Saturday, May 31, 2008

The NYT preaches to the choir

The NYT has an editorial today about industrial farming called "The Worst Way of Farming." While I generally agree with the gist of the editorial – that industrial farming is not efficient and is a bad idea – I think the way they authors go about making their point is a bit bizarre. Since the NYT is a liberal paper, and its readers are generally wont to agree with calls for regulation, centering the editorial around a call for environmental regulations and heavy-handed mandates seems too much like preaching to the choir. The editors ought to be promoting, first and foremost, market-enhancing reforms before encouraging further regulations. While the article suggests that government distortions in the markets for water and animal feed encourage this type of farming, the editors don't mention it more than once, and don't make it explicitly clear that a part of solving the problem is to reintroduce market competition into the farm sector. This would be much more palatable to the general public, which is (I would suppose) much less warm to the statist policies that the NYT concludes at the end are necessary. Rather than backing an idea that only statist liberals could get behind, why not center the piece on a call for dismantling the barriers to free enterprise that currently exist? That way, neither Democrats nor Republicans could credibly disagree.

This is something that's relevant not just to the issue of farming, but to every issue: an issue whose main constituency is the left would do itself huge favors by focusing on arguments that appeal to right-wingers.

Markets in everything: graveyard edition

This ought to make a nice addition to the Markets in Everything series. From Radio Free Europe (yes, it still exists!), an article about markets in information about mass graves in the former Yugoslavia:

Already from the first days and weeks of the conflict in 1992, individuals sought to obtain money by providing information about the locations of prisoners and detainees. Some people offered to arrange prisoner exchanges or releases in exchange for payment. The practice continued into the postwar era, when individuals from all three ethnic groups offered information about mass graves and other burial sites for profit. About 12,000 victims of the conflict remain unaccounted for. [...]

Bogdanic argued that few people in possession of information about mass graves or the remains of individuals are willing to tell what they know out of human decency, but want some form of compensation instead. The demands, he added, vary greatly.

Predictably, there's someone stepping in crying foul, and but at least he admits that what he proposes is against the wishes of those he's trying to help:

Accordingly, Bogdanic believes it is necessary to establish regulations to set boundaries for payments for such information and involve government institutions in the process. He noted, however, that victims' families tend to reject that idea, presumably because they fear that regulating the sale of information would deter individuals from coming forward and telling what they know.

And how accurate is the information?

Karabasic noted that the information offered usually proves accurate. The sellers are clearly from the area and can identify the victims by first and last names.

Voltaire: a detriment to public health, safety, and welfare

Robert Darnton has an article in the New York Review of Books about the history of written information, and in it he discusses textual stability and the weak de facto intellectual property rights of authors. Apparently, even the best engaged in and profited from what America's two biggest cities say is "detrimental to the public health, safety, and welfare":

The most widely diffused edition of Diderot's Encyclopédie in eighteenth-century France contained hundreds of pages that did not exist in the original edition. Its editor was a clergyman who padded the text with excerpts from a sermon by his bishop in order to win the bishop's patronage. Voltaire considered the Encyclopédie so imperfect that he designed his last great work, Questions sur l'Encyclopédie, as a nine-volume sequel to it. In order to spice up his text and to increase its diffusion, he collaborated with pirates behind the back of his own publisher, adding passages to the pirated editions.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Toothless measures

What's the point in seizing something that a person can legally buy in any supermarket or kitchen supply store?

The kitchen knife is the most common weapon used in teenage stabbings, Sir Ian Blair said today, as he revealed that close to 200 weapons have been seized since officers stepped up stop and search measures in response to a spate of recent knife crime.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Black Philadelphia and the Prophet's Arabia

I was listening to All Things Considered on NPR today, and they were playing the second part of a piece about polygamy in Islam in America. It was about the increased occurence of polygamy amongst black American converts to Islam. It was a fascinating piece, and included this interesting parallel between seventh century Arabia and modern-day black inner-city neighborhoods:

Abdullah, the imam, has conducted religious ceremonies for a dozen polygamous marriages.

Abdullah says polygamy in Islam dates back to the 7th century, when battles were killing off Muslim men and leaving widows and children unprotected. [...]

The single women at the mosque say polygamy is a fact of life. But it's not their first choice.

"Every woman has a preference to be the sole wife," says Aliya, echoing the sentiments of the others. Aliya is a 28-year-old single woman who is finishing up a master's degree. She says that South Philadelphia in the 21st century is a little like Arabia in the 7th century. There is a dearth of men to marry.

"We're dealing with brothers who are incarcerated — that is, unavailable," she says. "And then unfortunately, you have the AIDS and HIV crisis, where HIV has struck the African-American community disproportionately to others. So when you look at it that way, there is a shortage."

High energy prices beget war, or is it the other way around?

At Human Events, Venezuela dissident Gustavo Coronel has an article up about energy and security that, in my opinion, has a bit of a weird perspective. First of all, the author starts off by saying that "[s]omebody seems to have cut Adam Smith’s invisible hand, at least in what pertains to the market dynamics of the international oil industry." Well, of course – the vast majority of the world's fossil fuels are in the hands of state corporations, and you can't expect state corporations to act as profit-maximizers in the same way that private entities do.

Then he goes on to discuss the intersection between tight energy supply and deteriorating security conditions among oil-producing nations, and concludes that these worsening security conditions are a result of high oil prices. But that seems a little backwards to me, especially given the factors that he lists in the upward climb of energy prices. Among them are Iran's nuclear ambitions, Chávez's increasing pariah status, and Saudi Arabia's flagging support of the US. But these are the causes of high energy prices, not the results. It's sad to me that even ultra-conservative publications like Human Events don't see Russia's hand in all three trends. But I suppose it's part of the broader post-Cold War trend of conservatives easing up on their criticism of the Eurasian empire, with the notable exception of John McCain. (Though I often ask myself whether Russian anti-American posturing isn't a sort of provocation, and if the Russian hawks aren't playing right into the Kremlin's hands.)

American steel makes a comeback

According to the WaPo, steel is experiencing a resurgence in America. On the back of the declining dollar, skyrocketing demand overseas, and leaner plants, Amex's steel index has grown by 50% annually for the past half-decade. The Post also mentions that organized labor's diminished role at the plants might have something to do with American steel's competitiveness:

Part of the credit for steel's rebirth goes to the pragmatism of the United Steelworkers. The union become a supporter of mill consolidations, agreed to more job flexibility in labor contracts and went along with a move to replace guaranteed pensions with defined-contribution plans. The union was able to extract agreements from owners to streamline companies' management ranks and set aside a share of profits to fund health-care and prescription drug plans for retirees and their families who had lost them in the wave of bankruptcies. [...]

The mills themselves emerged much leaner and more technologically advanced, allowing many fewer workers to make roughly the same amount of steel.

Back in the 1970s, there were more than 500,000 steel workers in the United States, a number that has been reduced by more than two-thirds, even as the number of workers has edged up in recent years, according to the American Iron and Steel Institute. The amount of labor required to manufacture a ton of steel has gone from roughly 12 man-hours to about 1.2, analysts say. Steel workers continue to be well paid, union officials say, earning $65,000 a year or more, when incentive pay, profit sharing and a modest amount of overtime are included.

"Labor has become much less of a factor in the cost of steel," Rhody said. "That particular part of the equation has equalized, making domestic steel much more competitive."

Astute recent historians might remember that Bush slapped some tariffs on steel in 2002, but those restrictions were lifted by 2003. However, the Post article doesn't mention the voluntary export restraints that China placed on its steel industry, which likely boosted the ability of American firms to sell their steel on world markets. I'm not sure what the extent of these barriers were, or if they're still in place.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Fraud at the Pentagon

Though the US military's budget has doubled since 2000 to more than $600 billion annually, the amount of auditors checking for fraud and abuse has stayed essentially flat, says Wired. Over $150 billion each year goes unaudited, and each auditor is responsible for reviewing the mind-bogglingly high amount of over $2 billion per year. From the article:

Crime – and even threats to national security – have also been allowed to flourish, thanks to the staffing shortages. Working with other agencies, the DOD IG's criminal investigators have brought in "770 criminal indictments, 644 convictions, and over $3.14 billion in criminal, civil, and administrative recoveries." But many other incidents are going unchecked. "Technology/Munitions theft and diversion crimes cannot be adequately investigated allowing these items to fall into the hands of those that would do the United States harm," according to the report.

"There have been massive holes in oversight for years, and in these shadows, criminals have been ripping off taxpayers and depriving our soldiers by wasting and stealing money and supplying defective equipment," Project on Government Oversight investigator Nick Schwellenbach tells Danger Room.

The DOD IG's office has certainly stayed busy. In just the last few months, the DOD IG caught a Philippine corporation bilking $100 million from the military health care system; nabbed a trio trying to bribe their way into drinking water contracts for troops; busted an Air Force general who tried to steer a $50 million deal to his buddies; and launched investigations into the Pentagon's propaganda projects and the youthful arms-dealer who sold tens of millions of dollars' worth of dud ammunition to the government.

Feds crack down on victimless rental crimes

This article from the Houston Chronicle highlights exactly the reason I don't have a problem with illegal immigration: it's entirely voluntary. People voluntarily come, people voluntarily rent out properties to immigrants, and people voluntary hire immigrants. People obviously also voluntarily sell food, clothing, and myriad other products to immigrants. The only thing involuntary that immigrants engage in is using the benefits of the welfare state (public schools and occasionally emergency rooms, mostly), but anyone who argues against [illegal] immigration on the basis of the welfare benefits they could receive ought to direct their ire at the welfare state itself, not the immigrants who are taking advantage of it. As Milton Friedman once said, "you can't have free immigration and a welfare state."

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Teenager solves never-decomposing plastic dilemma

From Wired, "Teen Decomposes Plastic Bag in Three Months":

The Record reports that Burd mixed landfill dirt with yeast and tap water, then added ground plastic and let it stew. The plastic indeed decomposed more quickly than it would in nature; after experimenting with different temperatures and configurations, Burd isolated the microbial munchers. One came from the bacterial genus Pseudomonas, and the other from the genus Sphingomonas.

Burd says this should be easy on an industrial scale: all that's needed is a fermenter, a growth medium and plastic, and the bacteria themselves provide most of the energy by producing heat as they eat. The only waste is water and a bit of carbon dioxide.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Florida legalizes cheap healthcare

Both houses of the Florida legislature have passed a bill allowing for the creation of bare-bones healthcare plans, which begs the question: why in the hell wasn't this allowed before?? The key provision in the bill is one that allows insurance providers to make available plans that don't cover the whole battery of possible ailments: "To make the policies affordable, Florida will allow insurers to offer policies that do not include many of the 52 services that standard policies must currently cover, like acupuncture and podiatry." The goal is that these plans will sell for under $150/month.

Of course, that doesn't mean regulators and legislators sat on their hands and are going to let these insurance companies sell any plan they want to anyone who's willing to buy it. The plans will still have to cover "preventive services, office visits, screenings, surgery, prescription drugs, durable medical equipment and diabetes supplies," and companies are not allowed to discriminate in their offerings with regards to health and age. In addition, the plans will only be available to Floridians who have been uninsured for six months and are not eligible for public insurance – because, God forbid, we wouldn't want poor people voluntarily going off the public dole and engaging in voluntary commerce!

According to the NYT article, this idea has been tried in a handful of states, but the plans haven't proven very popular with consumers. Sherry Glied at Columbia says that people "are only somewhat responsive to the price of health insurance," but I think a more accurate statement would be that people are only somewhat responsive to price under current conditions. Health insurance – especially for things other than accidents and uncommon health problems – might very well not even exist if medicine and healthcare were left up to the market, given that healthcare isn't something that one would normally expect to be paid for through insurance. It's rarely totally unexpected, it's often recurring (diabetes medication, for example), and most interactions with healthcare professionals are for rather mundane and easily diagnosable and treatable ailments.

It's a wonder that pundits still claim that America has a free-market healthcare system when the government serves 45% of the market, with the rest still heavily regulated.

Math in the social sciences

The use of mathematics in economics has expanded greatly in the last century – algebra has come to dominate economic journals, and according to NYU professor Mario Rizzo, "[c]ontemporary economics has become a branch of applied mathematics." Some economists have criticized this formalism, arguing that complicated models are useless if they are only good for describing an economy in an ex-post facto nature. But anyway, in this context, it shouldn't surprise anyone that this sort of mathematical formalism has crept into other fields, such as urban planning. In his monograph Zoned Out: Regulation, Markets, and Choices in Transportation and Metropolitan Land-Use, Jonathan Levine criticizes the mathematical orientation of land use and transportation planners:

An early research approach to the impact of metropolitan form on travel behavior was based on linear programming methods. The analyses defined as their objective some minimization of travel requirements under various land-use configurations to simulate the sensitivity of travel demand to those alternatives. [...] The reader gets the feeling that rather than believing that such central control could actually be exerted, researchers were driven to these questions primarily by their linear programming methodology, and any link from research to policy and practice appears to be somewhat of an afterthought.

I'm not dissing mathematics, but I have to agree that a lot of formalism in social science models is considerably more advanced than the data and assumptions researchers can make. While the social sciences are no doubt based ultimately in the physical sciences – there is no psychology outside of impulses in the brain and the physical ordering of matter (see this xkcd comic) – extending such mathematical methods to scenarios in which you can't possibly hope to quantify enough variables or design a good enough model seems to be a waste of time.

Today in history

From Wired, today's the 25th anniversary of ethernet. Developed by Bob Metcalfe at the venerable Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, the design was patented shortly after its implementation. However, Metcalfe was able to convince the funders of the project – Xerox, DEC, and Intel – to allow it to become an open standard, and thus the non-proprietary standard triumphed over IBM's Token Ring and GM's Token Bus. Ethernet was at first limited to networks in offices, universities, and research centers, but it entered America's hearts and homes when broadband became popular about a decade ago. Its use will wane eventually, though, with the further development of wireless technology. Anyway, on this day, just be thankful that these companies forfeited their government-granted monopoly.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

How I learned to stop worrying and love the libertarian artificial island utopia

Wired has been all over a theme that I thought was a little fantastical, but I'm now reconsidering: seasteading! The idea is that using the traditionally stateless open sea as a launching point for a new political system would be easier than co-opting an existing country or system. The brainchild of the project is Patri Friedman (son of anarcho-capitalist David Friedman, and grandson of über-economist Milton Friedman), and the funder is libertarian venture capitalist Peter Thiel. The Wired article delves into the economics of the idea, citing some figures of costs for oil rigs as an analog to the costs of establishing what's essentially an artificial island. Thiel's funding isn't massive (just a half million), but the project and the newly-established Seasteading Institute have received a lot of publicity. I'm still not totally sold on the idea, but the discussion is certainly a good thing for libertarianism.

Private companies receive 70% of intelligence money

In keeping with the defense contractors theme, about a week ago I heard an interview on NPR with Tim Shorrock, author of the book Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing. In it, he cites a fantastic figure as the percentage of intelligence spending that's doled out to the "private" sector (as if state intelligence and espionage could be considered a market-driven industry):

What happened at Abu Ghraib, and CACI's refusal to discuss it, stands as a kind of high-water mark for intelligence contracting. In 2006, the year Humphrey delivered his comments, the cost of America's spying and surveillance activities outsourced to contractors reached $42 billion, or about 70 percent of the estimated $60 billion the government spends every year on foreign and domestic intelligence. Unfortunately, we cannot know the true extent of outsourcing, for two reasons. First, in 2007, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) refused to release an internal report on contracting out of fear that its disclosure would harm U.S. national security interests. Second, most intelligence contracts are classified, allowing companies like CACI to hide their activities behind a veil of secrecy.

What this actually is is a sort of retirement plan for intelligence officers: working in the private sector requires a security clearance, which is easiest to have if you've already worked for the government and already posses one – it's a revolving door between government and industry, and of course the private sector pays more. According to the interview, most of the contractors are former government employees. I did a little more research, and apparently this isn't even a new revelation – Salon published an article citing the 70% figure a year ago. I'm just surprised that the figure doesn't get more play in the media.

Available wherever military-grade weapons and services are sold

I've wondered before why government contractors like Raytheon and BAE advertise: they aren't selling products to consumers, and theoretically the people making purchasing decisions aren't going to base contracts worth billions of dollars on 30-second TV ads. But I think I've found the answer: in case any of their deals come under public scrutiny. Essentially, it's a PR hedge against unflattering information surfacing in the media. The ads both soften up the public, and – I would assume – make media bosses think twice before digging up dirt on their advertisers.

Good Housekeeping against the FDA

From Amity Shlaes' The Forgotten Man, here's an excerpt on page 195 of the hardcover version about Rex Tugwell – an important Brain Truster – and the strengthening of the American regulatory state:

Tugwell had spent the year fighting, with FDR's support, for a radical updating of the old Food and Drug legislation, the idea being to regulate more thoroughly from Washington "the purveyors of doubtful nostrums and unregulated foods," as he put it later. Others however saw his effort as an outrageous theft of a function normally provided by the private sector – quality control. At one point Eleanor Roosevelt, who herself had a sense of humor, invited Rex to lunch. The lady seated next to him, Tugwell would later report, "turned out to be one of the editors of Good Housekeeping, a magazine that offered to approved products something known as the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval." Tugwell commented that "the lady in question was very high and mighty." The guest from the magazine spoke angrily to Tugwell – probably more so than Mrs. Roosevelt had intended. But "the situation was saved," Tugwell concluded later, "in a most unexpected way: an awkward waiter spilled a bowl of tomato soup in my lap and I was able to withdraw without dishonor." Nonetheless, the event stuck with Tugwell: still an idealist, he could not see why the Good Housekeeping lady had been so angry.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Mexicans threaten American way of life

On NPR today was an interview with Joe Matthews, who recently wrote a piece for the Washington Post in which he made a startling discovery: Spanish-language news in Los Angeles is undoubtedly better and more serious than its English-language counterparts. The article details the news one night on an English-language station – the usual local news fluff – and then gave a minute-by-minute run-down of the content on a Spanish-language station, and the difference was clear:

"There's no comparison in the coverage," says Josh Kun, a communications professor at the University of Southern California who closely follows Spanish TV. "For people here, there are two places to look for better news: BBC News and Spanish-language news."

The one catch is that Spanish-language TV is more biased, mostly with issues regarding immigration:

The two stations' immigration coverage is deeply sympathetic to undocumented immigrants, with on-air reporters encouraging viewers to join national immigration rallies. Macin, the KMEX general manager, notes that her station's philosophy is "a su lado" (on your side).

This seems like a pretty minor issue, considering the complacent and blatantly biased journalism that passes for news in the media these days.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Road building and the Great Depression

I was reading today a book on the history of roads in 20th century America called The Geography of Nowhere. I was a bit disappointed in the book itself – I was looking for a more detailed treatment of the funding and scope of government road projects – but I came across this interesting bit about road expenditures before the Great Depression: "A commission under President Hoover concluded that the automobile was the 'most potent influence' on the rise of local taxes between 1913 and 1930." This caught my eye because according to Amity Schlaes' The Forgotten Man, property taxes were the most difficult tax for Americans to pay during the Great Depression. In a time before the widespread adoption of income and sales taxes, property taxes made up the lion's share of local government revenues: two-thirds of all revenue according to Dick Netzer, and over 90% of all taxes levied in cities of more than 30,000 according to David Beito.

Because this was in an era before politicians recognized the incremental wisdom in at least pretending to fund roads with user fees, this run-up in taxes was part of a larger trend of the pre-WWII era: property owners and renters were subsidizing roads for the benefit of the wealthy. Real estate developers who ran private forms of mass transit (mostly streetcars) and who were in direct competition with government-financed roads were some of the biggest payers of taxes, which makes the transfer especially ironic. I'd known that road construction was a big driver of industry and commerce in the first half of the twentieth century, but I hadn't realized the exacerbating effect those costs had during the Great Depression.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Competitive bidding, with a congressional touch

The Philadelphia Inquirer today printed an entirely uncritical story on Lockheed Martin's latest coup: winning a $1.46 billion contract from the federal government to build new, more precise GPS satellites. Of course, being a local paper, the Inquirer highlights mainly the economic boon that the project will be to the region. It unflinchingly reports that US Rep. Patrick Murphy "worked to steer the project to his district as a member of the House Armed Services Committee," without mentioning the paradox of putting a contract up for competitive bidding and then having a member of a powerful House committee "steer the project to his district." 30% of the project will be completed in Lockheed Martin's facility Bucks County, and an unspecific portion will be built on Lockheed Martin's campus in King of Prussia – both in the suburbs of Philadelphia. I wonder why the 30% number for Bucks County was disclosed, but not the amount to be manufactured in King of Prussia? And why the Bucks County facility was so quick to remind the media that the jumbo-sized contract would create 400 or 500* new jobs? It just might have something to do with the fact that Democrat Patrick Murphy represents Bucks County in the US House!

* In case you were under the impression that Philadelphia had serious media organizations, think again: a very short article in the Philadelphia Business Journal says in the headline that the "[c]ontract will add 400 jobs to Lockheed Martin's Newtown plant," while in the article stating that "[w]inning the contract will mean the addition of 500 jobs." There is no explanation of the discrepancy, though the difference could be made up in facilities other than the one in Newtown Square.

They're wrecking marriage!

Who saw that coming? That's something I think pretty often when I hear about controversial court cases: why don't you hear about them before the rulings come out? (And why are there such notable exceptions?) Anyway, California took the plunge and its Supreme Court judges, not unlike every other day of the year, made a subjective judgment and dressed it up as legally sanctioned. Not that I'm saying that gay marriage isn't guaranteed by the Constitution – just that we should stop pretending like decisions made by the judicial branch are in any way inevitable and impartial.

Anti-gay marriage legal firm spokesman comes out and says it: those fucking liberals are "wrecking marriage"! I wonder: will this drive the conservatives to go the libertarian route and do away with state-sanctioned marriage altogether?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Millionaire corn farmers of the world, unite!

For all the farmer couples out there earning earning $2 million a year, never fear: you're still getting your subsidies! In case there was any doubt, the latest incarnation of the farm bill passed the Senate with flying colors (only fifteen senators had the common sense to vote against it). Though Bush promised to veto the bill (a rare moment of sanity), the point is moot, given that the bill passed both the House and Senate with enough votes to override a veto.

And how do the presidential candidates compare on this issue? The SF Gate has no love for Obama on the issue:

Democratic presidential contender Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, who has based his campaign on a promise to end special-interest politics in Washington, issued a statement praising the farm bill, which is laden with special-interest subsidies. Obama said the bill will "provide America's hard-working farmers and ranchers with more support and more predictability."

The incredibly irrelevant Hilary Clinton had the gall to chide McCain for his opposition to the bill. Though McCain is admittedly bad on economics, he took the high road and voted against this bill (from Time: "For now, we need to put an end to flawed government policies that distort the markets, artificially raise prices for consumers, and pit producers against consumers. We’ve once again failed farmers in that regard, which is why I oppose this bill.").

In addition to the absurd economic distortions and general government waste in the bill, the soon-to-be law is guaranteed to piss off the world and hamper the Doha round of trade liberalization.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

DC's failing schools

This is without a doubt the most damning statistic I've ever heard about public schools: DC public schools spend about $10,000 more per pupil per year than the area's private schools. This comes from an editorial in the WaPo by Andrew J. Coulson, who explains his methodology in a blog post at the Cato Institute, where he's the director of the Center for Educational Freedom. While the stated cost of public schooling in DC is less than $10,000, adding in appropriated funds from other sources brings the total to almost $25,000 per child per year – which, as the editorial explains, is "on par with tuition at Sidwell Friends, the private school Chelsea Clinton attended in the 1990s."

...and, might I add, the Obamas' two children, Malia and Sasha.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Putin the puppet master

I had a letter published in Publius Pundit, another one of Kim Zigfeld's blogs. The letter was about possible Russian motivations for backing the Burma's military junta: sparking conflict and raising the price of oil and natural gas. This appears to be a favorite strategy of Putin's regime, as the Russsians seem to have done something similar in Venezuela and Iran by backing Hugo Chávez's and the ayatollahs' regimes. Here is the full text of the letter that I sent in response to this posting:

Dear Publius Pundit,

Here's something else to keep in mind when exploring Russia's relationships with energy-rich states: Russia has huge reserve of oil and natural gas, and any jump in the price of these commodities will first and foremost raise energy revenue that the Russian government receives. Since the resource-driven economic boom is the primary reason why Putin's support is so high (another being those oh-so-convenient Chechens), maintaining high energy prices are key to Putin's ambitions for the Russian state.

This preoccupation with energy, though, leads the Russians to do some pretty treacherous things. For example, in the late 1990s they allegedly trained Ayman al-Zawahiri (bin Laden's sidekick – or perhaps the true leader of al-Qaeda). Just a few months later, al-Zawahiri's terrorist group was incredibly interested in and well-informed of plans by Americans to build a natural gas pipeline through Afghanistan and ease the Russian's quasi-monopoly in the region. Later, al-Qaeda attacks American embassies in East Africa, which was believed by many to be a provocation of the US, trying to get them to enter Afghanistan. Though there was no invasion, the oil pipeline was shelved shortly after the attacks. Interestingly enough, all of this is right about the time when the price of oil starts skyrocketing – in early 1999 the price of oil had fallen to about $12 per barrel, but has increased fairly regularly ever since, to the point where it is now 1000% of the price that it was less than a decade ago. Much of this increase in prices was no doubt due to the ramifications of US policy in the Middle East in response to periodic attacks by al-Qaeda.

And Burma is not the only place where we see Russia abetting regimes that have been drawing the ire of the United States: Iran, too, has been helped by Russia in developing something (at minimum nuclear power, and at most nuclear weapons) that doesn't seem to benefit Russia much at all. Iran (like Burma) is a relatively poor country that wouldn't seem to be in the position to pay lots of money for expensive nuclear reactors, especially given its own enormous energy reserves. Security interests don't seem too great, since both Russia and the US have enough weapons to inflict more damage than they'd ever want, and an attack on Russia by any country is pretty unthinkable. And Russia, by supporting the regimes, is putting itself at risk of being criticized. So what's in it for Russia? An American invasion of Iran – with the world's second-largest reserves of natural gas, and third-largest reserves of oil – would surely send the price of oil skyrocketing past $200 a barrel, and that couldn't be bad for Putin. Just something to think about.

Erratum: it's not actually Kim Zigfeld's blog, but rather a blog for which she's a regular contributer.

Defending the indefensible

The Guardian has an article in defense of piracy – at least, the intellectual property kind. Though the industry might try to convince us that stealing music is just as bad as real stealing, people aren't buying it. The Guardian article (which I found via Reason's Hit & Run blog) discusses some of the virtues of piracy:

When an online copy of Scrabble called Scrabulous appeared on Facebook, it quickly amassed 2.3 million fans who played it every day. It was an amazing user-generated ad campaign, and sales of real Scrabble boards increased. All Hasbro and Mattel (the owners of Scrabble) had to do was swoop in with their cheque books and make it legit; instead they treated Scrabulous as a simple case of piracy and threatened to sue. It may have been smarter to cut a deal rather than anger potential customers. Thousands signed up to the "Save Scrabulous" Facebook group. One fan threatened a hunger strike. Hasbro and Mattel are still talking tough, but if the backlash continues they may be forced to eat their words.

Managing directors take note! Don't let your legal department make a decision about pirates without talking to marketing first, because pirates can sometimes refresh the parts other ad strategies cannot reach.

Of course, there are plenty of artists and creators of non-physical media who have embraced piracy.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Big Brother, my buddy

From a NYT article, here's perhaps one of the most euphemistic/unconvincing quotes I've heard heard. It's from an article about a program in Texas to curb truancy by attaching electronic monitoring devices to kids:

Dave Leis, a spokesman for NovaTracker, which makes the system used in Dallas, said electronic monitoring did not have to be punitive. “You can paint this thing as either Big Brother, or this is a device that connects you to a buddy who wants to keep you safe and help you graduate.”

Sunday, May 11, 2008

And someday, maybe Burma will become like Rumania!

The NYT apparently every week has an "op-ed classic," where the paper "presents an essay from The Times's archive by a columnist or contributor that we hope sheds light on current news or provides a window on the past." This week's essay is in relation to the oppressive military regime in Burma, and the possibility of foreign intervention. It starts out:

While the U.S. invasion of Panama provoked a great deal of debate, there was no argument about possible French and Russian intervention in Rumania. And that raises an important question: Could big-power intervention – so often used in the past by Washington and Moscow to establish repressive regimes – now become a positive force wielded on behalf of democracy and human rights?

France offered to send troops if the Rumanian Army had difficulty overcoming the security forces loyal to the ousted and executed dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu. And Secretary of State James Baker said America would support any move by the Soviet Union to intervene militarily.

Wow, talk about historical amnesia! (And not just for using an antiquated spelling of Romania.) While at the time the article might have made sense to its editors, in retrospect this is something that the Times should have been ashamed of publishing. First of all, they openly admit that what happened in Romania wasn't a revolution, but a coup d'état. Though the evil dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu might have been toppled, it's a mistake to assume that his enemies were America's friends, or even Romania's friends. After the fall of Ceaușescu's regime, Romania took over a decade and a half to become a stable, functioning democracy. For most of the period in between the events of 1989 and the first real liberal becoming president (Traian Băsescu in 2004), Ion Iliescu ran the country, and not very well. A simple search of the Times' archives (or twenty seconds with a real Romanian) would have sufficed to convince the Times that this was an absurd article, unless meant for its ironic value. Here's the Times, ten years later:

Ten years after a radio announcer exulted, ''The antichrist has been executed on Christmas Day,'' Romanians are still on a national quest to piece together what happened.

Who shot whom? Was it populist, or a coup by disgruntled Communists who months later legitimized it in elections held in a still traumatized country?

''The idea that the wicked witch and her husband the bad tyrant were taken down simply by the people rising up is a fairy tale,'' said Mark P. Almond, an Oxford history professor who studies Romania. [...]

But unlike the revolts in other Eastern European countries, where power passed to accepted heroes like Lech Walesa or Vaclav Havel, Romania was taken over by a committee, the National Salvation Front, which quickly splintered into parties now playing what amounts to a national bloodsport: bickering over ''who betrayed our revolution.''

So what was the purpose of the Times story? Unless it was meant to be ironic (and there is no indication that it was), it seems to be legitimizing military intervention by citing the case of Romania. Which in my mind is dishonest and misleading, considering the average Times reader isn't going to know that this particular "revolution" didn't turn out as rosy as it's portrayed.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Transportation tradeoffs

In the US at least, it's common wisdom that people simply don't like mass transit. They won't use it, ever, some say. Of course, from an economic point of view, that's absurd – every good has its utility value, and costs can go from zero to almost infinity. While American doesn't seem to be in danger of becoming anything but a 90% car society any time soon, the NYT has an article that reports huge upticks in ridership of public transit systems throughout the US. (I blogged about a similar article a few months ago, but this one is much more comprehensive.) While traditionally transit-oriented cities like New York are reporting gains in ridership, the biggest gains are coming from systems in places that are very car-oriented: Miami's commuter trains saw year-to-date increases of almost 30% in April, and Minneapolis-St. Paul's Hiawatha Line saw a rise of 16% over the past year.

The article cites rising gasoline prices as the primary impetus for the shift, and notes that the trend could indicate that the economy is still strong:

“If we are in a recession or economic downturn, we should be seeing a stagnation or decrease in ridership, but we are not,” said Daniel Grabauskas, general manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which serves the Boston area. “Fuel prices are without question the single most important factor that is driving people to public transportation.”

Friday, May 9, 2008

Price of oil jumps, Putin grins

The WSJ has a front page story today about the recent authentication of documents implicating Venezuela directly in arm shipments to the Colombian rebel group FARC:

These documents indicate Venezuela appears to be making concrete offers to help arm the rebels, possibly with rocket-propelled grenades and ground-to-air missiles. The files suggest that Venezuela offered the FARC the use of one of its ports to receive arms shipments, and that Venezuela raised the prospect of drawing up a joint security plan with the FARC and sought basic training in guerrilla-warfare techniques.

In the second paragraph, the WSJ says that the revelation is likely to "is likely to ratchet up pressure for the U.S. to impose sanctions on one of its most important oil suppliers." Sure enough, oil traders have responded and prices have risen to a new high of $126 a barrel.

And how exactly was Venezuela going to get those arms to sell to FARC rebels? The same place all dictators get their weapons – Mother Russia:

At the meeting with Gen. Carvajal, another Venezuelan general is described as offering the port of Maracaibo to facilitate arms shipments to the guerrillas. The general suggests piggybacking on shipments from Russia -- from which Venezuela itself is buying everything from Kalashnikovs to jet fighters -- to "include some containers destined to the FARC" with various arms for the guerrillas' own use.

A spokesman at the Russian embassy in Washington declined to comment.

The Russian government can't have been blind to the fact they were doing something that would potentially destabilize an ally with vast energy resources. Energy politics are crucial to the survival of Putin's regime, and a higher price for oil because of conflict (or simply the possibility of conflict) in Venezuela means a higher price for natural gas (see: substitute good), of which Russia is the world's largest producer. This strategy of aiding rogue states in doing unpalatable things is also seen in Iran, to whom Russia has sold nuclear reactors which have provoked the ire of many American foreign policy mavens. Seeing as how Iran is one of the world's largest energy producers, the threat of military action against the regime has been a force in the recent upward climb in the prices of oil and natural gas.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

And how are the real beacons of democracy doing?

Kuwait, in contrast to its other microstate neighbors, has a constitutional monarchy with overwhelming majority of power invested in the parliament. Suffrage is extended to all citizens, and all citizens can run for office. And yet, according to a NYT story, Kuwaitis are beginning to question the wisdom of democracy. Though its Gulf ministate neighbors like UAE states and Bahrain are more authoritarian, they also seem to have economies that are moving much faster than Kuwait's. Kuwait is a tax-free state with a generous welfare system for citizens (who comprise only a third to 40% of its population), but it seems to have been afflicted with the resource curse. Because of the tremendous oil wealth that allows the state to provide generous welfare benefits without taxation, there has been little pressure on the government to deliver sustainable, non-resource-driven wealth. Owning 10% of all proven oil reserves means that petroleum-related industries account for half of the GDP and 95% of exports, according to Wikipedia. Foreigners are also heavily restricted in what sort of assets they can own.

Dubai, by contrast, has largely weened itself off oil. Though the city-state originally earned its wealth after the discovery of oil, the reserves have since declined and the economy has successfully diversified, so that now only a single-digit percentage of the economy is devoted to the energy sector. Reading about this reminds me of Austrian school economist/philosopher Hans-Hermann Hoppe's theory that singular ownership and control of a country in the form of a monarchy is preferable to the institutionalized mob rule of democracy. Being an anarcho-capitalist, he obviously believes that a state of anarchy would produce preferable results to both democracy and forms of dictatorship. I never read it, as I'm not much into theory, but perhaps I should some day...

Vindication for the Chinese character system?

The Chinese writing system, with its tens of thousands of characters, is not easy to learn, to say the least. Unlike with nearly every other written language on earth, every character (and most words only contain one or two characters) must be learned individually, and having an excellent knowledge of the language does not mean you will know how to pronounce an obscure word. Literacy rates fluctuate more with age than in other countries, since you have to continuously read in order to be able to read, and continuously write (not just read!) to know how to write. In the era of keyboard-based input, this has created an even bigger handicap for the Chinese writing system: since characters are usually inputted using pinyin, people who type a lot begin to lose the ability to write. Jennifer 8. Lee (8?) of the NYT and Victor H. Mair at UPenn have documented this trend. Prof. Mair sums the dilemma that the Chinese language has with keyboard-based input systems as such:

Such competitors (computers, BlackBerries, and so on) pose far less of a threat to alphabetic scripts than to the characters for the following reasons:
  1. Alphabetic scripts require a far smaller initial investment and a fraction of the effort for maintenance.
  2. Many of the electronic devices mentioned above actually reinforce or improve writing in alphabetical scripts (spell checkers, grammar checkers, and so on [e-mail style, of course, is another matter altogether] — there are no comparable tools for Chinese).
  3. When one forgets how to write a character, one is usually stymied for that particular morpheme, whereas misspelling a word generally presents no obstacle to expression or understanding.

That was written in early 2007, before the era of the iPhone, so the author used BackBerry instead of iPhone. Though the English-language iPhone still utilizes a keyboard, the keyboard is virtual, and the input system is a touch-screen. This is a lot more amenable to inputting Chinese characters in, and Apple itself has slipped Chinese character support into a beta version of its iPhone OS. But unlike most computers which use pinyin or some other input system which doesn't rely on the shape of the characters, the iPhone version allows users to draw the characters onto the screen. Apple also has a few patents (like this one) on touchscreen devices, and some analysts predict that Apple will create a "sprawling mega-platform" around the technology.

If this indeed does catch on, and writing in characters isn't already a lost cause, could touchscreen technology be the savior of the Chinese character system?

Monday, May 5, 2008

Buy pot futures

Though illegal, marijuana is used by large segments of the population. For an average product of its type, cannabis would not have much impact in an economy: plenty of products are used regularly by a couple percentage points of the population and infrequently by most others. However, because of its near-universal prohibition, the costs of producing and selling the drug drive up costs and make the drug big business. At $10/gram, the drug is so expensive and widespread that it has become the Netherlands' third-largest export. Contrary to popular belief, smoking marijuana in the Netherlands is technically illegal but unenforced – however, growing marijuana is technically illegal and prosecuted if people are caught. This causes prices to be slightly cheaper than in America, but still hugely inflated compared to the prices of other plants which require similar amounts of energy to grow. (Complicating the comparison, only comparatively high-grade marijuana is available in the Netherlands, and it is much cheaper than in the US, though Americans smoke more low-quality weed.) And before you dismiss the fact that pot is big business in the Netherlands, consider this whopper that talking heads talking about farm policy never mention: marijuana is the America's most valuable crop.

Obama backpedals on ethanol

Barack Obama, this campaign season's über-champion of ethanol subsidies, is starting to retreat from his position:

With the world teetering on the edge of a full-blown food crisis, it may be time to cut back on biofuel, said Barack Obama yesterday.

In an interview on NBC's Meet the Press, the Democratic presidential candidate said "there's no doubt that biofuels may be contributing" to falling food supplies and rising prices.

Ya think!? This being politics, I know it's too much to ask, but it would be nice to hear an apology from Obama for almost single-handidly pushing ethanol to the forefront of the presidential campaign, inspiring a chorus of me-toos from Camp Hillary (though McCain's generally held the high ground, he too occasionally becomes intoxicated on the Iowa spirits).

Edit: Obama's been pretty quiet about the subject of ethanol subsidies since his almost mea culpa, but the NYT didn't give his change of heart any play in an A1 article it ran about his stance on ethanol in June 2008.

Homeland Security High

You can't make this stuff up – a high school, for Christ's sake! Via Unqualified Offerings:

The first high school dedicated to preparing students for the front lines in the Nation's homeland security has gone from theory to planning in Wilmington.

The Project Manager for the Delaware Academy for Public Safety and Security, New Castle Attorney Thomas Little, signed a contract with Innovative Schools, a professional firm which will coordinate the mechanics of preparing the school for its eventual opening.

The process to find and fund a site for as many as six-hundred young men and women in Wilmington's inner city is underway.

Curriculum choices for students, who are to be called Cadets, range from SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) through prison guard, water rescue, paramedic, fireman, professional demolition and emergency response operator, according to a Board statement.


The prison population has swelled in recent years – in the last six years, the proportion of Americans in jail has risen over 40%. The primary cost to society comes in the imprisoning of its citizens, depriving them of the opportunity for success later in life, with the costs compounding with each additional year behind bars. But, now that states are enacting radical plans to trim their prison populations, it isn't out of kindness but out of fiscal necessity. Corrected for inflication, prison spending by states has risen by 127% in the last twenty years. Even Mississippi's Republican governor, in a state not known for its humane justice system, is letting go:

In Mississippi, where the prison population has doubled during the past dozen years to 22,600, Gov. Haley Barbour (R) has signed into law two measures that will reduce it: One to let certain nonviolent offenders go free after serving 25 percent of their sentences, and the other to release some terminally ill inmates.

But like I said, the government is easing up, but it's got a long ways to come down: Michigan (home of #8 in enrollment Michigan State and research giant University of Michigan) spends more on jailing people ($2 billion) than it does on higher education ($1.9 billion). Unfortunately, I think that only marginal change can come about until America reconsiders its love affair with prohibition.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Active measures and the Right Reverend Wright

The Jeremiah Wright controversy has the potential to torpedo Obama's campaign, according to results of a poll published by the NYT. I find one of Wright's comments particularly interesting – that is, his belief that AIDS was/is a plot by the American government to decimate Africans and black Americans. Thanks to the Mitrokhin Archive and public acknowledgments by former Soviet officials, we can now say with some certainty that this conspiracy was deliberately propagated by Soviet secret services.  They were part of the broader strategy of active measures which the Soviets were quite fond of – contemporary FSB support of Chechen terrorists and al-Qaeda would fall under the same category. Anyway, I just found it incredible that Soviet active measures from decades ago are still working so well to stir up racial tension in America.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Run-away children and the Austrian house of horrors

Out of morbid curiosity I was reading an article in the Guardian about the latest Austrian dungeon horror story, and I came across this shocking bit in the middle of the pretty long article. I've read a few articles about this before, and I've near heard this mentioned.

Though domineering and despotic with all his children, Fritzl appeared to treat Elisabeth even more brutally than her siblings and Hoerer got the impression that 'he did not like her very much'. When she reached the age of 11, the abuse started. From then on Elisabeth would be raped by her father regularly: in his car, during forest walks, even in the same cellar that would become her prison.

At 16, she twice attempted to run away from home, but each time was delivered back into her father's violent embrace by the local authorities. Three years later, there was no possibility of escape.

It's likely that she didn't tell them that her father had been raping her, but even so, shouldn't a 16-year-old girl be old enough to decide whether or not she wants to live with her parents?

Limousine liberals may be on to something

What do ya know – apparently those latte-sipping, gay-marryin', limousine liberals from San Francisco really aren't so hypocritical when it comes to energy consumption. According to the Mercury News, via Planetizen, the Bay Area is urbanizing after a period of suburban growth. The urban San Francisco has its highest population ever, 80% of new housing units in San Jose were in high-density buildings. Naturally, the "planners" didn't anticipate the trend:

Given the run of bad national and state economic news, "it surprised me a little bit," said Michael Bills, a senior planner in the San Jose planning division. "I figured it was going to start to taper off, and it certainly did not."

These urban areas are going to be served more by state-run mass transit versus the corporatized road/car model. While I'm generally against planning and government intervention, it's not really that much of a stretch to believe that moving from a bizarre hybrid system to a more completely nationalized system might be a step in the right direction, since the completely nationalized system appears to hew more closely to the style of living that would be dictated by a market allocation of land and transportation.

San Francisco also has some pretty interesting urban development plants. The Transbay develpment calls for a dozen skyscrapers (including two with 101 floors) in San Francisco proper. While these are great for the environment, geopolitics, and libertarian causes in general, a potentially more interesting project is the redevelopment of Treasure Island. The plans call for a couple of skyscrapers, along with a plot of farmland, solar panels and wind turbines, and a natural waste treatment ecosystem to make the 0.9 square-mile island virtually self-sufficient. Popular Science did a fascinating article in January covering the ecological and environmental aspect of the plan, but financial and logistical details are harder to come by. The SF Chronicle has an article that covers a few of the financial details, and unfortunately it looks like the project is receiving a fair amount of subsidies in city bonds and infrastructural development. This isn't surprising considering the competitive disadvantage that not taking state subsidies puts you at, but it does seem possible that in the future government plans will become so unsustainable that it can be economically viable to go without. As for cars on the island, while the emphasis will be on an unspecified "robust network of transportation choices" and pedestrian paths, it does appear that the island will have roads. Construction on the Transbay supertall towers is set to begin in 2009, and residents of the new Treasure Island developments are expected to be able to move in in 2013.

Iraq war costs

Some startling numbers from Talking Points Memo on the Iraq war costs and social security:

Now, an interesting point of comparison is the projected shortfall in the Social Security budget, which is on the contrary tabulated on highly pessimistic assumption. That number over 75 years is projected at $4.7 trillion.

Now I hasten to add, again, that the Iraq numbers are highly optimistic and the Social Security ones highly pessimistic. If we do a simple back of the envelope calculation we get the 75 year cost of Iraq would be $3 trillion.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Libertarians for statism

I was reading a blog I just found about/called Market Urbanism, and in it the author links to an article in Governing Magazine about the hypocrisy of libertarian think-tanks advocating tax dollars be spent on public roads. It's the first time I've ever seen something in print about this sort of vulgar libertarianism when it comes to transportation (something I've written about a few times). The author calls out the Reason Foundation and its founder Robert Poole for their especially egregious violations of free market principle, and this paragraph just about sums up my thoughts on why American so-called libertarians love socialized roads:

Many of the authors of these studies are a rotating castof writers who pop up again and again, including Randal O'Toole and Wendell Cox. They "extol the autonomy made possible by automobiles" wrote fellow libertarian and New York Times columnist John Tierney in a 2004 article on the subject. Tierney calls them, including himself, "the autonomists." That is, libertarians who have embraced highway spending, although they focus more on the individually-bought car, not the government-built road it requires.

The article isn't all good, though. Even though the author correctly recognizes that America's "automobile-based landscape of suburbs, single-family homes, office parks, mega churches and shopping malls" is a government machination, he still reminds us that "[o]ur national road system would never have been built if every street were required to pay for itself." Yeah, that's exactly the point! Our "national road system" is the problem, and the author's implication is that not only would there be no "national road system," but that roads are indeed synonymous with transportation. But just because we wouldn't have trillion-dollar pavement stretching across the continent doesn't mean we wouldn't be able to get across the continent – or, more importantly, wherever it is that we want to go.

RIP, Deborah Palfrey

Another victim in the war on prostitution. I guess all the embarrassment was for naught.

Edit: This is apparently not the first suicide to come out of the investigation and prosecution of this woman's escort service. Brandy Britton, one of the employees of Palfrey's escort service, hanged herself a few years ago after someone tipped the police off to what she was doing.