Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Deficit

Paul Krugman is arguing that the Democrats should not spend political capital on reducing the deficit right now. (Full text at Brad DeLong).

To me, this kind of argument misses the point. I have no problem with the government borrowing money for important spending initiatives. But when the government is borrowing money, we need to look very closely at what the money is being spent on, to see how important it is. This money all has to be re-paid with interest, so it is especially important to spend it on something useful (fighting a world war, for example).

Given current wasteful government spending, though, I would argue that any money borrowed simply can't be said to be going to anything useful. Is there any doubt that billions of dollars are being wasted right now? Farm subsidies are just one example. Since the borrowed money is just going to a general fund, and the money received by the government through taxes and borrowing is fungible, the deficit spending effectively is being used for the wasteful projects.

I assume Krugman would agree that most, if not all, of our farm subsidies are bad policy. So, it seems to me that, in effect, Krugman is saying that the government should borrow money to subsidize big agricultural corporations.

I suppose his point is that it makes sense politically for the Democrats to spend money and not worry about the deficit. That's a fair point. However, it is a little depressing to hear this from someone like Krugman. It's somewhat expected for politicians to act this way. But when prominent economists lose their idealism, and give up good policy for practical policy, I get a little discouraged.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Debbie Schlussel's "War against Islam"

In a post titled "Barack Hussein Obama: Once a Muslim, Always A Muslim," Debbie Schlussel writes the following about Obama:
So, even if he identifies strongly as a Christian, and even if he despised the behavior of his father (as Obama said on Oprah); is a man who Muslims think is a Muslim, who feels some sort of psychological need to prove himself to his absent Muslim father, and who is now moving in the direction of his father's heritage, a man we want as President when we are fighting the war of our lives against Islam? Where will his loyalties be?

This is appalling in two related ways. First, she doesn't want Obama to be President because of his ties to Islam? That is absurd. Disqualifying certain religions from political office? How many people would agree with this? I had hoped not too many, but perhaps I was wrong.

Second, we are fighting against Islam? Come on now. At some point, somewhere, she must have met a muslim that she liked. Does she really believe we are fighting all of Islam? Islamic terrorists, sure. But not the whole religion.

Condi on the Possibility of a Black President

Condoleezza Rice on the possibility of a black president:
"Yes, I think a black person can be elected president," Rice said in an Associated Press interview Thursday.


She said the first successful black candidate will be "judged by all the things that Americans ultimately end up making their decision on: Do I agree with this person? Do I share this person's basic values? Am I comfortable that this person is going to make decisions when I'm not in the room that are very consequential?"

At the same time, she said, "We should not be naive. Race is still an issue in America. When a person walks into a room, race is evident. It's something that I think is going to be with us for a very, very long time."

I think she gets it exactly right. It's too bad she doesn't have the personality to pull it off herself. She's too much of a bureaucrat, in my opinion. She might make a great VP choice, though.

On a similar topic, it is being suggested that Obama will have a hard time getting African-Americans to vote for him. Hopefully Obama is smart enough to realize that he can't do anything more than be himself. Once politicians start changing in order to appeal to particular groups, they lose a lot of credibility.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Money MLB

Two thoughts about money and Major League Baseball.

First, it is being reported that:
Among the teams with the 10 highest averages, only San Francisco ($3.8 million) had a losing record (76-85). Among clubs with the 12 lowest averages, the only one with a winning record was Toronto (87-75).

Based on this, can there really be any doubt that unequal payrolls among teams undermines the competitive balance of baseball? On average, money buys wins. It's that simple. So, as long as money is not balanced roughly equally among the teams, there will be some teams with a much better chance to win than some other teams.

The second thought is, how do we fix this? Revenue sharing helps. But I think what would also be good is to eliminate some of the inefficiences in the current system. For instance, the Yankees and Mets have a huge advantage because they are in the New York market. There are two teams sharing a market that is far more than twice as big as many other markets. I say add one or two more New York teams to the mix (not to mention Boston and other cities). If New York could sustain three teams long ago, they should certainly be able to do it now. And if MLB won't let this happen (which presumably they won't), then somebody should start a competing league. Perhaps the USLB?

Just Say No to Mormons?

Jacob Weisberg writes that he will not be voting for Mitt Romney because Romney is a Mormon, and then tries to explain why this position is not religious bigotry. In essence, he says that it's OK to oppose Mormons (and Scientologists) because these religions are recent and have not moderated themselves, as other religions have. He mentions Christianity and Judaism as examples of the latter. (It's not clear how he would classify Islam). He does make clear that he would not vote for Christian and Jewish fanatics, but his position appears to be that virtually all Mormons are fanatics. He leaves open the possibility that Romney might be acceptable if he would distance himself from church doctrine.

This position strikes me as one of ignorance. Specifically, ignorance of Mormons (and Scientologists). He doesn't know any, but from what he has read they are quite crazy and radical, and he wants no part of them unless they affirmatively refute the extreme positions he has heard about.

Furthermore, this distinction between older, moderate religions and modern, extreme ones strikes me as ridiculous. It could be argued that the older religions are more fanatical because they have been carrying out the same sorts of rituals and maintaining the same beliefs for thousands of years.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Brr, It's Getting Warmer

Reuters reports:
2006 is set to be the world's sixth-warmest year since records began 150 years ago, the World Meteorological Organization said on Thursday, offering more evidence of a trend most scientists blame on greenhouse gases.

Another way to put it would be the following:
right now it seems that 2006 will become the coldest year among the most recent five years, and it will belong to the colder half of the years in the last decade.

More Trans Fat Bans

Massachusetts is now talking about banning trans fats. As someone who's looking to eat healthy, I'm not very impressed by this approach. Yes, it's nice to know that trans fats are being limited. But what I'd really like to see is a general labeling requirement so that I could tell what was in the food restaurants serve more generally. Trans fat isn't the only unhealthy component of food.

What I'd really, really like to see, though, is restaurants doing this on their own, to cater to health conscious customers. Whole Foods should open a restaurant chain.

Oh, Baby

From Greg Mankiw, the NY Times report that:
about 5,000 babies, of the 70,000 or so who would otherwise be born during the first week in January, may have their arrival dates accelerated partly for tax reasons.

When your tax regime influences people to induce labor, perhaps it's time re-think things.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Brownback for President?

The NY Times notes that Sam Brownback:

blocked the confirmation of a woman to the federal bench because she attended a same-sex commitment ceremony for the daughter of her long-time neighbors

Ugh. I can understand his general concern about an activist judiciary in the area of gay marriage, but this seems to go too far. The underlying problem is the undemocratic nature of the judiciary. I think we need to address that issue head on, rather than trying to deal with it in the context of specific issues like gay rights.

AEI on the Minimum Wage

A couple of AEI folks are critical of a proposed minimum wage increase:
Perhaps the proposed legislation for the upcoming 110th Congress should be called the "2007 Minority Youth Unemployment Act," or the "2007 Bonus for Middle-Class Suburban Teenagers Act." If the 110th Congress wishes to lend a hand to struggling single mothers, minorities and the poor, it should do something other than increasing the minimum wage.

I agree with their conclusions, although I think their rhetoric is a bit too much. It's a delicate and sensitive subject, and as an opponent of a minimum wage increase I worry about coming across as arrogant and out of touch.

More on Alcohol and Health

The latest in the moderate alcohol is good for you reporting:
Researchers examined data on 1,158 patients treated at a Toronto hospital for severe brain injury due to blunt trauma from 1988 and 2003.

Those with blood-alcohol levels up to 0.23 percent -- nearly three times the common legal limit of 0.08 percent -- were 24 percent more likely to survive their injuries than patients entering the hospital with no alcohol in their bloodstream, the study found.


The researchers suggested that alcohol at low or moderate levels in the bloodstream may protect against secondary brain injury that happens when traumatized brain cells remain starved of oxygen, exacerbating the damage inflicted by the original trauma.

I don't doubt their statistics showing a correlation. But with regard to whether causation exists, I'm skeptical. A big reason people don't drink alcohol is because of other ailments they may have. It wouldn't surprise me if the other ailments had increased the death risk in those with no alcohol in their system. Did the researchers take this into account? They should have -- but I don't know if they did.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Trans-Fat Ban: Lesser of Two Evils?

Weighing in a bit late on New York's trans fat ban, I wonder if the restaurant industry was secretly happy with the outcome. It's very possible that what they really feared was a broad health labelling requirement for all restaurant food. Compared to such a requirement, a ban on trans fat is not that bad as it keeps hidden the relative unhealthiness of restaurant food. Actually, it makes them look good -- they can now proclaim they are trans fat free and thus healthy!

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Frankly, I Don't Think Gingrich Has Much of a Chance

Newt Gingrich is thinking about running for Pres. in 2008, although he doesn't sound very certain about it. Here are my thoughts.

First off, his overuse of "frankly" drives me crazy. I swear he says it at least once every time I see him speak.

Second, he doesn't have a great personality for a Presidential run. He talks like a policy wonk. This is good for talking with other policy wonks and politicians, but not for appealing to the masses.

Third, he doesn't strike me as particularly smart. Not that he's dumb. Just that in comparison to his competition, I don't think he stands out in terms of his intelligence. This wouldn't be a big deal except that he seems to think he's an intellectual.

All that said, he's not that bad. I'd like to hear what he has to say about various social and economics issues. I don't feel like I have a good sense of where he stands.

The Future of Television

The FCC is apparently thinking about taking steps to promote competition in the cable TV industry:
FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, in speeches over the past few weeks, has said local franchise authorities at times "obstruct and in some cases completely derail" new attempts to bring video competition to an area.

His proposal is backed by Verizon Communications Inc. and AT&T Inc., which have poured billions of dollars into rewiring their old telecommunications networks so they can deliver television programming and other services.

I think there's definitely something to his concerns. But this has the feel of a debate that will be completely changed in 10 years or so. It's not hard to picture a time in the near future when people get all their video entertainment over the internet, either for free or through subscriptions. Thus, trying to promote competition by allowing additional companies to offer traditional cable TV may only matter in the very short term.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Searching Students

I don't understand the ACLU sometimes (OK, much of the time). Their ability to balance out different interests in society seems out of whack. In a case that happened the other day, during a fire drill at a middle school, an eighth-grade teacher had his MP3 player stolen. The obvious conclusion was that one of the students in the class going on at the time was the culprit, so they searched the students. Specifically, the search was carried out as follows:
Students stood by their desks and exposed their pockets and ankles. No one was touched during the search. Provenzano and Cooper also searched the backpacks.

To me, that seems like an approriate response. But the ACLU is up in arms, with a spokesman saying:
"If someone came forward and said, 'I saw an iPod in Jimmy's bag,' that would be reasonable suspicion. They could search that one student," Hensler said.

But a mass search is not legal unless an administrator can prove reasonable suspicion that each student broke a school rule or violated the law, he said.

It's ultimately up to a judge as to what is "reasonable" in these circumstances, but the school's actions seem reasonable to me.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Tom Friedman Goes Overboard

In a recent column, Tom Friedman praises the Chinese government's push for innovation, and notes that part of him said:
"Gosh, wouldn't it be nice to have a government that was so focused on innovation -- instead of one that is basically anti-science."

Come on, now. Isn't that a little much? Sure, there are a handful of issues on which the Bush administration wants to limit scientists, based on the view that certain scientific activities create ethical problems. But to say that they are "anti-science"? That's just silly. Bush talks about science all the time: fuel cells, cellulosic ethanol, space exploration, etc.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Krugman Goes After Some Straw Men

In his latest column, Paul Krugman criticizes the outsourcing of various government programs to private companies by the Bush administration, and complains:
And maybe, just maybe, the abject failure of this administration’s efforts to outsource essential functions to the private sector will diminish the antigovernment prejudice created by decades of right-wing propaganda.

That’s important, because the presumption that the private sector can do no wrong and the government can do nothing right prevents us from coming to grips with some of America’s biggest problems — in particular, our wildly dysfunctional health care system. More on that in future columns.

Wait a minute, there's a presumption that "the private sector can do no wrong and the government can do nothing right"? Has anyone ever said that? Where? Now, it is true that many people, myself included, would argue that on balance the private sector can do a better job of most things than can the government. But that's a very different proposition.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Alcohol and Health

Many studies in recent years purport to show that moderate alcohol consumption is beneficial to your health. Here's the latest:
Moderate drinking may lengthen your life, while too much may shorten it, researchers from Italy report. Their conclusion is based on pooled data from 34 large studies involving more than one million people and 94,000 deaths.

According to the data, drinking a moderate amount of alcohol -- up to four drinks per day in men and two drinks per day in women -- reduces the risk of death from any cause by roughly 18 percent, the team reports in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

No offense to the scientists involved, who I'm sure spent a great deal of time on this, but I'm not convinced. I have no doubt they found a correlation between moderate alcohol consumption and longer lives. But correlation is not causation, and causation is much more complicated. If people who don't drink alcohol are drinking soda instead, then sure, the results make sense. Wine is better than Coke. But I have a hard time believing that beer is better than water and juice.

It may be that the press has mis-reported the findings a bit. According to the abstract of the article:
Low levels of alcohol intake (1-2 drinks per day for women and 2-4 drinks per day for men) are inversely associated with total mortality in both men and women. Our findings, while confirming the hazards of excess drinking, indicate potential windows of alcohol intake that may confer a net beneficial effect of moderate drinking, at least in terms of survival.

They refer there to an association rather than causation.

Paring Back the Pork

According to the Washington Post:
Democratic leaders declared a temporary moratorium on special-interest provisions known as earmarks as they attempt to cope with a budget crisis left by the outgoing Republican-led 109th Congress.

That is certainly a welcome development. It's hard to believe this is going to be a long-term policy change, of course. It is also mentioned that:
The new chairmen, Rep. David R. Obey (Wis.) and Sen. Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.), said in a statement: "While the results will be far from ideal, this path provides the best way to dispose of the unfinished business quickly, and allow governors, state and local officials, and families to inally plan for the coming year with some knowledge of what the federal government is funding."

They also said they would place a moratorium on all earmarks until lobbying changes are enacted. Those special spending provisions included in the unfinished fiscal 2007 bills will be eligible for consideration next year, the chairmen said, subject to new standards.
So, pork will be back as soon as they fiddle with lobbying rules. But it does seem like the Democrats recognize the importance of this issue, and are trying to use it to their advantage, which is to everyone's benefit if they follow through.

Holocaust Deniers

Reuters reports on one of the participants in Iran's holocaust conference:
Among the participants was U.S. academic David Duke, a former Louisiana Republican Representative.

He's an "academic"??!! I can only assume that the Reuters reporter did not know who he was and simply used the information provided by the conference organizers.

When Bad People Do Good Things

The Washington Post has a surprising editorial regarding General Pinochet's death. They note that despite his horrible human rights record, he left the Chilean economy and political structure in great shape (Chile is currently among the best in Latin America in both categories). This is in stark contrast with Cuba, where Castro has been just as bad on human rights, but has left the economy in shambles and the government is still a dictatorship. They conclude:
The contrast between Cuba and Chile more than 30 years after Mr. Pinochet's coup is a reminder of a famous essay written by Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, the provocative and energetic scholar and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who died Thursday. In "Dictatorships and Double Standards," a work that caught the eye of President Ronald Reagan, Ms. Kirkpatrick argued that right-wing dictators such as Mr. Pinochet were ultimately less malign than communist rulers, in part because their regimes were more likely to pave the way for liberal democracies. She, too, was vilified by the left. Yet by now it should be obvious: She was right.

I would have been surprised to see a publication like the Economist be so bold in praising Pinochet's impact. I never expected it from the Post!

Monday, December 11, 2006

Is Government Debt Good?

Greg Mankiw says he doesn't understand the following point made by a fellow economist:

Myth No. 5: Government debt is a burden on our grandchildren. There's no better way to get people worked up about something than to call on their sympathies for their beloved grandkids. The last thing that I want to do is to burden my own grandchildren with the sins of profligacy. But we should stop feeling guilty -- at least about government debt -- because we are in better shape than conventional wisdom suggests.

Theory and practice tell us that the optimal amount of public debt that maximizes the welfare of new generations of entrants into the workforce is two times gross national income, or GDP. ...

What's going on here? There are not enough productive assets -- tangible and intangible assets alike -- to meet the investment needs of our forthcoming retirees. The problem is that the rate of return on investment -- creating more productive assets -- decreases as the stock of these assets increases. An excessive stock of these productive assets leads to inefficiencies.

See the link for the full context -- that's the key part, though.

So, as I understand it, his point is that there will not be enough places for all the new retirees (i.e. baby boomers) to invest, and thus the rate of return will fall, creating "inefficiencies."

But as one of Greg's commenters notes, "Can't retirees dump savings abroad?"

More generally, it's not clear to me why he believes that we will be at a level where there is an excessive stock of productive assets. Perhaps he has, or plans to, demonstrate this empircally somewhere, which would be interesting to see.

ADDED: I see now that his main point seems to be that the debt is not actually a burden on our grandchildren. That may be the case -- but that doesn't necessarily mean it's good policy to have deficit spending.

Why Do People Love Obama?

The Christian Science Monitor explains:
So what's driving Obama-mania?

It isn't a single set of issues such as the war or the economy. Rather, the attraction seems to be a mix of Obama's own compelling personal narrative and many voters' desire for a less caustic brand of politics.

"It's the sense that you're in the presence of someone who is touched with the gift of grace," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. Obama, Illinois' junior senator, exemplifies the hope that there's some way to triumph over the intense polarization of American politics, he adds

That sounds right to me. I would just add that he seems smart, likeable, even-tempered and articulate. In short, in terms of personality, he's my favorite (possible) Presidential candidate so far. Now, whether that overcomes a variety of policy disagreements I'm sure I'll have with him is going to be interesting.

Holocaust Denial

Iran is holding a conference on holocaust denial. Sounds odious, obviously, but it raises a question I've often wondered about: What exactly are holocaust deniers denying? Do they deny that there were any concentration camps at all? Are they quibbling about the numbers who were killed? I suppose there is probably some variation. But I would like to pin it down a bit more, so I could better understand the people involved.

Resistance is Futile

A school in Scotland is making students use fountain pens:
In this age of cell phones, text messages and computer keyboards, one Scottish school has returned to basics. It's teaching youngsters the neglected art of writing with a fountain pen.

There is no clacking of keyboards in most classrooms at the Mary Erskine and Stewart's Melville Junior School, although there is a full range of facilities for computer lessons and technology isn't being ignored.

But the private school's principal believes the old-fashioned pens have helped boost the academic performance and self-esteem of his 1,200 pupils.

"The pens improve the quality of work because they force the children to take care, and better work improves self-esteem," principal Bryan Lewis said. "Proper handwriting is as relevant today as it ever has been."

I love the last bit: "Proper handwriting is as relevant today as it ever has been." How can anyone possibly believe that? It's very possible that in a couple generations, there will be very little handwriting at all. Everything will be by keyboard and voice recognition. Is this a bad thing? On balance, I don't see why it is. Unless, of course, we lose our technology somehow, and can no longer communicate! So, perhaps it's best not to forget hand-writing altogether. But foutain pens seem a bit much.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

A Gallon of Overpriced Milk, Please

The Washington Post has an excellent piece on an Arizona milk producer treated unfairly by the federal government's regulatory regime for milk. Briefly, he was initally able to avoid the regime entirely by bottling milk from his own cows, thus allowing him to sell much more cheaply than his competitors who participated in the regime. Not surprisingly, his competitors didn't like this, and eventually succeeded in lobbying Congress to enact legislation forcing him to be part of the regime. It's a great illustration of how government can be used work on behalf of the powerful against the weak: Big producers win, while smaller producers and consumers lose.

He has has now brought suit to have the legislation declared unconstitutional as a bill of attainder. More background here and here.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

How Can Politicians Be So Clueless?

It was painful reading about Joe Biden trying to ingratiate himself to some South Carolina Republicans by saying:
Delaware ... was a “slave state that fought beside the North. That’s only because we couldn’t figure out how to get to the South. There were a couple of states in the way.”

So, Biden was joking about how Delaware was just as pro-slavery as the South, and would have liked to fight with them during the Civil War. This is getting close to Trent Lott territory, here. Not quite there, but close

Tax Sniping

It's tax day at this blog today, with yet another post on taxes. Wesley Snipes is now being prosecuted for tax fraud. His defense is that he got bad advice from some tax professionals who have made absurd arguments as to why Americans don't owe any taxes for income earned domestically. It will be interesting to see what the evidence shows in terms of how much he knew.

Greg Mankiw on Taxes

Greg Mankiw is quickly becoming one of my favorite bloggers. In addition to the general support for a gas tax I noted earlier, he also writes in the same post:

The Pigou Club wants to move beyond the rhetorical syllogism, all too common in Republican circles, that

1. Taxes are bad.
2. Pigovian taxes are taxes.
3. Pigovian taxes are bad.

Such a simplistic mindset makes it impossible for people to discuss in a responsible way the relative merits of different tax systems. Instead, we Pigovians acknowledge:

1. There will be some government spending.
2. This spending will be funded with taxes.
3. Government should use the least bad taxes it has available.

It's kind of a shame that this even needs to be said, but unfortunately I think it does.

More Meddling

Italy's government and fashion industry are going to work on rules to prohibit the use of models that are too thin. So now governments are cracking down on fatness and thinness. Where is this all going? Is this trend going to be limited to extreme behavior, or are we going to see a "no jumping on the bed" rule some day?

Althouse on the Trans Fat Ban

Ann Althouse writes:
I simply do not believe that the so-called health side is really composed of people who are solicitous about everyone else's health. I can't prove it, but my intuition is that all the strength on the "health" side of this war comes not from people who really care whether other people are healthy, but from people who don't like having to see fat people. They are concerned about their own aesthetic pleasures, and they think fat is ugly.

Can that really be true? That is not my sense at all. I would think that, if anything, it would be sort of the opposite: People want others to be fat so they feel better about themselves. But generally speaking, I think the main reason for the ban is that there are a bunch of authoritarian busybodies running things.

Pigovian Taxes

Greg Mankiw makes what I think is a good case for Pigovian taxes (e.g. a gas tax). I hope he is planning to raise these issues with Governor Romney.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

What is Tom Friedman Thinking?

I'm not sure what to make of Tom Friedman. It seems as though he is well-respected in some circles. (I saw him on the Daily Show and Jon Stewart was fawning all over him). But when I read what he has to say about economic matters, I'm never very impressed. And I'm not alone. If I recall correctly, the Economist savaged his book The World is Flat in their review.

In this vein, today I came across an article he wrote on a Chinese solar panel company. In it, he said two things that floored me. First, he says:
As an American, I worry that if we don't start doing everything we can to develop our own clean power, we're going to miss out on the green industrial revolution. Today, most of our hybrid cars are imported from Japan. Tomorrow, if Mr. Shi has his way, most of our solar panels will come from China.

Now, if this were a piece by Lou Dobbs, I could understand the concern. But isn't Tom Friedman supposed to be a free trader?? If he is, then why does he care who makes hybrid cars and solar panels? They should be made by the most efficient producer -- end of story. There's no reason to complain that Americans are not making them. So, his statements suggest to me that perhaps he is not completely familiar with the theory behind free trade.

Second, he says:
Congress' idiotic decision not to impose higher mileage standards on U.S. carmakers helped Detroit miss the market and almost go bankrupt.

Let me get this straight: The absence of government action caused U.S. companies to miss the market? What, was the market somehow invisible and could not be seen except with special government-issued glasses? Again, I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding here, this time of the term "market." Furthermore, there has been plenty of government intervention in green industries already, much of it for dead-end projects long-since forgotten, so it's not completely clear that government action is the solution here.

Next Stop: Socialism

Greg Mankiw reports on an idea of economist Bob Shiller:
The IRS should be instructed to automatically adjust tax rates to keep economic inequality from getting worse, according to a new proposal outlined by Robert Shiller, a Yale University economics professor.

"We have a serious problem, and it's a problem of growing inequality," Shiller said on December 6 at a Library of Congress discussion in Washington. Shiller developed the proposal with Len Burman, director of the Tax Policy Center, and the two are planning to write a book on the idea.

"We need a standard or principle of income inequality. We don't have one now," he said. Inequality provides motivation to work harder and benefits hard work, hesaid, so "we do want some inequality, but we don't have any clear idea about where we're going and what is appropriate."

The standard, which Shiller calls "inequality indexation" of the tax system, would instruct the IRS to adjust brackets and rates whenever inequality worsened beyond an agreed-on level.

Well, at least it's a moderated form of socialism. Rather than try to ensure complete equality, they agree that some amount of inequality is acceptable, but it just can't be excessive. But even in this scaled back form, it's scary to think that the government might take action to make people more "equal" in this manner. My question for them is the following: Would they prefer that people be equally poor as opposed to being unequally rich? To me, the latter is clearly the better option. I wonder how they would view this.

More on the School Diversity Cases

More analysis of the school diversity cases over at SCOTUSblog:

Perhaps the most critical interchanges of the day took place in response to Justice Kennedy’s questions about the permissibility of considering race in school siting decisions.

Justice Kennedy posited a situation in which a school board must build a new school. “There are three sites. One of them would be all one race. Site two would be all the other race. Site three would be a diversity of races. Can the school board, with the intent to have diversity, pick site number 3?”

The Seattle petitioner took the position that the Constitution barred the school board from basing its siting decision on the resulting racial make-up of the school. The Solicitor General, by contrast, responded that it “is permissible for the school to pursue” diversity by making such a race-conscious decision.

Justice Kennedy did not ask whether school districts could take the same approach in siting magnet programs – choosing a host school based on its racial composition (e.g., purposely locating the program in a predominantly minority school in order to attract white students).

That, of course, is the very purpose of magnet programs. Given the close similarity of the decisions, the answers presumably would be the same.

Justice Kennedy also did not ask about a third technique used frequently by school boards: setting the boundaries of the residential areas that “feed” particular schools in order to maximize the racial diversity of those schools. Indeed, the district court in the Louisville case observed that “[r]acial demographics have influenced [Louisville’s] boundaries” for schools and that elementary schools were clustered “so that the combined attendance zones, assuming normal voluntary choices, will produce at each school student populations somewhere within the racial guidelines.”If a school board can site a new school by considering the racial demographics of the residential areas that would send students to the school, it is hard to see why the same rationale would not permit consideration of race in drawing or redrawing lines for existing schools. There is no basis for distinguishing the two.

In terms of the strict scrutiny analysis, this line of reasoning would lead to an approach that (1) recognizes the school boards’ interest in promoting a diverse learning environment as a compelling one because of the important pedagogic and societal interests it promotes (indeed, there was little disagreement during the argument regarding the importance of the interest); and (2) concludes that some – but not all – race-based measures can satisfy the narrow tailoring test.

With respect to narrow tailoring, the key issue is what distinguishes race-based siting/line drawing decisions from the decisions challenged before the Court? Justice Kennedy commented that the latter involve “characterizing each student by reason of the color of his or her skin. That is quite a different means. And it seems to me that that should only be, if ever allowed, allowed as a last resort.” Individualized decision-making with race as the sole criterion seems to be the element that triggers the greatest concern. That discomfort is certainly understandable. Student-by-student decision-making carries the greatest risk of stigmatizing particular students by placing a societal imprimatur on using race to categorize individuals. That could be a reason, as Justice Kennedy intimated, to require a much stronger showing to justify use of such measures.

On the other hand, does the distinction between the two types of decisions really justify a different constitutional rule (as opposed to perhaps requiring somewhat more in the way of justification)? All of the school board decisions just discussed involve precisely the same result – the allocation of students to particular schools based on race. It is true that the siting and districting decisions do not target particular students – but they can get very close, as when the judgment whether to include a particular residential block in one school zone or another turns on the race of the students who live in that block. For those particular students, any distinction seems simply to be a matter of degree.

Treating these techniques differently could lead to unanticipated results. As I mentioned, Louisville utilizes race-based line-drawing, but also allows parents to choose a different school, and uses the racial guidelines to prevent those choices from leading to resegregation. Prohibiting that check might force school districts to eliminate parent choice to preserve the educational benefits of diversity.

I think these insights are quite useful. In reading about the cases, I couldn't help thinking that what the districts were doing had close parallels to the decisions on where to put a school. To me, this is a crucial point that the Justices will need to address in their opinions. The analogy between the practices needs to be discussed and reconciled. I'm not sure I understand the legal basis for the Seattle district's views that "the Constitution barred the school board from basing its siting decision on the resulting racial make-up of the school," though.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Must Have Guns

I think this has been proposed in a couple of places:
A tiny town in western Pennsylvania could ask all of its residents to own guns, if a proposal under consideration on Wednesday wins approval from local officials.

I don't know much about guns myself, and as a result they scare me a bit. But I can see the argument for having most people carry them. The rate of occurrence of many crimes would drop significantly if criminals had to worry about the victim having a gun. In some ways, then, society would be safer. On the other hand, there would be a lot more accidental and intentional shootings. So, I'd like to see some place give it a try, but I don't really want to be around when they do.

The NY Trans Fat Ban

Plenty of criticism has already been made regarding the ban on trans fat just passed by New York city. Should the government really be micromanaging people's lives in this way? Are the alternatives that will be used any healthier? But an additional concern just struck me. Reading the NY Times piece on the ban, I came across this sentence:
New York’s Board of Health, made up mostly of physicians and health professionals appointed by the mayor, can adopt regulations without approval by any other agency.

Really? A group of unelected public officals can establish these regulations entirely on their own? Maybe there's something more to the process than I'm aware of, but if the Times' description is accurate, that seems like a bad way to make laws.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

J.D. Drew to the Red Sox

The Red Sox are paying $70 million over 5 years to J.D. Drew? That seems like a bit much for a guy who has never played more than 146 games in a year and probably won't do much for team chemistry. I suppose they liked his on-base-percentage, though.

The Future of Gay Marriage

An article on gay rights in this week's Economist concludes with the following:
Robert Wintemute, professor of human-rights law at King's College, London, thinks so. “The long-term trend is toward the universal acceptance of gay marriage,” he says. “It's just like the vote for women. It begins in one liberal country and then spreads around the world.” Maybe—but if such a trend exists in Islamic states where homosexual acts are seen as a sin, often punishable by death, it is hard to detect.

The question of what the long-term trends are in terms of allowing gay marriage is an interesting one. Certainly in some regions there seems to be a trend towards acceptance. But in others there is clearly not. Here is a rough breakdown by various countries/region:

Western Europe/EU Members/Canada/U.S./Australia/NZ: There is a definite trend towards acceptance. In 30 years, I would guess that gay marriage will be legal in most areas in these countries. The one sub-region where this is not the case is certain areas of the U.S. that have constitutionally prohibited it (largely in response to a court ruling in Massachusetts that allowed it).

The Islamic World: No movement towards acceptance of gay marriage at all.

Asia: There are a few enclaves where gay marriage, and gay rights more generally, are more accepted than others, but there does not seem to be a strong trend toward it. It will be interesting to watch China in this regard. They are such a massive presence that any steps they take will be very influential.

Africa: South Africa has taken the lead in accepting gay marriage. It is not clear whether other countries will follow. The influence of South Africa may bring a handful of others along.

Latin America: There seem to be a few urban and other areas where homosexuality and gay marriage are becoming more accepted, but the movement is just in its infancy.

So is there a trend here? In some parts of the world, a trend towards allowing gay marriage seems fairly clear. But worldwide the issue is more uncertain. Much of the world, including Africa, East Asia and Latin America seem to be at a crossroads. There are groups pushing for gay marriage, but they face a very skeptical populace.

Global Warming: How Much Warmer Is It?

The latest measure of global warming is in, this time for the Alps region. The authors conclude that "Europe's Alpine region is going through its warmest period in 1,300 years." Well, that settles it, then. But wait. As usual, there is some fine print to read:

Boehm said the current warm period in the Alpine region began in the 1980s, noting that a similar warming occurred in the 10th and 12th centuries. However, the temperatures during those phases were "slightly under the temperatures we've experienced over the past 20 years."

Hmm, "similar" warming in the past that is "slightly under" today's temperature. Could you elaborate on that, please? Well, the news article doesn't say anything more. But you can go to the actual studies: Now, I'm no scientist, but what I see on page 40 (of the pdf file), for example, of the final report is a graph that seems to show temperatures from the Medieval Warm Period that are quite close to that of today: What I'd love to hear from the global warming folks is an explanation of why the temperatures were so high back then. That might help get people on board with their cause.

Lindsey on Liberaltarians

Brink Lindsey's article suggesting that liberals and libertarians may be able to join forces is provocative and interesting. I see a fundamental problem with it, though. Lindsey tries to identify areas of agreement on which libertarians and liberals can work together, and that's fine as far as it goes. The difficulty is that libertarians simply have more in common with conservatives. As a rough estimate, I would say that libertarians are with conservatives 70% of the time and with liberals 30% of the time. (That's just off the top of my head, of course -- I haven't tried to quantify it.) So, while it's certainly true that there is room to work together on the 30%, that 70% is still out there, and makes it difficult for libertarians and liberals to forge a deep and long-term alliance.

Thomas Sowell on Some Basic Economic Points

As is often the case, Thomas Sowell makes some good points about economic matters that some people just don't seem to get:

Apparently Wal-Mart does not pay its employees as much as third-party observers would like to see them paid. But obviously it is not paying them less than their work is worth to other employers or they probably would not be working at Wal-Mart. ...


Are the Ethiopian coffee growers worse off now that Starbucks is buying their beans? Supply and demand would suggest otherwise. But moral crusaders seldom have time for economics.

I second both points. If Wal-Mart's pay is so abominable, why do so many people want to work there? And how are people in poor countries better off without multinationals offering them jobs?

Monday, December 04, 2006

Minimum Wage Increase: It's Coming!

The mimium wage increase is coming:

Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wants to fast-track efforts to boost the federal minimum wage and could seek to bring a bill directly to the House floor in January.


In the new congressional session, a House bill boosting the federal minimum wage probably will go straight to the floor for consideration, bypassing the Education and the Workforce committee, said Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly, lobbyists and others involved in the process.

At this point, Pelosi's preference is for a "stand alone" minimum wage bill that is not tied to other legislative endeavors, Daly and others said.


In the Senate, business lobbyists believe a bill to boost the minimum wage is more likely to be advanced through committee, giving them an opportunity to try and sweeten the pot with other things such as faster depreciation, for instance, of restaurant buildings, something the restaurant industry would like.

The only questions left are: how much, what exceptions will there be, and what gets tied to it.

School Diversity Cases

At SCOTUSblog, Lyle Denniston says that the use of race as a factor to ensure public school diversity may be doomed, as Justice Kennedy seemed very skeptical of the Seattle and Louisville plans. While not strongly for these plans, I don't think they are particularly harmful and would uphold them, as noted earlier. It will be interesting to see what Kennedy and the four solidly conservatives have to say about this, if they strike down the policies. I just don't see the same harm here as exists with affirmative action. This is not a merit-based process where people get rejected from certain schools. It's just a way of distributing students throughout the school system. There's already plenty of room for meddling in the drawing of school boundaries. I don't see this as much different.

Kiss My Grits

In India, "[a] kissing scene from a movie starring Bollywood actors Aishwarya Rai and Hrithik Roshan has irked a lawyer who has filed a criminal case against them, accusing them of obscenity. ... A local court accepted Dwivedi's petition to punish the actors and said it would hear the petitioner on December 11."

This is the kind of story that makes me question whether there really are any universal values. It's fine with me if India wants to debate whether public kissing constitutes obscenity. But is there any chance for developing universal human values and rights if the differences between societies are so great?

Damn Lying Statistics!

In this week's Economist (Dec 2-8, 2006 issue), a letter writer notes that tobacco will kill more than 1 billion people. That's right, 1 billion. Quite a lot! But wait. The writer then qualifies the number with "this century." Now, that cetainly is a lot of people to kill in a century. But is it really worth exaggerating numbers in this way to make a point? Wouldn't 10 million per year have been a clearer way to say it? If someone is willing to play around with figures to further their particular cause, I tend to be skeptical of their cause.

Will Libertarians Support the Democrats?

Dan Drezner quotes and comments on Brink Lindsey's article arguing that the Democrats should court libertarians. One part of the article struck me as a bit of an overstatement:

Conservative fusionism, the defining ideology of the American right for a half-century, was premised on the idea that libertarian policies and traditional values are complementary goods. That idea still retains at least an intermittent plausibility--for example, in the case for school choice as providing a refuge for socially conservative families. But an honest survey of the past half-century shows a much better match between libertarian means and progressive ends. Most obviously, many of the great libertarian breakthroughs of the era--the fall of Jim Crow, the end of censorship, the legalization of abortion, the liberalization of divorce laws, the increased protection of the rights of the accused, the reopening of immigration--were championed by the political left.

I suppose it's likely that some libertarians supported "the fall of Jim Crow, the end of censorship, the legalization of abortion, the liberalization of divorce laws, the increased protection of the rights of the accused, the reopening of immigration." But many probably did not support some or all of those. I certainly would not call them "great libertarian breakthroughs" anyway. You can be pro-life and libertarian, for example. It's just a question of when you think life begins.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Debating Religion

Ann Althouse blogs about a Nicholas Kristof piece in the NYT, where he states:

[There is] an increasingly assertive, often obnoxious atheist offensive led in part by [Richard] Dawkins — the Oxford scientist who is author of the new best seller “The God Delusion.” It’s a militant, in-your-face brand of atheism that he and others are proselytizing for....

[T]he tone of this Charge of the Atheist Brigade is ... contemptuous and even ... a bit fundamentalist.

“These writers share a few things with the zealous religionists they oppose, such as a high degree of dogmatism and an aggressive rhetorical style,” says John Green of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. “Indeed, one could speak of a secular fundamentalism that resembles religious fundamentalism. This may be one of those cases where opposites converge.”...

Now that the Christian Right has largely retreated from the culture wars, let’s hope that the Atheist Left doesn’t revive them. We’ve suffered enough from religious intolerance that the last thing the world needs is irreligious intolerance.

This is quite a strange article by Kristof. It almost sounds like he is saying we shouldn't be debating the issue. But there is no doubt people on both sides want to debate it. That's not the problem. Rather, the problem, or one of the problems anyway, is whether one side is seeking to have the government promote its views over the others. To me, this seems very different than having Dawkins make his arguments, which I would guess that most people on the Christian Right welcome for the chance it gives them to respond.

Suggestions for Iraq

Glenn Reynolds asks for suggestions for things we could do to make the Iraq situation better. Here's mine: Do something selfless. Here's what I mean. Deserved or not, the U.S. has a really bad image in the Middle East in general, and among many Iraqis in particular. This is part of the reason for the violence there. I think we can improve our image by doing something that cannot be written off by skeptics as self-serving.

One proposal in this vein is a global mini-Marshall plan, to give lots of money for infrastructure improvements like building hospitals and schools, for training doctors, nurses and teachers, etc. Ah, some might say, we are already doing that, and they still hate us. The problem is, the way we are currently doing it is often through contracts with U.S. companies. That might be the most efficient way of doing things in terms of getting results, but it allows the critics to argue that the point of the war was to help companies like Halliburton make a profit. So instead, I propose that the U.S. government, together with other governments, offer some fairly large amounts of money to fund projects to be carried out by Iraqi companies. (If it's too hard to find Iraqi companies that can do it, then we can allow them to partner with other companies in neighboring countries.) Now, the projects can't be things these companies are unqualified to do. Obviously, we don't want to just throw money down the drain. Rather, I want to find actual useful projects that they are capable of taking on. The key, though, is to keep all the benefits going to Iraqis (or, on occasion, other companies in the region, if necessary).

I hope for two results from all of this. First, an improvement in the U.S. image in the Middle East. And second, an economic boost for the Iraqi economy, which could help change some people's minds about the U.S. efforts there.

BCS Prediction

I'm going on record to say that I think it's going to be Florida in the title game, beating Michigan by a nose. Tonight we'll see if I'm right.

England and Scotland: Together No More?

Matthew Lynn of Bloomberg reports:
The English and the Scots appear to be fed up with each other. And a split would be the best outcome for both countries. Scotland might take the chance to emulate the miraculous success of Ireland. England would be able to cut its taxes at a stroke. It might even get the Conservative government it voted for, rather than the Labour one the Scots wanted.

There is no doubt that there is now real momentum behind independence. `Although Scottish independence in the foreseeable future is still unlikely, the chances that it might happen have risen from below 1 percent to perhaps 10 to 15 percent,'' Douglas McWilliams, chief executive of the Centre for Economic and Business Research in London, said in a recent report.

I'm all for countries breaking up into their constituent parts if that's what the people want. Seems to me that it makes for a healthier democracy for each. I should note that this statement by Lynn surprised me:

In reality, the political cultures of the two countries have drifted so far apart, they are no longer compatible. The Scots want a Scandinavian-style social democracy with high taxes, generous welfare and big government. In Scottish politics, there are virtually no right-of-center voters left. The Conservative Party won less than 16 percent of the vote in Scotland last year.

The English want a U.S.-style free market with lower taxes, and a smaller state. The only reason they can't have it is because of the Scots. That is hardly healthy.

Are the differences really that stark? I wouldn't have thought England was that close to the U.S. And are the Scots that far to the left? Lynn earlier stated the following, which seems to contradict this notion:

There are few more entrepreneurial people in the world than the Scots. Just take a look at the numbers of companies around the world with names starting with ``Mc'' or ``Mac.'' And if the birthplace of Adam Smith can't create a thriving free-market economy, then who can?

Saturday, December 02, 2006

School Diversity

I'm generally critical of affirmative action programs in the college admissions process. (To clarify, I think some action is warranted, but not necessarily the action that is currently being taken. More on that later.) But I confess that I'm not as concered about the current challenge to policies in Seattle and elsewhere that seek to maintain a balance of races and ethnicities in public schools so as to match the overall community breakdown. The problem I have with affirmative action in the college process is it undermines the meritocratic elements of the process. By contrast, from what I can tell, that's not at issue with the schools here. Instead, these are simply applications to go to a particular school within the district, and there is no merit aspect (I'll have to double-check this). The school district just wants a balanced racial and ethnic makeup in each school. I can see the benefits, and I think there is less harm than with affirmative action.

Gender Identity Issues in Young Kids

Ann Althouse blogs about a NYT article on young kids with gender identity issues:

How far should you go in supporting him? What if you're the teacher and the parents send him to kindergarten wearing a dress?

Doctors, some of them from the top pediatric hospitals, have begun to advise families to let these children be “who they are” to foster a sense of security and self-esteem. They are motivated, in part, by the high incidence of depression, suicidal feelings and self-mutilation that has been common in past generations of transgender children. Legal trends suggest that schools are now required to respect parents’ decisions....

Cassandra Reese, a first-grade teacher outside Boston, recalled that fellow teachers were unnerved when a young boy showed up in a skirt. “They said, ‘This is not normal,’ and, ‘It’s the parents’ fault,’ ” Ms. Reese
said. “They didn’t see children as sophisticated enough to verbalize their feelings.”

And then there are the parents who think they ought to give hormone treatments to young tomboy girls on the theory that they need to be spared the shocking evidence of femininity that is menstruation.

I think her second commenter says it best:

My concern is for the little boy (5 is little) who goes to school in the dress. I would NOT want to be him. Our culture is not even a little flexible about male gender roles and expectations, the other children will not be kind and understanding about this. Heck many of the adults will freak out all over him.


Should a boy have a right to dress in a skirt? Of course! Will he have a good experience if he does it? Not bloody likely.

Friday, December 01, 2006

NBA Management/Player Relations

NBA management/player relations strike me as bizarre:

The players' association filed two unfair labor practice charges Friday against the NBA over issues with the new ball and the league's crackdown on player complaints.

The charges were filed with the National Labor Relations Board.


A number of players publicly have complained about changing the ball from leather to a microfiber composite. Although players are adjusting to the new ball, they're having a much harder time with the crackdown on reactions after the whistle, often referred to as a "zero-tolerance policy."

First of all, it seems to me the league should have talked to the players about the new ball, to get their input. The people who actually use the ball would have the most knowledge about it, so talk to them before you make a change.

But on the other side, why are the players filing charges with the NLRB? Can't they just talk through these issues without a government intermediary? Really, the issues are not that complicated.

Finally, why are the players whining about the technical fouls issue? They're getting paid millions, and they should be able to deal with foul calls they don't like.

Swearing on the Koran

Dennis Prager's piece arguing that members of Congress should not be able to swear their oath of office on the Koran has already been effectively refuted by Eugene Volokh. But I wanted to comment on one part of the piece. Prager writes:
Insofar as a member of Congress taking an oath to serve America and uphold its
values is concerned, America is interested in only one book, the Bible.

My question is, what is the "America" Prager refers to? Certainly a majority is Christian. But there are many millions of Americans who are not: Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Atheists and Agnostis, just to name a few. So, Prager is just wrong when he declares what "America" is interested in. "Many Americans," perhaps, but not "America."

Economists for the Minimum Wage

Greg Mankiw asked an economist who signed the open letter supporting a minimum-wage to explain his support:

My friend told me that he viewed the minimum wage as a second-best policy. He would prefer increased cash payments to the poor, such as a much-expanded earned income tax credit (EITC) or a more general negative income tax. But if his first-best policy was politically impossible, a minimum-wage increase was, in his view, an improvement over the status quo. He admitted that the minimum wage had adverse effects on employment, but he judged those to be modest in size. All things considered, he considered a higher minimum wage better than nothing.

I can understand the sentiment, but I wonder whether it would have been better to make this reasoning clear in the letter. If an expanded EITC is preferable, that should have been stated. Also, how "modest" are the jobs losses expected to be? I'd be interested to see what level of job losses is considered acceptable by minimum wage supporters.