Friday, September 30, 2005

Friday Annotated Random Ten

by Tom Bozzo

Section 25Back To Wonder (12" Version)From The Hip
April MarchSugar (Dust Brothers Remix)
Chrominance Decoder
The Wedding PresentIt's What You Want That MattersGeorge Best
The Jasmine Minks
Playing For Keeps
Scratch The Surface
New Order
Minor Threat
In My Eyes (*)
Minor Threat: Complete Discography CD
The Jesus & Mary Chain
In A Hole
The Chills
BiteKaleidoscope World
The Pastels
Breaking Lines
Up For A Bit With The Pastels
The Mekons
Johnny MinerSo Good It Hurts

This feature is in honor of my old radio show, which pursued connections and sources for contemporary alternative rock. It's still on the air, with my former co-host Steve Klinge at the helm, and is webcast at 8 P.M. (Eastern) Tuesdays at WVUD, University of Delaware.

(*) Times Select subscription required, damnit. The Unofficial Paul Krugman Archive, sadly, is also only providing links to the articles behind the subscription wall.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Must... Not... Revel!

by Tom Bozzo

Looks like my vice of the week for next week will be enjoying this waaay too much, like to the extent of sending a Golden Winger nomination e-mail to The Editors. Oh, the shoot-from-the-hip nonsense! The digging-the-hole-deeper, with added aggrievement! Icing on the cake: an "ideological view of the Court" irrevocably embraced by 22 Democrats — on Sept. 29, 2005!

The decaf was flying out of my nose at that one.

Coming At You From The Econoverse (Maybe): The Consumption Tax

by Tom Bozzo

(Warning, long and possibly wonky economics post ahead. Feel free to skip to the baby pictures and snarky comments on car marketing below, if you are so inclined.)

A consumption tax has been a darling of long standing for some economists. The main idea, as articulated by Alan Greenspan here, is that taxing consumption as opposed to income — thereby deferring tax on saved income until it's consumed — increases saving (by lowering the price of future consumption relative to present consumption) and, by extension, investment and economic growth.

The forms of consumption taxes can vary widely, from increases in energy taxes (not a bad idea, lest any impression to the contrary arise from the folowing discussion), to national sales taxes or Euro-style VATs. The IMF has actually been trying to press the U.S. to adopt some or all to straighten out the budget deficit mess. One idea with more than a little currency is to replace the income tax system entirely with a "progressive consumption tax." This is often presented as a simplification of the income tax system in that you just subtract (net) saving off of income to obtain "consumption," probably further subtract some personal exemptions, hit the result against a tax table, and voilà, a tax return in ten lines or less.

While some forms of consumption taxes are "regressive" in that they disproportionately fall on the not-rich who have little choice but to consume most or all of their income in order to live, the rates in a "progressive consumption tax" (as the name suggests) can be set to ensure that the rich pay their fair share to roughly the same extent as in a progressive income tax system. Moreover, the top tax rates would specifically discourage some of the conspicuous consumption the emulation of which drives portions of the non-rich classes to the poor house, making some forms of consumption taxation amenable even to left-of-center economists like Mark Thoma and Cornell's Robert Frank (author of Luxury Fever). (*)

You might ask, if this is such a damn great idea, why wasn't it implemented yesterday? There are a few candidate answers:

1. Just wait. The tax reform commission launched earlier this year is due to report its findings soon, notwithstanding the various preoccupations of the Bushist "policy" shop. Given that promoting savings and growth are explicitly listed elements of its remit, its quite conceivable that consumption taxation in some form will be among the recommendations.

2. There are big transition issues (also cited by Greenspan), particularly relating to the treatment of assets acquired under the income tax system. Really, any material tax reform will have some sort of transition problem, since even if the system were designed to be as distributionally neutral as possible, someone's oxen will be gored and the Flying Spaghetti Monster help the politicians who do it.

3. As a replacement for income taxation, consumption taxes aren't obviously so great after all.


I'll make some of the case for #3, if you'll bear with me. One problem is that the simplicity argument in favor of a consumption-tax replacement for the income tax can be a chimera: The simpler the consumption tax in the length-of-the-tax-form sense, the less clear it is that its economic distortions are smaller than those from a well-designed income tax. That leads to the more fundamental question: is a sea-change in the tax system really necessary?

That measuring net savings is potentially complex is well-enough known that it's mentioned in pro-consumption tax sources like this EconLib article. The solution proffered by the article's author — a sort of unlimited IRA, given the stunning success of accounting for retirement fund distributions — amounts to little more than a wave of a magic wand. Tax-deferred retirement accounts, after all, have relatively predictable patterns of contributions and distributions; moreover, most people only have so many of them. Under a consumption tax, it becomes necessary to track and net out all contributions and distributions from every possible savings vehicle. This doesn't bother me, but then again I can figure out my AMT on my own if I have to. I would predict a bonanza for tax preparers and tax software providers.

There also arises an issue of just where does consumption end and saving begin. It's not so simple. Traditional savings vehicles like bank accounts may be straightforward, but what about paying not-necessarily-rational market prices for various assets? Would it be necessary for the tax authorities to pre-qualify all savings vehicles to ensure that an "investment" in cousin-in-law Bernie's start-up company isn't a tax-avoidance scam? What part, if any, of a mortgage payment is saving?

Nor is it necessarily easy to measure economic consumption. "Non-durable goods" like the salad I ate yesterday are consumed in trivial fractions of a tax year. However, consumer "durable" goods like appliances, cars, and (in some respects) houses account for large shares of expenditures and are mostly consumed in tax periods other than the year of purchase.

If the consumption tax is essentially a cash-flow tax (i.e., simpler from an accounting perspective), then it will tend to overtax durables in the year(s) of purchase, and then undertax them once they're paid off, in the sense that the full tax would be due up front even though the economic consumption occurs over the entire life of the good. This could be seen variously as excessively discouraging durable goods acquisition, or encouraging the universal purchase of durables with long-term credit to minimize the bite from high consumption tax rates. Did I mention that for a given level of revenue, consumption tax rates would need to be much higher than income tax rates, other things equal, given that consumption represents a smaller tax base than income?

The more economically efficient alternative of gradually taxing durable goods consumption would itself be a colossal administrative undertaking, as it would be necessary to keep detailed records of durable-goods purchases over the long term, classify goods for the purposes of applying depreciation curves, calculate depreciation, and so on. Again, this is not necessarily so simple.

As for the necessity argument, since a consumption tax system eliminates tax distortions affecting savings returns at the cost of increasing them (via higher tax rates) in various goods markets, the net benefits would appear to be ambiguous. Reasonable assumptions in the matter would suggest that moderate tax rates don't materially discourage would-be investors and entrepreneurs from getting rich (see: 1990s); also many if not most people don't take full advantage of their existing opportunities for tax-deferred saving when arguably they should. I wonder how much saving really is discouraged by taxation as opposed to other factors — stagnant wages, less job security, etc.

So I'm not especially inclined to buy. I'd prefer a simplified progressive income tax that traded off some of the present mess of deductions, credits, and tax-preferenced forms of income for as low a set of rates, applied to a broad income base, as will approximately balance the federal budget along 'trend' growth. (That'll require a lot more revenue than is presently being raised, in the absence of a reversion to fiscal discipline among the ruling classes.) To be sold, I'd need convincing that any feasible consumption tax will outperform that counterfactual.

(*) What's perhaps most interesting about Frank's article is that he proposes an untraditional mechanism by which the consumption tax might promote savings. The progressive rate structure would tend to reduce consumption inequality which, Frank argues, pushes people to spend themselves into oblivion to try to keep up with higher-income, higher-consuming peers who ratchet up general expectations of what constitutes a reasonable lifestyle. Social acceptance of financially modest consumption is, then, a collective good that's under-provided by the "market."

Discussing Frank's article, Mark Thoma doesn't completely buy the collective good argument , and I'd certainly view the need for a tax remedy to the "problem" with extreme suspicion, but I'm not inclined to dismiss the relevance of the social context of consumption.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Wednesday Baby Extra: Kids With Blocks

by Tom Bozzo

Julia tames the Crazy Mutant Fly. The Legless Giraffe has already succumbed...

John with Stephanie the SST (still under construction).

Perpetuation of Delusions Watch

by Tom Bozzo

It had to happen sometime. Someone arrived at this blog yesterday after searching the term "worlds smallest penises" at That led the visitor to this post on the proposed fuel economy standards for trucks and SUVs, with thanks due to the Angry Sicilian's comments. Delicious.

Speaking of which, via AutoWeek's daily news, Mercedes-Benz marketers prepare to stroke the egos of men in the demographic least in need of ego-stroking: 50 to 55 years old who are either self-employed or in high managerial positions.
The article claims that 90% of S-Class buyers fall into that group, which is such a narrow in age range that it stretches my credulity (two questions: how many of them replace their S with another one, and after how long on average?).

Sensitive souls might want a barf bag ready here:
AutoWeek: It's a Guy Thing: Mercedes to stress technology of new S-Class, target high-earning males: Mercedes- Benz doesn't think its new technology- laden S-Class will impress many women. So it won't address them in the marketing campaign for the flagship sedan...

"This is a pure male domain," said Justus Schneider, Mercedes-Benz's director of worldwide marketing communications. "We have never given serious thought to addressing women."

The S-class marketing slogan is "Be Ahead." This aims to reflect the image of the typical S-class buyer as being "farsighted and in command" and a person who recognizes technological advances ahead of others, Schneider said.
They're not that in command, though:
A globally distributed TV commercial shows an S-Class driver avoiding a crash because the car's safety features warn him.
Just what the world needs: cars that let would-be masters of the universe drive more distracted. Oh well, I suppose it's better for whomever they hit.

Almost makes me want to get a Civic. (Suzanne, you didn't read that.)

Nice Work If You Can Get It

by Tom Bozzo

Last night, I was talking to my brother Steve about the kids, and he noted with some disappointment that his Little Brother never really got into Legos, some effort on Steve's part to promote them among their various activities. I've been starting early on the kids in hopes of directing them — ahem — appropriately. So far, so good, as John was, in a stream of warming-daddy's-heart moments, incessantly repeating "Daddy, that is COOL!" as we continued work on the construction of Stephanie the SST (bringing gender equality to Sodor aviation) before dinner yesterday evening.

Still, we are (or it feels like we are) basically freaks who limit TV to the extent practicable, and have all but banished electronic noisemaking toys for the preservation of our sanity if not the kids' hearing.

For some evidence that it's actually a problem broad enough to attract the attention of traditional toys' marketers, I had just seen that the Lego clone brand Mega Bloks has commissioned a clinical study to show the effects of block play on toddlers' development and TV-watching habits. A favorable clinical trial result, they may hope, will do for building blocks what the idea that classical music is good for early child development did for the Baby Einstein company. I won't even go to the possibility that hardcore Lego partisans might not be wishing them so much success. (Much of Mega Bloks' claim to fame is its willingness to take on contemporary martial subjects that, Dino Attack notwithstanding, Lego still officially avoids. They also were much earlier to use low-cost Wal-Mart friendly Chinese production than Lego, which is just now heading to Asia and lower-cost corners of the EU under financial duress.)

A study abstract is here (PDF). I'm struck that the researchers are really likely to be measuring parental behavior as much as anything. It's not that John didn't show preferences for some toys over others in the 18-30 month range, but clearly we had lots of influence on his playthings. That goes double for the Tube. While he had mastered its basic controls early on, it was up to us, after all, to teach him that he didn't have unlimited leave to use them. As the study design includes periodic parental prodding with reminders to play with the blocks, it would seem that unless the blocks were a pure substitute for traditional toys (unlikely), there should be some decrement of TV-watching observed in the treatment group. It'll be interesting to see how practical and statistical significance might be discerned in the results.

The Candidates

by Tom Bozzo

Is it that time already?

Jay at Folkbum reminds me that Bryan Kennedy, who also ran against F. James Sensenbrenner in 2004, is already at it with TV ads highlighting Sensenbrenner's saintly opposition to Hurricane Katrina aid.

I've said before that I almost feel sorry for F. Jim on this one. His notional reason for voting against was an absence of controls to ensure that the taxpayer's money was well spent. This is an entirely founded concern, as Mark Thoma observes the pigs lobbyists lining up at the trough over at Economist's View. The problem with this, of course, is that F. Jim is a senior Republican, so if he can't get Denny Hastert to insert sensible financial control provisions in the House bill, he either didn't have them to insert or is otherwise totally useless. As I said, almost.

Best of luck to Kennedy. He'll need it, as the WI-5 includes much of Milwaukee's heavily Republican suburban sprawl.

I've also been asked by a friend in D.C. to consider giving some financial love to Jamie Wall, who is running against paleoconservative Assembly strongman John Gard for the open and thus in principle more contestable seat in the eighth district. Wall was an intern in the guy who should be president's (*) domestic policy shop in ancient times. Ah, for the days when the administration had policies.

Wall's site is pretty bare-bones for now, though it's not too bad of an idea, as such things go, for Wall to project himself as the in-touch guy with business experience and a love of the north woods, versus carpetbagger-career-politician — not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that — from Sun Prairie (who moreover looks like he's sucked on a lemon after an already-bad day in every photo I've seen of him) Gard. Heck, it might have worked for Tim Michels had Michels actually had "ideas" and thus not looked so much like an empty suit next to Feingold.

Keeping Gard out of the federal government would be a very good idea, so I am receptive to the plea.

Addendum: Stacie Rosenzweig has some discussion of WI-8 candidate Steve Kagen over at the Vast Dairy State Conspiracy, and a commenter there speaks favorably of Nancy Nusbaum, a former mayor of DePere and two-term Brown County executive, who presumably has name recognition advantage over the rest of the field.

(*) I am, of course, talking about the guy who, under a more accurate Florida voting system, would have won the electoral as well as the popular vote in 2000.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Quick Beatification Watch (F. James Sensenbrenner Edition)

by Tom Bozzo

Wisconsin's fifth Congressional district needs its own Paul Hackett.
New York Times: Storm Victims May Face Curbs On Bankruptcy: When Congress agreed this spring to tighten the bankruptcy laws and crack down on consumers who took on debt irresponsibly, no one had the victims of Hurricane Katrina in mind. [No kidding.]


But House Republicans, who fought off a proposed amendment that would have made bankruptcy filings easier for victims of natural disasters, said there was no reason to carve out a broad exemption just because of the storm.

Representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, rejected the notion of reopening the legislation, saying it already included provisions that would ensure that people left "down and out" by the storm would still be able to shed most of their debts. Lawmakers who lost the long fight over the law, he said, "ought to get over it," according to The Associated Press.

A saint among men, that F. Jim.

Gender Dynamics on the Island of Sodor

by Tom Bozzo

I have to revise my view of the Thomas universe negative. It has been ambivalent. I noted the following in regard to the economic system of the island of Sodor in comments here:
...I think the message that even the obsolescent can make themselves Really Useful is not oversupplied by the zeitgeist. On the other hand, there's the Sodor aristocracy, and the implicit threat that the less-useful will be sent to the breakers... so maybe they're insecure mainly because of oppression from Sir Topham Hatt.
However, in a subsequent comment, Kim notes:
It's the gender dynamics that get me. Male engines outnumber female engines, what, 5:1? And the few female engines tend to be either bossy know-it-alls (Emily) or silent-but-beautiful trophies (Lady). All the drivers and workpeople are male. The only female human characters that I've seen are the Duchess of Whatever, who is completely indispensible, and Lady Hatt, who is always off shopping. Best of all, though, are the female coaches (e.g., Annie, Clarabel, Henrietta) who are *given* to male engines as a reward for being Really Useful.

It's no wonder that my three-year old announced to me, "Mommie, only GUYS can be train engineers." To a sometimes student of sex segregation in the workplace, this was nearly grounds for signing the adoption papers...
Excellent points. I'd be curious to find out how Thomas made the leap to TV without any significant updating of the '40's British social system.

Great Moments in Perfect Foresight

by Tom Bozzo

Alan Greenspan, still failing to convince me that the world would have ended had the next smartest monetary policy technocrat taken his job...
New York Times: Most Homeowners Not Overly in Debt, Fed Chief Says: With new evidence that the housing market remained red hot last month, Alan Greenspan said on Monday that the vast majority of homeowners are not yet stretched too thin...

...Mr. Greenspan argued that only about 5 percent of all families have borrowed more than 90 percent of the value of their houses.

"The vast majority of homeowners have a sizable equity cushion with which to absorb a potential decline in house prices," he said. Mr. Greenspan told a banking conference on Monday that speculation in the housing market may have spilled over into the mortgage markets as more and more people use interest-only loans and other techniques to buy homes they might otherwise be unable to afford.

"The dramatic increase in the prevalence of interest-only loans, as well as the introduction of other, more exotic forms of adjustable-rate mortgages, are developments that bear close scrutiny," he said.
The train went that-a-way, big guy.

It bears noting that we, personally, have what would evidently count as a "sizeable equity cushion" by virtue of having deliberately eschewed properties and mortgage products which, in appropriate combination, we could have fooled some mortgage underwriter into thinking we could afford. But in the markets that are showing the most signs of "froth" even to the sunniest market boosters, not doing that is S.O.P. — and it's alarmingly common elsewhere, I'm sure.

All this really ensures is that we won't be the last suckers. If I want a reason to get out the hard hat, I need only consider the possible willingness, in a steep recession, of lenders to allow jobless homeowners to use their dwindling home equity as a piggybank of last resort.

Monday, September 26, 2005

That Blame-The-Regulator Reflex Is Strong

by Tom Bozzo

AutoWeek recently called the forthcoming 2007 Jaguar XK "badassed and beautiful." Who is to blame for this piece of crap?

Why, those darn safety regulators, says designer Ian Callum. The XK reflects the influences of new European pedestrian-safety regulations that, among other things, require minimum amounts of space between crushable surfaces like automobile hoods and unyielding masses like engine blocks. This has led to plenty of fretting about the regs' effects on sports-coupe comsetics, and I have to say that if this is the result, then it really ain't so bad.

Likewise, Callum complains that the roofline could have been ever so much sleeker but for a U.S. regulation — intended to help protect unbelted occupants in a crash — that requires the windshield header to be located 20 mm higher than the designer's optimum. I'm hard pressed to see an economic loss that the potential for a few less cracked skulls wouldn't offset, even though I'm not brimming with advance sympathy for seat belt non-users. For one thing, Porschephiles were willing for decades to buy 911 models (i.e, pre-1999) whose windshield rakes were truckish by modern standards. For that matter, a lot of automobile rooflines have been rising simply to accommodate better the big melons of tall Americans.

Of course, if anyone reading this does end up buying an XK and finds you simply can't live with the hood or windshield header height, I am willing to take the car off your hands at absolutely no charge, thereby absorbing the entirety of the aesthetic loss.

News Flash: Toddlers Can Be Mercurial

by Tom Bozzo

The latest on the Thomas space program is that following its abrupt cancellation after nap yesterday, after breakfast this morning Viscount John wanted to know where the Thomas spaceship was after all. He wasn't interested in hearing that we were engaged with other projects yesterday evening. Plus, he was about to send the incomplete lower fuselage of Stephen the SST (who actually will use a hypersonic lifting body design — nothing but the best for the Duke and Duchess!) to the breakers before I informed him of the magnitude of the contract cancellation charges he'd owe.

We may need to convey a lesson on the technical difficulty of putting steam locomotives into orbit while chemical rockets remain the sole available launch technology. The project may be scaled back to a heavy air transport for the peak oil era: let's call this one Zachary the Solar-Powered Zeppelin.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Space Program Canceled!

by Tom Bozzo

Only eight hours after its announcement, the program to build a Thomas the Tank Engine spaceship was terminated by the boy, who emphatically DIDN'T want me to work on the project after he got up from his nap.

John did, however, still want a "spaceship," so I went to work on building Stephen the SST, the private aircraft of the Duke and Duchess.

Efficacy of the Physics Diet: The Case of Milo (Feline)

by Tom Bozzo

The oldest and least often depicted of our children is on a diet. When we brought him home from the Humane Society, Milo was a young adult cat of roughly 8-1/2 lb who'd spent a fair amount of his life to that point on the streets. The guy who handled the adoption, a slip of a fellow himself who kept twenty feral cats in an apartment the size of a large pet carrier (*), assayed our beast and thought he could stand to lose a few ounces.

In any event, the good life in Nakoma agreed with Milo, and by the time John was born, he had made his way to something in the vicinity of 13-14 lb. The steady increases were getting us a little grief at the vet visits. He is seen here a couple days before John was born, at his nearest point to homelessness since his adoption (he'd bitten Suzanne the week before):

The rapprochement was to feed the cat on demand, under the theory that a skinny but mean cat was going to have more problems than a tut-tutting vet, especially with a new baby in the house. He'd made it to about 17 lb. as of election time — twice the cat he once was:

Still, with more cats and especially a lot more dogs in the new neighborhood, it was clear that Milo wasn't seeing the sights quite the way he used to. Frequent visitors could tell he was adding mass with some alacrity:

The weigh-in just north of 21 lb. at last month's checkup led the vet to read me a short version of the Riot Act. We could try to get him to shed some weight by normal means, otherwise in addition to costing us an extra $10/month to keep the house free of fleas (as he needs a second tube of the flea-killing stuff, but still a bargain at an arbitrary multiple of the price) we'd have to put him on a special diet of only-sold-at-the-vet cat food instead of the Iams Weight Control (**).

Even though he gets some oil in his diet to try to keep his coat shiny and dander-free, the Shangri-La Diet was out of the question. The only choice really was to actually measure his food and hope neither we nor the local rodent population didn't suffer too much for it. I would have to conclude that hunting is either tough going, not a high net calorie activity, or some combination, as his one-month weigh-in was at 20 lb. 5 oz. -- 3/4 lb. down.

So far, he's taken the limited diet, well, like a cat. He hasn't eaten us yet, but he's probably thinking about it.

(*) Comic exaggeration here as neither of us can remember the exact details.

(**) This is the only example I can think of where a product whose name was euphemistic became less so. This was once called "Less Active," which I suppose confused people who thought it was only for geriatric cats.

Dialogues of the Toddlers

by Tom Bozzo

An occasional series.

John: Daddy, what are you going to make with all those Legos?
Daddy: I don't know, how about a spaceship?
John: OK. Who's the spaceship for?
Daddy: Um... how about Kid Astro [for those of you who don't follow the links, the grade-school Ziggy Stardust from the penultimate Ralph's World album]?
John: No, not Kid Astro.
Daddy: Then how about Kid John?
John: (Insistently, almost to the point of panic) NO!! NOT for mE!
Daddy: Well, who should the spaceship be for, big guy?
John: Thomas [the Frickin' Tank Engine].
Daddy: You want me to build a Lego spaceship for Thomas?
John: Yeah.
Daddy: I'll have to think about that...

Stay tuned.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

"Arrested Development" Is A Very Funny Television Program

by Tom Bozzo

Please watch it. Well, actually 4.6 million people did, according to the Nielsen ratings, but that's probably considered a disappointment — even if Suzanne and I are worth at least a couple dozen "American Idol"-watching teenagers in actual purchasing power.

In a way, what the show needs is a cable channel that would consider a 2.0 rating to be a bonanza, or a Seinfeldian lead-in to compliment.

Anyway, it's hard to pick a favorite moment from the season premiere. I might choose one not mentioned in this summary: the "Mission Accomplished" banner at the party to celebrate an upgrade of the Bluth Company stock from "sell" to "don't buy." Then again, I love the show in part for its extended allegory of the Bush years.

Really, please watch! Especially if you are part of the Nielsen panel.

Mondays, 8 P.M. Eastern, 7 Central, on Fox.

Friday, September 23, 2005

FEMA To South-Central Wisconsin: Cheney You!

by Tom Bozzo

The disaster aid request for the Stoughton tornado was turned down. I guess Tommy Thompson shouldn't have left the cabinet.

Dialogues of the Toddlers

by Tom Bozzo

Scene: In the car, driving home.

You know your child is ready for bed when...

Daddy: John, you were such a good boy at the [Harmony Bar, where we met several friends for pizza and beer].
John: I am NOT a boy, EITHER [pronounced EEEVER]!!
John: The air is dark.
Mommy: Yes, the sun went to bed.
John: Yeah.


by Tom Bozzo

Oy. This was to have been, perhaps amazingly, my first full weekend of solo dad time with John in his nearly three years. That will have to wait a month or so: Suzanne was scheduled to go to Dallas to visit a friend who has a new baby, with Julia in tow, and there was just no way it was worth flying off into the fringes of the impending Hurricane Rita disaster. It feels like a found weekend up here with this morning's crisp early fall conditions.

But we're fortunate to have the choice not to fly into the storm. This is looking like a double disaster for one of Suzanne's cousins, who has been working as an OB/GYN resident at Tulane U. Hospital. Her parents live in the Houston area. Suzanne's uncle from Houston writes:
...To give you just a little background on Wednesday most gas stations were out of fuel and most stores were out of or running low of most commodities. I spent two hours trying to find gas and was lucky enough to see a tank truck pulling into a station. Pretty much the same thing at the grocery stores as the first 3 had no water, ice or bread. While visiting the 4th a truck arrived with these essentials and people stood in line to get them. I truly never thought I would see this kind of situation, especially in a city with a population of 4 million people.

Fast forward to Thursday and we load up 4 cars with 9 people and five dogs and all things necessary... We live in the northwest part of Harris county and are planning on taking I - 45 north. That is approx. 10 miles east of us and we head out. As we approach I - 45 traffic slows to a crawl and the last mile takes us about an hour. At this point we trying to stay in a caravan with me leading as you all know I'm the most competent navigator. The road at this point is 6 lanes northbound and traffic is crawling. However the good news is that approx. 15 miles north of this point they are opening all lanes, the terminology they use is contra-flow, to northbound traffic. We crawl for hour upon hour and six hours later have yet to reach the promised land of contra-flow. It's 100 hundred degrees and cars are dropping like flies because of various reasons, many have run out of fuel.

A couple of weeks ago I watched the horror that developed in New Orleans and really had a hard time comprehending how people could descend into that kind of behavior. After today I understand the process and how it comes about. As the afternoon progressed and people became more and more frustrated with the situation they began to do things that ordinarily you would not see. I sensed that with nightfall fast approaching we could soon be in real jeopardy. By this time we had all been split up not by choice but by the circumstances and communicating by cell phone was hit and miss because the systems were overloaded. [X] had been on the phone with his good friend [Y] in Dallas who was monitoring the situation on I - 45 and conveyed that the situation was the same all the way to Dallas which equated into a 3 day trip to reach there.

Given this dire scenario and after discussing the options we came to a consensus that returning home would be the best option. Of course as the leader of the pack I was able to exit first, even though a local law enforcement officer told me over his loudspeaker I should stop, yeah right. The southbound feeder road was open and I was back to the road we had entered I - 45 in less than 15 minutes, it seemed as if we were in a time warp. The entire trip took about 30 minutes and home never looked so good.

It's Thursday evening and you wouldn't know anything out of the ordinary is about to happen here, moonlit sky and still very warm. I know we made the best decision this afternoon as many people will be spending the night stranded in the middle of nowhere with a serious storm bearing down upon them. I hope this finds all of you doing well and you will say a prayer for all of us about to meet Rita.
Amen. We wish them a safe few days.

Friday Directed Random Ten

by Tom Bozzo

Inspiral Carpets
Move In
Move E.P.
Walk Into The Sea
The Great Destroyer
The Bats
Round And Down
Daddy's Highway
West Of The Fields
The Flatmates
I Don't Care
Love And Death
Decca Reprise
For Love
The Wedding Present
Blessed State
New Order

The universe for the Random Ten is now up to 2,004 songs, per the iPod. Curiously, it disagrees with iTunes on the track count; the latter says I have an a propos 2,005 songs in the library. Another iTunes mystery is why some albums can be converted much faster than others. The old PowerBook was constrained by its processing capabilities; not so the iMac. Some albums blast into the library at nearly 20x normal playback speed, while others struggle along at the 5x speeds typical of PowerBook operations. I wonder why this is. As much of my collection is what would now be considered classic rock in some circles, have wondered if I might be at risk of laser rot, but I haven't noticed a solid correlation between CD age and importation speed.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Next Accomplishment: Walking and Chewing Gum at the Same Time

by Tom Bozzo

In mid-August, a big tornado killed one person and damaged or destroyed a few hundred houses in Madison's southern exurbs. Has the response reflected any post-Katrina chastening of the Bush administration's disaster handlers? Let's see...
The Capital Times: No word from Bush on twister aid here: [F]rustrated officials in Wisconsin are still awaiting word from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the White House if federal disaster relief will be coming here in the aftermath of the tornadoes that struck more than a month ago.

Gov. Jim Doyle sent a request to President Bush on Aug. 25 to have Dane, Vernon and Richland counties declared disaster areas so residents, businesses and local governments could become eligible for federal aid...

U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, has staff calling FEMA every day...

What makes the situation more frustrating is how fast a similar disaster declaration was made out West in August, before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.

According to FEMA reports on its Web site, Bush declared Wright, Wyo., a disaster area on Aug. 22, 10 days after the town of 1,500 people was struck by a tornado. Two people died, 60 homes were destroyed and another 60 damaged in Wright.

Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal requested the emergency declaration Aug. 17 and got it from Bush five days later.

Doyle sent his letter to Bush a week after more than two dozen tornadoes swept through three counties, including a massive twister that struck near Stoughton. One man died, another woman's death was hastened by injuries, 67 homes were destroyed and more than 400 homes were damaged.

Getter said if no action is taken on Doyle's request within a month after the request is made, the request is disallowed. The one-month deadline is Saturday.

"They have always made a determination within two weeks," Getter said of FEMA, adding that a 'no' answer would be better than no answer.

"If it's 'no,' we can look at other methods of aid, such as getting low-interest loans from the Small Business Administration," Getter said. [Emphasis added.]

Fascinatingly, Freudenthal is a Democrat. Though he would have at least one friend in a high place.

What is it Brad DeLong keeps saying about George W. Bush these days?

Oh yeah. Impeach George W. Bush. Impeach him now.

What About The Hours?

by Tom Bozzo

Via Conglomerate, here are some interesting historical data points on starting salaries for New York lawyers:
Conglomerate: Law Firm Salaries: Danny Sokol, who is here at Wisconsin as a Hastie Fellow, pointed me to this interesting passage from Marc Galanter & Thomas Palay, Tournament of Lawyers 24 (1991):
Starting salaries at the largest New York firms were uniform; the ‘going rate’ was fixed at a luncheon, attended by managing partners of prominent firms, held annually for this purpose. Salaries rose from $4,000 in 1953 to $7,500 in 1963. The era of the arranged ‘going rate’ and incremental raises ended abruptly in 1968 when the Cravath firm unilaterally raised salaries to $15,000 from a scheduled going rate of $10,500.
Just for fun, Danny adjusted the value of $4,000 in 1953 to present-day dollar[s] using the Consumer Price Index and came up with $27,840.02 (or $29,423.22 here). Kaimi Wenger, who just left Cravath for academe, tells me that associates at Cravath now start at roughly $125,000 per year and receive a bonus of around $15,000.

I got the larger figure converting the 1953 starting salary to 2005 dollars using the BLS CPI calculator.

A couple things are notable. First, when cartels work, they can work big, supposing Cravath's '68 adjustment to have moved pay in the direction of, but not in excess of, the value of the first year associates' marginal products. Another is how "real" (inflation-adjusted) salaries have changed since Cravath broke away from the salary-fixing cartel. Also using the CPI calculator, the 1963 salary converts to about $48,150 in 2005 dollars; the 1968 "going rate" converts to $59,220 now, with the 1968 post-cartel salary at Cravath worth $84,600.

From 1953 to 1963, then, the inflation-adjusted "going rate" increased by about 5% per year. The increases decelerated slightly, to 4.2% per year, up to 1968, at which point there was a one-shot 43% increase, at least at Cravath. (Q: when Cravath finked, did the other firms immediately follow suit?) Since then — it's been a long time since 1968 — the annual average increase in the "real" starting salary is only 1.37% (based on $140,000), or 1.06% p.a. excluding the signing bonus.

A commenter at Conglomerate wonders what the hours were like in 1968. So do I. The going rate itself, I'd assume, was rationalized in part as dues-paying en route to nice houses in Scarsdale and membership in clubs where the martini glasses were properly chilled and the staff would discreetly get members to their trains in the unfortunate event of overindulgence. (*) I'd think of the fifties and sixties work culture as being, by and large, less demanding of open-ended commitments of time to the office gods than at present — at least in theory, as I also believe that digital time-sucks give present-day employers who value maximum time-at-desk above all else their marginal productivity comeuppance — but I don't know to what extent law firms led or followed the broader phenomenon.

The hours question also bears on how well this group of young New York lawyers have done. As unexceptional as 1.37% real annual raises might seem, it's something like twice the increase, after inflation, of the wages and salaries component of the Employment Cost Index for white-collar workers over the last couple decades. (Yes, overall wage growth has sucked.) It's not so great, though, if they're being lashed to their desks to the tune of a few hundred extra hours a year versus their sixties predecessors.

(*) I'm thinking of "Harold Lampson," Jack Lemmon's attorney in How To Murder Your Wife, here. The first act of that movie makes it look really, really good to be a wealthy bachelor in 1960s New York.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Hey, It's Lurker Day!

by Tom Bozzo

Update: Spousal feedback suggests I was too subtle in the original post, below. I am, in fact, inviting regular visitors who are not regular commenters to say hello in the comments.


I'd been trying to remember how long it's been since International Blog Comment Week, the festival that encourages non-commenting visitors to say 'hey' to bloggers they read, but I see from Pharyngula that it's the nearly-as-good Lurker Day.

Unlike many of the big kids, I count visitors (when I'm counting) by the dozens rather than the hundreds or thousands, but that's enough that there must be a number of you out there who I don't even know in the senses afforded by the Internets. So if you are a regular but non-commenting visitor, please feel free to visit the comments and say 'hey,' who you are, why you're here, what you like or even hate (the baby pictures? the SUV bashing? the irregular posting schedule?)... whatever. Thanks!

It's Miscellaneous Picture Wednesday!

by Tom Bozzo

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then I'm substituting for some indeterminate amount of writing today.

Miscellaneous Picture Wednesday: Scene From A Beach

by Tom Bozzo

Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, which I hope global warming doesn't inundate too fast, August 2003.

That's Uncle Steve, a.k.a. my slightly younger brother, in the background.

Miscellaneous Picture Wednesday: Moments in Toddling History

by Tom Bozzo

John, at 19 months, by the pond at the UW's Allen Centennial Gardens. The poor fish, which were a big toddler draw early on, seem to have had a hard time over the last year or so.

Julia, at 11 months, getting ready to go.

Dept. Of 'That Was Fast'

by Tom Bozzo

It seems like only yesterday that I'd suggested that the Bush moon mission was actually a mission to gut the NASA budget. (It actually was yesterday.) Well, behold my powers of foresight!
New York Times: Lawmakers Prepare Plans to Finance Storm Relief: The list [of potential budget cuts suggested by the Republicans] also proposed eliminating the Moon-Mars initiative that NASA announced on Monday, for $44 billion in savings; ending support for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, $4 billion; cutting taxpayer payments for the national political conventions and the presidential election campaign fund, $600 million; and charging federal employees for parking, $1.54 billion. [Emphasis added.]

It's also nice to know that the national elections would become even bigger opportunities to shake down corporations and other moneybags under this initiative. It's not like we could use a clean-government initiative or anything.

Miscellaneous Picture Wednesday: The Missing Madison Landmark

by Tom Bozzo


The new Dane County courthouse, the tan building partly visible in the left background, has taken flak for blocking views of the Wisconsin Capitol from the John Nolen Drive approach to downtown — not to mention being a piece of crap public architecture. But here as seen from the lake, the Monona Terrace hotel (behind the right wing of Monona Terrace) does a crackerjack job of hiding the city's major landmark.

Miscellaneous Picture Wednesday: The Wicked Beast of the East

by Tom Bozzo


Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Mmmm, Googlicious

by Tom Bozzo

Having the Site Meter on for the fall traffic survey lets me see some of the funny ways some people find their way here from Google and other web search sites.

For instance, someone just got here by searching "moon+pork+nasa" on Technorati. Within a few minutes of that, I got a visit from the domain (not the first time for this visitor, I think). Do I need to clarify that I'm fundamentally pro-space exploration, but think human space flight is less scientifically useful than robotic exploration? I don't even mind the Prometheus nuclear power project, if it actually were used to bring advanced robotic probes like the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter to fruition.

The most common search terms leading here, perhaps not surprisingly, are variations on "marginal utility." This blog and the other Marginal Utility are both on the first page of Google search returns, which is topped by the Wikipedia page for marginal utility, which actually isn't great. Its 1995-ish layout notwithstanding, this Drexel U. page and its followers strikes me as a more useful presentation (looks like it's pitched at the level of an undergraduate intermediate micro course), if you came here looking for that and have made it this far.

Some other recent hits:

Change of Tune

by Tom Bozzo

GM's Robert Lutz, March 2005 (from the April 23 NYT, possibly free for Times Select subscribers):
"Everybody thinks high gas prices hurt sport utility sales," said Robert A. Lutz, the vice chairman of G.M., in an interview last month. "In fact they don't."
GM's Robert Lutz, at the Frankfurt Auto Show, September 2005 (from Automotive News, Sept. 20):
GM Vice Chairman Robert Lutz says higher fuel prices, if sustained, inevitably would push Americans toward smaller cars.

"If U.S. fuel prices start equaling fuel prices in Europe, we will have the same vehicle type over time that Europe does - a very large B-class at the bottom with the vast majority of people driving Cobalt-sized cars," Lutz said in an interview at the Frankfurt auto show.

The Bush Vision For NASA Budget Exploration

by Tom Bozzo

Writing at the almost always misnamed Total Drek, Slag reviews the now-with-professional-looking-artwork Bush moon mission and, well, yawns.

With a $104 billion 13-year price tag announced the week after it's been made clear that unprecedented amounts of federal money will clean up after the most expensive natural disaster in the country's history, I think I can safely upgrade my previous idle speculation that the Bushist space exploration vision [sic] is in fact a mission to discover NASA's minimum possible funding level to the status of a theory that will require significant legislative action to dislodge.

As we are occasionally wont to do, let's look at some public statements and budget numbers.

1. NASA Administrator Michael Griffin vigorously denies that Katrina relief will cancel NASA. As quoted in the Washington Post:
"But the space program is a long-term investment in our future. We must deal with our short-term problems while not sacrificing our long-term investments in our future. When we have a hurricane, we don't cancel the Air Force. We don't cancel the Navy. And we're not going to cancel NASA."
There are enough space geeks and space pork beneficiaries in Congress, including on the Republican side of the aisle, to keep that from happening anyway. Note that you don't need to eliminate NASA outright for the purposes of my theory.

2. Griffin states that NASA will live within its $16 billion budget (in constant dollars) "and not 'one thin dime' will be taken from science projects."

3. Statement 2 is basically impossible. Let's turn to the NASA budget. The moon mission as proposed will require a nice round $8 billion in annual average funding from now to the 2018 moon landing. This money just ain't there. In FY 2006, the NASA budget request is $16.5 billion. Excluding all of its budget categories with no nexus with the moon mission (space operations, aeronautics research, education, science excluding the "Solar System Exploration" line, and the "Exploration Systems" lines not directed to human spaceflight), there's only $3.86 billion (current dollars). A sizeable chunk of that is required for the robotic Solar System missions that generate the actual space science.

Even in FY 2010, at which point the planned retirement of the Space Shuttle will require that the RDT&E for the Crew Exploration Vehicle and its launcher, as well as a replacement cargo vehicle and its launcher, be well on its way lest the Russians and Chinese be awarded a duopoly in human spaceflight capability (*), there's only $6.37 billion (in FY 2010 dollars) available, and again that includes all of the Solar System Science money.

So go figure: by advanced mathematics, NASA will need more money or the science budgets will be raided. Or, the science budgets will still be raided and it'll be determined that there's no way Congress will shell out $100 billion to go back to the moon.

One upshot is that if you want to be a hero of libertarian space exploration, write an 11-figure check and mail to 1624 Flight Line, Mojave, CA 93501.

(*) That outcome is undesirable mainly to the extent of the weight one puts on the point of national pride.

Monday, September 19, 2005

I Got Mail! (On Social Security Privatization)

by Tom Bozzo

In another one of these doesn't-happen-every-month events, I got actual questions by e-mail about a week-and-a-half ago from a visitor to the blog writing from the possibly literal frozen tundra of northern Canada (as opposed to the metaphorical frozen tundra a couple hours northeast of Madison), on Social Security privatization. With the privatization effort seemingly DOA as some Congressional Republicans may be worried enough about 2006 to be disinclined to expend political capital as third-rail insulation, it's perhaps not this year's problem. But here goes anyway. The questions:
Would the Bush plan to scrap social security in favour of private savings plans not create a large pool of investment cash in the market? What has the historical record of dumping large pools of cash into the market been, especially on the un-sophisticated investor?

It is my perception that dumping cash into a market is a recipe for fraudulent acts, collusion and corruption, at the expense of the “little guy”. I say this from seeing the results of the savings & loan debacle, the tech bubble and other incidents of cash injections into the market. It seems to me that the result of the introduction of the Bush plan would see Enron-type market manipulation, with the resulting transfer of wealth from the small investor to the institutional investor, leaving the small investor more destitute than without the “privatized” plan.

Am I wrong?
My response was really to the last (recipe for fraud) question. To that, lest anyone think I'm just into this for the Bush-bashing, I replied by way of faint praise:
The short answer to your question is that, while the absence of actual legislation leaves key features of the plan unknown, it probably would be set up initially to minimize the possibilities for outright fraud, mainly by offering a very limited menu of closely overseen funds to start.
Though depending on how the plan were to evolve, we're not necessarily in the clear:
It's reasonable to assume that, over time, a privatized system would face strong political pressure to expand the menu of investment options. I've also read about suggestions that private accounts might be implemented by piggybacking on the existing tax-deferred retirement accounts [401(k)'s, etc.] offered by many private employers. Either would entail considerable risk... It's just hard to say how much, again, in the absence of a specific plan.

I realized later that the response pretty much glossed over the initial questions. The answer to the first one is yes, privatizing Social Security would involve sending big piles of cash into the markets. Strictly speaking, this is true even of goofball ideas like the "personal lockbox" that would, to borrow language from the Heritage Foundation, magically transform the Social Security trust fund's "special issue government bonds" that serve as intragovernmental "IOUs" and thus are "not... assets" into "super-safe government bonds." The irony that the menu of investment choices under any privatized system would be politically sensitive, when a scant few years ago Alan Greenspan helped kill the federal budget surpluses by suggesting that it would be a Bad Thing have the government meddling in markets by way of politically sensitive investments of hypothetical future budget surpluses, is noted.

I'm not a market historian, so I can't really give a good answer to the second question. Clearly, people who end up piling into a stock market boom-bust cycle at the wrong time can end up with big losses. To offer a personal anecdote, thanks to employment timing, I started contributing to my firm's 401(k) plan (invested in an S&P 500 index fund) at the start of 1997 — arguably before the peak of millenial stock market mania. At the bottom in the fall of '02, the investments were worth about 26% less than my contributions in the midst of a roughly two-year stretch when I was "enjoying" negative total returns. These savings have clawed their way back to a modest positive return at this point, but if I'd been counting on compounding of risk-free returns at historical market rates (as, I think, some of the privatization pitches encourage), I'd be disappointed to the tune of a lot of money. I also know personally of retirements that were deferred due to steep losses in portfolios that turned out to have been imprudently concentrated in tech and telecom shares.

There is also an array of problems in selecting appropriate "default" investments for unsophisticated investors, particualrly since in the Bush plan, in contrast to ordinary savings, it's possible to lose money as a result of having a positive but insufficient "real" (inflation-adjusted) investment return. This is because of a guaranteed benefit offset in the plan; with overly conservative investments, it's possible that the offset could exceed the private account proceeds.

The Need For Social Insurance: A Quick Observation

by Tom Bozzo

In case you hadn't noticed, one of the features of the recently passed H.R. 3768 (the "Katrina Emergency Tax Relief Act of 2005;" PDF) is a one-year suspension of the 10% penalty on early withdrawals from tax-deferred retirement plans for residents of the Katrina disaster area. While it's tough to argue that people who've suffered enormous financial losses due to the disaster need higher tax bills (and I'm not arguing this), treating retirement accounts as rainy-day funds is nevertheless problematic (*).

The hardcore privatizers would, after all, prefer a world in which private retirement accounts were the only source of retirement income. This may even work out, particularly for people who can start saving relatively large amounts of money early in life. Under a purely private system, though, withdrawals in face of emergencies become stark eat now vs. eat later dilemmas. As a practical matter, it's desirable to eat now and to eat later. Social insurance, then, is useful insofar as the "free market" will not inherently prevent anyone from needing to eat their capital in the event of a disaster.

(*) From the looks of H.R. 3768, allowing penalty-free withdrawals in the case of any federally-declared disaster would only require striking some "due to Hurricane Katrina" restrictions from the new statutory language.

Wisconsin News Flash!

by Tom Bozzo

Water falling from skies! Film at 11!

Well, we need the rain a lot more than I need to bike to work today. Even the drought-tolerant native vegetation was looking a little sad out at Governor Nelson State Park yesterday, and the lakes and Yahara River were visibly low.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Sun. Ext. (Baby): Out On The Waters

by Tom Bozzo

Suzanne's aunt and uncle were kind enough to take us out on a boat ride this afternoon, and my first question was, where the heck was everyone? While we didn't have the lake entirely to ourselves, the day was much too nice to spend inside watching the Packers lose.

Our challenge was to keep the kids from sqirming out of their life jackets. They actually did really well.

Daddy and Julia at the dock. Suzanne's comment/question: would people recognize me with 3 days' beard and wearing a Ford cap (from AirVenture)?

John, as we neared the gateway to Lake Monona, a.k.a. the Rutledge St. bridge.

Rays of sunlight and smooth water on Lake Monona, heading towards downtown Madison.
(Even though there were few other boats out to stir things up, it's still frickin' hard to take a mostly clear picture from a moving motorboat!)

As usual, interested parties may click through for larger images.

A Self-Experimenter Speaks

by Tom Bozzo

Addendum: Timothy Beneke offers some clarification in the comments. Describing his method a little further, a major feature makes particular sense: the amount of one's caloric intake you can take via olive oil or a fructose solution — the canonical "Shangri-La diet" snacks — is limited. Taking those calories in a flavorless but nutritious form is, on the face of it, better for you. It also stands to reason that it would be possible under "taste celibacy" to reduce total calories and be at least as well off, nutritionally, as under Shangri-La. This does make me curious to know exactly what more testing would show to be the essential features of the respective diets.


I got an unusual comment to last week's post on self-experimentation: a testimonial purporting to be from Timothy Beneke, a friend of Seth Roberts who lost 100 lb. using what I'll just describe as an extreme form of the "Shangri-La" diet described in last week's Freakonomics column in the NY Times Magazine. (*) You can see the details here, but in this case Roberts's method of taking small flavorless snacks as a means of combatting between-meal hunger without breaking a diet has been extended into taking a large fraction, even a supermajority, of calorie intake in a nutritious but nearly flavorless form, which is termed "taste celibacy." I figure it's worth mentioning for that coinage alone.

Losing 100 lb. by any means is a significant accomplishment, and it's interesting that Beneke could stick to his variation on the diet at all.

That said, it doesn't change my view of the Freakonomics account. I don't have any difficulty believing that the "Shangri-La" diet can work, mainly because it's pretty clearly a variation on the "physics diet" (take in fewer calories than you expend) underneath it all. These accounts still don't settle the bigger — one might also say, the economic — question of how Roberts's methods compare against their next-best alternatives. If dueling anecdotes were sufficient, it would be possible to a draw bringing in this previously linked physics dieter who decided to make a virtue out of being a little hungry between meals and Jeremy Freese's significant weight loss via the relatively simple expedients of controlled intake and exercise; with the tie possibly being broken by my reaction and that of my beloved spouse that "taste celibacy" would be a show-stopper in a candidate diet. We all should know what the plural of anecdote isn't, though.

Again, the bottom line is that Dubner and Levitt seem to have gone for the unusual accounts that arise from Roberts's research over a serious if "Freakonomic" analysis of the research.

(*) Is this a put-on? The Site Meter — it's on for the quarterly MU traffic survey — does not tell all, but indications point to no. It's also not that hard to "meet" blogiverse "celebrities" in various ways. If it is, consider me got.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Take That, Peak Oil!

by Tom Bozzo

The plans are aaaaall falling into place... Shell out proportionally big bucks for a Not So Big House in a traditional, close-in neighborhood. Check. Get bike tuned up at friendly campus-vicinity bike shop. Check. Actually ride said bike to work — twice in one week! — avoiding about 1/240 millionth of the U.S. daily consumption of petroleum-based fuels each time. Check. Based on some back-of-the-envelope calculations provided in the comments to this post by our favorite right-wing biochemist, this saved around 3.5 kg of CO2 emissions as well.

Every little bit helps, I suppose, though it looks from the price of natural gas like I may need some ethanol when this winter's heating bills arrive.

Friday, September 16, 2005

1984 Plus One Score And Change

by Tom Bozzo

While I was having a tough time staying alert through the platitudes of Bush's speech from New Orleans last night, The Editors were kind enough to remind me about this part, which did indeed catch my attention and which merits particularly close scrutiny as legislation that will no doubt be forced through Congress in haste materializes (with gloss from Josh Marshall):
The Poor Man Institute: Easy answers to unnecessary questions: Q: Josh Marshall asks:

Then there’s the president’s great line from the speech: “It is now clear that a challenge on this scale requires greater federal authority and a broader role for the armed forces.”

No, it’s not. Actually, every actual fact that’s surfaced in the last two weeks points to just the opposite conclusion. There was no lack of federal authority to handle the situation. There was faulty organization, poor coordination and incompetence.

Show me the instance where the federal government was prevented from doing anything that needed to be done because it lacked the requisite authority.

This is like what we were talking about a few days ago. This is how repressive governments operate — mixing inefficiency with authoritarian tendencies.

You don’t repair disorganized or incompetent government by granting it more power. You fix it by making it more organized and more competent. If conservatism can’t grasp that point, what is it good for?
And this:
Frogs and Ravens: ARGH!: Remember that we're in a neverending "war" on terror. Remember too that the courts have upheld the "right" of the government to imprison U.S. citizens indefinitely as "enemy combatants" for the duration of the "war" (cf. Padilla). And now the president is saying that we need more military involvement in domestic affairs, because it is the "most capable" institution of our government in these sorts of situations.

Can we say "military dictatorship"?

What's even more disturbing is how people are glossing right over this in order to talk about funding concerns or to complain about the aesthetics of the speech itself. This expansion of military power wasn't in the published "talking points," so apparently it can be ignored.
This is as good of a time as any to suggest that interested visitors who haven't already done so give a read to David Neiwert's 2004 Koufax-winning series at Orcinus, "The Rise of Pseudo-Fascism," Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, and Part 7. (Hat tip to Wendy for an old but not forgotten reminder.)

Friday Random Ten: It's Just That Kinda Day

by Tom Bozzo

Haven't done one of these for a while, and it was remarkably serendipitous. The three 'dream' songs in a row really were random.

Pink Flag
Golden Anniversary
Pale Saints
Hair Shoes
In Ribbons
The Weather Prophets (*)
Hollow Heart
Judges, Juries & Horsemen
Robyn Hitchcock
My Favourite Buildings
I Often Dream Of Trains
The Jam
Dreams Of Children
Compact Snap
The Revolving Paint Dream
In The Afternoon
Creation Records: Flowers In The Sky Compilation
The Wygals
Darken My Doorstep
Honyocks In The Withersoever
The New Main Street Singers
Just That Kinda Day
A Mighty Wind Soundtrack
Going Blank Again

(*) Hat tip for the link, Gary Farber.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Life Imitates Art

by Tom Bozzo

Whad'ya know, tax cuts will be the centerpiece of the recovery plan after all. Only they'll be business tax cuts. And some sort of personal recovery account, which I recall from the dawn of the 'ownership society' as part of the brilliant plan to facilitate workers' transitions from one McJob to the next — since even the being that has taken posession of Robert Reich's body says that "[t]there's no returning to the stable jobs and steady wages of the mid-20th century."

Somehow, I think the nuts and bolts of the actual recovery legislation will send me to the bathroom for some dry heaves.

Automobile Design Patents and 'Design DNA'

by Tom Bozzo

While searching for a (different) piece of patent legislation, I came across House Concurrent Resolution 53, which commends the Patent and Trademark Office for its contributions to the economy and DaimlerChrysler corporation for receiving the 500,000th design patent for the Chrysler Crossfire roadster.

Design patents protect ornamental designs that are new and that would be non-obvious to a designer of ordinary skill. By these standards, the Crossfire is as good of a candidate for design patent protection as any car design as it's a veritable anti-Audi TT, bristling with non-obvious surface ornamentation in areas where a designer of ordinary good taste might have left well enough alone. (Even still, the Crossfire's backside curve looks like a baroque crib of the TT's.)

As with other types of patents, design patents reference prior art, and some of the prior art for the Crossfire, and the prior art for the prior art, is kind of interesting in a car nutty way.

Among the not-totally-unobvious connections include the rare and very expensive BMW Z8 roadster (covered by D406,799; QuickTime required to view the design patent drawings) and the Toyota MR2 Spyder (D477,253).

Others are mystifying. The Chrysler Cirrus sedan (D370,876) has four wheels and is a Chrysler, and that's where the obvious similarities end. The early-nineties Honda Civic (D334,357) doesn't even share Chryslerness.

Deep in the tree of prior art, there's the first generation Acura (Honda) Legend (D301,436), which is notable for citing no previous design patents. Since the Legend clearly shared some design elements with other Hondas of the era, this might mark some historical shift to seeking intellectual property protection for car designs.

A reasonable question is whether design patents provide material protection. Little bits of design DNA cross intellectual property boundaries all the time — the traditional BMW rear roof pillar shape having been, er, adapted in the new VW Passat, whose shape is in turn substantially repeated in the Buick Passat Lucerne (but for the ridiculous portholes, great minds think alike, I suppose). Many of the iconic design elements now making their way into retro designs wouldn't be protectable at all, since if they had been patented back in the fifties or sixties, the patents would have long since expired. It's also not particularly easy to directly knock off the entirety of another car's ornamental design, and in some cases (like the Crossfire, IMHO) it's not clear that anyone would want to if they could.

(Note: Changed picture because of loading problem with the original one.)

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Compensation, Competition, and Convention

by Tom Bozzo

In a demonstration that there is a business lobby that the Bush administration is willing to take on, the Justice Department has sued the National Association of Realtors over rules that are alleged to inhibit competition from discount real estate brokers (hat tip, Economist's View). At issue are rules that allow brokers to limit access to their listings to other (i.e., discount) brokers' websites. Based on the Antitrust Division's press release, the working group that came up with the rules apparently had noted the potential for abuse, so the AD may have them dead-to-rights.

In the Economist's View post, Mark Thoma wonders about the significance. It's a good question. The action may be notable for disappointing the Heritage Foundation denizens, who consider antitrust legislation to be as evil as any other form of business regulation. In what may be the classic economics oxymoron, this Heritage "executive memorandum" from the George H.W. Bush era claims that "antitrust... laws make American firms less competitive," while this recent one hails Google Desktop as evidence that the services of "trustbusters in Washington and Brussels... are no longer needed." Poor Microsoft.

Beyond that, it's not clear that limitations on the distribution of real estate listings is what's keeping real estate commissions up despite lots of people entering the field to try to cash in on the bubble while the cashing's good. There's a bit of real estate conventional wisdom which, I think, serves to keep commission rates up more than restrictions on Web distribution of listing data: the notion, which those of you who've listed a house for sale may have heard (I have, and I've sold exactly one house), that while you're technically free to offer any commission rate that floats your boat, offering less than the standard rate might dissuade some agents from directing their buyers your way. (*) Hello, social construction of value!

While real estate agents may have it good with commission rates that have no clear causal nexus to the marginal revenue product of their labor, it's actually the conventions of hedge fund managers' compensation that make me wonder most about the market equilibration process. As I understand it, hedge fund investors usually pay both a management fee (% of assets) that would be considered extortionate by the standards of low-cost mutual funds, plus an incentive fee that's traditionally 20% of fund profits. (There are relatively easy ways for hedge fund managers to get around the problem of having to claw back losses before they can earn additional incentive fees, as these articles from Forbes and BusinessWeek note.)

Such terms may make it obvious why downtown Greenwich, CT is being overrun by hedge funds' offices, but it's less obvious why rich investors are willing to pay the fees. A recurring theme here is, regular visitors may have noted, that the rich are undertaxed, and they may be giving the lie to the "Millionaire Next Door" notion that the rich are just more frugal than everyone else. To cut to the (other) chase, many — if not most — of these hedge funds can't be worth their fees, and you'd expect that all the entry might compete the fees down (possibly to the detriment of the SW Connecticut real estate market). So why are the fees seemingly robust to massive entry into the hedge fund racket? I'm just asking.

(*) If you must know, the offer on the current MU Central was contingent on the sale of our old house, so I was not going to try to f*** with the system over a couple thousand bucks' commission coming out of a big pile of bubblicious home equity.

Missing The Field For The Corn Stalks

by Tom Bozzo

Around these parts, you can find gas stations offering E85 fuel, a blend of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline, at prices that look like a bargain compared to regular gas. A number of domestic vehicles can burn the stuff as an alternative to gasoline — those are cars and trucks sporting little "FFV" (flexible fuel vehicle) badges you might have seen on the road if you look for such things. Had you gone to the agriculture building at the Minnesota State Fair this year, as I did, you could have seen a big honkin' E85-fuelable Chevy Avalanche pickup promising to reduce our foreign oil dependence with the help of shy Norwegian bachelor farmers.

There is a catch, of course. Two catches, really. For one thing, the price of E85 is lower than that of gasoline thanks largely to large Federal subsidies. For another, it takes fossil fuels in the amount of roughly all of the energy in the ethanol to grow, distill, and transport to market a gallon of corn-based ethanol.

Whether the energy balance is somewhat negative (PDF) or somewhat positive (PDF) is a potentially a matter for debate. It does appear, though, that much of the difference between studies showing positive and negative balances derives from the optimistic ones omitting a substantial component of energy input associated with producing the capital equipment required for corn farming and ethanol distillation — tractors, ethanol distilleries, etc. (see figure 12 of this paper). Insofar as the pessimists would be right to assert that from much to all of the plant and equipment for the ethanol production cycle would be avoidable (in some sense) if ethanol production were terminated, whereas the optimists point out that only the pessimists measure that source of energy use, the pessimists seem to have the better of the argument for now.

So E85 is basically a scam, but you'd have to use your imagination to figure that out from Danny Hakim's alternative fuels article from Saturday's Times. He quotes someone from jolly old Madison saying that "I feel better that it's coming from the United States," and a Twin Cities suburbanite claiming that E85 is "cleaner for the environment" and is "made here in the Midwest, not in the Middle East."

Hakim notes as "downsides" that E85 is hard to find, yields slightly worse MPG than gasoline, and is subsidized (the FFVs themselves being a CAFE-skirting boondoggle). Oh, and there's this little thing that fueling the entire U.S. car and truck fleet with E85 would require planting essentially the entire unpopulated land area of the country with corn; that'll be great for the environment. The energy balance issue doesn't even rate a mention! Indeed, it's termed an "upside" that ethanol is a "domestic resource." Which is technically mostly true, though mainly in the sense that the coal, most of the natural gas, and some of the oil used in its production are domestic resources — not to mention the tax dollars.

Ultimately, the picture of the upsides and downsides of E85 is quite distorted. While the stakes — getting rid of this egregious agribusiness welfare — is perhaps not as high in other areas, I think this could serve to reinforce Lance Mannion's point (via Frogs and Ravens) that journalism education needs not whatever instruction that reinforces the "two sides to every story" and "opinions on shape of world differ" templates, but rather the essential training would be the best liberal education money can buy.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Tuesday Baby Extra: A Boy And His Castle

by Tom Bozzo

Here's our proud guy with a "castle" he up and built from blocks he'd hitherto been mostly interested in loading into a Tonka dump truck and dumping out.


Alas, the castle's defenses were no match for the Giant Crawling Baby Monster! Seen here devouring some of the raspberries John and I picked in the 90-degree "fall festival" heat out at Eplegaarden over the weekend!! Run!!!


(Note, this is nothing compared to the scene yesterday after she ate some cranberry relish Suzanne made, which looked like an infant recreation of the denouement of "Carrie.")

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