Archive for July 2009

In the Coming Dystopia, the Last Post on Everyone's Blog Will Be "Uh Oh, They're Here"


The last post on Elisha Storm's blog before her house was raided and she was dragged to jail for blogging about a local drug enforcement task force.

I personally am all for more citizen imposed accountability on police forces and an tired of the police's resistance to such efforts.  I suppose one could argue that the police need some protection for legitimate undercover efforts, though Virginia apparently does not have a law on its books to this effect, so lacking such legislation it's hard to see how Ms. Storm can be prosecuted (its also unclear if the officers involved were even strictly under cover -- paging Valerie Plame).  My sense is that the courts have been very, very, very leery about applying "harassment" laws to monitoring and criticism of public employees.

Update: We had a kind of similar case here in Phoenix with the New Times and Sheriff Arpaio.

Update#2: Radley Balko has more thoughts.  He says

Assume instead that these officers were investigating organized crime, or a terror cell. What do you think of this woman's arrest? Photographing, writing about, and criticizing police officers, even by name, should of course be legal. But it's a tougher call when the officers in question work undercover. Naming them, posting their photos, posting their addresses, are all pretty clearly efforts to intimidate them, and it isn't difficult to see how doing so not only makes it more difficult for them to do their jobs, but may well endanger their lives.

I might agree with this. But then it (publishing names of undercover officers) should be specifically illegal in Virginia. There are very, very, very few and very narrow exceptions to the First Amendment acknowledged by law and the courts. A reasonable person should expect that if an exception has not been made for the specific activity in which they are engaging, that their behavior is legal.  And besides, one should never have to go to court and wait for a jury verdict for everyone to figure out if an activity is legal or not.

Update #3: I have heard it argued that she was really just tweaking these guys without serving any real positive purpose.  Maybe.  Could be she just had a grudge.  But many of her activities are virtually indistinguishable from those of someone who was really trying to impose some accountability.  I have never heard of the effectiveness of public speech being a criteria for the legality of such speech.


Dan Rather says:

"A democracy and free people cannot thrive without a fiercely independent press"

How does he want to achieve this independent press?  He wants the Obama Administration to appoint a czar or something.  Because we all know how independent GM's decision making has been since Obama dived in there.  And don't forget the fiercely independent EPA, which suppresses any internal dissent to Obama's positions.  Or the fiercely independent inspector generals who get fired when they look into Obama's friends.  And don't forget the fiercely independent John Woo, who was willing to write that just about anything the last Administration wanted to do was legal.

Health Care Thought of the Day

If the government can tax food because eating too much can increase health care costs, what about sex?  Sex leads to all kinds of medically expensive consequences (STDs, including AIDS; aborted pregnancies; childbirth).  Shouldn't we tax sex as well, by the same logic?

$10 of Paperwork to Save $1

Mark Perry links a story on the "cash for clunkers" program, including a small taste of the 136-pages of rules, regulations, and procedures dealers must follow to qualify for the payment.

My Favorite Line Today

From the Anti-Planner:

Forty states have asked the federal government for a total of $102 billion for high-speed rail. This suggests that the Antiplanner's estimate of $90 billion for the cost of the Obama high-speed rail plan was low.

Secretary of Behavior Modification Ray LaHood says that this "shows that the country is ready for high-speed rail." Of course, all it really shows is that state bureaucrats are ready for free federal money.

Wow, I'm So Glad Its Not Just Me

XKCD, of course.
I really felt this way when it came time to take my first baby home from the hospital.   You can't just be letting me take him home -- I don't know what I am doing!

More Troubles with Wind

Frequent readers of this blog know that I am very skeptical wind will make very much sense as a major power source outside of a few niche applications.  Solar may not be economic today, but I think it will someday, and maybe even some day soon.  But I am not sure wind will ever be ready for prime time.

I thought this was pretty funny: (emphasis added)

In the space of one hour last month, electricity generated at wind farms in the eastern end of the Columbia River Gorge shot up by 1,000 megawatts "“ enough to power some 680,000 homes.

Less than an hour later, it plummeted almost as much.

Sitting in front of 10 computer screens in a fifth-floor room of the federal Bonneville Power Administration headquarters in Portland, Kim Randolph had to react quickly.

Working from a keyboard, she diverted millions of gallons of water away from massive turbines spinning in Columbia River dams and sent it around the dams.

The 17-year veteran power operations specialist remembers how fast she needed to work as a wind storm caused generation to peak and fall three times over eight hours.

The article is about the difficulty for grid operators in integrating and managing wind in the grid.  But here is the part that slides by -- despite the electricity it is putting in the grid, wind is contributing...nothing.  Note that when wind production is surging, the utility is sending water around the turbines of the dam.  That lost potential energy is gone forever.  All the wind power did in this case is substitute for clean hydro power.  It has not value in this particular case (beyond the ability of the utility to put wind on its annual report and seek subsidies from the Obama administration).

Apparently the costs of trying to integrate wind into the grid is so high the utility tried to charge wind producers a higher integration charge than they do for other sources.   This attempt to set pricing equal to actual costs was apparently killed by pressure from the Obama administration, making sure that wind will continue to get preferential treatment and I presume substitute for dirty hydro power in the future.

Postscript: I just don't see how wind is ever going to work on the grid.  In this case, wind is backed up by hydro, but in others it has to be backed up by spinning, fuel-burning fossil fuel plants.  Wind makes more sense to me linked to some type of flexible local process.  Using wind to make hydrogen from water may make sense.  Wind could store its energy by pumping water backwards back up a dam to be recovered as electricity through hydro power later.  Or it could run a local process, such as water desalinization  (a good potential candidate as sea breezes tend to be more constant).

Immigration and Income Inequality

Income inequality was the topic de jour during much of the election.   The left argued that median wages had stagnated, and tried very hard to date this stagnation from 1980 so that it could be blamed on Ronald Reagan.   Others have argued that the the whole median family wage stagnation thing was overblown, as 1) families had changed alot over 30 years;  2) Compensation had changed (such that wages were less of total compensation with the rise in value of health care plans); and 3) individuals matter, not quartiles, and individuals were doing well and still had mobility between income bands.

My sense is that the income inequality numbers have always been fraught with problems.  For example, rich people have huge incentives to manage the income numbers on their tax returns, so trying to draw conclusions about top earners from their tax returns is a bit dangerous.  Just the shift from C to S corps and LLC's over the last 30 years has fundamentally shifted what income high net worth entrepreneurs show on their tax returns.

All that being said, I think it is clear the income gap has grown, and it really started growing in this country around 1970.  Whether this matters is a different story - its clear from comparing to European countries that while our gap has spread vs. their income gaps, its almost 100% because our rich are richer than their rich.  Our lowest quintile is pretty comparable (here).  If that is the case, its an interesting question to see if this bothers folks.

Anyway, I think there still is work to be done to fully explain and rationalize these income inequality numbers.  But I still find it hard to believe they are not somehow related to immigration.  After all, dropping 20 million new immigrants, many of them quite poor, into the bottom quintile of US workers over the last 20 years certainly tends to pull down medians.  Just compare these two charts, with income inequality on the top and the percentage of residents in any given year that are foreign-born (legal or illegal immigrants).  I fitted the two charts together manually to get the time scales to line up, I don't have time to replot them together as I should.  Click to enlarge.


Its hard to see, by the way, how the top chart really reflects a trend starting with Reagan (as much as the left so desperately wants it to be true).  Something happened around 1970 to reverse the curve.  I have offered one possible cause.  I do so reluctantly, because I don't want to be misunderstood -- I am a big supporter of open immigration and would hate to give the anti-immigration folks any ammunition.

Anyway, you are welcome to discuss.  It is something I am thinking about but don't have an answer for.

Postscript: This is the chart comparing the top and bottom US deciles to countries in Europe on an absolute dollar basis. The conclusion I draw is that our poorest are in about the same shape as the poorest in Europe, but our rich are richer than in Europe.  Given this, does our income inequality still worry you?

The reason the analysis is done this funny way is that what one usually sees is some country like Chad with the poor at 80% of the median income.  But 80% of almost nothing is still almost nothing.  So this chart converts everyone to apples and apples - almost.  I still think it underestimates how well off the US poor are, maybe some sort of exchange rate vs. PPP problem.

A Better Time


Via Shorpy, Cadillac Square in 1916 Detroit.  A substantially more prosperous city than today.

More Stimulus Accounting Shenanigans

Any person with a room temperature IQ can figure out that the Obama "jobs saved" metric is complete BS, a measure that is totally unmeasurable, and therefore can be set to any value the Administration wishes.

But this is, if anything, even crazier:

How much are politicians straining to convince people that the government is stimulating the economy? In Oregon, where lawmakers are spending $176 million to supplement the federal stimulus, Democrats are taking credit for a remarkable feat: creating 3,236 new jobs in the program's first three months.

But those jobs lasted on average only 35 hours, or about one work week. After that, those workers were effectively back unemployed, according to an Associated Press analysis of state spending and hiring data. By the state's accounting, a job is a job, whether it lasts three hours, three days, three months, or a lifetime.

"Sometimes some work for an individual is better than no work," said Oregon's Senate president, Peter Courtney.

With the economy in tatters and unemployment rising, Oregon's inventive math underscores the urgency for politicians across the country to show that spending programs designed to stimulate the economy are working "” even if that means stretching the facts.

At the federal level, President Barack Obama has said the federal stimulus has created 150,000 jobs, a number based on a misused formula and which is so murky it can't be verified.

On a full-time FTE basis, the report figures Oregon has "created"  215 full-time jobs.  They don't even attempt to do the math on how many jobs were destroyed when $176 million was taken from other productive uses.  But does anyone else syspect that the private hands the $176 million was formerly in probably would employ more than 215 people for that chunk of change?

Paging Sarah Connor

Maybe I have watched too many movies, but it just does not seem like this will end well:

In its recently released "Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan 2009-2047" report, the US Air Force details a drone that could fly over a target and then make the decision whether or not to launch an attack, all without human intervention. The Air Force says that increasingly, humans will monitor situations, rather than be deciders or participants, and that "advances in AI will enable systems to make combat decisions and act within legal and policy constraints without necessarily requiring human input."

I will eschew some obvious Terminator clips and go a little old school

The original version of this scene actually did not make the theaters because it was too violent for the time.  If you want the full gore, .  The clip begins with the theatrical release, and then it replays the whole thing with the deleted bits.

Health Care Trojan Horse For Fascism (Episode 36)

I have written on this topic any number of times, warning that when government pays the health care bills, said payments gives it nearly infinite room to label just about any individual behavior as "costly" to the health care system and therefore fair game for micro-regulation.

Via a reader:

If you happen to be the 1-in-3 Americans who is neither obese nor overweight (and, thus, considered at risk of becoming obese), you might well conclude that the habits of the remaining two-thirds of Americans are costing you, big time. U.S. life expectancies are expected to slide backward, after years of marching upward. (But that's their statistical problem: Yours is how to make them stop costing you all that extra money because they are presumably making poor choices in their food consumption.)

"Facing the serious consequences of an uncontrolled obesity epidemic, America's state and federal  policy makers may need to consider interventions every bit as forceful as those that succeeded in cutting adult tobacco use by more than 50%," the Urban Institute report says. It took awhile -- almost 50 years from the first surgeon general's report on tobacco in 1964 -- to drive smoking down. But in many ways, the drumbeat of scientific evidence and the growing cultural stigma against obesity already are well underway -- as any parent who has tried to bring birthday cupcakes into her child's classroom certainly knows.

Key among the "interventions" the report weighs is that of imposing an excise or sales tax on fattening foods. That, says the report, could be expected to lower consumption of those foods. But it would also generate revenues that could be used to extend health insurance coverage to the uninsured and under-insured, and perhaps to fund campaigns intended to make healthy foods more widely available to, say, low-income Americans and to encourage exercise and healthy eating habits.

Please, please note the text in bold.  They have made overeating a crime with a victim - people who are thin are victims of those who are overweight, and therefore can call on the government to take swift action to protect them.  Eek!  And the LA Times is clearly in love with the idea.   Is it any wonder my chief concern about government health care is not the costs, but the threats to individual liberty?

John Stoessel has further comments.

For those of you comfortably thin who chose to ignore this as not your problem, consider this:  If an overweight person is a threat to a thin person, via the health care charges he might burden taxpayers with, what about, say, a skier?  I don't chose to participate in dangerous sports, so isn't a skier doing a crime against me by the same logic for taking a risk of a potentially expensive injury?  How about a person whose hobby involves dangerous tools.  If TJIC cuts his finger off on his band saw, isn't that costing me money in our new socialist regime?  What about bike riding, or motorcycle riding, or rock climbing, or rugby?  What about any parent that lets their kid play somewhere they could get hurt and cost us mone?

This is why government health care is so dangerous  -- it takes what should be individual decisions with individual consequences and socializes the costs of our personal choices.  Once the costs are socialized, won't control of the choices themselves follow?

Postscript: Again going into morbid mode here, obesity may increase costs for younger patients, but its higher early morbidity actually can reduce lifetime costs.  Basically, morbidly obese people tend to die more often before they grow old enough to get expensive cancers and such.  Several studies have shown lifetime costs for the obese to be lower than for other folks.

Which is not to say that obesity is good, so please do not misunderstand my point.  I would work hard to help someone I loved who was morbidly overweight to get in better health.  Obesity can be bad but its a crappy excuse to take another axe to our free society.

A Third of Welfare Recipients in California?

I had trouble believing this chart (ht Maggies Farm) until I looked at the HHS data here and saw it was dead on.  On the chart below, the width of the band at the left is percentage of the US population, and to the right is percentage of the US welfare roles.


The second biggest band, in green, I believe is New York.  Its incredible that California's financial problems can be in the news for months and I have never seen a whiff of this in the media.

What Does Pelosi Define as "Immoral" Profits? Greater than Zero?

Nancy Pelosi said this the other day (emphasis added)

I'm very pleased that our Chair of our Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and member of the leadership will be talking too about the immoral profits being made by the insurance industry and how those profits have increased in the Bush years. We all believe in the profit motive; we all want to reward success.  But having that success come at the expense of America's working families "” have that success come by withholding care, when a person becomes ill, is just not right and we're going to take this issue in a new direction.

In the past, other leftish pundits have been even more direct:

It means the health insurance industry is scared that we might actually do something in 2009 and they want to be seen as something other than completely obstructionist. That means only one thing: they've shown fear, and now it's time to bore in for the kill and gut them like trouts. Let's get to it.

I don't have time to redo the analysis, but for the third quarter 2008 (the last quarter of the dreaded Bush years that increased insurance profits so much) I looked up on Google Finance the profit margins of major health care insurers, providers, and HMO's.  I am not sure who the Democrats would consider the real Satan of health insurance (ala ExxonMobil or Wal-Mart) but if I left a key company off you are welcome to suggest it in the comments.  Anyway, 3Q08 profit margins were:

Cigna: 3.50%

United Health Group: 4.56%

Aetna: 3.64%

WellCare:  4.08%

Amerigroup: 3.51%

Humana 2.56%

WellPoint: 5.49%

So, if you are a business owner (and that includes those of you who own equities, which are ownership shares), be very afraid.  Look at your company or your favorite stockholding.  If they have margins of 2.5% or more of revenues (and that includes just about every profitable company in America -- I think the industrial average is in the eights) then Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats consider your profits immorally high and they intend to gut you like a trout.

Update: OK, I had a bit of time to update numbers, so I took Cigna, which is the first on the list, and looked at their net profit margin over 4 years:

2005:  7.6%

2006:  7.0%

2007:  6.4%

2008:   1.5%

Hmm, not sure I see the profits increasing in the Bush years -- looks like they are going down to me.  I would also observe that they never in the last four years even rise to average for a large American public company.

Gates-Type Encounters with Police Happen Every Day, Irregardless of Race

Some cops just abuse power, and make up rules as they go along.

Gordon Haire, a former newspaper reporter and former police officer, was sitting at a table on the campus of the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston when he snapped a photo of a university police officer strolling towards him.

Officer Tim Wilson then came up to him and told him he was not allowed to photograph the Galveston National Library, which apparently is so top secret that only a Google search will reveal its true appearance.

Wilson told him it was against the law to photograph the building because it is a security threat.

Haire, 66, told Wilson he did not believe him.

Sensing the impending terrorist threat, Wilson asked for Haire's identification.

But having lost his drivers license, Haire was only able to produce a Medicare card (he had arrived by bus for a doctor's appointment).

The cop then asked for his full name and date of birth, then relayed that information to a dispatcher through his collar microphone.

"He's giving me a hard time," the cop said to the dispatcher, according to Haire.

The cop finally left, but not before informing Haire that it was illegal to even photograph the sidewalk.

Things I Have Learned As A Libertarian

People often use terrible, specious logic when arguing things political.  I have particularly seen this over the last 6 months.  The argument typically goes like this:

  1. I make a critique of a policy in the Obama administration, say on health care
  2. Sometimes as an opening response, or sometimes when other person is unable to specifically counter what I have said, they respond instead, "well, your guys  fill in the blank ." The latter part might be "got us into Iraq" or possibly "are pushing this birther nonsense."
  3. I respond that  fill in the blank was not something I support(ed) and that if  by "my guys" they mean Republicans, that I was not a Republican, that I do not think the Republicans have an internally consistent position, and that I disagree with many programs and policies typically advocated by Republicans.  And besides, how did this have anything to do with the original conversation?
  4. They respond to me now as if I am somehow cheating.  Confusion reigns.

I am not a student of logic, so I don't know what this technique or fallacy is called, though I have learned that such common behaviors generally do have academic sounding names.  I think of it as the sports-team-argument approach.  When my son (Yankees fan, much to the embarrassment of the whole family) argues with his Red Sox cousins, he might say "Kevin Youkilis has to be the creepiest looking guy in the league," and his cousins might respond "Yeah, well how many steroids has A-Rod done this week?"

Strictly speaking, bringing up A-Rod does not answer the Youkilis barb.  But it is understood to be in the broader context of my team vs. your team, and in that context the exchange makes logical sense, and the A-Rod comeback is a perfectly appropriate rejoinder to the Youkilis insult.  You point out a blemish in my team, I respond with a blemish on your team.

But what if you don' t have a team?

I am starting to understand better that this is how most people approach political discourse.  For someone looking for a quality discussion on key public policy questions, arguments seldom make sense.  Why does something Rush Limbaugh is saying have any bearing on the point I just made on health care or cap-and-trade?  The answer is that it does not, unless the whole point is a red team-blue team one-upmanship between the Coke and Pepsi parties.

Postscript / Disclosure: I am actually an agnostic in the Yankees / Red Sox battles, but I am a big fan of Kevin Youkilis.  The story of how Oakland's Billy Bean tried to pry Youkilis out of the Red Sox farm system in Moneyball is priceless.  According to the story, Bean knew before the Red Sox what talent they had lurking in the Minors.

Thought for the Day

Soon, you may be on the hook for paying for a limitless supply of health care for these people.  (via TJIC)

Update: Good update on issues in the health care bill.

We Should Have Expected This

In Lucifer's Hammer, one Astronaut up in space observed that you couldn't see international borders up there.  The other astronaut told him to shut up -- if he kept making such a big deal about it, countries would all paint two mile wide stripes in flourescent orange around their countries.

I thought of that when I saw this - corporate branding meets Google Earth.  Hat tip Virtual Globetrotting

View Larger Map

Absurd Fact of the Day

From a MoveOn email I received today (emphasis in original):

But Americans can't afford to wait: while the Senate is on vacation, over 400,000 people will lose their health coverage.


The source is here.  Reading the text and the sourcing, it is a great example of how a wild-assed guess can be turned into a "fact" if one buries it in a long enough chain of sourcing.  But the really funny part is that the Senate plan does not even begin to be implemented until 2013, and implementation is not complete until something like 2018.  These dates will not change whether the legislation is passed before or after the recess, but if a single month is so devastating, one wonders why MoveOn has quietly accepted the 2013 implentation date (not conincidently after the next Presidential election).

Postscript: Number of extra people who will not, no matter what their insurance status, be able to get critical care in the next month:  zero.

A Bug In Health Care, A Feature In Everything Else

One of the burning reasons we apparently need a government takeover of health care is that it is "expensive," or more precisely, we spend a lot of money on it.

So what?  In everything else I can think of, rising per capita spending and higher spending in the US than elsewhere is a sign of wealth and prosperity, not a "problem."  We spend a lot of money on a lot of sometimes trivial sh*t, and no one blinks.  We spend more money because we have more beyond what we need to keep ourselves alive.  Or we spend more money because technology provides us new options and frontiers.  But when we spend a lot of money on our health and well-being and longevity, its a problem requiring massive government intervention?


This is Why I Left Corporate America

Once I entered management-type jobs in corporate America, my life was dominated by making powerpoint charts.  That made some sense - I was a staff planner, and that's what they do.  Ten years later I was Senior VP of Marketing for the $23 billion commercial aerospace division of a Fortune 50 company, and I was still spending a huge portion of my time making powerpoint slides.

I am sure other people have lots of sophisticated life goals for themselves, but two of my biggest goals in leaving large corporations were:

  • Never touch powerpoint again
  • Never wear a tie again

I have been succesful 100% on #2.  Powerpoint is still a useful tool, so I not totally fulfilled goal #1, but my use is scaled way back, to about 4 presentations in 6 years  (and one of these was for my climate work, not my real job).

It turns out the military has the same problem.

Things I Didn't Know

From a reader:

Preventive care is for people.
Preventative care is for cars.

Sounds like flammable / inflammable to me, but I will try to get it right.

The Honduran Constitution

I wish I had the exact quote in front of me, but one of the lines from the Honduran Constitution was that President was subject to extreme sanctions for even mentioning in public the possibility of extending his term beyond Constitutional limits.  This is one of the provisions that Manuel Zelaya was ousted for violating.

Now, such a provision sounds very odd to our ears.  Until one considers that any number of other "democratically" elected South American presidents have held suspect "elections" that waived the Constitution and gave them extra terms.  Hugo Chavez is but one example.  Seeing this around them, the authors of the Honduran Constitution  did everything they could think of to prevent such an occurrence.  They wanted real term limits and they did not want them to be waived by any process. They knew that democratically elected Presidents had a way of becoming dictators in Latin America.

Unfortunately, in what I hope was ignorance but others have argued is calculated, Hillary Clinton's state department and Obama are backing Zelaya and arguing that, against any reasonable reading of the Constitution, he was wrongly ousted.

Now, in Nicaragua, we can again see exactly why the Honduran Constitution writers were so paranoid, and why it is so depressing the Administration has taken the position it has:

Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega announced Sunday, on the 30th anniversary of the leftist Sandinista revolution he led, that he would seek a referendum to change the constitution to allow him to seek reelection.

Following in the footsteps of elected regional allies, Ortega told thousands of supporters here that he would seek a referendum to let "the people say if they want to reward or punish" their leaders with reelection.

His close leftist allies who have had rules changed enabling them to remain in power include presidents Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador.

In the last month President Manuel Zelaya in neighboring Honduras was ousted in a coup by his own military after seeking similar action.

I am sure Jimmy Carter will be available to put his imprimatur on the election.

Fun Site of the Day

The Manhattan Airport Foundation.  It would certainly cut down on muggings.

The Trouble With the Media Is...

...that this sort of article is absolutely inevitable only AFTER bad legislation is passed.

A federal minimum wage increase that takes effect Friday could prolong the recession, some economists say, by forcing small businesses to lay off the same workers that the pay hike passed in better times was meant to help.

The increase to $7.25 means 70 cents more an hour for the lowest-paid workers in the 30 states that don't have a higher minimum. It also means higher costs for employers who feel they've already trimmed all their operating fat.

"How will they absorb the increase?" said Rajeev Dhawan, director of Georgia State University's Economic Forecasting Center. "They will either hire less people or they will do less business."

More than in any period before, businesses are likely to lay off employees and reduce hours, further fueling the economic slump in states seeing double-digit unemployment rates, fiscal conservatives and some economists say.

In the run up to actually passing this legislation, the Arizona Republic did nothing but cheer-lead the effort, and would never have published such a story, or would have mentioned it only in graph 36 with some perfunctory balance-quote from the dreaded "industry representative."

We saw this exact same thing occur with ethanol legislation.