On Tribalism and Discourse -- The Best Paragraph I Have Read For Quite A While

Today on Twitter I sought to give our Senator Krysten Sinema some support for her opposition to tariffs (kudos for Donald Trump for working to turn Democrats into free traders, though to be fair Sinema herself has come a long way from her radical roots).  I got this response:

I wanted to write about what a non-sequitur this response appears to be, as it is completely unresponsive to the issues at hand.  All the commenter is really saying is, "I notice you are not of my tribe."

But a detailed response on my part is unnecessary, given this awesome paragraph from Kevin Williamson:

Which brings us to the problem of trying to have a productive conversation with people who are caught up in the vast sprawling electronic apparatus of self-moronization. It does not matter what anybody actually has said or written. The rage-monkeys have an idea about what it is they want you to have said, or what people like you are supposed to think about or y. I cannot count how many times I have had some person respond to something critical I’ve written about some lefty fruitcake with “What about Trump, huh?” When I point out that, among other things, I wrote a little book called The Case against Trump, the response is: “Well, Republicans . . .” And then when I point out that I am not one of those, either, the retreat into ever-vaguer generality continues incrementally. The fundamental problem is that what’s going on in “conversations” such as these is not conversation at all but a juvenile status-adjustment ritual. These people do not care about ideas — they care about who sits at which cafeteria table in the vast junior high school of American popular culture.

Gad, I wish I had written that last sentence.

My Favorite Useful Idiot Story

Not long after China was opened to the US for visitation, actress Shirley MacLaine made a visit to the country.  As part of this visit she went to a rural agricultural commune where she met an ex-professor who had obviously been sent to the countryside during Mao's cultural revolution.  MacLaine thought it was wonderful that the professor expressed himself as so happy to have given up academics to do manual labor on the farm.

I don't know if anyone in the US who had a firmer grasp of China's history ever sought to correct MacLaine's understanding of the conversation.  The academic was very likely sent to the farm unwillingly, as were many other academics, as part of Mao's virulent anti-intellectualism as well as the broader rustication movement that consigned a whole lost generation to dead-end lives in rural China.  In 1979, Deng Xiaoping was visiting the US for the first time and was seated near MacLaine at a dinner party.  She retold her story about this wonderfully happy ex-academic she met on the farm.  In response, Deng provided the honest response to her story that none of MacLaine's American enablers seemed to be able to provide.  Deng responded to her, referring to the ostensibly happy academic, "he was lying."

I originally heard this story from a lecture by Richard Baum.  The best online version of it I can find is here.

Eeek

Slavery Made the US Less Prosperous, Not More So

I want to put a couple of caveats on this post.  1) Though there are utilitarian arguments related to slavery in this post, by no means do I think they ever come close in magnitude to the basic fact of the moral outrage of slavery. 2) Though there are utilitarian arguments about reparations in this post, by no means do I think they ever come close in magnitude to the moral outrage of penalizing people for sins of their grandfathers.

The other day, in what I thought was a quick throwaway comment on Twitter to an NBC article that seemed to be supporting slavery reparations, I wrote

One response I got which I want to address was this one:

This notion that slavery somehow benefited the entire economy is a surprisingly common one and I want to briefly refute it.  This is related to the ridiculously bad academic study (discussed here) that slave-harvested cotton accounted for nearly half of the US's economic activity, when in fact the number was well under 10%.  I assume that activists in support of reparations are using this argument to make the case that all Americans, not just slaveholders, benefited from slavery.  But this simply is not the case.

At the end of the day, economies grow and become wealthier as labor and capital are employed more productively.  Slavery does exactly the opposite.

Slaves are far less productive that free laborers.  They have no incentive to do any more work than the absolute minimum to avoid punishment, and have zero incentive (and a number of disincentives) to use their brain to perform tasks more intelligently.  So every slave is a potentially productive worker converted into an unproductive one.  Thus, every dollar of capital invested in a slave was a dollar invested in reducing worker productivity.

As a bit of background, the US in the early 19th century had a resource profile opposite from the old country.  In Europe, labor was over-abundant and land and resources like timber were scarce.  In the US, land and resources were plentiful but labor was scarce.  For landowners, it was really hard to get farm labor because everyone who came over here would quickly quit their job and headed out to the edge of settlement and grabbed some land to cultivate for themselves.

In this environment the market was sending pretty clear pricing signals -- that it was simply not a good use of scarce labor resources to grow low margin crops on huge plantations requiring scores or hundreds of laborers.  Slave-owners circumvented this pricing signal by finding workers they could force to work for free.  Force was used to apply high-value labor to lower-value tasks.  This does not create prosperity, it destroys it.

As a result, whereas $1000 invested in the North likely improved worker productivity, $1000 invested in the South destroyed it.  The North poured capital into future prosperity. The South poured it into supporting a dead-end feudal plantation economy.  As a result the south was impoverished for a century, really until northern companies began investing in the South after WWII.  If slavery really made for so much of an abundance of opportunities, then why did very few immigrants in the 19th century go to the South?  They went to the industrial northeast or (as did my grandparents) to the midwest.  The US in the 19th century was prosperous despite slavery in the south, not because of it.

Minimum Wage Increases Are Mostly Paid for by Consumers

Apparently there is a new CBO report on the effect of a Federal minimum wage hike to $15.  Before I get into the economic impacts, I want to observe that the $15 Federal minimum wage is a political smart bomb that hits mostly red states in much the same way as the reduced Federal tax deductions for SALT (state and local taxes) was a smart bomb that mostly hit blue states.  From an equity standpoint it is insane to have the same minimum wage in rural Alabama as in San Francisco, but since its main negative employment effects will be in red states I think this may be a feature rather than a bug for Democrats.

Anyway, for years folks have made the argument that government-mandated minimum wages are necessary because of the power imbalance between employers and low-skill workers which allows employers to exercise monopsony power and keep wages below some theoretical market clearing price (which is a total laugh -- if you really believe this you can come to my company and try to hire for unskilled positions at the top of the economic cycle and see how much power we have).   The progressive theory is that companies therefore earn excess profits due to this power.

But that is almost impossible.  To actually profit from such power, a company would have to have a consumer monopoly and monopsony hiring power and those two are Venn diagrams that don't overlap much.  As I wrote before (excerpt from a much longer piece)

Let’s consider a company paying minimum wage to most of its employees.  At least at current minimum wage levels, minimum wage employees will likely be in low-skill positions, ones that require little beyond a high school education.  Almost by definition, firms that depend on low-skill workers to deliver their product or service have difficulty establishing barriers to competition. One can’t be doing anything particularly tricky or hard to copy relying on workers with limited skills. As soon as one firm demonstrates there is money to be made using low-skill workers in a certain way, it is far too easy to copy that model.    As a result, most businesses that hire low-skill workers will have had their margins competed down to the lowest tolerable level.  Firms that rely mainly on low-skill workers almost all have single digit profit margins probably averaging around 5% of revenues (for comparison, last year Microsoft had a pre-tax net income margin of over 23%).

If there were some margin windfall to be obtained from labor market power that allowed a company to hire people for far less than their labor was worth to it, and thus earn well above this lowest tolerable margin,  new companies would try to enter the market, probably by lowering prices to consumers using some of that labor premium.  Eventually, even if the monopsony premium exists, it is given away to consumers in the form of lower prices.  If the wholesale price of gasoline suddenly falls sharply, gasoline retailers don't get to earn a much higher margin, at least not for very long.  Competition quickly causes the retailer's lowered costs to be passed on to consumers in the form of lower retail prices.  The same goes for any lowering of labor costs due to monopsony power  -- if such a windfall exists, it is quickly passed on to consumers.

As a result, the least likely response to increasing labor costs due to regulation is that such costs will be offset out of profits, because for most of these firms, profits have already been competed down to the minimum necessary to cover capital investment and the minimum returns to keep owners interested in the business.

I have not read the CBO report.  Interestingly, apparently both Kevin Drum and CNBC have and they summarize the findings differently -- not just draw ideologically different conclusions but report the key data differently.  I have not made any attempt to reconcile this (my guess is that Drum has picked the most optimistic case).  But I will take this from Kevin Drum's version:

  • Total wages for workers would rise by $44 billion (accounting for both higher wages and increased joblessness). Income for business owners would fall $14 billion.
  • Consumers would pay higher prices amounting to a total of $39 billion. That’s an increase of about 0.3 percent.

You can see that the CBO obviously does not buy the progressive argument about excess corporate profits.  90% of the wage increase is paid for by consumers in the form of higher prices.  My bet is that most of the business income loss is not margin compression as much as lost sales due to higher prices.  Note also the inefficiency of the minimum wage even in these optimistic numbers -- consumers and businesses contribute $53 billion in value to increase wages by $44 billion.  The rest is a net loss to the economy and my bet is that these numbers underestimate this loss.

The other problem with minimum wage increases as an anti-poverty program is that people are in the bottom 20 percentile of earnings mostly due to insufficient work hours, not due to wage rates.  It turns out that increasing the wage rates of the poorest 20% to middle class levels yields $6,335 a year in gains for a person in the poorest 20% while increasing that same poor person's amount of work done to middle class levels yields $28,844 a year in gains (government data here).  If you want to help poor people, economic growth and reducing barriers to hiring low-skill workers (combined with efficient transfer programs) is the way to go -- in this context the minimum wage increase can actually be counter-productive.

One other reason minimum wage increases are a bad anti-poverty program is that most of the data I have seen points to about a third of minimum wage jobs held by earners in families below the poverty line. So 2/3 of the increased wages from a minimum wage increase go to non-poor households

Last summer I had the cover story in Regulation Magazine titled, "How Labor Regulation Harms Unskilled Workers." I fear we are heading to a European model of very high minimum costs of employing anyone, which tends to result in a two-tier system of well-paying jobs for skilled and educated employees and lifetime government relief for the unskilled and under-educated.

Stupid Corporate State Tricks Here in AZ

First, it turns out our state's taxpayers were subsidizing a new Nike plant somewhere in AZ.  I am just exhausted writing about how stupid it is that we spend taxpayer money in this state relocation game.  The state takes away capital from current AZ businesses and gives it to Nike?  Even beyond the obscene power game going on here, taking from the small and giving to the rich and well-connected, what evidence is there that having Nike invest my money is better than having me do it in my own already-in-AZ business?

But then the story just gets stupider.  Apparently Nike was going to produce a sneaker with a colonial version of the American flag on it.  But then Colin Kaepernick said that African-Americans would be offended by it, which seems stupid.  Then Nike cancelled the sneaker, which seems even more stupid.  And then our governor said "hold my beer" and decided to cancel subsidies of Nike that shouldn't have even existed based on this product development decision by Nike.  Here is how a local commentator calling himself James Madison (I assume that is a pseudonym) crows about how awesome he thinks Governor Ducey's move is (sorry I get this as an email so I don't have a link)

Nike was planning on coming to Arizona to set up shop. A few hundred jobs were on the line. The city of Goodyear already approved their arrival. Then the anti-American, hateful little idiot that Nike hired a couple of years ago once again opened his bigoted mouth. Colin Kaepernick announced that Nike's new sneaker with the Betsy Ross American flag was "offensive." Nike caved to political correctness and pulled the shoe. Mr. Ducey responded by saying he was disappointed in Nike's decision and embarrassed for them. Mr. Ducey also instructed the Arizona Commerce Authority to withdraw any financial support that was promised to Nike for the move to Arizona. Mr. Ducey is right.

Nike has shown once again that they don't care about Americans--the primary source of their success. The sneaker was meant to be a tribute to America's founding, even hitting the store shelves the week of July Fourth. But, Nike would rather put their support behind American haters--like Mr. Kaepernick and others.

Is it any wonder our politics are broken? -- talk about taking a trivial issue and raising the stakes to wildly disproportionate levels.  Conservatives rightly get upset when student groups try to oust professors from their jobs over trivial, often unintentional, slips into political incorrectness.  But Conservatives have their own definitions of political incorrectness and are willing to run a few hundred innocents from their jobs for trivial violations of these norms.  I can't believe Ducey's decision is being haled as a brave act of some sort.  It is just silly, the Conservative form of the same virtue-signalling the Left revels in.My guess is that in a few days Ducey and his advisers will wake up and find themselves a touch embarrassed over all this, and find a quiet off-camera way to walk it back.

Politicians Should Not Have Access to ANYONE's Tax Returns

Since Richard Nixon weaponized the IRS against his enemies, by mining their tax returns for information he could use against them and calling down onerous audits on them, I thought it was an established principle of liberal democracy in this country that tax returns could not be used politically.  The only people who are supposed to have access to them are people who have legitimate enforcement responsibilities for tax collection.  That means the President and his staff can't rifle through them, and I thought those rules applied to Congress as well.

However, the Democrats in the House of Representatives, who mostly grew up excoriating Nixon's excesses, are now arguing the House should have access to any tax return they wish for any reason.  Of course, this is all playing out vis a vis Donald Trump.  From the WSJ:

The House’s tax-writing committee sued the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service on Tuesday for access to President Trump’s tax returns, hoping federal judges will pry loose records that the administration has refused to hand over.

The lawsuit from the House Ways and Means Committee puts the clash over Mr. Trump’s tax returns and audit records in the courts, exactly where Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D., Mass.) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchinhave predicted for months that it would land.

Mr. Neal is asking the courts to enforce a subpoena that Mr. Mnuchin and IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig have defied and produce the records immediately. The chairman also wants the courts to validate his authority under a tax code section that says he can get any taxpayer’s returns upon request.

Trump's lawyers are likely to argue Presidential privilege, but I hope the defense goes beyond this.  We all should be protected against individuals in Congress conducting fishing expeditions of their political opponents' tax returns.  And this is a fishing expedition, pure and simple.   There is no probably cause or any investigation that credibly needs to inspect some part of the returns.  Congress just wants them so they can fish for ammunition they can use in their political battles against Trump.

Trump is a pain in the *ss as President not just for his irritating demeanor and counter-productive economic nationalism, but also because liberals can't stop themselves from setting illiberal precedents in their desire to bring him down.

 

 

Dear Billionaires, The Best Thing You Can Do For This Country Is To Employ Your Capital Productively

From Anthony Gill

On June 24, 2019, nineteen billionaires released a letter to the media entitled “A Call to Action: A Letter in Support of a Wealth Tax.”  They urged potential presidential candidates to campaign for and, if elected, implement a new wealth tax that would strengthen America.  I hereby offer my own letter in response.

Dear Billionaires,

Thank you for your patriotic concern about our nation’s democracy and the global climate.  The willingness shown to submit yourselves to higher tax rates warms my heart as we approach the season in which we celebrate US Independence from Britain, brought about mostly over a concern about arbitrary taxation without adequate representation.

....  After just a few minutes on the Internet, I discovered that the US Treasury accepts voluntary gift donations to reduce debt held by the public.  The link can be found here, with more explicit instructions on who to make the check out to and where to send it here.  You don’t have to wait for all that pesky legislative debate and cumbersome bureaucracy to start making a difference immediately.  Even better, this proposal avoids the reems of paperwork needed for the typical tax filing and won’t require you to contact your accountant.

Simply calculate what you consider to be your fair share, write the check, and drop it in the mail.  Your honorable wishes realized, instantaneously! Better yet, you can do this every year.

I know Mr. Gill is mocking the billionaire's proposal to force all of us to pay more taxes so that they can as well, but here is my alternative response:

Dear Billionaires,

I appreciate your patriotic desire to make  "smart investments in our future, like clean energy innovation to mitigate climate change, universal childcare, student loan debt relief, infrastructure modernization," etc.  However, I beg you, the best possible way you can employ your capital to achieve these goals is to keep it and deploy it yourself.  Why?

  • You will naturally pay a lot more attention to how your own money is spent and how productively it is employed than any group of government bureaucrats ever can or will.  The government wastes orders of magnitude more every year than any of you could ever pump into its coffers
  • I presume many of you are billionaires because have creatively solved a problem or added new capabilities to the world, and have been paid handsomely by consumers for these contributions.   Keep it up!  I give you a far better chance to productively employ these resources, whether it be in new commercial ventures or in a non-profit to solve some particular problem, than I do some random assistant associate deputy director buried in the Department of Energy.
  • If you inherited it all and don't feel particularly competent in your own acumen, then put it into the S&P500 or the Russell 2000.  Even without knowing a thing about business, you can trust our markets to productively employ your capital and create value and jobs with it.
  • If you want to solve a problem via the non-profit route, go for it -- with your direct, passionate oversight, your money will almost certainly achieve more than if it were dumped into the Treasury.  Concerned about student loan debt relief?  Use your money to payoff the debt of worthy recipients, or better yet, go after the root cause and use your money to found educational institutions that don't cost $50,000 a year.  As I have pointed out before, rich people in the 19th century founded colleges all the time, but I can hardly think of one established in the last century. [I pick this as an example because if I were a billionaire, I would found a new model online/offline college with no intercollegiate athletics, no grad school, and no research establishment that provides a $5-$10K a year high quality degree to students chosen purely on testing and high school grades.  I would hire Bryan Caplan as a consultant and we would base the whole intellectual culture around understanding issues from all sides and his ideological Turing test].

What training I have in economics leans towards the Austrians.  An economy is growing and prosperous when its resources -- talented people, capital, etc -- are employed in the most productive ways.  Anything that diverts these resources from their most productive employment makes the nation and everyone in it poorer.  Which is exactly what will happen with every extra dollar you mail in to the government and every dollar your lobbying causes the government to coerce out of the rest of us.

Please, do not assuage whatever guilt you may have saddled yourself with (not guilt from me, as I have nothing but admiration for your accomplishments) by lobbying the government to tax me more.

The Non-Profit Scam

Arnold Kling writes on non-profits:

My general view on non-profits is that their status is too high relative to profit-seeking firms. In the for-profit sector, I think of the example of Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of Theranos. The company had a noble vision, and she made compelling presentations, but the product didn’t work. Because she claimed that the product worked better than it did, she got in trouble. She was ousted as CEO, and she faces a lot of legal jeopardy.

In the non-profit world, there are no end-users to hold you accountable if what you are doing doesn’t work. Just having the noble

From my direct experience, I would go further.  There is a tranche (I don't know how large) of non-profits that are close to outright scams, providing most of their benefits to their managers and employees rather to anyone outside the organization.  These benefits include 1) a salary with few performance expectations; 2) expense-paid parties and travel; 3) myriad virtue-signalling opportunities; 4) opportunities to build personal networks.  This isn't just criticizing theoretical institutions -- people I know are in such jobs in these organizations.

Advice to commenters -- please do not purposely misunderstand the point I am making.  Clearly great non-profits doing good work exist, but their existence does not invalidate the point I am making.  And I think their ability to continue to survive without creating value beyond that they provide for their employees is closely related to the point that Kling makes.

I Am Not Sure This Accomodation Law Needle Can Be Threaded

Via Zero Hedge:

The Washington Post and New York Times have recently opened up their platforms to Op-Eds defending, justifying and promoting abhorrent behavior committed against conservatives. Calling them out is the Washington Examiner's Byron York, who notes that "the toxicity of the resistance to President Trump has risen in recent days," with both papers "publishing rationalizations for denying Trump supporters public accommodation and for doxxing career federal employees."

First up, Stephanie Wilkinson, the owner of the infamous Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia. Wilkinson unapologetically booted White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her family last June. Wilkinson told the Washington Post at the time that her gay employees were too triggered by Sanders to serve her due to the Trump administration's transgender military ban.

It is going to be fascinating to see how these folks on the Left thread the Constitutional needle to make it illegal to refuse to bake cakes for gay weddings but legal to refuse service to Republicans.  My prediction is that someone on the Left is soon going to try and I am sure the New York Times will gladly give them editorial space to do so.  My guess is that any such theory will take advantage of the popular but bogus "hate speech is not free speech" idea.

I don't really get worked up about accomodation law too much one way or another.  I know our company benefits from being open to all.  We get calls all the time from customers who have been turned away because they have kids or have an older RV and we are happy to have their business.  It's not as true today but 15 years ago we gained a lot of good workers by hiring gay campground managers when many campgrounds thought it was "unsafe" to employ gay people around kids in campgrounds.  On the other hand, I read the First Amendment right of association as the right not to associate as well, so if folks want to turn away business it does not wildly bother me.  I personally wouldn't bake a cake for, say, the local Nazi party rally or Che Guevara birthday party.

My public policy rule of thumb is to allow folks to refuse accommodation as long as they represent a small percentage of the supply in a market.

HBO's Chernobyl is Excellent

I am not breaking any ground here but I just finished the fifth and final episode of Chernobyl last night and the entire series was excellent.  From the confusion of the first hours to the anonymous and sometimes futile heroism in the aftermath to the backroom and courtroom scenes at the end -- everything was tense and engaging and felt pitch-perfect.  If nothing else, it's a must see just for its portrayal of architecture and interiors of the Soviet Union.   I will warn you that some parts are hard to watch, particularly the dying men in episode 3 and the animal control operations in episode 4.  The whole thing has, appropriately, a real darkness to it.  Even the great acts of heroism can't offset the ugliness because the heroes tends to be anonymous and largely unrewarded and unheralded.  Spoiler alert:  there are no winners here [not so much of a spoiler as you see one of the protagonists hang himself 2 minutes into episode 1].

I know there are folks who criticize the science in the show.  Basically they can bite me.  This is a drama, and a really good one, and generally sticks pretty close to the historical material.

In addition to being about the accident itself, the show is also about life in the Soviet Union as well.  Which raises the question -- clearly the Soviet Union's political culture was at fault here, but is ours any better?  The answer is yes and no.  No, because I don't trust our government officials any more than the Soviets to not prioritize their own power over the well-being of their citizens.  But the US would likely do better because 1) our government is not nearly as monolithic, so that bad authoritarian impulses in one section can be checked by others; and 2) our government has much less scope.  What I mean by the latter is that Chernobyl was part of the Soviet government, so admitting mistakes there required criticism of the government.  In the US, with private operators of power plans, the government would have no problem calling out, say, Duke Power for its shortcomings.  Imagine for example how the response to the 737Max issues might have been different if it were built by a state corporation.

Postscript:  OK, what are those areas the science may be off?  Well, my sense is that the risk to people exposed to the victims of heavy radiation exposure (people visiting the victims in the hospital) is exaggerated in the program.  And I think most observers since the accident have been pleasantly surprised that, with the exception of an increase of thyroid cancers in young children, the long term health problems associated with lower level radiation exposures in the Chernobyl area have been far less than feared.  A UN panel wrote in 2008:

Apart from the dramatic increase in thyroid cancer incidence among those exposed at a young age, and some indication of an increased leukaemia and cataract incidence among the workers, there is no clearly demonstrated increase in the incidence of solid cancers or leukaemia due to radiation in the exposed populations. Neither is there any proof of other non-malignant disorders that are related to ionizing radiation. However, there were widespread psychological reactions to the accident, which were due to fear of the radiation, not to the actual radiation doses.

That latter part refers to a finding that the one measurable long-term effect in the population has been an increase in alcoholism that is usually attributed to people's elevated fears of cancer.

Update -- Osteoarthritis and Changing My Running Gait to Toe-First Landing

Almost a year ago, I wrote that I had had to give up running due to my osteoarthritis but that I was looking for ways to at least still run a bit.  I really enjoy running, especially when I travel as a way to explore new places.  I am not a fan of bike riding, which is always the first suggestion people make as an alternative, but I do like my elliptical scooter and ride it from time to time.  But I can't take it on trips with me and I still like running.

It was at that time a year ago that I read an article about running gait and the potential for different gaits to have less impact on the knees (sorry I can't find the article now).  I realized I was a heavy heel-first landing runner, landing so hard each time it felt like I pile-driving my knees and spine.  So I started experimenting with different styles of running, including the classic old-guy waddle.  But what seemed to have the most benefit was running on my toes.  Whenever I ran uphill, my knees never hurt.  What if landing toe-first allowed the foot to be a sort of shock absorber?

Well, changing one's entire running gait at 56 was pretty much as hard as you might imagine.  The first few times I tried it I pulled something in both calves.  While that healed, I decided to strengthen my calves by walking on my toes.  I got to doing 5 miles with a pack totally on my toes which I am sure made me an oddball around the neighborhood (though to some extent this ship has already sailed as I do Pimsleur language courses as I walk so I am also the weird dude mumbling in Mandarin around the neighborhood).  I tried using Newton Gravity running shoes that have a design that almost ensures a toe first landing, but they just made the calf problems worse.

Today, I am finally turning a corner.  I ran five miles last weekend in my best time since I was last marathon training -- even a bit better in fact.  My endurance is still not great because I took so much time off and because I am sure this gait, being less natural for me, is not as efficient.  But being able to run 3-5 miles a couple of times a week, and maybe the odd 10K, really is all I was looking for and so (knock on wood) I will declare victory.  As an aside, and perhaps entirely unrelated to any of this, I have had zero problems in the last year with my heretofore recurring plantar fasciitis issues.

I am not a doctor, so ymmv.  My theory here may be complete BS, or counter-productive, or just a placebo.  Actual people who know things about this are encouraged to comment and dissuade folks if this is all terrible advice.

A Good Insight Into The Basic Assumptions On The Left -- Every Issue Is An Opportunity to Raise Taxes and Give Politicians A Bigger Trough to Feed At

When I saw the headline of this post by Kevin Drum -- Our Personal Data Is Worth a Lot. Facebook Should Pay For It -- I was just going to use it as the starting point for a quick post saying that if we should be paid by Facebook for our personal data, the government should pay my company for all the data (Census, DOL, etc) that we are asked to provide.

However, when I actually read the post, I was simply amazed at the way Leftists think about solutions to this.  To me, the least intrusive solution is say that Facebook needs to be transparent about the data it gathers so users can decide intelligently if they want to be on the platform.  Or, if we decide that Facebook is not a near-monopoly common carrier, the second least intrusive solution is to require Facebook to allow users to opt out of having their private data used for things beyond providing core services of the platform.  If Facebook can't make that business model work, they might charge users $10 a month but waive the charge if you opt in to their using the data for a defined set of other purposes.  Because we already are being paid for our data in the form of free usage of a (to some) valuable platform.  Its just a very non-transparent transaction where both the costs and benefits are hard to evaluate.  The best role for the government is to make it easier for us as individuals to better understand this cost-benefit tradeoff.

But here are the default solutions from two folks on the Left:

Shapiro thinks we all deserve a cut of that since this personal data is, after all, ours. He suggests a complicated mechanism where the government collects the money and then cuts everyone a check. But why not just levy a tax and be done with it? That would be simpler. Put all the money in a special fund designed to . . . I dunno, fight income inequality or buy everyone computers. I’ll bet Elizabeth Warren could come up with a plan for it.

Ugh, really?  If I did not read his blog all the time I would almost think Drum's personal solution is parody.   Does he really think giving my money to Elizabeth Warren to spend is a way for me to recover any value?

Trump Acts Crazy; Democrats Respond by Saying "Hold My Beer"

Six months into the Trump Administration, I was committed to voting for whomever the Democrats fielded in the next election -- I was even going to eschew my usual quixotic Libertarian vote.

Since then my views on Trump are mixed at best.   I still think his demeanor is appalling.  His trade policy is even worse than I had feared.  His demagoguery on immigration has only resulted in a gridlock that has left a total mess at the border.  His use of national emergencies to end-run democratic processes is a terrible precedent.  To be fair, there have been some good things.  I have been encouraged by some of the regulatory efforts in some of his departments -- in particular I would happily follow Sonny Perdue's lead and ship much of the Federal headcount out of DC and into flyover country.  And I think the tax cuts passed were largely structured in a sensible manner.  None of this silver lining, though, is enough to offset the bad things for me.

But the largest change that has occured since my original vow has been the behavior of the Democrats.  Seeing the craziness in the White House, their response has been "You think that's crazy?  Hold my beer!"  The competition among mainstream Democratic candidates to one up each other with trillion dollar giveaways and absurd socialist programs is simply astounding.  Even my wife the New England Democrat -- who I am pretty sure has never checked an R box in the voting booth except maybe for Jeff Flake -- is horrified at the choices.

I am exceedingly close to joining the Ostrich party and, after years of political engagement, just ignoring it all.

Regime Uncertainty and Trump's Trade Machinations

Conservatives rightly criticised the Obama Administration for rewriting rules so frequently and seemingly arbitrarily that businesses were reluctant to make long term investments.  As the WSJ editorialized in 2016:

Pfizer CEO Ian Read defends the company’s planned merger in an op-ed nearby, and his larger point about capricious political power helps explain the economic malaise of the last seven years. “If the rules can be changed arbitrarily and applied retroactively, how can any U.S. company engage in the long-term investment planning necessary to compete,” Mr. Read writes. “The new ‘rules’ show that there are no set rules. Political dogma is the only rule.”

He’s right, as every CEO we know will admit privately. This politicization has spread across most of the economy during the Obama years, as regulators rewrite longstanding interpretations of longstanding laws in order to achieve the policy goals they can’t or won’t negotiate with Congress. Telecoms, consumer finance, for-profit education, carbon energy, auto lending, auto-fuel economy, truck emissions, home mortgages, health care and so much more.

Capital investment in this recovery has been disappointingly low, and one major reason is political intrusion into every corner of business decision-making. To adapt Mr. Read, the only rule is that the rules are whatever the Obama Administration wants them to be. The results have been slow growth, small wage gains, and a growing sense that there is no legal restraint on the political class.

I am willing to believe this is true. On my own smaller scale, our company has disinvested in California because we simply cannot keep up with the changing rules there.

But all this forces me to ask, why doesn't this same Conservative criticism apply to Trump's trade policy?  The rules are changing literally by the day -- Consumers of goods from Mexico are going to be hit by new tariffs, Mexican goods are not going to be hit by new tariffs, China is hit by new tariffs, a China deal is near, a China deal is not near, Company A got a special tariff exemption, Company B did not get a special exemption, etc. How can any company with a global supply chain, which is most any US manufacturer nowadays, plan for new products or investments in this environment when they have no ability to make long-term plans for their supply chain?

Climate "Disruption" and Publication Bias

Quite a while ago I wrote an article about climate publication bias called Summer of the Shark.

let's take a step back to 2001 and the "Summer of the Shark." The media hysteria began in early July, when a young boy was bitten by a shark on a beach in Florida. Subsequent attacks received breathless media coverage, up to and including near-nightly footage from TV helicopters of swimming sharks. Until the 9/11 attacks, sharks were the third biggest story of the year as measured by the time dedicated to it on the three major broadcast networks' news shows.

Through this coverage, Americans were left with a strong impression that something unusual was happening -- that an unprecedented number of shark attacks were occurring in that year, and the media dedicated endless coverage to speculation by various "experts" as to the cause of this sharp increase in attacks.

Except there was one problem -- there was no sharp increase in attacks.  In the year 2001, five people died in 76 shark attacks.  However, just a year earlier, 12 people had died in 85 attacks.  The data showed that 2001 actually was  a down year for shark attacks.

The point is that it is easy for people to mistake the frequency of publication about a certain phenomenon for the frequency of occurrence of the phenomenon itself.  Here is a good example I saw the other day:

An emaciated polar bear was spotted in a Russian industrial city this week, just the latest account of polar bears wandering far from their hunting grounds to look for food.

Officials in the Russian city of Norilsk warned residents about the bear Tuesday.  They added that it was the first spotted in the area in over 40 years.

I am willing to bet my entire bourbon collection that a) hungry polar bears occasionally invaded Siberian towns in previous decades and b) news of such polar bear activity from towns like Norilsk did NOT make the American news.  But readers (even the author of the article) are left to believe there is a trend here because they remember seeing similar stories recently but don't remember seeing such stories earlier in their life.

One Wore Blue, One Wore Grey -- Chinese Version

A large part of the mythology of the American Civil War is the stories of brothers who fought on opposite sides of the way.   They are a favorite part of many Civil War novels (including that series which I can't remember the name of that had a Patrick Swayze mini-series).

I am sure similar stories are part of many civil war traditions in many countries, but one of the more amazing comes from China in the 20th century.  And it involved sisters, not brothers.

Soong Ching-Ling was one of three sisters born in the Shanghai area in the late 19th century and sent by their father to America for school.  She would marry her father's friend Sun Yat-Sen (one of several wives -- Sun was only Westernized so far).  When Sun died, the left-right coalition he held together among the Chinese revolutionary forces disintegrated, with Soong Ching-Ling ending on the communist side.  She eventually rose to be vice-president of the PRC.

Her sister Soong Mei-Ling would marry Sun Yat-Sen's protege Chiang Kai-Shek, who was to lead China in the 30's and early 40's and eventually dual unsuccessfully with the communists after the war for control of China.  He would then rule the Chinese nationalist forces in Taiwan for most of the rest of his life.

Postscript:  I see there is a Hong Kong movie with a pretty nice cast on the sisters, might have to watch it.

The Bad Economics of ... Pretty Much ALL Advocacy Groups Looking For Government Handouts

John Hinderaker at Powerline writes about the House committee hearing on reparations the other day.  Just as a review, there is a proposal on the table by many Democrats that a large group of Americans who have never owned slaves or even condoned slavery pay reparations for slavery to a large group of Americans who have never been slaves (nor likely have their parents or their grand parents).

Forgetting the moral bankruptcy of the underlying arguments for reparations, I would have thought that if modern American blacks were somehow owed reparations for past damages, the very fact of being held in bondage was damage enough.  That crime is so bad it's hard to imagine anything else really adding more than incrementally to the damage calculation.  But apparently Ta-Nehisi Coates tetified, using a recent academic paper, that cotton grown and harvested by black labor amounted to nearly half the US economic activity at the time, and thus was somehow worse.  I am not really sure I understand this argument, but if we focus narrowly on the statement at hand it is obviously absurd, if for no other reason than the fact that the South was economically overwhelmed in the war by the North.

Apparently the "trick" in the study was to essentially double count economic activity and claim any activity that only marginally touched on cotton to be part of the tally for the size of the cotton economy.

Coates’s numbers come from Cornell University historian Ed Baptist’s 2014 book The Half Has Never Been Told. In a key passage in the book, Baptist purports to add up the total value of economic activity that derived from cotton production, which at $77 million made up about 5 percent of the estimated gross domestic product (GDP) of the United States in 1836. Baptist then committed a fundamental accounting error. He proceeded to double and even triple count intermediate transactions involved in cotton production — things like land purchases for plantations, tools used for cotton production, transportation, insurance, and credit instruments used in each. Eventually that $77 million became $600 million in Baptist’s accounting, or almost half of the entire antebellum economy of the United States.

My point is not to quibble with Coates's numbers per se -- as I said up top, a) I don't think reparations are owed for our great great grandparents actions b) I think the economic contribution of cotton is a rounding error on any damages that would be owed and c) I feel like the United States government and its people already paid this bill in blood and treasure during the Civil War.

The point I want to make is that this same error is made ALL THE TIME.  Every study you see quoted about economic impacts of .. whatever ... likely makes this same mistake, either accidentally or on purpose.  When sports teams try to get tax subsidies so their billionaire owners can build new stadiums, the economic impact "studies" they produce do this same triple counting.  When the sugar industry tries to justify the absurd tariffs that protect it, their studies use this same trick.  When climate alarmists cite economic impacts of a degree of warming, they use this technique.

By the way, I have made my own proposal on slavery reparations that targets the cost of reparations at the wealthy institution in the antebellum south, an institution that still exists today, which did the most to extend and preserve and defend slavery.

The Case For Studying History

I know that for many folks today, history seems increasingly irrelevant.  Millenials will say that anything a bunch of old white guys were doing 500 years ago has no bearing on their lives.  Or perhaps more accurately, they don't want it to have any bearing on their life.

I love history in and of itself, but studying it has real value in understanding public policy choices. The problem in public policy is that we can seldom run good controlled studies (e.g. half of you will live under socialism and half capitalism and we will see who does better).  And even when we do inadvertently run A/B tests (e.g. blue state fiscal and regulatory model vs red state) we seldom pay attention to the results in part because we are just too close to them and too invested in them in one way or another.

But if you look back through enough time and across enough different civilizations, humans have already run millions of experiments and we can read the results.  I find it impossible, for example, to look at our government today without thinking of Rome and the Gracchi brothers in the 2nd century BC.  People today are trying to throw out institutional checks and balances, rules of decorum, traditions of collegiality, and limitations on power because they feel these are standing in the way of (mostly) well-meaning improvement programs ( in areas such as climate, income inequality, racism, etc).  But history teaches that such efforts always end the same way.  As in Rome in 133BC or Russian in 1917 or Cuba in 1957 or in many other historical cases, the inroads made by well-meaning idealists in weakening limits on individual power just open the door for real iron-fisted authoritarians to take the helm.

Well, Sometimes You Can't Pick Your Allies

The only thing more annoying in an argument than trying to have a discussion with someone who does not think logically is to have an "ally" pop into the discussion on your side who does not think logically.  Via the AZ Republic

One of the original leaders of the anti-light rail movement in south Phoenix claims God "judged" Congressman Ed Pastor for "bringing death" to the community by supporting light rail and punished him with a fatal heart attack.

At a City Council meeting last week,Celia Contreras told council members she was "coming in the name of Lord Jesus Christ" with a message: Stop the light rail or the "punishment" will continue

Well, to be fair, the guy knows his business is going to take a big hit, without any hope of a takings claim on the government, and I suppose he is pretty stressed out.

By the way, the presence of this story in the Republic is a tell as to which side the paper favors.  I have been to public meetings on Phoenix light rail and I have personally seen a number of insane claims by light rail supporters (at lot of wrath of Gaia stuff, for example) that never gets featured in the paper.

I Used To Be Excited by SpaceX and Private Space Flight -- Now, They Are Just Another Crony

I guess I should not be surprised at this in a company headed by Elon Musk, but this is just straight-up cronyism of the worst sort (emphasis added):

The U.S. Air Force, which leads Pentagon space efforts, has spent the last five years reorganizing how the military and intelligence agencies get their satellites into orbit. Pursuant to congressional mandates, it has had three goals: (1) stop using Russian rocket engines, (2) assure access to all key orbits by selecting two capable launch providers, and (3) foster competition between those providers to discipline price and performance.

The service has made good progress, sharing the costs of developing new launch vehicles with prospective providers and preparing to select two winners next year. But now comes Representative Adam Smith (D-WA), Chairman of the House Armed Service Committee, with a plan to overturn the Air Force’s efforts by arbitrarily giving up to $500 million to the one company that failed to win a launch services agreement from the service in competitive bidding last year.

The losing company was Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which failed to convince the Air Force it had a suitable plan for assuring safe and reliable access to space for all planned military payloads. Under Rep. Smith’s proposal, which is contained in the pending 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, SpaceX would get a huge windfall of taxpayer money so that it can continue competing against the three companies that won development agreements in last year’s awards. As reporter Sandra Erwin observed at SpaceNews.com on June 10, “Smith’s provision would give SpaceX access to government funds that it did not win competitively.”

Smith’s proposed language is Washington politics at its worst. According to the Air Force, if it becomes law U.S. access to critical national security orbits will be endangered, the military will need to rely longer on Russian rocket engines, and the cost of all national-security space missions will increase. As if that were not enough, the Air Force says Smith’s proposal would reward an uncompetitive offeror while punishing successful competitors who have been sharing the cost of developing launch vehicles with the government.

For instance, the Smith provision would require other companies in the race for launch contracts to turn over intellectual property they have developed to SpaceX in order to level the playing field. In addition, the Air Force says that the requirement in Smith’s language for early notification of Congress before future contracts are announced would create the perception that Congress influenced the outcome.

A Conservative Discovers Problems With Police Accountability. Sort of.

Scott Johnson of Powerline has been following the trial of a Minneapolis police officer accused to shooting and killing a totally innocent woman (in fact, the woman who called the police) seemingly without the least provocation.  Johnson has reported for months on all the frustrating barriers to bringing this police officer to justice -- the refusal to pin the officers to a story immediately before they had time to coordinate a story, the internal affairs investigators who acted more like cover-up artists, the complete unwillingness of the police force to do a quality investigation, and the incredible difficulty the DA had in pursuing this case or getting any cooperation with supposed law enforcement officers.  As he writes:

Prosecution of the Noor case by his office has been a tremendous strain on Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman. He is in treatment for alcohol abuse. He deserves credit for assigning the case to Assistant County Attorney Amy Sweasy and sticking with it as it roiled relations with Minneapolis police. As it turned out, Sweasy had to convene a grand jury and issue subpoenas to secure the testimony of police officers involved in the case.

These are the kinds of issues I and many others have raised for years about problems with police accountability.  I believe bad police officers are a small minority of the force but this lack of accountability has been incredibly obvious for years, and has poisoned the view of police officers in certain communities that interact with them the most.  Black Lives Matter started with a police accountability agenda before the movement went off the rails.  So I am happy to see a prominent writer give it attention.

Sort of.  Because it is not clear to me that Johnson really sees the general police accountability issue.  For most of the last 10 years, Powerline bloggers including Johnson have been pretty skeptical of those who have critiqued police shootings. I would describe their default position as "the police are right, their critics all have agendas."  I refuse to claim to see into people's hearts, and really am reluctant to get pulled into intersectional finger-pointing, but it is impossible to ignore that the one case that seems to have woken him up is the killing of a pretty blonde white lady by a person of color.

Don't get me wrong, I think the jury was correct in convicting the officer, and respect their bravery as very, very few juries will ever convict police officers.  The prosecutor had to have done a heroic job in getting this conviction.  But I fear that Johnson and perhaps other Conservatives are reading the wrong causes into the difficult prosecution.  He writes that "Something is rotten in the city of Minneapolis," and my interpretation of this (from this series as well as other things he has written) is that he attributes the difficulty in prosecution not to systematic problems in holding police accountable but in the fact that the officer was ethnically Somali and that the city of Minneapolis is somehow reluctant to challenge the Somali community.  I guess after horrific stories like the non-prosecution of rapists in Rotherham, one has to consider this possibility -- I know Minneapolis has a large Somali community but know nothing of its dynamics.  But frankly after studying 100 candles that are burning through the oxidation of petrochemicals, I am skeptical the 101st will turn out to be phlogiston.

Iron Law of Unintended Consequences

From a very dedicated reader (and Boing Boing)

East West Market in Vancouver, B.C. had a terrific idea to get people to start bringing their own reusable shopping bags: design plastic bags with messages too embarrassing to carry. Unfortunately, while hilarious, it's backfiring. They made them too good and now everyone wants a set of them! Collect all three: the Colon Care Co-op, Into The Weird Adult Video Emporium, and Dr. Toews' Wart Ointment Wholesale.

The bags are great, I will let you click through to see them

As I Predicted 15 Years Ago, Indefinite Detentions at Gitmo Continue in the War that Never Ends

Sigh -- here is your update:  Human beings are still being detained by the US government in Guantanamo without any due process.  I was writing about this 15 years ago, but with the loss of some of my early content the earliest I can find is this from 2006.  The problem always was our using US POW rules from past wars in this very different war.  In the past, wars actually ran for what now seems like a limited time (though folks living through WWII would be surprised at that perspective).  POW's for most part were captured in uniform and on a battlefield (or floating in the water after their ship sank).  Nobody really had due process concerns as a) being in a German uniform in a Normandy pillbox on June 7 was pretty persuasive evidence one was an enemy combatant; b) the detained combatant was likely headed to Arkansas to harvest crops for a year or two, which was a FAR better place to be than where they were captured; c) when the war unambiguously ended, they went home.

But in our current AUMF and the "war on terror," where does it end?   There are no uniforms.  The battlefield as defined is the entire world.  The power to detain human beings for the duration of the war allows the Administration to detain roughly anyone they way, without having to defend that decision, and keep them however long they want because only the Administration (or perhaps Congress if it had a spine) decides when the "war" is over.

I had hoped that the Supreme Court would take the opportunity to review this practice after so many years had passed.  I think there were real reasons to ban this practice in 2004 when the Court reviewed this the first time, but at that time the war was relatively fresh and the detentions still shorter than other wartime POW internments.  But what about now?  Unfortunately, the Court declined to rethink their earlier position, despite hints in the original decision that matters might change if the "war" dragged on.

Today the Supreme Court declined an opportunity to examine whether it's still acceptable to hold enemy combatants in Guantanamo Bay at a time when Washington's interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq no longer resemble anything the U.S. was doing in the direct wake of 9/11.

Moath Hamza Ahmed al-Alwi, a Yemeni citizen, has been imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay since January 2002, when he was captured in Pakistan fleeing Afghanistan. He was initially accused of being a veteran terrorist combatant and a former Osama bin Laden bodyguard. Much later, in 2015, officials concluded he was most likely not a former bodyguard; while he was affiliated with Al Qaeda and the Taliban, it's unclear whether he was engaged in any sort of combat against the United States. He's one of 40 prisoners still detained there.

He's been sitting in Guantanamo Bay for 17 years, but the U.S. government has not charged him with any crimes. It doesn't appear to intend to charge him with anything, but it also refuses to release him, because the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) to wage war in Afghanistan and against the Taliban and al Qaeda remains in force.

In 2004's Hamdi v. Rumsfeld decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the AUMF authorized such detentions with an understanding that this authorization ended at the conclusion of the war. But even in 2004, the majority was cognizant of the possibility that this amorphous "war on terror" was likely to change over time. In the ruling, written by then-Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, it notes: "If the practical circumstances of a given conflict are entirely unlike those of the conflicts that informed the development of the law of war, that understanding may unravel. But that is not the situation we face as of this date."

I find Conservative support for these detentions frustrating in light of recent events.  People across the political spectrum, but particularly Conservatives, were outraged that Harvard would terminate a dean merely because as a lawyer he chose to represent an unpopular client (Harvey Weinstein).  They rightly argued that due process demands representation of every client, and that to make that work an attorney's moral standing can't be conflated with that of his clients.  Or put another way, what a defendant allegedly did or did not do is irrelevant to  what we owe them for due process.  I think the same can be said of the folks left to die in Guantanamo.

But Coyote, they aren't American citizens!  We don't owe them due process.  Wrong.  We do.  Read the first words of the Declaration of Independence.  Rights belong to all human beings -- they are not grudgingly granted by the Constitution to US Citizens only.  There is nothing in what I call the extended Bill of Rights (including 13-15) that does not apply to everyone who walks the Earth and interacts with the US Government.  Otherwise, as an extreme example, grabbing Africans and enslaving them would still be Constitutional.

But Coyote, no one wants these guys.  Well, that is a different point and is NOT the current legal underpinning of their detention.  I do understand it is politically impossible, and perhaps even unethical, to drop these folks in the US.  If we free them all and no one will take them, then they may stay as our guests to try to live some kind of life at Guantanamo.  But that is not the status they have today.

But Coyote, one of these guys may kill again.  In general, the argument in favor of confining or keeping at a distance any group that probably contains future criminals is bankrupt.  The argument exploded in popularity on the Right a while back with the Skittles immigration meme.  The meme said something like if you had a thousand Skittles and knew one was poisoned, would you eat from the bag?  And if not, why would you let in immigrant populations that likely include some future criminals.  The problem with this is that if this argument really had moral weight, we would be equally required to ban sex or at least all births since some percentage of babies born will be criminals.  At a higher level, our whole legal system is based on the presumption that it is better to err on the side of not punishing an actual criminal than on the side of punishing the innocent (which we still do a lot of nevertheless).  This presumption of innocence is one of the key markers that separate us from totalitarian governments.

A Plea to Packaging Designers

Of late the design ethic for hotel shampoo bottles has led to 1) all text in 8 point or smaller fonts and 2) all text is printed in low contrast colors, something like cyan on a turquoise background.  Please designers, a lot of us are growing older and it's unlikely I am going to have my reading glasses in the shower.  I shouldn't have to guess which bottle is the shampoo and which is the hand lotion.  There has got to be a way to make the packaging look elegant but still be readable.