Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Thoughts on Gaza: Iran's role, the civilian death toll, the smuggling tunnels, and proportionality

Here are a few unrelated thoughts on the recent Gaza conflict:

  • About two few weeks before Israel's air raid, defense officials were saying that Iran had been pushing Hamas to not renew its cease-fire with Israel. This is in contrast to Hamas' traditional sponsor, Egypt, who evidently did not want war. Further evidence of Iran's new role as the Middle East's biggest direct sponsor of terror. But who knows if the buck stops there.
  • The UN says that 62 Palestinian women and children were killed in the Israeli air raids, meaning that total civilian casualties are likely higher. 320 Palestinians in total have been killed, the (vast?) majority of whom appear to have been employed by Hamas.
  • Israel has destroyed 40 smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza. The tunnels could supply as much as 90% of Gaza's economic activity, and are an increasingly lucrative source of revenue for Hamas, which taxes and controls at least some of the smuggling trade. Food, fuel, cigarettes, medicine, and weapons seem to be the most popular goods going through the tunnels. The weapons smuggling business, though, had dried up in the beginning of this year, as Hamas routed Fatah in the Gaza Strip and got control of their weapons.
  • Many people have remarked at the inanity of criticizing Israel for being "disproportionate" in its attacks – here is an example of the logic. I don't know how relevant I think it is, but Totten does convincingly argue that "proportionality" is an irrelevant red herring.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Somalia: the forgotten front of the War on Terror

I've written an original article for about the situation in Somali, reflecting on the history of American intervention in Somali and its utter failure. In it, I argue that the only way to bring about peace and stability to Somalia is for the international community to stop trying to impose a state on a people who are not accustomed to involuntary government. You can help publicize it by voting it up on either Digg or Reddit.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Kwanzaa: dead or "more relevant than ever"?

Michael Moynihan of Reason says Kwanzaa is dead and proclaims good riddance, whereas Michael Eric Dyson in a Washington Post "guest voice" proclaims that Kwanzaa is "as relevant and necessary now as it's ever been." Dyson doesn't put up much of a fight, deftly avoiding saying that Kwanzaa is particularly popular, only that it's "relevant" and "necessary." Even his uncited and seemingly high number of 40 million is of people who "embrace" Kwanzaa – I can only imagine he means that's how many people celebrate it, but it's an odd choice of word. I sure would be interested to see his source, though, on the number of Kwanzaa revelers.

One of Bush's more eloquent moments

David Theroux at the Independent Institute said the following about Bush's infamous summary of his post-bubble crash decision-making process:

When President George W. Bush was recently interviewed on CNN regarding the economy, he left us with another Bushism that will likely go down in history along the economy his interventionist policies are destroying, “I’ve abandoned free-market principles to save the free market system.”

I agree with the sentiment – that what Bush said is so stupid as to be considered a Bushism – but my immediate reaction was, "Not likely." Currently this is probably thought of as an example of a sudden outbreak of common sense. After all, isn't that the basic principle that's guiding Keynesian economics, the welfare state, and even the Cato-esque minarchy? Veering from a totally free market in order to allow markets to work most efficiently? If you ask me (which you don't), far from uttering perhaps his last Bushism while in office, the lamest duck since Woodrow Wilson actually summed up modern political and economic thought as eloquently and succinctly as I've ever heard it.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Human rights activist: "secret alliance" between FSB and Islamic terrorists

In an interview with Radio Free Europe, Norwegian human rights activist Ivar Amundsen has, citing unnamed "experts," accused the Kremlin of backing the "armed groups of Islamic fundamentalists" who are currently destabilizing Chechnya.

Natalya Golitsyna: Do you share Akhmed Zakaev’s opinion voiced recently at the ‘Caucasus seminar’ in London that ‘Russia has a vested interest in the instability in the Caucasus’?

Ivar Amundsen: Yes, I do. I think that this constitutes part of its policy in the Caucasus. [...] There is another striking fact. There is an odd and secret alliance (a conspiracy even) between the FSB and the armed groups of Islamic fundamentalists hiding in the Chechen forests. Their leader Doku Umarov has proclaimed the setting of a new Islamic state – an independent Caucasus Emirate. According to experts, this move which could destabilize the situation in the Caucasus is being overseen by the FSB – in order to hamper as much as possible any solution to the Caucasus dilemma.

(HT: David McDuff.)

This isn't by any means the first report of false flag attacks in Russia being supported by the FSB. I've written earlier about suspected FSB involvement in Beslan, Ingushetia and Ossetia, and among neo-Nazis in Russia. And then there are the two biggies – the 1999 apartment bombings and the Nord-Ost hostage crisis.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Legalization: the only sane drug policy

The NYT has a great article on the "evidence gap" in drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers – namely, the US government ($15 billion) and private insurers ($5 billion) are paying for treatment centers that don't have proven track records. And the problem is likely to get worse due to recently passed legislation in Congress that mandates private insurers to "cover mental and physical ailments at equal levels." And people wonder why Americans spend so much on healthcare?

Megan McArdle says it best:

As a libertarian, of course, I just want to see drugs legalized. So I'm something of a bystander to the argument between liberals and conservatives over the relative benefits of spending money on treatment programs, and spending it on prisons.

[I]t's foolish to spend money on [on drug treatment programs that don't work.] On the other hand, prison doesn't really seem to do a good job of curing drug habits, and it also really screws up the lives of the people we sent there. It's almost . . . why, it's almost as if the libertarians were right all along!

I should add that this NYT story is part of their series called The Evidence Gap, which is essentially one long argument against government-funded healthcare, on the grounds that government agencies don't seem to be very good at making sure that the treatments they pay for actually work.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Somalia update

So, it's official (almost): the Ethiopians are leaving Somalia and the radical Islamist group al-Shabaab is likely to take over the parts of Somalia that haven't already seceded. Al-Shabaab is far more radical and strict in its interpretation of Islam than the Islamic Courts Union that reigned in Somalia before the 2006 US-backed Ethiopian invasion. So, by expelling what we now know were comparatively moderate Islamists (the ICU), the US and Ethiopia sewed the seeds for the current al-Shabaab takeover.

And with the conflict between first the ICU and the Ethiopian-backed TFG, and now the TFG and al-Shabaab comes death and destruction. I reported last month that the war in Somalia has been deadlier than the one in Iraq by some measures, but since then, the estimates of the death toll have only gotten worse – from about 10,000 civilians to more than 16,000 killed directly because of the conflict.

In addition to the deaths, life for the living is becoming increasingly difficult as they flee the war-torn urban areas that offer respite from the barren Somali hinterlands, where a humanitarian disaster is now brewing. As the Washington Post reports:

Out of a population of about 9 million, more than 1 million people have fled their homes, preferring drought-stricken regions of the country to the crossfire of militias battling for control of Mogadishu and other areas. Attacks on aid workers – most likely carried out by the Shabab, who equate them with foreign interference – have made humanitarian assistance almost impossible to deliver.

Also, something I didn't mention in previous posts about Somalia is that even before the 2006 invasion of Somalia by Ethiopia (backed by American money and diplomatic efforts), the US was supporting the warlords that the ICU would make its call to war.

At pretty much every step of the way since the fall of the Barre dictatorship throughout the 1980s, the United States has intervened in Somali affairs and it's backfired every single time – from its support of the warlords in the early '90s that resulted in the infamous Black Hawk Down episode, to the pre-2006-ish support for the warlords that enraged the moderate Islamists, to the current support of the Ethiopian proxy government that's enraging the extremist Islamists. Luckily, this time around there's little popular support for either a UN- or American-backed mission/invasion of the country, but that might change if American Democrats change their tune about "nation-building" and missions abroad now that the right guy is in power.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The NYT wrongly puts more blame on Bush than Clinton for the housing bubble

In the latest installment of the NYT's ongoing series about the financial collapse, The Reckoning, three reporters trace the history of Bush's housing policy, from its initially bullishness on housing and desire to increase homeownership rates, to the latter half of his presidency when he was forced to come to terms with the GSEs' imminent collapse, but wasn't up the task of convincing Congress that reigning in the quasi-public mortgage giants was necessary.

It could be that the Times has another article up their sleeve, in which they investigate the Clinton-era roots of the housing bubble, but the tone of the article places the lion's share of the blame on Bush, mentioning his predecessor only once: "Advocating homeownership is hardly novel; the Clinton administration did it, too."

The truth is that there's a lot more to say about Clinton and the housing bubble than just that. BusinessWeek took a stab as far back as February, unearthing some Clinton administration documents that clearly signal that the White House considers mortgage lending terms too strict. Clinton also tried (but luckily failed) to allow mortgage down payments to be drawn, without penalty, from retirement accounts. While Bush's successful attempts to ease the burden (obviously necessary in retrospect) of the down payment is met with scorn from the NYT, Clinton's failed attempt (along with other attempts that succeeded) doesn't even seem to have caught the eye of the Times, from what I've read of their financial reporting.

The NYT just a few days ago did manage to publish an article about a Clinton-era special tax break, though the focus of the article was the tax break, not Clinton's role in it. So Clinton passes a law seriously exacerbating the crisis, whereas Bush merely fails to curb a phenomenon that was already underway – and yet Bush's article is decidedly more critical of him as an individual than Clinton's.

Now, I'm not saying that I think Bush is blameless. Obviously he toed the same line as Clinton – homeownership is an unalloyed good, no matter how much you have to intervene in the article to achieve it. And in some ways it's even worse, since Bush is at least supposed to care about libertarian issues like, "Is the government unnaturally pumping up the housing market?" But to paint Bush as individually more responsible for the crisis than Clinton is just intellectually dishonest.

Coal's causing global warming – and we're about to run out of coal?

I'm a few days late on this, but Wired has two articles up that challenge popular conceptions of where global warming is coming from, and how likely exogenous factors are to put a sudden halt to it.

The first article's idea is well summed-up in the headline: "Oil Is Not the Climate Change Culprit – It's All About Coal." Evidently this idea is pretty popular among scientists, who argue that oil consumption is not causing global warming:

While both Kharecha and Caldeira stopped short of saying that the world's oil usage didn't matter, Caldeira seemed to capture their joint sentiment when he called the combustion of oil a "second-order effect."

The second article takes this fact and turns it into an argument that global warming might come to an abrupt end: "World Coal Reserves Could Be a Fraction of Previous Estimates." This is based on a study done by Dave Rutledge, chair of Caltech's engineering and applied sciences division, who argues that the discrepancy between his estimates and other estimates is that countries were often interested in inflating their coal reserves rather than accurately measuring them, though he doesn't explain why non-governmental experts haven't produced surveys coming to similar conclusions.

If "peak coal" really is coming soon, this means that many climate change models are way too pessimistic:

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change uses economic models that assume that the world will not run out of coal. Some IPCC scenarios show 3.4 billion tons of coal being burned just through 2100. That's more than five times what Rutledge thinks will be possible — and a good deal higher than the WEC's estimate for recoverable coal reserves, too.

But, as a scientist notes at the end of the article, the end of coal doesn't necessarily mean the end of global warming – a lot depends on what coal is replaced with:

"Peak Oil and peak gas and peak coal could really go either way for the climate," Kharecha said. "It all depends on choices for subsequent energy sources."

Friday, December 19, 2008

Andrew Cuomo pissed that Caroline Kennedy stole his Senate seat

New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is apparently pretty pissed that Caroline Kennedy has emerged as a frontrunner to fill Hillary Clinton's Senate seat, since he's evidently been eyeing a Senate seat for a while. While he obviously has more experience than Caroline Kennedy, Andrew Cuomo's pedigree is nothing to laugh at: he's the son of a former New York governor, and up until his 2003 divorce from one of RFK's eleven children, he was Caroline Kennedy's nephew-in-law.

And as much as I hate aristocracy, I can't say that I feel bad for Cuomo – he had perhaps the single largest individual role in the subprime collapse in his capacity as Clinton's HUD secretary from 1997 till 2001, leaving aside maybe Alan Greenspan.

Something interesting also to note is that the three biggest winning personalities this electoral season (all senators, I might add) – Obama, Biden, and Clinton – have all had their former senate states shrouded in mystery and intrigue. Obama's seat led to the undoing of Illinois Governor Blagojevich, and Clinton's new job as Secretary of State led to Caroline Kennedy's interest in the newly-vacated seat and the ensuing uproar. Joe Biden's son Beau (current Attorney General of Delaware), who has been rumored as a possible replacement for Joe Biden's senate seat, has taken the (sort of) high road and stayed out of the running for the unelected seat, and instead might run in an actual election in 2010 – made easier by the fact that the person appointed to Joe Biden's old seat, Ted Kaufman, was Joe Biden's former chief-of-staff and has stated that he doesn't intend to run to keep the seat in 2010.

NYT: Preferential tax cuts contributed to financial meltdown, or: What I said in September

The NYT published an article Thursday on something that readers of this blog would have known about back in September: special tax breaks on capital gains from real estate passed in 1997 encouraged the housing bubble, worsening the crash. The article includes a summary of some empirical research:

Perhaps the most detailed analysis of the provision has been the study by a Federal Reserve economist, Hui Shan, who did the analysis while at M.I.T. Ms. Shan looked at homeowners with significant equity gains, before and after 1997, and compared the likelihood of their selling their house. Her study covered 16 towns around Boston and took into account a host of other factors, like the general rise in home prices at the time.

Among homes that had appreciated less than $500,000, she concluded that the change caused a 17 percent increase in sales in the decade after 1997. Before the law changed, many people apparently avoided paying the tax by simply staying in their homes.

Ms. Shan also found that sales actually declined among homes with more than $500,000 of gains after the law passed. (Under the new law, couples have to pay taxes on gains above $500,000, even if they roll all those gains into a new house.) Nationwide, however, less than 5 percent of home sales over the last decade had gains of more than $500,000, according to Moody’s

It also notes that Grover Norquist, America's most prominent opponent of taxes, actually opposed this specific tax cut, on the basis that a broad base and low rates are better than cuts given to special interests:

At the time, Realtors and home builders lobbied for the provision and there was only scant opposition. Grover Norquist — a conservative activist and adviser to Newt Gingrich — said home sales did not deserve special treatment. But Republicans ended up voting for the bill by even wider margins than Democrats.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Bad government incentives make solar panels not so green

As with all things, I think Obama's big push for alternative fuels will result in a lot of bad choices for the environment, as economic efficiency is often tied to energetic efficiency – simply put, it's hard and expensive to extract fuels in inefficient ways. This argument would seem to fall apart in the face of the dominance of dirty coal and oil, but if you look at the goods that use or energy or otherwise affect its consumption (i.e., all of them), the market is heavily skewed in favor of big, dense buildings that require lots of energy for construction, temperature control, transportation to and from, and furnishings/decoration/the stuff you put inside.

Anyway, I've noticed this theory borne out recently – with corn ethanol, non-food biofuels, and some wind power – and tonight I read an article in Foreign Policy about a potentially ecologically destructive compound used in the production of photovoltaic solar panels.

Think switching to solar energy will make you green? Think again. Many of the newest solar panels are manufactured with a gas that is 17,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide in contributing to global warming. [...]

Nitrogen trifluoride, or NF3, is used for cleaning microcircuits during the manufacture of a host of modern electronics, including flat-screen TVs, iPhones, computer chips—and thin-film solar panels, the latest (and cheapest) generation of solar photovoltaics. [...] For the past decade, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has actively encouraged its use. NF3 also wasn’t deemed dangerous enough to be covered by the Kyoto Protocol, making it an attractive substitute for companies and signatory countries eager to lower their emissions footprints.

It turns out that NF3 might not be so green after all. “NF3 has a potential greenhouse impact larger than … even that of the world’s largest coal-fired power plants,” according to a June 2008 study by researchers at the University of California, Irvine. Because NF3 isn’t covered by Kyoto, few attempts have been made to measure it in the atmosphere. But last October, scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography reported that four times more NF3 is present in the atmosphere than industry estimates suggest, and its concentration is rising 11 percent a year.

Compared with the damage caused by CO2 emissions, NF3 remains a blip because far less of it is emitted. But Ray Weiss, who led the Scripps team, thinks that, unless regulations require more complete greenhouse gas measurements, more unpleasant surprises will be in store. With NF3, he says, “We’re finding considerably more in the atmosphere than was expected. This [gas] won’t be the only example of that.”

Three important things in here: first, NF3 is apparently responsible for much of the price drop in PV panels. Secondly, the EPA has been encouraging the use of this potentially dangerous compound above the market equilibrium. And thirdly, these scientists fully expect to find more compounds that are more dangerous than scientists and regulators thought. Meaning, this isn't going to be the only regulatory mistake that encourages pollutants in the air.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Anti-protectionist street protests in the Russian Far East

Not something you see every day – crowds clamoring for free trade. Via Cathy Young, the Moscow Times reports that inhabitants of Russia's far eastern territory have taken to the streets to protest a new tax that I presume would fall mostly on cheap used Asian cars imported via China (in Eastern Europe and its colonies in the far east, used cars are a big deal).

In a rare example of grassroots political power, angry protests by drivers prompted lawmakers in the far eastern Primorye region on Monday to ask the country's two leaders to delay raising import duties on foreign cars. [...]

Thousands of drivers took to the streets in several far eastern cities and towns Sunday to protest the tariffs, blocking traffic, clashing with police, openly insulting Putin and Medvedev and even calling on Putin to resign.

Putin's decree would increase the prices for imported cars by between 10 and 20 percent, a move the government has defended as a way of protecting domestic auto makers during the growing financial crisis.

The Primorye region's representative in the Federation Council, hockey legend Vyacheslav Fetisov, met with regional car dealers in Vladivostok on Monday and promised to pass on their request to the government to call off the tariffs, which they say would ravage their business.

Then again, I don't know if clamoring for reduced tariffs on cars really counts as libertarian activism when you think about it...

Monday, December 15, 2008

The myth of rising marijuana addiction rates

So today I clicked on one of libertarian econoblogger Tyler Cowen's Assorted Links entitled "What Obama needs to know about drugs," which took me to this site. Basically it's a primer on where drug use and policy is at right now. But I was struck by the fact that someone who purports to know something about drug policy would write the following as number 5 on a 22-point list:

5. Cannabis prevalence holding steady. Age-at-first-use still distressingly low (middle school). Increased numbers of treatment entries, perhaps due to higher potency and/or higher ratio of THC to cannabidiol.

The author, Mark Kleiman, buys into a few anti-drug propaganda myths here. The first is that marijuana treatment center admissions track anything but the propensity of the American legal system to force people to go to them. The DEA tries to make you believe that this is indicative of higher rates of addiction, but the facts belie the truth. The vast majority – from at least 58% nationally in 2005 to 69% in Texas between 2000 and 2005 – are sent to treatment by courts. This is partially to do with the innovation of drug courts, which are more likely to send someone to treatment than jail, community service, a fine, or simply letting them free.

The second piece of propaganda that Kleiman believes is that higher potency marijuana is anything other than a harmless reaction to marijuana's illegality. Because laws base their punishments on the weight of marijuana regardless of potency, the risk associated with growing/trafficking/selling $10,000 of high-grade marijuana is lower than the risk of doing the same with $10,000 worth of poor quality pot. The prices reflect this, and even though some might prefer lower-quality weed (just like many people prefer beer over hard liquor), it makes economic sense to buy the higher quality pot. But even beyond that, simply buying higher quality marijuana doesn't mean someone will necessarily ingest more of the substances that get you high. Just like people titrate their use with alcohol (everyone knows that a glass of beer has as much alcohol as a glass of wine or a shot of liquor), people titrate their marijuana use, smoking as much (or little) as it takes to get high.

And finally, what the hell is "age-of-first-use still distressingly low (middle school)" supposed to mean?? Hopefully he doesn't mean that the average person begins smoking pot in middle school, because that would make him very wrong. Maybe he means that some people start using marijuana in middle school?

Net neutrality is dead?

Bret Swanson at the Tech Liberation Front brings good news: net neutrality is dead. Apparently even Lawrence Lessig has changed his mind about it, and Obama seems to be retreating on his promise to deliver net neutrality (thank god). The WSJ reports:

The celebrated openness of the Internet -- network providers are not supposed to give preferential treatment to any traffic -- is quietly losing powerful defenders.

Google Inc. has approached major cable and phone companies that carry Internet traffic with a proposal to create a fast lane for its own content, according to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Google has traditionally been one of the loudest advocates of equal network access for all content providers. [...]

The developments could test Mr. Obama's professed commitment to network neutrality. "The Internet is perhaps the most open network in history, and we have to keep it that way," he told Google employees a year ago at the company's Mountain View, Calif., campus. "I will take a back seat to no one in my commitment to network neutrality."

But Lawrence Lessig, an Internet law professor at Stanford University and an influential proponent of network neutrality, recently shifted gears by saying at a conference that content providers should be able to pay for faster service. Mr. Lessig, who has known President-elect Barack Obama since their days teaching law at the University of Chicago, has been mentioned as a candidate to head the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates the telecommunications industry.

Edit: Apparently some disagree. Then again, others don't.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The New Yorker on Naomi Klein

Apparently I haven't been reading the New Yorker enough. Here's the third article of the night (morning?), this one an excellent profile of Naomi Klein (who the New Yorker's James Surowiecki did a convincing impression of last month).

On Klein's reaction to the recent financial bailout, Larissa MacFarquhar writes:

It was just as she had written at the end of the book: memory was shock’s antidote. (Another difference, of course, was that the government wanted to enact not Friedman-style reforms but the opposite: enormous interference in the market. Still, since the point of this interference was to bail out banks, this difference did not strike Klein as of much importance.)

And obviously libertarians aren't alone in being frustrated at her imprecise terminology:

It is clear, in “The Shock Doctrine,” just how deeply she disdains the political. She tends to conflate very different right-wing groups—neoconservatives, crony capitalists, libertarians. (In the end, “The Shock Doctrine” is not so much anti-Friedman as anti-corporate.)

The author spends a little too much time on Klein's family life, but it's great nonetheless. Naomi Klein's husband sums it up best in saying "Some people feel that she’s bent examples to fit the thesis."

And, for you typography buffs in the audience, the New Yorker's infamous umlaut makes an appearance.

It's the teachers, stupid!

In contrast to last month's godawful article by James Surowiecki, the New Yorker's got a great article dated tomorrow by Malcolm Gladwell about the determinants of a good teacher. Basically he finds that predicting a teacher's effect on students' learning is impossible without observing them on the job, though it's very obvious when a teacher enters a classroom if they have the stuff or not. The article is a thinly-veiled but very compelling argument for loosening teachers' unions grips on hiring and firing processes, and if you skim through the annoying football subplot, is very much worth your time. As Gladwell puts it:

Teaching should be open to anyone with a pulse and a college degree—and teachers should be judged after they have started their jobs, not before.

That means a lot of hiring, but more importantly, a lot of firing, which is something that public schools and their corporatist unions are not willing to do. But it explains why DC schools are funded as well as Sidwell Friends and still manage to fail in every way imaginable. on Blagojevich

From, this is the best explanation – in print or video – of the Blagojevich scandal and corruption in Illinois politics that I've seen yet.

And a note to all TV personalities out there: Blagojevich is a Serbian name and uses a Serbian transliteration where j makes the sound normally reserved for y in English (as does German and Polish). It's not that hard of a concept to wrap your mind around – get over the damn name.

The New Yorker pulls a Naomi Klein

Late last month James Surowiecki of the New Yorker had a downright bizarre article in which he blames recent food crises on the inherent instability of markets. Except, not quite, because he acknowledges that liberalization "did not cause the rising prices of the past couple of years" – but you could be forgiven for not getting that by the tone of the piece, whose argument seems to be, "Markets have become more free, and yet we still have food crises. Liberalization did not cause these crises, but if it did, wouldn't that suck?" After all, what's the point of spending half the article talking about food insecurity and the other half talking about market liberalization if you don't think the latter caused the former?

Incredibly, Surowiecki manages to get through a whole article on liberalization and the latest food riots without once mentioning the decidedly illiberal roots of the crisis: biofuel subsidies. In fact, he goes so far as to implicitly deny what seems to be the general consensus on biofuels being the cause of the recent spike in food prices, saying that it happened "for reasons that now seem not entirely obvious."

He commits another intellectual massacre when he says that an effect of agricultural liberalization has been market concentration, in that "three countries provide ninety per cent of corn exports." Here's some news for Surowiecki: the US exports the vast majority of this vast majority of corn, and this is due largely to its subsidies to corn growers.

Two of his main gripes – volitile commodity prices and concentrated production – are clearly caused or at least exacerbated by illiberal government intervention in food markets, and yet, when he gives his opinion of what world agriculture needs, "doing away with import tariffs" is the only market-oriented step he can come up with. So what we're left with is a short synopsis about how farming has become more liberalized, a short description of the latest food price spike which Surowiecki admits has nothing to do with liberalization, and the inexplicable and unbacked assertion that the answer is less liberalization and more agricultural autarky. It looks like Surowiecki's pulled a Naomi Klein – he's picked an interesting and profound subject, marshaled some compelling evidence, and come to a spectacularly wrong conclusion.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Are foreign automakers in the South subsidized?

With Detroit getting criticism from free-market types for seeking government money, pundits on the left are pointing to the subsidies and incentives that foreign car manufacturers in the American South get. Jane Hamsher at the Huffington Post talks about her appearance on Fox Business where she said that subsidies to foreign automakers give them a "tremendous advantage" in the South – but is that really true? Surely the subsidies are real – Daniel Gross at Slate chronicled the rise of the non-union foreign auto plants in states like Alabama and South Carolina and notes the hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks and incentives that state governments bid to attract foreign automakers. But as for whether or not the special incentives are actually the reason the manufacturers locate there – that is, is it actually a "tremendous advantage" or just an unnecessary perk? – that's a different story.

As Rondinelli and Burpitt tell it in a 2000 paper on the impact of government incentives on FDI in North Carolina, the academic consensus is that these programs are largely just politicians trying to prove their usefulness to voters, and that special incentives rank very low on the list of reasons why foreign manufacturers actually set up shop in the South. The lack of unions and fewer labor regulations rank highest, followed by general business climate and access to transportation infrastructure (itself often a subsidy, but Michigan and the Rust Belt are just as well connected to rail and road networks). Marketing efforts by states, specific incentives such as state-sponsored job training, and tax breaks figure lowest in the decision-making calculus.

But there is one more subsidy that I've heard of – in the aforelinked Slate article, Gross mentions that "federally subsidized power from the Tennessee Valley Authority" is one reason why foreign automakers began building plants in the southeastern US in the 1980s. It is definitely true that TVA power – which accounts for a quarter of total American electricity generation – is heavily subsidized: Richard Munson notes that despite its terrible financial shape, the TVA has an AAA bond rating – a surefire sign that investors see it, like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, as essentially having the backing of the US Treasury, regardless of what the TVA's leadership would have taxpayers believe. Jane Jacobs, over twenty years ago, got into a NYRB-mediated spat with the TVA's chief economist, and said that "abundant and relatively cheap electric power [underpins] the TVA region's entire economy and standard of living." But this sounds like an exaggeration when applied to automakers. While buidling cars definitely relies more on electricity as an input than your average American service sector job, I doubt that the subsidy that industrial electricity buyers receive is enough to lead foreign car makers to choose the region over Michigan (as the TVA's Allan Pulsipher noted, the TVA's subsidies are given mostly to residential users).

So if Detroit's backers want to argue for the bailout plan, they ought to stop using foreign automakers' subsidies as an excuse for their own. It's becoming increasingly clear to me that it's the unions that have led American automakers down their present path, and it's the lack of restrictive labor laws that allows the South's car industry to thrive.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Non-food biofuels could increase the risk of invasive species and (wild?)fires

Here's another downside to non-food biofuels, which Obama has made part of his alternative energy subsidization plan: the crops used to make the biofuel are often invasive species, and some raise the risk of fires. Researchers from the Nature Conservancy and the Global Invasive Species Programme give the huge and slightly unbelievable number of 5% global GDP as the current cost of invasive species, for some perspective on the impact of invasive species.

There are other downsides to non-food biofuels. Environmentalists have concerns that these non-food biocrops will crowd out farmland and otherwise natural land in the global south, and I have concerns that the cultivation of non-food grasses will further degrade the Praire Pothole Region.

Senate seat sale an open secret?

Via Talking Points Memo, the sad truth about Blagojevich's corruption as reported by the NYT:

“It was open knowledge among people in and around Springfield,” Mr. Raoul said. “Legislators and lobbyists alike openly talked about the fact that the governor would want to appoint somebody who would benefit him. I can firmly say that I’ve had these conversations, that I’ve spoken with both legislators and lobbyists who felt that that would be the consideration in his appointment.”

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Is Houston really unplanned?

It seems to be an article of faith among many land use commentators – both coming from the pro- and anti-planning positions – that Houston is a fundamentally unplanned city, and that whatever's built there is the manifest destiny of the free market in action. But is this true? Did Houston really escape the planning spree that resulted from Progressive Era obsessions with local planning and the subsequent grander plans of the post-WWII age of the automobile? Michael Lewyn, in a paper published in 2005, argues that commentators often overlook Houston's subtler land use strictures, and recent developments in the city's urban core reaffirm this.

It is definitely true that Houston lacks one of the oldest and most well-known planning tools: Euclidean single-use zoning. This means that residential, commercial, and industrial zones are not legally separated, though as I will explain later, Houston remains as segregated in its land uses as any other American city. But single-use zoning is not the only type of planning law that Houston's government can use to hamper development.

As Lewyn lays out in his paper, minimum lot sizes and minimum parking regulations abound in this supposedly unplanned City upon a Floodplain. He discusses a recently-amended law that all but precludes the building of row houses, a stalwart of dense urban areas (the paper is heavily cited and poorly formatted, so I've removed the citations):

Until 1998, Houston's city code provided that the minimum lot size for detached single-family dwellings was 5000 square feet. And until 1998, Houston's government made it virtually impossible for developers to build large numbers of non-detached single-family homes such as townhouses, by requiring townhouses to sit on at least 2250 square feet of land. As Siegan admits, this law "tend[ed] to preclude the erection of lower cost townhouses" and thus effectively meant that townhouses "cannot be built for the lower and lower middle income groups." Houston's townhouse regulations, unlike its regulations governing detached houses, were significantly more restrictive than those of other North American cities. For example, town houses may be as small as 647 square feet of land in Dallas, 560 square feet in Phoenix, and 390 square feet in Toronto, Canada.

Though this law was eventually changed to allow denser homes within Houston's ring road (though not nearly as dense as some American cities allow), this change only affected a quarter of Houston's homeowners, leaving the rest still as regulated as ever. Not to mention the fact that even for those within the ring road, the rules only matter to new construction, leaving the vast majority of the building stock in compliance with the old rules.

Not to be outdone by minimum lot restrictions, the parking planners are also hard at work in Houston. As Donald Shoup explains in his magnum opus on parking regulations and the free market, minimum parking regulations are an oft-used and under-appreciated way for city planners to decrease density, push development farther from the city's core, increase an area's auto dependency, and decrease walkability and the viability of mass transit. Houston's planning code mandates that developers, regardless of what they perceive as the actual demand, build 1.25 parking spaces per apartment bedroom, and 1.33 spaces per efficiency apartment. Retail stores are also saddled with these parking minimums, and even bars as Lewyn notes are required to build "10 parking spaces per 1000 feet of gross area," flying in the face of common sense. To add insult to injury, the city requires that structures on major roads have a significant setback from the street, and the only rational thing to do with this unbuildable space is to put the mandated parking there, meaning that Houston actual codifies the hideous and inconvenient parking lot-out-front model of sprawl that is so typical across the US.

Another form of planning that Houston has, which is celebrated by the self-titled Antiplanner, is the institution of supposedly voluntary deed restrictions, or private land use covenants agreed upon by the owners of the property under restriction. I'm personally torn over the "libertarianness" of such schemes – are they truly voluntary? Can an individual owner of a property opt out of them once they've been signed? What's the statute of limitations? One thing that makes me suspect that they perhaps aren't as "free market" as they seem is that though the contracts are between individuals, Houston's city code allows the city attorney to prosecute these lawsuits at no cost to the supposed victims – fellow property-owners. In this way, as Lewyn explains, Houston's land uses are just as "Euclidean" as in other American cities:

But in Houston, restrictive covenants are so heavily facilitated by government involvement that they resemble zoning regulation almost as much as they resemble traditional contracts. Houston's city code, unlike that of most American cities, allows the city attorney to sue to enforce restrictive covenants. The city may seek civil penalties of up to $1,000.00 per day for violation of a covenant. Thus, Houston forces its taxpayers to subsidize enforcement of restrictive covenants even when litigation is too costly for individuals to pursue. In its covenant litigation, the city focuses on enforcement of use restrictions (that is, covenant provisions requiring separation of uses), as opposed to enforcement of other restrictions such as aesthetic rules. By subsidizing enforcement of use restrictions, Houston's city government subsidizes segregation of land uses--and in fact, land uses in Houston are only slightly less segregated than in most cities with zoning codes.

More recently, Houston's supposedly laissez-faire attitudes towards planning have again been tested by the proposed 23-story tower at 1717 Bissonnet Street. The tower would have been in a low-rise residential neighborhood, within walking distance of Rice University. After years of wrangling, the project was finally denied by the city, on grounds that the developers failed to prove that the project would not adversely affect traffic flow (a pretty arbitrary and un-libertarian requirement considering Houston's legendary congestion and the fact that developers have little say over where the city places its roads). And this, despite the fact that many of the tower's prospective residents – Rice students and staff – could have either walked or biked to school/work.

Boosters of Houston's land use policy – those who believe that Houston's land use patterns are the free market, revealed – never mention the restrictive minimum lot size and minimum parking requirements. They mention deed restrictions as free market innovations but fail to see how the city's prosecutors turn private concerns into public budget drains. And though the Antiplanner in his aforelinked comments on Houston recognizes the anti-density movement that reared its ugly head after the 1717 Bissonnet proposal, he evidently doesn't see this as seriously detracting from Houston's anything-goes land use policy.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Politkovskaya's killers

The trial of the suspected murders of Anna Politkovskaya, which up until now has been sort of a farce, has revealed some startling (but unsurprising) accusations by a deputy editor of Politkovskaya's former newspaper: the suspects were agents of the FSB. Though Novaya Gazeta editor Sergei Sokolov declined to give his source, he fingered defendant Dzhabrail Makhmudov as an agent, and FSB officer Pavel Ryaguzov as his minder – obviously, both denied the charge.

The Moscow Times adds this example of how the FSB might have ordered the killing and convinced the agents to not expose the FSB's role:

"[The defendents' uncle Lom-Ali Gaitukayev] recruited his nephews and several of his acquaintances to commit the crime," he said.

Sokolov said Gaitukayev was also in contact with Kazbek Dukuzov, who was acquitted of the murder of Paul Klebnikov in 2006, and Rustam Makhmudov, a brother of the defendants who is suspected of being the triggerman in the Politkovskaya killing and is believed to be living abroad.

Separately, Gaitukayev said in court that he had heard from investigators that the killers were paid $2 million, defense lawyer Andrei Litvin said. The court was closed to journalists while Gaitukayev gave evidence because prosecutors said he might reveal state secrets.

Litvin, the lawyer of [co-defendant] Khadzhikurbanov, also told journalists outside the courtroom that his client had been pressured by investigators to confess that the murder was ordered by self-exiled businessman Boris Berezovsky for a payment of 4 million euros ($5 million).

For more information on why Politkovskaya was murdered, and the information that might have gotten both her and Alexander Litvinenko killed, check out this article by Larisa Alexandrovna at The Raw Story.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Farm subsidies and ecological destruction, how government conservation can be libertarian, and how Obama's energy plan could make it all much worse

I was reading a pretty sad article in the Washington Post about how federal government subsidies are destroying what would otherwise be more-or-less wild prairie lands, and two things in particular stuck out to me: federal ownership and conservation of land might actually be a more libertarian arrangement on net, and that this sort of creeping ecological destruction could get a lot worse with Obama's plans to subsidize non-food biofuels.

Regarding federal lands: the most obvious libertarian position on federal land ownership is that it's a bad idea, though when you consider the bigger picture, Kevin Carson's distinction between atomistic and dialectic libertarianism comes to mind:

Fighting the trend is an array of hunting and conservation groups. The political circumstances in the West have forced them to try to protect the grassland without making it a national park or a federal preserve. "There is still strong resistance in the West to extending federal ownership of land," said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group.

Scott Stephens, director of conservation planning for Ducks Unlimited, estimates that the Prairie Pothole Region of the Dakotas and Montana could lose an additional 3.3 million acres of native grassland to farming over the next five years if prices stay high and federal policy does not change.

The situation is not ideal – theoretically you'd want to do away with the farm subsidies and the federal ownership, leaving the land's development as an product of its actual productivity – but if federal control will achieve an outcome closer to the free market equilibrium, it's hard to argue that selling the land on the unfree market is a step in the right direction.

Regarding non-food biofuels: this one's a lot scarier. Last month I wrote about an environmental group's warning that non-food biofuels could end up being just as environmentally and economically destructive as corn-based ethanol, and that the definition of "marginal lands" is subjective and prone to exaggeration. And here we have a perfect example of that: this land is land that would not be productive without crop insurance subsidies, because of its inhospitable growing conditions. The WaPo article even uses the same word that the ETC Group told us to look out for: "fragile land that is of marginal use for farming."

These Great Plains climates are exactly the kind that biofuel boosters like Obama intend to use to grow crops like switchgrass. And while switchgrass might be more native to the area than corn and other crops that subsidized farmers are planting now, you can bet that the farming techniques that are eventually used to cultivate the non-food biofuels won't in any way approximate the natural environmental equilibrium or the free market economic equilibrium. The Great Plains might not be the Amazon rainforest, but just because a place looks desolate doesn't mean that it isn't important to the greater ecological balance. I hope that Obama's biofuel investment plan will properly weigh the costs of subsidization of these sorts of non-food fuels against their benefits, though I fear that the chances of this happening are slim to none.

Friday, December 5, 2008

75th anniversary of the end of Prohibition

Today is the 75th anniversary of the repeal of alcohol prohibition in the United States, and lot of libertarians and anti-drug prohibition advocacy groups have taken the opportunity to remind the public of the fundamental sameness of 1920's era alcohol prohibition, and modern day drug prohibition. Radley Balko has an article up at Reason commemorating the day and relating it to our current prohibition, and he makes a point that I hadn't thought of before:

But there's one positive thing we can say alcohol prohibition: At least it was constitutional. The prohibitionists built support for their cause by demonizing alcohol from state to state, winning over local legislators one at a time. When they'd built a sufficient national movement, they started the momentum for a constitutional amendment. Congress didn't pass a blanket federal law, Constitution be damned. They understood that the federal government hasn't the authority to issue a national ban on booze, so they moved to enact the ban properly.

When America repealed prohibition, we repealed it with a constitutional amendment making explicit that the power to regulate alcohol is reserved for the states. Even today, when Congress wants to pass federal alcohol laws (such as the federal drinking age, or the federal minimum blood-alcohol standard for drunk driving), it can't simply dictate policy to the states. Instead, it ties the laws to federal highway funding, a blackmail that while distasteful, at least carries the pretense of adherence to the Constitution.

Contrast that to drug prohibition, where Congress (and the Supreme Court, when it upheld it) made no attempt to comply with the Constitution in passing the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 (CSA), the law that gave us the modern drug war.

For more on our modern day war on drugs and why it's so inevitably doomed, I suggest buying and reading Cop in the Hood by Peter Moskos, who joined the Baltimore police force for over a year and wrote a book about what it's like being on the front line of the war on drugs. Basically his conclusion was that the whole thing is a big sham, and that both current techniques and the entire idea of prohibition in general is hopeless. The writing style is very accessible, and I highly recommend the book.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Parallels between Indian and American gun control laws

A few days ago I wrote about how gun control laws hampered Mumbai hotels' ability to properly defend their guests, and not soon after India's business community – led by tech multinational Infosys' chief security office – petitioned the government for the right to bear arms, including automatic weapons. The Indian government's aversion to permitting weapons seems to run so deep that even armed police officers were reluctant to shoot at the Mumbai terrorists.

That got me to thinking about the roots of India's strict gun control laws, which led me to this op-ed by an Indian gun owner, in which he quite eloquently details the colonial roots of modern-day Indian gun control policy. The British were especially vigilant in disarming the natives, and peaceful Gandhi himself said that "history will look upon the [gun control] Act depriving a whole nation of arms, as the blackest" of the crimes of the British in India.

The history of gun control in America follows a similar path – after the Civil War, states began enacting laws disarming freed slaves, and as a Reason book review tells it, and the first gun licensing and permitting laws were "passed for the purpose of disarming the negro laborers... [and] never intended to be applied to the white population," as one Florida judge said at the time.

As with American gun control laws, which are mainly championed today by non-racist mayors of heavily-black urban areas, India has lost the underlying reason for the laws, and yet, the vice is as tight as ever. The malevolent and racist British were replaced with the uncompromising license raj, and the gun controls laws have stuck. Like in the US, where big city mayors advocate gun control despite the laws' obvious failure where they would seem to be needed the most, Indian politicians are trying to prevent a problem that doesn't exist: legal guns being used for illegal purposes. By the late '80s the Indian government was tightening its grip on legal arms markets, banning almost all imports – though as Singh's op-ed points out, black market guns in India are cheaper than legal ones, so there's really no incentive at all for anyone to buy weapons through legal channels. And sure enough, the Mumbai terrorists are reported to have had connections with Mumbai's underworld, and that's supposedly where they got their guns from.

Hopefully this appeal by Mumbai's business community for increased access to arms will break the traditional Indian authoritarian approach to gun control, but judging from the past experience, it doesn't seem likely.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Using eminent domain to blight neighborhoods

The Weekly Standard has a comprehensive and compelling piece of investigative reporting on Columbia University's attempt to acquire 17 acres in the heart of the Manhattanville section, north of its Morningside campus. The tale is a classic example of eminent domain abuse – the university worked hand-in-glove with the government to designate the area as blighted and eligible for eminent domain action, and the university's lawyers pushed the limits of rational argument so far and yet look like they'll probably come out on top.

But perhaps more importantly in this process of acquiring the necessary Manhattanville land on which to build its gleaming new Campus upon a Hill (and under which to build a mammoth garage complex) is not the explicit use of eminent domain, but rather the threat of the land being taken by force. Whereas Columbia's initial land acquisitions before the expansion plans were made public were probably not made under duress, as time went on, Columbia's plans became known, and, as a holdout landlord's leasing agent put it: "At some point along the line, with all of these concerns, the knowledge that Columbia University can or will invoke eminent domain has caused [ground floor retail renters] to seek out alternative space arrangements." This is a phenomenon that affects all negotiations with the government and big institutions like Columbia – and, post–Kelo, even private buyers – and which makes it very difficult to be sure that the owner didn't sell for less than they'd have liked (or, indeed, might not have wanted to sell at any price).

As it is, the land that Columbia has already acquired – 70% of what it wants – is largely vacant and most definitely more "blighted" than the land it wants to buy, however the relevant (and irrelevant) acronymed planning agencies made sure not to recognize any of their own studies that come to that obvious conclusion. So while the school is gathering all the land it wants, the buildings are vacant and the neighborhood is deteriorating. And even once it gets what it wants, the university's own plans admit that they have not decided what they will build on some of the land, meaning even more years of blight.

Unfortunately, the practice of taking land via eminent domain or otherwise restricting use has a long and illustrious history of not working out too well in the end. In the 1926 landmark Supreme Court Case Village of Euclid vs. Ambler Realty Co. that validated zoning codes as constitutional, the justices dismissed as "mere speculation" the plaintiff's argument that the restrictions aimed at keeping out industrial development would lower the property's value. Obviously this mere speculation turned out to be right, because the property didn't find a buyer until some two decades later, when the city relented, and the land has been used for industrial purposes ever since.

In the most recent land use decision handed down by the Supreme Court, Kelo vs. City of New London in 2005, the justices' decision has also shown itself to be clearly detrimental with respect to the specific property in question. Not two years after the would-be developer succeeded in wresting the holdouts' property from them, the proposed development has fallen flat on its face, and there are no plans to develop the vacant properties.

In my own hometown of Bryn Mawr, a suburb of Philadelphia, the eponymous "non-profit" hospital fought a protracted battle to acquire a good chunk of prime surrounding property (which would be even more valuable under the hospital's desired zoning designation), and while it never used eminent domain, the specter of it led people to sell their properties where they otherwise wouldn't have. Unsurprisingly, the Bryn Mawr Hospital's plans for developing the newly-acquired property seem to have stalled. Of the lots, one had a few houses that were turned into a parking lot that was supposed to replace a different parking lot which was to be developed, but that development never materialized, so now instead of a full parking lot and a house, there's a full parking lot and an empty parking lot. The other lot was a block of row homes, some of the few affordable property left in the area, and they were razed to the ground and now an unused grassy field stands in their wake.

But despite the constant disappointments in eminent domain and zoning outcomes, the courts and local governments don't seem to have learned the most fundamental rule of economics: private actors are better at determining the most efficient use of productive inputs than public ones like land use and eminent domain boards.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Government restrictions are the reason that Somali pirates thrive

Two weeks ago I asked why shippers don't hire private security to deal with Somali pirates off the coast of East Africa, and instead spend hundreds of thousands of dollars avoiding the area by taking a different route. I postulated that the reason they didn't was because they were worried they'd lose their subsidies in the form of states' navies securing the high seas if they showed themselves capable of doing the job themselves, but since then I've heard of another, better reason: they're not allowed to properly defend themselves.

Channeling the investigative powers of the internets, Wired finds that shippers don't forgo effective private defense of their cargo for financial reasons, but rather because they're flat-out not allowed to. The Times of London found that it's "almost impossible to carry firearms through Customs and on to vessels in most countries," and so shippers are left defending themselves with increasingly ineffective non-lethal weapons. It also noted that there are security risks to carrying firearms on board a flammable oil tanker, however the founder of a private security company in his blog doesn't buy this excuse, noting that real militaries mix weapons and ammunition and oil all the time. An analyst with another private security firm echoed this sentiment, noting that "the downstream legal implications of hiring private security are really pretty substantial."

And just for a comparison against the quarter- to half-million dollar hit that shipping companies have been taking by avoiding the Somali coast that I mentioned two weeks ago, the half-baked private security solutions involving non-lethal weapons cost at most £12,000 per journey.

Mumbai terrorists took LSD?? Whatever you say, Daily Telegraph!

From the UK's Daily Telegraph comes perhaps the oddest and most unbelievable story to come out of the recent Mumbai terrorist attacks: the terrorists apparently used cocaine, "other stimulants," and LSD during the almost three-day siege. Yeah, you got that last one right – LSD!

It's tough to even begin describing how ridiculous this story is, but I'll try. First of all, the effects of cocaine wear off within an hour or two, making it totally unsuitable for a 60-hour battle with elite commandoes. Second of all, cocaine is rarely injected, as the article claims the terrorists did. And finally, the most ridiculous item: the LSD. Firstly, the hallucinogenic effects would seem to be a severe drain on one's ability to engage in combat. Secondly, an acid trip doesn't last more than ten hours (unless you take a dosage that would absolutely devestate your ability to do anything coherent, forget guerilla-style warfare!). Thirdly, the comedown from LSD is very tiring, and even if the vaguely energizing effects didn't hamper your ability to fight, the post-trip fatigue definitely would. Fourthly, LSD is rarely if ever injected, contrary to the Telegraph's report that "injections" of LSD were found (what the hell does that even mean??). And lastly, hallucinogenic drugs are known to cause severe psychological introspection – the kind that would make it very difficult to kill someone on. If you gave ten hardened terrorists a couple of doses of acid in the heat of a battle, it seems near certain that at least one of them would walk out of the building with their hands on their head and surrender.

This story has got to take the prize for this year's most laughably underinformed newspaper article about illegal drugs. I don't doubt that someone passed this information along to the Telegraph, but they have shown serious disregard for journalistic integrity in not asking the most obvious questions that would cross the mind of anyone vaguely informed about the effects of cocaine and LSD.

Don't blame the trans fats

John Tierney has an interesting article at the NYT about the paradox of supposedly healthier foods inducing people into making unhealthy choices, and how the government can exacerbate this phenomenon. After doing a relatively non-rigorous survey of New Yorkers and non-New Yorkers, researcher Pierre Chandon found that foods with a "trans fat free" label on them were more likely to have their healthiness overestimated by New Yorkers (who were subjected to a recent public debate about trans-fats), whereas those visiting from outside the area were better at guessing the caloric value "of an Applebee’s Oriental Chicken Salad and a 20-ounce cup of regular Pepsi." The results suggest that the NYC government's action against trans fats in restaurants might have done some harm, in that food makers can now exploit the fact that their products don't have trans fats, labeling their food as such and inducing customers into thinking that they're healthier than they really are.

Tierney hints at the inanity of the trans fat ban in the first place, in mentioning that some scientists believe that there are worse ones out there. And whenever I hear debates over particular nutritional elements being good or bad (first it was fats and calories, then carbs, now trans fats, with dozens of fads in between), I think about this NYT Magazine cover story from early 2007 about how little we really know about food, and how it's much more important to follow general guidelines – the kind that you don't need a nutritional analysis for – than to harp on the details.

Oldest marijuana in the world found in northwestern China

Via Slashdot, the Toronto Star has a fact-filled article about the discovery of the oldest known cultivation of cannabis clearly for psychoactive purposes. The stash was found in Xinjiang province in northwestern China, and dated back to about 700 BC. They found 789 grams of smoking-grade weed stored with a "light-haired, blue-eyed Caucasian" male shaman mummy for his journey in the afterlife – about 1.75 pounds, which would be worth at least $5000 on the streets today in the US.

Contrary to the government line (especially popular in Britain, where supposedly ultra-potent "skunk" is the new reefer madness), today's pot is no more potent than in years past, as "the marijuana was found to have a relatively high content of THC," though the sample was too old to get a more accurate reading. And contrary to the latest round of American anti-pot commercials, the tomb where the drugs were found had indications that the man that was buried in it was of "high social standing."

Also, at the end of the article they mention that Xinjiang – where this weed was found – "is considered an original source of many cannabis strains worldwide," though there's no attribution.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Follow-up on Beslan and the FSB

As a follow-up to a post I made about a week ago about Russian security forces' involvement in the Beslan hostage tragedy, someone over at La Russophobe has translated the original Novaya Gazeta article by Ella Kesayeva into English, in which these accusations are made and detailed. The translation is surely not authorized and likely in violation of some sort of intellectual property law, but thank god that laws aren't always enforced, or non-Russian speakers wouldn't have access to this sort of information.

Gun control angle on Mumbai

Via Radley Balko, here's a pretty disturbing paragraph from the WSJ about the recent attacks in Mumbai and India's gun control policies:

At about 9:45 p.m., two gunmen, slender and in their mid-20s, ran up the circular driveway at the entrance to the Trident. They shot the security guard and two bellhops. The hotel had metal detectors, but none of its security personnel carried weapons because of the difficulties in obtaining gun permits from the Indian government, according to the hotel company’s chairman, P.R.S. Oberoi.

Now, it's quite possible that these employees wouldn't have had the time/skill to ward off the attackers with whatever guns they were given, but it's hard to argue that hotel employees carrying guns would have made the situation worse.