Sunday, July 31, 2005

More on why I maintain an eminent domain "price formula" is bad

I posted a response to Stephen Littau's comment in this entry, which I'll also repost in his original entry.

Tragedy in the Catskills

Irina Mironova had had her license revoked in May for speeding at 107 mph in a 70-mph zone in Florida. This past Wednesday, entrusted with driving five young people to camp, she killed all her passengers and herself with her reckless driving. She was passing cars at extremely rates of speed, even using the shoulder, which frightened other motorists into calling 911 to report her. Ultimately she crossed over into oncoming traffic and collided with a dump truck.

The New York Post story told of one attendee who told her mother about Mironova's dangerous driving; refusing to get in Mironova's car saved her life. The night before the crash, her mother called the camp owner "five or six times," leaving messages, to warn about Mironova. The owner called the unidentified parent later, trying to assuage her fears and reported insisting, "The children are safe."

Other parents were not so lucky to know about Mironova's reputation; the dead children ranged from 12 to 16 years old. Investigators are still determining if the camp can be charged with criminal negligence. (That link has a video clip showing how Mironova's Corolla was thoroughly destroyed, and that she did seem to cross into oncoming traffic.) There's some merit to that, since the camp owner must exercise at least "reasonable care," perhaps even "great care," in transporting the children.

The parents' grief is more than understandable, and that they wonder why professional drivers weren't used. Some legislator in Albany might propose a new law, intending to prevent future tragedies like this. It can be named after one of the victims, requiring that only professional drivers can transport children to a certain business. An exception can be made for parents who drive their children, and only their children. But while such regulations initially appear "in the best interest," even "essential," in reality they are superfluous. Regardless of New York state laws, the owner already bore great responsibility in transporting the children. The investigation will reveal how many times she was warned, and how much she knew of Mironova's reputation. If she did know, that's culpable negligence.

Moreover, just like housing permits never stopped contractors from incompetently bulldozing the wrong house, and criminals have never obeyed gun control laws, why should we think a new regulation will always prevent tragedies like this? The owner could easily ignore it, and the parents would never know -- until too late. As I wrote before, law cannot truly prevent crime; it can only punish.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Did a taser kill him?


July 28, 2005 -- A violent drug suspect died yesterday after a cop shot him once with a Taser stun gun inside a Queens station house, police said.

Terrance Thomas, 35, of Rockville Centre, L.I., had been arrested for driving in a stolen car and for cocaine possession.

Thomas had been placed in a holding cell at the 105th Precinct station house while his alleged accomplice, Laquan Jones, 21, was being questioned.

At some point, he complained to cops that he wasn't feeling well.

By the time an EMS unit arrived, Thomas was sweating and trembling, police said.

For some reason, he became violent, preventing the medics and cops from getting him out of the cell, authorities said.

Police said they first tried a restraining net, then fired the single Taser charge to subdue him.

The shock temporarily incapacitated Thomas, they said, but he was conscious and alert in the ambulance.

But sometime en route to Queens General Hospital, he went into cardiac arrest and died.
The mother, of course, demands that Mayor Bloomberg get "answers." While tasers are pretty powerful, I suspect we already have the answer the mother doesn't want to hear: he was high on cocaine, which makes you paranoid and, to use the vernacular, really messes up your heart. ODB died from a cocaine and painkiller overdose, with the same symptoms before he collapsed: sweating, shaking and paranoia. The police don't know, or at least they didn't say, why Thomas suddenly became violent, but it could have been from cocaine-induced paranoia.

The suspect died on Tuesday; the initial autopsy results came back yesterday: inconclusive. Then again, ODB's autopsy was also inconclusive. It'll take a toxicology report.

Not theirs to invest

The title is a paraphrase of Walter Williams' excellent column "Not yours to give" from this past February. The same principle applies when government agencies want to invest taxpayer dollars in a business venture: it's not theirs to invest, no matter how certain they are of success. New York's previous example was the West Side Stadium; were it really such a good idea, private investors would have been all over it, beating government to purchasing and developing the West Side railyards.

Now the New York MTA wants to develop those railyards for housing, businesses and new MTA headquarters. On Thursday, the New York Post reported that the MTA revealed it has an $833 million "surplus" -- and cutting fares (present or future) is out of the question:
Instead, Katherine Lapp, the agency's executive director, asked the MTA's board to consider spending $481 million of the surplus to build its own platform over the rail yards — not for a football stadium, but for a residential and commercial community.
Funny, I seem to have missed the public announcement that they'd changed their name to the Metro Real Estate Development Authority.

It's easy, of course, for the MTA to throw so much at a very risky venture: it's not their money! NYC Mayor Mike "Führer" Bloomberg and Gov. George Pataki were eager to "invest" a total of possibly $1 billion taxpayer dollars in the proposed West Side Stadium. In both cases, had there been a genuine demand for the stadium, or for the railyards to be developed into communities and business space, the private sector would have already looked into it -- and probably would have completed it long before the politicians even dreamt of it.

Since politicians are investing other people's money, they have no incentive to weigh the risks carefully. Politics, not business sense or reason, becomes the chief influence, blinding the politicians so that they have no reason to scrutinize the endeavor's worthiness, let alone consider alternatives. As Milton Friedman put it, "...if I spend somebody else's money on somebody else, I'm not concerned about how much it is, and I'm not concerned about what I get. And that's government."

The MTA has raised fares twice in the last few years, the most significant of which was in 2003, when single fares went from $1.50 to $2. Is it so surprising that the MTA is now in the black? The last hike came despite loud criticism that the MTA has not opened its books to a full, independent audit. As far as I'm aware, it still has yet to, and it continues to perform certain accounting shenanigans. Back in 2003, the New York State Comptroller's Office released a report detailing its discovery of the MTA's two budgets: one public, one secret. The public budget "hid" half a billion dollars compared to the secret budget, and the MTA used that artificial revenue shortfall to justify that year's fare increase.

But the bigger reason the MTA is in the black is that Albany gives it so much taxpayer money, i.e. subsidies. The proposal for the 2006-2010 "capital plan" is more than $17 billion, which seems like a lot, but then consider the MTA had asked for $27 billion. The MTA has requested similar amounts for previous five-year plans (is anyone else spooked by the Stalin reference?). As long as Albany keeps handing out money, the MTA has no reason to streamline its operations, structure its employees more efficiently, or make do with older equipment that's still serviceable. To that list we can now add "making do with its office headquarters." While a developer will build the new MTA headquarters, the MTA must still spend money to prepare the site before anyone will touch it.

The fair (no pun intended) thing to do is for the MTA to return the $833 million to Albany. It can be valid to cut fares and/or shore up the MTA's pension program, but the taxpayers who provide the subsidies should get the first relief. Why not put the money toward pensions? Simply, the MTA needs to improve it other than relying on lucky "found money." If the pension program is underfunded, then workers need to contribute more for their own retirement, the MTA needs to streamline itself so it can contribute more, and the MTA needs to ponder whether its benefits are too generous. Letting the MTA put the money toward pensions doesn't encourage it at all to improve the program's structure.

The best solution is to eliminate the MTA's subsidies completely and force it to run like a real business: lean and efficient, competitive, and profitable. But that will never happen. Similar to Amtrak, there's too much politics involved. MTA executives, and the union members who like their taxpayer-funded jobs with generous benefits, are a powerful influence. Even were that not the case, nothing can be done until people stop believing the lies that public transportation doesn't have to run like a business, that it's ok for government to bail it out.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Another authoritarian conservative outs himself: Rick Santorum

I kept forgetting to bring home the notes I had jotted down while listening to the radio at work. Sen. Rick Santorum was on Sean Hannity's show this past Monday, and he clearly showed that he has the same warped idea of freedom as Rudy Giuliani. These are the ideals of liberty that he promoted:

"Freedom to do what you ought to do, not what you want to do."

"...for the common good..."

"...a 'we' kind of freedom, not a 'me' kind of freedom."

As the old question goes, "And just who decides?" The very problem is that government eventually usurps the decision-making of what people "ought" to do, what the "common good" is.

I'm very disappointed -- though not surprised -- to see that Santorum is just another authoritarian conservative. This fits in with his fellow conservative Rudy Giuliani, who I'll quote once again:
We only see the oppressive side of authority. Maybe it comes out of our history and our background. What we don't see is that freedom is not a concept in which people can do anything they want, be anything they can be. Freedom is about authority. Freedom is about the willingness of every single human being to cede to lawful authority a great deal of discretion about what you do and how you do it.
The parade of authoritarians continued on Tuesday, when Hannity's guest that day (I forget his name) promoted the use of profiling. "Someone has to be searched," he declared. Is that so? The only reason a politician demands that "someone" be searched is strictly for the sake of creating the illusion of safety. The guest also boasted, "Profiling works in every instance." That's news to me: profiling would never have caught Richard Reid, Jose Padilla and John Walker Lindh.

The failure of random searching

I wrote last week about the NYPD's random searches of NYC subway passengers. So far, the searches have failed miserably. They're a step along the slippery slope toward a police state, they're inconveniencing innocent people, they're diverting police from other duties, and they don't make New York one whit safer.

My personal experience is that I've yet to see any NYPD at the major subway entrances that I use, let alone be searched. I was running a little late and took taxis on Monday and Tuesday mornings, but since Friday morning, that's still six times that, at major subway entrances, I haven't once seen the NYPD. This includes the busy shuttle subway from Grand Central Terminal to Times Square.

The police are only refusing entry to people who won't submit to searches; they're not detaining or questioning anyone. A few people have been arrested for things like drugs and weapons, but those weren't terror-related. Those people were also pretty stupid, because searches are voluntary: you can always turn around. Of course, a terrorist wouldn't submit to a search. Since he'd be denied entry at worst, what's to prevent him from walking several blocks to the nearest subway entrance and trying his luck there? What's to prevent several operatives from entering at the same time? Odds are that most will get through, and any who are stopped for searches can simply refuse and turn around.

The plain truth is that these searches can't possibly stop terrorists, regardless of their national origin, religion or motivation. They're a token gesture that make people feel safer when they really aren't. They're an illusion that Bloomberg is "doing something," especially since this is, dare I point it out, an election year. Woodrow Wilson swept to re-election on "He kept us out of war" (which he eventually reneged on). Perhaps "He's kept New York safe" could work for Bloomberg?

And then there's the statistical problem of random searches. The police will stop an elderly Caucasian woman with the same probability as they will a man of Middle Eastern appearance. It makes no sense to stop someone with a virtually zero probability of being a terrorist, which is why Michelle Malkin departed from pro-search conservatives, criticizing the searches. However, she does support searches (and thus ignores the Fourth Amendment): it's that she wants profiling, because random searches are fruitless. That's an excellent point.

But then we run into the problem of profiling: how can you tell someone's Middle Eastern? On the train home this past Monday, I sat across from three men, somewhat dark complexions, darker-skinned, with some sort of ethnic appearance. They wore business suits (something the Al Qaeda manual specifies for effective mingling with Westerners) and were chattering excitedly in heavily accented English. One of them seemed quite concerned about another train's timetable, and I wouldn't be surprised if some passengers thought they were Muslim terrorists. They fit the general profile, right?

Their accents were Hindi, though; I've met enough foreign-born Indians to know. So there was nothing to worry about, especially when I considered terrorists wouldn't bother blowing up the last car of a train. However, how many NYPD, or Americans for that matter, would have mistaken them for being "Middle Eastern" and stopped them? Remember that in the aftermath of 9/11, a man in Arizona shot someone merely because he thought the victim's turban meant he was Muslim. Actually, he was Sikh. A lot of Americans can't distinguish between Chinese and Japanese by physiognomy alone, so what makes us think the police can always identify who's Middle Eastern? Especially when many people are passing quickly through the turnstiles, some Middle Eastern men could look Caucasian or even Hispanic. Are we, then, to resort to the absurdity of stopping all Hispanic-looking men who might be Middle Eastern?

Even if we can accurately tell who's Middle Eastern, we'll target far more innocent people than guilty, and worse: we'll turn an entire ethnic group (and people who look like them) into second-class people. Let us be mindful of what Abraham Lincoln said: "Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, cannot retain it."

As much as I have hated Saddam for 15 years, as much as I hate Osama, I must not let it extend to hating entire peoples who are innocent. Middle Eastern does not equate with either Muslim or terrorist. My late father had traveled in the Middle East, in the late 1960s when Beirut and Tehran were jewels. One of his friends was a Christian Arab. This gentleman told my father about when he sat next to a fellow Arab on an airplane. The other man struck up a conversation and eventually began invectives against Jews and Christians, then suddenly asked, "You're not one of them, are you?" My father's friend simply replied, "I am...Arab."

I had a co-worker who is Iranian and converted to Christianity. He has very fair skin and could pass for European, even after his Farsi accent that's inscrutable to most Americans (myself included). How could he be profiled?

Consider the difference between these two statements' profiles:
Bank robber, fleeing NE on Main Street, 5'10" to 6', 200 pounds.

Stop all people who look Middle Eastern, they might be terrorists.
The first has a precise description of a known suspect, with sufficient probable cause to stop someone in the vicinity who fits the description. The second has nothing more than paranoid fear: no description of a known suspect, no evidence that a crime will be committed, and thus no probable cause at all to stop anyone.

I get more and more shocked at NYC-based WABC radio's conservative talk shows, which since Friday are full of callers who demand profiling. Just what does a Muslim terrorist look like? There's a reason the Al Qaeda manual tells the operatives to be clean-shaven with short hair, and dressed neatly in Western clothing. There's no way we can profile terrorists who know how to blend in, and meanwhile we're trampling the rights of innocent people. There's no way that even the strictest of profiling can stop every terrorist. It only takes one to slip through, and the random searches are so bungled that they won't deter terrorists at all. Still, some politician or police official will eventually claim that the searches are successful, that they've thwarted terrorist attacks -- which wouldn't have happened anyway.

We're also establishing a dangerous precedent that the police can acquire a few more authoritative powers anytime there's a vague and merely potential threat, because the situation supposedly demands it "in the interest of public safety." I can't help but think of Ben Franklin's warning: "Those who trade essential liberty for a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

And now we have New Yorkers being friendly. Too friendly. They're volunteering to have their bags searched once they see NYPD at the turnstiles. Isn't that great? Someone trying to be helpful might distract a cop right when a real terrorist is slipping through. Not that the NYPD's random searches had a very good chance of catching the terrorist, anyway.

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Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Another way to improve health care via the free market

A little while back, I wrote how a free market solution can help solve the so-called "obesity epidemic." Health insurers should be able to charge higher-risk policyholders higher premiums, giving higher-risk people an incentive to improve their health, instead of Paul Krugman's 1984-like call for government to "do something."

This Wall Street Journal op-ed promotes a free market solution for making health insurance more affordable. More than one state has oppressive regulations on insurance, making policies more expensive for everyone, and often pricing them out of reach of the lower-income people that the regulations are said to help. Half an insurance policy is better than none, especially when the half you don't want involves podiatry and acupuncture.
But the most important issue here is justice. It is simply immoral that millions should be exposed to the possibility of financial ruin because of the all-or-nothing choice offered by the insurance regulations of states like New York and New Jersey.
That's what I liked best about the article. Free commerce is not a matter of economics, but morality. Shouldn't two people be free to conduct business voluntarily and peacefully, so long as they harm no one?

If an insurer does turn out to be fly-by-night, then that's fraud, which is punishable by law. That's such a rare instance, however, that the state hurts far more people (by making insurance more expensive) than it "protects."

John D. Rockefeller lobbied for hefty regulations, like minimum insurance requirements, that made it too expensive for his smaller competitors to stay in business. As the WSJ piece points out, BlueCross BlueShield basically does the same today. And who in the presidential debates was touting his health care plan, mentioning BlueCross BlueShield by name? Hint: it wasn't Bush.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The last Epson product I'll ever buy

I rarely get this angry, and whether or not Epson gives me a resolution, I'll never again purchase one of their products.

This past May 28th, I bought an Stylus C66 inkjet. It was only $60, I think, and seemed a good, inexpensive complement to my laser printer. The C66 produced some very nice 4x6 photos and documents with color text, but for the last month I haven't used it.

Tonight I needed to print a letter-sized document with colored text, but the paper kept feeding crooked and jamming, or not feeding at all. To make matters worse, though there was no paper, the printer still insisted on printing, and that drained the black ink cartridge almost completely! Suddenly I got a warning that it was down to 20%, which shocked me because it was still very full a month ago. All I had printed were a dozen photo-quality printouts and perhaps 20 pages of black text.

A quick peek inside showed why the black cartridge lost so much ink. It wasn't leaking, but I saw a foam strip running across that seemed to have black ink on it. Touching it with my finger confirmed that it was soaked. So when there was no paper, the printer was still moving the print heads back and forth, and the foam strip happily absorbed as much ink as it could. And that was from only a few dozen passes! Each time I heard the printer heads moving, I'd shut off the printer via a master power switch. I was doing this before I knew the black ink was draining fast.

Having used printers for years (since the old days of dot matrix and thermal-transfer printers), I know how to load paper in all kinds. A nearly vertical sheet feeder is basically foolproof, but that doesn't matter when the rollers aren't grabbing the paper properly (if at all). I just can't get over this piece of Epson junk, and I'm not alone. has some unflattering reviews of the similar Stylus C64, and someone has had the same problems with his Stylus 660.

Eventually I got lucky and managed to print a few copies of my document, but not before the printer forced 10 pages through at once. The feeder mechanism is so poorly designed, as is the support strip. Tomorrow I'm going to dash off a very angry e-mail to Epson, who at the least could send me a new black ink cartridge to make up for the one their crappy printer wasted. I'm half-expecting them to claim that my expensive, ultra-bright inkjet paper isn't "Epson-compatible."

No animals were harmed in the course of these changes

Our new friend Eric Cowperthwaite has approved my blog for the Life, Liberty, Property community. If you scroll down a bit, you'll see that I replaced my (charming? annoying?) click-to-enlarge picture with one of the LLP logos. Then I added a smaller thumbnail of my picture to the blog header, and also a cropped portrait of this blog's patron saint, Frédéric Bastiat.

Among the LLP members are our old friends QandO, Jackie Passey, Mover Mike, Brad, Quincy and Stephen Littau. There are also a lot of new friends I'm just getting acquainted with. So here's to all of us!

Monday, July 25, 2005

So you wanna revalue the yuan?

Related previous post: Why China won't let the dollar slide too far

China announced Thursday that it will no longer peg the yuan to the dollar -- at least, not peg it as tightly. It's about a 2% appreciation in the yuan's value, from a tight band around 8.28 yuan to one dollar, to a looser band around 8.11 (up to .3% swing in daily trading). The alternative was the odious bill introduced by Senators Schumer and Graham, with enough support to override a veto: a 27.5% across-the-board tariff on Chinese exports to the U.S. if China didn't revalue the yuan higher. Are Schumer and Graham really this willing to sacrifice the American consumer for their economically ignorant politics? Tariffs don't work, not even to save domestic jobs.

Unfortunately there was too much support for the Schumer-Graham bill, enough to override a veto (assuming Bush would risk alienating voters who don't realize tariffs destroy more domestic jobs than they save). At least China saved face and both economies with this token gesture. David Malpass wrote in his latest National Review Online column that this is unlikely to have a big effect on U.S. trade with China, or even on the composition of China's foreign exchange reserves. Let's take China-U.S. trade in May 2005 (the latest month for which we have data) as an example. Chinese exports to the U.S. totalled $135.542 billion; U.S. exports to China totalled $76.116 billion (630 billion yuan). Had the yuan been pegged at the new 8.11 value, then all else being equal, Americans would have had to spend $138.4 billion to buy the same goods, while the Chinese would have had to spend only 617 billion yuan.

So yes, strengthening the yuan vis-a-vis the dollar will help bring China-U.S. trade into "balance," but do we really want that? Forcibly reducing the so-called "trade deficit" (which is nothing to worry about) will reduce American consumers' standard of living: they'll either spend more for the same Chinese goods, or spend the same on fewer Chinese goods. The former will ripple through the domestic economy as Americans will have to cut back on domestic goods and services, or on saving, which will eventually result in reduced employment (whether hours or layoffs) and reduced business investment (because of reduced savings).

The latter will boomerang when the Chinese, stung by that drop in income, must cut back on their purchases of U.S. goods and Treasury securities. That will hit the U.S. all over: workers who produce goods exported to China, the federal government that needs China to finance much of its latest budget deficits, and every American individual and business who borrows. (Low interest rates in the U.S. are not just because of Federal Reserve action, but because China is helping to prevent "crowding out" by lending so much money to the federal government.) During the resulting economic slump, Americans would cut back on spending, including on Chinese goods, which starts a new round. Each succeeding cycle is not quite as bad as the preceding one [edit: originally I said "slightly worse" when I meant to indicate the cycles are dwindling with each generation], so the "death spiral" will eventually end, like converging series in calculus. Still, a severe tariff, like the 1930 Hawley-Smoot Tariff or the Schumer-Graham bill, will impoverish everyone before the shocks are finished.

We can therefore dismiss outright the idea of fixing the trade deficit by devaluing the dollar. The gap with China is so wide that bridging just half of it requires that the dollar would have to massively depreciate vis-à-vis the yuan; that would cause catastrophes on both sides, then all over the world. And the Chinese may not buy more American exports just because they've become cheaper. Consider this: let's say that your grocer cut a particular item's price from $1.50 to $1, because his supplier cut the wholesale price. That doesn't necessarily mean you'll buy three items now when you only bought two before. We must factor in the buyer's marginal propensity to consume, and Steve Antler pointed out that the Chinese have an MPC of only 45 cents. "The rest is saved. Mostly here."

Larry Kudlow recently debunked the notion that free trade requires floating exchange rates: "In the U.S., the 50 states comprise a free-trade zone based on the dollar. Economist Arthur Laffer reminds me that New York and Mississippi may incur trade surpluses or deficits with each other, but they do not change the value of the dollar. This works very well." However, the usual trolls on his blog have vandalized his latest entry on the yuan, saying he can't be pro-market if he supports fixed exchange rates. The truth is that they are not mutually exclusive, and the critics don't realize that fully floating exchange rates would certainly result in an even weaker yuan. China buys many dollars to peg the yuan, but it then deposits those dollars in U.S. Treasury securities, which back its wreck of a banking system. Left up to floating exchange rates, the yuan would collapse, and China would experience massive capital flight.

The "Impossible Trinity" in macroeconomics is that a nation cannot simultaneously have independent monetary policy, free capital flows and fixed exchange rates. It can have any two, but not all three; choosing any two makes the third impossible. As the world's main economy and trading partner to nearly everyone, the U.S. needs its own monetary policy, and the free capital flows that facilitate foreign commerce and eventually prosperity. The strength of its economy makes floating exchange rates the least important of the three. China, on the other hand, is a developing economy full of growing pains, and sovereignty over its own monetary policy is not as important as a fixed exchange rate. Free capital flows are a must for China, obviously. Pegging the yuan to the dollar means it has adopted U.S. monetary policy, as Kudlow pointed out, and it also softened the Asian Crisis' impact on the Chinese economy.

Stephen Roach, unsurprisingly, welcomed the strengthened yuan as "unambiguously positive for the global economy," with repeated references to "the global adjustment process", "global rebalancing" and "massive imbalances." Roach can be a good corporate economist with some excellent insights, but as I've written before, he "complains incessantly" about global imbalances. I believe these imbalances aren't inherently bad, and I believe it's imbalances themselves that make it possible for economies to progress. What do entrepreneurs and arbitrageurs do, but recognize opportunities in an imbalanced economy?

Certainly some imbalances can't be sustained forever and will have to stop eventually, but Herb Stein specifically made his Law against those who argue we must take steps to stop them. Free market forces will stop them on their own, and if we try intervention, the cure can be as bad as the disease. Those wanting to intervene to "fix" the U.S. trade deficit warn that if nothing is done, we'll have higher inflation, higher interest rates and possibly crises in our banking system and stock markets. Yet the options of devaluing the dollar, present the very same problems.

A few years ago I'd have agreed with Roach, that the dollar needed a massive devaluation to be "in line" with other world currencies. I'd have even agreed with the more extreme position of Chuck Schumer, Lindsey Graham and other politicians, that China "unfairly" devalues its currency (though Roach has said currency is not how China competes). Back in college, I once argued that in a paper. Fortunately, Dr. O'Cleireacain, my senior thesis advisor, set me straight after he noticed I was starting to harp on the yuan.

But if you're a politician, attacking China and outsourcing will earn you points with voters. You can count on willing media like the New York Times and Washington Post to propagate the myth, especially with sprinkled anecdotes of American shops having to close because of "Chinese competition." The reality is that China needs the peg to maintain its own economic stability, which is in our interest too. And fooling around too much with the yuan's value for the sake of politics can wreak economic havoc on both sides -- not to mention it's part of trying to fix the non-problem problem of the trade deficit.

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Sunday, July 24, 2005

On a lighter note: "The backstroke of the west"

Alternative Episode III dialogue.

Be warned: besides spoilers, I was laughing so hard I was afraid of having cardiac arrest.

Friday, July 22, 2005

The most amazing application ever?

My old friend Steve Tomer encouraged me to try Google Earth, "A 3D interface to the planet":
Google Earth – Explore, Search and Discover

Want to know more about a specific location? Dive right in -- Google Earth combines satellite imagery, maps and the power of Google Search to put the world's geographic information at your fingertips.

Fly from space to your neighborhood. Type in an address and zoom right in.

Search for schools, parks, restaurants, and hotels. Get driving directions.

Tilt and rotate the view to see 3D terrain and buildings.

Save and share your searches and favorites. Even add your own annotations.
Google already has had zoomable maps with satellite imagery, but Google Earth is much more extensive. And addicting, so be warned. It was bittersweet to look at my family's old house in Utah, which we sold after my father passed away five years ago.

The free version is available here.

Just plain mean

I agree with Jeff Jarvis. The Thursday cover of the New York Post, and the accompanying story, is a really low point. It's true that Ms. Wright voluntarily sold the rights to her photos, and she's milking this (she's now out of work, though, so can you blame her for wanting money?). That doesn't prevent some of us from thinking the Post editors and writers need to grow up.

I'm not sure about the dress or the pose, but you know what, she seems pretty enough. Her inside photo isn't flattering, but she had a bad expression (probably taken when she didn't expect it), and it's a grainy black-and-white. The Post has a nasty habit of blowing up photos to fill a certain space, which makes it obvious when someone took a picture with a cell phone camera.

Is she more attractive than Sienna? It's hard for me to say, especially since I prefer brunettes. I was never familiar with Sienna, but she didn't look that good in the Post's inset picture of her. Regardless, I'd definitely put Ms. Wright above more than a few female celebrities and supermodels who I find unappealing while most men consider them attractive. Angelina Jolie is one, and it's not just her big lips, either; I just find her face odd. Add to the list Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz, who along with Lucy Liu were a dishonor to the original "Charlie's Angels". Like my father, I always found Jaclyn Smith was the most beautiful, and Farrah Fawcett highly overrated.

My preferences are probably from the classic movies my father raised me on. Hollywood once had truly beautiful women like Ingrid Bergman, Claudette Colbert, Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth, Deborah Kerr, Vivien Leigh, Carole Lombard, Kim Novak, Ginger Rogers, Jane Russell and Loretta Young. Today I wonder how men ever went ga-ga over the likes of Halle Berry (who needs a lot of makeup to look good), Calista Flockhart (age didn't just catch up with her, it tackled her), Lindsay Lohan (who is now far too thin to be attractive), the slutty musicians like B------ (I refuse to soil my blog with her name), and most of the stick-figure runway models whose waists are smaller than one of my leg calves.

NYPD to commence random searches of bags and backpacks

Under orders from Mike "Führer" Bloomberg, the NYPD as of Thursday night has begun random searches of NYC subway passengers' bags and backpacks. This will also apply to commuter train passengers, so I'm affected both ways: I live in Westchester and take the Metro-North railroad to Manhattan, then the subway to work.

Earlier today this made the Yahoo! News headlines but has since been taken off. I don't know if it was ever prominent on the New York Times' homepage. I should mention, as a gentle elbowing, that our friend Jackie Passey blogged about this a little while ago, once I alerted her to this travesty. And Jackie, I actually had the New York Times article up before you even logged on the chat. :P

Bloomberg admitted that this isn't in response to any specific threat. So what's changed, Mike? Since September 11, 2001, most of us always perceived a continuous threat against major American cities, particularly New York and its large subway infrastructure. Is there something you're not telling us, Mike?

If there's a serious, credible threat, then let's do the proper thing: Governor Pataki should call out the National Guard, suspend the writ of habeas corpus, and impose martial law on New York City. Let people see the full horror of the police state, not this veiled facade of liberty. Perhaps then they'll understand how precious personal liberty really is.

People refusing to submit to searches will only be turned away, not questioned or detained. So this will have no effect at all on stopping terrorists. The law of large numbers tells us that if enough of them try, enough will eventually slip through. Meanwhile, subway and commuter train passengers will be inconvenienced, but their safety will not be increased a whit. I can assure you all that it's already sufficiently unpleasant to make my way toward turnstiles during either rush hour. The NYPD stopping random passengers will make it even worse.

NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly said that people can elect to not ride the subway. He is quite incorrect, as well as ignorant of the Constitution. The subway is a public conveyance, so being a passenger in no way waives any of your rights, including being free from unreasonable searches and seizure. Airlines are different. McQ at QandO recently had a good point about their security procedures: airlines are private companies and can therefore require their passengers to comply with certain rules, like showing identification. I do, however, have a problem that much of the security has been forced upon the airlines by the federal government. The federal government has hired tens of thousands of security screeners, among whom are illegal immigrants and people with criminal records. Very well, maybe things have improved since. But the right thing to do would be the free market: airlines could have competed with each other by hiring the best-trained security personnel. People would pay more for a trusted airline with higher security standards, or less if they didn't deem the cost worth the extra security.

Bloomberg's perfectly following the example set by his predecessor, Rudy Giuliani, who once declared,
We only see the oppressive side of authority. Maybe it comes out of our history and our background. What we don't see is that freedom is not a concept in which people can do anything they want, be anything they can be. Freedom is about authority. Freedom is about the willingness of every single human being to cede to lawful authority a great deal of discretion about what you do and how you do it.
Doesn't that perfectly explain why authoritarian conservatives (well, Bloomberg isn't a conservative, but in this case he's lumped with them) believe what they do? They believe that even if the threat to society is vague and not necessarily imminent, it's still ok to subvert the individual's freedoms to the majority's needs.

Have we fought for freedom for over two centuries only to degenerate into this? Have we forgotten the words of Samuel Adams?
Contemplate the mangled bodies of your countrymen, and then say, What should be the reward of such sacrifices? Bid us and our posterity bow the knee, supplicate the friendship, and plow, and sow, and reap, to glut the avarice of the men who have let loose on us the dogs of war to riot in our blood and hunt us from the face of the earth? If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude than the animating contest of freedom -- go from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains sit lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen!
The most important quote of all, however, is that part of the Bill of Rights so often trampled upon, especially by the Patriot Act (which on Thursday the House of Representatives voted to renew):
Amendment IV: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Clearly the NYPD will have no warrants, so what probable cause do they have to search my pack? Has anyone alerted them that a baby-faced Asian-looking fellow is acting suspiciously? In the few moments they see me as I approach the turnstile, did they see me doing something suspicious? No: their only reason is to conduct a random search.

This afternoon I called the New York office of the ACLU to ask what they're doing about this. They said their lawyers were preparing a statement for publication on the NYCLU website. While I'm no fan of either, I wished them good luck. Frankly, I was disappointed. They didn't come out strongly against this at all. Their statement calls Bloomberg's orders unconstitutional, but so far they have no plans to challenge this in court.

Conservatives, of course, love Bloomberg's decision. John Gambling, on his WABC radio show this morning, disgusted me so much that I had to switch off my radio. He's already irked me greatly, and after tomorrow I don't think I'll listen to his show anymore. Tomorrow when he hosts Bloomberg, I'll try to stomach their defense of these wholly unconstitutional searches, this rape of freedom.

On the blogosphere, Ace of Spades calls the searches "prudent" and likely will never understand that they're doomed to ineffectiveness. At least Michelle Malkin calls the new searches "ridiculous" and opposes them, but for "polar reasons" that she'll explain tomorrow. We will see. Confederate Yankee may not want to get blown up, but hasn't he considered the economics of subway travel?

Even without the subsidies, the subway system is cheaper than taxis. Its low cost is a trade-off: it includes putting up with awful-smelling and poorly ventilated underground caverns, unsanitary subway cars, and then the potential muggers, murderers, terrorists and other criminals. I could pay $10 for a quiet, faster and generally safe cab ride from Grand Central Terminal to work. Therefore, I personally value the risk of being criminally violated on the subway, and of course the extra time involved, as not worth paying $8 more for a taxi. Sometimes I do take a taxi, but to save time, not because I'm afraid of terrorists.

This isn't to say that I accept being a possible crime victim, or even the risk, only that I'm not willing to pay more for a high assurance of avoiding criminals. There's a huge difference.

"I know not what course others may take, but give me liberty or give me death!" I would literally rather die than let the terrorists force me to live in a police state. Don't the authoritarians understand that forcing us into our own tyranny is the next best thing to the global spread of Islamo tyranny?

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Something I posted elsewhere

I posted the following as a comment to Stephen Littau's post on a very specific Constitutional amendment, whose purpose is to prevent abuse of eminent domain like in the odious Kelo case. I did correct a typo ("Unites") that was in the original.

Actually, Madison and Jefferson were fearful of huge banks indirectly controlling an entire nation's destiny (which was the case with Great Britain). I think it was Jefferson who said he feared banks more than standing armies. Andrew Jackson shared the sentiment and outlined it in his 1832 letter to Congress as to why he vetoed renewing the Bank of the United States' charter. This not unlike the fear of large corporations, which I generally consider unwarranted.

What our Founding Fathers conceived was an ideal of liberty that enumerated very specific ideals of a limited federal government, to which was added a Bill of Rights to assure Patrick Henry and other opponents of the Constitution. Key to limiting the federal government's power was this simple phrase that is, well, simply ignored:

"The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

I'm one of those who says we don't need more laws, just good public officials who know what the Constitution says. Chuck Schumer obviously doesn't, because as I pointed out about his remarks against John Roberts' nomination, he said, "Now that he is nominated for a position where he can overturn precedent and make law, it is even more important that he fully answers a broad range of questions." (emphasis added)

As I pointed out before, even the most specific of restrictions can be perverted. Moreover, being a firm believer in the subjective theory of value, I fully oppose any law, especially a Constitutional amendment, that establishes a minimum price for government to meet. What we consider a high price may not be enough for certain people, who value their homes for very sentimental reasons. A family may not want to sell their home any price, because no amount of "just compensation" will compensate them. Whether it's the time they've owned the property, the labor put in to making it theirs, or the difficulty they had in securing the house, the rest of us have no right to impose an ultimate sale price on them. Should they be allowed to inhibit progress? I say, absolutely! We're a nation (supposedly) dedicated to the rights of the individual, not what's best for the majority. Besides, why is any particular location so critical that a government must have it, without exploring other options?

I shop regularly at Wal-Mart, Target and sometimes Home Depot. I choose their lower prices instead of sustaining local businesses that charge higher prices. Still, I disagree with the "subsidies" (which are actually tax breaks) that they -- or any business -- receive. If they are truly competitive, then they ought to be able to conduct business without tax breaks targetted specifically at them, special zoning, etc.

Apply the rule of law, and people will prosper in liberty and commerce. This includes eliminating all state "help" to businesses so they can all compete fairly. And if smaller stores lose to Wal-Mart, so be it. That's the free market, weeding out inefficient participants and encouraging the remaining ones to stay on their toes. It maximizes society's economic production.

Most of the "government helping" problem could be eliminated by eliminating all taxes on businesses. That would leave government with only one method of "assisting" their preferred businesses: direct subsidies, which voters tend to frown, as opposed to "tax breaks" that they might misconstrue as a good thing. For the sake of space, I won't delve into illegal actions like corruption, or large corporations seeking heavy regulations that only mildly hinder them but destroy new market entrants.

Many leftists today believe that businesses don't pay their fair share of taxes. It's actually a ludicrous notion that businesses pay taxes at all: they simply pass them on to their customers. The problem with taxing businesses is that it's not very transparent at all. The cost of paying taxes to a business is much higher than government calculating a slightly higher sales tax. Both will generate the same tax revenue, but businesses all over won't have to hire CPAs, so overall consumers will pay slightly less. For the same reason, a flat income tax (even with a sizable deduction per individual) is far preferable to our current system that costs Americans 6 billion hours each year.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Whose fault is it?

This past June 22nd, in Camden, New Jersey, a mother went inside her house for only a few minutes, leaving her young son and two other boys playing in the front yard. When she came back out, they were nowhere to be found. For two days, police and civilians scoured the area extensively, particularly the woods, but without success. Then one of the fathers and his father-in-law went looking for jumper cables in a Toyota Camry belonging to one of the families. They found the three boys' bodies in the trunk; apparently the boys had climbed in and suffocated when the trunk closed on them. The car was not working and had been there for a few weeks, and though one of the boys had been known to play in it, nobody had thought to check inside the trunk. A combination of rainfall and insulation would have made it hard for the boys to make themselves heard.

The Guardian had thorough coverage immediately after the bodies were discovered, ironically better than I saw in American newspapers.

Soon after, the father of the oldest boy blamed the Division of Family and Welfare Services and announced he might sue. On just what grounds? He claimed that he had told the DFWS that his son, who was mentally retarded, would often wander away from home. "If he had been put in a safe place, maybe this would have never happened." It's the government's fault that the family didn't take steps to watch the boy themselves? Since when is government supposed to be a babysitter on beck-and-call?

Soon after, one of the families said they want to sue the police department (for not searching the trunk), and perhaps Toyota. Why Toyota? They won't admit it, but it's solely because Toyota has deep pockets, nothing more. The trunk closed easily not because the hydraulic mechanism that keeps the lid open was faulty, but because it was broken. The car was old, so how is that Toyota's fault? It was the family's fault for not maintaining the car in good repair, let alone keeping such a deathtrap around.

Their threat to sue Toyota reminds me of a case back in 1997. A young boy was in the back of his parents' minivan, not wearing his seat belt, while his parents drove through an intersection. Another car was traveling only 5 to 10 mph and somehow hit them with enough force that the boy was ejected out the rear window and died. Who do you think the family (successfully) sued? Chrysler, for making a supposedly faulty latch for the rear window. Just like the Camden tragedy, the parents refused to take responsibility for their child, and the target of their lawsuit isn't the person whose negligence actually caused the death. Deep pockets.

The family says that they asked the police if they had checked the car. Why didn't the family check it themselves? The police said the car was clear, but were it my child, I'd have wanted to double-check it, particularly knowing my child was known to play in it. One of the fathers said, "Maybe they should have looked in the trunk," but maybe he should have looked in there himself? At no time were the parents restrained from performing their own search, including during the three hours they waited before calling the police.

Now the autopsy results have come back. The boys may have been alive for 13 to possibly 33 hours before they finally suffocated. The families will certainly use this to sue, claiming that the police were negligent and should have found the boys alive. I read somewhere (but can't find it at the moment) that the two officers who checked the car have already received disciplinary action, but with no details provided.

From the beginning I had every sympathy for the families, maintaining that no one is to blame. It's another of those terrible, terrible things over which we should grieve, not point fingers. However, while I still mourn those boys, I'm disgusted by the families trying to turn this into a cash cow. Since they wish to place blame, it's time they accepted that their own mistakes directly led to the boys' deaths. They should have been careful in either of two ways (not leaving the car there and not leaving the boys unattended), and then it wouldn't have mattered that the police didn't think to check the trunk of a beaten-up, non-working car.

Leahy and Schumer have rope ready

I hope I'm wrong to predict that the Democrats are ready to lynch Roberts. I sense they'll give him the same treatment they gave Clarence Thomas, and of course, Robert Bork.

Right now I don't have enough information to say whether or not Roberts would be a fine member of the high court. That won't matter to the Democrats, though. Once I heard Pat Leahy and Charles Schumer's remarks after Bush's press conference, I knew this is only the beginning. Just like the infamous "Democratic response" to Republican presidents' "State of the Union" addresses, the words had probably been prepared long before, with a few blanks filled in to make it sound specific. The underlying message that I heard was that the Democrats will use this to show Bush who's boss.

Leahy said a few nice-sounding things, like "To fulfill our constitutional duties," and "We have to ensure the Supreme Court remains a protector of all Americans' rights and liberties from government intrusion..." But he also said, "No one is entitled to a free pass to a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court," "all of these raise very different considerations than in the lower court," and a reference to "the extreme right." What this tells me is that enough Democrats went along with confirming Roberts for a federal judgeship, but this time they'll seize the opportunity to show Bush who's boss.

Leahy observed the danger of rubber-stamping a nominee, which is valid. Then in response to a question, he said a most questionable thing: "The Supreme Court, however, can interpret the law any way it wants." Did he mean "can" in that the Constitution gives the Court broad authority to interpret laws, or that the Court interprets law regardless of what the Constitution actually says? Sadly, the former is not true, and the second is. We've forgotten what Jefferson admonished us: "In questions of power, then let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down by the chains of the Constitution."

Schumer was more obvious about the upcoming power game: "The burden is on a nominee to the Supreme Court to prove that he is worthy, not on the Senate to prove that he is unworthy" and "But now it's a whole new ball game for those of us who voted against him, for those of us who voted for him and for Judge Roberts." He specifically noted how he voted against Roberts' confirmation to the federal bench,

What really struck me, however, was Schumer's ignorance of the Constitution: "Now that he is nominated for a position where he can overturn precedent and make law, it is even more important that he fully answers a broad range of questions."

Not according to Articles I and III of the Constitution, Chucky. A member of Congress ought to know better.

"For these reasons, it is vital that Judge Roberts answer a wide range of questions openly, honestly and fully in the coming months." (emphasis added) Months. Months?! We have just over two months before the Supreme Court will start its next session, so just how long is Schumer talking about?

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Ethanol: still not worth the price

Hat tip to my old friend James, who is a Berkeley alumnus.
Study Says Ethanol Not Worth the Energy

Farmers, businesses and state officials are investing millions of dollars in ethanol and biofuel plants as renewable energy sources, but a new study says the alternative fuels burn more energy than they produce.

Supporters of ethanol and other biofuels contend they burn cleaner than fossil fuels, reduce U.S. dependence on oil and give farmers another market to sell their produce.

But researchers at Cornell University and the University of California-Berkeley say it takes 29 percent more fossil energy to turn corn into ethanol than the amount of fuel the process produces. For switch grass, a warm weather perennial grass found in the Great Plains and eastern North America United States, it takes 45 percent more energy and for wood, 57 percent.

It takes 27 percent more energy to turn soybeans into biodiesel fuel and more than double the energy produced is needed to do the same to sunflower plants, the study found.

"Ethanol production in the United States does not benefit the nation's energy security, its agriculture, the economy, or the environment," according to the study by Cornell's David Pimentel and Berkeley's Tad Patzek. They conclude the country would be better off investing in solar, wind and hydrogen energy.

The researchers included such factors as the energy used in producing the crop, costs that were not used in other studies that supported ethanol production, said Pimentel.

The study also omitted $3 billion in state and federal government subsidies that go toward ethanol production in the United States each year, payments that mask the true costs, Pimentel said.

Ethanol is an additive blended with gasoline to reduce auto emissions and increase gas' octane levels. Its use has grown rapidly since 2004, when the federal government banned the use of the additive MTBE to enhance the cleaner burning of fuel. About 3.6 billion gallons of ethanol were produced last year in the United States, according to the Renewable Fuels Association, an ethanol trade group.

The ethanol industry claims that using 8 billion gallons of ethanol a year will allow refiners to use 2 billion fewer barrels of oil. The oil industry disputes that, saying the ethanol mandate would have negligible impact on oil imports.

Ethanol producers dispute Pimentel and Patzek's findings, saying the data is outdated and doesn't take into account profits that offset costs.

Michael Brower, director of community and government relations at SUNY's College of Environmental Science and Forestry, points to reports by the Energy and Agriculture departments that have shown the ethanol produced delivers at least 60 percent more energy the amount used in production. The college has worked extensively on producing ethanol from hardwood trees.

Biodiesel can be used in any diesel engine with few or no modifications. It is often blended with petroleum diesel to reduce the propensity to gel in cold weather.
Also check out this better news story from Cornell's own site. It has a few great soundbites from one of the researchers, Prof. David Pimentel:
"The United State desperately needs a liquid fuel replacement for oil in the near future," says Pimentel, "but producing ethanol or biodiesel from plant biomass is going down the wrong road, because you use more energy to produce these fuels than you get out from the combustion of these products."

Although Pimentel advocates the use of burning biomass to produce thermal energy (to heat homes, for example), he deplores the use of biomass for liquid fuel. "The government spends more than $3 billion a year to subsidize ethanol production when it does not provide a net energy balance or gain, is not a renewable energy source or an economical fuel. Further, its production and use contribute to air, water and soil pollution and global warming," Pimentel says. He points out that the vast majority of the subsidies do not go to farmers but to large ethanol-producing corporations.

"Ethanol production in the United States does not benefit the nation's energy security, its agriculture, economy or the environment," says Pimentel. "Ethanol production requires large fossil energy input, and therefore, it is contributing to oil and natural gas imports and U.S. deficits." He says the country should instead focus its efforts on producing electrical energy from photovoltaic cells, wind power and burning biomass and producing fuel from hydrogen conversion.
Throwing money at ethanol producers was supposed to help the little guy. But like all other subsidies, it's the big special interests that benefit. They lobby for taxpayer money under the guise of "needing help," because it's easier than having to compete. Meanwhile, the costs are distributed

This new study may or may not be true. If it is, it's another nail in ethanol's coffin; if not, there are already many reasons to eschew ethanol in favor of gasoline. Some of you may recall a recent flurry of comments where someone touted the benefits of ethanol, which, well, are simply based on bad economics and some wishful thinking. Even before this study, certain facts remained. I'll only summarize them here, not wishing to repeat everything I said, but those of you who didn't follow the discussion may wish to check it out.

Ethanol produces less energy by volume, which is why cars get reduced gas mileage when using ethanol blends, let alone pure ethanol. Growing corn and converting it into ethanol requires a lot of petroleum, so there still will be a demand for oil. Furthermore, an increased demand for ethanol will increase its price, so it's flatly wrong to think that ethanol will stay this "cheap" (which is courtesy of government subsidies) once it supplants petroleum. High prices encourage more people to become suppliers, and an increased supply of ethanol would decrease prices. But then we come to the ultimate truth: there's just not enough corn in the U.S. to make enough ethanol to power our economy.

Then we have the problem of subsidies. If 50 cents of your taxes go to subsidize a company, and the company can now sell you a product for $1 instead of $1.50, are you really paying only $1? Only those who refuse to consider what is not seen will insist they're only paying a dollar.

The federal government in 2004 gave $3 billion to ethanol producers, who produced 3.41 billion gallons of ethanol that year. [Updated 10/9/2005 with new website and new number for ethanol production.] Consumers do not save 88 cents on a gallon of ethanol versus a gallon of gasoline:Alan Reynolds noted its hefty tax break of 51 to 71 cents, and ethanol's poor fuel economy. So, the subsidy is literally wasting money. Curiously enough, only a few years ago, ethanol was being blamed for making Midwest gasoline more expensive than the national average.

There's no reason at all for government intervention in an economy, save to protect the people from force and fraud. The big oil companies are "powerful" in that they are important to our daily lives, but they're hardly forcing us to buy gasoline. Destroying the myth of companies "forcing" us to buy their products would go a long way toward weaning us from dependency on government. The reason consumers prefer gasoline-powered cars is because they're cheaper overall, and the free market works its magic again, because we know that even though ethanol is officially cheaper.

I am reminded of a Canadian who posted on a bulletin board system I frequented about 10 years ago. He believes and might still believe a few crazy things, like the first cars being electric (they most certainly were not). He once bragged how one of his countrymen invented a car that runs on water, and that you could see it in a museum. Yes, and it belongs in a museum -- as a curiosity, specifically because it's a fancy way of wasting energy. It would never survive out on the open road.

He just never understood that it might "work," but the fuel system required an input of energy far greater than what it generated. Electrolysis breaks up water into hydrogen and oxygen, either of which could be burned as fuel (usually just the hydrogen while the heavier oxygen is expelled as clean exhaust). The problem is that electrolysis requires enormous amounts of electricity, and even burning the hydrogen and oxygen would generate less electricity than what used to split the water molecules. You might as well shine a flashlight on a solar cell, which is basically our problem with ethanol.

Even ignoring this new study, converting ethanol into corn requires so much energy that we gain very little in the end. Reynolds noted that even James Woolsey, the former CIA director who was apparently lobbying for ethanol, admitted that seven gallons of petroleum are required to produce eight gallons of ethanol. Since ethanol kills fuel economy, that's as much of a bargain as all the handbag knockoffs I see every day in midtown Manhattan. But why should ethanol producers care? As long as they receive massive federal subsidies and talk a good talk, they have no reason at all to improve their processes. They'll keep building new ethanol refineries using old technology.

Perhaps some will argue that ethanol should get subsidies because big oil companies are given big incentives in the form of tax breaks. This makes no sense, of course, because the federal government is encouraging oil companies to produce a good, whose consumption is discouraged by high taxes. No, the answer is not more subsidies. Why should government waste taxpayer dollars on financing opposing forces?

The solution is to eliminate all subsidies and special tax incentives, and let the free market sort things out. It maximizes efficiency, and it also eliminates the problem of special interest groups. Bastiat warned us in The Law how these groups come to power, including by overthrowing each other:
Men naturally rebel against the injustice of which they are victims. Thus, when plunder is organized by law for the profit of those who make the law, all the plundered classes try somehow to enter—by peaceful or revolutionary means—into the making of laws. According to their degree of enlightenment, these plundered classes may propose one of two entirely different purposes when they attempt to attain political power: Either they may wish to stop lawful plunder, or they may wish to share in it.

Woe to the nation when this latter purpose prevails among the mass victims of lawful plunder when they, in turn, seize the power to make laws! (emphasis added)
If ethanol companies curry enough favor in Congress, who knows, they might eventually wield as much power as "big oil" does now. I never liked any of Woody Allen's films, but "Sleeper" did have a profound moment. They were participating in a revolution, but their leader would likely turn into the next dictator that they'd have to overthrow too.

As I've said before, the problem isn't with the lobbyists. It's that our federal government has assumed so much unconstitutional power that it sustains the special interest groups -- the plunderers perverting the law from its true purpose as an instrument of justice. And it doesn't help when people think Congress' power to regulate interstate commerce gives it the power to hand out subsidies.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Foreigners "buying up" U.S. real estate: not a problem at all

Our friend Steve Conover has debunked the unfounded fears of foreigners purchasing U.S. Treasury bonds. On a similar note, there's a great deal of alarmism about foreigners buying American real estate. Friday's Christian Science Monitor had an interesting article:

House not home: Foreigners buy up American real estate

In general, the article probably insinuates too much for good reporting. The most important thing to note is that the foreigners are primarily buying new property, so for the most part they're not displacing Americans. It's true that the increased demand generally drives up prices for everyone, but remember that high prices are an adjustment mechanism in themselves. If sellers ask prices that are higher than buyers are willing to pay, demand will fall off. Also, high prices encourage others to get into the business. The increased supply can temper prices, but another effect is that entrepreneurs can go forth with business ventures that before weren't profitable. That's precisely what's happening with the new construction. Without wealthy foreigners, American companies couldn't have made a profit by building these expensive buildings. There weren't enough rich Americans who could afford them and wanted them:
• In Las Vegas, wealthy foreign buyers - mostly from Mexico - have snapped up 12 percent of the condos at Icon, twin 48-story towers that are now almost sold out even though they won't start construction until next month.

• New York City real estate brokers estimate that up to 33 percent of new condos sold in the city are going to non-Americans, especially Europeans, who one broker describes as "very aggressive."

• Asian buyers are jumping in, too. Real estate agents are flying to Shanghai, Beijing, Bangkok, and Kuala Lumpur to talk up the property market. Recently, a large group of Korean finance, construction, insurance, and engineering executives conducted a "study tour" of southeast Florida real estate. They plan to return next April.
(emphasis added)

See that? Ground hasn't even been broken on some of the condos. We have the seen effect of higher housing prices, but there is also the unseen effect that the foreigners' money creates many well-paying jobs for Americans, from construction work to executive positions developing the real estate. Also, when wealthy foreigners move here, they necessarily buy goods and services as part of living, which creates more jobs for Americans. The higher property prices are more than offset.

One thing I refuse to consider is the tax revenues that foreigners pay while living here; I find that an immoral reason to want people to immigrate.

Now consider where foreigners get all that money to spend here. One primary source is the perceived "glut" in foreign savings, driven by foreigners' proclivity to save more than Americans. The reasons vary, depending on socio-economic conditions and government policies. The Chinese have a rapidly increasing national income but aren't increasing consumption spending at the same rate; this is changing as they enjoy more and more technology that the West pioneered, such as cars and cell phones. South Korea also has a rapidly increasing national income, but its government policies favor savings over consumption.

Then there are Japan and much of Europe, which are stagnant and have high unemployment (Japan's 5% seems low to us but is actually high for them). Consumers in such a situation, fearful of a probable (not just possible) "rainy day," will tend to save even more. Japan and much of Europe also have rapidly aging populations, far worse than the U.S. "baby boomers." So their people want to save even more for that, knowing future taxpayers can't support state pensions at current rates. And it doesn't help when much of western Europe has high tax rates and other inhibitive fiscal policies, which restrain consumers and businesses alike and reduce consumption spending from an optimal level. There can be such a thing as too much saving, which occurs when businesses have enough to borrow but not enough customers.

So foreigners save a lot, especially in U.S. assets. The U.S. economy has been very strong for over two decades, with only two minor dips, making it the economy for investment. Much ado has been made of China surpassing the U.S. in foreign direct investment ($61 billion in 2004), but FDI is only one measurement. Foreign investment also includes corporate and government bonds. Much of recent U.S. federal debt has been financed by China, Japan and South Korea, which of course dwarfs FDI in China, and indicates foreigners' massive confidence in continued U.S. economic growth. But massive foreign savings is a two-edged sword. In recent years, this has supplanted, not just supplemented, Americans' own savings. Intrinsically that's neither good nor bad, but the results are both good and bad. As foreigners provide more capital for U.S. businesses, Americans can save less and use that money for consumption spending. However, it's sustainable only while foreigners have confidence that the U.S. economy is the strongest in the world.

The second major source of foreigners' money: Americans. Many foreigners earn more money selling goods to us than they spend on goods we sell them, i.e. the trade "deficit." They save their dollars primarily in U.S. stocks, U.S. corporate and government bonds, and yes, U.S. real estate. After all, it does them no good to hold dollars when there are plenty of dollar-denominated investment assets. Perhaps foreigners want to exchange their dollars for other currencies? Well, those who "buy" dollars in exchange markets want to use the dollars to buy American products (or crude oil, which is usually sold for dollars) or invest in U.S. assets. (Currency speculators are an exception, but an exceedingly minor one.)

This is another reason why we shouldn't worry about a "trade deficit" per se: the dollars eventually come home, in one form or another. So when some charge that a trade deficit means we're exporting our wealth, it's just not true. Nor is it true when Terence Straub of the United States Steel Corporation said we're exporting jobs and our manufacturing base. I've explained in more detail in these two posts why a trade deficit isn't inherently the problem most people (including economists) think it is:

Worrying about the trade deficit

Walter Williams: the trade deficit is nothing to worry about


Friday, July 15, 2005

You'll never read this in the New York Times

USA Today points out that Joe Wilson's own book weakens the foaming-at-the-mouth liberals' accusations against Karl Rove:
CIA 'outing' might fall short of crime

WASHINGTON — The alleged crime at the heart of a controversy that has consumed official Washington — the "outing" of a CIA officer — may not have been a crime at all under federal law, little-noticed details in a book by the agent's husband suggest.

In The Politics of Truth, former ambassador Joseph Wilson writes that he and his future wife both returned from overseas assignments in June 1997. Neither spouse, a reading of the book indicates, was again stationed overseas. They appear to have remained in Washington, D.C., where they married and became parents of twins.

Six years later, in July 2003, the name of the CIA officer — Valerie Plame — was revealed by columnist Robert Novak.

The column's date is important because the law against unmasking the identities of U.S. spies says a "covert agent" must have been on an overseas assignment "within the last five years." The assignment also must be long-term, not a short trip or temporary post, two experts on the law say. Wilson's book makes numerous references to the couple's life in Washington over the six years up to July 2003.

"Unless she was really stationed abroad sometime after their marriage," she wasn't a covert agent protected by the law, says Bruce Sanford, an attorney who helped write the 1982 act that protects covert agents' identities. [emphasis added]

The leaking of Valerie Plame's identity started a chain of events that now has the White House at the center of a political firestorm as some Democrats demand President Bush fire close aide Karl Rove. Rove discussed Plame's CIA connection with Time reporter Matthew Cooper in 2003, though without naming her, according to Rove's attorney.

Joseph Wilson would not say whether his wife was stationed overseas again after 1997, and he said she would not speak to a reporter. But, he said, "the CIA obviously believes there was reason to believe a crime had been committed" because it referred the case to the Justice Department.

Spokesmen for both the CIA and federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who is investigating whether a crime was committed, also would not comment.
That's precisely right: Fitzgerald is doing his job, merely investigating if someone broke a law. Rove is not the target of the investigation, because investigators have no actual suspicion that he's guilty of anything. On the other hand, we now have strong evidence that Karl Rove named "Wilson's wife" but that it was hardly a violation of the relevant statute.

Just don't tell this to the Kool Aid-imbibing liberal moonbats, who pounced on my 25-word entry. Let me be blunt: I really don't give a damn if they found that quick entry "insightful" or not, nor will I ascribe them any credibility when they can't even do me the courtesy to spell "Eidelblog" correctly. I wrote the entry in question at nearly 3 a.m. and was deliberately brief because I was headed for bed. I get up pretty early during the week because I have a serious job and do serious work. Someone has to perform earn all the tax dollars that liberals like to redistribute to themselves, right? I question how many of them generate any significant economic activity at all, besides using the power of government to spend other people's money.

How pathetically funny they are, mocking supply-siders like me, when this report shows that, well, they're full of it. Don Luskin explained why Krugman's "wrong again on the budget," especially in what federal taxes are increasing. Payroll taxes are surging. Don is absolutely right to say that higher payroll taxes imply an increase in employment levels and wages. How do liberals harmonize the increase in payroll taxes with their claims of poor job growth and wages not keeping up with inflation? They can't, because it must be one or both. But what do you expect when liberal quasi-economists like this one often don't know what they're talking about?

It's truly stupid for anyone short of God to state "full employment is 5% unemployment" as fact, let alone to allege that's what "economists believe." Claiming that an entire profession believes a disputable "fact" is one of Krugman's shadier tactics, like when he said "journalists" didn't think Paul Bremer was passionate about democratizing Iraq. "Full employment" fluctuates, and there's a lot of disagreement as to how much it is, or if it's something to worry about at all. Besides, if we're now at "full employment," defined as the level of employment where inflation is not increasing, then why was the Fed concerned about inflation when unemployment was higher? That's because there are two types of inflation: are we talking about rising prices because of supply and demand, or because of Fed monetary policy? Also, nobody can say with real certainty what "full employment" is. As Luskin pointed out, we get into a lot of trouble when a central bank targets what it decides "full employment" is.

Once upon a time, some economists thought that full employment was 6%. During the later 1990s, some wondered if it was down to 4.5% or possibly 4%. I myself maintain that we're better off looking at the underlying statistics behind "full employment," instead of worrying about a meaningless yardstick of our employment being at (one measure of) "equilibrium." The later 1970s, with both high unemployment and inflation, had lower "full employment" than during the dotcom boom. In turn, "full employment" is lower today than during the late 1990s. We need to stop wasting energy worrying that inflation will increase if we have too much employment, and instead focus on low tax rates so businesses have a reason to add jobs.

Regarding something that that Stewart fellow wrote: perhaps this will be simple enough for liberals to understand. If problems with calculating unemployment mean that it's actually 1% higher than officially reported, then the same applies for the "economic miracle" Clinton years. It's only fair, since we used the same formulas then as now. So even if unemployment is calculated too low, for whatever reason, it doesn't mean our current economic expansion (we're long past the recovery stage) isn't so. It's all relative.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Lawyers and judges who haven't read the Constitution

A dear old friend works in the court system (I won't give clues as to his name, location or his precise occupation), and he's began informally polling lawyers and judges if they've actually read the U.S. Constitution. It's an unscientific poll, but the initial results are eye-opening.

Of the 25 he's asked thus far, only three have ever read the entire Constitution. Think of the extent of this tragedy: when most of these lawyers make arguments on what the Constitution says, when most of these judges make rulings on what the Constitution says, it's not based on their reading of the Constitution, but on what they wish it said. The lawyers and judges can spend countless hours poring over case law, trying to find a precedent, but they can't take an hour to carefully read our Constitution.

We shouldn't therefore be surprised to get rulings like this, where even Antonin Scalia took international law into account. Or this ruling, this one or this. The rulings against private property, and against the clear right of states to regulate their own commerce, were made possible because certain judges clearly don't give a damn about the Constitution -- and now we have anecdotal evidence they may have never read the actual document itself.

We'd do well to recall what Jefferson (reportedly) said:

"Our peculiar security is in the possession of a written Constitution. Let us not make it a blank paper by construction."

"On every question of construction, let us carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates, and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text, or invented against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed."

Update: I inadvertently wrote Anthony Kennedy instead of Scalia. That's been corrected.

Another update: my friend Charlie had a piercing question that I forgot to include. Presumably lawyers have to take classes in Constitutional law, so just what do they read there?

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Possibly the two stupidest lawsuits ever

My friend Charlie pointed me to Groklaw, which has the continuing story on "the stupidest lawsuit since the world began." Ten French women started a carpool, because they can commute faster, more cheaply and more conveniently than riding the buses of French company Transports Schiocchet Excursions. So the bus company has sued them for "losses," claiming illegal competition, and they even demand that the women's cars be confiscated. The lawsuit was thrown out two years ago, but Transports Schiocchet Excursions is pursuing it in another court.

Today I found this via Yahoo! News:

Tokyo Governor Sued for Insulting French
A group of teachers and translators in Japan on Wednesday sued Tokyo's outspoken nationalist governor for allegedly calling French a "failed international language," a news report said.

Twenty-one people filed the lawsuit at the Tokyo District Court, demanding that Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara pay a total of 10.5 million yen ($94,600) compensation for insulting the French language in remarks last October, national broadcaster NHK said.

In their suit, the plaintiffs accused Ishihara of saying: "French is a failed international language because it cannot be used to count numbers." ...
So they're basically suing over hurt feelings.

Which of these do you all think is the more idiotic?

A circling of buzzards

The liberals are circling overhead, anticipating Karl Rove's political death. Were it a regular CIA bureaucrat suspected of "leaking" Valerie Plame's name, big media would mention this story only in passing. Had suspicion fallen on a prominent CIA official appointed by Clinton, we'd hardly hear a peep about this. There would have been as much media attention as there was over Clinton's national security advisor, Sandy Berger, sneaking out classified documents in his clothes.

But we're talking about Karl Rove here. Liberals won't admit it, but they're energized purely by the possibility of revenge. Revenge against the man who chiefly engineered Bush's underestimated re-election campaign that should have lost ignominiously but instead triumphed brilliantly. Revenge against the man who hit too close to home when he said, "Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 in the attacks and prepared for war; liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers."

John Podhoretz in his latest New York Post column deservedly pointed to what he suggested in October 2003: Rove mentioned Wilson's wife, but not necessarily Valerie Plame by name, to keep Time reporter Matthew Cooper straight on who authorized Wilson's trip to Niger. Today, that's not far at all from the latest details. Even Cooper's e-mails say, "'it was, [Rove] said, Wilson's wife, who apparently works at the agency on WMD..."

I apologize for not plugging this website before: Many of you probably know it already, but it has logins available for all the news websites, including the New York Post, that want registration even for their free content. This way you won't have to go through tedious registration processes.

Byron York's new NRO column also does a superb job of putting the new details together. Bottom line: Rove didn't do it out of malice, contrary to what liberals want to believe.

Then I went back to what Don Luskin wrote in July 2003. That's how I learned of the scandal in the first place, because major media principally ignored what was then a non-story. Lest some think me obsequious, I'll put it this way: Luskin can call the shots in more than just investment markets. A couple of his good points long preceded what Mark Levin echoed on his radio show Tuesday evening. Was any real harm done to Plame, and just how secret was her identity? Bingo.

The real clincher is how the Intelligence Identities Protection Act (Title 50, Chapter 15, Subchapter IV, Section 421 of the U.S. Code) defines the crime: the person revealing the identity of a covert government agent must be cognizant that the government is taking measures to keep the identity covert. Did Rove know she was trying to keep her identity secret as a CIA operative?

Joe Biden said, "The fact that he didn't give her name, but identified the ambassador's wife — doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out who that is." Well, according to Levin's sources (whom I forget right now), Plame and her husband were known for gallavanting around Washington. Robert Novak, in his Oct. 1, 2003 column, said, "It was well known around Washington that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA."

Now check out Podhoretz's blogging at National Review Online's The Corner:
What if -- and here's where it gets really interesting -- what if the real object of interest where Fitzgerald's investigation is concerned is now none other than the jailed Judith Miller of the New York Times? What if she let it all slip and in the giant game of telephone around the nation's capital, Miller was the original source of the "Plame's in the CIA" info? What if Fitzgerald needs her notes to discern whether Miller knew or didn't know of Plame's supposedly covert status?
As he said, "Chew on that for a while."

Finally we have Ted Rall, perennially ignorant of the Constitution, claiming that Rove committed treason. Comparing him to Aldrich Ames? Just what is the liberal "reality-based community" smoking?

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Spinning Rove?

Pubcrawler states a highly plausible explanation for why, if he really did, Karl Rove mentioned Valerie Plame's name: to prevent misinformation, not to out her.

Krugman never met a spent tax dollar he didn't like

Paul is at it again, sputtering the usual distortions. Donald Luskin won't let him get away with it, (again) devastating Krugman's contentions and exposing the ivory tower-ensconced Princetonian for what he really is: the ultimate tax-and-spend socialist. The difference between the two is that Krugman has a socialist agenda to promote, while Luskin is a non-academic who, having to work in the real world, knows we must focus on maximizing tax revenue without having to hike tax rates. If the federal government tried to collect 28% of GDP in taxes, as Krugman has suggested, it would "utterly destroy the economy." And the U.S. would certainly take the rest of the world down with it.

Krugman would do well to read Frédéric Bastiat, patron saint of this blog. Bastiat wrote "What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen" over 150 years ago to destroy the myth that government spending is good for the economy: it's merely a transfer, at best. Bruce Bartlett wrote this past January, "A common estimate is that the federal tax system as a whole has a deadweight cost of about 20 cents per tax dollar." That is, every dollar collected in federal taxes reduces total U.S. economic output by 20 cents, for the plain reason that taxes discourage economic activity. That's even a low estimate compared to others. This 1996 Congressional report stated:
Recently, the Joint Economic Committee (JEC) released a report written by two academic economists, Lowell Gallaway and Richard Vedder. They carefully studied U.S. history to examine the relationship between government spending and economic growth. They concluded that at current spending levels the last dollar government spends reduces private sector GDP by $1.38. In other words, the economy experiences a net loss of 0.38 cents. From their analysis, it follows that in 1994, if the federal government were to reduce its spending by four percentage points, economic growth would have increased to 5.4 percent.
One of the report's footnotes cites Gallaway and Vedder as saying optimal federal spending for the U.S. is "17.57 percent." I think that's far too high, but curiously enough, that's where Krugman said we are.

Government spending has been known to hurt certain industries much more than the average. The National Center for Policy Analysis criticized Kerry's plan for massive federally subsidized health care, especially because the 1990s Medicaid expansion showed that a dollar of increased federal spending on Medicaid has not been matched by the private sector spending a full dollar less:
A study by Harvard University Professor David Cutler and Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Jonathan Gruber found that Medicaid expansions in the early 1990s were substantially offset by reductions in private coverage. They found that, for every additional dollar spent on Medicaid, private sector health care spending was reduced by 50 to 75 cents on the average. Thus taxpayers incurred a considerable financial burden, although little was accomplished.
Put simply, for every extra dollar the feds spent on Medicaid, the private sector could cut back by only 50 to 75 cents, not one dollar. The private sector still had to spend 25 to 50 cents to maintain the same level of service. So much for the "economy of scale" that socialists like to ascribe to government!

Even a basic Marxist model of capitalism illustrates how taxes prevent an economy from reaching full potential. A business produces profit, which is reinvested so it can become greater profit, which is in turn reinvested ad infinitum. My Marxist professor who harped on that, back in my undergrad days, would never admit that when government taxes profit, the business cannot expand in future cycles as much as it did before. That means it cannot hire as many new workers, which reduces the potential tax base.

Shouldn't government want people to work as much as possible? You'd think so, but big government is greedy and wants to tax now, when instead it could promote economic growth with lower tax rates, which in the end create higher total tax revenue. The Laffer Curve just plain works. Reagan proved it. The 1997 tax cuts, which the Republican Congress pushed Clinton into signing, proved it. George W. Bush's tax cuts are proving it as we speak.

Krugman and others claim otherwise in their straw-man argument, but the Laffer Curve does not state that tax cuts will always pay for themselves. It does say, though, that at a certain level of taxation, both tax revenue and economic production will be maximized. That's how we can reduce tax rates to a certain level, encouraging people to produce more economic output, and achieve more tax revenue than before. It's the same principle by which a retail store can experiment to determine a product's optimal price: if every increase of 10 cents discourages x people, how much can the store charge to maximize earnings? So pay no attention to the man behind the Princetonian curtain, especially when you consider his prediction record.

Krugman has predicted since March 2003 that we're headed for a "fiscal train wreck," which not only hasn't happened yet, but the basis for his insanity, the federal budget deficit, continually decreases in the 2005 projections. It was once extremely high by anyone's standard, but whaddya know: incoming revenue is outpacing Congressional spending, so each new deficit projection is less and less. A "right-winger" isn't claiming that, but the Congressional Budget Office itself. How much did Krugman weep to read the first paragraph of that report? I'll highlight the first part that he didn't want to admit:
In the first three-quarters of fiscal year 2005, the federal government incurred a deficit of about $251 billion, CBO estimates, $76 billion smaller than the shortfall recorded in the same period last year. Both revenues and spending are running ahead of last year’s pace, up by about 15 percent and 7 percent, respectively. With robust growth in revenues in May and June, CBO now expects that the 2005 deficit will be significantly less than $350 billion, perhaps below $325 billion, assuming that no other legislation is enacted that affects spending or revenues. CBO will release updated budget projections for the 2005-2015 period on August 15.
Krugman also cited a January 2001 "budget office" (the CBO?) report that forecasted $2.57 trillion in tax revenues for 2005, and that at current projections, we'll still be $400 million short. First, the CBO issued so many ridiculously optimistic projections in those days, based on the unsustainable "bubble" growth of the late 1990s. Second, the CBO projects federal spending for 2005 at $2.42 trillion. So if we get Krugman's predicted $2.17 trillion in tax revenue, that's a considerably smaller budget deficit of $250 billion, about 2% of GDP.

As I've noted, Krugman predicts economic Armageddon after economic Armageddon, none of which have come to pass. He needs such economic bogeymen to stay interesting. Well, Krugman can keep admitting his "forecasting record isn't that great," and maybe as I said, with enough time and a whole lot of predictions, he might finally predict something that will happen -- but more than a few of us will never forget his lies about his forecasting.

Where were Krugman's warnings in the 1980s when the federal budget deficits were worse than today? The federal budget deficit is higher today in terms of raw numbers, which our friend Steve Conover points out is not as meaningful as better measures. It's far more accurate to examine federal debt as an annual budget deficits as a percentage of current GDP, and total debt as a percentage of GDP.

Look at this CBO data, particularly through the 1970s and 1980s. Federal budget deficits, as a percentage of the economy, continued to soar under Democratic Congresses. Strangely enough, the deficit's growth, again measured as a percentage of GDP, started dropping in 1992 but really started dropping when the Republicans won control of Congress. Do we really think the deficits would have kept dropping if Hillary had had her way with our health care system? Now, I'm no cheerleader for the Republicans. The last couple of years of federal spending have been ridiculous, as the data shows, but 2005 looks to be a big reversal -- even by Krugman's numbers from my previous paragraph.

My twist on John Stuart Mill is, "Debt is an undesirable thing, but not the most undesirable of things." No rational person borrows merely for the sake of borrowing, but debt can be worthwhile when we want something today, if the interest is worth having it sooner. I would much prefer that the federal government not borrow at all, but we can't stop it cold turkey just yet. In the meantime, its debt is not the end of the world, especially not at these modest levels. Skeptical Optimist Steve Conover has been updating his chart for a while now, the debt-GDP ratios of the U.S. and other countries. What I like about his projections is that it wouldn't take much fiscal austerity to reduce the U.S. debt burden over a few decades; we can do it even with modest spending increases and sustained tax rates.

But Krugman couldn't care about any of this. Luskin's spot-on: Krugman and his fellow socialists just want to tax first, and determine spending allocation later. Like all good self-anointed bureaucrats, academics and activists who have undertaken a mission to save mankind (which means molding man into their desired image), success is measured by dollars spent and more people dependent on government.

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