Monday, June 30, 2008

Forty years before the first atom bomb, and 1000 times as strong

One hundred years ago today, a meteor exploded over Siberia and destroyed about one thousand square miles of forest. Imagine if today something like that happened somewhere between Boston and DC, or in Japan, or somewhere around the Benelux, or somewhere on the Indian subcontinent, or somewhere in southeastern China. Wired notes that the event came pretty close to maybe stopping communism in its tracks, and thereby altering the course of world history:

In its 1966 edition, the Guinness Book of Records concluded that, based on the Earth's rotation, had the Tunguska meteorite struck 4 hours, 47 minutes later, it would have obliterated St. Petersburg, then the capital of imperial Russia. Given the events that would shortly torment that nation – and all of Europe [Ed. note: to say nothing of Asia, Africa, and the Americas!] – for the better part of the 20th century, one is left to wonder how history might have changed in those circumstances.

Ronald Bailey of Reason puts the odds back into perspective, though:

Of course, the probability of such a catastrophic asteroid strike is very small. Researchers at NASA's Spaceguard Survey estimate that a hit similar in size to the 1908 Tunguska event in Siberia occurs once every 300 years and would take out an area of about 5,000 square kilometers (1/100,000th of the Earth's surface). Huge portions of the planet are uninhabited (ocean) or sparsely inhabited, so Spaceguard calculates that another Tunguska is apt to hit a large urban area about once every 100,000 years. Ultimately the researchers calculate that the annual probability of an individual's death from a Tunguska-type impact is 1 in 30 million.

For more on the Tunguska event, as it's called now (at the time it didn't attract much attention, though who knows what kinds of records about the event were lost during World War I, the Russian Revolution, or the ensuing Russian Civil War), see the Wikipedia article, replete with eyewitness accounts and more on the science of the event.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Soviet women had on average seven abortions

Radio Free Europe has an article about the sorry state of Russian family planning. Among the bombshells is the claim that women in the Soviet Union averaged seven abortions in their lifetime, though that factoid is in the blurb on the main page but is nowhere to be found in the article (something unfortunately I've noticed more than once with articles on that site). More babies are aborted than are actually born, and only between 3 and 13% of sexually active women use oral contraception, compared to over half in Europe. The article cites wariness about contraception due to decades of Soviet-made contraception that was ineffective as a reason for the low adoption rate in post-Soviet Russia, though it notes that the abortion rate has fallen from its pre-1991 level. Reliable contraception is now widely available, though at a price of $25 per month for the pill – this in a country whose constitution gives every citizen the right to free healthcare.

Friday, June 27, 2008

America's irrational energy incentives

CleanTechnica, a blog about...clean tech...has a post up about the perverse incentives that American energy producers face thanks to government regulation. The thesis of the article – a guest post by Sean Casten, CEO of a green energy company – is that electricity generation hasn't improved in efficiency since 1957 because the government has been removing the incentives to generate energy cheaply and efficiently. It's a pretty bold claim, and he only backs it up with two examples: regulation that forces companies to take profits only on capital costs, and the Clean Air Act (which one, it's unclear) which mandates specific technologies that may not actually be that effective at reducing overall air pollution. It's an interesting read, though I feel entirely unqualified to judge the veracity of some of its claims (though they jibe with what I'd expect). However, the part about regulation forcing companies to make money only on capital costs is pretty easy to understand:

Our century-old electric regulatory model pays utilities a return on their capital investment, but compels them to pass along all operating costs to consumers at zero mark-up. This creates a great incentive to build capital-intensive boondoggles. It completely isolates electric utilities from the economic principles that drive “normal” businesses, wherein capital and operating cost reductions are a route to greater profits. This has conspired to make our electric sector openly hostile to efficient power generation. It explains why their efficiency hasn’t moved since 1957, and why that sector now accounts for 42% of US CO2 emissions.

Some questions I have: Is the US the only country to do this, or are there others? Are there any countries that adopt a more laissez-faire approach to energy generation (leaving aside Somalia), and who achieve better efficiency in energy production because of it? And what are the interests that keep this system in place, or has it kept going on sheer inertia?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Won't somebody please think of the parents!

Via Slashdot, an article from the English-language news site about Sweden "Children concerned about parents' web habits":

Children in Sweden are becoming increasingly concerned by their parents' internet habits, according to a new report from Children's Rights in Society (Barnens Rätt i Samhället - BRIS). [Only in Sweden!]

Last year the organization dealt with 1,895 IT-related cases, up sharply on figures from the previous year. Further investigation revealed that more than 100 of the children who made contact with BRIS did so because they were in some way worried about their parent's behaviour on the internet.

Dads visiting pornographic websites represented the most common complaint, while philandering fathers were also a cause for concern.

"It seems that my dad is 'unfaithful'," wrote one 15-year-old boy.

"I read his MSN conversation log. I was just curious. And then I saw that he was talking to, like, young girls. And the disgusting part is that he's 53!

"And they talk about sex and how they're going to meet and everything. It makes me want to puke. It really makes me feel bad.

"I don't know if I should tell mum because I'm worried they'll get a divorce. Please, what should I do?"

The irony of African culture in the Americas

I've been reading William Bernstein's A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the Word, and though just about every page has a part worth blogging about, I found this part explaining black Americans' relative lack of African culture compared to blacks in the Caribbean and Brazil:

Death on the plantation was sugar's constant companion, and those colonies that relied most heavily on cane had the most trouble maintaining their slave populations. The black population of British North America, which grew little cane, increased nearly as fast as the white population. The one exception to the pattern of lower mortality among slaves in North America was found in the southernmost parishes of Louisiana, one of the few places on the continent that grew cane. Conversely, one exception to the high mortality among slaves in Brazil was found in the province of Minas Gerais, which was more dependent on "easier" labor: coffee and dairy production.

The deadly face of "sugar demographics" is easily seen today in the cultural differences between the black population in the United States and Canada and that in the rest of the hemisphere. British North America, because of its vigorous population growth, required ever-smaller infusions of African slaves. After 1800, the relatively high fertility and low death rates among slaves in the United States meant that southern plantation owners simply did not need to import more Africans. The American prohibition of the slave trade in 1808 easily passed trhough the southern-dominated Congress for just this reason: the Americans' abolition of the slave trade crippled their Caribbean and Brazilian competitors. By 1808, almost all North American slaves were native-born, and by the Civil War, relatively little culture member of Africa remained. The Caribbean islands and Brazil, on the other hand, required a constant flow of Africans; well into the twentieth century, the Yoruba language flourished in Cuba, the last bastion of the New World plantation society, and African influences still pervade Caribbean culture.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Is piracy more like stealing, or ad-blocking?

Though major media industry groups would have you believe that stealing music or other digital content is like stealing a physical object, a more appropriate analogy would be that it's a little like blocking ads on the internet. Ad revenue funds the content – you're paying for the content with your time – while the distribution costs are very little compared to distributing the content through physical media. But, people (and courts) often view the two issues very differently. While sharing an episode of The Office on BitTorrent could land you in court, no such case would be imaginable against someone who removed the ads from the official ad-supported version of the show on NBC's website. While copyright laws are viewed by all but anarchists (both anarcho-communists and market anarchists, actually) as sacrosanct, the WaPo leaves readers with the idea that the problem of ad-blocking might just work itself out.

The idea behind it is pretty obvious: blocking ads takes time, and people only do it if ads are obtrusive enough. If content providers are losing money because of missed ad revenues, they can respond by either two ways: an arms race to block and get around blocks, or by making the ads not worth blocking. Whereas the internet used to be filled with annoying talking ads, I haven't seen a video ad that starts automatically with the sound on in a long time. Even on a Romanian news website that I used to read which always had annoying ads long after professional American sites did, I haven't seen one lately. (The site, like most others, has gone upscale in a lot of other ways, but because of the brand name recognition it has, it can't shed its ridiculous name – And though I almost always use Safari's pop-up suppressor, anecdotal evidence from when I surf without it tells me that pop-ups aren't nearly as prevalent as they once were. And though privacy advocates bemoan ad algorithms that analyze your habits and deliver ads that would appeal to you, ads are often helpful, and they can be a lot more helpful and less annoying to the consumer if they're better targeted.

Even though the media, courts, and lawmakers don't realize it yet, piracy has already forced producers of media content to make their products even more appealing than the pirated product. For example, I used to illegally download episodes of The Office with BitTorrent, until NBC started offering episodes with ads online for free. Though the pirated version is better quality, more enjoyable to watch since it doesn't have ads, and doesn't take much time if I plan properly, the ad-supported version is more appealing because I don't have to plan in advance. In fact, it even beats out (for me) streaming video pirate video sites like, because it's faster and more reliable. Everyone I know who watches The Office (people who are the most appealing cohort: young people) watches it on, and that includes people who also use pirate streaming video sites to watch shows that aren't available legally online.

Monday, June 23, 2008

NYT: a bit behind the times on Obama and ethanol

Fun fact about this blog: by far the single largest driver of visitors to it is a single trackback link on a post about Obama, McCain, and ethanol on Gary Mankiw's blog. Anyway, because of that link (which I can't see in Safari, but can in Firefox) and the NYT's story about Obama and ethanol that appeared on A1 below the fold today, I've been getting a lot of hits.

Anyway, the article was a pretty standard critique about Obama's pro-ethanol fuel policies and his ties to lobbyists, including the obligatory reference to agribusiness rent-seekers extraordinaire, Archer Daniels Midland ("ADM: supermarket to the world," to NPR listeners). However, something that struck me as a little bizarre and unbecoming of the Times' stature was that throughout the whole article, the author never once mentioned the fact that Obama recently stepped off a bit from his ethanol platitudes and admitted that it might not be such a great idea, after all. Since then, I don't remember having heard him talk about it, but then again I also have been trying my damnedest not to hear the presidential candidates at all. But it seems like something that might have warranted at least a mention, eh?

Philadelphia urban planning

Urban planning has been in the news a lot lately in Philadelphia because of a combination of its sudden trendiness, high gas prices revitalizing urban cores, and its new mayor. Here's a recap of planning news during the last few days in the City of Brotherly Love:

  • Dense buildings are hot in Philadelphia – just this month the largest skyscraper in the city opened, and this week plans were announced to top that record by 50%. The tower at 18th and Arch would be 1,500 feet high, while taking up half the space as the current tallest building in the city. As usual, neighbors are complaining, despite the fact that the site is well within Philadelphia's central business district. The neighbors are worried about reduced availability of parking since the site is being built on a parking spot, though they don't seem to care that market forces dictated (with the caveat that no land use is truly market-based in America) that that plot of land be turned into high-density office (and perhaps residential?) space.
  • One of Philadelphia's very successful "edge cities," King of Prussia, has finally been fully developed, but the last development is a decidedly anti-exurban "new urbanism" type project. Though the area doesn't have any hope to be connected to rail any time soon, the project does aim to create the walkable, urban-looking core than KoP never had. The area became popular when big government-style planning conspired to run three major highways through the town in the '50s, and its place was confirmed when big government-style Cold War military spending was directed at the town, where weapons contractor GE poured money into the town in the '60s. And of course no story about the suburbs would ever be complete with an anecdote about WWII veterans building houses in the area, financed by subsidized mortgages through the GI bill. The article doesn't mention whether or not government officials prodded developers into building this sort of project, but it seems unlikely given that the NIMBY forces were too busy decrying the development of the golf course, which some apparently thought counted as the last bit of undeveloped land in the area. It took a specific PA Supreme Court ruling to protect owners of golf courses from zoning that would proscribe further development of their property.
  • The Delaware River waterfront – a centrally-located but poorly-developed area of Philadelphia – is probably going to be rezoned and developed in the near future. One of the big debates is whether or not to allow slot machine gambling on the riverfront. Many people are against the idea, especially in light of the fact that the casinos would have huge parking lots and would not adhere to the urban image that Philadelphia is trying to cultivate. While at first my libertarian instincts say to allow the development, on second thought I wonder if the profitability of the casino there isn't due only to restrictions on casinos elsewhere. If casinos were allowed to be built throughout the region, would the most profitable location for them really be on high-value riverfront property?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Happy birthday Stephen and Ayman

Today, it's my birthday! It's also Ayman al-Zawahiri's birthday – my favorite Islamic jihadist. He merged his terrorist organization Egyptian Islamic Jihad with bin Laden's al-Qaeda throughout the nineties. Osama bin Laden's favored biographer, Hamid Mir, believes that al-Zawahiri is the "real brains of the outfit" once said that "[h]e is the person who can do the things that happened on Sept. 11" Assassinated former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko claimed that right before the 1998 US embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, al-Zawahiri was trained for six months in an FSB camp in Dagestan. The FSB's ties to al-Zawahiri are just another example of Russian sponsorship of most major terrorist groups and rogue nations. In my opinion, it's a way to drive up oil prices (which Putin's cronies' pockets, give them popular support, and threaten Western economies) and thwart the West's liberalization by making totalitarianism more fashionable.

Anyway, for my birthday present, I want anyone who's a regular reader (or, hell, anyone who's reading this) to leave a comment (anonymously will do) saying hello and telling me what they like and dislike about the blog. And, for those who don't know me (don't ruin it!), guess how old I turned today. If not an exact age, then at least a decade.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Startling statistics

Here's your startling statistic of the day, from a NYT article about race in France (emphasis added):

He ticked off some obvious numbers: one black member representing continental France in the National Assembly among 555 members; no continental French senators out of some 300; only a handful of mayors out of some 36,000, and none from the poor Paris suburbs.

To this may be added Cran’s findings that the percentage of blacks in France who hold university degrees is 55, compared with 37 percent for the general population. But the number of blacks who get stuck in the working class is 45 percent, compared with 34 percent for the national average.

Hamas's lucrative tunnels

Israel put the Gaza Strip under siege a year ago when Hamas took power in a coup, but the siege looks to have some pretty counterproductive unintended consequences: Hamas has been heavily taxing the tunnels which are used to smuggle consumer goods ands over from Egypt, and has been operating tunnels itself to maintain its supply of weapons:

Hamas imposes stiff taxes on the tons of contraband that flow beneath the border each night, collecting revenue from the tunnels to fill its own coffers, according to those involved in the trade and international observers. Hamas also gets to decide who receives scarce supplies, allowing it to consolidate its authority. All the while, the group has used its control to commandeer tunnels of its own, ensuring a steady supply of weapons to use in its attacks against Israel.

Israel's rationale is pretty standard: they're hoping that the people will turn on Hamas. And they are – less than 40% support Hamas's leader Ismail Haniyeh, compared with 56% for Fatah's Mahmoud Abbas. But, considering Gaza isn't a democracy, this turn in public opinion isn't enough to change the government, or its stance.

The Israelis come off as hapless, arguing so vigorously for control on the arms coming into Gaza (it was a condition of the maybe truce), while utterly ignoring the economic power that the blockade brings to Hamas. The organization has found the tunnels to be an effective way of collecting taxes, and it has the deleterious effect of severing the connection between taxation and consent to govern. Though they're "well aware of the massive scale of the smuggling and that Hamas benefits from it," the Israelis don't seem terribly concerned:

"The best thing from our point of view is that there would be no smuggling of ammunition. We don't care about the other things," said Shlomo Dror, spokesman for Israel's Defense Ministry.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The revolution will not be broadcast on satellite radio

It looks like the Sirius and XM satellite radio merger will go forward, but not before some representatives hold the deal hostage so that they can steer some business towards a favored private-equity firm. Apparently the new über-station will not be black enough:

Members of the black caucus on Capitol Hill have been arguing for the merged company to lease five times that amount of spectrum to companies owned by racial minorities. Short of that, caucus members have warned in letters to the commission and meetings with Martin, they would oppose the merger.

In an interview yesterday, Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus's working group on satellite radio, called Martin's proposed compromise "completely unacceptable."

The article doesn't really explain why, however, these esteemed black members of our illustrious legislative branch of government are all of the sudden so worried – is part of the merger a plan to fire all of the black DJs? Why is the situation right now tenable, but if they merge, it will not be? But anyway, I digress. The most shocking party is how blithely Butterfield admits that he's engaging in blatant rent-seeking on behalf of a "minority-run" firm:

Butterfield said he got the idea for the 20 percent set-aside for minority-owned companies from Georgetown Partners, a minority-run private-equity firm based in Bethesda, and its managing director, Chester Davenport.

But wait – it gets better! Despite the fact that "he hoped Georgetown Partners would fill that role" (i.e., the 20% stake set aside for minority-owned companies), "Butterfield said he was not pressing for the 20 percent leasing arrangement on behalf of Georgetown Partners or anyone else." Yeah right. the way, I should add that I think that all discussion of dividing the bandwidth is pretty ridiculous in the first place. The FCC came into being to divide up the spectrum and stop anyone from interfering with anyone else's transmission. However since then, we've gained a more nuanced view of the spectrum, and it's now generally understood that it can be infinitely divided. Technology that can better parse out the individual signals is already available and would be developed at a much faster pace if the government were to relinquish control of the airwaves. That's the theory behind the open spectrum movement, which I've talked about before.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Conservatives come out against universal suffrage

Lately I've heard two conservatives opine on the topic of suffrage, both arguing that we ought to disenfranchise certain groups because of how they vote. The first was Ann Coulter, who in 2007 declared that disenfranchising women is "a personal fantasy of mine," because "we'd never have to worry about another Democrat president." Blogger Megan McArdle correctly stated that Coulter got away with this because she is a woman. Recently, Pajamas Media (a blogging network of diverse opinions) contributer Burt Prelutsky opined that teenagers ought to have their right to vote taken away, basically for the same reason: they vote Democratic. He can get away with this because teenagers are pretty much universally reviled, and the "get off my lawn!" faction of American politics is pretty strong (excellent perennial vote-getting strategy: say that kids these days need some sort of character-building, and then advocate some sort of civil service draft). But they're both barking up the wrong tree: black Americans are much more likely to vote Democrat than teenagers or women. But I guess that's just a little too un-PC, even for Ann Coulter.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Dog bites man

Articles like this one make me fall out of my chair laughing hysterically. It was obviously not written by anyone with any knowledge about Romania, because they would know that there are likely more than twenty bribes given per day in just Bucharest alone for drivers permits and licenses. My own mother (or, rather, a şofer) once bribed someone to get get suspended license back. The AP must have just gotten a new Bucharest correspondent, probably from Switzerland or Sweden or some other extremely law-abiding country. I can't even imagine the next story to come out of him/her – maybe a story about a taxi driver running a red light, or one about a 16-year-old buying cigarettes without being carded?

Friday, June 13, 2008

A vote against Europe is a vote for capitalism...and a vote for socialism

The Irish, following in the footsteps of the French and Dutch a few years earlier, have rejected the Lisbon Treaty – essentially the EU Constitution in not so many words. The process strikes me as totally antidemocratic – the Dutch and French rejected it last time, so their governments didn't put it up for popular vote, and Ireland was the only country in the 27-member supranational union to put the vote to the people. But anyway, what interested me the most is how different groups lobbied against the proposal for seemingly contradictory reasons. The pro-business ad-hoc anti-treaty group Libertas fought for a no vote by warning of "inflexible regulation," "back doors to increased taxes," and fears of Brussels meddling with FDI, while the leftist/nationalist Sinn Féin party argued against the treaty with socialist arguments like:

Sinn Féin today claimed the Lisbon treaty would have serious consequences for Irish public services by advancing the liberalisation of that sector.

Speaking at Leinster House, Sinn Féin health spokesman Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin said there was a “clear desire” within the European Commission and many EU governments to open members’ markets in public services such as health and education to competition.

He warned there were “clear consequences” when such public services are opened up to competition.

“Treating health care or education as commodities to be traded on the market creates inequalities in access to public services. . . . Opening public services to competition actively undermines universal access to healthcare, and forces reliance on private insurance.”

Mr Ó Caoláin said such liberalisation puts downward pressure on wages.

“It also undermines the long term viability of the public sector, as the private sector cherry picks the most “profitable” sectors, thus undermining vital revenue streams through which the public sector subsidies the unprofitable sectors.”

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Overregulation in overdrive

Today, my brother went to the dermatologist for his acne, and my friend went to see a doctor for a urinary tract infection. He got the standard treatment (doxycycline), and she got the standard treatment (nitrofurantoin). Both had to pay more for the visit to the doctor than for the medications to cure the ailments, neither of which are under patent protection. However, both had diagnosed their own illnesses before seeing the doctors, and the standard treatments for both are relatively uncontroversial – surely in these cases, both of them could have correctly chosen what drug to take. And even if you think it's abhorrent that people can make their own decisions with regards to standard antibiotics, both conditions and cures could have been easily diagnosed by a nurse or pharmacist. Neither of the drugs were addictive or in any way pleasurable unless you needed them (I know from experience that doxycycline makes me nauseous if I take it before eating – and the doctor didn't even tell me that; I had to figure it out on my own!), and yet both require a visit to someone with an MD in order to acquire. A waste of time, a waste of money, and an obvious case of rent-seeking, in my opinion. And also a cause of spam and computer viruses, apparently. And yet, with all the hubbub this presidential campaign season about the soaring costs of healthcare, no one seems to be proposing loosening restrictions on consumers' access to prescription medications. (Unless, of course, you're a rural Alaskan, in which case you don't need a doctor to get a prescription.)

World's largest pot bust

Actually, hash bust. And actually, it was the world's largest drug bust, by weight. The Guardian reports that Afghan police seized 260 tonnes of hashish worth $400 million. The article says that according to a an American general with the NATO, the hash belonged to the Taliban, and he goes on to gloat about how much this is going to hurt the Taliban. (Their profits, according to this NATO guy, would only have been $14 million, but it's unclear whether they'll have to cover the loss of the stash or not.) Of course, I'd be very surprised if even this enormous bust affected the prices of hash in Dutch coffeeshops and elsewhere in Europe, where it likely would have been sent.

As an interesting bit of narco-history, according to an uncited article from Cannabis Culture, poppy cultivation – the crude precursor to opium and heroin – was spurred during the '70s in Afghanistan because of American pressure on the Afghan government to crack down on cannabis cultivation. Since then, both the Taliban and its opposition have used the profits from drug cultivation to fund their operations. Ironically, today cannabis is replacing opium poppies for many farmers because of recent crackdowns on poppy cultivation.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Spam and viruses: a symptom of drug prohibition?

Via Slashdot, evidence that computer viruses, spam, and prescription-less prescription drug sales are all intricately linked. Apparently, the Storm botnet – a network of computers infected with the Storm worm, whose spamming services are bought and sold on the black market – generates over $150 in revenue for its owners through online prescription drug sales. The Storm botnet is incredibly powerful, running on anywhere from 160,000 to 50 million infected computers (including, probably, your mom's), and is perhaps the origin of one-fifth of all the Internet's spam. The market for these drugs (mostly Viagra and similar drugs, with my own anecdotal evidence suggesting that painkillers and anti-anxiety meds are also advertised) through shady online operators exists only because of the restrictions placed on buying them in real life. So, next time you check your mail and you have more advertisements for c1a|is and \/1agra than real e-mails, blame the FDA.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Republican warmongers cause spike in oil prices, blame oil companies

Samuel R. Staley from the Reason Foundation has an editorial at the Hawaii Reporter about the irony of Republicans bemoaning high oil and gas prices and blaming the oil companies. An excerpt, recounting the reasons for the recent explosion of energy prices:

The third and most important factor, is what pundits are calling "geopolitical uncertainty."

We are at war in Iraq and still have troops in Afghanistan. Iran wants to rattle our bones by going nuclear and the world is wondering if we will militarily strike them to prevent it. Throw in an anti-Bush politician in charge of Venezuela (our fifth largest supplier of crude oil in February) and the political instability in Nigeria (our fourth largest supplier of crude oil in February) and at least one-fifth of the price of a barrel of oil on the world market is attributed to geopolitical uncertainty according to oil industry analysts.

I'd like to add something: with the exception of instability in Nigeria (of which I know little about), all of the major causes of the uptick in the price of oil have been egged on by the Russia government:

  • Russia both supplied Iraq with most of its arms for the last three decades, while at the same time feeding the US intelligence (almost certainly erroneous, and likely intentionally erroneous) about Saddam's affinity for anti-American terrorism. Later, likely hoping to prolong the war and increase the period of instability before the oil started flowing again in Iraq, the Russians fed Saddam intelligence on America's military and war plan.
  • Russia has been Iran's nuclear connection, despite the lack of obvious benefit to Russia. America's spat with Iran is the most recent development to raise the "geopolitical price premium" of oil.
  • Russian arms were behind Venezuela's latest embarrassment over arming anti-Colombian rebels and the subsequent threat of US invasion and spike in the price of oil.
  • Russia supports both the Armenians and the Azeris in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, which has led to uncertainty regarding the West's access in the future to the Caspian Sea as an energy transshipment point.
  • During the late Clinton years, Russia trained Ayman al-Zawahiri, who months later officially merged his terrorist organization with bin Laden's al-Qaeda and committed the 1999 US embassy bombings in East Africa, which Lawrence Wright thinks was an attempt to "to lure the United States into Afghanistan." The US responded with cruise missile strikes, and the attacks halted plans for an American-funded gas pipeline in Afghanistan, and ushered in the decade-long period lasting up until today of steadily rising oil prices.

In all of these cases, it wasn't the original sin that made the most impact, but rather then American response to it (or the markets' response to the events in light of recent American posturing). In acts of provocation, the provocateur commits an act that is seen as so egregious that it demands a response, yet the purpose of the attack is not to kill or even to terrorize, but rather to draw the victim into another conflict. When Russian support of anti-American dictators is seen as a tactic for drawing the US into conflict with oil-producing countries, the correct American response is not warmongering, as Putin's American critics would have, but rather a retreat from American imperialism abroad. Just something to think about.

The WaPo finally realizes the root cause of the subprime crisis

The Washington Post had an article about the roots of subprime mortgage crisis which was the paper's website's headline in the morning, and has gradually been pushed lower and lower on the page to the point where now it's not even on the front page of the website. Anyway, the article puts the blame on the government's distortionary activity within the mortgage markets. Beginning around the year 2000, as part of Bush's "ownership society," federal agencies like began aggressively purchasing subprime mortgages, effectively creating a market for them where they otherwise did not exist. Agencies like FHA and HUD, and pseudo-private agencies like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, were the government's tool to manipulate the market for mortgages, and manipulate it they did: 40% of all mortgages are financed by lending companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which hold $5.3 trillion in outstanding debt, and receive tax breaks (read: subsidies) to the tune of $6.5 billion a year.

Part of the irony of Bush's "ownership society" is that it requires taxpayers to fund it. While on its face home ownership might seem like the paragon of private property and private ownership, it's really not in very high demand in the actual free market. While America does indeed have very high rates of homeownership, it's in spite of the market, not because of it. I can't find the statistic at the moment, but I remember reading that only 10% of all Americans owned their own homes in the beginning of the twentieth century. After WWII, mortgages subsidized by the VA (which accounted for, I believe, over half of all mortgages) became the primary vehicle for the widespread fleeing the white middle class from rented apartments, and into the suburbs. These subsidized mortgages were often cheaper than rent, despite the fact that renting doesn't give any permanent rights to the property, while mortgage payments due – a dead giveaway that the proposal was anti-market. After the immediate post-WWII era, homeownership was encouraged with the mortgage interest tax write-off, and the surfeit of lots zoned exclusively for single-family homes, regardless of what the market might actually demand in those locales. The aforementioned federal agencies and pseudo-private corporations also play a role, extending subsidized mortgages to people in the name of encouraging homeownership, which politicians and pundits have for some reason deemed a better option than renting. And, to complete the picture, most recently those left behind from the subsidies – the poor, and especially poor blacks – have had their incentives manipulated through subprime mortgages, increasing (at least temporarily) their rates of homeownership. Only, while in the past the government accounted for the full cost of this subsidy, during the subprime crisis, all the government did was allow the mortgages to be made, but isn't going to be left holding the bag when the payments don't come.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

California developments halted over water

The NYT has an article about something I know little about despite its huge significance: the political economy of water. In California, for the first time, "water officials" are denying requests for developers' projects unless they can prove adequate water resources for the next 20 years. Presumably this only affects new developments, while in-fill projects are waived through because their water resources have already been guaranteed, but the article doesn't say. While the knee-jerk libertarian reaction might be disgust, I think the markets are probably ruined by the government, and current pricing isn't what it would be in a market setting. UCLA professor Edward Leamer corroborates this, saying "[w]ater has been seriously under-priced in California." So, the plan would have an effect similar to a liberalization: increased barriers on sprawling development. But obviously it's only a nudge in the right direction, and is a woefully inadequate mechanism compared to outright liberalization of water resources. To drive home this point, the last paragraph of the article (always a good place to look in NYT articles to find out what the author really thinks) mentions that despite agriculture's outsized consumption of water, it "is being asked to contribute little to conservation under the governor’s plans."

Friday, June 6, 2008

A million Cambodians live on a lake?

Apparently, if you believe the Christian Science Monitor (and I'm not entirely sure that I do on this one), there's a river/lake in Cambodia – Tonlé Sap – that is home to one million people. And by "is home to," I mean they live on the water. The article is about global warming's impact on the residents, but I'm amazed at the simple fact that so many people live their lives floating on a body of water.

The article on the caption above gives the most tantalizing hint, saying: "Living on water: Tonle Sap Lake’s 1 million residents have floating homes, schools, and even gas stations." The subtitle mentions the "1 million floating residents of the Tonle Sap Lake." The body of the text begins with a cute quote from Nam Lai, a carpenter with a houseboat, who says, "I have to move the house farther and farther from the shore." Okay, so, there are a million people floating on a lake in Cambodia, according to the CSM. But, I can't find any other corroboration of that number. The BBC gave a number of around a million, but that wasn't for residents of the lake – it was for people who "depend on it directly for their livelihoods," a number that would presumably include fishermen and people who did commerce around the lake, and not just those who slept a couple feet above the water. According to the UN Development Programme, "about 1.2 million Cambodians live in the area of maximum flooding around Tonle Sap," and "[a] quarter of them live in 170 floating villages on the lake or on the floodplain, in houses built on poles." So even giving the CSM the benefit of the doubt and including people who live on houses built on poles in the floodplain, that's 400,000 Cambodians – a far cry from the CSM's one million. Either the lake's population more than doubled in the last three years, the UN has bad numbers, or the CSM has a lazy reporter and shitty fact-checkers. I suspect the latter.

WSJ calls out Russia on its murderous ways

About a decade ago, Russia experienced its own 9/11: the 1999 apartment bombings that occurred in cities throughout Russia and killed hundreds of people. The last explosion – in an apartment building in Ryazan – never happened, due to the diligence of concerned citizens and the local police. Officially blamed on Chechen terrorists (as most terrorism in Russia is), the clues point in the direction of the Russian secret services. This is something I've talked about before, but I feel that it's a subject that deserves much more consideration, especially for the implications that it raises – if the Russians were willing to murder their own citizens and blame it on Chechen terrorists, what other black flag and clandestine operations have they committed?

Anyway, the reason I bring this up is because a few days ago two sisters wrote an op-ed in the WSJ that neatly outlined the case against the Russian government, and called on Medvedev to investigate the incident. (A request that's entirely rhetorical – everyone involved knows there's no chance of that happening.) It's good to see the West finally realizing the extent of the Russians' malfeasance – about a year ago in an undergraduate IR class, I brought up the point that Chechens were likely not responsible for all the attacks they were blamed for, at which point the TA called me "naïve," the class compared the theory of FSB involvement in the attacks to 9/11 inside job-type conspiracy theories, got confused over the difference between Romania and Belarus, and generally made fools of themselves. The TA was the recipient of a Fulbright scholarship, was a PhD candidate at Georgetown's government program, and specialized in energy politics. He even had a fawning (if facile) piece devoted to him in the WaPo (reminds me of Stuff White People Like #72). Needless to say, the experience made me incredibly cynical of the received wisdom among academics.

Nagorno-Karabakh and the New Great Game

"Private intelligence agency" Stratfor published an article* last month suggesting that Russia was seeking to foment tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the de facto Armenian, de jure Azeri territory of Nagorno-Kabarakh. Another Stratfor article published earlier in the year details the Kremlin's close ties with Armenia (total subjugation of the country's rail and mobile phone networks, and increasing control of the country's energy and mining sectors). Russia has been aiding both sides militarily – the Armenians with Russian troops, and the Azeris with weapons leakage from Russia's recent withdrawal from Caucasian neighbor Georgia.

The more recent article gives three reasons that the Russians would want to stir up trouble over Nagorno-Kaharakh: to be able to say "I told you so" after Kosovo; to make the West think twice about Azerbaijan's stability; and lastly so that Russia could step in and solve it and look good doing so. But, the author only devotes one sentence to the issue of energy, saying that "[t]he West worries that renewed conflict could destabilize their investments in Azeri energy infrastructure." In light of recent bidding between the EU and Russia over the future of Armenia's energy resources, any Russian interference in the region ought to be looked at primarily from the standpoint of energy politics. War between Armenia and Azerbaijan would both raise the risk premium on natural gas and repel Western investors, delivering Armenia back into the hands of the Kremlin. High energy prices finance Putin's regime and placate a citizenry that is otherwise doing pretty poorly, and a monopoly on delivery of natural gas gives Russia leverage over both its former republics and the rest of Europe. If Russia is creating a geopolitical climate that destabilizes energy flows, there can be no doubt that it's acting intentionally.

* The site is subscription-only, but it allows you to see articles if you click a link from Google. So, do a search for the title of the article and click on the link from Google's search results page. Sorry, Stratfor!

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Environmentalists make sure solar technology will never see the light of day

EcoGeek has an article up which summarizes the findings of a Prometheus Institute report, and the conclusion is that solar panels will plummet in cost due to coming oversupplies of silicon, which is currently in short supply. However, the article turns bizarre when the authors insert this editorial comment in the last paragraph:

It may also, though this is probably wishful thinking, push governments to start offering more incentives to those who install solar in a bid to use up the remaining capacity and financially support their manufacturers who by this point will be a very large industry, employing tens of thousands of people.

First of all, one of the benefits of falling prices is precisely the opposite of what the author wants to happen: solar panels might become competitive without the need for subsidies, which would free them from the vagaries of politics. It would blunt any criticism of green technology as government waste, since government would no longer be propping it up. But, to add insult to injury, the cure that they prescribe seems worse than the disease: by propping up the sector, the government would remove the incentives to innovate, and increase the jockeying among solar panel companies for public funds. It could possibly be one of the worst things that the government could do to an infant industry – distort the price mechanism and incentives faced, and ensure that the industry will forever be dependent on the whims of those who hold the pursestrings in Washington. And the "labor-friendly" overtones of supporting industries that create jobs smacks of the techniques that the manufacturing and auto unions used to ensure their own demise, or the increasingly perverse farm subsidies to support a way of life that's long gone despite the money lavished on farmers.

Humans go to work, come home, stay home

Over at the Antiplanner's blog (I find his blog's name incredibly ironic given the author's views, but that's for another time), where I often find myself sucked into repetitive arguments about the merits of contemporary American land use and transportation policy, one commenter made the assertion that individualized transport is inherently superior to mass transit because:

By definition and, communal transport meets only the most common needs. One might lower their aspirations, but it would be like telecom reverting to the party-line phone at the general store.

I take issue with this comment on a number of levels, but today I read an article in the NYT that suggests that "common needs" might be just about all we need. The article is about a study published in Nature that analyzed the movement pattern of 100,000 people in an unnamed European country via cell phone records. The Times write-up didn't have any quantitative specifics, and the study itself is gated, but the researchers concluded that "[i]ndividuals display significant regularity, because they return to a few highly frequented locations, such as home or work." It makes you wonder how necessary the on-demand flexibility of the road/car system really is.

Edit: Reader DS points to this link for an ungated version of the article.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Courts reflect popular opinion, not law

This horse has been beaten to death by the libertarian blogosphere, so I won't spend too much time on it. But, as a recap: California Prop. 98 and 99 were on the ballot, with 99's supporters claiming that 98 was a back-door method of ending rent control, and 98's supporters accusing 99 of not truly protecting property rights, given that it only protects the rights of owner-occupied homes. 99 won, and 98 lost. These dueling property rights referenda were all driven by the Supreme Court's massive expansion of the government's power to use eminent domain in Kelo v. New London, which gave it the power to condemn for not only public works projects, but also for private redevelopment.

But anyway, that's not what I wanted to talk about. What I wanted to talk about was this little bit from Timothy Sandefur's blog:

If you are still confused, or don't trust Prop. 98, at least vote no on Prop. 99. It would make things far worse not only by providing fake protection, but because the courts would interpret it as meaning that Californians did not want more serious protections for property rights.

The implication is that the courts reflect popular opinion on constitutional matters, which on its face seems to be a violation of the principle of the courts as a neutral interpreter of the law and the constitution, and as a restraint on legislative and popular power. Constitutions are protections of citizens' rights against the government, and they are supposed to protect us as much from the popular sentiment of voters as from the government itself. Of course, to anyone who knows anything about the history of American judiciary, this shirking by the courts from their role as counterweights of popular opinion is nothing new. But, just in case you didn't realize it, this ought to be one more nail in the coffin of the neutral judiciary.

Edit: Apparently, my legal knowledge is lacking. See Timothy Sandefur's response in the comments section for clarification...

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Bolivia's eastern regions chafe under socialist rule

In Bolivia, an interesting battle is brewing between the wealthy, more European-blooded residents of the eastern states and the poorer, indigenous-blooded residents of the western part of the country. Bolivia's president is Evo Morales, a dark-skinned socialist who rose to power on the back of anti-capitalist discontent and Hugo Chávez's aggressive push to turn his corner of the world red. The struggle's latest incarnation is a series of referenda for more autonomy for the western states, whose main center is in Santa Cruz:

As presidents from Venezuela to Ecuador and Bolivia vow that they, for the very first time, are governing for the poor, the oppressed, and the indigenous, Latin America is in the midst of a power struggle. Conservative leaders say it is their new responsibility to double up efforts to stem the tide of Mr. Chávez and his leftist coalition – which they claim is not addressing the welfare of those most in need, but attempting to consolidate power and undermine liberties across the region.

"We don't want this to end here," says Carlos Pablo Klinsky, the president of the caucus of legislators in Santa Cruz who helped usher in the autonomy referendum. On Sunday, Bolivians in the Amazonian states of Beni and Pando overwhelmingly voted for more autonomy. With three victories and a fourth vote planned for June 22, Bolivia is emerging as an epicenter of a growing pushback against Latin America's left.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Thomas Edison builds the first el

From Wired, today is 125th anniversary of the debut of Thomas Edison's elevated electric railway demonstration in Chicago. The project was financed with $2 million in private funds, through the newly-incorporated Electric Railway Company. It's enough to make you nostalgic for the days when the government wasn't so involved in transportation and regulating land use, and that it was actually possible for the market to come up with transportation solutions other than the privately-owned, publicly-supported automobiles of today.

It's important to remember, though, that while government regulations was minimal enough that private mass transit companies could exist, they were still hampered by Big Brother. For example, in Chicago, the early elevated train lines didn't go into the central business district because of NIMBY opposition:

Instead trains dropped passengers at stub terminals on the periphery due to a state law requiring approval by neighboring property owners for tracks built over public streets, something not easily obtained downtown.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Benazir Bhutto: WMD pixie

According to author Shyam Bhatia, Benazir Bhutto herself personally delivered nuclear secrets to North Korea in 1993. While it was known/suspected that Pyongyang received its nuclear weapons technology through A. Q. Khan's network, this would be the first time such a high-level political figure is implicated in the trade.

In his book, Bhatia writes that Bhutto brought up the North Korea visit during a discussion in 2003 about her difficulties with Pakistan's military. "Let me tell you something," she declared, before telling Bhatia to turn off his tape recorder. "I have done more for my country than all the military chiefs of Pakistan combined."

At the time, Pakistan was in desperate need of new missile technology that would counter improvements in India's missiles. Bhutto said she was asked to carry "critical nuclear data" to hand over in Pyongyang as part of a barter deal.

"Before leaving Islamabad she shopped for an overcoat with the 'deepest possible pockets' into which she transferred CDs containing the scientific data about uranium enrichment that the North Koreans wanted," Bhatia writes. "She implied with a glint in her eye that she had acted as a two-way courier, bringing North Korea's missile information on CDs back with her on the return journey."

My main question is, why would Bhutto herself be doing this? Pakistan has a very capable and very active secret service, and Bhutto was an elected politician.