Wednesday, May 31

Does being a Democrat mean worrying about hurting people's feelings?

As Grace Adler said on Will & Grace:
Sometimes I wish I were a Republican. Then I wouldn't have to worry about anyone's feelings.
To the extent that it doesn't matter if simply showing how you care actually makes the problem worse.

(I assume that Grace's line was catering to the Republican members of the audience [according to data compiled by Scarborough Research in 2004, Will & Grace is one of the shows most popular with Republicans].)

Badly targeted

[T]he United States government assumed too big a role in the Puerto Rican economy, and its largesse enabled the commonwealth's government to do the same. Through hubris, clumsiness and sheer size, these governments knocked Puerto Rico off the promising path that it was following, and the island's economy is now lost in a thicket of bad incentives. Two federal intrusions stand out: an oversized welfare state, and misguided rules on business investment.

Federal transfer payments to Puerto Rico…reflect the sensibilities of a wealthy country. So by Puerto Rican economic standards, they are huge. ...[F]ederal disability allowances are much higher than the United States average as a share of wages and pension income. Unsurprisingly, therefore, one in six working-age men in Puerto Rico are claiming disability benefits.

...For many people...the money that can be earned through federal transfers and a little informal work is more than the market wage—and requires much less effort. Meanwhile, in a strange echo of America's immigration debate, people from the Dominican Republic do many of the jobs in Puerto Rico that pay too little to attract the locals.

Through tax laws, the federal government has also favoured some business investments in Puerto Rico over others. Most notorious is "Section 936", a rule that skewed investment towards technologies that were too advanced for Puerto Rico's stage of development. Drug firms and chemical producers built factories that used lots of capital and few workers, because doing so lowered their global tax bills....

High technology sounds wonderful. But what Puerto Rico has needed over the past few decades is more medium-tech plants. These would employ more people, teach them skills better suited to the island's level of development, and tighten links to local suppliers and business services. More service jobs for the unskilled would be good, too.
Well-intended policies don't always work.

Tuesday, May 30

周玲妏 Chou Ling-wen

I happened to catch part of a speech of Chou Ling-wen's about the problems caused by motorcycles and the difficulty of navigating the 騎樓. It's nice to see that someone's concerned about the problem. (And that not everyone is a scion of a bribe-taking family). But what's all this concern about dogs? Is it her doing that there are lot more stray dogs around than last summer?

Another consequence of white guilt

(In addition to the purely domestic one mentioned below). From Shelby Steele's White Guilt and the Western Past:
The collapse of white supremacy--and the resulting white guilt--introduced a new mechanism of power into the world: stigmatization with the evil of the Western past. And this stigmatization is power because it affects the terms of legitimacy for Western nations and for their actions in the world. In Iraq, America is fighting as much for the legitimacy of its war effort as for victory in war. In fact, legitimacy may be the more important goal. If a military victory makes us look like an imperialist nation bent on occupying and raping the resources of a poor brown nation, then victory would mean less because it would have no legitimacy. Europe would scorn. Conversely, if America suffered a military loss in Iraq but in so doing dispelled the imperialist stigma, the loss would be seen as a necessary sacrifice made to restore our nation's legitimacy. Europe's halls of internationalism would suddenly open to us.

Because dissociation from the racist and imperialist stigma is so tied to legitimacy in this age of white guilt, America's act of going to war can have legitimacy only if it seems to be an act of social work--something that uplifts and transforms the poor brown nation (thus dissociating us from the white exploitations of old). So our war effort in Iraq is shrouded in a new language of social work in which democracy is cast as an instrument of social transformation bringing new institutions, new relations between men and women, new ideas of individual autonomy, new and more open forms of education, new ways of overcoming poverty--war as the Great Society.

This does not mean that President Bush is insincere in his desire to bring democracy to Iraq, nor is it to say that democracy won't ultimately be socially transformative in Iraq. It's just that today the United States cannot go to war in the Third World simply to defeat a dangerous enemy.

White guilt makes our Third World enemies into colored victims, people whose problems--even the tyrannies they live under--were created by the historical disruptions and injustices of the white West. We must "understand" and pity our enemy even as we fight him. And, though Islamic extremism is one of the most pernicious forms of evil opportunism that has ever existed, we have felt compelled to fight it with an almost managerial minimalism that shows us to be beyond the passions of war--and thus well dissociated from the avariciousness of the white supremacist past.

Anti-Americanism, whether in Europe or on the American left, works by the mechanism of white guilt. It stigmatizes America with all the imperialistic and racist ugliness of the white Western past so that America becomes a kind of straw man, a construct of Western sin. (The Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo prisons were the focus of such stigmatization campaigns.) Once the stigma is in place, one need only be anti-American in order to be "good," in order to have an automatic moral legitimacy and power in relation to America. (People as seemingly disparate as President Jacques Chirac and the Rev. Al Sharpton are devoted pursuers of the moral high ground to be had in anti-Americanism.) This formula is the most dependable source of power for today's international left. Virtue and power by mere anti-Americanism. And it is all the more appealing since, unlike real virtues, it requires no sacrifice or effort--only outrage at every slight echo of the imperialist past.

Today words like "power" and "victory" are so stigmatized with Western sin that, in many quarters, it is politically incorrect even to utter them. For the West, "might" can never be right. And victory, when won by the West against a Third World enemy, is always oppression. But, in reality, military victory is also the victory of one idea and the defeat of another. Only American victory in Iraq defeats the idea of Islamic extremism. But in today's atmosphere of Western contrition, it is impolitic to say so.

Help versus perverse, dependency-creating alternatives to self-help

Albert Hirschman via truckandbarter
It is important to note the difference between help and perverse, dependency-creating alternatives to self-help. The task is to find forms of help that enable self-reliance and autonomy to come forward. It is time for deep organization experimentation in the ways of development assistance.
Cf. George F. Will's review of Shelby Steele's White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era:
Shelby Steele, America's most discerning black writer, casts a cool eye on yet another soft bigotry of low expectations—the ruinous "compassion" of a theory of social determinism that reduces blacks to, in Steele's word, "non-individuated" creatures.

That reduction is the basis of identity politics—you are your (racial, ethnic, sexual) group. A pioneer of this politics, which is now considered "progressive," was, Steele says, George Wallace. He, too, insisted that race is destiny...

The theory of "structural" or "institutional" racism postulates a social determinism that makes all whites and American institutions complicit in a vicious cultural pattern. The theory makes the absence of identifiable adverse events in the lives of individual blacks irrelevant to blacks' claims to victimhood. Victim status is a source of endless, sometimes lucrative and always guilt-free leverage over a guilt-ridden society.

Black students who have never suffered discrimination can, Steele says, enjoy affirmative action "with a new sense of entitlement." As a result, Steele says, "We blacks always experience white guilt as an incentive, almost a command, to somehow exhibit racial woundedness and animus." The result for blacks is "a political identity with no real purpose beyond the manipulation of white guilt."

Black "militants" are actually preaching militant dependency. They have defined justice as making whites feel so guilty that they will take responsibility for black advancement. One casualty of this, Steele says, has been education: "We got remedies pitched at injustices rather than at black academic excellence—school busing, black role models as teachers, black history courses, 'diverse' reading lists, 'Ebonics,' multiculturalism, culturally 'inclusive' classes, standardized tests corrected for racial bias, and so on." Reading, writing and arithmetic? Later. Maybe.

Maybe not. Not if classrooms are suffused with "a foggy academic relativism in which scholastic excellence is associated with elitism, and rote development with repression." Steele, a former professor of English, notes that "inner-city black English diverges more from standard English today than it did in the fifties."

White guilt, Steele says, is a form of self-congratulation, whereby whites devise "compassionate" policies, the real purpose of which is to show that whites are kind and innocent of racism. The "spiritually withering interventions of needy, morally selfish white people" comfortable with "the cliché of black inferiority" have a price. It is paid by blacks, who are "Sambo-ized."

Strong stuff from a fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford who last week received a Bradley Prize, for which this columnist voted. You can read "White Guilt" in two hours. For years it will be a clarifying lens through which to view the lonely struggle of clear sighted black intellectuals to rescue blacks from a degrading temptation. It is the temptation to profit from the condescension toward blacks that is the core of today's white guilt.

Robert J. Samuelson's wife doesn't love him

By not having children, people are voting against the future -- their countries' and perhaps their own. It is easy to imagine the sacrifices and disappointments of raising children. It is hard, try as people might, to imagine the intense joys and selfish pleasures. People ignore Adam Smith's keen insight: "The chief part of human happiness arises from the consciousness of being beloved."

Another moralistic yet ineffective abstinence campaign

Tobacco is not deadly; the harm is in the smoke. A policy that confuses innocuous tobacco with harmful smoke is responsible for millions of avoidable deaths each year worldwide.

Cigarette smoke is a deadly delivery device for a benign but habit-forming product: nicotine. Nicotine isn't especially dangerous -- about like caffeine. Good policy toward tobacco use would reduce the grave harm of smoking by replacing cigarettes with non-smoked forms of nicotine for the addicts. They might use nicotine safely forever, if harmless delivery systems were widely available.

Instead, nicotine abstinence is the policymakers' only approach to tobacco. Like other abstinence campaigns (alcohol prohibition, sexual abstinence before marriage, just saying "no" to drugs), this one is both moralistic and ineffective.
Abstinence campaigns are not just the preserve of cultural conservatives.

Monday, May 29

Stalin's joke

About a visit from a Georgian delegation:
They come, they talk to Stalin, and then they go, heading off down the Kremlin's corridors. Stalin starts looking for his pipe. He can't find it. He calls in Beria, the dreaded head of his secret police. "Go after the delegation, and find out which one took my pipe," he says. Beria scuttles off down the corridor. Five minutes later Stalin finds his pipe under a pile of papers. He calls Beria—"Look, I've found my pipe." "It's too late," Beria says, "half the delegation admitted they took your pipe, and the other half died during questioning."


Sunday, May 28

Not serious enough to merit dismissal?

Ward Churchill committed multiple, "deliberate" acts of academic misconduct, according to a review by a faculty panel, released today by the University of Colorado at Boulder.

While the panel was unanimous in its findings about Churchill's conduct, it was divided about whether he should lose his tenured position as professor — as politicians and many others have been demanding for more than a year. Three of the panel's five members believe that the violations of academic standards are severe enough to make dismissal "not an inappropriate sanction." But only one of those three members believes that dismissal is the "most appropriate sanction." Two others favor suspension without pay for five years.

Two other members of the panel said that they did not believe that the violations were serious enough to merit dismissal. They recommend a suspension of two years without pay and say that they fear dismissal would "have an adverse effect on other scholars' ability to conduct their research with due freedom."

Among the violations that the committee found Churchill had committed were falsification, fabrication, plagiarism, failure to comply with established standard regarding author names on publications, and a "serious deviation from accepted practices in reporting results from research."
So "falsification, fabrication, plagiarism, failure to comply with established standard regarding author names on publications, and a 'serious deviation from accepted practices in reporting results from research'" is not necessarily serious enough to merit dismissal of a professor. But enough to flunk a student, of course.

I Thought Everyone Could Smell Asparagus Urine

In a recent paper called "Food Idiosyncrasies: Beetroot and Asparagus," Steve Mitchell of the Imperial College School of Medicine in London recounts decades of sometimes conflicting theories and research.

For instance, it wasn't until the 1950s that researchers concluded that not everyone produced the smell. So, for the first time, populations started getting divided into "excretors" and "non-excretors."

As Mitchell points out, it may have been "understandable" that it took so long to figure this out.

"Those who produce the odour assume, politely, that everyone does, and those who do not produce it have no idea of the olfactory consequences," says Mitchell. "There is no reason as to why these two opposing factions should converse on this subject."

Various studies over the last half-century have suggested that perhaps half of the people in Britain are excretors, while the figures for the United States are higher and one French study of more than 100 people found they were all malodorous after eating asparagus.

... [Scientists looked for a] component unique to asparagus that remained stable enough when cooked that it could then make its way to the digestive system more or less intact.

The answer — or at least the consensus after a half-century of research — is something scientists are calling "asparagusic acid."

That's the stuff that we, or some of us, turn into noxious fumes of sulphur.

You won't find asparagusic acid in anything else we eat, although its close relatives turn up in everything from tropical mangroves to marine worms.

Asparagusic acid, it turns out, is what young asparagus use to ward off parasites. As the plant ages, however, the concentrations decline...

Why doesn't everyone smell it?

"There might be some people who are odour-blind to it"
You learn something new every day.

Saturday, May 27

The greatest drug-addiction therapist in history

Theodore Dalrymple argues
It actually takes some considerable effort to addict oneself to opiates: The average heroin addict has been taking it for a year before he develops an addiction.... It is quite untrue that withdrawal from heroin or other opiates is a serious business, so serious that it would justify or at least mitigate the commission of crimes such as mugging. Withdrawal effects from opiates are trivial, medically speaking (unlike those from alcohol, barbiturates or even, on occasion, benzodiazepines such as valium), and experiment demonstrates that they are largely, though not entirely, psychological in origin. Lurid descriptions in books and depictions in films exaggerate them à la De Quincey (and also Coleridge, who was a chronic self-dramatizer)....

Insofar as there is a causative relation between criminality and opiate addiction, it is more likely that a criminal tendency causes addiction than that addiction causes criminality.

Furthermore, I discovered in the prison in which I worked that 67% of heroin addicts had been imprisoned before they ever took heroin. Since only one in 20 crimes in Britain leads to a conviction, and since most first-time prisoners have been convicted 10 times before they are ever imprisoned, it is safe to assume that most heroin addicts were confirmed and habitual criminals before they ever took heroin. In other words, whatever caused them to commit crimes in all probability caused them also to take heroin: perhaps an adversarial stance to the world caused by the emotional, spiritual, cultural and intellectual vacuity of their lives.

It is not true either that addicts cannot give up without the help of an apparatus of medical and paramedical care. Thousands of American servicemen returning from Vietnam, where they had addicted themselves to heroin, gave up on their return home without any assistance whatsoever. And in China, millions of Chinese addicts gave up with only minimal help: Mao Tse-Tung's credible offer to shoot them if they did not. There is thus no question that Mao was the greatest drug-addiction therapist in history.

At Least He Found Out

Philip Cunliffe reviews WORLDwrite's The Bitter Aftertaste, an indictment of so-called fair trade:
I had no romantic conceptions about poverty, but I still presumed that fair-trade produce would at least come off some sort of large, socialistic cooperative farm with better productivity and happier workers. Not so with the cacao farmers in Ghana. Indeed, to the untrained eye, it was difficult to tell natural vegetation from cultivated land, let alone having giant fields filled with teams of well-organised farmers. The sight of a solitary child hacking away with a machete, bent over double to the point of appearing deformed, was shocking.

But the film crew did not merely go to see where the cacao comes from. They also investigated the place of fair-trade produce here in the UK, interviewing economic experts and systematically interrogating each of the principles of fair trade. This part of the film included some of the most astonishing footage of all - including an interview with a representative of the fair-trade movement admitting that they had no policy of introducing mechanisation on their farms. In other words, no effort was being made to plough some of those putative extra gains from fair trade back into raising the productivity of the farm workers, and offering them the possibility of getting more money for more produce.

The film also pointed out that fair-trade organisations are actively campaigning for the use of organic fertilisers, flying in the face of a Ghanaian government campaign to introduce chemical fertilisers that would increase yields. As if suddenly realising the absurdity of a no-mechanisation policy, the fair-trade official being interviewed went on to rationalise the policy, arguing that most farm workers enjoyed their job, having the opportunity to work together in their community. In this respect, the sheer unremitting drudgery of subsistence agriculture was perhaps the most overwhelming impression left by the film, and eloquently conveyed in the impassive, weary faces of the farm workers - a very different image from the usual TV fare of Africans depicted as smiling, happy-go-lucky tribesmen at one with nature.

It was difficult to avoid the conclusion that the claims of fair trade are bogus. Indeed, the very name seems a misnomer, suggesting that justice has been definitely achieved just by spending a few extra pennies that fair trade guarantees above the market price. It seems to me that, ultimately, the goal of fair trade is to tickle the ethical conscience of the genteel Western consumer, more than it is to lift primary producers out of poverty.

Wednesday, May 24

Why blame fructose?

Cory Doctorow opines,
I've regarded high-fructose corn syrup as a kind of toxic waste, present in an unbelievable amount of processed/packaged food....avoiding this stuff (if you can) is a pretty good idea. I'm game: the last time I binged on sweet food laden with HFCS, I found myself miserable, tired, and hung-over for days afterwards.
Todd Seavey, of the American Council on Science and Health, dismisses Nicholas Kristof's worries about it. Kristof says,
Some studies indicate that the body metabolizes fructose differently from other sugars, so that the body is slower to get the message that it should stop eating....There's also a circumstantial case against high-fructose corn syrup, because it began to be used widely in the 1970s, just when American stomachs started ballooning.
Seavey points out
The body metabolizes a lot of things differently from a lot of other things, and this doesn't necessarily make any of them creepy or sinister -- again, watch your resulting weight, not vilified ingredients [and] a lot of things began being more widely used in the 70s -- including videogames, VCRs, and other gadgets that have contributed to people spending less time moving around -- but singling out one substance as the culprit is nonsense. Comparable weight gain has occurred in Mexico, and they did not use high-fructose corn syrup in amounts comparable to the U.S. until recently. There must be other factors at work.
Cecil Adams essentially agrees:
I won't say HFCS has nothing to do with obesity. But to focus on the stuff when there are so many other plausible explanations for American rotundity seems perverse. For one thing, we're eating more in general. One study says our average daily food intake increased from about 1,800 calories in 1989-91 to 2,000 in 1994-96. Much of that is surely due to fizzy beverages. Per capita soft drink consumption has doubled since 1970; the typical American currently consumes 56 gallons per year.

Is that increase due strictly to the allure of HFCS? Not likely. Sales of diet pop have increased at an even faster rate than that of the sugared kind, suggesting that we're not just overdoing HFCS-sweetened foods, we're consuming too much sweetened everything. Supersized portions and changes in eating habits no doubt partly explain why--the percentage of food kids get from restaurants and fast-food outlets increased almost 300 percent between 1977 and 1996. Critser's book includes a graphic showing that the rise in U.S. obesity roughly paralleled the rate at which junk-food products were introduced. Lack of exercise is a factor too. Obesity is lowest among kids who watch an hour or less of TV daily, highest among those who watch four hours or more.
There's also the question of whether over-priced sugar has contributed to the increased use of corn syrup.

Tuesday, May 23

I've always been cost-conscious

what are arguably now the two most noteworthy trends among the swelling ranks of middle-class consumers around the world—trends that appear to be, at first glance, at odds with each other. These are the tendencies for consumers to be more cost-conscious; but simultaneously more willing to splurge money on luxury items....

One reason why this change has taken place is that the discount retailers have raised the quality of their products. A second development is the rapid increase in transparency in consumer markets, thanks not least to the internet


Speaking of immigration:
A flexible labour market and stingy welfare state ensure that there is no resentful immigrant underclass with time on its hands, as in France. By the standards of most other advanced countries, America is hardly crowded. It has a proven capacity to absorb large numbers of migrants. And its swelling population—the Census Bureau thinks there could be 500m Americans by 2050—means that the next superpower may well be not China, but the United States. Now there's an idea conservatives can applaud.

Saturday, May 20

Shades of Galbraith

Tyler Cowen finds luxury khakis absurd. I agree it's absurd to buy the stuff, but as I point out in my comment, it's a matter of perspective.
For Colombia's Nukak-Maku, "who have lived a Stone Age life, roaming across hundreds of miles of isolated and pristine Amazon jungle, killing monkeys with blowguns and scouring the forest floor for berries," the list of newly discovered "luxuries" includes pots, pants, shoes, caps, rice, sugar, oil, flour, skillets, eggs, onions, matches and soap.
Why complain about it? Shades of Galbraith, who believes that people don't know what they're supposed to buy.

Tuesday, May 9

Do what you love

...whatever innate differences two people may exhibit in their abilities to memorize, those differences are swamped by how well each person "encodes" the information. And the best way to learn how to encode information meaningfully...[i]s a process known as deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice entails more than simply repeating a task — playing a C-minor scale 100 times, for instance, or hitting tennis serves until your shoulder pops out of its socket. Rather, it involves setting specific goals, obtaining immediate feedback and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome. performers — whether in memory or surgery, ballet or computer programming — are nearly always made, not born. And yes, practice does make perfect. These may be the sort of clichés that parents are fond of whispering to their children. But these particular clichés just happen to be true.

...when it comes to choosing a life path, you should do what you love — because if you don't love it, you are unlikely to work hard enough to get very good. Most people naturally don't like to do things they aren't "good" at. So they often give up...

...there is surprisingly little hard evidence that anyone could attain any kind of exceptional performance without spending a lot of time perfecting it.

What does "rich" mean?

In Just how rich is rich, really? MP Dunleavey writes,
  • Those who earned less than $30,000 thought that a household income of $74,000 would qualify as rich.
  • Those who made $30,000 to $50,000 said an income of $100,000 would be rich.
  • And people in the top half of earners were more likely to say that an income of $200,000 earns you the right to the R word.
In An Adjective for Cakes, But Not for Bill Gates, Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California, Berkeley says,
People may disagree on exactly how much money it takes to be rich, but that only confirms that it's an absolute threshold, and that those who have crossed it are delivered from the cares that afflict the rest of us.
That makes no sense to me. If people disagree, then there is no absolute threshold. In fact he begins his article,
BY any objective standard, there are more rich Americans than ever before. More than eight million of us are worth more than $1 million, exclusive of our homes, according to one recent estimate.
And Wikipedia claims
a personal net worth of US $1,000,000 in most parts of the United States Midwest would certainly place a person among the wealthiest citizens....
It's interesting that both of them want to describe wealth in terms of assets rather than income. OK, but a million isn't that much, believe it or not. As Dunleavey writes,
A million bucks, wisely invested, will yield an income of about $40,000 a year, if you follow the financial planning rule of thumb that says you can only draw income equal to 4% of your assets (a must if you're not working and want to be sure your money lasts as long as you do). That's comfortable, but hardly rich.
She cites a couple on a joint income of about $92,000, crossing their fingers that they'll be able to swing a one-week trip to California this year, and another with a combined of about $69,000, who estimates that it would take about $180,000 to be able to have both freedom and family security. She also cites Edward Wolff, a professor of economics at NYU who studies wealth, who
points out that even the people we think of as being "rich and famous" -- i.e. movie, rock and sports stars -- may not be as rich as you think.

"These are people with big incomes, but that doesn't necessarily translate to big wealth," he says. "Just getting it is half the battle -- then you have to maintain it, and that takes a continuous flow of big income."
Dunleavey refers us to the Global Rich List, but that's irrelevant. One could also tell poorer Americans that they're pretty well off: see how that flies.

Anyway, assets seem to be the rule. One guy, who calls himself ruetheday cites an article from Barron's to the effect that
The criteria that they used was the amount of annual income derived solely from investment assets.

The threshold was $100,000 in annual investment income to be considered borderline rich, $200,000 annually to be considered median rich, and $1,000,000 annually to be really rich.

Assuming a rate of return of 8%, this correlates to $1.25 million, $2.5 million, and $12.5 million in investment assets respectively.

Note that income derived from wages and salary did not count, nor did non-investment assets. The implication then was that wealth is a function of the ability to generate income without actually working.
Of course, then the question is, what does "work" mean? Nunberg seems to feel that the rich are shirkers:
...the phrase "the idle rich" has vanished since [the days of Thorstein Veblen and his "The Theory of the Leisure Class"]. Today's leaner billionaires claim to desire money not as a means of avoiding work but as proof of how good they are at it.
But generally the rich invest their money, or one could say, put it to work.

Tuesday, May 2

Natural capital

The World Bank study begins by defining natural capital as the sum of nonrenewable resources (including oil, natural gas, coal, and mineral resources), cropland, pastureland, forested areas, and protected areas. Produced capital is what many of us think of when we think of capital. It is the sum of machinery, equipment, and structures (including infrastructure) and urban land. The Bank then identifies intangible capital as the difference between total wealth and all produced and natural capital. Intangible capital encompasses raw labor; human capital, which includes the sum of the knowledge, skills, and know-how possessed by population; as well as the level of trust in a society and the quality of its formal and informal social institutions.

Once the analytical framework is set up, what the researchers at the World Bank find is fascinating. "The most striking aspect of the wealth estimates is the high values for intangible capital. Nearly 85 percent of the countries in our sample have an intangible capital share of total wealth greater than 50 percent," write the researchers. They further note that years of schooling and a rule-of-law index can account for 90 percent of the variation in intangible capital. In other words, the more highly educated a country's people are and the more honest and fair its legal system is, the wealthier it is.

...some countries are so badly run, that they actually have negative intangible capital. Through rampant corruption and failing school systems, Nigeria and the Republic of the Congo are destroying wealth and ensuring that they will be poorer in the future.

...90 percent of intangible capital is accounted for by years of schooling and the rule of law. On average, the rule of law explains 57 percent of countries' intangible capital while schooling accounts for 36 percent.

On the World Bank's rule-of-law index, the United States scores 92 out of a possible 100. The Swiss are even more law-abiding, achieving a score of 99 out of 100. .... By contrast, Nigeria's rule-of-law index score is a pitiful 4.8; Burundi's 4.3; and Ethiopia's 16.4. The OECD's average score is 90, while sub-Saharan Africa's is 28.
China's total wealth is 9,387. That correlates with its rule-of-law index ranking of 40.6. (On the rule-of-law index, Hong Kong ranks 90.3 and Taiwan ranks 77.8, but there's no listing for their total wealth.)

Illinois' Pension System: Woefully Underfunded, Scandal-Plagued

By almost any measure, the Illinois government pension system is the nation's worst, plagued by debt and scandal.
  • Lawmakers in 2005 agreed to divert some $4 billion of scheduled pension fund payments to other spending through 2010, including a combined $2.3 billion in 2005 and this year.
  • Blagojevich appointed the Governor's Pension Commission in 2004 to study the state's pension system and recommend improvements. The 13-member commission's recommendations went largely ignored by the governor and lawmakers.
  • The state issued $10.1 billion in pension obligation bonds in 2003 to reduce unfunded liabilities. The borrowing is a gamble because the state must repay the money with interest over 30 years. To do this without turning to taxpayers, the state will have to earn average annual returns on investments that exceed the 5.05 percent interest rate on the obligation bonds. There is no guarantee that will happen.
Despite the infusion of borrowed money, the state's unfunded pension liability stands at an estimated $38 billion, the largest unfunded liability in the nation, according to State Sen. Bill Brady (R-Bloomington), who served on the Governor's Pension Commission.
Steve Stanek of the The Heartland Institute (whose mission is "to discover and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems") argues, "The only reform that promises to genuinely fix the state's public pension crisis is a transition from defined benefit to defined contribution plans."

The unions hate that.

Updates here and here.

Monday, May 1

Underfunded Pensions

From The Illinois Business Roundtable (a voluntary association of 63 chief executive officers of Illinois' leading businesses, formed in 1989 to study, make recommendations, and take action on critical public policy issues facing Illinois. The Roundtable is nonprofit and nonpartisan.): ILLINOIS PENSION FUNDING: THE CONSEQUENCE OF FUNDING DEFERRED. See also Illinois Republican Project. At the end of May last year,
Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his fellow Democrats in the Legislature cut the state's pension payment by $2.3 billion over two years to balance the state budget and free up cash to hike state spending.

In a scenario akin to paying just half the principal portion of mortgage payments for two years and building that principal into the back end of the loan, the move dramatically expanded the state's pension debt.