Posts tagged ‘Washington Post’

Environmentalists Break the Establishment Clause

Skeptics like myself often see parallels between environmentalism (as practiced by many people) and religion.  Now, they are going one step further to actually establish a state church:

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley made national news last year when he fought to pass and signed a tax bill that levied a tax on Marylanders, businesses and churches for the amount of “impervious surface” they have on their property.

Though the O’Malley administration calls it a “fee,” it is commonly called the “rain tax” throughout the state. It is wildly unpopular and the promise to fight to repeal the tax was a large factor in Maryland electing Republican Larry Hogan governor this month.

Now Prince George’s County is offering a way for churches to avoid paying the tax, which is estimated to be an average of $744 per year for them — preach “green” to their parishioners.

So far 30 pastors have agreed to begin “‘green’ ministries to maintain the improvements at their churches, and to preach environmentally focused sermons to educate their congregations” to avoid being hit with the tax, The Washington Post reports.

Racial Profiling in Ferguson

The Washington Post has numbers on the much higher rate at which blacks are stopped and/or searched in Ferguson vs. whites.  By itself, while that is a useful pointer to a discrimination issue, someone might argue that blacks in the area commit more crimes per capita and thus warrant more stops.

There is one bit of data in the Post's numbers that can be used to partially address this.  The data says that blacks have their cars searched much more frequently than whites.   Blacks have their cars searched 12.13% of stops while whites have their cars searched only 6.85% of stops.  But this understates the disparity, since blacks are stopped at a higher rates than whites.    Taking the disparity in stops in to account, blacks are searched at a rate 6 times higher than for whites.

The interesting part is in the data on contraband hit rate, ie the rate that searches uncover something illicit.  The contraband hit rate for white car searches is 57% higher than for black car searches.  In other words, it is more likely searches of white cars will yield something illegal.  Which tends to undercut the argument that the greater rate of black car searches is somehow justified.

By the way, I want to highlight one other figure.  Black cars are stopped at about a 6x higher rate for "equipment" deficiencies than whites.  Nitpicky regulations on car conditions (in Arizona your licence plate frame cannot cover any part of the word "Arizona" on the licence plate) are the great bugaboo of the poor and a nearly unlimited warrant for the police to stop minorities.  Mexicans here in Phoenix will tell me "woe to the Mexican who drives around here with a broken tail light -- he will be pulled over 3 times a day to have his immigration status checked".  In Phoenix, at least, stops for equipment issues are roughly the equivalent of pulling someone over for "driving while brown."  Even beyond the open-ended warrant these silly violations give the police, the fines and court costs create meaningful indebtedness problems for the poor which are hard to overcome.

(As a mostly irrelevant aside, I worked essentially in one corner of Ferguson in the Emerson Electric headquarters for a couple of years.  Like many of the inner ring of suburbs in St Louis, this is not a wildly prosperous area but it also is not Somalia.  Driving at night I was much more nervous in the neighborhoods both due south and due East of Ferguson).

Update:  Via Zero Hedge

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Newsflash: Apparently, Obamacare will Reduce Full-Time Employment. Who Would Have Guessed?

The Washington Post reports on an updated CBO report:

The Affordable Care Act will reduce the number of full-time workers by more than two million in coming years, congressional budget analysts said Tuesday in the most detailed analysis of the law’s impact on jobs.

After obtaining coverage through the health law, some workers may forgo employment, while others may reduce hours, according to a report by the Congressional Budget Office. Low-wage workers are the most likely to drop out of the workforce as a result of the law, it said. The CBO said the law’s impact on jobs mostly would be felt after 2016.

This almost certainly underestimates the impact.   Why?  Well, one reason is that a lot of full-time jobs were switched to part-time jobs way back in late 2012.  That is what our company did.  Why so early?  Because according to rules in place at the time (rules that have since been delayed at least a year) the accounting period for who would be considered full-time for the purpose of ACA penalties would be determined by an accounting period that started January 1, 2013.  So, if a business wanted an employee to be considered part-time on January 1, 2014 (the original date employer sanctions were to begin), the changes to that employees hours had to be put in place in late 2012.  More on this here in Forbes.

In addition, this CBO report is  a static analysis of existing business.  It does not seem to include any provisions for businesses that have dialed back on investment and expansion in response to the ACA (we have certainly cut back our planned investments, and we can't be the only ones.)  This effect is suggested (but certainly not proven) by this chart.

click to enlarge

The sequester and government shutdown were cited by the Left as reasons for a sluggish economy.  Which government action seems most correlated with a flattening in job growth?

 

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.

"Slander" Is Anything Bad Said About Me

Richard Cohen wrote in the Washington Post

"[p]eople with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children,"

Apparently people responded to the article by saying that Cohen was as a minimum deeply out of touch and perhaps a tad bigoted himself.  Of course, since this is the Internet age, some folks said these things in juvenile and deeply unproductive ways.

I am not going to comment much on his original statement.  I think the article is far more revealing of Mr. Cohen's mental outlook than that of anyone in Iowa, particularly since he brought no facts to the table, but a lot of people have already pointed that out.  I wanted to comment on his follow-up statement

I don’t understand it …. What I was doing was expressing not my own views but those of extreme right-wing Republican tea party people. I don’t have a problem with interracial marriage or same-sex marriage. In fact, I exult in them. It’s a slander…

Seriously?  So people's opinions about actual statements made by Richard Cohen in writing are slander, but ugly accusations made about Republicans or Tea Partiers he has not even met are not?  At least his critics are working with his actual statements, rather than offering an opinion of a large, inhomogeneous group's state of mind as fact.

He added, “I think it’s reprehensible to say that because you disagree with something that you should fire me. That’s what totalitarians do.”

Yeah, because totalitarians never broad brush vilify whole groups who constitute their political opponents.

This is a great example of how ad hominem argumentation works.  The Left has spent a lot of time attempting to vilify the Tea Party as flat-out BAD PEOPLE, in a similar way to how we climate skeptics have been vilified.  Once one is successful at this, then all the rules of discourse don't apply.   You don't have to engage them or treat them seriously because they are BAD PEOPLE.   We good liberal-minded folks would never stereotype large groups, except of course the Tea Party but that is OK because they are BAD PEOPLE.  And everyone knows that the rule of law, much less the rules of normal discourse, do not apply to BAD PEOPLE.

It Turns Out That Democrats Were Responsible for the Watergate Coverup

The Washington Post has a very good article on failures of Obamacare exchange implementation.  The Left is finding the article to be convincing evidence that the failures were all ... wait for it .. the Republican's fault.

Every single failure, save one, in the article (we'll come back to that one in a minute) was due to the Administration's fear of Republican criticism.  So results were hidden, bad decisions were made, and key steps were delayed until after the last election.  All because the Obama Administration appears to incredibly thin-skinned about criticism.

But blaming these decisions on Republicans and other Obamacare opponents is absurd.  One could easily say that the bad decisions made by the Nixon administration to cover up Watergate and other campaign shenanigans were driven by a fear of political reprisals by Democrats, but no one would be crazy enough to blame the Democrats for them.  It reminds me of the folks who wanted to blame failures in the Vietnam war on the anti-war movement.  But that is exactly what is going on here, and the amazing thing is just how many people seem willing to enable and support this incredible evasion.

The one other example that Republicans are supposedly to blame is latched onto by Kevin Drum, among others, quite eagerly.  Apparently, the PPACA legislation, which was written entirely by Democrats and passed without a single Republican vote, failed to actually provide financing for an enormous new organization to build and run the exchanges.  And, amazingly enough, Republicans refused to fix the Democrat's problem with the Democrat-written legislation in a law they hated and wanted repealed.  So the Obama Administration had to build the exchanges within the existing CMS organization, which botched the implementation.  And for THAT, apparently Republicans are to blame for it all.

Of course, beyond the just bizarre "buck stops anywhere but here" mentality, there are other problems with this logic.  First, it is hard to believe that a brand new greenfield organization run entirely by Obama's policy folks and completely without any systems experience would have done better than an organization that at least has some health care systems experience.  Further, would the schedule really have been aided by having to start an entirely new organization from scratch?  Finally, it is clear from the article that a large part of the reason for moving the work to CMS was not just money but a desire to avoid transparency, to bury and hide the work.  Even had the financing mistake** not been made, one gets the sense that Obama might have buried the effort inside CMS anyway.

In fact, this is the overriding theme from the entire article.  Every decision made for the Obamacare implementation seemed to be driven by political expediency first, avoiding transparency and accountability second, and actual results last.  It is well worth reading yourself to see what conclusions you draw.

 

** I am not entirely convinced it was a mistake.  Remember, the Democrats were scrambling to make the PPACA seem budget neutral.  They might easily have left out key bits of financing they know they needed, thinking they could hide the appropriation later.   A plan that died when Scott Brown was unexpectedly elected.

 

Arpaio Busted For Crime Sweeps

I am a little late to this, via the Washington Post

A federal judge ruled on Friday that Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his deputies had violated the constitutional rights of Latinos by targeting them during raids and traffic stops here and throughout Maricopa County...

The ruling prohibits the sheriff’s office from using “race or Latino ancestry” as a factor in deciding to stop any vehicle with Latino occupants, or as a factor in deciding whether they may be in the country without authorization.

It also prohibits deputies from reporting a vehicle’s Latino occupants to federal immigration authorities or detaining, holding or arresting them, unless there is more than just a “reasonable belief” that they are in the country illegally. To detain them, the ruling said, the deputies must also have reasonable suspicion that the occupants are violating the state’s human-trafficking and employment laws or committing other crimes.

Good.  Phoenix residents, even those who support Arpaio, all know people are routinely busted here for "driving while brown."    I remember one time Arpaio made one of his famous "crime sweeps" through the tony suburb of Fountain Hills (where he lives) and managed to arrest dozens of Hispanics -- more Hispanics than I thought one could even find in that neighborhood, much less find committing crimes.  Seriously, I don't think I could have found that many on a bet.

This was one of his more execrable raids

Deputies from the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office raided a Mesa landscaping company early Wednesday morning, arresting nearly three dozen people suspected of being in the country illegally.

The raid on offices of Artistic Land Management, on Main Street just west of Dobson Road, happened about 4:30 a.m., according to one workerwho was handcuffed and detained before being released when he produced documentation that he was in the country legally....

Juarez estimated about 35 workers were handcuffed with plastic zip-ties while deputies checked for documents. Those who could provide proof they were in the country legally were released, while others were put on buses and taken away.

Basically his deputies zip tied everyone with brown skin, releasing them only when they could produce their papers.  It has become a common occurrence in the Hispanic community here to have family members racing to work with identity documents to free loved ones from Arpaio captivity.

Here is just a partial roundup of links on Arpaio here.

Progressives Suddenly Support Health Insurance Marketing

For years Progressives, led by President Obama during the legislative process for the PPACA, have attacked health insurance companies for their profits and overhead.  I never understood the former -- at generally 5% of revenues or less, even wiping health insurance profits out altogether would offset less than a year's worth of health care inflation.  The Progressive hatred for health insurance overhead was actually built into the PPACA, with limits on non-care expenses as a percent of premiums.

Progressive's justification for this was to compare health insurer's overhead against Medicare, which appears to have lower overhead as a percentage of revenues.  This is problematic, because lots of things that private insurers have to pay for actually still are paid for by the Federal government, but just don't hit Medicare's books due to funky government accounting.  Other private costs, particularly claims management, are areas that likely have a real return in fraud reduction.  In this case, Medicare's decision not to invest in claims management overhead shows up as costs elsewhere, specifically in fraudulent billings.

None of these areas of costs make for particularly fertile ground for demagoguing, so the Progressive argument against health insurance overhead usually boils down to marketing.  This argument makes a nice fit with progressive orthodoxy, which has always hated advertising as manipulative.  But health insurance marketing expenses mainly consist of

  1. Funding commissions to brokers, who actually sell the product, and
  2. Funding people to go to company open enrollments and explain health care options to participants

Suddenly, now that Progressives have taken over health care via the PPACA and federal exchanges, their tune has changed.  They seem to have a near infinite appetite for marketing money to support construction of the exchanges (which serve the role of the broker, though less well because there is no support)  and information about options to potential participants.  That these are exactly the kinds of expenses they have railed against for years in the private world seems to elicit no irony.  Via Cato

Now we learn, from the Washington Post’s Sara Kliff, “Sebelius has, over the past three months, made multiple phone calls to health industry executives, community organizations and church groups and directly asked that they contribute to non-profits that are working to enroll uninsured Americans and increase awareness of the law.”

This follows on from revelations in California (revelations that occurred before a new California law that makes PPACA costs double-secret).

[California] will also spend $250 million on a two-year marketing campaign [for its health insurance exchange]. By comparison California Senator Barbara Boxer spent $28 million on her 2010 statewide reelection campaign while her challenger spent another $22 million.

The most recent installment of the $910 million in federal money was a $674 million grant. The exchange's executive director noted that was less than the $706 million he had asked for. "The feds reduced the 2014 potential payment for outreach and enrollment by about $30 million," he said. "But we think we have enough resources on hand to do the biggest outreach that I have ever seen." ...

The California Exchange officials also say they need 20,000 part time enrollers to get everybody signed up––paying them $58 for each application. Having that many people out in the market creates quality control issues particularly when these people will be handling personal information like address, birth date, and social security number. California Blue Shield, by comparison has 5,000 employees serving 3.5 million members.

New York is off to a similar start. New York has received two grants totaling $340 million again just to set up an enrollment and eligibility process.

These are EXACTLY the same sorts of marketing costs progressives have railed on for years in the private world.

Congressional Ethics

I am sick and tired of politicians impugning the ethics of private individuals engaged in commerce.   There are certainly a small minority of fraudsters in the world of business, but there is a supermajority of unethical people in Congress, arguably approaching 100%.

My latest evidence for such is this article in the Washington Post about the ethical bankruptcy of the Federal budgeting process.  It is impossible to excerpt, but here is a representative example:

At the Census Bureau, officials got credit for a whopping $6 billion cut, simply for obeying the calendar. They promised not to hold the expensive 2010 census again in 2011.

By law, the next census is not until 2020.  There was never, ever going to be a census in 2011.  But Congress claimed $6 billion in savings for not having one none-the-less.  Here is more:

In the real world, in fact, many of their “cuts” cut nothing at all. The Transportation Department got credit for “cutting” a $280 million tunnel that had been canceled six months earlier. It also “cut” a $375,000 road project that had been created by a legislative typo, on a road that did not exist....

Today, an examination of 12 of the largest cuts shows that, thanks in part to these gimmicks, federal agencies absorbed $23 billion in reductions without losing a single employee.

You can impugn business ethics all you want, and I can add a few stories to yours, but I have worked at fairly senior positions in two Fortune 50 companies and as a worker bee in a third, and in all three it would be a firing offense to engage in this kind of Charlatanism.

More in my Forbes article from 2 years ago.

Free Speech -- We Were Just Kidding!

The First Amendment is nearly the last portion of the Bill of Rights that courts seem to take seriously -- treating all the others as if the Founders were just kidding.  The 9th and 10th went early.  The 2nd has been nibbled away at.  The 4th has become a bad joke under the last several Administrations.  We abandoned the 6th somewhere out in Guantanamo Bay and the 5th has fallen victim to the drug war.  (The 3rd is still alive and well, though!)

But today freedom of speech is under fire by those who increasingly claim [some] people have a right not to be offended that trumps free speech.  Just who has this new right and who does not (certainly white males don't seem to have it) is unclear, as well as how one can ever enforce a standard where the victim has full discretion in determining if a crime has been committed, are left unexplained.

We have seen this theory of speech gaining adherents in Universities, for example, so while its continued gains are worrisome though not entirely unexpected.  The one thing I never saw coming in the increasingly secular west was how much momentum anti-blasphemy laws would gain, and how much these laws would be pushed by the Left**.

Jonathon Turley has a good article on this topic in the Washington Post, as linked by Reason

Ken at Popehat has a roundup of creeping ant-blasphemy law over the last year (it is hard for me to even write that sentence seriously, it sounds so Medieval)

**It is in fact insane that the Left has so many people coming out in favor of protecting Islam from blasphemy.  I know it is not everyone, but it is just amazing that a good number of people who call themselves liberal can excuse violence by a misogynist culture that is meant to suppress speech in the name of Gods and Churches.  We have actual children of the sixties arguing that threats of violence are sufficiently good reason to suppress speech and that a religion that basically enslaves women needs laws that protect it from criticism  (these  same children of the sixties that all protested the Christmas bombings of Cambodia are also launching drone strikes willy nilly on civilians and claiming that the President can assassinate Americans solely on his say-so, but those are different topics.)

This all goes to prove my long-time conviction that the political parties have very little foundation in any real morality, and that they tend to simply take positions opposite of the other party.  Since Conservatives staked out the anti-Islam position, the Left feels the need to find some way to be pro-Islam.  Weird, but I can't think of any other explanation.  The only exceptions to this rule are 1) expansions of Presidential power and 2) taking the drug war to new stupid extremes.  Both parties seem unified in supporting these two things, at least when their guy is in office.

Irony Alert!

From the Washington Post

President Obama will issue an executive order Monday that will allow U.S. officials for the first time to impose sanctions against foreign nationals found to have used new technologies, from cellphone tracking to Internet monitoring, to help carry out grave human rights abuses.

LOL, Foreign nationals identified by NSA communications monitoring as violating this order will be pinpointed by satellites and surveillance drones and hit with a cruise missile.

Hard to picture any American President in the last 20 years signing this with a straight face.   Is there a Federal law enforcement agency or major police force in this country who is NOT violating this order, had it applied to American citizens?

How Is This Different From Citizens United

The Washington Post writes, and Paul Cassell agrees, that the Administration screwed up by treating Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (the underwear bomber) as a regular criminal, and should have considered some sort of administrative detention instead.

The analysis seems spot on to me.  I can't for the life of me figure out why as a society we would want to give Miranda warnings to such a high-value suspect like Abdulmutallab.  While there is debate about the extent to which Miranda warnings reduce the overall confession rate (I think it is significant, while others disagree), surely we can all agree that in the context of Abdulmutallab's interrogation such warning were not going to be helpful in obtaining information about, for example, where he trained and what other attacks might be planned.

Uh, OK, but the law of the land is to give arrested criminals on US soil Miranda warnings and an attorney.  What legislative authority (I think we are supposed to be a nation of laws) exists to do otherwise?  And if such a law did exist, what would the bright-line rule be that should be written in law so real human beings making arrests know when it is OK and when it is not to kidnap someone to Gitmo?  I have struggled to find anyone who can write such a rule -- it always comes out sounding like the old definition of pornography, "I know it when I see it."  Remember, the Patriot Act was used far more for drug and child porn cases than it ever has been for terrorism -- it is very, very hard to circumscribe new police powers, particularly when police so desperately want to keep and hold those powers.

I don't deny from a utilitarian point of view that being able to grab people off the street and lock them up without trial forever might prevent some terrorism, but wasn't it Conservatives, just the other day, that were arguing re: Citizens United that Constitutional protections can't be waived for utilitarian reasons?  I agreed with them then, what changed here?

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.

Obama's Programming of the Press Has Unintended Consequences

Kevin Drum posts (sorry, I have to quote the whole post or it won't make sense):

From a Washington Post story about wage cutbacks:

Members and employees of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra are bracing for more hard times. The orchestra has had to contend with a $1.5 billion debt....The musicians were furloughed, and the administrative staff, including Johnson, took a 20 percent pay cut. The two moves saved the VSO about $500,000.

Not bad!  At that rate they should have their debt paid off in another 3,000 years.

I know I'm being sort of prickish for even bringing this up, but seriously: at least one reporter and two editors worked on this piece, and apparently none of them were taken aback by the idea of a regional orchestra being $1.5 billion in debt.  At any rate, not taken aback enough to wonder idly if maybe it was $1.5 million instead.  Sheesh.

I don't know, Kevin.   Your guy Obama proposed to deal with a trillion dollars of deficit by seeking $100 million of savings, and everyone in the press nodded their head and said how wonderful that Obama guy is.  On a percentage basis, a $500,000 cut in a $1.5 billion debt is actually three times more impactful than what Obama proposed.   Is it any wonder the press accepted these numbers without skepticism?  Obama has trained them well.

Don't Dance on the Times' Grave

Recent circulation numbers showing continued, substantial declines of traditional newspapers give me an excuse to make a point I have wanted to make for some time. 

I am a frequent critic of newspapers.  I think they have lost focus on the hard-hitting investigative journalism which used to be their highest and best calling, instead considering reiteration of an activist's press release sufficient to check the journalism box on some particular issue.  When investigative reporting does occur, it almost always is focused to support the dominant or politically correct outcome, rather than to really challenge conventional wisdom.   Media coverage of any technical issue involving science or statistics or economics is often awful, in large part because journalism is too often the default educational path of folks who want to avoid numbers.  Any time I have been on the inside of some issue receiving coverage, I have generally been astounded by how little the print descriptions matched reality.  Now that I am interviewed more as a source for articles, I never think my views are well-quoted (though that may be my fault for not talking in sound bites).  And, like many, I get irritated that the media's arrogance and self-referential reporting seems to increase in direct proportion to their drop in circulation.

All that being said, the world without healthy newspapers is a bad thing. 

First, we bloggers can blather on all day about being the new media, but with the exception of a few folks like Radley Balko, we're all editorial writers, not reporters  (I consider my role at Climate-Skeptic.com to be more like journalism, but only because there is such a glaring hole on that topic in traditional media).  I couldn't do what I do here, at least on this particular blog, without the New York Times and the Washington Post.  I'm a remora feeding on their scraps.  I can't bring down the big fish by myself, I can only feed on the bits they miss.

Second, and perhaps more important in this world of proposed reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine, print media is the mode of speech best protected by the First Ammendment.  This isn't the way it should be -- all speech should be equal -- but in reality goofy regulatory regimes for radio, TV, and even the Internet all offer the government leverage points for speech control they don't have with the print media.  It's why half the dystopic sci fi novels out there have a world dominated by TV -- because that is where government has the most control of speech.

So here's hoping you guys at the NY Times get your act together.

Exactly

Sometimes I snap at someone for their criticism of a particular politician.  Typically, they assume I am doing so because I support that politician.  But in reality, I am using just sick of the implication that somehow other politicians would have been much better.  I absolutely agree with Don Boudreaux's comment:

Fareed Zakaria (author of a truly fine book and columnist for the
Washington Post) rightly argues that Sarah Palin is unqualified to be
president of the United States (and, hence, by extension, unqualified
to be V-P). Mr. Zakaria is correct that Gov. Palin's recent answer to a
question about the economy "is nonsense - a vapid emptying out of every
catchphrase about economics that came into her head." He's correct also
that she's unfit to be entrusted with the power of the modern
presidency.

But Mr. Zakaria is incorrect to suppose that these traits separate
Gov. Palin from other candidates for high political office. Calls by
Senators McCain and Obama for cracking down on "speculators" are full
of classic and wrongheaded catchphrases, as is Sen. Obama's vocal
skepticism about free trade. Gov. Palin is merely less skilled in
passing off inanities and claptrap as profundities.

Numbers in the Media Are Almost Meaningless

Every time I dig into numbers in a media report, I typically find a real mess.  Russell Roberts finds the situation even worse than average in the recent Washington Post article on middle class finances.

The debt figure of $55,000 in 2004 (which supposedly is 151% higher
than in 1989 to pay for day-to-day expenses) is actually ALL forms of
debt INCLUDING mortgage debt. So how can that be? How can the median
family have only $55,000 of all kinds of debt when there's $95,000 of
mortgage debt all by itself?

That's because each line of the chart (other than the top line and
the bottom line) is a subset of all families and a different subset.

So among families that have mortgage debt (maybe 40-50% of all
families) the median mortgage debt among those families is $95,000.

But among families that have any kind of debt, (about 3/4 of all families) the median indebtednes including all kinds of debt
is $55,000. That includes mortgages debt....

So you can't add up any of the lines of the chart or even compare
them to each other. They're each for a different subset of the
population, the population who have that kind of debt or asset.

More on Public School Spending

Bill Steigerwald has a great editorial in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review dissecting per-pupil public school spending in Pittsburgh.  Generally, when I quote media articles about school spending, I have to do what should be the obvious analyses myself (as with this pathetic Washington Post piece on school spending).  However, this would be totally redundant for Steigerwald's column.  I encourage you to read it all, but here are some highlights for Pittsburgh schools:

  • Per pupil spending in the public schools is $18,719
  • Quality private schools in Pittsburgh charge from $7,000 to an elite level at $19,500.  Humorously, just over $12,000 will get you a year at the University of Pittsburgh
  • Barely half of this spending goes towards the classroom.  The rest, presumably, goes to funding a probably enormous corps of vice-principals.  (If you ever are at a school board meeting that allows public comment or Q&A, ask how many vice-principals they have in their system).  In Pittsburgh, administrative costs are 72.5% of teacher salary costs, meaning there are likely about 3 administrators for every 4 teachers.  Ugh.
  • Teachers make $86,000 in salary and benefits, or $114,667 if you adjust for the fact they only work 9 months of the year.  Kind of obviates the "teachers are underpaid" myth.

The only other thing I would have called the schools out on is their defense that they have to pay transportation, administration, and debt service out of these costs, as if somehow this made their numbers non-comparable to private benchmarks.  So what?  Do you think my kid's private school evades these costs somehow?  Their school charges about $6,500 for middle school, and they make a profit on this (and do not get any donations).  I am pretty sure they also have to pay for administration of multiple schools (they have a network of 5 schools) and for debt service on the capital costs to build the schools in the first place.  Our schools don't have transportation, but many other private schools do.

Irony Alert

Over at Climate Skeptic, I take a quick look at the most recent Gavin Schmidt PR piece in the Washington Post, claiming that 2007 was, you know, really hot.

But I wanted to share two funny bits with you.  First, from the climate crowd who claims to have their science so buttoned down that we skeptics should not even be allowed to talk about it any more, comes this:

Taking into account the new data, they said, seven of the eight
warmest years on record have occurred since 2001

What new data?  That another YEAR had been discovered?  Because when
I count on my own fingers, I only can come up with 6 years since 2001.

Second, comes this bit of irony:  There are many reasons why satellites gives us a potentially better measure for world temperatures than surface temperature instruments.  They give us full global coverage (except the poles) and are free of urban and other biases.  So I have always wondered if the only reason that climate scientists defend the surface temperature record over satellites is merely because they don't like the answer satellites are giving (they show less warming than do surface temperature records).

But here is the irony:  The person who is arguably the strongest defender of land-based measurement over satellites, and who maintains what neutral observers feel is the most upwardly-biased surface temperature record, is Gavin Schmidt, who is ... wait for it ... head of the Goddard Institute of Space Studies at NASA.

Congress: We Can't Stop Ourselves From Doing Harm

From the Washington Post, via Tom Nelson, comes a nice summary of the consequences of Congress's addiction to ethanol mandates and subsidies.  The last sentence in particular is one I have warned about for a while on this issue.

To be sure, some farmers in these countries benefit from higher prices.
But many poor countries -- including most in sub-Saharan Africa -- are
net grain importers, says the International Food Policy Research
Institute, a Washington-based think tank. In some of these countries, the poorest of the poor spend 70 percent or more of their budgets on food.
About a third of the population of sub-Saharan Africa is
undernourished, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of
the United Nations. That proportion has barely changed since the early
1990s. High food prices make gains harder.
...
It's
the extra demand for grains to make biofuels, spurred heavily in the
United States by government tax subsidies and fuel mandates, that has
pushed prices dramatically higher
. The Economist rightly calls
these U.S. government subsidies "reckless." Since 2000, the share of
the U.S. corn crop devoted to ethanol production has increased from
about 6 percent to about 25 percent -- and is still headed up.
...
This
is not a case of unintended consequences. A new generation of
"cellulosic" fuels (made from grasses, crop residue or wood chips)
might deliver benefits, but the adverse effects of corn-based ethanol
were widely anticipated. Government subsidies reflect the careless and
cynical manipulation of worthy public goals for selfish ends. That the
new farm bill may expand the ethanol mandates confirms an old lesson:
Having embraced a giveaway, politicians cannot stop it, no matter how
dubious.

Why Campaign Spending Will Continue to Rise

Because the government has put itself in the job of redistributor-in-chief, and there is just too high of a financial return from influencing who are to be the beneficiaries, and who are to be the sacrificial lambs.  This is particularly the case when Congress can aim dollars at a small group who will give back generously in return, and where the costs are dispersed across large numbers of people, generally consumers or taxpayers or both:

Dan Morgan has another excellent Washington Post report
on our tangled web of farm subsidies, tariffs, government purchases,
and so on. This time he examines the sugar industry's political
contributions"“"more than 900 separate contributions totaling nearly
$1.5 million to candidates, parties and political funds" in 2007 alone.
Most of the money went to Democrats, apparently, which might explain
why Democrats opposed more strongly than Republicans an amendment
to strike the sugar subsidy provisions from the bill. Morgan delights
in pointing out members of Congress such as Rep. Carolyn Maloney of
Queens and Manhattan and Rep. Steven Rothman of bucolic Hackensack and
Fort Lee, New Jersey, who received funds from the sugar magnates and
voted to protect their subsidies despite the fact that they would seem
to have more sugar consumers than sugar growers in their districts....

So $1.5 million is a lot of money, and it seems to have done the trick.
But . . . is it really so much money? According to Morgan, the sugar
provisions in the farm bill are worth $1 billion over 10 years. That's
a huge return on investment. In what other way could a business invest
$1.5 million to reap $1 billion?

The real campaign finance reform that is needed is to get the government out of the business of naming winners and losers.

Update:  More on the sugar fiasco here.

Under the current system, the government guarantees a price floor for
sugar and limits the sugar supply "” placing quotas on domestic
production and quotas and tariffs to limit imports. According to the
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, sugar supports
cost American consumers "” who pay double the average world price "” more
than $1.5 billion a year. The system also bars farmers in some of the
poorest countries of the world from selling their sugar here.

The North American Free Trade Agreement is about to topple this
cozy arrangement. Next year, Mexican sugar will be allowed to enter the
United States free of any quotas or duties, threatening a flood of
imports. Rather than taking the opportunity to untangle the sugar
program in this year's farm bill, Congress has decided to bolster the
old system.

Both the House bill, which was passed in July, and the Senate
version, which could be voted on as early as this week, guarantee that
the government will buy from American farmers an amount of sugar
equivalent to 85 percent of domestic consumption "” regardless of how
much comes in from abroad. To add insult to injury, both also increase
the longstanding price guarantee for sugar.

The bills encourage the government to operate the program at no cost
to the budget, by selling the surplus sugar to the ethanol industry.
That's not likely. Ethanol makers will never accept paying anywhere
near sugar's guaranteed price. According to rough estimates from the
Congressional Budget Office, supports for sugar in the House bill could
cost taxpayers from $750 million to $850 million over the next five
years.

Definition of an Activist

Activist:  A person who believes so strongly that a problem needs to be remedied that she dedicates substantial time to ... getting other people to fix the problem.   It used to be that activists sought voluntary help for their pet problem, and thus retained some semblance of honor.  However, our self-styled elite became frustrated at some point in the past that despite their Ivy League masters degrees in sociology, other people did not seem to respect their ideas nor were they particularly interested in the activist's pet issues.  So activists sought out the double shortcut of spending their time not solving the problem themselves, and not convincing other people to help, but convincing the government it should compel others to fix the supposed problem.  This fascism of good intentions usually consists of government taking money from the populace to throw at the activist's issue, but can also take the form of government-compelled labor and/or government limitations on choice.

I began this post yesterday, with the introduction above, ready to take on this barf-inducing article in the Washington Post titled " Fulfillment Elusive for Young Altruists In the Crowded Field of Public Interest."  Gee, who would have thought it difficult for a twenty-something with no real job experience to get someone like me to pay you to lobby the government to force me to pay for your personal goals for the world?

Fortunately, since it is a drop-dead gorgeous day outside, TJIC has already done the detail work of ripping this article apart.  Here is one snippet, you should read the whole thing:

So the best they can imagine doing is "advocating".

Here's a hint: maybe the reason that your "sense of adulthood"
is "sapped" is because you haven't been doing anything at all adult.

Adults accomplish things.

They do not bounce around a meaningless series of do-nothing graduate programs, NGOs, and the sophisticated social scene in DC.

If you want to help the poor in Africa, go over there, find
some product they make that could sell here, and start importing it.
Create a market. Drive up the demand for their output.

Or find a bank that's doing micro-finance.

Or become a travel writer, to increase the demand for photography safaris, which would pump more dollars into the region.

Or design a better propane refrigerator, to make the lives of the African poor better....

One thing that disgusts me about "wannabe world changers" is that
mortaring together a few bricks almost always is beneath them - they're
more interested in writing a document about how to lobby the government
to fund a new appropriate-technology brick factory.

Special mutual admiration bonus-points are herein scored by my quoting TJIC's article that quotes me quoting TJIC.

I will add one thing:  I have to lay a lot of this failure on universities like my own.  Having made students jump through unbelievable hoops just to get admitted, and then having charged them $60,000 a year for tuition, universities feel like they need to make students feel better about this investment.   Universities have convinced their graduates that public pursuits are morally superior to grubby old corporate jobs (that actually require, you know, real work), and then have further convinced them that they are ready to change to world and be leaders at 22.  Each and every one of them graduate convinced they have something important to say and that the world is kneeling at their feet to hear it.  But who the f*ck cares what a 22-year-old with an Ivy League politics degree has to say?  Who in heavens name listened to Lincoln or Churchill in their early twenties?  It's a false expectation.  The Ivy League is training young people for, and in fact encouraging them to pursue, a job (ie 22-year-old to whom we all happily defer to tell us what to do) that simply does not exist.  A few NGO's and similar organizations offer a few positions that pretend to be this job, but these are more in the nature of charitable make-work positions to help Harvard Kennedy School graduates with their self-esteem, kind of like basket-weaving for mental patients.

So what is being done to provide more pretend-you-are-making-an-impact-while-drawing-a-salary-and-not-doing-any-real-work jobs for over-educated twenty-something Ivy League international affairs majors?  Not enough:

Chief executives for NGOs, Wallace said, have told her: "Well, yeah, if
we had the money, we'd be doing more. We can never hire as many as we
want to hire." Wallace said her organization drew more than 100
applicants for a policy associate position. "The industry really needs
to look at how to provide more avenues for young, educated people," she
said.

Excuses, excuses.  We are not doing enough for these young adults.  I think the government should do something about it!

Update:  Oh my God, a fabulous example illustrating exactly what universities are doing to promote this mindset is being provided by the University of Delaware.  See the details here.

It's OK to be Scared. Just Tell Us.

I agree with Eugene Volokh when he observes that the Opus comic rejected by the Washington Post is pretty dang tame.  I found the cartoon to be poking fun more at men and male attitudes than at Islam.  I don't think there is any way the Post can argue now that their editorial policy is symmetric across all religions.  They are tiptoeing around Islam in a way they never would with Judaism or Christianity.  If they are scared of violent reprisals, they should just say so. 

Stop Right There or I Will Shoot Myself!

Via the Washington Post:

It has become a Capitol Hill ritual: A few senators, always including the New York Democrat Charles E. Schumer, introduce a bill to punish China
if its leaders do not raise the value of the nation's currency. Photos
are taken, news releases are issued, but nothing really happens.

This
year, the atmosphere on the Hill is markedly different. Powerful
senators from both sides of the aisle, Schumer among them, are pushing
two bills that threaten retaliatory action if China does not budge. For
the first time, the idea is gaining broad support. The bills are moving
swiftly through the Senate, and many analysts expect one will pass.

If the bill's authors are successful, the effect at a minimum will be to raise consumer prices in the United States and lower them for Chinese citizens.  So we are going to "punish" China by making our own citizens pay higher prices.  How does this make any sense?  Also, in the process, let's make sure we reduce the capacity of China to buy US government debt, which to this point has been reducing the cost of the Federal budget deficit.

Tyler Cowen argues this is the best we can expect -- the worst is a substantial debalization in the Chinese economy... and ours.  I wrote much more on continuing to allow the Chinese government to subsidize American consumers here.

National Security Letters

From the beginning, national security letters had to end badly.  One only has to understand incentives to know that things were going to go off the rails.  Specifically, national security letters are an easy way to for investigators to short-circuit a lot of procedural steps, including review and approval of warrants by judges, steps that have been put in place for a real Constitutional purpose.  Anyone who is at all familiar with the operation of any government bureaucracy had to know that their use would steadily grow well outside the narrow bounds of urgent national security issues.  Anytime government employees can grow their power without supervision or accountability, they will tend to do so.  What absolutely guaranteed that this would happen, and sooner rather than later, was the legal non-disclosure requirements around these letters that prevents anyone from discussing, investigation, or discovering their abuse and misuse.

The Washington Post carries a great anonymous editorial from one person served with such a letter:

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....

Without the gag orders issued on recipients of the letters, it is
doubtful that the FBI would have been able to abuse the NSL power the
way that it did. Some recipients would have spoken out about perceived
abuses, and the FBI's actions would have been subject to some degree of
public scrutiny. To be sure, not all recipients would have spoken out;
the inspector general's report suggests that large telecom companies
have been all too willing to share sensitive data with the agency -- in
at least one case, a telecom company gave the FBI even more information
than it asked for. But some recipients would have called attention to
abuses, and some abuse would have been deterred.

I found it
particularly difficult to be silent about my concerns while Congress
was debating the reauthorization of the Patriot Act in 2005 and early
2006. If I hadn't been under a gag order, I would have contacted
members of Congress to discuss my experiences and to advocate changes
in the law.

Tim Lynch makes a point about the national security letters I found intriguing and that has not been discussed very often, that the letters represent effect conscription of ordinary citizens into an intelligence or even big brother role.  The author of the WaPo editorial makes the same point:

I resent being conscripted as a secret informer for the government and
being made to mislead those who are close to me, especially because I
have doubts about the legitimacy of the underlying investigation.