July 2011, Part 1

Jim Miller on Politics

Pseudo-Random Thoughts

Unexpectedly Good Job Report!  In Canada.
Canada's economy created a surprisingly high number of jobs in June, but dismal U.S. data and lack of wage inflation may mean the central bank keeps its foot on the accelerator for a while longer with low rates.

Net employment gains in the month totaled 28,400, Statistics Canada said on Friday, compared with the 15,000 expected by markets.  The transport and warehousing industry did the most hiring and overall gains were mostly in part-time and public sector jobs.
Which is good news for them, and a little bit of good news for us, since we are their largest trading partner.

Canada has been led, since June, 2002, by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.  In May, his Conservative Party won an absolute majority in the Canadian parliament.

Harper has a masters degree in economics, which may explain some of his success in managing Canada's economy.
- 1:38 PM, 8 July 2011   [link]

Unexpectedly!  You know what's coming next, don't you?

More bad news on the economy.
U.S. employers added 18,000 workers in June, the fewest in nine months, and the unemployment rate unexpectedly climbed, indicating a struggling labor market.

The increase in payrolls followed a 25,000 gain that was less than half the rise initially estimated, Labor Department data showed today in Washington.  The median estimate in a Bloomberg News survey called for a June gain of 105,000.  The unemployment rate rose to 9.2 percent, the highest level this year.  Hiring by companies, which excludes government agencies, was the weakest since May 2010.
(For the record:  In this area, I have seen a few signs of economic revival in recent months, for example, help wanted signs at fast-food restaurants.  But I doubt that this area is typical.)

During the Bush administration, the economic news was often "unexpectedly" good.  You would think that our business reporters would have learned by now to adjust their expectations to the economic facts, rather than their political preferences.  But they haven't.
- 7:03 AM, 8 July 2011   [link]

Blue Light And Melatonin:  This New York Times article describes some fascinating findings.
Any sort of light can suppress melatonin, but recent experiments have raised novel questions about one type in particular: the blue wavelengths produced by many kinds of energy-efficient light bulbs and electronic gadgets.

Dr. [George] Brainard and other researchers have found that light composed of blue wavelengths slows the release of melatonin with particular effectiveness.
. . .
The finding adds to a series of others suggesting, though certainly not proving, that exposure to blue light may keep us more awake and alert, partly by suppressing production of melatonin.  An LED screen bright enough and big enough "could be giving you an alert stimulus at a time that will frustrate your body's ability to go to sleep later," said Dr. Brainard.  "When you turn it off, it doesn't mean that instantly the alerting effects go away.  There's an underlying biology that's stimulated."
Findings that may have important applications.  If you have trouble sleeping, you might want to stay away from "blue" screens in the evening.  If you have trouble staying awake when you should, then blue screens and lights may help.

Those who don't care for compact fluorescents will be pleased to find another reason to avoid them at home, though probably not at work.
- 9:50 AM, 7 July 2011   [link]

Was Our Embassy Deliberately Trying To Provoke Pakistanis?  If not, what explains this event?
A group of conservative Islamic political and religious officials has condemned a meeting by the U.S. Embassy supporting gay rights in Pakistan as "cultural terrorism" against the country.

The group, which included the head of Pakistan's largest Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami, claimed the meeting — the first of its kind held by the embassy — was the second most dangerous attack by the U.S. against Pakistan, following missiles fired from unmanned drones.

The meeting on June 26 was hosted by the U.S. deputy ambassador, Richard Hoagland, and was meant to support the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals in Pakistan, said the embassy.
Here's the embassy's press release.

Given his experience, Hoagland must know how offensive this meeting would be to most Pakistanis.  (And it is likely to cause trouble for the activists who attended.  If Hoagland wants to help them, he should do it quietly.)

I hope that this is not the start of a trend, or we may see our embassy in London launching attacks on the British monarchy and our embassy in Paris bringing in experts to condemn French wines and cheeses.

Hoagland may have found an issue that would unite the average citizen of India with the average citizen of Pakistan.  Against us.

Pakistan, as everyone knows, has played a double game on terrorism for years.  But they have given us some cooperation, in return for cash.  If we want more cooperation — and I think we do — we should not try to provoke them — unnecessarily.

(This event is so crazy that I have to speculate a bit.  Hoagland may see this as a way to help the Obama administration, politically, and may be hoping for a high-level appointment back in Washington, in return.)
- 9:08 AM, 7 July 2011   [link]

Unanswered Tweets From Iowahawk:  Almost all of these are more interesting than the ones that Obama did answer, in his latest campaign event.

Here are three of my favorites:
An $8 billion high speed train leaves Chicago for Iowa City at 8:15am at 40mph.  Why?
. . .
When you're visiting his volcano lair, does George Soros let you feed the laser sharks?
. . .
Are you smart enough to create a problem so big that even you could not solve it?
The first is practical, the second nasty but funny, and the third a variation on an old problem in theology.
- 8:06 AM, 7 July 2011   [link]

The Casey Anthony Verdict:  Though I don't have cable TV, even I could not avoid this story, entirely.  And so I had formed a tentative conclusion a few days before the jury decision:  She was probably guilty of murder, but the prosecution had not proved that beyond a reasonable doubt.

Judging by this news story, that's the same conclusion the jury reached.

They aren't satisfied with that result (and neither am I), but I think they did the right thing.  Sometimes reasonable doubt requires you to release someone who is probably guilty.
- 7:28 AM, 7 July 2011   [link]

NPR Didn't Get The Joke:  But a 14-year-old boy did.
For instance, here's [NPR correspondent Neda] Ulaby again, talking about Hannibal Buress, a comedian and writer for NBC's "30 Rock," who uses the phrase: "'That's racist' works in comedy, Buress says, because it pushes buttons."  OK.  How does it push buttons?  Why does it push buttons?

We're never told.  Instead, we get a NPR tutorial on the persistence of racism.  "Scholar Regina Bradley says it also works because racism's often expressed differently than from a generation or two ago," Ulaby explains.  "The segregated neighborhoods and swimming pools of Bradley's grandparents have yielded to more subtle forms of discrimination.  That's reflected in how 'that's racist' is being used -- to shut down conversations or as a joke."

But what's the joke?  We don't find out until a 14-year-old-boy says it plainly: "I think I or other people just sort of do it as a way of mocking people who are overly sensitive about race issues."
Because some are "overly sensitive", and more than a few have learned that a charge of racism can often be profitable, I have to add that you should be careful about when and where you tell that joke.  (Almost all of you know that already, but the danger is real enough so that I have to add that warning.)

And, even if telling the joke wouldn't get you into trouble, you should remember that some jokes are unsuitable for some audiences.

(Here's a version of the joke that I like.)
- 8:39 AM, 6 July 2011   [link]

If You Want To Be A Millionaire, Should You Drop Out Of College?   Perhaps.
What do Michael Dell, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Mark Cuban have in common?

They're all college dropouts.

Richard Branson, Simon Cowell and Peter Jennings have in common?

They never went to college at all.
Decades ago, I saw a similar list of new millionaires, and was struck by the fact that many of them were drop-outs.  If I recall correctly, one or two had even dropped out of high school.  (There was an exception in the list, Edwin Land, who founded Polaroid.  But I always thought that Land's main objective was making instant film, not great piles of money.)

It isn't hard to understand why we see this pattern.  If someone really, really wants to be rich, they should start working toward that goal, as soon as they see a good opportunity.

John Stossel goes on to argue that college is not a good choice for many young people, whether or not they hope to become millionaires or even billionaires.

He's right, for a number of reasons, though this won't make him popular in polite liberal (or, as I prefer to say, leftist) society.
- 8:06 AM, 6 July 2011   [link]

Miguel Octavio Speculates on Venezuela's future, giving us three possible paths.

Like Mary Anastasia O'Grady, he hopes that Hugo Chávez leaves office after an election defeat, not in a coffin.

(Their reasoning seems sound to me, but I am no expert on Venezuela.)
- 4:09 PM, 5 July 2011   [link]

How Much Of A Democrat Is Former Fannie Mae Head James A. Johnson?   Last week, I pointed out that the Fannie Mae part of the 2008 financial collapse was "predominantly Democratic", and that Morgenson and Rosner believe that James A. Johnson, who headed Fannie Mae from 1991 to 1998, was the man most responsible for that collapse.

But, how Democratic is Johnson?  Does this "businessman", as Wikipedia describes him, have a nominal attachment to his party, or more?

Judge for yourself:  Here's part of Morgenson and Rosner's description of the man.
Johnson was interested in politics early on, working on campaigns locally even before he could vote.   As a sophomore at the University of Minnesota, he won election for student body president; after graduation, he moved to Princeton, where he received a master's degree in public policy at the Woodrow Wilson School in 1968.  He joined the antiwar movement and avoided serving Vietnam on the strength of a student deferment.  he worked on Eugene McCarthy's campaign in 1968, and in 1972 he volunteered for George McGovern.

In 1969, Johnson attended a strategy session convened by antiwar activists in Martha's Vineyard.  He roomed with William Jefferson Clinton, then an unknown twenty-two-year-old Georgetown University graduate.
Perhaps all this political activity was just a youthful phase?  No.  Although he taught at Princeton and worked for Dayton Hudson, he soon found a real political job, as an aide to Senator Walter Mondale.  When the Carter-Mondale ticket won in 1976, he stayed on with Mondale as an executive assistant.  After the Carter-Mondale defeat in 1980, he formed a political consulting firm, Public Strategies, with Richard Holbrooke.  In 1985, they sold out to Shearson Lehman Brothers, but stayed on at Lehman as managing directors.

In 1984, he managed Mondale's presidential campaign (where, according to Morgenson and Rosner, he was not a great success, because he ran a too centralized campaign).

Did he give up politics after that defeat?  No, he went back to political consulting and soon after met David Maxwell, then head of Fannie Mae.  Maxwell needed political advice and brought Johnson into Fannie Mae in 1990 to provide it.

I'll come back to how he brought political figures into Fannie Mae in a later post, but that should be enough evidence to give you an idea of just how Democratic Johnson is.  But I will add that, as you would expect, he worked hard to elect John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008.

Would I call him a businessman?  No.  I would call him a political activist, who moved into a politically-connected business, when he saw opportunities there.  Financial and political opportunities.  Morgenson and Rosner have much to say about how he exploited the first; I plan to say something about how he exploited the second, later.
- 2:03 PM, 5 July 2011   [link]

One Question Has Been Answered In The DSK Case:  When Dominique Strauss-Kahn was accused of a rape by a maid at the Sofitel hotel, one thing puzzled me about the official story:  How had this woman, a native of Guinea, gotten permission to live in the United States?

After all, the United States has no great shortage of unskilled labor, legal and illegal.

We now know the answer to that question.  According to the prosecutors, she lied in order to get asylum.
In substance, the complainant's statement claimed that she and her husband had been persecuted and harassed by the dictatorial regime that was then in power in Guinea.  Among other things, the complainant stated that the home she shared with her husband was destroyed by police and soldiers acting on behalf of the regime, and she and her husband were beaten by them.  When her husband attempted to return to what was left of their home the next day, she stated that he was again beaten, arrested and imprisoned by police and soldiers.  She stated that she also was beaten when she attempted to come to her husband's aid.  In her statement, she attributed the beatings to the couple's opposition to the regime.  She stated that during her husband's incarceration, he was tortured, deprived of medical treatment, and eventually died as a result of his maltreatment.  Following his death, according to her, she began to denounce the regime and finally fled the country in fear of her life, entering the United States in January 2004 to seek refuge (she has told prosecutors that she used a fraudulent visa).  She repeated these facts orally during the course of her asylum application process.

In interviews in connection with the investigation of this case, the complainant admitted that the above factual information, which she provided in connection with her asylum application, was false.  She stated that she fabricated the statement with the assistance of a male who provided her with a cassette recording of the facts contained in the statement that she eventually submitted.  She memorized these facts by listening to the recording repeatedly.  In several interviews with prosecutors, she reiterated these falsehoods when questioned about her history and background, and stated that she did so in order to remain consistent with the statement that she had submitted as part of her application.
Hundreds of millions of people would come to the United States if we had open borders.  Millions are willing to lie in order to come here.

If we allow thousands to enter the country because they fear death in their homelands, then many will lie about those threats, and some will succeed — perhaps with coaching — in getting permission to live here, by telling us lies.

So we now know how she got permission to live here, but I doubt that we will ever know exactly what happened in that hotel room.

(Note that there is, most likely, feedback in this asylum system.  When one person from a third world hellhole succeeds in getting into the United States by telling one kind of tale, then we can expect others to use the same tale, with minor variations.  By experiment, the "coaches" can figure out what tales fit our legal and bureaucratic requirements.

Letter by way of Megan McArdle.  McArdle says that the letter is in the Guardian.   It is, but she linked to the letter in the Globe and Mail.)
- 10:35 AM, 5 July 2011   [link]

$278,000 Per Job Saved?  If you read Drudge regularly, you probably came across that estimate of the high cost of the Obama-Pelosi-Reid "stimulus" package.
When the Obama administration releases a report on the Friday before a long weekend, it's clearly not trying to draw attention to the report's contents.   Sure enough, the "Seventh Quarterly Report" on the economic impact of the "stimulus," released on Friday, July 1, provides further evidence that President Obama's economic "stimulus" did very little, if anything, to stimulate the economy, and a whole lot to stimulate the debt.

The report was written by the White House's Council of Economic Advisors, a group of three economists who were all handpicked by Obama, and it chronicles the alleged success of the "stimulus" in adding or saving jobs.  The council reports that, using "mainstream estimates of economic multipliers for the effects of fiscal stimulus" (which it describes as a "natural way to estimate the effects of" the legislation), the "stimulus" has added or saved just under 2.4 million jobs — whether private or public — at a cost (to date) of $666 billion.  That's a cost to taxpayers of $278,000 per job.
The actual report is a little more complicated than that summary.

The CEA used two methods of estimating jobs, and the second, "statistical projection", gave them a higher estimate of jobs added or saved, 3.6 million.  If that were correct, it would lower the cost per job to $185,000.  But 3.6 million is higher than the five other estimates they cite, two from the Congressional Budget Office, and three from private firms.  (The CBO comes closest with their "high" estimate (3.3 million), but I suspect that is intended as an upper limit, since their "low" estimate (1.2 million) is the lowest of the seven.)

Even with the higher number, it does not look as though the OPR stimulus was an efficient job creator.   And a look at the tax cuts and spending in the package suggests some reasons why the package was inefficient.

As of the end of March, there had been $168.3 billion in individual tax cuts, $88.1 billion in AMT relief, and $32.4 billion in business tax cuts.  (And, no I don't know why they don't consider AMT relief individual tax cuts.)

Many economists believe that taxpayers react differently to temporary tax cuts than to permanent cuts.  Since the individual tax cuts were temporary, much of money would go, not to increases in spending, but to paying down debt or to saving.  The same would be true for AMT Relief, which keeps being extended, temporarily.

It's hard to say how many jobs the $32.4 billion in business tax cuts might have created or saved, without knowing more details on the cuts than the report provides.

The $126.1 billion that went to the states probably did preserve many public employee jobs — at their high levels of compensation.  Now that money has almost entirely gone away, many states are finding ways to cut compensation, though not necessarily pay, without laying off workers.   (For example, it is correct, though not politically correct, to say that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker saved many public employee jobs.  The alternative to his plan, given Republican control of the legislature, was massive layoffs of public workers.)

Finally, as even Obama admits, the $161.9 billion spent on infrastructure has had disappointing results.  There just aren't that many "shovel ready" jobs in building infrastructure, and the tangle of federal and state bureaucracies makes it almost impossible to spend money on new projects quickly, strange as that seems.

(Incidentally, I saw a study decades ago (probably in Public Interest) that found that every post-World War II president, including Reagan, had tried to stimulate the economy by stepping up spending on infrastructure — and every one of them had failed.

One oddity:  As Anderson notes, according to the report, in the last six months the stimulus has cost 288,000 jobs.  The report doesn't explain why the stimulus has been working in reverse in recent months, and I can't guess why it would be.

Here's a description of some of the tax breaks in the package.)
- 7:43 AM, 5 July 2011   [link]

Pictures Of Previous 4ths:  From Life magazine.

(By way of the BBC.   I went there wondering what they would have to say about this holiday, and found that they had decided — perhaps to be safe — not to say anything at all.  I suspect many at the BBC think we should be a little less independent.)
- 6:44 PM, 4 July 2011   [link]

Happy 4th Of July!  Thanks, in part, to these men marching in Kirkland's 4th of July parade.

Kirkland 2011 4th of July parade

Cross posted at Sound Politics .
- 3:04 PM, 4 July 2011   [link]

Beldar Makes More Sense than "Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale" Bruce Ackerman.
Prof. Ackerman seems to see the government lawyers advising the President as some sort of official priesthood whose special blessings are essential prerequisites to the legitimate exercise of presidential power under the Constitution.  And if the wrong priests are being relied upon, Prof. Ackerman seems to believe that this President's actions, and those of future Presidents, may become some sort of legal heresy.  Ackerman scolds: "Mr. Obama is creating a decisive and dangerous precedent for the next commander in chief who is unlikely to have the Harvard Law Review on his résumé" — as if that credential has some constitutional significance.

But that's just silly.  Whether they're from the Office of Legal Counsel or the Department of Defense any other unit of government, those lawyers are no more than advisers.  Neither Barack Obama nor any other POTUS needs even one lawyer to bless what he's done or opine that it's okay — and that doesn't vary a whit based on whether the POTUS is or isn't also a lawyer.
If you believe in democracy, that is.

The comparison to a priesthood is, I think, exactly right.  And it shows us why debates over these questions are so often unproductive.

(Here's the Ackerman op-ed, if you want more context.)
- 4:26 PM, 3 July 2011   [link]

The Ecological Advantages Of Fossil Fuels:  Fossil fuels have significant ecological advantages (along with their well-known disadvantages), as Matt Ridley reminds us.
Fossil fuels have well known disadvantages, but this is one of their easily overlooked benefits.   By substituting oil and coal for horses and firewood, we have relieved the pressure on greenery to supply our needs.  By using gas to make fertilizer, we can feed ourselves from a smaller acreage, leaving more acres for other species.
. . .
[R]ich economies tend to boost plant growth, especially on farms, through fertilizer and irrigation.   In some cases they do so to such effect that even a large human appropriation still leaves lots for other wildlife.  Italy, for example, has more forest cover than it did 50 years ago, yet produces more food.
Forest cover, as those who have studied the history of the dry lands around the Mediterranean know, is often essential for preventing erosion.

(You can find more of Ridley's cheerful thoughts in The Rational Optimist, a fine book with a great title.)
- 3:56 PM, 3 July 2011   [link]

More Evidence That We Need better arithmetic classes in our grade schools.
But the Mariners and Padres might still be playing had not San Diego's Cameron Maybin gotten a walk on just three balls from Mariners starter Doug Fister in the fifth inning.
. . .
Maybin was granted an extra ball while batting with one out in the fifth inning.

The at-bat began with a clearly called strike, a swinging strike, a foul, a ball and then another foul.

It then continued with a curve thrown by Fister that Bard had to block.  At that point, the scoreboard mistakenly went from a count of 1-2 to 3-2.

"I looked up and it was 3-2 and I just thought I missed a pitch," said Mariners manager Eric Wedge.  "Nobody reacted to it, nobody did anything when he went to first base, so I felt like I was in the wrong.  But obviously that wasn't the case."

The next pitched missed high and Maybin took off for first.
And then scored the winning run a few plays later.

What surprises me most about this is that both the pitcher and the catcher accepted the scoreboard, rather than their own counts.

(That error in the last sentence is a nice touch, though almost certainly unintentional.)
- 10:00 AM, 3 July 2011   [link]

Fake Boarding Passes Will Work Some Times:  People seem shocked by this story.
A Nigerian stowaway who flew from New York to Los Angeles with an expired boarding pass in someone else's name was carrying at least 10 different boarding passes, according to the FBI agent who took him into custody.

Not one of the boarding passes was in the name of Olajide Oluwaseun Noibi, who acknowledged sneaking aboard a Virgin America flight on June 23, officials said.  He was arrested as he tried to board a Delta flight from Los Angeles to Atlanta on Wednesday.
But they shouldn't be.  (Although, like almost everyone else, I do hope that the FBI discovers how he was able to get those passes, and what he was trying to do.)

The people who check boarding passes, and identification, are doing a routine job for not very much pay.  Naturally, some of them will begin to treat it routinely, and stop looking as hard at the details as they should.  (And even if they were paid more, and trained better, they might still fail from time to time.  Radiologists sometimes miss cancers when they examine x-rays, in spite of all their training and experience.)

Isaac Asimov tells a funny story that shows just how routine those checks can become.  During World War II, Asimov worked at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, along with fellow science fiction writers Robert Heinlein and L. Sprague de Camp.   Unlike Asimov, de Camp wanted a career in the Navy.  One day, he and Asimov arrived at the Navy Yard, and de Camp discovered that he had forgotten his badge.  This was a serious offense, which might hurt his career chances, so Asimov lent de Camp his badge and took the penalty instead.  Asimov's badge got de Camp through the gate with no problems, even though the two men didn't look anything like each other.

This story wasn't unique, probably not even all that unusual.  During World War II, a reporter, having heard that security at a defense plant was weak, had a badge made up with a picture of Adolf Hitler.  He, too, had no problem getting past the guards.

Any security system that uses people to check thousands of other people will fail from time to time, especially if those checks become routine.

(Asimov tells this story in his second joke collection, which contains jokes that were mostly not good enough for his first collection.)
- 7:03 AM, 1 July 2011   [link]