA Today editorial.

Corleone-Style Government

This is pretty amazing -- a FOIA and a subsequent string of emails between a USA Today reporter and the Department of Justice.  Like any email string, you need to go to the end and then read up.  Essentially, the DOJ tells the reporter that they have information that undermines the reporter's story but won't tell him what it is.  Instead, they threaten to hold it until after the reporter has published, and then give the information to another media outlet in order to embarrass the reporter, all because the reporter is "biased" which in Obama Administration speak means that he is an outlier that does not dutifully fall in line with the Administration's talking points.

My guess is that this is a cheap bluff to prevent a story from being published that the DOJ does not want to see in the public domain.  Even if it is not a bluff, this is a horrendous approach to releasing information to the public.

Graphics Fail

One of the classic mistakes in graphics is the height / volume fail.  This is how it works:  the length of an object is used to portray some sort of relative metric.  But in the quest to make the graphic prettier, the object is turned into a 2D, or worse, 3D object.  This means that for a linear dimension where one object is 2x as long as another, its area is actually 4x the other and its volume is 8x.  The eye tends to notice the area or volume, so that the difference is exaggerated.

This NY Times graph is a great example of this fail (via here)

The Tebow character is, by the data, supposed to be about 1.7x the Brady character.  And this may be true of the heights, but visually it looks something like 4x larger because the eye is processing something in between area and volume, distorting one's impression of the data.   The problem is made worse by the fact that the characters are arrayed over a 3D plane.   Is there perspective at work?  Is Rodgers smaller than Peyton Manning because his figure is at the back, or because of the data?  The Vick figure, by the data, should be smaller than the Rodgers figure but due to tricks of perspective, it looks larger to me.

This and much more is explained in this Edward Tufte book, the Visual Display of Quantitative Information.  You will find this book on a surprising number of geek shelves (next to a tattered copy of Goedel-Escher-Bach) but it is virtually unknown in the general populace.  Every USA Today graphics maker should be forced to read it.

Adverse Selection

From Radley Balko, this is just staggering:

Federal employees’ job security is so great that workers in many agencies are more likely to die of natural causes than get laid off or fired, a USA TODAY analysis finds.

Death — rather than poor performance, misconduct or layoffs — is the primary threat to job security at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Small Business Administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Office of Management and Budget and a dozen other federal operations.

The federal government fired 0.55% of its workers in the budget year that ended Sept. 30 — 11,668 employees in its 2.1 million workforce. Research shows that the private sector fires about 3% of workers annually for poor performance . . .

The 1,800-employee Federal Communications Commission and the 1,200-employee Federal Trade Commission didn’t lay off or fire a single employee last year. The SBA had no layoffs, six firings and 17 deaths in its 4,000-employee workforce.

When job security is at a premium, the federal government remains the place to work for those who want to avoid losing a job. The job security rate for all federal workers was 99.43% last year and nearly 100% for those on the job more than a few years . . .

White-collar federal workers have almost total job security after a few years on the job. Last year, the government fired none of its 3,000 meteorologists, 2,500 health insurance administrators, 1,000 optometrists, 800 historians or 500 industrial property managers.

The nearly half-million federal employees earning $100,000 or more enjoyed a 99.82% job security rate in 2010. Only 27 of 35,000 federal attorneys were fired last year. None was laid off.

Forgetting for a minute the adverse selection and incentive problems from preferentially attracting folks who want to work in an environment without any accountability for performance, how can an institution that is running $1 trillion over budget not have any layoff either?

That Wonderful, Magical Social Security Trust Fund

Several blogs have pointed out this February editorial in the USA Today by Jacob Lew, head of Obama's OMB.  In February he told us, no, in true Obama Administration fashion, he lectured us like little kids that:

Social Security benefits are entirely self-financing. They are paid for with payroll taxes collected from workers and their employers throughout their careers. These taxes are placed in a trust fund dedicated to paying benefits owed to current and future beneficiaries.

When more taxes are collected than are needed to pay benefits, funds are converted to Treasury bonds — backed with the full faith and credit of the U.S. government — and are held in reserve for when revenue collected is not enough to pay the benefits due. We have just as much obligation to pay back those bonds with interest as we do to any other bondholders. The trust fund is the backbone of an important compact: that a lifetime of work will ensure dignity in retirement.

According to the most recent report of the independent Social Security Trustees, the trust fund is currently in surplus and growing. Even though Social Security began collecting less in taxes than it paid in benefits in 2010, the trust fund will continue to accrue interest and grow until 2025, and will have adequate resources to pay full benefits for the next 26 years.

As many have pointed out this week, if this is the case, why does the debt limit even affect the ability to pay or not pay Social Security to grandma?  Because Lew was spouting complete BS.  Social Security has generated surpluses in the past, but these have been spent and replaced with IOU's.  And we are finding out right now how much those IOU's are worth - zero.

 

I Must Be A Bad American

The title of this post comes from something my son said, after a few hours on Facebook with everyone in that forum dancing on Osama's grave.  He said he just couldn't work up the excitement felt, by, say folks on the local news last night chanting "USA, USA."

I know how he feels.  Certainly Osama is a mass murderer and deserves to die.  And I suppose it is important from a foreign policy standpoint that if we say we are going to do something, we do it, even if it takes ten years or so.  And Kudos to the military team that got him.

But I heard commentators say that this was another Kennedy moment when we would always remember where we would be when Osama was killed -- that seems a gross exaggeration.   I don't think I was in need of or received a nationalist ego boost last night.  The reaction almost reminded me of the US Olympic hockey victory in 1980, when people frustrated with internal and external problems found release in the victory on the ice over the Russians.   But cheering about killing a guy, even a bad buy, in the same way as one might for a sports team victory just leaves me a bit queasy.

Besides, isn't Bin Laden largely irrelevant now?  If he is the spider at the center of the global web of terrorism, I have certainly missed the evidence.  Frankly, this whole thing feels like grabbing the Kaiser out of the Netherlands in 1938 and hanging him.  Not only a  bit late, but  a diversion of attention from the source of current problems.

Update: How Bin Laden Changed America.  Example:  without Bin Laden, we probably would not have  a progressive Democratic President who claims the right to assassinate American citizens.

Update #2: It has been made increasingly evident to me that I am out of step with America on this.  Fine, not the first time.  Let me just say, then, that the precedent of sending US troops into a sovereign nation without that nation's permission or knowledge and kidnapping/assassinating a foreign national based on the President's say-so based on intelligence gathered in part from torture of people detained indefinitely without due process in secret CIA prisons is, well, a precedent we may some day rue.  From time to time Presidents may need to make such calls, but I am not going to be celebrating in the street.  If a Pakistani team did the same, even to, say, raid a California prison and kill Charles Manson, I still think we might be pissed off about it.

Update #3: After a few days introspection, I don't know why I am brooding so much about this.  I must admit it was a good move to go in and knock him off, and while I hate precedents for expansion of executive power, this particular move was entirely justified.   I am not sure why the initial response to this rubbed me the wrong way -- perhaps because the celebration seemed to be excessive vs. the strategic value.    I suppose I am not big on symbolic victories.  Had I been alive in 1942 I probably would have reacted negatively to the Doolittle raid.

Prior Restraint

National security letters strike me as one of the worst Constitutional abuses to come out of the last 10 years, which is saying a lot given the post-9/11 theories of executive authority from torture to indefinite detention to even ordering people killed.

The national security letters deserve particular scrutiny because they evade the Fourth Amendment while building in a prior restraint on speech that prevents recipients from challenging the letters or even complaining about them.  This is self-sustaining policy -- ie policy that prevents the dissemination of information that might prove it is a threat or a failure -- at its worst.

The Justice Department's inspector general revealed on March 9 that the FBI has been systematically abusing one of the most controversial provisions of the USA Patriot Act: the expanded power to issue "national security letters." It no doubt surprised most Americans to learn that between 2003 and 2005 the FBI issued more than 140,000 specific demands under this provision -- demands issued without a showing of probable cause or prior judicial approval -- to obtain potentially sensitive information about U.S. citizens and residents. It did not, however, come as any surprise to me.

Three years ago, I received a national security letter (NSL) in my capacity as the president of a small Internet access and consulting business. The letter ordered me to provide sensitive information about one of my clients. There was no indication that a judge had reviewed or approved the letter, and it turned out that none had. The letter came with a gag provision that prohibited me from telling anyone, including my client, that the FBI was seeking this information. Based on the context of the demand -- a context that the FBI still won't let me discuss publicly -- I suspected that the FBI was abusing its power and that the letter sought information to which the FBI was not entitled.

Anyone want to bet how many of these things really are national security related, and how many are related to other investigations (particularly drugs)?

There are zillions of people involved in these major investigations.  There is no good argument against adding one more who is in on the secret - ie a judge - and a lot of reasons to do so.

You Can Bet on 36 Red, But Not Amazon.com Angel Shares

I thought this was an interesting irony of our growing corporate state:

In my post "Attention Gov't: This Is How Businesses Are Created" I brought up the point that government regulations keep the average American from investing in ground floor business opportunities with rules specifying how much money someone must have before they can invest in start-ups (unless the start-up is being done by a friend or family member).  Government regulations also prevent start-ups from advertising their investment opportunity.  If you need ground-floor investment (as opposed to loans) to bring your business to the proverbial next level, there is a wall of regulation that keeps you from asking for it from the general public and specifies what "sophisticated investors" (the already rich) you can approach and how.

Those rules are there to protect us middle class rubes from being taken in by crafty and ill-intentioned businessmen.

I contrasted this protection the government so thoughtfully provides us"“keeping us from making possible bad investments"“with it's promotion of lotteries and acceptance of casino gambling.

Now these people who will not allow an entrepreneur to advertise or promote his start-up in order to get voluntary investment money from people willing to take a risk on the business idea or invention are looking at legalization of online gambling in the USA.

Grim Milestone

Via the USAToday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glass Houses

I was forwarded an email today, and I can't honestly figure out the source since it is one of those that has been forwarded a zillion times, but at some point it passed through the Arizona 2010 Project.  It consisted mainly of pictures of desert areas along major immigration routes that had been trashed by illegal immigrants.  This picture is pretty typical.

Certainly an ugly site, particularly for someone who lives and works in the outdoors as I do.

Here is a quote, I think from the original email but it may have been from one of the forwarders (emphasis added):

This layup is on an 'illegal super - highway' from Mexico to the USA (Tucson) used by human smugglers.

This layup area is located in a wash area approximately .5 of a mile long just south of Tucson.

We estimate there are over 3000 discarded back packs in this layup area. Countless water containers, food wrappers, clothing, and soiled baby diapers. And as you can see in this picture, fresh footprints leading right into it. We weren't too far behind them.

As I kept walking down the wash, I was sure it was going to end just ahead, but I kept walking and walking, and around every corner was more and more trash!

And of course the trail leading out of the layup area heading NORTH to Tucson, then on to your town tomorrow.

They've already come through here. Is this America the Beautiful?  Or another landfill?

The trash left behind by the illegals is another of the Environmental Disasters to hit the USA. Had this been done in one of our great Northwest Forests or Seashore National Parks areas there would be an uprising of the American people........but this is remote Arizona-Mexican border.

Well, it so happens my life is spent cleaning up public parks.  My company's mission is to privately operate public parks.  A lot of that job is picking up and hauling away the trash.  And I can tell you something with absolute certainty:  This is exactly what a highly trafficked area in our great Northwest Forests or Seashore National Parks would look like if someone wasn't there to pick up.  Here is one example from a northwest forest, in Oregon:

We run busy campgrounds and day use areas all over the country, and you would not believe the trash on the ground on a Monday morning.  And this is after the place was cleaned on Sunday morning and with trash cans available every 10 feet to throw things away correctly.  I have seen a few areas in the National Forest that were busy ad hoc camping areas -- meaning they had no facilities, no staff, and no trash cans -- and they were absolutely trashed by good old red-blooded American citizens.  Parts looked no different than this picture.  Most of these areas have since been closed, because of this ecological damage.

In fact, in my presentation I make to public agencies about our services, I say that we are actually in the environmental preservation business.  By attracting recreators to defined areas of the wilderness where we have staff to clean up after the visitors and limit their impact on nature, we are helping to preserve the other 99% of the land.

So, yes this is ugly, but it frustrates me that this is used to play into the Joe Arpaio type stereotypes of Mexicans

All these people that come over, they could come with disease. There's no control, no health checks or anything. They check fruits and vegetables, how come they don't check people? No one talks about that! They're all dirty. I sent out 200 inmates into the desert, they picked up 18 tons of garbage that they bring in"”the baby diapers and all that. Where's everybody who wants to preserve the desert?"

To my mind, this is an argument against Mexican immigration in the same way that violence against women is used as an argument against legalizing prostitution.  Prostitutes suffer abuse in large part because their profession is illegal which limits their access to the legal system when victimized, not because violence is inherent to their profession.  Trash in a wash in the desert is a result of the illegality of immigration that forces people into stream beds rather than city check points when they enter the country.

Postscript #1: Please, if you are a good, clean, thoughtful user of public parks, do not write me thinking I have dissed you.  I have not.  Most of our visitors are great and thoughtful, and we really appreciate that.  But it takes only a few to make an unbelievable mess.

Postscript #2: I am willing to believe that poorly educated immigrants have fewer litter taboos than we have been acculturated with.   But I have seen enough to say that no ethnic group out there should be too smug.  For God sakes, there had to be a large effort near the top of Mt. Everest to clean up a huge dump that had accumulated of oxygen bottles and other trash near the summit.   Here are pictures of what rich Americans and Europeans do on Mt Everest when they are hiking and there is no trash can nearby:

A Rare Links Post

I am really swamped at work, but I have a number of good things saved that I want to share.

1.  This picture is the best single explanation of what is wrong with the stimulus jobs creation numbers -- the stimulus money comes from somewhere, and starves efficient businesses of capital in favor of politically connected endeavors.  HT Russ Roberts

CrowdingOut

2.  More on what I call the only good idea for reducing health care spending -- making individuals responsible for making price-value purchasing tradeoffs like we do, oh say, with absolutely everything else we buy.  This article on on HSA's in Indiana:

State employees enrolled in the consumer-driven plan will save more than $8 million in 2010 compared to their coworkers in the old-fashioned preferred provider organization (PPO) alternative. In the second straight year in which we've been forced to skip salary increases, workers switching to the HSA are adding thousands of dollars to their take-home pay.

Most important, we are seeing significant changes in behavior, and consequently lower total costs. In 2009, for example, state workers with the HSA visited emergency rooms and physicians 67% less frequently than co-workers with traditional health care. They were much more likely to use generic drugs than those enrolled in the conventional plan, resulting in an average lower cost per prescription of $18. They were admitted to hospitals less than half as frequently as their colleagues. Differences in health status between the groups account for part of this disparity, but consumer decision-making is, we've found, also a major factor.

Mark Perry reports in a later post that Congress is declaring war on HSA's

3.  There has been a lot of good stuff lately on the growing rift between the two America's -- those in government or with access to government patronage and those who actually make a living by being productive.  I am increasingly convinced that Obama and Congress are working to create a European-style corporate state, where government insiders, a few large corporations, and a few large unions protect themselves against everyone else.  Katherine Mangu-Ward looks at a study of government vs. private pay for the same jobs.  It used to be government paid less in return for having to work less hard and being impossible to fire.  Now government workers have it all.

There are two million civilian federal workers. 1.1 million of them have direct private sector equivalents. And they are laughing their asses off at those private sector suckers, who are doing similar jobs for less pay"”often a lot less.

"Accountants, nurses, chemists, surveyors, cooks, clerks and janitors are among the wide range of jobs that get paid more on average in the federal government than in the private sector," according to a USA Today report. In jobs where there are private equivalents, the feds are earning $7,645 more on average than their private counterparts.

Her post has more data. And an update and response to criticisms is hereMark Perry looks at wage growth, and the difference is amazing.  Government employees are the new robber barons, and this time, the title is appropriate.

employercost

And speaking of the corporate state, this was an interesting essay at the Claremont Institute, via Maggies Farm.

Joseph Schumpeter ominously speculated that as capitalism succeeded, democracies in time would come to expect its end (wealth) but reject its means (free-market competition). He worried that because of the inequality and creative destruction it brings, capitalism would provoke a kind of adverse reaction. A popular call would arise for government to plan market outcomes according to some utopian view of society's good, and this democratically guided central planning would inevitably slow economic growth. Schumpeter predicted, in turn, that if economic expansion faltered, individual liberty would be directly imperiled or quietly ceded by citizens resigned to having their diminished economic position protected by the state.

The one mistake writers often make is to call capitalism a "system."  Capitalism is the un-system.  It is the lack of a system.  It is the natural self-organization of individuals when they freely follow their own self-interest.

4.  The individual responsibility story of the day, via Overlawyered

In 2004, truck driver Simon Loza Mejia violated company regulations, and took his eight-year-old Diana Yuleidy Loza-Jimenez along on a long-haul trip from Oregon to Bakersfield. That November 27, he was pulling away in the truck, but apparently didn't bother to check where his daughter was, and ran over her. This was, argued her attorneys, the fault of her father's employer"”and a Sacramento County judge agreed with the argument that it was legally irrelevant that her father was the one who ran her over. Unsurprisingly, a jury ignorant of the facts awarded Diana, whose lower body was crushed, a jackpot verdict of $24.3 million.

5.  Charter schools in Harlem.  Never have so many kids been held hostage to so few, in this case a few union officials and their captive legislators.

The United Federation of Teachers and its political acolytes in the New York state legislature are hell-bent on blocking school choice for underprivileged families. Worried that high-performing charters are "saturating" Harlem, State Sen. Bill Perkins and State Assemblyman Keith Wright have backed legislation that would gut state per-pupil funding at charter schools and allow a single charter operator to educate no more than 5% of a district's students. Unions dislike charter schools because many aren't organized. But how does limiting the replication of successful public education models benefit ghetto kids?

These obstructionists, Mr. Clark says, aren't doing the community any favors. "The teachers unions ought to be ashamed of themselves because they know better than I do how bad these schools are," he says. "Everybody on my block and in my building and around the corner . . . they all want charter schools. They don't want a political debate."

Separately, John Stoessel digs into Diane Ravitch's shilling for the teachers unions.

6.  I could have sworn the politicians swore up and down they would never ever interfere with business decisions at GM.

General Motors Co. will reinstate 661 dealerships it sought to drop from its sales network.GM executives said Friday that the dealerships -- more than half of those seeking to stay with the automaker -- will receive letters giving them the option to remain open. GM said it would not have enough time to negotiate with all 1,100 dealerships that appealed the automaker's decision to close them within a four-month window imposed by the federal government....

"It's not exactly what they wanted to do, and it's always I think a little embarrassing when you have to make changes based on an arbitration process, but they've had to adjust and move forward," he said.

Well, at least the Congress and the DOT is hammering GM's competitor Toyota, so I guess they can call it even.  Welcome to Europe, guys.  I have said it before, but this is exactly the kind of BS European nations do all the time - hammering foreign competitors of their domestic politically connected manufacturers in exchange for substantial ability to regulate and modify these companies decisions.  Soon to follow - Europe's lower growth rates and higher structural unemployment.

7.  Dog bites man:  Paul Krugman still a political hack who is willing to eschew everything he knows or has written about economics to support his team.

The Federal Government is Working Hard To Shield States From Their Own Irresponsibility

Many states managed to grow state spending in the last decade far faster than inflation and population growth, soaking up every new dime in bubble-generated tax revenue they could.   It may seem like states were forced to make a lot of hard decisions last year, but in fact they were sheltered from really dealing with the full measure of their own fiscal problems by large influxes of Federal "stimulus" money.  As I demonstrated way back in January of 2009, most of the stimulus was actually ear-marked not for the mythical shovel read project, but for "stabilization" of state and federal budgets.  This is a couple of months old, but still applies:

A historic nosedive in state tax collections extended into the third quarter of the year, and only an infusion of federal economic stimulus money has averted widespread program cuts and worker layoffs.
Tax collections from July through September dropped an average of 8.3% from a year earlier in the eight states that release up-to-date monthly tax figures, a USA TODAY survey found. New York's tax collections fell 8.9%, despite an income tax hike earlier this year. States reporting partial third-quarter results showed a similar downward spiral in tax collections, including 13.2% drop in Arizona.

Federal stimulus money has protected states from making big cuts in the number of government workers, in aid to schools or in spending on Medicaid, the health care program for the poor. But most federal stimulus money ends in December 2010.

This is not a new trend, from Tad DeHaven of Cato:

201001_blog_dehaven_tot

According to the Goldwater Institute, over a third of the AZ state budget is federal money.

Where-the-Budget-Comes-From

How can there possibly be any accountability for how this is spent, though it actually is larger than the amount raised by state taxes?  If we want the government to buy us goodies in this state, we should at least pay for them ourselves and not take money from others.  By the way, every time I raise this argument, someone says "well our state pays more federal taxes than it gets back."  First, every state says this so it can't possibly be true in every case.  Second, it's a terrible practice from the standpoint of accountability.

Related, via Matt Welch:

The biggest single national political donor in the country during the 2007-08 election cycle, according to OpenSecrets.org, was the overwhelmingly Democrat-supporting teachers union the National Education Association. What category of worker was the biggest single beneficiary of stimulus spending? Public school teachers. Who, according to Vice President Joe Biden, accounted for 325,000 of the first 640,000 jobs "created or saved." While it's true that teachers are Americans (even my brother), in the vast majority of these cases, the jobs in question weren't "created," just maintained, since it is nearly impossible to fire public school teachers.

The Most Negative Leading Economic Indicator

Will we look back on 2009 as the tipping point where productive resources began to spiral faster and faster into the government black hole?  A few stories that have caught my eye the last few weeks:

Federal salaries exploding, from USA Today via Q&O

The number of federal workers earning six-figure salaries has exploded during the recession, according to a USA TODAY analysis of federal salary data.

Federal employees making salaries of $100,000 or more jumped from 14% to 19% of civil servants during the recession's first 18 months "” and that's before overtime pay and bonuses are counted....

The trend to six-figure salaries is occurring throughout the federal government, in agencies big and small, high-tech and low-tech. The primary cause: substantial pay raises and new salary rules.

The highest-paid federal employees are doing best of all on salary increases. Defense Department civilian employees earning $150,000 or more increased from 1,868 in December 2007 to 10,100 in June 2009, the most recent figure available.

When the recession started, the Transportation Department had only one person earning a salary of $170,000 or more. Eighteen months later, 1,690 employees had salaries above $170,000.

Government Employment Rising, via Glenn Reynolds

goodsgovtgraph

Government services rising as a percent of the economy (from the Heritage Foundation via the same Glenn Reynolds link above)

entitlements_03-580

Capital to private firms is increasingly allocated by the state -- the new Corporate State.  First, Representative Paul Ryan in Forbes:

Thirty years later, this crony capitalism is back with a vengeance, accelerated by an aggressive program by President Obama and the Democratic congressional leadership. It is wreaking havoc on economic recovery and fueling continued resentment among the American people.

The actions taken at the height of the financial panic last fall, with credit markets frozen, succeeded in preventing a systemic--and catastrophic--collapse. Since bringing us back from the precipice however, the Troubled Asset Relief Program [TARP] has morphed into crony capitalism at its worst. Abandoning its original purpose providing targeted assistance to unlock credit markets, TARP has evolved into an ad hoc, opaque slush fund for large institutions that are able to influence the Treasury Department's investment decisions behind-the-scenes. No longer concerned with preserving overall financial market stability, Treasury's walking around money continues to be deployed to reward the market's Goliaths while letting its Davids suffer.

Further, via Reuters:

U.S. banks that spent more money on lobbying were more likely to get government bailout money, according to a study released on Monday.

Banks whose executives served on Federal Reserve boards were more likely to receive government bailout funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program, according to the study from Ran Duchin and Denis Sosyura, professors at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business.

Banks with headquarters in the district of a U.S. House of Representatives member who serves on a committee or subcommittee relating to TARP also received more funds.

Political influence was most helpful for poorly performing banks, the study found.

"Political connections play an important role in a firm's access to capital," Sosyura, a University of Michigan assistant professor of finance, said in a statement.

The Government has gained new power to allocate capital in the future. This was perhaps one of the most under-reported stories of the last few months (mea culpa as well).

To close out 2009, I decided to do something I bet no member of Congress has done -- actually read from cover to cover one of the pieces of sweeping legislation bouncing around Capitol Hill....

The reading was especially painful since this reform sausage is stuffed with more gristle than meat. At least, that is, if you are a taxpayer hoping the bailout train is coming to a halt.

If you're a banker, the bill is tastier. While banks opposed the legislation, they should cheer for its passage by the full Congress in the New Year: There are huge giveaways insuring the government will again rescue banks and Wall Street if the need arises....

Here are some of the nuggets I gleaned from days spent reading Frank's handiwork:

-- For all its heft, the bill doesn't once mention the words "too-big-to-fail," the main issue confronting the financial system. Admitting you have a problem, as any 12- stepper knows, is the crucial first step toward recovery.

-- Instead, it supports the biggest banks. It authorizes Federal Reserve banks to provide as much as $4 trillion in emergency funding the next time Wall Street crashes. So much for "no-more-bailouts" talk. That is more than twice what the Fed pumped into markets this time around. The size of the fund makes the bribes in the Senate's health-care bill look minuscule....

But don't worry, trust Congress to get at the heart of the financial meltdown

The bill calls for more than a dozen agencies to create a position called "Director of Minority and Women Inclusion." People in these new posts will be presidential appointees.

Will It Have A Bar?

Via Matt Welch, from the USA Today:

The measure contains funding for a new destroyer and 10 C-17 cargo planes that the Pentagon did not ask for. It also includes hundreds of smaller earmarks for projects of special interest to individual lawmakers, among them $25 million for a World War II museum in New Orleans and $20 million for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate in Boston, a kind of think tank dedicated to the legacy of the late senator.

Maybe its not as bad as it sounds.  Maybe its just a driving school.

The Future of Newspapers

I couldn't really get up enough energy to post about the whole Van Jones kerfuffle.  Apparently, as one of Obama's 129 czars, this guy whose job it is to redistribute billions of dollars from one group of individuals to another and issue diktats to be followed by private citizens and businesses, is *gasp* a communist.  Well, no sh*t.  All of these various czars have communist roles so why is it surprising Obama might have picked a communist to hold one of them.  The only surprise was that Van Jones was dumb enough to admit it in print rather than hiding it in leftish double-speak like most of the rest of the administration.

Anyway, all that aside, you gotta love the NY Post, which has no problem dropping any pretense of statesmanship and is perfectly willing to skewer its cross town rival.  This editorial is pretty dang funny.  An excerpt:

Newspaper of record? The Times isn't so much a newspaper as a clique of high school girls sending IMs to like-minded friends about their feuds and faves and raves and rants. OMFG you guys! It's no more objective than Beck is....

The Times continues to treat communism as a cute campus peccadillo like pot smoking or nude streaking. A Times think piece (Sept. 9) worried that Jones' fall was "swift and personal." Being a communist is personal but being the pregnant teen daughter of a vice presidential candidate is public business?

In a quasi-related post, Virginia Postrel says the Washington Post lost $1.10 per copy of their newspaper last quarter.  Wow!

I have to disagree with Ed Driscoll, though.  He like many conservatives argues that this economic problem of newspapers is somehow because the Times has dropped its objectivity.  I am not sure anyone has evidence that is true.  One could make, I think, an equally strong case that the Times should be less objective and go openly partisan.  After all, this notion of politically neutral newspapers is a pretty recent phenomenon in the US.

I actually think the problem with newspapers like the Washington Post is the "Washington" part.  Local business models dominated for decades in fields where technology made national distribution difficult or where technology did not allow for anything but a very local economy of scale.  Newspapers, delivery of television programming, auto sales, beverage bottling and distribution, book selling, etc. were all mainly local businesses.  But you can see with this list that technology is changing everything.  TV can now be delivered via sattelite and does not require local re-distribution via line of sight broadcast towers or cable systems.  Amazon dominated book selling via the Internet.  Many of these businesses (e.g. liquor, auto dealers, TV broadcasting) would have de-localized faster if it had not been for politicians in the pocket of a few powerful companies passing laws to lock in outdated business or technological models.

Newspapers are ripe for a restructuring.  How can one support a great Science page or Book Review section or International Bureau on local circulation?  How much effort do the NY Times, Washington Post, LA Times, SF Chronicle, etc. duplicate every day?  People tell me, "that's what the wire services are for."  Bah.  The AP is 160 years old!  It is a pre-Civil War solution to this problem.  Can it really be that technology and changing markets have not facilitated a better solution?

The future is almost certainly a number of national papers (ala the WSJ and USA Today) printed locally with perhaps local offices to provide some local customization or special local section.  Paradoxically, such a massive consolidation from hundreds of local papers to a few national papers would actually increase competition.  While we might get a few less stories about cats being saved from trees in the local paper, we could well end up not with one paper selection (as we have today in most cities) but five or six different papers to choose from  (just look at Britain).  Some of these papers might choose to sell political neutrality while some might compete on political affiliation.

If I were running the Washington Post, I would think very seriously about creating a national news offering, a USA Today with substance.   If you offered me a Washington Post re-branded as a national paper, with some strong side offerings like the NY Times Science section and a good local sports section and a local news section, I'd toss my Arizona Republic in a second.  Its going to take some good thought as to how to weave together the national offering with locally customized content and to manage local vs. national advertising accounts, but with technology this is doable -- Clear Channel does something similar in radio.

I wonder, in fact, why no one has done this yet -- when you look at the circulation numbers, only the USA Today and WSJ, the two papers pursuing this path, are seeing growth.  My only thought is that news is one of those businesses dominated by passionate people who are tied deeply, emotionally into the industry in a way that makes it impossible to envision or consider new models (aviation is another such business, in my opinion, and the US auto business is probably another).  What we need is for the Post and a few other major papers to fail and then let some really bright, right people from outside the business come and shake it up.  This is, by the way, one of the unsung benefits of bankruptcy, is that it takes assets out of the hands of the people who got the company in the mess to begin with -- a benefit we short-circuited when we spent billions of taxpayer dollars in the auto industry to keep GM and Chrysler assets out of new and potentially more innovative hands.

You Don't Need To Carry Water if You Build a Water Pipeline

The other day, there was an intriguing story in the USA Today that a disproportionate share of stimulus money is flowing to counties that voted for Obama.  In fact, counties that voted Obama are getting twice as much per capita so far as counties that did not.  Matt Yglesias writes:

The insinuation of the piece is that the stimulus bill's funding streams are being artfully manipulated or something to disproportionately direct resources toward Obama-loving constituencies....[But] the secret to the riddle seems to be that areas that benefit from federal spending formulae tend to support the Democrats. Not as a result of short-term fluctuations in voting patterns or federal spending levels, but as a structural element of American politics.

Kevin Drum misses Matt's point, I think, when he responds:

Actually, that's not quite right.  It's weirder than that.  I just got around to reading the piece, and aside from the factual statement in the lead, it doesn't insinuate that the money is being unfairly distributed.  In fact, every single paragraph after the lead quotes people saying that there's nothing dubious going on and the money is just being distributed by formula.  The piece doesn't quote a single person, not even Sarah Palin, suggesting that there's any monkey business going on here.

But this does not refute Matt's point as I understand it, that "tinkering" is not necessary because the formulas themselves have been worked over time to preferentially send money certain places.  I would use the analogy that there are well worn channels where the money preferentially flows.

I must disagree that a story that money tends to flow preferentially (on a ratio as high as 2:1) to Democratic districts should be spiked, as Kevin Drum advocates. I think there is a story in this, though certainly I agree with Kevin it is not the story the author set out to write (one of micro-manipulation by Administration employees).

My sense is that the causality involved would be impossible to discover. Does money flow preferentially to these districts because Democrats are better or more focused on bringing home the taxpayer largess to their districts? Or does our money preferentially flow to these districts based on, say, economic or demographic factors that line up well with Democratic constituencies. Or is it, more likely in my mind, a virtuous circle with both factors involved.

Either way, this is an interesting story and some interesting new data in our endless red state-blue state analyses.

The San Francisco Sweatshop

Several companies have been discovered to have benefited from what is in effect slave labor in certain countries.  I have never had a problem with folks in poor countries freely opting to take jobs at factories for less money than our privileged middle class attitudes think to be "fair."  But there have been examples of governments using their coercive power in a cozy relationship with certain companies, forcing people to provide their labor to companies for wages below what they would freely accept.   It is an obscene form of modern slavery.

Today's example, though, does not come from Myanmar or China, but from San Francisco, California, USA, where the government is forcing its citizens to work for free to benefit itself and a few favored corporations to produce products for export.

The resale of recycled materials is apparently big business for a few government contractors:

"When we look at garbage, we don't see garbage, O.K.?" said Robert
Reed, a spokesman for Norcal Waste Systems, the parent company of
Sunset Scavenger and Golden Gate Disposal and Recycling Company, the
main garbage collectors in the city. "We see food, we see paper, we see
metal, we see glass."...

Jared Blumenfeld, the director of the city's environmental programs,
addressed one of the main reasons the city keeps up the pressure to
recycle. "The No. 1 export for the West Coast of the United States is
scrap paper," Mr. Blumenfeld said, explaining that the paper is sent to
China and returns as packaging that holds the sneakers, electronics and
toys sold in big-box stores.

This "No. 1 export product" is wholly a product of major government subsidies.  Reading the article, you get a sense for the enormous amount of extra capital and operating expenses the city pours into the recycling program.  Here is just one example:

San Francisco can charge more for its scrap paper, he said, because of
its low levels of glass contamination. That is because about 15 percent
of the city's 1,200 garbage trucks have two compartments, one for
recyclables. That side has a compactor that can compress mixed loads of
paper, cans and bottles without breaking the bottles. (These specially
designed trucks, which run on biodiesel, cost about $300,000 apiece, at
least $25,000 more than a standard truck, said Benny Anselmo, who
manages the fleet for Norcal.)

Anyone really think they are making enough extra money on scrap paper to cover this (at least) $4.5 million incremental investment  ($25k x 15% x 1200)?   Suspiciously absent from the article is any mention of costs or budgets.  City recycling guys have given up trying to defend recycling on the basis of it being cheaper than just burying the material.  The city is subsidizing this material a lot.

But it's not enough.  Even with these enormous subsidies, the city is not producing as much recycled materials to meet its goals.  So it is going to make its citizenry provide it more labor.  For free.

...the city wants more.

So Mr. Newsom will soon be sending the
city's Board of Supervisors a proposal that would make the recycling of
cans, bottles, paper, yard waste and food scraps mandatory instead of
voluntary, on the pain of having garbage pickups suspended.

The city is going to coerce every single resident to labor for them each week, just so San Francisco and Norcal Waste Systems can have more scrap paper for export.  This is a labor tax of immense proportions.  I know, whenever I make this point about recycling, everyone wants to poo-poo it.  "Oh, its not much time, really."  Really?  Lets use the following numbers:  Five minutes per day of labor.  One million residents.  $20 per hour labor value (low in San Francisco).  That is $608 million if forced labor.  I'm not sure even Nike has been accused of using this much forced labor.

Anticipated Rejoinder: Yeah, I know, the response will be "It's not for the exports, it's to save the environment."  OK, here is my counter:

  1. Nowhere in the article does it really say how this program, or going from 70 to 75% recycling, is specifically going to help the environment.  I took the article at its face value, where it justifies the program on the basis of exports and hitting an arbitrary numerical target and beating out San Jose.  I am tired of unthinking acceptance of recycling as a net benefit.  Every study has shown that aluminum recycling creates a net energy benefit, but every other material represents a net loss.  It makes us feel good, though, I guess.
  2. Should proponents support the direct subsidy by government and the labor tax, there is still some burden to show that this is the best possible environmental use of 30 million San Francisco man-hours of coerced labor in the course of a year.
  3. For those really worked up about CO2, explain to me why we shouldn't bury every scrap of waste paper as a carbon sink.
  4. The last time I visited, San Francisco was one of the grubbier US cities I have seen of late, with trash everywhere on the streets and sidewalks.  It may just have been a bad data point, but are residents really happy the city trash department focusing on scrap paper pricing yield rather than picking up the trash?
  5. I class battery and motor oil recycling programs differently.  These substances have unique disposal needs and high costs of incorrect disposal.

Don't Say I Didn't Warn You -- The Environmentalist Case for Fascism

Our (mostly free) society has survived many challenges.  But will it be able to withstand gentlemen like this waving around immensely flawed climate science:

Liberal democracy is sweet and addictive and indeed in the most
extreme case, the USA, unbridled individual liberty overwhelms many of
the collective needs of the citizens. The subject is almost sacrosanct
and those who indulge in criticism are labeled as Marxists, socialists,
fundamentalists and worse. These labels are used because alternatives
to democracy cannot be perceived! Support for Western democracy is
messianic as proselytised by a President leading a flawed democracy

There must be open minds to look critically at liberal democracy.
Reform must involve the adoption of structures to act quickly
regardless of some perceived liberties. ...

We are going to have to look how authoritarian decisions
based on consensus science can be implemented to contain greenhouse
emissions. It is not that we do not tolerate such decisions in the very
heart of our society, in wide range of enterprises from corporate
empires to emergency and intensive care units. If we do not act
urgently we may find we have chosen total liberty rather than life.

He has great admiration for how China does things

The [plastic shopping bag] ban in China will save importation and use of five million tons of
oil used in plastic bag manufacture, only a drop in the ocean of the
world oil well. But the importance in the decision lies in the fact
that China can do it by edict and close the factories. They don't have
to worry about loss of political donations or temporarily unemployed
workers. They have made a judgment that their action favours the needs
of Chinese society as a whole.

Don't say I didn't warn you.

By the way, here is a little "tip."  The author says this:

Unfortunately it seems increasingly likely that the IPCC underestimated
the speed of climate change and failed to recognise the likely effect
of a range of tipping points which may now be acting in concert.

I believe that man is having a warming effect on the earth, but that effect is small and non-catastrophic.  There are reasons I may be wrong.  BUT, you should immediately laugh out of the room anyone who talk about "a range of tipping points" in a system like the earth's climate that has been reasonably stable for tens of millions of years.  When used by climate catastrophists, the word "tipping point" means:  Yeah, we are kind of upset the world is not warming nearly as fast as our computer models say it should, so we will build an inflection point about 10 years out into the forecast where the slope of change really ramps up and we will call it a "tipping point" because, um, that is kindof a cool hip phrase right now and make us sound sophisticated and stuff.

Postscript:  Anyone who makes this statement is WELL grounded in reality:

All this suggests that the savvy Chinese rulers may be first out of the blocks to assuage greenhouse emissions

LOLOLOL.  They are building a new coal plant, what, every three days or so in China?

Postscript #2: Quiz for older folks out there:  How long ago was it that environmentalists were encouraging us to use plastic bags over paper because it saved a tree?

HT:  Tom Nelson

When Calling in Sick Is Not Enough

I was tempted to title this post "markets in everything", but I just couldn't steal that moniker from the Marginal Revolution folks.  USA Weekend has a story about the Alibi Network, which will, for a price of course, create an alibi for you:

Whether you
are looking to skip a day of work or to secretly leave town for the
weekend, Alibi Network can provide fake airline receipts or phone calls
to your boss explaining your absence and even mock up an entire
itinerary for a bogus conference you were "attending." Rarely has lying
been so creepily airtight.

The
Chicago-based company charges from $75 for a simple phone call to
thousands of dollars for extensive lying, on top of a $75 annual fee.
The most popular service is the "virtual hotel," in which the fibber
can provide a boss or family member with the phone number of a hotel
where he's supposed to be. The number rings to one of Alibi's phones,
which are staffed by actors who will answer as if a particular hotel
has been reached. The incoming call then can be forwarded to the
fibber's cellphone, making it seem as if he's in a certain city even
though he's not. (We use "he" here, but half of Alibi's members are
female.)

Some
requests involve a creative solution. One working stiff asked the
service to get him out of a boring, week-long training class that was
mandated by his office. The solution: Alibi hired an actor to dress up
as a courier and barge into the class, informing the man that his house
had been robbed and he needed to go home right away. Another request
involved a married woman with small children who longed for a relaxing
weekend away from the kids. Alibi concocted a story that the woman had
won a free spa weekend in a prize drawing and hired an actor to call
her home and leave a voicemail message informing her of her "win."

For those of you of need of such services, perhaps on January 2 nursing your hangover, their web site is here.

Update:  Tyler Cowen informs me that I am waaaayyy behind the times, and that this company actually was the first entry in "Markets in Everything" several years ago.  That's what I get for trying to take a break from blogging.

The Long Drain

The long drain begins:

When Kathleen Casey-Kirschling signs up for
Social Security benefits Monday, it will represent one small step for
her, one giant leap for her baby boom generation "” and a symbolic jump
toward the retirement system's looming bankruptcy.

Casey-Kirschling "” generally recognized as the
nation's first boomer (born in Philadelphia on Jan. 1, 1946, at
12:00:01 a.m.) "” won't bankrupt the Social Security system by taking
early retirement at 62. But after her, the deluge: 80 million Americans
born from 1946 to 1964 who could qualify for Social Security and
Medicare during the next 22 years.

The first wave of 3.2 million baby boomers turns
62 next year "” 365 an hour. About 49% of the men and 53% of the women
are projected to choose early retirement and begin drawing monthly
Social Security checks representing 75% of the benefit they'd be
entitled to receive if they waited four more years to retire.

If Social Security were a well-managed private insurance program, this would be a non-event.  The returns on investments over the last 40 years have been tremendous, such that a private fund could easily start paying out benefits based on boomers' premiums.

Unfortunately, as a government program, the funds in the program are subject to the whims of politicians.  And it turns out that boomers have elected politicians who have spent all the money that has been contributed to Social Security (despite USA Today in their graphics trying to continue the myth that a meaningful "trust fund" actually exists as anything but a bunch of government IOU's to itself.)  So, because Congress has spent all the past contributions, an action that would have had any private manager jailed decades ago, Social Security must now run itself as a Ponzi scheme, where current contributions pay off retiree benefits.  This game runs out somewhere in the 2020's.  And this all despite the fact that Social Security pays out a negative rate of return.

New Orleans, Progressive Paradise

From the USA Today:

In working-class areas here, homes for sale
have begun to move briskly. But in the ritzy Uptown district and other
well-to-do neighborhoods, the picture is bleaker. "New Price" and
"Reduced" signs adjoin grand Victorian homes "” symbols of a struggling
upscale housing market.

They're the lingering effects of Hurricane
Katrina. In coastal Louisiana and Mississippi, a glut of higher-end
homes points to soaring property insurance costs that are pricing many
people out of the market. It also speaks to the legions of doctors and
other professionals who have left the area and have yet to return. The
price of their exodus could be severe: Economic development experts
warn that if these professionals stay away en masse, it could cripple
the region's recovery.

For anyone with a stake in the region's recovery, the loss of
higher-income residents "” and their job skills "” is alarming. The
problem is compounded by the shortage of upper-income buyers willing to
put down stakes to replace those who have left.

So what is the problem?  I thought this would make New Orleans a progressive paradise.  No rich to get richer and create envy in the working classes.  No issues with income distribution.  Just a worker's paradise with no capitalist oppressors.  Huge portions of the populations dependent on the government and refusing to rebuild until they get government handouts to do so.  This sounds like everything Progressives are working for.  But...

Doctors, bankers and other professionals are "the backbone of the
community," says William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings
Institution, a Washington think tank. "They're the people who will help
the tax base. If they leave, they are going to be very hard to replace."

Oh, I see.  We don't really want them around, but we need milch cows we can tax so we can have handouts for everyone else.  It must be a hard tightrope for progressives to walk -- they hate rich people but need them to pay for their schemes.

Because the Government is Always Cutting Edge

From a USA Today story on All-Star Ballot counting:

The technology used is so advanced that not even the government has caught up.

Maybe the govenrment might be assumed to lead the private sector in missile defense systems and such.  But in ballot counting?

Someone Should Study this Phenomenon

Of late, Democratic lawmakers have argued that gasoline prices are set at the caprice of oil companies, and mainly serve to provide them with undeserved profits.  However, we here at Coyote Blog try to bring you breaking news at the frontiers of scientific inquiry, and, via the USA Today, we get this fascinating revelation:

The average American motorist is driving
substantially fewer miles for the first time in 26 years because of
high gas prices and demographic shifts, according to a USA TODAY
analysis of federal highway data.

The growth in miles driven has leveled off
dramatically in the past 18 months after 25 years of steady climbs
despite the addition of more than 1 million drivers to the nation's
streets and highways since 2005. Miles driven in February declined 1.9%
from February 2006 before rebounding slightly for a 0.3% year-over-year
gain in March, data from the Federal Highway Administration show.
That's in sharp contrast to the average annual growth rate of 2.7%
recorded from 1980 through 2005....

The nation has not seen such stagnant growth in
driving since 1981, when the USA staggered through an oil shortage and
a recession. Gas prices reached an all-time high of $3.223 in March
1981 when adjusted for inflation in today's dollars.

Wow!  This seems to imply that prices have a here-to-for unsuspected utility.  They might actually be useful for matching supply and demand of scarce resources.  Fascinating.  Maybe Congress can commission a study of this phenomenon.

Postscript: Leaving the snark aside, it is hilarious in this article to see an urban planning group trying to bend over backwards to say that really, price was only a minor factor -- this really had to do with demographics and the success of our urban planning and public transportation.  Of course, it's just a coincidence that this step change occurred at the same time as a gas price spike, and that the last time it happened was the last time that gas price spiked.  Note that none of the data in the article actually supports the point of view that this was anything but a direct response to price signals.