Monday, September 27, 2010

Moving on...

So, you've probably already noticed that I've more or less given up on this blog...I've had it for years but it never really got much readership. I've been blogging recently at, a blog about urban planning and the free market, and I post pretty often, so if you're interested, add it to y'all's feed readers. And, of course, if you've got any job offers for a recent graduate, email me! (smithsj -at- gmail -dot- com)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Israel eases its Gaza blockade, smuggling tunnels go unused

I've written quite a bit in the past about the flourishing smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Egypt which supplied the blockaded territory with goods not available through legitimate trade (one source put the number at 90%, though I can't vouch for this figure). The tunnels were dangerous and Hamas was known to tax them, but they served their purpose.

It looks like now, however, they are falling into disuse as Israel has eased its blockade:

"Israel now allows more food, different kinds of it, juice, electrical equipment and even fridges, therefore merchants shifted their business to the old regular way and abandoned tunnels," he added.

Israel relaxed its restrictions in June in the wake of its raid to halt a blockade-running flotilla from reaching Gaza in a military operation that killed nine activists and drew widespread international condemnation.

While counterfactuals are difficult, this easing appears to be a direct result of the Gaza flotilla raid and the attention that it brought to the situation. At the time, I thought the activists were drawing more attention to themselves than anything else – there were way more people on the "aid" boats than there needed to be, and the used clothing and toys that made up the bulk of the cargo were relatively useless. But I suppose now that the blockade has been eased, I stand corrected.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The FHA picks up where Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac left off

As if New York City's rent control (which regulates rents in about half of all units in the five boroughs) hadn't done enough damage to the city's housing stock and renters' wallets, the Federal Housing Administration is currently doing its part to ensure that no luxury Manhattan condo goes unsold:

At least nine Manhattan condo developments south of 96th Street have sought approval for FHA backing since the agency loosened its financing rules in December, according to a database of applications maintained by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The change allows the FHA to insure loans in new projects where only 30 percent of units are in contract, down from at least 50 percent. About 1,900 apartments in New York’s most expensive neighborhoods would be covered by the applications.

This is precisely the sort of mission creep that led Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to move outside their core mission of offering home loans to the needy, and which eventually brought down the two companies, and likely played a key role in bringing down the world's economy. One economist's assessment of the risk the FHA is taking on sounds pretty familiar:

Caplin testified before Congress in March, arguing that FHA may need a taxpayer bailout because the agency relies on overly optimistic assumptions on unemployment, home prices and loan performance to predict losses.

This trend is not necessarily new – I noticed it first two years ago – but the fact that the FHA is still growing its housing portfolio suggests that whatever meager recovery the US housing sector has managed may not be sustainable. History is full of people repeating mistakes, but America's housing czars seem downright amnesiac.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Nothing green about fake meat

Caring for the environment is the latest and most trendy reason to go vegetarian (or...*gasp*...vegan!), but apparently if you're making up for meat by eating a lot of fake meat, you might be hurting Mother Earth more than if you'd stuck to chicken and fish:

In general, Eshel says, it's true that raw veggies are an excellent nutritional bargain: For every 100 calories of energy put into producing conventional beef, from farm to supermarket shelf, you get only six calories back to eat. Compare that with apples, which yield 110 calories, or raw soy: an amazing 415. In terms of greenhouse gases, switching from a diet that includes red meat to a plants-only one is roughly equivalent to trading in your SUV for a Camry.

But a girl can only eat so much roasted kale before she starts craving protein: tofu, veggie burgers, and the (okay, creepy) occasional piece of fakin' bacon. But coaxing soy into a red-and-white rectangular strip takes work—which is why Eshel believes most veggie burgers are the caloric equivalent of "shooting yourself in the foot." A 2009 study by the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology found that while producing a plate of peas requires a fraction of the energy needed to produce the same number of calories of pork, the energy costs of a pea-burger and a pork chop are about equal.

That's not the only issue with fake meat. Consider the process that keeps your veggie burgers low in fat: The cheapest way to remove fatty soybean oil is with hexane, an EPA-registered air pollutant and suspected neurotoxin. A 2009 study by the Cornucopia Institute, a sustainable-farming nonprofit, found that Boca, Morningstar Farms, and Gardenburger (among others) market products made with hexane. The finding was enough to turn Cornucopia researcher Charlotte Vallaeys off of fake meat. "I can't think of a single meat-alternative product where I could explain how every ingredient is made," she says. "With a grass-fed burger, well, there's one ingredient. And with grass-fed burgers I actually might be doing something good for the environment."

Mormons and Mexico

The Economist has an otherwise-not-very-interesting article about Utah Republicans' decidedly non-Arizonan attitude towards immigration, but I thought this part about Mormons was interesting:

It might also have helped that virtually everybody at the table was Mormon. The Arizona state senator who sponsored SB1070, Russell Pearce, is also Mormon, which has led to speculation that this is why the Mormon Church has not yet expressed a moral opinion on the matter. But as Mormons, many of Utah’s politicians have either been in Latin America as missionaries in their youth or have loved ones who were. Mr Herbert’s son has been to Puerto Rico. Mr Sandstrom once proselytised in Venezuela and says he even has a permanent-residency permit there (through a fluke of paperwork). He once sponsored a Venezuelan family to come to America legally.

Mexico looms large in the history of the Mormons – it was one of the original destinations of East Coast Mormons like Jospeh Smith fleeing persecution in the 1840's back when what is now the American Southwest was Mexico. Even after Mexico lost California and Mormons found a home in the Salt Lake Valley, migration to Mexico became appealing again in the 1880's, when Mormons were forced to renounce polygamy in order to join the Union. The Mexican Revolution eventually forced the Mormon families out of Mexico in the early 20th century and back to the US where they became leading members of the Mormon church (including the Romneys).

Despite its history as a sanctuary for white fundamentalist Mormons, vast majority of the 1.2 million Mormons living in Mexico today are Mexican converts and do not practice polygamy. Despite the Economist's rosy picture of international travel breeding tolerance, I have a feeling Utah's tolerance of immigration relative to Arizona has more to do with it not being a border state and Mexicans' propensity to convert to Mormonism.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Kids don't talk on the phone anymore


Nearly all age groups are spending less time talking on the phone; boomers in their mid-50s and early 60s are the only ones still yakking as they did when Ma Bell was America's communications queen. But the fall of the call is driven by 18- to 34-year-olds, whose average monthly voice minutes have plunged from about 1,200 to 900 in the past two years, according to research by Nielsen. Texting among 18- to 24-year-olds has more than doubled in the same period, from an average of 600 messages a month two years ago to more than 1,400 texts a month, according to Nielsen.

Young people say they avoid voice calls because the immediacy of a phone call strips them of the control that they have over the arguably less-intimate pleasures of texting, e-mailing, Facebooking or tweeting. They even complain that phone calls are by their nature impolite, more of an interruption than the blip of an arriving text.

Friday, August 6, 2010

New York City's many Chinatowns

This isn't breaking news, but I thought it was interesting: Queens has two Chinatowns, Flushing and Elmhurst, and Flushing has a larger Chinese population than Manhattan's Chinatown. Brooklyn also has its own Chinatown in Sunset Park, which is dominated by immigrants from Fujian Province. This is not to be confused with Little Fuzhou, an enclave in Manhattan's Chinatown of immigrants from the capital and largest city of Fujian Province. There is apparently a budding Chinatown in Edison, NJ, though it's more like a downsized version of Monterey Park rather than the traditional crowded urban Chinatowns. Monterey Park was the first suburban Chinatown, which has expanded such that Asians constitute a majority of the population of the sprawling San Gabriel Valley east of Los Angeles (which, of course, has a more traditional downtown Chinatown).

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Republicans who legalized gay marriage

Well, I'm not sure if he's a Republican, but he sure has a conservative pedigree. Quoteth David Boaz, via Reason:

In other words, this “liberal San Francisco judge” was recommended by Ed Meese, appointed by Ronald Reagan, and opposed by Alan Cranston, Nancy Pelosi, Edward Kennedy, and the leading gay activist groups. It’s a good thing for advocates of marriage equality that those forces were only able to block Walker twice.

He also notes that two other very prominent pro-gay marriage judges – the one involved in Iowa's surprise gay marriage legalization and the one in Boston who overturned DOMA – were also appointed by Republicans.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The culture that is Kuwait

Apparently Ramadan ain't so great for the live-ins:

And in the coming weeks, when Ramadan starts, the number of maids seeking protection is expected to grow, perhaps by the hundreds, straining the capacity of the improvised shelters, embassy officials say. With Kuwaiti families staying up into the early hours of the morning, some maids say they cook more, work longer hours and sleep less.

Rosflor Armada, who is staying in the Philippines Embassy, said that last year during Ramadan, she cooked all day for the evening meal and was allowed to sleep only about two hours a night.

“They said, ‘You will work. You will work.’ ” She said that she left after her employers demanded that she wash the windows at 3 a.m.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Deportations rise under Obama

The increase hasn't been dramatic, but it's there, reporteth the Washington Post:

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency expects to deport about 400,000 people this fiscal year, nearly 10 percent above the Bush administration's 2008 total and 25 percent more than were deported in 2007. The pace of company audits has roughly quadrupled since President George W. Bush's final year in office.