Saturday, December 25

What does she want for Christmas?

I THOUGHT IT WAS THE SEASON TO BE JOLLY, said Death.

'Ah, well, yes, you see, one of the things that makes folks even more jolly is knowing there're people who ain't,' said Albert, in a matter-of-fact voice. 'That's how it goes, master. Master?'

Thursday, December 23

So sue me.

Distinctions between "highbrow" and "middlebrow" are formulated by self-anointed cultural snobs who denigrate those they label "middlebrow" to re-affirm their identity by labelling themselves as "highbrow". Anything that originally started out favored by the cognoscenti that becomes known by those outside their clique is in a way contaminated, and no longer worthy of "highbrow" appreciation.

I've just discovered Brahms' Piano Quartet No. 2 in A major, Op. 26, of which one John Keillor writes,
...Brahms does not shy away from including popular references in his music, including a burst of schmaltzy waltz music in the quartet's second movement, a Romanze featuring an overall discipline that allows for the occasional glimpse into camp without lowing the music's overall standard.
I loved this whole quartet the first time I heard it, but I just don't hear anything schmaltzy or camp. I think it was Brahms I mentioned as a favorite to a college professor, and he remarked that my taste was "bourgeois". He was French. (It's a good thing I didn't tell him that I also liked Saint-Saëns's piano concertos).

Anyway, this joins Mozart's Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, K. 478 as another favorite piano quartet, together with my old favorite Schumann's Piano Quartet, Op.47.

So call me middlebrow, bourgeois, or a lover of schmaltz. I don't care. Take a look at the picture below:


From from Russell Lynes’ The Tastemakers: The Shaping of American Popular Taste via crookedtimber.org, who also cites Clement Greenberg and Virginia Woolf. To hell with them.

Oh, and read Jim Emerson's post and the comments. Emerson quotes Sam Anderson's review of Carl Wilson's Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste:
Hating Céline [Dion] is therefore not just an aesthetic choice, but an ethical one, a way to elevate yourself above her fans—who, according to market research, tend to be disproportionately poor adult women living in flyover states and shopping at big-box stores.
By the way, I think Céline Dion is OK, and I don't mean I'm enjoying her ironically. So there.

Sunday, December 19

Did Mao know about the famine?

Frank Dikötter, author of “Mao’s Great Famine”, recently wrote,
At a secret meeting in Shanghai on March 25, 1959, he ordered the party to procure up to one-third of all the available grain — much more than ever before. The minutes of the meeting reveal a chairman insensitive to human loss: “When there is not enough to eat people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.”
Also, Deng Xiaoping was willing to let his fellow Sichuanese starve.

We're like a hot dog on two legs

People are a readily available source of high-quality protein. We eat too much and exercise too little. We're like a hot dog on two legs.
said Chuck Neal

Saturday, December 18

Leftists as conservatives

Unlike his father, former vice-premier Xi Zhongxun, who is a bona fide “rightist” and ally of the late party chief Hu Yaobang, [Xi Jinping] is believed to harbor much more conservative views
In China, anyway.

Sunday, December 12

The internets don't know everything

Case in point: over the last few weeks, the local Aldi's has had limited supplies ("special purchase") of Witor's Pralines (the dark chocolate variety sold out quickly) and Benton's best Dark Chocolate Covered Candy Cane Cremes and Benton's best Dark Chocolate Stars. But Aldi didn't mention the former on their site, and only Aldi mentions the latter two.

update
The Candy Cane Cremes are delicious, but the chocolate covering is if anything too thick.

On the other hand, the Dark Chocolate Stars are just chocolate coated graham crackers with sprinkles. But they're great when you sandwich peanut butter between 'em.

Another update
I microwave the Chocolate Covered Candy Cane Cremes on ultra low to soften them up, and I'm slowly growing addicted.

Friday, December 10

Sex is shameful, but money isn't

Perhaps nothing but a piece of news about money would have made Mrs. Wither so far forget herself as to shriek in front of the maids, who were putting the last touches to the cleared tea-table and setting it for dinner. There was nothing shameful about somebody getting a huge sum of money, and Mrs. Wither instinctively felt this. Sex was shameful, and any bit of news about it must be hidden, but money was all right: any one might hear about that.

An excruciating bore

He could not help feeling a satirical pity for Mr. Spurrey, either; all that money (and not a tightwad, either) and no idea how to spend it. Mr. Spurrey had always been suspicious of women and rather afraid of them, so he had not had any fun there; and men only tolerated him. Fun and jollity had a way of quietly going off the boil when he came up, even if he did not say a word. He was too sharp to tolerate toadies yet too stupid to please even ordinary kind people, and his habit of trying to frighten his hearers, when he was not excruciatingly boring them, had put the lid on; no one, all his long life, had really wanted to be with Mr. Spurrey.

Sunday, December 5

I wish I was dead

"All right then, I'll come, but I don't want to a bit and I wish I was dead." "Well, one day you will be, and so shall I; but meanwhile we may as well behave with courage and common sense..."

An elegant printed invitation

It looked exciting. It made you think "Now why didn't we splash a bit and have our cards done like that?" It was only later that you realized that the party itself, the house it was given in, the food and the drink, would have to be even more exciting than the card, in order to justify the excitement the card had raised. Then, of course, you gave up the whole idea and bought ordinary cards as usual.

Some dogs are hard to like

Chappy was an enormous great dog, of extraverted temperament and seething energy, disliked by the entire neighbourhood. He was not vicious: everyone wished that he were, and then there might have been a chance of getting rid of him. He was only too much; too large, too friendly, too energetic. He was also He was also a barker, delighted with any excuse — or without any excuse — to bark for an hour or more. He liked galloping round with a gang of small boys. He liked a crowd, preferably a well-dressed crowd, but any crowd was better than none.

How to be happy

The Hermit was happy too; but then he always was. He had no inhibitions, and a sense of his own importance that was never shaken no matter what anyone said or did to him. Small wonder he was happy.

Poppy or sesame



Or plain: these are the only ones that I managed to slash:

Wednesday, December 1

They deal with us because it’s in their interest

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates:
The fact is, governments deal with the United States because it’s in their interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets. Many governments — some governments — deal with us because they fear us, some because they respect us, most because they need us. We are still essentially, as has been said before, the indispensable nation.
For the time being, anyway.

Tuesday, November 30

Civilization As We Know It Is Corrupt

Civilization as we know it is corrupt. It may be doomed; there are plenty of omens. Its foundations are rat-eaten, its towers go up unsteadily into lowering clouds where drone the hidden battleplanes. But it can, and does, supply its young daughters with luxuries at prices they can afford. No woman need be dowdy, or shabbily genteel. While she has a few shillings to spend on clothes, she can buy something pretty and cheerful. This may not be much, but it is something. Tomorrow we die; but at least we danced in silver shoes."

Shut Up

The truth always sounds fantastic. The Hermit, with his lack of responsibilities, his interest in everyone's affairs, and his admiration of himself, was the happiest person in the neighbourhood. If only it weren't for them bloody birds. 'Ow they did go on, waking you up at five o'clock in the morning, shrieking and hollering after dinner when you wanted a doss. Then there was that one that went on 'alf the night, as though all day wasn't enough. Skizz! He viciously whizzed a stone in the direction of a dazzling song among the water-rooted hazels, and out darted a small brown bird, singing as he flew away. "Gar," muttered the Hermit. "Shut up."

Subtle Chekhovian Currents

As for Hetty, she was wondering if she should ask Viola what it was like to live at The Eagles? but she decided not to, because it was plain that although Viola was a girl with much natural charm, she was also a girl with much natural silliness, who would think The Eagles a boring place and be quite unconscious of the subtle Chekhovian currents that moved sluggishly through its dark silent rooms. I expect she would love the kind of existence we lead at home, which is about as subtle as a pie-dish and far less useful, thought Hetty. Not that I ought to grumble.
Hetty goes on to acknowledge her good fortune, but in describing a party that fascinates Viola, thinks
All their food, eaten in circumstances unheightened by the imagination, was excellent, and all of it tasted the same to her. Food only became interesting when it was symbolic, or when it was eaten to the music of witty talk, or by brave men in danger, by true poets who were starving.

You Just Wait

Viola:
like most very young people, she found it difficult, almost impossible, to admit that she was unhappy to somebody old. Old people (she dimly felt) were so beastly pleased when you said you were fed-up. Ah, their faces said, so life isn't all roses and honey, after all, you see! Just because you're twenty-one, you needn't think you'll escape. You'll learn. You just wait.

Betrayed By What Is False Within

When Viola remarks that it's difficult for the old Hermit to carve well, Hetty responds:

"Oh, he actually sells his carvings sometimes to motorists, so it is not so funny as it appears. He stands at the crossroads on Sundays with a tray from Woolworth's round his neck and the carvings on it, and the motorists, lured by his unusual appearance, pause, and are betrayed by what is false within — namely, their own taste."

"But they aren't very good, are they?" in a whisper.

"They are more bad than the eye inexperienced in bad carvings would conceive it possible for carvings to be," drawled Hetty, "but I imagine that the motorists are amazed that an object can be made by the hands alone, because all the objects which they encounter in their daily lives are made by a machine or emerge from a tin. They are so amazed that they assume that an object made by the hand alone is necessarily worth having, and so they buy it."

"They are so amazed that they assume that an object made by the hand alone is necessarily worth having, and so they buy it." Even in 1938, people were suckers for "handmade" crap.

Monday, November 29

Worn Paths

Thoughts, quietly sad as she imagined the thoughts of the old must be, rose uselessly in her mind. They were all familiar to her, like worn paths; she experienced anger and boredom even while the well-known train unfolded.

after her mind wanders down the "worn paths" of having a career or of loving one's family:
I wonder why (this path was so worn that she turned from it, in sick impatience, even as the thought came up) I've never had anyone in love with me? Other women do, not half as nice-looking as I am. Of course, I've always wanted love very much; real love, for keeps, not just an affair, and I'm sure that puts men off. They hate you to be serious.
After some misgivings, she gives in to her desire to take driving lessons from the family chauffeur Saxon:
Tina had stopped trying to be honest with herself, put Selene's Daughters [a psychology book that she's using to try to understand herself] away in a drawer, and decided to be — not honest perhaps — but certainly sensible.

Sunday, November 28

Rubbishy Books By Immoral Highbrow Authors

Mrs. Spring reflects on her niece, who lives with her:
...Hetty had taken after her father's side, the unsuccessful (that is, poor) Franklins who were all teachers and parsons and librarians, and as dull as ditch-water, with their noses in books, their socks in holes and their finances in muddles. Hetty was a disappointment. All that Mrs. Spring could do with Hetty was to let Victor see that her investments did not go down, while she herself chose her clothes and tried to marry her off....Hetty was also a discontented, queer girl whom nothing pleased but rubbishy books by immoral highbrow authors...

As for Hetty, she had not the courage to say so, but she considered the life she led at Grassmere to be tedious, futile, and coarse.

Having one's nature deepened by tragedy

In Nightingale wood, Stella Gibbons writes
I must get a better job, thought Saxon, running lightly downstairs with his waisted jacket over one arm, but he did not think it dramatically or tragically; he thought it with impatient common sense. Neither he nor his mother were tragic people; tragedy overtook them, but it did not deepen their natures, because it found no answer therein. The long-drawn tragedy of his father's life had made Saxon, not bitter and humiliated, but self-respecting and ambitious.
I didn't entirely understand this any better than the Aristotelian view of tragedy that I came across before. For example, as George R. Noyes wrote of those who view Oedipus Tyrannus or Agamemnon
By the excitation of such lofty passions our own purely human emotions are purged of disturbing elements, are deepened and purified.
Personally, I could do without it, and when I see others engaged in frivolities or purely concerning themselves with superficialities, I envy them.

Thursday, November 25

How to make more people die

On November 23, Michelle Higgins wrote,

The Federal Aviation Administration agrees with the safety board that a child is safer when belted into a child restraint system, or CRS, and states on its Web site that “keeping a child in a CRS or device during the flight is the smart and right thing to do.”

But the F.A.A. continues to turn down the child seat request. The rationale? It maintains that doing so would require families — now accustomed to children under 2 years old flying free if they sit in a parent’s lap — to pay for the extra seat. That cost, the F.A.A. surmises, would cause some families to revert to car travel, which is less safe. “Consequently,” states the agency in its latest response to the safety board, “entire families would be subject to far higher fatality rates, which would produce a net increase in overall transportation fatalities.”

On November 18, Nate Silver wrote,

More stringent security procedures, in essence, function as a tax upon air travel, and produce a corresponding deadweight loss. Teleconferences are often a poor substitute for person-to-person interaction, and when people are reluctant to travel, some business deals don’t get done that otherwise would have. Recreational travelers, meanwhile, may skip out on vacations that otherwise would have brought them pleasure and stress-relief (while improving revenues for tourism-dependent economies). The tenuous profits of the airline industry are also affected, of course. Revenue losses from the new bag-checking procedures may have measured in the billions, according to the Cornell study.

Other passengers may substitute car travel for air travel. But this too has its consequences, since car travel is much more dangerous than air travel over all. According to [a study by three professors at Cornell University], roughly 130 inconvenienced travelers died every three months as a result of additional traffic fatalities brought on by substituting ground transit for air transit.

At a certain university...

An administrator suggested that courses should have no more than 20% of students who failed, withdrew, or even received Ds or incompletes. Meanwhile, according to a review of "The Five-Year Party", Craig Brandon

...describes the vast majority of colleges as "subprime," which he defines as any school that has lowered its standards to the point at which almost anyone can pass. There's a college for every student at any price point, regardless of ability or career goals. At subprime schools, Brandon estimates, only 10 percent of students are really interested in academics. The rest are there for mostly social purposes.

The slackers take dumbed down courses in which grade inflation results in 90 percent of students getting As and Bs. Learning is optional, neither required nor expected. Even mental midgets who do no work are too big to fail. Nobody fails. That would make the professor look bad, and the school would risk losing a paying customer.

What's the payoff for students?

A large number of those who do graduate have trouble finding good-paying jobs or end up doing something for which they do not need a college degree. Brandon's conclusion: Millions of people would be better off doing something else with their time and money.

Update
So college teachers are kind of like drug dealers.

Tuesday, November 23

A diet of worms

Thinking about the taste of a dirty worm squishing around in your mouth when you bite into an apple, do you think pesticide use should be increased or decreased?


    Increased.



    Maintained at current levels.



    Decreased.


Inspired by Jim Harper

Monday, November 22

Brandenburg Concertos free downloads

Check it out.

Free downloads of Bach's complete organ works

Free downloads of the complete organ works of Johann Sebastian Bach, recorded by Dr. James Kibbie on original baroque organs in Germany
Here.

Security theatre comedy

We took our shoes off and placed our laptops in bins. Schnei­er took from his bag a 12-ounce container labeled “saline solution.”

“It’s allowed,” he said. Medical supplies, such as saline solution for contact-lens cleaning, don’t fall under the TSA’s three-ounce rule.

“What’s allowed?” I asked. “Saline solution, or bottles labeled saline solution?”

“Bottles labeled saline solution. They won’t check what’s in it, trust me.”

They did not check. As we gathered our belongings, Schnei­er held up the bottle and said to the nearest security officer, “This is okay, right?” “Yep,” the officer said. “Just have to put it in the tray.”

“Maybe if you lit it on fire, he’d pay attention,” I said, risking arrest for making a joke at airport security. (Later, Schnei­er would carry two bottles labeled saline solution—24 ounces in total—through security. An officer asked him why he needed two bottles. “Two eyes,” he said. He was allowed to keep the bottles.)

So the TSA is basically there for the laughs.

Heah me talkin' to ya

Heah me talkin' to ya 03:24
Okeh # 8649 Louis Armstrong and his savoy ballroom five -fox trot - issue date: 12-12-1928.

From The Internet Archive

Thanks for nothing, Al

Former vice-president Al Gore said support for corn-based ethanol in the United States was "not a good policy", weeks before tax credits are up for renewal.

...

He explained his own support for the original program on his presidential ambitions.

"One of the reasons I made that mistake is that I paid particular attention to the farmers in my home state of Tennessee, and I had a certain fondness for the farmers in the state of Iowa because I was about to run for president."

...

"The size, the percentage of corn particularly, which is now being (used for) first generation ethanol definitely has an impact on food prices.

"The competition with food prices is real."

Saturday, November 20

Illinois Will Get Murdered If China Slows Its Imports

$2.5 billion of exports to China last year

363% growth over decade

--machinery (except electrical) worth $508 million
--crop production worth $406 million
--waste and scrap worth $365 million
--computers and electronics worth $330 million
--chemicals worth $239 million

Major state employer Dyncorp might get screwed.

TSA Scans "Won't Catch Anybody"

With regard to our ongoing security theatre, Bruce Schneier says:
You have to be seen as doing something, even if nothing is the smart thing to do. You can't be seen as doing nothing.

Friday, November 19

HAL was a 'straight' computer

  1. How can we be so sure?
  2. If "he" was straight, what would his ideal match be? Could "he" have been set up with a "female" counterpart? What would a "female" computer be like?

Tuesday, November 16

Pain can make you feel better

Nonsuicidal self-injury (NSSI) (most commonly in the form of cutting or burning the skin) can lead to feeling better. Research suggests that it's because of the relief that occurs when something that causes acute, intense pain is removed.
Not unlike acupuncture and Beckett's Lemuel.

As long as we know where political contributions come from, it's OK

Top All-Time Donors, 1989-2010

from OpenSecrets.org.

Monday, November 15

I solved the deficit!

74% savings from spending cuts; 26% savings from tax increases. And here I thought I was against raising taxes.

Sunday, November 7

85% of Chinese believe in religion or the supernatural

Now, with three decades of prosperity under their belt — the first significant period of relative stability in more than a century — the Chinese are in the midst of a great awakening of religious belief. In cities, yuppies are turning to Christianity. Buddhism attracts the middle class, while Taoism has rebounded in small towns and the countryside. Islam is also on the rise, not only in troubled minority areas but also among tens of millions elsewhere in China.

It is impossible to miss the religious building boom, with churches, temples and mosques dotting areas where none existed a few years ago. How many Chinese reject the state’s official atheism is hard to quantify, but numbers suggest a return to widespread religious belief. In contrast to earlier surveys that showed just 100 million believers, or less than 10 percent of the population, a new survey shows that an estimated 300 million people claim a faith. A broader question in another poll showed that 85 percent of the population believes in religion or the supernatural.
Nothing on Guan Gong or other "Taoist" gods, though.

Thursday, November 4

I laughed out loud

In a discussion of Lisa Murkowski's write-in candidacy, James Taranto writes,
...she has a somewhat difficult name to spell. It's M-U-R-K-O-W-S-K-I, just so you know, and it's very important to get it right. According to the New York Times, even her husband, while voting, asked her, "Hon, how do you spell your last name?" (Her lesser half is named Martell; she uses her father's surname so as to make a statement against patriarchy.)
(emphasis mine)

Thursday, October 21

flatulence = divine inspiration

It is not the first time that melancholy enthusiasts have taken their flatulence in retrospect for devilish assaults or for divine inspiration

--Friedrich Nicolai, on the 18th-century sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt

Monday, October 18

Great examples of negative externalities

If you're looking for a great example of a negative externality, an act, remember, that comes about because the decision maker doesn't bear a large percent of the cost of his decision, look no further than Bush's Iraq invasion or Obama's "stimulus" package.

Friday, October 15

The Most ‘Chinese’ Chinese Characters

From here
Characters representing Chinese society & civilization:

Characters related to Chinese philosophy, religion, society & thought:
(probably concepts like 顿悟)、 ( and 八戒 eight precepts1)
Characters representing Chinese feelings:

Characters representing key Confucian terms:
2、和 (harmony)、礼345
Characters related to Chinese folk culture:

Others: 6

1 The Buddhist "eight precepts" (via Digital Dictionary of Buddhism)
  1. not to kill
  2. not to take things not given
  3. no ignoble (i.e. sexual) conduct
  4. not to speak falsely
  5. not to drink wine
  6. not to indulge in cosmetics, personal adornments, dancing, or music
  7. not to sleep on fine beds, but on a mat on the ground
  8. not to eat out of regulation hours, i.e. after noon

2 天 “was viewed as a personal entity responsible for various natural phenomena, having control over human affairs, and having emotions and the capacity to act.
3 礼“originally referred to rites of sacrifice, and later came to be used to refer to rules of conduct governing ceremonial behavior as well as behavior in other social contexts.”
4 道 is not just the Daoist “way” above. It's also any philosophy's “right way.”
5 仁 “attributes as wisdom, courage, filial piety, conscientiousness, trustworthiness” etc.
6 The person who recommended this character meant something like "calm" (淡定).

Sunday, October 3

Warming Mattress Pad

I love my St. Cloud Queen Size Warming Mattress Pad that I got at Aldi last winter. It's great for those of us who get cold legs in the middle of the night. There's a slight problem with the connection between the cord & the pad, so I just duct-taped them together.

Friday, September 17

In China, independent, critical thinking is bad

An important slogan of the current generation of Chinese leaders is the so-called “scientific view of development”, and the government periodically leads crackdowns against “superstition”. But these have nothing to do with “evidence-based approaches” or the “experimental spirit”, he said. Here is the predicament in today’s China: Mr Science may be good, but independent, critical thinking is bad...

Tuesday, August 17

American conservatism's support for small government

American conservatism is a movement consumed by protecting and asserting a certain fabricated conception of the traditional American way of life against imaginary enemies. Support for small government is no more than a bullet point on the Right’s “What We Believe” cheat sheet, mouthed at opportune moments.

Friday, August 13

Why Does the NTSB Hate Babies?

...the cost of an extra [airplane] seat will encourage some parents to drive instead, exposing their children (and themselves) to far greater risk. The upshot...would be a net increase in deaths.

Tuesday, August 10

Teachers matter more than the poor to Democrats

...House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) gathers her troops Tuesday for a rare mid-August session to pass a $26.1 billion state aid spending package that cuts billions of dollars from food stamps to save thousands of teachers’ jobs and to stave off cuts in Medicaid.
The hungry poor need a union, like the teachers. (Not that the food stamp program is without its flaws).

Chinese military base in the Paracels

The love affair between China and Africa is on the wane

Who's the exploiter now?

Monday, August 9

Eeven as China grows richer, the number of its rich choosing to emigrate is rising

Why?
Better education for the children; a pollution-free environment; better medical care; a safer food supply; bigger and cheaper housing. Added up, they are what psychologists and sociologists dub Q.O.L., or quality of life issues, factors not measured by G.D.P.

Tuesday, August 3

Tibet, but not Kashmir

More than 60,000 people have been killed in clashes between Indian security forces and Kashmiris in recent years; this is much worse than anything that has happened in Tibet. Why, Pakistanis darkly wonder, do Hollywood stars fall all over themselves about poor Tibet, but Americans seem to glide right past the problems of Kashmir?

Sunday, August 1

Nowhere to Cut?

  • Immediately before the current recession, Washington spent $24,800 per household. Simply returning to that level (adjusted for inflation) would likely balance the budget by 2019 without any tax hikes.
  • The federal government made at least $98 billion in improper payments in 2009.
  • Washington spends $92 billion on corporate welfare (excluding TARP) versus $71 billion on homeland security.
  • Washington spends $25 billion annually maintaining unused or vacant federal properties.
  • Government auditors spent the past five years examining all federal programs and found that 22 percent of them—costing taxpayers a total of $123 billion annually—fail to show any positive impact on the populations they serve.
  • The Congressional Budget Office published a “Budget Options” series identifying more than $100 billion in potential spending cuts.
  • Because of overstaffing, the U.S. Postal Service selects 1,125 employees per day to sit in empty rooms. They are not allowed to work, read, play cards, watch television, or do anything. This costs $50 million annually.
  • Washington will spend $2.6 million training Chinese prostitutes to drink more responsibly on the job.
  • Stimulus dollars have been spent on mascot costumes, electric golf carts, and a university study examining how much alcohol college freshmen women require before agreeing to casual sex.
  • Examples from multiple Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports of wasteful duplication include 342 economic development programs; 130 programs serving the disabled; 130 programs serving at-risk youth; 90 early childhood development programs; 75 programs funding international education, cultural, and training exchange activities; and 72 safe water programs.
  • A GAO audit classified nearly half of all purchases on government credit cards as improper, fraudulent, or embezzled. Examples include gambling, mortgage payments, liquor, lingerie, iPods, Xboxes, jewelry, Internet dating services, and Hawaiian vacations. In one extraordinary example, the Postal Service spent $13,500 on one dinner at a Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, including “over 200 appetizers and over $3,000 of alcohol, including more than 40 bottles of wine costing more than $50 each and brand-name liquor such as Courvoisier, Belvedere and Johnny Walker Gold.” The 81 guests consumed an average of $167 worth of food and drink apiece.
  • Improper or fraudulent Medicare spending now totals $47 billion annually—12.4 percent of its budget.
  • New York distributed $140 million in stimulus money into the individual accounts of families on welfare, yet neglected to mention it was intended for school supplies. Local ATMs were depleted, and much of the money was reportedly spent on “flat screen TV’s, iPods and video gaming systems” as well as “cigarettes and beer.”
  • Washington will spend $615,175 on an archive honoring the Grateful Dead.
  • Federal employees owe more than $3 billion in income taxes they failed to pay in 2008.
  • Each month, taxpayers provide $40,000 worth of office space, cell phones, staff, and an SUV for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who currently works as a lobbyist for private corporations and foreign governments.
  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her staff have charged taxpayers $101,000 for “in-flight services”—including food and liquor—during trips on Air Force jets over the last two years. Charges reportedly include “Maker’s Mark whiskey, Courvoisier cognac, Johnny Walker Red scotch, Grey Goose vodka, E&J brandy, Bailey’s Irish Crème, Bacardi Light rum, Jim Beam whiskey, Beefeater gin, Dewars scotch, Bombay Sapphire gin, Jack Daniels whiskey, and Corona beer.”
  • The Legal Services Corporation, which is supposed to provide legal services to the poor, has repeatedly ignored warnings to stop spending its money on alcohol. It also funds limousines, first-class airfare, and “death by Chocolate” pastries for its executives.
  • The Department of Energy spent nine years and $153 million on an obsolete cyber-security project that was supposed to safeguard America’s nuclear weapons information.
  • The stimulus set aside $350 million for a national broadband coverage map—even though one private firm stated it could create one for $3.5 million.
  • Fannie Mae—now backed up by taxpayers—paid $6.3 million in legal defense costs for ousted executives such as Franklin Raines. An additional $16.8 million was spent defending Fannie Mae’s regulators in litigation against the former executives.
  • The Census Bureau spent $2.5 million on Super Bowl ads, and on-air mentions by sportscasters.
  • New documents reveal that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) lost 1,000 computers in 2008. Not to be outdone, Homeland Security officers lost nearly 200 guns in places like restaurant restrooms, convenience stores, and bowling alleys. Several of the guns ended up in the hands of criminals.
  • The State Department will spend $450,000 on art shows in Venice, Italy.
  • During a recent three-day conference, NASA spent $62,611 on “light refreshments” for its 317 attendees—$66 per day per person. NASA officials said such expensive snacks were needed to keep its officials from wandering away from the conference.
  • NASA spent $500 million constructing a 355-foot steel tower to launch a rocket that is now unlikely to ever be built.
  • The Congressional Research Service has confirmed that the new health care law may subsidize Viagra and other sexual performance drugs for convicted rapists and sex offenders.
  • Federal agencies are delinquent on nearly 20 percent of employee travel charge cards, costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
  • The Securities and Exchange Commission spent $3.9 million rearranging desks and offices at its Washington, D.C., headquarters.
  • Over half of all farm subsidies go to commercial farms, which report average household incomes of $200,000.
  • A GAO audit found that 95 Pentagon weapons systems suffered from a combined $295 billion in cost overruns.
  • The refusal of many federal employees to fly coach costs taxpayers $146 million annually in flight upgrades.
  • Washington spent $126 million in 2009 on projects associated with the Kennedy family legacy in Massachusetts. Additionally, Senator John Kerry (D–MA) diverted $20 million from the 2010 defense budget to subsidize a new Edward M. Kennedy Institute.
  • The federal government owns more than 50,000 vacant homes.
  • The Federal Communications Commission spent $350,000 to sponsor NASCAR driver David Gilliland.
  • Members of Congress have spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars supplying their offices with popcorn machines, plasma televisions, DVD equipment, ionic air fresheners, camcorders, and signature machines—plus $24,730 leasing a Lexus, $1,434 on a digital camera, and $84,000 on personalized calendars.
  • More than $13 billion in Iraq aid has been classified as wasted or stolen. Another $7.8 billion cannot be accounted for.
  • Congress recently gave Alaska Airlines $500,000 to paint a Chinook salmon on a Boeing 737.
  • The Transportation Department will subsidize up to $2,000 per flight for direct flights between Washington, D.C., and the small hometown of Congressman Hal Rogers (R–KY)—but only on Monday mornings and Friday evenings, when lawmakers, staff, and lobbyists usually fly. Rogers is a member of the Appropriations Committee, which writes the Transportation Department’s budget.
  • Washington has spent $3 billion re-sanding beaches—even as this new sand washes back into the ocean.
  • The Defense Department wasted $100 million on unused flight tickets and never bothered to collect refunds even though the tickets were refundable.
  • Washington spends $60,000 per hour shooting Air Force One photo-ops in front of national landmarks.
  • Congress has ignored efficiency recommendations from the Department of Health and Human Services that would save $9 billion annually.
  • Taxpayers are funding paintings of high-ranking government officials at a cost of up to $50,000 apiece.
  • The state of Washington sent $1 food stamp checks to 250,000 households in order to raise state caseload figures and trigger $43 million in additional federal funds.
  • Suburban families are receiving large farm subsidies for the grass in their backyards—subsidies that many of these families never requested and do not want.
  • Homeland Security employee purchases include 63-inch plasma TVs, iPods, and $230 for a beer brewing kit.
  • The National Institutes of Health spends $1.3 million per month to rent a lab that it cannot use.
  • Congress recently spent $2.4 billion on 10 new jets that the Pentagon insists it does not need and will not use.
  • Lawmakers diverted $13 million from Hurricane Katrina relief spending to build a museum celebrating the Army Corps of Engineers—the agency partially responsible for the failed levees that flooded New Orleans.
  • Medicare officials recently mailed $50 million in erroneous refunds to 230,000 Medicare recipients.
  • Audits showed $34 billion worth of Department of Homeland Security contracts contained significant waste, fraud, and abuse.
  • The Advanced Technology Program spends $150 million annually subsidizing private businesses; 40 percent of this funding goes to Fortune 500 companies.
  • The Conservation Reserve program pays farmers $2 billion annually not to farm their land.

Sources: On file at The Heritage Foundation.

Saturday, July 31

We pay Mexicans to kill Mexicans, but this slaughter has no effect on drug shipments or prices.

Calderón's war [on drugs], assisted by the United States, terrorizes the Mexican people, generates thousands of documented human rights abuses by the police and Mexican Army and inspires lies told by American politicians that violence is spilling across the border (in fact, it has been declining on the US side of the border for years).

Friday, July 30

The nation's border is actually a safe place.

Think more like Jenna Bush, and less like Chelsea Clinton.

Chelsea's wedding is likely to cost $2 million to $3 million, says Ms. Roney. But first daughter Jenna Bush managed to hold a somewhat quieter affair for a lot less when she got married two years ago. She invited about 200 guests and held the wedding on her parents' ranch in Texas. It was hardly cheap, but at $100,000, the tab wasn't even in the same ballpark.

Le Trésor de la Langue Française informatisée

Finally, a great French dictionary online: Le Trésor de la Langue Française informatisée

Thursday, July 29

No economic or scientific case exists for subsidizing the electric vehicle.

So I shouldn't take Richard Gere as my spiritual model?

[I]t is striking how much the backward elements of Tibetan Buddhism are forgiven or glossed over by its hippyish, celebrity, and middle-class followers over here. So if you’re a Catholic in Hollywood it is immediately assumed you’re a grumpy old git with demented views, but if you’re a “Tibetan” Buddhist you are looked upon as a super-cool, enlightened creature of good manners and taste. (Admittedly, Mel Gibson doesn’t help in this regard.)

Thursday, July 15

The cost of reducing gasoline consumption by subsidizing substitutes

Greg Mankiw points to a new CBO report:
The costs to taxpayers of using a biofuel to reduce gasoline consumption by one gallon are $1.78 for ethanol and $3.00 for cellulosic ethanol.

Wednesday, July 14

China hopes social safety net will push its citizens to consume more, save less

So the government takes money away from one group of people and gives it to another on the assumption the second group will spend more? Good luck with that.

Sounds familiar

China’s New Source of Cheap Labor
The immigrants, almost all from countries poorer than China, are a favorite with factory bosses and farm owners because they ask for a fraction of the usual Chinese wages and are seen as hard workers, say Chinese media reports. “They normally would work eight hours a day for an entire month without a day off,” the Global Times quoted one boss as saying.

Tuesday, July 13

Economist.com comments policy

In response to the review of two books that suggests that readers should do more for themselves, I light-heartedly suggested that readers write their own book reviews:

Cancel your subscription! Blog your own book reviews!

In an email, the "Comments Moderator" informed me that the comment that I made
has been deleted from Economist.com. The comment was removed because it breaks our comments policy:
http://www.economist.com/about/terms_and_conditions.cfm#8

We ask that future comments be made in the spirit of good-natured debate. Repeated violation of our comments policy will result in your being blocked from posting comments on Economist.com.
A little touchy, aren't they? So I resubmitted this:
What about comparative advantage? As for me, I will not take the proffered do-it-yourself advice to its logical end and write my own book review or edit my own magazine.

Argumentative inflation

There's a style of argument you'll meet with often in life, which means you'll also meet with it often in the press and online. It consists of taking some straightforward and unobjectionable proposition and then exaggerating it to the point of absurdity.
Yes, this happens all the time, and so pretty soon I won't be able to listen to anyone's argument.

Crash Data Suggest Driver Error in Toyota Accidents

Walter Olson says “I told you so”, and asks,
Can we now look forward to the stream of apologetic stories from major news organizations that bought into theories about mysterious electronic defects in the cars? Or will the media add another chapter to its long record of gullibility on these matters?

Tuesday, July 6

The feeling that one’s own current preferences and ways are neutral and natural

Martha C. Nussbaum via Will Wilkinson
Why should we think of people from China as our fellows the minute they dwell in a certain place, namely the United States, but not when they dwell in a certain other place, namely China? What is it about the national boundary that magically converts people toward whom our education is both incurious and indifferent into people to whom we have duties of mutual respect?

Retirement ages should be raised beyond age 70

Gary Becker suggests:
Maintaining the ratio of working to retirement years is a reasonable first approximation to a guideline for determining the eligible age for retirement and health benefits. As the health and life expectancy of the elderly continues to improve in the future-as they surely will- retirement ages should be raised beyond age 70.
Good luck with that. I'm afraid the 60+ retirement age is culturally entrenched. (I'd certainly like to retire long before 70 if possible.)

Update
Richard Posner argues that
we probably can’t afford to defer entitlements reform for 30 or 40 years...

[I]n the short run, the only realistic measures for reining in social security and Medicare are a combination of higher payroll taxes and means testing
Means testing! As far as I can tell, the middle class only supports social spending when they can get something, too.

Monday, July 5

Obama pays to stop people from enjoying themselves the way he did

Mungowitz calls it a "classic example of rent-seeking", citing Justin Scheck's Strapped Police Run on Fumes, and Federal Pot-Fighting Cash:
The Obama administration's approach to federal anti-drug efforts is evolving...

But the administration continues to support federal aid to fight drugs, including marijuana, says a Justice Department spokesman. This is "supplemental" funding for local agencies and shouldn't skew their priorities, says Arnie Moorin, assistant deputy director of the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy. "It's not to get into the city or the county's or the state's business."

Even so, in California, budget realities mean federal money ends up supporting priorities sometimes out of sync with public sentiment. About 56% of California residents support full legalization of marijuana, polling shows.

Saturday, July 3

Pot calling the kettle black

Or the milk calling the snow white.

Because 77% of Tea Party supporters are “non-Hispanic whites”, but the environmentalist movement is apparently “overwhelmingly white.”

Sunday, June 27

The War on Drugs is a war on African-American people

Leonard Pitts Jr. reviews Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow:
According to federal figures, blacks and whites use drugs at a roughly equal rate in percentage terms. In terms of raw numbers, whites are far and away the biggest users -- and dealers -- of illegal drugs.

So why aren't cops kicking their doors in? Why aren't their sons pulled over a dozen times in nine months? Why are black men 12 times likelier to be jailed for drugs than white ones? Why aren't white communities robbed of their fathers, brothers, sons?
Read more (via Classical Values)

Friday, June 25

Dangerous ice cream

Katherine Mangu-Ward explains how Afghanistan's Taliban and Brooklyn moms unite in their opposition to this concoction.

The failure of the Home Affordable Modification Program

Are politicians like Kucinich and Towns really this stupid? Or are they evil?

Wednesday, June 23

Obama's not doing all he can

According to an article in the Daily Caller this week by our former Cato colleague Chris Moody, foreign-owned ships have offered to assist the American-owned fleet in skimming oil and other tasks. But some of the foreign ships have hesitated to enter U.S. waters because of the 1920 law that reserves inter-coastal shipping to vessels that are built, owned, and crewed by Americans.

Although cloaked in terms of national security, the act is really a protectionist measure designed to insulate U.S.-based shipbuilders, ship operators, and their unionized crews from global competition.

Persistence

In 1974 the transplant team was just cutting open a man in his mid-60s when he started coughing.

Cecil Adams:

They sewed him back up and he died for real 15 hours later, at which point I presume the surgeons took up where they left off.

Friday, June 18

Negative comprehension

Sometimes I take the smartness game too far and try to watch a film in one language I've studied, with the DVD subtitles set in another (say, a Hindi film with Spanish subs). The end result is usually a headache-inducing mental tug-of-war that yields, if such a thing is possible, negative comprehension. I ask myself, why would a person do that? Not to feel smarter, certainly not to get more out of the movie. Could it be that I love watching movies with subtitles because they make me feel dumber?

Wednesday, June 16

Another failure for the Obama administration

State governments have overspent, largely on salaries that far exceed those in the private sector and benefits packages that dwarf what most Americans get. So now those governments are spending their money on powerful high-dollar lobbyists, with the paramount goal of getting access to more federal money. But the federal government is hopelessly in deficit.

The result is this: Local government officials are using your money to hire former government officials to ask current federal officials to give local governments more federal money — and future taxpayers will foot the bill for this whole racket.

Weather for an old man

Believe it or not, this is comfortable for me: a Temperature of 86°, 79% Humidity, and a Dew Point of 79° F, with Heat Index of 99° is comfortable for me. As long as I'm just sitting around with a fan on me, anyway.

Monday, June 14

What to read and say and eat and drink and wear

Nothing is so galling to a people not broken in from the birth as a paternal, or in other words a meddling government, a government which tells them what to read and say and eat and drink and wear.

Sunday, June 13

Triviality destroys at once robustness of thought and delicacy of feeling

From The Right To Privacy by Samuel Warren and Louis D. Brandeis (Originally published in 4 Harvard Law Review 193 [1890]):

Instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprise have invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life; and numerous mechanical devices threaten to make good the prediction that "what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops." For years there has been a feeling that the law must afford some remedy for the unauthorized circulation of portraits of private persons;11 and the evil of the invasion of privacy by the newspapers, long keenly felt, has been but recently discussed by an able writer.12 The alleged facts of a somewhat notorious case brought before an inferior tribunal in New York a few months ago,13 directly involved the consideration of the right of circulating portraits; and the question whether our law will recognize and protect the right to privacy in this and in other respects must soon come before our courts for consideration.

Of the desirability--indeed of the necessity--of some such protection, there can, it is believed, be no doubt. The press is overstepping in every direction the obvious bounds of propriety and of decency. Gossip is no longer the resource of the idle and of the vicious, but has become a trade, which is pursued with industry as well as effrontery. To satisfy a prurient taste the details of sexual relations are spread broadcast in the columns of the daily papers. To occupy the indolent, column upon column is filled with idle gossip, which can only be procured by intrusion upon the domestic circle. The intensity and complexity of life, attendant upon advancing civilization, have rendered necessary some retreat from the world, and man, under the refining influence of culture, has become more sensitive to publicity, so that solitude and privacy have become more essential to the individual; but modern enterprise and invention have, through invasions upon his privacy, subjected him to mental pain and distress, far greater than could be inflicted by mere bodily injury. Nor is the harm wrought by such invasions confined to the suffering of those who may be made the subjects of journalistic or other enterprise. In this, as in other branches of commerce, the supply creates the demand. Each crop of unseemly gossip, thus harvested, becomes the seed of more, and, in direct proportion to its circulation, results in a lowering of social standards and of morality. Even gossip apparently harmless, when widely and persistently circulated, is potent for evil. It both belittles and perverts. It belittles by inverting the relative importance of things, thus dwarfing the thoughts and aspirations of a people. When personal gossip attains the dignity of print, and crowds the space available for matters of real interest to the community, what wonder that the ignorant and thoughtless mistake its relative importance. Easy of comprehension, appealing to that weak side of human nature which is never wholly cast down by the misfortunes and frailties of our neighbors, no one can be surprised that it usurps the place of interest in brains capable of other things. Triviality destroys at once robustness of thought and delicacy of feeling. No enthusiasm can flourish, no generous impulse can survive under its blighting influence.

Just listing their remarks amounts to a rebuttal:
  • the unauthorized circulation of portraits of private persons
  • the evil of the invasion of privacy by the newspapers
  • the consideration of the right of circulating portraits
  • Gossip is no longer the resource of the idle and of the vicious, but has become a trade, which is pursued with industry as well as effrontery
  • To satisfy a prurient taste the details of sexual relations are spread broadcast in the columns of the daily papers
  • To occupy the indolent, column upon column is filled with idle gossip, which can only be procured by intrusion upon the domestic circle
  • man, under the refining influence of culture, has become more sensitive to publicity, so that solitude and privacy have become more essential to the individual
  • modern enterprise and invention have, through invasions upon his privacy, subjected him to mental pain and distress, far greater than could be inflicted by mere bodily injury
  • Each crop of unseemly gossip, thus harvested, becomes the seed of more, and, in direct proportion to its circulation, results in a lowering of social standards and of morality
  • When personal gossip attains the dignity of print, and crowds the space available for matters of real interest to the community, what wonder that the ignorant and thoughtless mistake its relative importance
  • Triviality destroys at once robustness of thought and delicacy of feeling. No enthusiasm can flourish, no generous impulse can survive under its blighting influence.

Tuesday, June 8

The US is a nice place to live, but...

Thursday, June 3

Hammer or needle?

An article touting acupuncture demonstrates
that producing a local painful stimulus in mice causes the local release of ATP (adenosine triphosphate) that peaks at about 30 minutes. This correlates with a decreased pain response in the mice.
or as a commenter writes,
using the application of acute pain to cause a local response to that pain which temporarily also inhibits local chronic pain.
It reminds me of Samuel Beckett's Malone Dies (Malone meurt), where Lemuel, "flayed alive by memory, his mind crawling with cobras, not daring to dream or think and powerless not to," strikes himself with a hammer, preferably in the head, because it's bony, easy to reach, but perhaps most of all, "the seat of all shit and misery, so you rain blows upon it, with more pleasure than on the leg for example, which never did you any harm, it’s only human."

So Beckett was just as smart as the ancient Chinese.


Update

I like "all the shit and misery", apparently Beckett's own translation better than his original ("toutes les saloperies et pourritures"):

Ecorché vif du souvenir, l'esprit grouillant de cobras, n'osant ni rêver ni penser et en même temps impuissant à s'en défendre...la partie qu'il se frappait le plus volontiers, avec ce même marteau, c'était la tête, et cela se conçoit, car c'est là une partie osseuse aussi, et sensible, et facile à atteindre, et c'est là-dedans qu'il y a toutes les saloperies et pourritures, alors on tape dessus plus volontiers que sur la jambe par exemple, qui ne vous a rien fait, c'est humain.

Tuesday, June 1

How well did the Cash for Clunkers program work?

Not well.

2 definitions of "fairness"

Liberals focus on one kind of fairness, where everyone's needs are met to some degree. Conservatives, by contrast, see fairness when people are rewarded for their efforts, e.g., what they put in, they get to take out.

Monday, May 24

Box men & burqas

For the record, I agree with Steve Chapman:

The veil, we are told, is a symbol of oppression imposed on women by husbands and other male relatives. Could be. But how do the critics know? The same thing can be said about surgically enhanced breasts in Europe and the United States.

Just because a few adults may be coerced into doing something doesn't mean others should not be allowed to do it of their own free will. If men are employing violence to control wives and daughters, the reasonable response is to punish them sternly while encouraging women to report the crimes.

But outlawing the burqa merely trades one form of compulsion (you must wear this) for another (you may not wear this). Besides, it is bound to backfire: If brutal men can no longer prevent women from wearing veils when they leave the house, they can prevent them from leaving the house at all.

It may be difficult to interact with someone whose face you can't see. But lots of things that are difficult when unfamiliar soon become tolerable or irrelevant.

For my part, every time I see a discussion about the burqa, I think of Abe Kōbō's The box man. Abe says,
In seeing there is love, in being seen there is abhorrence. One grins, trying to bear the pain of being seen. But not just anyone can be someone who only looks. If the one who is looked at looks back, then the person who was looking becomes the one who is looked at.
(Actually, I'm probably thinking of a niqab, the black dress that covers everything but the eyes, not the burqa, which covers the eyes as well. And apparently I'm not the only one who's thought of this connection.)

So should I appear on the street in France wearing a niqab (and nothing else)? Or on the street in a more "permissive" country as a box man?

Friday, May 21

Mistreatment by your own fanatics is OK

[T]he Cheonan “was sunk as the result of an external underwater explosion caused by a torpedo made in North Korea.”
but
despite a national outpouring of grief, the senseless attack aroused surprisingly few public demonstrations of wrath with the North. Brian Myers, a writer on North Korea, notes that there was more palpable anger in 2002 when an American army vehicle ran over two South Korean schoolgirls.
and in Afghanistan
A history of botched raids and air strikes by coalition forces lends rumours of their alleged mistakes credibility, even where the insurgency is weak. As the war intensifies and mishaps multiply around the country, winning hearts and minds may become even harder. A neighbour of the victims in Koshkaky speaks for many: “If the Americans do this again, we are ready to shed our blood against them. We would rather die than sit by and do nothing.”

Dalai Lama praises Marxism for "moral ethics"

"Still I am a Marxist," the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader said in New York, where he arrived today with an entourage of robed monks and a heavy security detail to give a series of paid public lectures.

"(Marxism has) moral ethics, whereas capitalism is only how to make profits," the Dalai Lama, 74, said.

However, he credited China's embrace of market economics for breaking communism's grip over the world's most populous country and forcing the ruling Communist Party to "represent all sorts of classes".

Tuesday, May 18

Our militarized police

Most American police SWAT teams probably have fewer restrictions on conducting forced entry raids than do US forces in Afghanistan.

Sunday, May 16

Illinois' problems

Illinois Turns off Businesses
Illinois maintained its title of 6th worst state to do business in, according to a poll of the nation's top business leaders in Chief Executive magazine. Wayne Cooper, the magazine's publisher, says the chief culprit for the dismal ranking is the state's D-plus grade for taxes and regulation...

Cooper says respondents sense hostility and budget uncertainty from Springfield and an overabundance of regulation in the state's books.
but taxes may be too low:
Ralph Martire, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, said even then the numbers are “distorted.” He said the most appropriate figure to look at is total tax collection as a percentage of income. Illinois is ranked 46th according to the Federation of Tax Administrators. Martire believes that is a disturbing figure.

“We’re low tax, we’re low spending, we have a $13 billion deficit and we’re not meeting existing needs,” he said. “The way we look at this whole problem is the most responsible solution is a tax increase.”

Other groups, especially those which oppose the governor's borrow-heavy budget, are more concerned with debt levels than revenue.

The COGFA report looks at data from 2007–the latest available statistics on local governments–to analyze total debt outstanding. Illinois ranks fifth with more than $116 billion in debt, translating to about $9,000 per-capita for a ninth-place ranking.

Monday, May 10

Poor media coverage of chemical risk

In a survey of 937 scientists who are members of the Society of Toxicology, the Center for Media and Public Affairs and its affiliate site stats.org found that WebMD is the only news source a majority of them (56 percent) regard as accurate in covering chemical risk. Wiki came in second at 45 percent. Trailing badly at 15 percent were the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. USA Today took the print booby prize at 6 percent, and network broadcast news recorded an embarrassing 5 percent.
In fact, it's just as Darshak Sanghavi wrote in Why do we focus on the least important causes of cancer?

Another bailout

[Freddie Mac] — already propped up with $52 billion in taxpayer funds used to rescue the company from its own mistakes — recorded a loss of $6.7 billion and said it would require an additional $10.6 billion from taxpayers to shore up its financial position.

The news caused nary a ripple in the placid Washington scene. Perhaps that’s because many lawmakers, especially those who once assured us that Fannie and Freddie would never cost taxpayers a dime, hope that their constituents don’t notice the burgeoning money pit these mortgage monsters represent. Some $130 billion in federal money had already been larded on both companies before Freddie’s latest request.

...

Fannie and Freddie, lest you’ve forgotten, have been longstanding kingpins in the housing market, buying mortgages from banks that issue them so the banks could turn around and lend even more. After both companies overindulged in the lucrative but riskier end of home loans, they nearly collapsed, prompting the federal rescue.
And by some accounts, led to the financial collapse.
Mr. Baker’s [Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington] concern that Freddie may be racking up losses by overpaying for mortgages derives from his suspicion that the government might be encouraging it to do so as a way to bolster the operations of mortgage lenders.

That would make Fannie’s and Freddie’s mortgage-buying yet another backdoor bailout of the nation’s banks, Mr. Baker said, and could explain the government’s reluctance to include them in the reform efforts now being so hotly debated in Washington.

Friday, April 30

Marxist Boundaries

In Chinese Leaders Revive Marxist Orthodoxy, Willy Lam reports,
Ideologues and propagandists have, since the winter, been waging a campaign that is focused on “distinguishing four boundaries.” In a nutshell, party commissars are demanding that China’s intellectuals, particularly college teachers and students, make clear-cut distinctions between four sets of values. They are Marxism versus anti-Marxism; a mixed economy that is led by Chinese-style public ownership on the one hand, and an economic order that is dominated by either private capital or total state ownership on the other; democracy under socialism with Chinese characteristics versus Western capitalist democracy; and socialist thoughts and culture on the one hand, and feudal and corrupt capitalist ideas and culture on the other (People’s Daily, March 23; Liberation Army Daily, December 22, 2009).
In Chinese, the four great boundaries (四个重大界限; sorry for the awful translation) are something like this:
。。。自觉划清马克思主义同反马克思主义的界限,社会主义公有制为主体、多种所有制经济共同发展的基本经济制度同私有化和单一公有制的界限,中国特色社会主义民主同西方资本主义民主的界限,社会主义思想文化同封建主义、资本主义腐朽思想文化的界限。。。

Anti-immigration hysterics

The anti-immigration hysterics keep warning us that foreigners want to come over here and exploit our welfare system. The insincerity of that stance is exposed whenever, as in Arizona, its proponents set out to prevent those very same foreigners from coming here and working.

Wednesday, April 28

Reducing Illinois pension benefits for future work?

Joshua D. Rauh, a Northwestern University economist and an expert on how states finance their pension systems estimates
...Illinois’s three largest pension funds will run out of money by 2018 if no further reform measures are enacted.

Such an event, Mr. Rauh said, “threatens to bankrupt the state on a 10-year horizon.”

The reforms do not go far enough, Mr. Rauh added. For example, current employees have earned the pension benefits they have accrued up to this point, but it would be legal, he said, to reduce pension benefits for any future work.
It's probably a good idea, but I don't think it will fly.

Tuesday, April 27

Misguided Fears of Crime Fuel Arizona Immigration Law

The crime rate in Arizona in 2008 was the lowest it has been in four decades. In the past decade, as the number of illegal immigrants in the state grew rapidly, the violent crime rate dropped by 23 percent, the property crime rate by 28 percent. (You can check out the DoJ figures here.)

Census data show that immigrants are actually less likely to commit crimes than their native-born counterparts, as I unpacked a few months ago in an article for Commentary magazine titled, “Higher Immigration, Lower Crime.”

Does disclosure really help?

Even if disclosures are easy to think about, investors still may not focus on what matters most. A team of economists, including David Laibson of Harvard, tested whether investors would favor the lowest-cost choice among four index funds if the importance of fees was hammered home in a one-page "cheat sheet."

The good news: By presenting a simplified emphasis on fees, the researchers tripled the number of investors who favored the lowest-cost funds. The bad news: That tripling brought the proportion up only to 9% from 3%. "We still ended up with a 91% failure rate," says Prof. Laibson. Encouraged to focus on fees, investors nevertheless fixated on—and chased—past performance.


Monday, April 26

I'll give you my satellite dish when you take it from my cold, dead hands

SARFT Outlaws Shanzhai Satellite Dishes
Shanzhai satellite dishes are unapproved satellite receivers often seen in rural areas where cable television is not available; it is also prevalent in lower-tier cities as the cost of cable television is often too expensive for the average consumer. The recent decree from China’s State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT) outlawing shanzhai satellite dishes was met with general disapproval, with some netizens posting pictures of their dishes hidden or disguised to avoid being discovered.
Comments include:
中国人民完全可以继承老一辈的革命传统和战斗精神______中国人民万岁。。。。打倒一切压迫力量 ("Chinese people can really inherit the previous generation’s revolutionary tradition and fighting spirit…long live the Chinese people…defeat all oppressive powers.")
and
哪里有压迫哪里就有反抗————("Where there is oppression, there will be retaliation——– [quote from Mao].")

Implementing the REAL ID act

Even though [Arizona's controversial new immigration law] in effect requires everybody to carry an approved form of ID and present it to police on demand, the authors want us to know that "nothing in this act shall implement or shall be construed or interpreted to implement or establish the REAL ID act," a 2005 federal law that Arizona legislators rebelled against in large part because they feared the scenario that are now trying to achieve.

Mattel 's malfeasance gets them a waiver

Mattel buys millions of items from China that violate American product-safety laws and standards. Congress reacts by punishing the entire industry, especially those small businesses that can’t afford independent testing, especially on products that don’t really need it. Thrift stores can’t resell merchandise without testing, making their business model impossible and threatening the charities that rely on those sales. Meanwhile, the economy of scale means that this law gives Mattel a competitive advantage from their own malfeasance — and they get the waiver on independent testing?

Saturday, April 24

It's still our Government Motors

GM is using government money to pay back government money to get more government money.

Emphasis mine

Thursday, April 22

Here's one Democrat's excellent idea

Jack D. Franks writes:

Instead of pushing for a tax increase, Quinn should stop the unnecessary spending.

Quinn could cut $1.2 billion worth of "member initiative" pork projects by executive order. He could push to collect more than $1 billion in taxes and fees owed to Illinois. He could push to scrap the lieutenant governor's office, which would save us $16 million over four years.

Rather than play politics with education, Quinn needs to scour Illinois' budget, assess every dollar spent and cut all but the most necessary expenditures.

We can do our part in the House and Senate. We can eliminate the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to save another $1 billion. We can combine the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority with the Illinois Department of Transportation and save millions. We can eliminate governor-appointed boards and commissions.

And we need to fundamentally change how we set the state budget each year.

We need forensic audits of all spending. Justify every dime and know where every dime is going.

We need a zero-based approach that requires all spending be justified. It is simply common sense. I have co-sponsored legislation that would require the General Assembly to adopt a full accrual-based accounting statement. Legislators would know exactly what our economic position is before they approved any budget. We can prevent this type of fiscal nightmare from recurring.

Illinois can pull itself out of this mess. We have to shrink the size of government through better accounting and restrained spending.

How GM is "repaying" its loan

Crony capitalism

In the U.S today, we are moving away from reliance on honest pricing. The federal government controls 90% of housing finance. Policies to encourage home ownership remain on the books, and more have been added. Fed policies of low interest rates result in capital being misallocated across time. Low interest rates particularly impact housing because a home is a pre-eminent long-lived asset whose value is enhanced by low interest rates.

Distorted prices and interest rates no longer serve as accurate indicators of the relative importance of goods. Crony capitalism ensures the special access of protected firms and industries to capital. Businesses that stumble in the process of doing what is politically favored are bailed out. That leads to moral hazard and more bailouts in the future. And those losing money may be enabled to hide it by accounting chicanery.

If we want to restore our economic freedom and recover the wonderfully productive free market, we must restore truth-telling on markets. That means the end to price-distorting subsidies, which include artificially low interest rates. No one admits to preferring crony capitalism, but an expansive regulatory state undergirds it in practice.

I gotta move to New York

Best Weight Loss Plan Ever.

Guy #1: How's that new apartment?
Guy #2: Every night the rats eat a little bit more of my foot...

--N Train


via Overheard in New York, Apr 22, 2010

Sunday, April 18

Idiotic Charles Schumer

Charles Schumer declares that passengers have the right to bring a carry-on aboard “without having to worry about getting nickeled and dimed.’’ ...[I]f Schumer grieves so deeply about travelers being “nickeled and dimed’’ when they fly, why has he never gone after the US ticket tax, which adds 7.5 percent to the price of every domestic flight? Or the $16.50 the federal government charges for each international departure and arrival? Or the $17 in customs and inspection fees paid by passengers flying into US airports from abroad? Or the “passenger facilities charges’’ (up to $18 per round-trip)? Or the “US Security Service Fee’’ ($2.50 per departure)? Or the “domestic segment fee’’ ($3.70 per flight segment)? The government’s unremitting “nickeling and diming’’ of airline passengers doesn’t trouble the sleep of New York’s senior senator. Only when a private firm acts does he toss and turn in anguish.

Contempt for the bourgeoisie in general and the United States in particular

[C]ontempt for the bourgeoisie was part of an intellectual tradition dating back to the 19th century, when English aesthetes..., German sociologists..., and French litterateurs... made careers out of flaying the middle class. They defined it as comprising, in the words of the great French historian Francois Furet, “petty, ugly, miserly, laborious, stick-in-the-muds, while artists were great, beautiful, brilliant and bohemian.” Flaubert, for one, argued against democracy on the grounds that “the whole dream of democracy is to raise the proletarian to the level of stupidity attained by the bourgeois.”

It was only in the 1920s...that such contempt for the bourgeoisie—and with it a deep hostility toward the United States’s position as the quintessentially middle-class, democratic, and capitalist nation—found a wide audience in this country through a new generation of writers....
And still today in the academy, there's lots of hostility to the hand that feeds us.

Wednesday, April 7

Obama's unpaid interns

Mr. Obama should not only apologize to the thousands of young, unpaid volunteers whom he exploited in 2008 for his own profit – namely, to win his election to the highest pulpit in the land – he should also give to each and every one of them back pay (with interest) for their efforts on his behalf.


Feeling good about ourselves

[I]n truth, differences between parties are often small. Democrats want to spend more and don't want to raise taxes, except on higher earners. Republicans want to reduce taxes but don't want to spend less. Vast budget deficits reflect both parties' unwillingness to make unpopular choices of whose benefits to cut or whose taxes to boost.

Given this evasion, the public agenda gravitates toward issues framed as moral matters. Global warming is about "saving the planet." Abortion and gay marriage evoke deep values, each side believing it commands the high ground. Certainly, President Obama pitched his health care plan as a moral issue. It embodies "the core principle that everybody should have some basic security when it comes to their health care," as he said when signing the legislation. Health care is a "right"; opponents are, by extension, less moral.

Obama's approach was politically necessary. On a simple calculus of benefits, his proposal would have failed. Perhaps 32 million Americans will receive insurance coverage -- about 10 percent of the population. Other provisions add somewhat to total beneficiaries. Still, for most Americans, the bill won't do much. It may impose costs: higher taxes, longer waits for appointments.

People backed it because they thought it "the right thing"; it made them feel good about themselves. What they got from the political process are what I call "psychic benefits." Economic benefits aim to make people richer. Psychic benefits strive to make them feel morally upright and superior. But this emphasis often obscures practical realities and qualifications. For example: The uninsured already receive substantial medical care, and it's unclear how much insurance will improve their health.

Tuesday, April 6

Nobody would want to live in a world where rich people and poor people got the same kind of health care

The government should withdraw its support for the NCAA cartel

Ilya Somin proposes "a conceptually simple, though politically difficult, solution" to the problem of underpaid college athletes:
The government should withdraw its support for the NCAA cartel. Universities will gradually stop pretending that Division I football and basketball players are primarily students, and start treating them as the employees they actually are. The players will get paid for their work, and they and the universities won’t have to waste time and money forcing players to attend bogus classes in order to keep up appearances. Those who have the desire and academic credentials to do real coursework should of course be allowed to do so.

Wednesday, March 31

Saturday, March 27

Highly educated but lacking in useful skills--me?

I see little evidence of a conscious political effort to lump those who are highly educated but lacking in useful skills together with those who are highly educated and actually useful skills, even if that's the way of society in general and the academy in particular.

However, it's true that teachers are rarely trained to teach effectively. Moreover, I know from personal experience that when teaching at the college level at least, we're not pushed to find ways of improving learning outcomes. Instead, we're rewarded on the basis of student evaluations (which basically comes down to how much the students like us), and research, which may or may not have much classroom relevance.
(I posted this as a response to Arnold Kling's post but it's not showing up yet, and I wanted to save the links to the two articles mentioned.)

Obama's Rain Dance

Arnold Kling writes:
Don Boudreaux reminds us that when the stimulus was sold it was with a promise that 90 percent of the jobs created or saved would be in the private sector. Before anyone can focus on the outlandish claims made for the stimulus, we now have the outlandish claims made for the health bill. No doubt we are about to hear outlandish claims for the financial regulation bill and whatever new initiatives the ruling class wishes to impose on the country.
Boudreaux links to They Don't Call It Stimulus No More
Like a rain dance that produces no clouds, we are now into our fourth round of federal deficit creation - the automatic "stabilizers," followed by the Bush (2008), Obama I (2009), and Obama II (2010) versions. With each dry day, the deficit dancing intensifies. When the rain finally falls, we will be told that the recovery is a tribute to the Keynesian Gods. But it's already clear that something has gone wrong: the "stimulus" chant has fallen silent. Our dance on a fiscal cliff has lost its theme music.

Wednesday, March 24

Happiness

From Elizabeth Kolbert's review of Derek Bok's “The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being”:

...the incomes of the country’s top earners have, in recent decades, grown several times as fast as those of the earners at the bottom. But the statistics show that, over the past few decades, the subjective well-being of those at the bottom has remained unchanged. If the poor aren’t bothered by the growing disparity, Bok asks, why should anyone else be?

“The most obvious reason for deploring income inequality is our instinctive sympathy for those who must make do with many fewer goods and services,” he observes. “It is not immediately clear, however, why growing inequality should elicit such compassion if lower-income Americans themselves have not become less happy.”

So much for policy to alleviate economic equality. Because job loss leads to unhappiness, Bok, trained as a lawyer, wants more generous unemployment benefits, apparently assuming they'd make people happier. But would they?

Kolbert also discusses Carol Graham's “Happiness Around the World: The Paradox of Happy Peasants and Miserable Millionaires”:

[Nigeria]’s per-capita G.D.P. last year was about fourteen hundred dollars. (In real terms, this is significantly lower than it was when the nation declared its independence, in 1960.) Yet the proportion of Nigerians who rate themselves happy is as high as the proportion of Japanese, whose per-capita G.D.P. is almost twenty-five times as great. The percentage of Bangladeshis who report themselves satisfied is twice as high as the percentage of Russians, though Russians are more than four times as rich, and the proportion of happy Panamanians is twice as high as that of happy Argentines, though the Argentines have double the income. Research that Graham has done in Afghanistan shows that, despite three decades of war and widespread destitution, Afghans are, on average, a pretty cheerful lot. (The most cheerful areas of the country tend to be those in which the Taliban’s influence is stronger.) Graham’s research in Latin America shows that the very poor are often remarkably upbeat. “Higher per capita income levels do not translate directly into higher average happiness levels,” she writes.

So much for our war in Afghanistan.

Also, Jean Kazez notes,
[A] study of 90,000 people across 26 European countries...found that "to belong to a religion is positively correlated with life satisfaction." You can see how that might be. Belonging increases the chances of believing. And believing increases optimism ("God will provide, protect, prevent, etc."), which is strongly correlated with greater happiness.

Now here's the surprising part. Everyone is more satisfied with life in areas that are more religious, including the atheists. And everyone is less satisfied in places with more atheists. "Having a higher proportion of atheists has a negative spillover effect for the religious and for atheists alike." Apparently, to some considerable extent, our attitudes about life are held collectively. We don't individualistically base our outlook simply on the beliefs lodged within our own skulls.

Wednesday, March 17

A clear conscience

Children as young as 10 years old used to stitch footballs until there was an international outcry about it. The sports companies, accustomed to nurturing their image with huge sums of money, got worried about their reputation. So they sided with human rights campaigners and exerted pressure. In 1997, Pakistani suppliers and representatives of Unicef and the International Labor Organization signed the Atlanta Agreement in which the industry agreed to stop the use of child labor.

Thousands of children lost their jobs overnight...

Children Now Work in Brickworks Instead

Parents now send their children to the brickworks and into metalworking companies where no one is worried about corporate image. The families need the money to survive. The local sports companies are aware of what's happened but they want to fulfil the wishes of their Western customers. After all, the people who spend a lot of money on footballs want to do so with a clear conscience. The customer in a sports retail outlet doesn't realize that young girls are now hauling bricks right next door to Danayal, the stitching factory.

"Ten or 12-year-olds were well off here," says one manager who asked not to be named. "They learned a trade here that secured them an income for life. Now we're having trouble finding new stitchers."