Wednesday, May 30, 2012

More myths of the environmental movement:
According to the standard fable, post-war environmental conditions got inexorably worse until the nation's environmental consciousness awoke in the 1960s and demanded action. State and local governments were environmental laggards, according to this story, and only the federal government was capable of safeguarding ecological concerns. Events such as the 1969 fire on the Cuyahoga River, memorialized in Time magazine with this picture, are pointed to as support for this traditional account. This fire, which helped spur passage of the 1972 Clean Water Act, is constantly cited as evidence of how bad things were before the federal government got involved.

Yet the standard fable is just that, a fable - a fictionalized account with some truth, but fiction nonetheless. Let's start with the 1969 fire. There was a fire on the Cuyahoga River in June 1969, Time magazine did run a photo of a fire on the Cuyahoga, and the story of the fire did help spur passage of the CWA. But that's about where the truth ends. The fire was actually a minor event in Cleveland, largely because river fires on the Cuyahoga had once been common, as they had been on industrialized rivers throughout the United States, throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But river fires were costly and posed serious risks to people and property, prompting local governments and private industry to act. The fire was not evidence of how bad things could get, but a reminder of how bad things had been.

Further, the June 1969 fire was far smaller and less significant than the fires of years past. Where there had been some major infernos on the Cuyahoga in years past, the 1969 fire was not among them. The fire burned for less than thirty minutes, and was out before the cameras arrived. (Here's the closest thing to a picture of that fire.) And that picture in Time magazine? It was not of the 1969 fire but of a fire from 1952. Apparently the editors of Time felt the need to dramatize their story of environmental ruin with a picture of a real fire, so they used the best picture they could find, even if it was not of the fire featured in their story. [For those interested, here is an extensive treatment of this history.]

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

More from the War on Science.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Our creeping regulatory state:
As a new report issued today by the Institute for Justice discusses, more and more Americans now need the government’s permission before they can pursue the occupation of their choice. The IJ report, “License to Work: A National Study of Burdens from Occupational Licensing,” shows that for lower-income Americans, these government-imposed “occupational licensing” hurdles are not only widespread, but often unreasonably high. License to Work details licensing requirements for 102 low- and moderate-income occupations in all 50 states and D.C. It is the first national study of licensing to focus on lower-income occupations and to measure the burdens licensing imposes on aspiring workers.

Are All These Licenses Necessary?

Noted licensure expert Morris Kleiner found that in the 1950s, only one in 20 U.S. workers needed government permission to pursue their chosen occupation. Today, it is closer to one in three. Yet research to date provides little evidence that licensing protects public health and safety or improves products and services. Instead, it increases consumer costs and reduces opportunities for workers.

License to Work provides additional reasons to doubt that many licensing regimes are needed. First, most of the 102 occupations are practiced somewhere without government permission and apparently without widespread harm: Only 15 are licensed in 40 states or more, and on average, the 102 occupations are licensed in just 22 states—fewer than half. This includes a number of occupations with no self-evident rationale for licensure, such as shampooer, florist, home entertainment installer and funeral attendant.

Second, licensure burdens often vary considerably across states, calling into question the need for severe burdens. For instance, although 10 states require four months or more of training for manicurists, Alaska demands only about three days and Iowa about nine days. Such disparities are prevalent throughout the occupations studied.

Finally, the difficulty of entering an occupation often has little to do with the health or safety risk it poses. Of the 102 occupations studied, the most difficult to enter is interior designer, a harmless occupation licensed in only three states and D.C. By contrast, EMTs hold lives in their hands, yet 66 other occupations face greater average licensure burdens, including barbers and cosmetologists, manicurists and a host of contractor designations. States consider an average of 33 days of training and two exams enough preparation for EMTs, but demand 10 times the training—372 days, on average—for cosmetologists. “The data cast serious doubt on the need for such high barriers, or any barriers, to many occupations,” said Lisa Knepper, IJ director of strategic research and report co-author. “Unnecessary and needlessly high licensing hurdles don’t protect public health and safety—they protect those who already have licenses from competition, keeping newcomers out and prices high.”

Monday, May 21, 2012

Walter Russel Meade:
And if Europe cuts Greece loose, Russia may fill the void there as well. There are close cultural ties between these Orthodox countries, and both are like to join in a feeling of bitterness and exclusion vis-à-vis the West.

Americans often don’t “get” the Russia-Greek connection. In Ottoman times, Orthodox Russia was the protector of Orthodox Christians in the great Islamic empire and frequently used its diplomatic clout to defend the rights of its co-religionists. Greece looked to Russia as a reliable ally during much of the troubled period after modern Greece gained independence from the Turks.

The feeling is reciprocal. Russia received the gospel from Greek Christians. The Russian tsars married into the Byzantine royal house; the word tsar (or czar) is the Russian form of Caesar, indicating the strong Russian sense that Orthodox Moscow, after the fall of Constantinople, was the “Third Rome.” Much of modern Russian identity and sense of a unique place in the world is wrapped up in its civilizational connection with Byzantine culture and religion.

Mount Athos, the center of Orthodox monasticism and the spiritual heart of Greece, looms large in Russia. No less a person than President Vladimir Putin has made pilgrimages to this site.

There are other connections as well. Much of the Russian oligarchy’s money has been moved through Greek Cyprus, where the banking system has long been very close to post-Communist Moscow.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

FT Alphaville remains quite bearish on China, indicating that China may be suffering from the leading edge of a significant financial crisis from excess renminbi liquidity. But more alarming is the increased sketchiness of China's official trade and GDP numbers. They cite, among a long list of other items, this troubling anecdote in a recent NYT article:
In a series of interviews over the last week, bankers and senior executives from provinces all over China, in a range of light and heavy industries, cited a broad deterioration in business conditions. Two of them said that some tax agencies in smaller cities had been telling companies to inflate their sales and profits to make local economic growth look less weak than it really was, while reassuring the companies that their actual tax bills would be left unchanged.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Jim Manzi has a new book out arguing that we need to leverage randomized control trials to test the efficacy of public policies:
In “Uncontrolled,” Manzi looks at two celebrated model-building exercises. Larry Bartels of Princeton produced a model finding that presidential policies exercise the single biggest influence on income distribution. The authors of “Freakonomics” produced a model showing legalized abortions subsequently reduced crime rates.

Manzi argues that by slightly tweaking the technical assumptions in these models, you eliminate the headline-grabbing results. He also points out that regression models that try to explain crime rates have not become more accurate over the past 30 years. All this model-building hasn’t even helped us get better at understanding the problem.

What you really need to achieve sustained learning, Manzi argues, is controlled experiments. Try something out. Compare the results against a control group. Build up an information feedback loop. This is how businesses learn. By 2000, the credit card company Capital One was running 60,000 randomized tests a year — trying out different innovations and strategies. Google ran about 12,000 randomized experiments in 2009 alone...

Businesses conduct hundreds of thousands of randomized trials each year. Pharmaceutical companies conduct thousands more. But government? Hardly any. Government agencies conduct only a smattering of controlled experiments to test policies in the justice system, education, welfare and so on...
This sounds like an obvious idea, but small steps to do exactly this meet with significant opposition, like this example from last December's New York Times:
The city’s Department of Homeless Services said the study was necessary to determine whether the $23 million program, called Homebase, helped the people for whom it was intended. Homebase, begun in 2004, offers job training, counseling services and emergency money to help people stay in their homes.

But some public officials and legal aid groups have denounced the study as unethical and cruel, and have called on the city to stop the study and to grant help to all the test subjects who had been denied assistance.

“They should immediately stop this experiment,” said the Manhattan borough president, Scott M. Stringer. “The city shouldn’t be making guinea pigs out of its most vulnerable.”...

One critic of the trial, Councilwoman Annabel Palma, is holding a General Welfare Committee hearing about the program on Thursday. “I don’t think homeless people in our time, or in any time, should be treated like lab rats,” Ms. Palma said.

But Seth Diamond, commissioner of the Homeless Services Department, said that just because 90 percent of the families helped by Homebase stayed out of shelters did not mean it was Homebase that kept families in their homes. People who sought out Homebase might be resourceful to begin with, he said, and adept at patching together various means of housing help.
Interestingly, the one example cited in the article of someone who didn't receive government assistance was able to get some elsewhere, showing that this policy, may not in fact be necessary. Back to the first article:
[T]he general lesson of randomized experiments is that the vast majority of new proposals do not work, and those that do work only do so to a limited extent and only under certain circumstances. This is true in business and government. Politicians are not inclined to set up rigorous testing methods showing that their favorite ideas don’t work.
It is not just a matter of wasting money on policies which don't work. It is possible that programs may actually harm their beneficiaries, making these types of studies a moral imperative.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Chinese growth miracle:
[V]isitors to Chongqing marvel at the soaring skyscrapers and modern infrastructure built during Bo’s tenure there. But do they know that Bo’s administration borrowed the equivalent of more than 50% of local GDP to finance the construction binge, and that a large portion of the debt will go unpaid? Unfortunately, Bo’s case is not the exception in China, but the rule...

Inflating local growth numbers is so endemic that reported provincial GDP growth data, when added up, are always higher than the national growth data, a mathematical impossibility. And, even when they do not doctor the numbers, local officials can game the system in another way.

Because of their relatively short tenure in one position before promotion (less than three years, on average, for local mayors), Chinese officials are under enormous pressure to demonstrate their ability to produce economic results quickly. One sure way of doing so is to use financial leverage, typically by selling land or using land as collateral to borrow large sums of money from often-obliging state-owned banks, to finance massive infrastructure projects, as Bo did in Chongqing.

The result is promotion for such officials, because they have delivered quick GDP growth. But the economic and social costs are very high. Local governments are saddled with a mountain of debt and wasted investments, banks accumulate risky loans, and farmers lose their land.
From what I gather, government debt at the local level is excessively high, and the role of government owned banks is widely unappreciated.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Chinese Meritocracy:
Because educational attainment is considered a measure of merit, officials scramble to obtain advanced degrees in order to gain an advantage in the competition for power.

The overwhelming majority of these officials end up receiving doctorates (a master’s degree won’t do anymore in this political arms race) granted through part-time programs or in the Communist Party’s training schools. Of the 250 members of provincial Communist Party standing committees, an elite group including party chiefs and governors, 60 claim to have earned PhDs.

Tellingly, only ten of them completed their doctoral studies before becoming government officials. The rest received their doctorates (mostly in economics, management, law, and industrial engineering) through part-time programs while performing their duties as busy government officials. One managed to complete his degree in a mere 21 months, an improbable feat, given that course work alone, without the dissertation, normally requires at least two years in most countries’ doctoral programs. If so many senior Chinese officials openly flaunt fraudulent or dubious academic degrees without consequences, one can imagine how widespread other forms of corruption must be.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

How often do we hear people say we must “get on the right side of history,” as if they know their own history? “When they say it, what do people mean?”...

They may mean “my side,” or “the good side,” or “the side that posterity will smile on.” People may be alluding to the ultimate triumph of liberal democracy. Or they may be alluding to the ultimate triumph of socialism, or a stricter form of collectivism. For generations, the Left has assumed that history marches with them: Get out of the way, or be crushed.

The phrase has what British historian Robert Conquest calls a “Marxist twang.” The Marxists believed that history was predictable and unidirectional, so of course there must be a right side and a wrong side to it. The candle makers were on the wrong side, the lightbulb makers the right side. But history doesn’t work like that. There were times when it was obvious that technology aided tyrants and there have been times— much like our own—when it seemed equally obvious that technology must liberate the individual. The truth is, it must do neither.
The problem is "the inevitable march of history" is an idea which ignores, for better or worse, individual agency. Individual freedom. From Jonah Goldberg's The Tyranny of Cliches, excerpted in NR.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Modern Slavery:
The price for a North Korean woman named Kim Eun-sun, her mother, and sister, to escape to China was 2,000 Chinese yuan, slightly more than $300. Like thousands of North Korean women before them, they crossed the Tumen River into China and met a woman who said she would help them escape –only to discover that they’d been sold to a Chinese farmer who wanted a wife.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Natural Gas, the US and Russia:
Gazprom supplied 27 percent of Europe’s natural gas in 2011. While American gas is trading below $2 per MMBTU (million British thermal units), Gazprom’s prices are tied to crude oil markets, and its long-term contracts charge customers roughly $13 per MMBTU, says the FT. European customers would love to reduce their dependence on Gazprom and start to import American gas. Already Gazprom has had to make concessions to its three biggest customers, and others are increasingly dissatisfied with their contracts.
It is important to note that shipping liquid natural gas overseas is dangerous and complicated, and the US doesn't have much infrastructure to do so, so that price delta isn't straightforward. But, Russia has spent most of the past decade holding Eastern Europe hostage with gas, so this is more of a direct affront to their power projection than any anti-missile plans that NATO may harbor.
Hamas will not go to war for Iran.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting editorial proclaiming that the right has officially captured the mantle of human-rights from the left:
Liberals and Democrats who work on human-rights issues won't like to hear this, but with the Obama presidency, human rights has completed its passage away from the political left, across the center and into its home mainly on the right—among neoconservatives and evangelical Christian activists.

Conservatives didn't capture the issue. The left gave it away.

The official formulation of the left's revision of human rights came two months into the Obama presidency, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's widely noted comment in Beijing that the new administration would be going in a different direction: "Our pressing on those issues [human rights] can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis."

Human-rights groups went ballistic, perhaps on hearing their cause would compete for the president's time with the "global climate change crisis." Whether Iran, Libya or China, human rights as understood for a generation was on the back burner, with the heat off.
Most on the left would deny it, but the trend is very real. The editorial does perpetuate one myth though:
Mr. Obama is a man of the left. His interests are local. The Democratic left can only be understood on any subject if placed inside one, unchanging context: the level of public money available for their domestic policy goals.

It's never enough. And standing between them and Utopia is a five-sided monument to American power across the Potomac... The Obama White House put a bull's-eye on the defense budget from the start.
The implication is that there is a significant amount of money for domestic spending to be found in the Defense budget. The problem is that the numbers don't back up this impulse. Even if we completely shuttered the Defense Department, we wouldn't close the budget deficit--in 2011, the total deficit was $1.3 Trillion when DoD spending was $712 Billion. We also live in a federal system. In the aggregate, state and local governments spend nearly as much as the feds. Keeping this in mind, defense accounts for only 14% of all spending. This is not to say that there aren't cuts to be made in DoD, only that the pie isn't as large as some think.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

“What do you want?” the commander said, clutching a length of industrial pipe.

“What do you mean?” the prisoner said.

“What do you want?” the commander repeated. He paused. “Don’t you remember?”

Of course Najjar remembered. Until a few weeks earlier, he was a notorious guard at one of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s prisons. Then Tripoli fell, and the same men he’d beaten for so long tracked him down at his sister’s house and dragged him to their base. Now they were mimicking his own sadistic ritual. Every day, Najjar greeted the prisoners with the words What do you want? forcing them to beg for the pipe — known in the prison by its industrial term, PPR — or be beaten twice as badly. The militia commander now standing behind him, Jalal Ragai, had been one of his favorite victims.

“What do you want?” Jalal said for the last time. He held the very same pipe that had so often been used on him.

“PPR!” Najjar howled, and his former victim brought the rod down on his back.

I heard this story in early April from Naji Najjar himself.
Absolutely fascinating piece on the state of the militias and government in Libya.
Libya has no army. It has no government. These things exist on paper, but in practice, Libya has yet to recover from the long maelstrom of Qaddafi’s rule. The country’s oil is being pumped again, but there are still no lawmakers, no provincial governors, no unions and almost no police. Streetlights in Tripoli blink red and green and are universally ignored. Residents cart their garbage to Qaddafi’s ruined stronghold, Bab al-Aziziya, and dump it on piles that have grown mountainous, their stench overpowering. Even such basic issues as property ownership are in a state of profound confusion. Qaddafi nationalized much of the private property in Libya starting in 1978, and now the old owners, some of them returning after decades abroad, are clamoring for the apartments and villas and factories that belonged to their grandparents. I met Libyans brandishing faded documents in Turkish and Italian, threatening to take up arms if their ancestral tracts of land were not returned.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Crusades could more accurately be described as a limited, belated and, in the last analysis, ineffectual re­sponse to the jihad—a failed attempt to recover by a Christian holy war what had been lost to a Muslim holy war.
Historian Bernard Lewis, via Jonah Goldberg.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Bobby Jindal's educational success:
Then the levees broke and the city was devastated, and out of that destruction came the need to build a new system, one that today is accompanied by buoyant optimism. Since 2006, New Orleans students have halved the achievement gap with their state counterparts. They are on track to, in the next five years, make this the first urban city in the country to exceed its state’s average test scores. The share of students proficient on state tests rose from 35 percent in 2005 to 56 percent in 2011; 40 percent of students attended schools identified by the state as “academically unacceptable” in 2011, down from 78 percent in 2005...

I visited the classrooms of Sci Academy, where 99 percent of the students are minorities and 92 percent are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch. They have some of the city’s highest scores on statewide tests, and more than 90 percent of Sci Academy seniors have already been accepted to a four-year college or university. At O. Perry Walker College and Career Preparatory High School, one of the first charters to open after Katrina, the mostly African American student body has turned in dramatic gains in achievement. (The school’s academic performance, as graded by the state, went from 48.1 in 2006-07 to 68.4 in 2009-10.)

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Ukrainian children's song, 1931:
Father Stalin, look at this
Collective farming is just bliss
The hut's in ruins, the barn's all sagged
All the horses broken nags
And on the hut a hammer and sickle
And in the hut death and famine
No cows left, no pigs at all
Just your picture on the wall
Daddy and Mommy are in the kulkhoz
The poor child cries as alones he goes
There's no bread and there's no fat
The party's ended all of that
Seek not the gentle nor the mild
A father's eaten his own child
The party man he beats and stamps
And sends us to Siberian camps
As quoted in Bloodlands, by Timothy Snyder
Remembering Victims of Communism Day:
The authoritative Black Book of Communism estimates the total at 80 to 100 million dead, greater than that caused by all other twentieth century tyrannies combined. We appropriately have a Holocaust Memorial Day. It is equally appropriate to commemorate the victims of the twentieth century’s other great totalitarian tyranny. And May Day is the most fitting day to do so.
Copyright © Swing Right Rudie
A notebook to myself