Monday, December 31, 2012

Georgetown Professor of Law argues in the New York Times "Let's Give Up on the Constitution"
As the nation teeters at the edge of fiscal chaos, observers are reaching the conclusion that the American system of government is broken. But almost no one blames the culprit: our insistence on obedience to the Constitution, with all its archaic, idiosyncratic and downright evil provisions.
Grotesque. And a fitting culmination to the political world of 2012.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Obama White House continues the War on Science, suppressing a scientific report on food safety:
The FDA had definitively concluded last spring that the fish would have “no significant impact” on the environment and was “as safe as food from conventional Atlantic salmon.” However, the draft assessment, dated April 19, 2012, was not released—blocked on orders from the White House.

The seven month delay, sources within the government say, came after discussions late last spring between Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sibelius’ office and officials linked to Valerie Jarrett at the Executive Office, who were debating the political implications of approving the GM salmon. Genetically modified plants and animals are controversial among the president’s political base, which was thought critical to his reelection efforts during a low point in the president’s popularity.

The GLP posted a version of the suppressed preliminary approval document on its website, leaked by government staffers upset about the politicization of the process and the White House’s interference.
"Did the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) Lead to Risky Lending?"
Yes, it did. We use exogenous variation in banks’ incentives to conform to the standards of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) around regulatory exam dates to trace out the effect of the CRA on lending activity. Our empirical strategy compares lending behavior of banks undergoing CRA exams within a given census tract in a given month to the behavior of banks operating in the same census tract-month that do not face these exams. We find that adherence to the act led to riskier lending by banks: in the six quarters surrounding the CRA exams lending is elevated on average by about 5 percent every quarter and loans in these quarters default by about 15 percent more often. These patterns are accentuated in CRA-eligible census tracts and are concentrated among large banks. The effects are strongest during the time period when the market for private securitization was booming.
via Reason, who includes this excellent graphic from IBD:

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The problem with overly sentimental popular culture:
Sentiment surfaces fast and runs hot in public life, and it compels our attention. On good days I dimly register this makeshift iconography of people’s sorrows, losses, and challenges. Some of them have been my own, too, but I don’t have ribbons. On my dark days I believe that pink ribbons and 5K runs and temporary shrines and teddy bears and emails exclamation-pointed into a frenzy—the sentimental public culture—is malicious to civil society and impedes in one elegant motion our capacities for deliberation in public life and intimacy in private life. On the days I’m feeling melodramatic I suspect that we are in the grips of death by treacle.

The habit of thought that a pop culture of treacle and a pop culture of anger hold in common is that we needn’t polish the expression of our private feelings and sorrows into a form that’s relevant and useful, even to strangers and fellow citizens in the commonweal. We can take for granted that our treacle or our anger speaks for itself and presume the relevance of private feelings to public discourse. If, in fact, we’re drowning in a public culture of meanness, it is one that the public culture of cloying sweetness unwittingly helped create.
The advantages of stoicism over that of public emotionality to public policy are simple and direct. Emotional cries to "do something" in the aftermath of tragedy quickly become devoid of the critical question-- does the proposed policy actually actually work?

Friday, December 28, 2012

Mass school violence isn't limited to the USA:
The spate of stabbings began in March of that year, when a man in Fujian province went on a slashing spree outside a primary school, killing 8 and injuring 5. The attacker was a jobless doctor who reportedly was venting frustration after a failed romantic relationship. Over the next two months, four similar incidents took place in southern and inland China, leaving more than eight primary and kindergarten students dead and 57 injured. The timing of the four incidents suggested the possibility of a “copycat” phenomena, in which criminals mimic sensational incidents after learning of them from media. The stabbing spree alarmed government authorities, who enhanced security at schools; a Chinese regulation now also requires people to register with their national identity cards when purchasing large knives.

But schools are still coming under attack. Two months ago, three students were killed and 13 injured when a man with a machete rampaged through a private daycare center in Guangxi.
Firefighters don't fight fire:
In fact, fires consist of less than ten percent of the calls:

Thursday, December 20, 2012

John Maynard Keynes on taxation:
[T]o create wealth will increase the national income and that a large proportion of any increase in the national income will accrue to [the Federal treasury]...

Nor should the argument seem strange that taxation may be so high as to defeat its object, and that, given sufficient time to gather the fruits, a reduction of taxation will run a better chance than an increase of balancing the budget.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

John Lott:
“With just one single exception, the attack on congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson in 2011, every public shooting since at least 1950 in the U.S. in which more than three people have been killed has taken place where citizens are not allowed to carry guns.”

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

More data on mass killings:
Economists John Lott and William Landes conducted a groundbreaking study in 1999, and found that a common theme of mass shootings is that they occur in places where guns are banned and killers know everyone will be unarmed, such as shopping malls and schools.

I spoke with Lott after the Newtown shooting, and he confirmed that nothing has changed to alter his findings. He noted that the Aurora shooter, who killed twelve people earlier this year, had a choice of seven movie theaters that were showing the Batman movie he was obsessed with. All were within a 20-minute drive of his home. The Cinemark Theater the killer ultimately chose wasn’t the closest, but it was the only one that posted signs saying it banned concealed handguns carried by law-abiding individuals. All of the other theaters allowed the approximately 4 percent of Colorado adults who have a concealed-handgun permit to enter with their weapons.

“Disarming law-abiding citizens leaves them as sitting ducks,” Lott told me. “A couple hundred people were in the Cinemark Theater when the killer arrived. There is an extremely high probability that one or more of them would have had a legal concealed handgun with him if they had not been banned.”

Monday, December 17, 2012

The data on mass killings:
Mass shootings are no more common than they have been in past decades, despite the impression given by the media.

In fact, the high point for mass killings in the U.S. was 1929, according to criminologist Grant Duwe of the Minnesota Department of Corrections.

Incidents of mass murder in the U.S. declined from 42 in the 1990s to 26 in the first decade of this century.

Friday, December 14, 2012

At the NYT, Nick Kristof discovers the Progressive roots of the poverty trap:
THIS is what poverty sometimes looks like in America: parents here in Appalachian hill country pulling their children out of literacy classes. Moms and dads fear that if kids learn to read, they are less likely to qualify for a monthly check for having an intellectual disability.

Many people in hillside mobile homes here are poor and desperate, and a $698 monthly check per child from the Supplemental Security Income program goes a long way — and those checks continue until the child turns 18.

“The kids get taken out of the program because the parents are going to lose the check,” said Billie Oaks, who runs a literacy program here in Breathitt County, a poor part of Kentucky. “It’s heartbreaking.”

This is painful for a liberal to admit, but conservatives have a point when they suggest that America’s safety net can sometimes entangle people in a soul-crushing dependency...

Antipoverty programs also discourage marriage: In a means-tested program like S.S.I., a woman raising a child may receive a bigger check if she refrains from marrying that hard-working guy she likes. Yet marriage is one of the best forces to blunt poverty. In married couple households only one child in 10 grows up in poverty, while almost half do in single-mother households.

Most wrenching of all are the parents who think it’s best if a child stays illiterate, because then the family may be able to claim a disability check each month.

“One of the ways you get on this program is having problems in school,” notes Richard V. Burkhauser, a Cornell University economist who co-wrote a book last year about these disability programs. “If you do better in school, you threaten the income of the parents. It’s a terrible incentive.”

About four decades ago, most of the children S.S.I. covered had severe physical handicaps or mental retardation that made it difficult for parents to hold jobs — about 1 percent of all poor children. But now 55 percent of the disabilities it covers are fuzzier intellectual disabilities short of mental retardation, where the diagnosis is less clear-cut. More than 1.2 million children across America — a full 8 percent of all low-income children — are now enrolled in S.S.I. as disabled, at an annual cost of more than $9 billion.

That is a burden on taxpayers, of course, but it can be even worse for children whose families have a huge stake in their failing in school. Those kids may never recover: a 2009 study found that nearly two-thirds of these children make the transition at age 18 into S.S.I. for the adult disabled. They may never hold a job in their entire lives and are condemned to a life of poverty on the dole — and that’s the outcome of a program intended to fight poverty.
He also points outs a thoroughly conservative remedy:
A growing body of careful research suggests that the most effective strategy is to work early on children and education, and to try to encourage and sustain marriage.
(emphasis added)

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

US immigration levels near all time high:
via FP.

Monday, December 10, 2012

It should be known that at the beginning of the dynasty, taxation yields a large revenue from small assessments. At the end of the dynasty, taxation yields a small revenue from large assessments.
-Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah (via)

Sunday, December 9, 2012

USA Today suggests the LEED green building certification is a scam:
Yet the 50-story complex achieved an unlikely and lucrative milestone after opening in 2008. A powerful private organization declared it an environmentally friendly "green" building, the world's largest at the time.

The designation won its owner, Las Vegas Sands Corp., a $27 million tax break over 10 years because a Nevada law puts the private interest group — not the government — in charge of deciding which buildings are green enough for a taxpayer subsidy.

The U.S. Green Building Council, a building industry non-profit, credited the Palazzo for having bike racks in the garage; room cards telling guests when towels are replaced; landscaping that does not use grass, which local law prohibits anyway; and preferred parking for fuel-efficient cars — spots that on a recent week were occupied by Ford Expeditions, Chevy Tahoes, Range Rovers, Mercedes E320s, Chrysler 300s, Audi A6s, vans, sports cars and a Hummer.

The council even sidestepped its own policy and allowed smoking in the Palazzo casino, a 2.5-acre expanse between the hotel lobby and the hotel elevators.

Across the United States, the Green Building Council has helped thousands of developers win tax breaks and grants, charge higher rents, exceed local building restrictions and get expedited permitting by certifying them as "green" under a system that often rewards minor, low-cost steps that have little or no proven environmental benefit, a USA TODAY analysis has found.
Much of the problem has to do with the fact that the certification comes early, and relies only on theoretical projections of energy use:
Designers can earn up to 19 points for projecting lower-than-average energy use. The projections come from computer models that analyze hundreds of features such as insulation and sun exposure. Such models are good at comparing designs to show which would use less energy. But they are bad at quantifying actual energy use, which depends largely on how a building is used and maintained.

"Buildings have a poor track record for performing as predicted during design," the council itself reported in 2007. "Most buildings do not perform as well as design metrics indicate."

The Environmental Protection Agency says "it is a common misconception that new buildings, even so-called 'green' buildings are energy-efficient." The EPA's voluntary EnergyStar program certifies only buildings that prove energy efficiency over a year of occupancy, and rates buildings every year.

A little-noticed study of Navy buildings in January showed that four of 11 LEED-certified buildings used more energy than a non-LEED counterpart. Of the seven others, four were better than their counterparts by 9%, a level of improvement that is insufficient to earn any LEED points.

"Energy savings are not closely related to the number of points received," concluded the study by University of Wisconsin researchers.
Using models for certification is one thing, but the $500 million in tax breaks that we've handed out should be contingent upon follow up reports showing energy use savings have been achieved.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

John Cochrane runs down how well-meaning programs meant to help the poor create a Poverty Trap:
That data from the Secretary of Public Welfare of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Gary Alenander. A separate paper by Larry Kotlikoff and David Rapson, “Does it Pay, at the Margin, to Work and Save? Measuring Effective Marginal Taxes on Americans’ Labor and Saving.” study of couples in Massachusetts comes up with this calculation:
Meanwhile, the CBO considers considerably fewer benefit programs and presents this data on marginal tax rates:

Friday, December 7, 2012

A reminder on the cause of the financial crisis:
The crash of late 2008 was caused not by Republican dogma, but by efforts going back many years on the part of both parties to facilitate homeownership on behalf of poor people. It seemed like the right thing to do. It pleased both liberals, who wanted to help the downtrodden, and conservatives, who took to heart the old Jack Kemp adage that rental cars rarely get washed.

In 1995, President Clinton launched his "National Homeownership Strategy" (Bush continued it as part of his "ownership society"), designed to increase mortgage lending to low-income Americans by requiring bankers to make loans to people with poor or nonexistent credit ratings. This drew in people who were unable to pay off their debts, and speculators, who were betting housing prices would keep rising forever. In retrospect, we can see it was bound to implode, and it did...

Twice, Bush tried to rein in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and twice Democrats (Obama included) moved in to stop him. Especially culpable were Barney Frank and Chris Dodd. Dodd claimed that the institutions were "fundamentally strong," and Frank said he wanted to "roll the dice a little bit more in his situation" rather than impose stricter regulation on Fannie and Freddie.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

How to cut CO2 emissions:
Over the past six years, the United States has reduced its carbon emissions more than any other nation in the world.

Efforts to curb so-called man-made climate change had little or nothing to do with it. Government mandated "green" energy didn't cause the reductions. Neither did environmentalist pressure. And the U.S. did not go along with the Kyoto Protocol to radically cut CO2 emissions. Instead, the drop came about through market forces and technological advances, according to a report from the International Energy Agency.

Breakthroughs in how natural gas is extracted from underground shale formations were the key factors that led to the reductions, the report said. Natural gas has a low carbon footprint and is widely available in the United States.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Eugene Kaspersky, a wolf in sheep's clothing:
The Italian defense minister isn’t going to determine whether criminals or governments get their hands on your data. Kaspersky and his company, Kaspersky Lab, very well might. Between 2009 and 2010, according to Forbes, retail sales of Kaspersky antivirus software increased 177 percent, reaching almost 4.5 million a year—nearly as much as its rivals Symantec and McAfee combined. Worldwide, 50 million people are now members of the Kaspersky Security Network, sending data to the company’s Moscow headquarters every time they download an application to their desktop. Microsoft, Cisco, and Juniper Networks all embed Kaspersky code in their products—effectively giving the company 300 million users. When it comes to keeping computers free from infection, Kaspersky Lab is on its way to becoming an industry leader.

But this still doesn’t fully capture Kaspersky’s influence. Back in 2010, a researcher now working for Kaspersky discovered Stuxnet, the US-Israeli worm that wrecked nearly a thousand Iranian centrifuges and became the world’s first openly acknowledged cyberweapon. In May of this year, Kaspersky’s elite antihackers exposed a second weaponized computer program, which they dubbed Flame. It was subsequently revealed to be another US-Israeli operation aimed at Iran. In other words, Kaspersky Lab isn’t just an antivirus company; it’s also a leader in uncovering cyber-espionage.

Serving at the pinnacle of such an organization would be a remarkably powerful position for any man. But Kaspersky’s rise is particularly notable—and to some, downright troubling—given his KGB-sponsored training, his tenure as a Soviet intelligence officer, his alliance with Vladimir Putin’s regime, and his deep and ongoing relationship with Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB.
Most troublesome of all is his Kremlin backed crusade to get rid of anonymity on the internet, in the interest of "security":
What is mentioned is Kaspersky’s vision for the future of Internet security—which by Western standards can seem extreme. It includes requiring strictly monitored digital passports for some online activities and enabling government regulation of social networks to thwart protest movements. “It’s too much freedom there,” Kaspersky says, referring to sites like Facebook. “Freedom is good. But the bad guys—they can abuse this freedom to manipulate public opinion.”

...The Internet grew from a network of researchers to the global nervous system in large part because practically anyone was able to access any part of it from anywhere—no ID needed. And the values of openness, freedom, and anonymity became deeply embedded in net culture and in the very architecture of the network itself. But to Kaspersky, these notions no longer work: By “protecting our right to freedom we actually sacrifice it! We sacrifice the right to safe Internet surfing and to not get infected by some nasty piece of malware at every step.”

The idea of stripping some amount of privacy from the Internet is gaining traction in many sectors, thanks at least in small part to Kaspersky’s lobbying. In Cancun, he was joined onstage by Alexander Ntoko, a top official at the International Telecommunication Union. “Why don’t we have digital IDs as a de facto for everybody?” he asks. “When I’m going to my bank, I’m not going to cover my face.” In other words, why should things be any different online?

The ITU was once a bureaucratic backwater. In recent years, however, the Russian and Chinese governments have been pushing to give the agency a central role in governing the Internet. Instead of the US-dominated nonprofits that currently coordinate domain names and promote technical standards, they want to turn authority over to a gathering of national governments represented by the ITU. It’s a move that one of the Internet’s creators, Vint Cerf, told Congress risks “losing the open and free Internet,” because it would transfer power from geeks to government bureaucrats.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Questions a Pro-Choice Candidate is never asked:
2. In 2010, The Economist featured a cover story on “the war on girls” and the growth of “gendercide” in the world – abortion based solely on the sex of the baby. Does this phenomenon pose a problem for you or do you believe in the absolute right of a woman to terminate a pregnancy because the unborn fetus is female?

3. In many states, a teenager can have an abortion without her parents’ consent or knowledge but cannot get an aspirin from the school nurse without parental authorization. Do you support any restrictions or parental notification regarding abortion access for minors?

4. If you do not believe that human life begins at conception, when do you believe it begins? At what stage of development should an unborn child have human rights?

5. Currently, when genetic testing reveals an unborn child has Down Syndrome, most women choose to abort. How do you answer the charge that this phenomenon resembles the “eugenics” movement a century ago – the slow, but deliberate “weeding out” of those our society would deem “unfit” to live?

7. Alveda King, niece of Martin Luther King, Jr. has said that “abortion is the white supremacist’s best friend,” pointing to the fact that Black and Latinos represent 25% of our population but account for 59% of all abortions. How do you respond to the charge that the majority of abortion clinics are found in inner-city areas with large numbers of minorities?

Monday, December 3, 2012

The War on Science kills jobs:
Lunny's request for an extension had powerful supporters, including Feinstein, Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey and former Peninsula Rep. Pete McCloskey, who put up a major fight to keep the operation going.

Park officials had long contended that the oyster company was harming the ecosystem, but Lunny's supporters accused them of selectively presenting information, misrepresenting facts and essentially fudging data in an effort to oust the oyster company.

The complaints gained momentum when the National Academy of Sciences, and the Interior Department's office of the solicitor found major flaws in Park Service reports, including what they termed mistake-ridden and, in some cases, biased work by park scientists.

"I am extremely disappointed," Feinstein said Thursday in a statement. "The National Park Service's review process has been flawed from the beginning with false and misleading science, which was also used in the Environmental Impact Statement. The secretary's decision effectively puts this historic California oyster farm out of business. As a result, the farm will be forced to cease operations and 30 Californians will lose their jobs."

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Russian help for the Indian Navy:
INS Vikramaditya has failed sea trials and its delivery to the Indian Navy may be again delayed by almost a year, Russian media reported citing defence and industry sources.

Seven out of the aircraft carrier’s eight steam boilers broke down when they were run at maximum power to enable the ship develop its top rated speed of 30 knots, an unnamed official of the state arms exporter Rosoboronexport told the Kommersant daily.

The official explained that the firebrick insulation of the boilers crumbled under impact of high temperatures...

The designer explained that the Indian side had objected to the use of asbestos in the insulation of the boilers because of feared health hazards and the manufacturer used other material which turned out to be sub-quality.
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