Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel: Putin apologist and all-around idiot

Michael Moynihan at Reason's blog shares with us video of an appalling performance by The Nation's editor and publisher (as in, the most important person at the magazine) Katrina vanden Heuvel, who dismisses critics of Putin with regards to journalistic freedom by noting The Nation's ties with Novaya Gazeta, saying "they're thriving." Uh, I guess if you ignore the constant threats to their journalists' lives by the Kremlin.

She even has the gall to blame "the neo-Nazi groups" for the Novaya Gazeta lawyer and journalist killed recently in Moscow. Funny, because her dear friends at Novaya Gazeta have a distinctly different take on the murder:

In the opinion of the Novaya Gazeta staff, of which I am a member, the Russian security services or rogue elements within these services are the prime suspects in the murders of Baburova and Markelov. The boldness of the attack by a single gunman in broad daylight in the center of Moscow required professional preliminary planning and surveillance that would necessitate the security services, which closely control that particular neighborhood, turning a blind eye. The use of a gun with a silencer does not fit with the usual pattern of murders by nationalist neo-Nazi youth groups in Russia, which use homemade explosives, knifes, and group assaults to beat up and stab opponents to death.

Update: Here is an article from 2006 by Katrina vanden Heuvel, arguing that the American and British media were unfairly biased against Russia in their fairly unanimous opinion that Putin or his coterie were behind Alexander Litvinenko's radiation poisoning. Honestly – how dense can you be?

More on the second-generation biofuel scam

Counterpunch has more on what I think ought to be a bigger story: the ongoing failure of subsidized "green" energy sources. This one's about cellulosic ethanol, an "advanced" or "second-generation" biofuel, which promises all the energy independence and environmental cred that the first ethanol (corn ethanol) boasted (of course, it had neither), with the added benefit that it's not produced from food crops so it won't cause food prices to spike across the world (also not entirely true). Anyway, here is the article, and here is an earlier article in Counterpunch about basically the same thing (though I think the more recent one is better).

Here's a pretty long excerpt about the eternal promise that commercially viable non-food biofuels are "just around the corner":

Of all the people on that list, Lovins has been the longest – and the most consistently wrong – cheerleader for cellulosic fuels. His boosterism began with his 1976 article in Foreign Affairs, a piece which arguably made his career in the energy field. In that article, called “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken?” Lovins argued that American energy policy was all wrong. What America needed was “soft” energy resources to replace the “hard” ones (namely fossil fuels and nuclear power plants.) Lovins argued that the U.S. should be working to replace those sources with other, “greener” energy sources that were decentralized, small, and renewable. Regarding biofuels, he wrote that there are “exciting developments in the conversion of agricultural, forestry and urban wastes to methanol and other liquid and gaseous fuels now offer practical, economically interesting technologies sufficient to run an efficient U.S. transport sector.”

Lovins went on “Some bacterial and enzymatic routes under study look even more promising, but presently proved processes already offer sizable contributions without the inevitable climatic constraints of fossil-fuel combustion.” He even claims that given enough efficiency in automobiles, and a large enough bank of cellulosic ethanol distilleries, “the whole of the transport needs could be met by organic conversion.”

In other words, Lovins was making the exact same claim that Midgley made 45 years earlier: Given enough money – that’s always the catch isn’t it? – cellulosic ethanol would provide all of America’s transportation fuel needs.

The funny thing about Lovins is that between 1976 and 2004 -- despite the fact that the U.S. still did not have a single commercial producer of cellulosic ethanol -- he lost none of his skepticism. In his 2004 book Winning the Oil Endgame, Lovins again declared that advances in biotechnology will make cellulosic ethanol viable and that it “will strengthen rural America, boost net farm income by tens of billions of dollars a year, and create more than 750,000 new jobs.”

Lovins continued his unquestioning boosterism in 2006, when during testimony before the U.S. Senate, he claimed that “advanced biofuels (chiefly cellulosic ethanol)” could be produced for an average cost of just $18 per barrel.

Food fact of the day: Goat edition

According to the NYT, goat is the "most widely consumed meat in the world." I can't find any other corroboration (admittedly I didn't look that hard) except another NYT article from two years ago.

A possible explanation for the American and Spanish property bubbles

From an interesting post at The Money Illusion, we find this novel explanation for the housing bubble, which manages to answer that pesky rejoinder, "But why did Spain have a real estate bubble, too?" (Then again, I don't think immigration to Iceland has been especially strong lately...)

The housing bubble in 2004-2006 was partly driven by rapid immigration from Latin America (as was the bubble in Spain itself!), and also by a perception (which turned out false) that coastal zoning constraints were spreading into interior markets. Many Hispanic immigrants were snapping up older ranch houses, allowing native born Americans to move on to bigger McMansions. The immigration crackdown in 2007 dramatically slowed this immigration (as did the worsening economy.) Population growth estimates going several years forward fell sharply, hurting housing speculators. Ground zero of the sub-prime bust is in working class areas of the Southwest and Florida. Any guess as to who bought homes in those areas?

Monday, March 30, 2009

Central America escapes the violence of the drug war, but not for long

Stratfor's been quite good in covering the American drug war emanating in Mexico and radiating outwards, and they've got a great article about the movement of the drug war into Central America. Essentially, way back in the day, Colombian cocaine would go directly to the US, through points in South Florida, but that was eroded by stepped up enforcement in the area. After that, Mexico became a popular transshipment point, as drugs would fly/swim directly from Colombia to Mexico, from which they would be smuggled across or under America's southern border, and into the largest drug market in the Americas.

However, the perpetual whack-a-mole game continues. Mexico and Colombia have cracked down on the direct shipments, so now Colombia cocaine is taking a more circuitous route to Mexico, overland (or by short-haul air or coast-hugging boats) through the countries of Central America into Mexico. As Stratfor notes, the region has luckily avoided the violence normally associated with the drug trade, and the analysts at Stratfor claim that essentially the reason is that those governments have not been fighting the drug smugglers, and so there's been little violence. This is in line with the constant refrain from anti-drug prohibitionists that it's prohibition and enforcement that causes the violence, not the trade itself.

First, most governments in Central America have yet to launch large-scale counternarcotics campaigns. The seizures and arrests that have been reported so far have generally been the result of regular police work, as opposed to broad changes in policies or a significant commitment of resources to address the problem. More significantly, though, the quantities of drugs seized probably amount to just a drop in the bucket compared to the quantity of drugs that moves through the region on a regular basis. Because seizures have remained low, Mexican drug traffickers have yet to launch any significant reprisal attacks against government officials in any country outside Guatemala. In that country, even the president has received death threats and had his office bugged, allegedly by drug traffickers.

Sadly, the US is not content to leave Central America out of this increasingly bloody war:

For one thing, the Merida Initiative, a U.S. anti-drug aid program that will put some $300 million into Mexico and about $100 million into Central America over the next year, could be perceived as a meaningful threat to drug-trafficking operations. If Central American governments choose to step up counternarcotics operations, either at the request of the United States or in order to qualify for more Merida money, they risk disrupting existing smuggling operations to the extent that cartels begin to retaliate.

It's also relevant to remember that this recent surge in drug-related violence in Mexico and along the border is directly related to crackdowns by the Mexican government in recent years, largely at the behest of the Americans.

Mexico's biggest drug lord: thanks for the drug war!

This is pretty funny, and would be embarrassing to the American govenrment if not for the fact that the mainstream media for sure won't cover it: the leader of one of Mexico's two biggest drug cartels thanking the American government for keeping recreational drugs illegal, fueling the black market profits that made Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán Loera, head of the Sinaloa cartel, a billionaire. According to the HuffPo:

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera reported head of the Sinaloa cartel in Mexico, ranked 701st on Forbes' yearly report of the wealthiest men alive, and worth an estimated $1 billion, today officially thanked United States politicians for making sure that drugs remain illegal. According to one of his closest confidants, he said, "I couldn't have gotten so stinking rich without George Bush, George Bush Jr., Ronald Reagan, even El Presidente Obama, none of them have the cajones to stand up to all the big money that wants to keep this stuff illegal. From the bottom of my heart, I want to say, Gracias amigos, I owe my whole empire to you."

And then there's this big, about the Mexican government desperately desiring that the US government legalize drugs, which of course ain't gonna happen:

According to sources in the Mexican government, President Calderon is begging American officials to, in the words of reggae great Peter Tosh, legalize it. "Oh yeah," said an official close to the Mexican president, "Felipe is going crazy. He's screaming at everybody who comes in, 'Why don't they make this sh*t legal already! You're killing me here!' Look, everyone knows, when you have Prohibition, you create gangsters. And the more you prohibit, the more gangsters you make. El Chapo is hero now to all those slumdogs who want to be millionaires. Kids in the street, when they play games, they all want to be El Chapo, the baddest man in the whole damn town."

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The pot rehab industry scam

NORML has some pretty horrifying statistics about the marijuana rehab treatment industry (something I've talked about before), showing that it seems the vast majority of people enrolled in them probably don't have any addiction at all, and have no reason to be in rehab. By the government's own admission, 37% of people admitted to treatment centers for marijuana addiction said they hadn't used marijuana in the month prior to their admission. On top of that, another 16% used it either once, twice, or three times in the month prior to entering rehab. In addition, only 15% of admissions are voluntary – the majority are the work of criminal courts, and the remainder are presumably juveniles sent by their parents.

By the way, I should mention that these treatment centers are (I believe) almost always private, for-profit, and paid for out-of-pocket by those who are sent by courts to them.

Another fun fact about the pot rehab scam industry: they love blogspam, and will leave it on any blog that mentions marijuana and rehabilitation. They take a couple of weeks to pile up, but for an example, look at all the comments I had to delete on an earlier post about pot rehab.

Update: And the spam begins! I'll leave them up just for shits and giggles...

Monday, March 23, 2009

The trade-off between passenger and freight rail

Normally Robert Poole at the Reason Foundation makes my blood curdle, but his blog post at the Reason Foundation brings up a very good point, if it is indeed true: because of Europe's emphasis on passenger rail, they only ship 10% of freight by rail, compared to a figure of 41% in the United States. I'm not entirely sure of the significance of this when all is said and done, but it's a fascinating fact.

So in fact, what the new federal funding will mostly be used for is upgrades to the existing shared passenger/freight tracks, aiming to get Amtrak trains up to speeds of 90 to 100 mph rather than today’s 60 or 70 mph. But that raises the question of getting the best use out of America’s existing railroad infrastructure. While it’s possible, with lots of passing sidings and expensive signaling systems, to operate both fast passenger trains and slower (and much longer) freight trains on the same trackage, the performance of both is hindered. U.S. freight railroads still have serious difficulties attracting time-sensitive freight, because rail freight takes so long (an intermodal trip from Tacoma to Columbus or Cincinnati takes 7 to 12 days) and is so uncertain (i.e., from 7 to 12 days!). Today’s high-tech, just-in-time logistics system cannot operate with such long times or with large schedule uncertainty, which is why so much freight moves by truck instead of rail.

In contrast with the United States, European countries over the last 50 years have opted to use their railroad networks primarily for passenger service (except for the new, separate HSR lines). If you compare goods-movement in Europe (the 27 EU countries) and the United States, you find that as of 2005, rail carried only 10% of all freight ton-miles in Europe, compared with 41% in the USA. Trucks in Europe handled 45% of ton-miles, compared with 30% here. That different mix of goods transport (other categories include pipeline, inland waterway, air freight, and coastwise shipping) has consequences for GHG emissions. In response to my query, Wendell Cox pulled together preliminary estimates of goods-movement GHGs for Europe and the United States and posted them here. (These are preliminary estimates, and Cox welcomes feedback.) What they show is that the GHG intensity of goods movement in Europe averages 193 grams/ton-mile compared with 155 grams/ton-mile in the United States. In other words, the current U.S. policy of using its railroad network mostly for freight is “greener” than the European policy of using its network primarily for passenger service.

Thus, by putting more 100 mph passenger trains on existing railroads, we risk thwarting the hoped-for shift of more freight from truck to rail.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Only a nihilist would oppose a subsidized press

"Only a nihilist would consider it sufficient to rely on profit-seeking commercial interests or philanthropy to educate our youth or defend the nation from attack." — The Nation on news subsidies.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Obama wrong on ag policy, Cuba, and drugs

Stephen Walt and those theoretical IR and government types generally annoy the hell out of me, but he nails it on the head in an article for Foreign Policy called "Dumb and Dumber" about three American foreign policy moves. On all three issues – farm subsidies, the Cuba embargo, and the war on drugs – he takes the libertarian viewpoint.

Unfortunately, Obama doesn't seem to have taken a sensible approach to any of them. On farm subsidies he's mouthed platitudes all the while supporting the bulk of the subsidies, and his campaign-era stance on corn ethanol was downright cynical. On Cuba, he's allowed more remittences and visits home, but hasn't fully liberalized either trade or travel. And on the war on drugs, he's budged about two inches in the right direction: appointing a vaguely progressive drug czar, and halting the federal raids on medical marijuana in states where it's legal under state law.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The NYT can't tell socialism from capitalism

The NYT ran an article the other day about the supposed evils of water privatization in Chile, replete with all sorts of boilerplate platitudes against capitalism (“[the] market can regulate for more economic efficiency, but not for more social-economic efficiency”), and it's pretty emblematic of the lazy way in which the Times throws around the words "free market."

The article focuses on a town called Quillagua, which is (apparently) the driest town in the world – which makes you wonder, maybe humans shouldn't actually be living there in the first place?

But anyway, the bizarre thing about the town's history is that there's really not much in it that could be justifiably pinned on the free market. Here're some bits that directly relate to Quillagua:

That prosperity first began to ebb in 1987, when the military government reduced the water to the town by more than two-thirds, said Raul Molina, a geographer at the University of Chile. But the big blows came in 1997 and 2000, when two episodes of contamination ruined the river for crop irrigation or livestock during the critical summer months.

An initial study by a professor concluded that the 1997 contamination had probably come from a copper mine run by Codelco, the state mining giant. The Chilean government then hired German experts, who said the contamination had a natural origin.

Chile’s regional Agriculture and Livestock Service, part of the Ministry of Agriculture, refuted those findings in 2000, saying in a report that people, not nature, were responsible. Heavy metals and other substances associated with mineral processing were found that killed off the river’s shrimp and made the water undrinkable for livestock. (Drinking water for residents had been transported in for decades.)

Codelco, the world’s largest copper miner, rejects any responsibility. Pablo Orozco, a company spokesman, said that the river water had been bad for years, and that heavy rains around the time of the contamination episodes had briefly swelled it, sweeping sediments and other substances into the water.

First of all, the fact that a "military government reduced the water to the town" seems to me like an argument against public stewardship of water, not for. And then there's the doozy about "the state mining giant," which, in addition to being an offender in Chile, is a global giant, presumably doing similar things across the world. Which leaves me wondering why in the hell the Times thinks that (according to the article's title) "Chilean Town Withers in Free Market for Water." Am I missing something, or did the Times just characterize a military government and a state mining company as the free market?!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Unions and total internet privacy, or a newspaper - take your pick

Apparently you can either have unionized labor or a newspaper, but you can't have both. The NYT reports:

No one knows which will be the first big city without a large paper, but there are candidates all across the country. The Hearst Corporation, which owns The Post-Intelligencer, has also threatened to close The San Francisco Chronicle, which lost more than $1 million a week last year, unless it can wring significant savings from the operation.

In a tentative deal reached Tuesday night, the California Media Workers Guild agreed to less vacation time, longer workweeks and more flexibility for The Chronicle to make layoffs without regard to seniority. Union officials say they have been told to expect the elimination of at least 150 guild jobs, almost one-third of the total, and management is still trying to negotiate concessions from the Teamsters union.

Advance Publications said last fall that it might shut down The Star-Ledger, the dominant paper in New Jersey, but a set of cutbacks and union concessions kept the paper alive in much-downsized form.

With all the hand-wringing on the left about the demise of journalism and the abhorrent suggestion that the government subsidize the news, it's amazing that I haven't heard once the suggestion that perhaps newspapers ought to be immune from laws compelling employers to accept unionized employees any more than a free market in labor would demand. In that ridiculous HuffPo piece by Monroe Price, he digs so deep that he suggests that "[making] subscribing to a newspaper tax-deductible" is a serious way to get people to abandon free online media.

Also: it's funny that none of these people bemoaning the death of the media don't see the connection between targeted advertising initiatives like this one by Google and the continued health of online media, which relies heavily on ad revenue. It's an uncomfortable fact for those who like the idea of the internet as a one-way street, but the truth is: what's good for advertisers is good for consumers, in that without the ad revenues, there's nothing to consume.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Chinese alphabets and logograms

The debate over Chinese characters has always interested me, but I confess to thinking that the struggle was generally between those who wanted to keep the logogram characters, and those who wanted to move to an alphabetic system, like in Vietnam. But, after having read this article (via thebrowser.com – my new favorite link aggregators), I learn that there is a school of thought arguing for a return to traditional Chinese characters (as opposed to the simplified system instituted by the communists in mainland China). The traditional characters are still in use in Macau, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, whereas mainland Chinese and overseas Chinese in Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia use the simplified forms.

It's generally true that the simplified characters are easier to learn, though leaning only them makes it difficult for younger Chinese to understand older texts, and the high literacy rates of Macau, Hong Kong, and Taiwan prove that it's not impossible for a literate society to use traditional characters. However, apparently some thing that excluding people from the literate population is precisely what China ought to do to revive its high culture:

The clash between high and low culture is taken even further by Xu Jinru, a self-described "poet, scholar, and conservative thinker," who frequently argues that simplified characters are directly responsible for social decay: "The more literacy spreads, the further culture declines."

And then on the other end of the spectrum, we have those who believe that China should scrap the character system altogether in favor of a phonetic alphabet. This shift is already underway (albeit unintentionally) among people who've grown up with computers, who input characters using the alphabetic pin-yin system, and who are losing their command of the character system – a system which takes constant practice to maintain.

Most people I know who know something about China and literacy argue that an alphabet is inevitable, but I'll be interested to see fifty years hence how the Chinese are writing.

Obama's Trade Rep admits pandering

I do appreciate the public choice ramifications of democracy, but I still don't totally understand why things like this happen mere months after a president takes office, during a crisis that few believe will still be with us during the run-up to the 2010 election:

[Probable U.S. Trade Representative] Kirk [...] is viewed by many as a pragmatist who in the past has supported the notion of free trade.

Yet the administration, analysts say, is also up against an American public that is increasingly blaming the open U.S. trade policies of the past as part of the toxic mix at the root of the nation's economic problems. Kirk suggested as much yesterday.

"It is true that cheaper foreign products helped squeezed American families stretch their dollars, and the sale of our goods and services abroad support American families," he said. "But it is also true that the overarching benefits of trade are difficult to appreciate when a plant closes in a small community because of increased foreign competition."

Take out the words "families" and "community," and that looks like it could have come straight out of a public choice textbook arguing why inefficient interest group politics are inevitable in a democracy.

Also, I'd be interested to know, before the dawn of the eternal election campaign, were presidential administrations less likely to engage in this sort of blatant populism early on in their terms? I suspect the answer was no, which sort of invalidates the premise of the question – i.e., the eternal election isn't really a modern invention.

William Tucker debunks the notion that a "smart grid" will save America

William Tucker at The Infrastructurist (perhaps my new favorite blog) has an article up in which he debunks the myth that the "smart grid" is going to alleviate America's energy woes.

First of all, he points out that a smart grid and a grid capable of distributing solar and wind power from the states with (i.e., the interior) to the states without (i.e., the coasts) are two totally different projects, and that any effort to conflate the two arrises either out of ignorance of willful deception:

The second premise is that the smart grid will help integrate wind and solar energy - the two balky “renewables” that have the disadvantage of not being dispatchable when we want them. With the smart grid, wind and solar generation will always be available somewhere and so can be conveyed to where it’s needed.

But these are different things. The true “smart grid” will be a digitalized distribution system that conveys real-time information. Incorporating remote wind and solar, on the other hand, will require an upgraded grid, something entirely different. Our present 345-kilovolt AC transmission wires can’t do it without unacceptable line losses. We will need to rebuild to 765-kilovolt DC system – something that could take decades and easily cost several trillion dollars.

And then he makes this point, which explains why all you ever hear about are how you're going to do your dishes and laundry at night instead of during the day:

It’s fitting that the girl is standing in front of a clothes dryer because that and washing dishes are the only examples anyone has ever been able to come up with about how residential users are going to “redistribute” their energy consumption.

What else can they do? Are they going to wait until after midnight to watch television? Are they going to heat up dinner at 4 a.m.? Are they going to turn on lights at sunrise instead of when it gets dark? And how about air conditioning, that most voracious consumer of electricity? One suggestion floated by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) in “The Green Grid,” a study published last June, is that people might “pre-cool” their homes by running the air conditioning in the morning in anticipation of hot afternoons. This may indeed level peak loads. But it will also consume more energy, since some of the pre-cooling will obviously dissipate.

The same author also has another good article on the same blog about nuclear power, in which he argues that it's a lot safer than people think, though I wish he'd spent a bit more time on the economics of nuclear power regulation. Namely, I'd like to know: could nuclear power be cost competitive with coal- and oil-fired power plants and still be just as safe? (Though he does touch on it when he points out that environmental controls on nuclear are much stricter than on coal-fired plants, despite the fact that the latter spew more radioactive substances than their nuclear counterparts.)

A tale of three Guineas

Before having read this article, I confess to not knowing anything about any of the three African countries named Guinea. Luckily, the Lydia Polgreen was there to tell me about how the assassination of two long-feuding potentates in Guinea-Bissau has led to, as the NYT's ever-poignant last paragraph tells us:

“This was a quarrel between two big men,” he said. “Now that they are dead maybe the country finally has a chance to start fresh.”

But, the reason I felt this article was blog-worthy was because of this great paragraph half-way down the second page:

Guinea-Bissau’s neighbors say they worry that West Africa is headed for a new era of instability and conflict. Regional leaders expressed outrage at the assassinations, which seemed of a piece with the coup that followed the death of the president of neighboring Guinea. An amphibious assault on a third country, Equatorial Guinea, aimed at toppling its government, recently failed.

No Papua New Guinea, though.

Monday, March 9, 2009

A better way to decrease homophobia on campuses

The Weekly Standard has an article criticizing Yale's new expenditure on an "Office of LGBTQ Resources," in light of recent cut-backs in other areas. Though I disagree with some things in the article (what's so bad about "gender-neutral housing," which doesn't cost a cent?), I agree with the overall gist, which is that an LGBTQ office isn't going to do jack-shit for anyone.

Might I suggest another strategy colleges around the country could take to decrease incidences of homophobia on campus: stop giving sports scholarships and recruiting people for sports who otherwise wouldn't have gained admission. It might not be PC to say it, but in my experience, those are the worst offenders when it comes to homophobia.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Is the iPhone really a failure in Japan?

Every once in a while some naïve American journalist hears that the iPhone is a flop in Japan because Japan is cell phone utopia/Japanese people are robots/etc. The latest attempt is from Wired, entitled "Why the Japanese Hate the iPhone." Apparently not only is this not true, but the author made up some of the quotes. That link, an original article from Apple Insider (a member of the Apple rumors community), also gives a much more nuanced and interesting look at the Japanese cell phone market and Apple's position in it.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The folly of capital requirements

Jeffrey Hummel at the History News Network has a great post (which repeats information originally give by Less Antman) on the harm of capital and reserve requirements, and how deposit insurance encourages banking consumers to ignore the risks their banks are taking with their money:

"While foresighted bank executives might have chosen to maintain capital in excess of regulatory requirements so that a decline in value wouldn't trigger a crisis, it would have made no business sense to do so, since it would have reduced their lending income and ability to pay competitive rates on deposits or offer other benefits to attract customers. In a free market, they would have been able to do so, since they would have gained a reputation advantage from their greater safety, but with FDIC insurance protecting all deposits, customers don't shop based on safety, as they assume they are protected by the government from the loss of their deposits. Thus, only the rates and benefits offered by a bank matter to a customer, not the reliability of the bank, thanks to the FDIC."

The whole post is well worth reading, as it delves into some of the other unintended consequences of bank regulation.

The economics of marijuana

There seems to be this notion floating around the internet that a marijuana tax would pull in a lot of money, but we're not in the 1930s anymore, and no tax on an intoxicant is going to make a dent in the economy. There would be some savings on the justice end, with reduced police and violence due to the illegal marijuana trade, but the American justice system already doesn't spend all that much resources on enforcing marijuana crimes.

Now if you wanna start talking about heroin and cocaine – where you would see extraordinary savings on law enforcement (in America, most crime is drug crime) and public health (heroin overdoses are almost always caused by prohibition, not the drug itself), then you might have a point.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

How some tariffs can actually be pro-free trade

Here's something you don't see every day: anti-protectionist tariffs. The European Commission is reportedly considering tacking import tariffs on biodiesel from the US in order to counter the subsidies that American producers receive from their own government. The tariffs will be tailored to, among other things, the amount of subsidies that the fuel receives back in the US:

The level of tariffs would be tailored to individual companies to reflect the types and amounts of the fuel they produce, and the amount of subsidies and other support they receive from American authorities, the diplomats said.

While this action would cancel out the effects of some of the American subsidies, there's still the matter of the European subsidies. The obvious reason for the encouragement of biodiesel is that it's more environmentally-friendly than fossil fuels, though I wonder if this is really the case.

Obama's overture to Russia is doomed to fail

Apparently Obama has offered Russia a (not so) secret compromise, in which the US gives up on missile installations in Eastern Europe if Russia convinces Iran to give up its nuclear program and long-range missile development. My prediction is that Russia won't outright refuse, and it might even show signs of accepting, but Iran will definitely not be disarmed. Russia will perhaps issue some token public statement urging Iran to give up its military ambitions, but they will be intentionally half-hearted, and they might even communicate privately with Iran that they have no intention of stopping their support of these programs.

Or, perhaps, Russia will take the opportunity to squeeze Iran, allowing it much desired access to its oil and natural gas reserves.

Either way, Iran's nuclear program guarantees Russia a tighter hold on energy to Europe from the Caspian, and it's vital to the Kremlin's foreign policy that Iran stays an enemy of the West.

Italian underemployment

Tyler Cowen the other day remarked about the perhaps increasing irrelevance of unemployment figures, given the apparently rising phenomenon of "underemployment," where workers are counted as employed despite the fact that they work much fewer hours and earn much less money than they have in the past.

Perry Anderson, in a fascinating recap in the London Review of Books of Italy's history since the beginning of the Second Republic in 1992, gives a good example of underemployment-in-action:

Redeeming this desolation has, to all intents and purposes, been just one improvement, in job creation. Unemployment, which stood at 12 per cent in the mid-1990s has dropped to 6 per cent today. But most of this work – half of all the new posts in 2006 – involves short-term contracts, and much of it is precarious employment in the informal economy. No counteracting dynamism has resulted. In the formula of the Neapolitan sociologist Enrico Pugliese, Italy has gone from growth without jobs in the last years of the First Republic to jobs without growth under the Second, blocking productivity gains.

In case you're curious about Anderson's verdict on the so-called "reforms" of the Second Republic, here's the last paragraph:

Growth was not liberated, but asphyxiated. Export shares have fallen, and the public debt, the third largest in the world, has remained stubbornly above 100 per cent of GDP, mocking the provisions of Maastricht. When the Second Republic started, Italy still enjoyed the second highest GDP per capita of the big EU states, measured in purchasing power parity, after Germany – a standard of living in real terms above that of France or Britain. Today it has fallen below an EU average now weighed down by the relative poverty of the East European states, and is close to being overtaken by Greece.

Overtaken by Greece?! That's saying something...

Monday, March 2, 2009

Obama administration fights to keep inmates from paying for DNA tests that could prove their innocence

It's hard to say whether or not Obama or any of his appointees in the Justice Department approved this, but it's pretty appalling nonetheless:

Does the U.S. Constitution permit an innocent person to be imprisoned or executed? Seems like a question with an obvious answer.

Here’s another question: If a convict can establish irrefutable proof of his innocence with a simple DNA test, does he have a constitutional right to that test, even if he has exhausted his legal appeals?

The answer to both questions isn’t at all clear, and may depend on how the Supreme Court rules in the case of District Attorney's Office v. Osborne, which it heard today. Surprisingly, 32 states, the city of New York, and the Obama administration are urging the Court to answer "no."

The defendant in the case is William Osborne, who in 1993 was convicted of a brutal kidnapping, rape, and assault in Alaska. DNA testing on semen found in a condom at the crime scene didn't exclude Osborne, but it did include as many as 16 percent of all black men. More sophisticated testing not available at the time of Osborne’s trial would today conclusively determine whether he actually committed the crime. Even the state of Alaska concedes that a negative test would confirm that Osborne is innocent. The test would cost all of $1,000, a fee that would be paid not by the state, but by Osborne’s own legal team at the Innocence Project.

Yet the state of Alaska refuses to hand the sample over for testing, and has fought all the way to the Supreme Court to keep it from Osborne’s lawyers.

Former FBI director William Sessions says something that makes me think that Obama hasn't heard of this particular Justice Department decision, though it's entirely possible that he's already sold out to political expediency:

It's a generally laudatory goal for a new president to continue the DoJ polices of the previous one when he takes office. But a change in position may be warranted in some cases. Osborne is one of them. The Justice Department's decision is particularly perplexing because when President Obama was an Illinois state senator, he responded to that state's wrongful conviction problem by leading a bipartisan effort to help prevent convictions of the innocent, including laws allowing access to DNA evidence.

People catching on to the second-generation biofuel scam

Obama had so much fun getting burned for his misguided support of state subsidies to corn ethanol producers that he's decided to do it again, this time with "next generation" biofuels that use things like prairie grasses to fuel SUVs instead of food. The thinking behind it is that despite the fact that corn-based ethanol caused massive increases in the price of food around the world, these "newer" and "greener" biofuels will use "marginal land" instead of crop land, and so will not be as harmful. This, of course, is bullshit, as I've written about earlier. Others are beginning to come around to this fact, and Counterpunch has a great article on the dangers of biofuels.

So far, Obama's energy plan has featured, as a cornerstone, tons of subsidization of "green" energy – first in corn ethanol, and later in advanced biofuels, wind, solar, geothermal, and some various other technologies. It's only been a few years since Obama's risen to prominence and taken a definitive stand on energy issues, but his record ain't too hot: corn-based ethanol and "advanced" biolfuels are looking like definite failures, wind is looking not too great, and the production of regulated solar panels has the nasty side effect of releasing a chemical which is much better at warming the planet than carbon dioxide.

The American government spends a lot of money making sure that Americans have access to cheap energy, so it's odd Obama wouldn't look into cutting subsidies for un-environmentally friendly suburban sprawl and automobiles rather than trying to play master scientist and build a perpetual motion machine.