February 2011, Part 4

Jim Miller on Politics

Pseudo-Random Thoughts

Worth Reading:  Arthur Herman on the myths of Desert Storm.

One myth is that Desert Storm was the "good war" in which America and the world drew together to defeat a tyrant, compared to the deep divisions over the more recent Iraq war.

In fact, resolutions authorizing military action in Kuwait faced fierce opposition from the likes of then-Speaker Dick Gephardt, future Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Chuck Schumer and then-Sen. Joe Biden, and passed the House and Senate by inches.  The first President George Bush went ahead despite the nay-sayers and prophets of doom and the thousands of protesters chanting "no blood for oil" -- essentially the same folks who'd later brand his son a liar and war criminal.
(Bill Clinton, as you may remember, came up with an amazing statement, putting himself on both sides of the issue)

And there's much more in the column.
- 5:06 PM, 28 February 2011   [link]

Paul Krugman Makes A Joke:   Unintentionally.  There is something wonderful about the professor telling us (1) that he doesn't watch TV news, and (2) that there's a "virtual blackout on the huge demonstrations in Wisconsin".

Years ago, I jokingly suggested that Krugman's columns (now I would have to add blog posts) were written by a graduate student — who, unhappy with the task, was trying to discredit Krugman.

(I have since learned that Krugman's wife, Robin Wells, sometimes helps him with the columns.  And that's as far as I want to go with that possible explanation for many of his columns.)
- 1:06 PM, 28 February 2011   [link]

It's Good To See A Father Buying Toys For His Son:  But Teodoro Obiang may have gone too far.
The son of Equatorial Guinea's dictator of 30 years commissioned plans to build a superyacht costing $380 million, nearly three times what the country spends on health and education each year, a corruption watchdog said Monday.

The statement from Global Witness said that German company Kusch Yachts has been asked to build the yacht, housing a cinema, restaurant, bar and swimming pool, though construction has not yet started.

Global Witness has been urging Washington to institute sanctions against Teodorin Obiang, whose extravagant lifestyle currently includes a $35 million-dollar mansion in Malibu, California, a $33 million jet and a fleet of luxury cars, while earning a salary of $6,799 a month as agriculture minister.
Even an agriculture minister needs to relax from time to time.

(Here's Global Witness, and here's the Wikipedia article on Equatorial Guinea.   The nation had an election in 1968 and an "election" in 2009, but between those years has resorted to older, and more violent, methods of choosing leaders.  Americans will be pleased to learn that the current government hopes to hopes to strengthen ties with the Obama administration.)
- 8:49 AM, 28 February 2011   [link]

Do Unions Hinder Job Growth?  Economic theory predicts that they would.  We buy less of everything, including labor, if its price goes up, or its value goes down.  Labor unions often raise the price of labor by increasing pay for their members, and decrease the value of their labor by imposing restrictive work rules.  (Some American managers will tell you that the work rules are a bigger problem than the pay, since work rules can make it impossible to increase productivity, except by substituting machines for men.)

Economist Robert Barro offers some indirect evidence that unions have that effect in practice, as well as in theory.
There is evidence that right-to-work laws—or, more broadly, the pro-business policies offered by right-to-work states—matter for economic growth.  In research published in 2000, economist Thomas Holmes of the University of Minnesota compared counties close to the border between states with and without right-to-work laws (thereby holding constant an array of factors related to geography and climate).  He found that the cumulative growth of employment in manufacturing (the traditional area of union strength prior to the rise of public-employee unions) in the right-to-work states was 26 percentage points greater than that in the non-right-to-work states.
There are arguments for unions.  Union supporters would tell you that unions can make labor costs more predictable, and can lessen the chances of wildcat strikes.

And I don't doubt that one can find examples where unions have had those good effects.  But I suspect that Barro is right, and that reducing the power of unions is, on the whole, one way to increase economic growth.
- 8:11 AM, 28 February 2011
More analysis from Robert Samuelson, including this:
To members, unions exist to win higher wages and fringe benefits, and in this, they mainly succeeded.  In 2006, union wages in the private sector were about 19 percent higher than those in comparable nonunion firms, estimates economist Barry Hirsch of Georgia State University.  The wage premium can endure if higher productivity (a.k.a. efficiency) justifies higher wages or if companies can pass along costs to customers.  The productivity advantages of unionized firms are scant, Hirsch says.  The formula worked, because many heavily unionized industries were dominated by a few large firms with similar labor costs.  These could be recovered in higher prices.
The United Auto Workers could receive higher wages and benefits than they would have gotten in a free market as long as cars and trucks were almost all built by the Big Three.  But when Toyota, Honda, Nissan, and all the others, came into the US market, that was no longer practical.  (American car buyers paid more for their cars, because of that UAW domination, and we exported fewer cars because of those higher prices.)
- 10:28 AM, 28 February 2011   [link]

The Brothel Rental Will Draw The Most Attention, but what I found most interesting in this post is Ted Kennedy's 1961 efforts to meet with communists and at least one traitor, all over Latin America.
"[I]n each country Kennedy insisted on interviewing 'the angry young men' of the country.  He wanted to meet with communists and others who had left-wing views.   . . . Ambassador Freeman, Bogota, said the first person whom Kennedy wanted to meet was Lauchlin Currie."   (The document subsequently identifies Currie as a person who "had been mentioned in Washington investigations of Soviet spy rings.")
Lauchlin Currie was an economist, a New Dealer, and a KGB agent.  As an administrative assistant to FDR, he had access to an extraordinary range of intelligence, much of which he passed on to the Soviets.  He was in Colombia because the United States refused to renew his visa, probably because we had information on his spying from the Venona project.

Why would the assistant district attorney of Suffolk County, which is what Ted Kennedy then was, want to see Currie?

John Kennedy had campaigned in 1960 on a hard anti-communist platform, promising to be, if anything, tougher on the communists than Richard Nixon.  Robert Kennedy had worked for Senator Joe McCarthy, when McCarthy was chasing communists, with some success and much demagoguery.

Apparently, even in 1961, Ted Kennedy did not share his brothers' anti-communist views.   (Though he did imitate their reckless sexual behavior, then and later.)
- 6:27 AM, 28 February 2011   [link]

Is The Big Seattle Tunnel Worth What It Will Cost?  First, some background for those not familiar with traffic problems in the Seattle area.  Ten years ago, the Alaskan Way Viaduct was damaged by the Nisqually earthquake.

Ever since then, the city and state have been arguing about how and whether to replace the viaduct.  The state's governor, Christine Gregoire — who is not famous for tight controls on state spending — finally chose to replace the downtown part of the viaduct with a tunnel, after new boring machines became available.  The current Seattle mayor, Mike McGinn, is opposed to the tunnel because, he says, Seattle residents might get stuck with cost over-runs.  (Since McGinn is not exactly a friend to car drivers, he may have other motives, as well.)

There is one bizarre thing about this decade-long debate:  Our elected officials and our local journalists almost never tell us what the benefits from this tunnel (or alternatives) will be worth.  They do give us, from time to time, estimates of the total cost.  Right now, for instance, the state's Department of Transportation is telling us that replacing the viaduct will cost about $3.1 billion.  (Two years ago, the project was estimated to cost $4.2 billion.   I'm not sure how they achieved this reduction, or whether it is real.)

(Sadly, experience with similar projects would lead us to suspect that cost over-runs, possibly very large cost over-runs, are possible, perhaps even likely.)

So we have a rough idea of how much this project will cost.  But we have no estimates of how much it will be worth.

We do have one very useful clue.  A transportation project that can be paid for with tolls is, almost by definition, worth what it costs.  (Almost, because projects sometimes have significant negative externalities, costs that don't show up in the project itself.)

And the state has made an estimate of the potential revenue from tolls on the tunnel.   The state legislature decided that tolls should provide no more than $400 million of the project's cost, perhaps because analysts told them that was the maximum feasible amount that could be raised from tolls.

So, we can guess that this $3 billion, or perhaps $4 billion, or possibly much more, project is worth, to drivers, about $400 million.

But drivers aren't the only ones who will benefit from the project.  Many businesses in the downtown waterfront area will also benefit; the current viaduct provides wonderful views for drivers, but blocks views from apartments and offices along much of the waterfront.   How much all that would be worth to them is hard to tell, but it is hard to believe that it will be as high as $2.6 billion.

So, most likely, the viaduct replacement will not be worth what it will cost.  But this doesn't seem to bother our elected officials, or our local journalists.  For example, this morning I watched Robert Mak on Up Front discuss the project.  (That segment starts a little before 9 minutes into the program.)  He gave no estimates of costs — and no estimates of benefits.  (Mak has been a TV journalist for most of his career, but did work for the previous Seattle mayor, for a few years.)

Why don't our officials and journalists ask the benefits question?  I'm not sure; sometimes I think that they know the answer and don't want to tell us, and sometimes I think that they simply don't think in a rational cost/benefits way.  I suppose that each explanation could be true for some of our journalists and officials.

Whatever the reason, the unwillingness, or inability, to discuss benefits as well as costs, results in some truly strange debates in this area.  And not just on transportation projects.

Cross posted at Sound Politics.
- 4:31 PM, 27 February 2011   [link]

Today's New Yorker Cartoon shows the witch offering the poisoned apple to Snow White.  And the witch is saying, "Why yes, my dear — it is organic."
- 2:35 PM, 26 February 2011   [link]

My Hummingbird Dependent:  This morning, at first light, a hummingbird was waiting for me when I brought the hummingbird feeder out.  It froze last night here, and will be cold enough all day today so that I will have to check the feeder from time to time to make sure the sugar solution hasn't frozen.

If I don't do that, chances are the hummingbird(s) will starve.

And that reminds me — and should remind you — why welfare is so often a trap.  If I, and others, did not feed the hummingbirds during the winter, then they would migrate south, as they did before people began feeding them year round.

But once we start feeding them, we become, inevitably, responsible for them.  I don't mind, because I love to watch these almost miraculous little birds, but I do feel guilty from time to time.

And I think we should also feel guilty when we encourage other people to become permanent dependents.  In some instances, that may be the best, or rather the least bad solution, but we should always look for other alternatives, not just to save on sugar water or welfare payments, but because both are, in some ways, bad for the recipients.
- 9:08 AM, 25 February 2011   [link]

Americans Make Great Hostages:  So, why has the State Department blundered in evacuating Americans from Libya?
Hundreds of Americans trapped aboard a rescue ship that was too small to sail in rough weather have finally left Libya.

The 167 stranded U.S. citizens have been holed up on the Maria Dolores since Wednesday, as rough weather has prevented the ship from leaving.
Part of the problem is that Libya has refused to let US chartered planes to land at the Tripoli airport.  But it does seem that whoever is managing the evacuations has blundered — and that the Obama administration, very definitely including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, hasn't given the evacuation the attention it deserves.
- 7:39 AM, 25 February 2011   [link]

One Of the Things I Admire Most About Nancy Pelosi is her modesty.
- 6:49 AM, 25 February 2011   [link]