Saturday, March 30, 2013

Day-age theory on the Bible and the Age of the Universe.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

How the government killed swing:
In 1944, a new wartime cabaret tax went into effect, imposing a ruinous 30% (later merely a destructive 20%) excise on all receipts at any venue that served food or drink and allowed dancing. ... [I]n the next few years, struggling nightclub owners were trying every which way to avoid having to foist the tax on customers.

The tax-law regulation's ... exception had the biggest impact. Clubs that provided strictly instrumental music to which no one danced were exempt from the cabaret tax. It is no coincidence that in the back half of the 1940s a new and undanceable jazz performed primarily by small instrumental groups—bebop—emerged as the music of the moment.

"The spotlight was on instrumentalists because of the prohibitive entertainment taxes," the great bebop drummer Max Roach was quoted in jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie's memoirs, "To Be or Not to Bop." "You couldn't have a big band because the big band played for dancing."

The federal excise tax inadvertently spurred the bebop revolution: "If somebody got up to dance, there would be 20% more tax on the dollar. If someone got up there and sang a song, it would be 20% more," Roach said. "It was a wonderful period for the development of the instrumentalist."
h/t taxprof

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Pew Research Center's "The State of the News Media in 2013" on the mix of reporting and opinion in the cable news business:

In prime time, opinion exceeds reporting at all three channels. Not so in the daytime. CNN maintains higher levels of straight reporting in both the morning and mid-day. Fox’s morning programming is a pretty even mix of reporting and opinion, with opinion overtaking reporting in mid-day. At MSNBC, opinion overwhelms reporting in both the morning and at mid-day.

Monday, March 25, 2013

How ABC manufactured a fake controversy about so called "pink slime":
In particular, the latest example has been ABC’s lax ethics that visited devastation on a company with a thirty-year history of safe operation, Beef Products, Inc. The company pioneered the provision of lean, finely textured beef which is blended with fattier hamburger to make it more learn and nutritious. It also protects it against pathogens with a process that won the coveted 2007 “Black Pearl” award from the International Association for Food Protection.

ABC reporter Jim Avila, in hot pursuit of a journalism award, wrote a series of reports claiming that BPI was producing “pink slime” with the network hyping the term by using it 52 times in a two-week period in March. Any reporter investigating BPI would have swiftly found a mountain of evidence exonerating the company from any hint of the allegations made against it.

Avila’s reporting put BPI in jeopardy of closing down entirely, forcing the suspension of business at plants in Texas, Kansas, and Iowa, while the headquarters plant in Dakota Dunes, South Dakota, struggles to continue operations. So far 650 employees have lost their jobs with several thousand more jobs at risk at companies that relied on BPI, affecting their families and communities...

The product in its present form has been used for more than a decade with coverage in the Washington Post, the New York Times, a Hollywood movie and more! As for the “experts” in Avila’s reports, he chose a former federal bureaucrat who called the product “pink slime” in a ten-year-old email to fellow employees at the Department of Agriculture.

In an April Bloomberg Business Week article, reporters, Bryan Gruley and Elizabeth Campbell examined the way BPI had been subjected to “sliming”, noting that its finely textured lean beef had been purchased for use by McDonald’s, Wal-Mart Stores, Burger King, Kroger, Taco Bell, and scores of grocers for many years. In short, if you have had a hamburger in the past decade, you have eaten lean finely textured beef and enjoyed it.

Avila repeated the formula in July when ABC aired a story about “super bugs” that it alleged was a strain of bacteria in chicken that could lead to urinary infections in women. ABC did acknowledge that “there is no study showing a definitive link between the presence of e-coli in chicken and infection in women…” but not until viewers had become alarmed by the report.

Ashley Peterson, Ph.D., the vice president of science and technology for the National Chicken Council, noted that, even if there was a “super bug”, it would be easily avoidable through “proper cooking and handling of poultry products, because all bacteria, resistant or not, are killed by proper cooking.” Cooking meat properly is a 10,000 year-old practice, but when someone forgets to do it, Avila and ABC thinks it is news.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Why are there so many murders in Chicago? The New Geography offers some possibilities:
  1. The number of police officers
  2. Police tactics
  3. Politically controlled policing
  4. William Bratton
  5. Gang fragmentation
  6. Depopulation
  7. Public housing demolitions
Numbers one to three are the most convincing, however, note that the example of police tactics, "stop and frisk", is moderately recent, and came after the most dramatic reductions in New York, where the important tactical shifts relied mostly on data analysis and broken windows theory of crime enforcement.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Megan Mcardle walks through pension history:
The UAW, which represented Studebaker's employers (some of the highest paid in the auto industry, by the way), had not only allowed the company to stretch out its payments into the fund, but had arguably actually encouraged it, because the alternative was lower wages. Nonetheless, workers were devastated.
So, that gave use the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC).
ERISA mandated that companies had to keep their pensions funded at all times--if a company had a shortfall, they had to make it up immediately, and no, we don't care if the union said it was all right. But this, it turned out, created a new problem. The assets in pension funds tended to fall precipitously during recessions. So, of course, did company profits. So the law demanded that companies put millions of dollars into pension plans just when they were least able. Pushing companies into bankruptcy wouldn't do anyone any good: the PBGC would have to make up the shortfall, the workers would get less (because the PBGC makes them take a haircut), and of course, the corporate shareholders would lose their whole investment.

Companies could have dealt with this problem by overfunding during boom years... But even if they wanted to do this (and I'm not sure that many did), there were structural reasons that they couldn't. Instead of requiring them to behave sensibly, the government required them not to.

Overstuffed pension plans were often an attractive target for LBO operators, who would "unlock" the cash (and pay it out to bondholders or themselves). Worse, they became a target of the IRS. An overfunded pension fund can, in slightly unscrupulous hands, be used as a tool for tax management: stuff the funds in during very profitable years, take them out later when you want them. The IRS takes a dim view of such maneuvers, and therefore essentially forces employers to stop contributing to overfunded defined benefit pension plans, or add new benefits.
Megan goes on to discuss proposals for shifting more to Social Security, pointing out that it carries all the same problems, but with greater risk. Read the whole thing.

Friday, March 22, 2013

An interesting technical note on the calculation of GDP:
As George Mason University’s Garett Jones rightfully notes government spending raises GDP “by definition.” That, however, doesn’t mean that the GDP boost induced by government hiring, for instance, is real or more productive than private hiring. For private hiring to boost GDP, something valuable has to be produced: Not so for government. As he explains:

Hiring a worker who (through no fault of her own) accomplishes absolutely nothing raises GDP if the government does the hiring. Hiring a worker who (through no fault of her own) accomplishes absolutely nothing does nothing to GDP if the private sector does the hiring.

Why? Because GDP counts government salaries as “government expenditures” as soon as the government hires a person. But the “consumption” and “investment” parts of GDP only count genuine purchases by the private sector (leaving the oddities of imputed spending for the coda below). So if a private sector product spends years in the incubator, burning through thousands of person-hours of work and millions of dollars of salary–but never sees the light of day–then the product never shows up in GDP. But if the government had hired those same workers who worked just as long on a similarly fruitless project, their labor would give a big boost to GDP. Government hiring creates GDP by definition. Private hiring only creates GDP if the worker actually creates a product.

The reverse is true. Reduction in government spending may cause a temporary shrinkage of GDP, but it doesn’t always mean that something valuable has been destroyed.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The left-leaning Brookings Institution on universal preschool:
This relatively recent explosion of public pre-K programs has been underpinned by research findings from two iconic preschool interventions from 30 to 40 years ago whose participants have been followed into adulthood, the Perry Preschool Project and the Abecedarian Project... In my view, generalizations to state pre-K programs from research findings on Perry and Abecedarian are prodigious leaps of faith. Perry and Abecedarian were multi-year intensive interventions whereas state pre-K programs are overwhelmingly one year programs for four-year-olds. Costs per participant for Perry and Abecedarian were multiples of the levels of investment in present-day state preschool programs, e.g., $90,000 per child for Abecedarian.[3] Both Perry and Abecedarian were small hothouse programs (less than 100 participants) run by very experienced, committed teams, whereas widely deployed present day preschool programs are, well, widely deployed. The circumstances of the very poor families of the Black children who were served by these model programs 30 to 40 years ago are very different from those faced by the families that are presently served by publicly funded preschool programs.

But we do have the Head Start findings I reviewed last week and we should not ignore them in thinking about state pre-K. Head Start spends about twice as much per child per year as states ($8K per child per year for Head Start vs. $4K for state pre-K). And Head Start includes many program components that are advocated by early childhood experts such as health, nutrition, and parental involvement that are much less prevalent in state pre-K. If a year of Head Start does not improve achievement in elementary school, should we assume that a year of state pre-K does?

These three studies fall far short of providing a convincing case for investment in universal pre-K: The Georgia study finds impacts that are at best very small and do not pass a cost-benefit test. The Texas study provides evidence for value in a targeted program and is silent on the effectiveness of a universal program. The Tulsa study and other studies that use a design that compares children who just meet or just miss the age cut-off for pre-K can't estimate the impact of state pre-K because they are comparing children that may differ in many experiences in addition to their participation in state pre-K.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Is it rational to neglect savings in favor of conspicuous consumption?
Historically, how did we handle enemy combatants in the United States?
In the debate over this subject, the most ubiquitous of the examples of Americans killed fighting for the Nazis comes from the famous Supreme Court case of Ex Parte Quirin (1942). He is Hans Haupt, one of several Nazi saboteurs who infiltrated the U.S. in 1942 by secretly landing on Long Island and Ponte Verde Beach.

The interesting thing about that for present purposes is that, once ashore, they shed their uniforms. (By the way, Judge Mukasey had a very interesting explanation of why they did this in his district court opinion in the 2002 case of another American enemy combatant, Jose Padilla. See Padilla v. Bush (SDNY 2002), Op. p. 62 & n. 12 — link here.) When the Nazis were captured days later — by the FBI, not the military — they were wearing civilian clothes and not in the act of carrying out any of the terrorism they had plotted. Despite the fact that Haupt was an American and that the U.S. courts were open and functioning, FDR had them designated as enemy combatants, tried by military commission, and put to death (i.e., Haupt and five others, all German nationals, were executed; others who had cooperated were given lengthy sentences).

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

[A]s the evidence has built up, Head Start is failing its test. The latest evidence appears in the “Third Grade Follow-up to the Head Start Impact Study: Final Report,” which was released in December. The report was carried out by a company called Westat and published by the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Basically, the report shows that Head Start provides short-term gains to preschool children, but those gains have faded to essentially nothing by third grade.

To appreciate how depressing this conclusion is, you need to appreciate the high quality of the study. It’s based on a nationally representative sample of more than 5,000 3 and 4 year-olds from low-income families who were eligible for Head Start. These children were randomly either assigned to Head Start, or not. Data collection started in 2002, and so by 2008, data was available on how the children were performing in third grade. The study didn’t just look at test scores: it considered a range of data on how Head Start might affect aspects of cognitive development, social-emotional development, health status and services, and even parenting practices.
Daniel Mitchell points out that we can balance the budget in only five years if all we do is hold spending to the rate of inflation. Even allowing 3.4% annual growth above inflation, we can balance the budget in ten years.

Of course, this ignores the largest driver of spending growth, entitlements are growing largely because of demographic change, and our current Medicare covers everything approach to health care sacks us with much of the cost overruns there too.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The CDC says "The legalization of induced abortion beginning in the 1960s contributed to an 89% decline in deaths from septic illegal abortions during 1950-1973." Similarly, the pro-abortion Alan Guttmacher Institute claims "By making abortion legal nationwide, Roe v. Wade has had a dramatic impact on the health and well-being of American women. Deaths from abortion have plummeted, and are now a rarity." However, the data says otherwise. The first legal abortion on demand was in 1970, and Roe was in 1973. Here's the data, which those dates indicated with vertical lines:

Here is AGI's own data, with Roe highlighted:

All of the reduction in abortion deaths came before legalization. It was solely the result of advances in medicine, particularly antibiotics.

Hat tip: Christina Dunigan.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Hugo Chavez didn't help the poor. Here's the data:

But hey, wait a minute . . . shouldn't the country with some of the largest proven oil reserves in the world be doing better than the regional average?

Looked at in the context of Latin America as a whole, the poverty reduction achieved doesn't look so special either:

Oil prices are booming, but Venezuela is not. Why? Because they're pumping less oil than they used to.
Even Slate piles on:
What has Chávez bequeathed his fellow Venezuelans? The hard facts are unmistakable: The oil-rich South American country is in shambles. It has one of the world’s highest rates of inflation, largest fiscal deficits, and fastest growing debts. Despite a boom in oil prices, the country’s infrastructure is in disrepair—power outages and rolling blackouts are common—and it is more dependent on crude exports than when Chávez arrived. Venezuela is the only member of OPEC that suffers from shortages of staples such as flour, milk, and sugar. Crime and violence skyrocketed during Chávez’s years. On an average weekend, more people are killed in Caracas than in Baghdad and Kabul combined. (In 2009, there were 19,133 murders in Venezuela, more than four times the number of a decade earlier.) When the grisly statistics failed to improve, the Venezuelan government simply stopped publishing the figures.
But, it is also a stretch to call him freely elected too:
And unlike Castro and many other autocrats, Chávez didn’t fear elections; He embraced them. Most opposition leaders will tell you that Venezuelan elections are relatively clean. The problem isn’t Election Day—It’s the other 364 days. Rather than stuffing ballot boxes, Chávez understood that he could tilt the playing field enough to make it nearly impossible to defeat him. Thus, the regime’s electoral wizards engineered gerrymandering schemes that made anything attempted in the American South look like child’s play. Chávez’s campaign coffers were fed by opaque slush funds holding billions in oil revenue. The government’s media dominance drowned out the opposition. Politicians who appeared formidable were simply banned from running for office. And the ruling party became expert in using fear and selective intimidation to tamp down the vote. Chávez took a populist message and married it to an autocratic scheme that allowed him to consolidate power. The net effect over Chávez’s years was a paradoxical one: With each election Venezuela lost more of its democracy.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Looming trouble in China:
Xi Jinping, named Communist Party general secretary in November, reflects a new militancy. On Tuesday, he delivered a hard-edged speech to the Politburo in which he effectively ruled out compromise on territorial and security issues. His tough words were in keeping with the ever-more strident tones of his messages to the People’s Liberation Army about being ready to plan, fight, and win wars. Chinese leaders have traditionally addressed the army and urged improvement in general readiness, but, as veteran China watcher Willy Lam notes, Xi has put a special emphasis on it. Moreover, his calls on preparing for conflict go well beyond those of his two predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.

In the past, the military’s war talk contrasted with soothing words from senior civilian leaders. Now, with Xi, the aggressive comments from flag officers are consistent with what he, as top leader, is saying. Worse, as the Financial Times notes, Xi’s words of war are now “being bundled” with his rhetoric, which seems calculated to “fan nationalism.”

In this environment, Chinese military officers can get away with advocating “short, sharp wars” and talking about the need to “strike first.” Their boldness suggests, as some privately say, that General Secretary Xi is associating with generals and admirals who think war with the U.S. might be a good idea.

China looks like it is taking one of its periodic wrong turns.
Unremarked is the extent that this rising militancy is being inadvertantly stoked by the Obama administration. In recently announcing its "Shift to the Pacific", this administration has directly called out China as our primary military adversary. While the policy is mostly correct on its merits, it is also something that the President of the US shouldn't be saying out loud. China is a highly nationalistic, militarized country with an unfulfilled self-conception as a global superpower. Rumsfeld's previous "lillypad" strategy had the benefit of boxing in China (by establishing basing agreements fully surrounding them), while ostensibly keeping the eye on global Islamic terrorism--purposefully offering an excuse against inflaming nationalist sentiment in China.

The Obama administration seems intent on letting domestic politics drive foreign policy. This administration wants to put the War on Terror behind them, thus driving their recent, regrettable policy that puts China in our sights. This is similar to the policy of closing Guantanamo to try terrorists in civilian courts--which could only guarantee acquittal or devastate domestic civil rights protections. This administration is rushing to "Move On" from George W. Bush, thinking tactically, not strategically, and leading to some dramatic policy blunders.
Copyright © Swing Right Rudie
A notebook to myself