Thursday, August 31, 2006

If Wishes were Fishes...

by Drek

Folks who recall one or more of my previous contributions to this blog will probably know that I am an atheist. As such, I have the dubious honor of being a member of one of the least liked religious groups in the United States. Since I'm a natually disagreeable sort, this doesn't particularly bother me, but it does make my life fairly interesting from time to time.

I've been an atheist for a long, long time now and, as such, have often been on the receiving end of attempts at evangelism. These attempts usually range from well-meaning and gentle, to heavy-handed and condemning. My personal favorites, however, are the staggeringly inept and illogical as, frankly, they signal that the evangelist is going to be a fair amount of fun to mess with. What can I say? If I have to be subjected to some guy babbling on about his sky beast, I may as well find some sort of redeeming value in it.

With all of these attempts at conversion I've been exposed to an awful lot of arguments in favor of god. For the most part, however, attempts to argue me into submission seem to follow a general pattern. It usually begins with "How can you not believe in god?! He's everywhere!" Once my would-be savior has been convinced that, no, I don't see god everywhere, the next response is often, "Just try believing in god, you'll feel such peace!" On making the point that I used to be religious and feel more peace as an atheist than I ever did as a theist, I usually get the Pascal's Wager argument, "But, don't you think it's safer to believe in god just in case?" When I point out that I can't simply fake belief in front of an omniscient being* and that wagering on that kind of long-shot seems like a poor bet, it usually ends up devolving to what I like to think of as "The Final Insult." What is the final insult, you ask? It's when my erstwhile associate remarks in frustration, "Well, it's a good thing more people don't believe like you do or society would be even more screwed up than it already is!"

The final insult has always, more than nearly any other argument for god, annoyed the ever living hell out of me. The reasons are simple: atheists are, as a general rule, indistinguishable from the rest of the population. We obey the law, we pay our taxes, we work hard, have families, and participate in our communities. We blend in so well that most people are shocked to discover that an atheist has somehow crept into their midst. Given all that, what earthly reason is there to assume that a larger proportion of atheists would, somehow or other, signal the demise of western civilization?

The answer, of course, is that there's no earthly reason for such an assumption. Instead, we come back to the voyeur in the clouds himself. Since morality comes from god, the theists reason, those who do not believe in god must not, themselves, be capable of morality. Since atheists so obviously are capable of morality, it has always seemed to me that those who make this sort of argument are more than a little willfully ignorant.

Of course, pointing this out never seems to help as they often take refuge in a variant on the original argument that more or less goes as follows, "Okay, atheists can be ethical when surrounded by godly people but if they were ever left on their own, it would be chaos! Look at the Soviet Union! Communism was atheism!**" So, in other words, we're only civilized when we have lots of religious people to keep us in line. As I've said before, it's good to be loved.

All of this springs to mind not because I'm just generally a bitter asshole (although, seriously, I'm that too) but because of a study I recently came across. This research, published in the Journal of Religion and Society, does something that I have rarely seen attempted: it tries to empirically evaluate the claim that religious belief is associated with societal health and well-being. Seriously. I'll let the introduction speak for itself:

Two centuries ago there was relatively little dispute over the existence of God, or the societally beneficial effect of popular belief in a creator. In the twentieth century extensive secularization occurred in western nations, the United States being the only significant exception (Bishop; Bruce; Gill et al.; Sommerville). If religion has receded in some western nations, what is the impact of this unprecedented transformation upon their populations? Theists often assert that popular belief in a creator is instrumental towards providing the moral, ethical and other foundations necessary for a healthy, cohesive society. Many also contend that widespread acceptance of evolution, and/or denial of a creator, is contrary to these goals. But a cross-national study verifying these claims has yet to be published. That radically differing worldviews can have measurable impact upon societal conditions is plausible according to a number of mainstream researchers (Bainbridge; Barro; Barro and McCleary; Beeghley; Groeneman and Tobin; Huntington; Inglehart and Baker; Putman; Stark and Bainbridge). Agreement with the hypothesis that belief in a creator is beneficial to societies is largely based on assumption, anecdotal accounts, and on studies of limited scope and quality restricted to one population (Benson et al.; Hummer et al.; Idler and Kasl; Stark and Bainbridge). A partial exception is given by Barro and McCleary, who correlated economic growth with rates of belief in the afterlife and church attendance in numerous nations (while Kasman and Reid [2004] commented that Europe does not appear to be suffering unduly from its secularization). It is surprising that a more systematic examination of the question has not been previously executed since the factors required to do so are in place. The twentieth century acted, for the first time in human history, as a vast Darwinian global societal experiment in which a wide variety of dramatically differing social-religious-political-economic systems competed with one another, with varying degrees of success. A quantitative cross-national analysis is feasible because a large body of survey and census data on rates of religiosity, secularization, and societal indicators has become available in the prosperous developed democracies including the United States.

In summary, this gentleman hopes to determine how much of an impact religion really has on popular morality. To conduct this research he employs the International Social Survey Project (ISSP) data to compare rates of religiosity and social dysfunction cross-nationally. To measure religiosity, the author uses indicators of belief in biblical literalism, absolute belief in a creator, measures of frequency of prayer, and measures of frequency of attendance at religious services. This represents a nice cross-section of both attitudes and behaviors. For social dysfunction he uses rates of homicide, youth suicide, teenage pregnancy, and abortion, with some additional analyses of sexually transmitted diseases thrown in for good measure. While some of these might be a little debatable, I think we can all agree that a maximally healthy society probably isn't one with high murder or suicide rates.

So what does he find? Well, in a development that will shock some theists, he finds that heightened religiosity is associated with heightened social dysfunction. Again, letting the article speak for itself:

In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies (Figures 1-9). The most theistic prosperous democracy, the U.S., is exceptional, but not in the manner Franklin predicted. The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developed democracies, sometimes spectacularly so, and almost always scores poorly. The view of the U.S. as a “shining city on the hill” to the rest of the world is falsified when it comes to basic measures of societal health. Youth suicide is an exception to the general trend because there is not a significant relationship between it and religious or secular factors. No democracy is known to have combined strong religiosity and popular denial of evolution with high rates of societal health. Higher rates of non-theism and acceptance of human evolution usually correlate with lower rates of dysfunction, and the least theistic nations are usually the least dysfunctional. None of the strongly secularized, pro-evolution democracies is experiencing high levels of measurable dysfunction.

And there you have it: religion isn't associated with social health. Oh, the direction of causation is in some doubt- it's possible that when things get bad, people turn to religion, rather than religion making things bad, but either way, a lack of religion isn't itself a bad thing.

So does this research excite me? Am I even now preparing leaflets to distribute in church parking lots? No. It doesn't, and I'm not.

The reason has to do with the article itself. First, there's the minor issue that makes me nervous: this article cites Robert Putnam. Don't get me wrong, I have no objection to Bob Putnam. He seems like a nice enough guy and his work is provacative. No, my problem here is that this article consistently refers to him as "Putman." That doesn't mean that the article is bad, per se, but it does raise my eyebrows a smidge.

Then we come to the next issue: the author of this paper isn't a sociologist, or an anthropologist, or a psychologist, or an economist, or any other kind of social scientist. As it turns out the author, Gregory S. Paul, is a freelance paleontologist. In perfect honesty, I never realized that there was a market for free agents in paleontology, but there you go. Again, this doesn't condemn the work, but it does make me still more nervous.

And then, ladies and gentlemen, we get to the things that really weird me out. The first is a brief paragraph that appears early in the paper:

Regression analyses were not executed because of the high variability of degree of correlation, because potential causal factors for rates of societal function are complex, and because it is not the purpose of this initial study to definitively demonstrate a causal link between religion and social conditions. Nor were multivariate analyses used because they risk manipulating the data to produce errant or desired results, and because the fairly consistent characteristics of the sample automatically minimizes the need to correct for external multiple factors (see further discussion below). Therefore correlations of raw data are used for this initial examination.

Yes, you read that right: the entire paper consists of a report on basic correlations taken out of the ISSP data. Under the best of circumstances this would worry me for the simple reason that an awful lot of heterogeneity between observations is being left uncontrolled. Sadly, however, these are not the best of circumstances. In our present circumstances we're comparing data drawn from a variety of countries whose respective natural resources, geographic locations, and histories can have profound effects on their levels of social dysfunction. Hell, just the presence or absence of a strong welfare state and socialized medicine (common and effective in many European countries, effectively absent in the U.S.) could be expected to have a profound effect on many measures of societal dysfunction. And none of that natural variation, not a scrap, is being controlled for. We have no multi-level models, no random effects, just good old correlations. Are the developed democracies included in the study relatively similar to each other? Sure. Does that mean we don't need to worry about their very real differences? Um... no. This is especially true considering the author refers to "...the high variability of degree of correlation..." Here's a thought: maybe that's because you need to add some control variables! And don't even get me started on that "further discussion below" remark. There is no further discussion of this issue anywhere in the paper.

And what of those correlations, anyway? Well, as you can see in the results section, none of them are reported. We have no correlation coefficients, no standard errors, no significance levels. The best we get are a series of rather confusing figures that cast little light on the issue.

In the end what we're left with is a paper written by someone outside of his expertise, who has well-known authors miscited, who eschews the use of any but the most basic statistical analyses, and who fails to report any of the technical details of his findings. It's the scientific equivalent of, "Hey, man, just trust me!" As a result, I simply can't believe these results, no matter how much I want to.

And I do want to, more than you might expect. To have actual empirical results to back up my contention that atheism is not the death knell of a society would be truly wonderful. Such a finding would give all atheists ammunition in the fight to be accepted and, just maybe, help us put an end to a damaging stereotype. As much as I want to run with this finding, however, I simply can't do so in good conscience.

There are two expressions, "If wishes were fishes I'd cast my net in the sea," and "If wishes were horses, beggars would ride." I often combine them,*** resulting in quite a bit of silliness but, in either case, the point is simple: if wishes meant something the world would be very different from the way it really is. However, the world isn't different, and wishes really don't change anything. We can wish all day for world hunger to end, and it will still be there. I can wish that this paper were convincing but, ultimately, it just isn't. The simple reality is that science isn't about what we want to be true, but rather about finding out what is true. It's that distinction that often makes accepting science so difficult, for academics and laypeople alike.

In the final analysis, my inability to accept this paper probably explains why I'm an atheist in the first place. The idea of a loving god is a nice one, the idea that there's someone watching out for us all every moment of our lives is very reassuring. On some level, I suppose that I wish it were true, if only because it would mean that somehow people would end up getting what they deserve. But just wishing that something were true doesn't make it so.

But wishes aren't fishes, and beggars don't ride.

* Come to think of it, I couldn't do it BEHIND an omniscient being either, but that's not the point.

** Yes, this is an actual argument I've heard used numerous times. It makes my brain melt out of my skull nearly every time.

*** i.e. "If wishes were fishes, beggars would ride." Apparently in my subconscious, beggars are aquatic.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Public Choice At Work: The Hugos

by Tom Bozzo

Via Gary Farber, here's the voting data for the 2006 Hugo award for best novel, deservedly won by Robert Charles Wilson's Spin — which even made it through my reading queue before last weekend's announcement of the Hugo winners.

Hugo voting uses what my former prof Dennis Mueller calls a "simple alternative" to majority rule, a form of instant runoff voting a/k/a the Hare system — though it's evidently not so simple that this web page doesn't try to dispel a view that the Hugo voting procedure is too complicated.

The World Science Fiction Society's openness is refreshing, especially compared to the seeming a mystery (at least to a cursory web search) of whether, say, better nominees split a quality-film vote to allow "Crash" to take home this past year's Academy Award for Best Picture. In fact, there's research showing that plurality rule (let alone, ahem) breaks down quickly as the choice set epands, even for the typical five or so award nominees.

The Hugo electorate put Spin solidly in first place, with Charlie Stross's Accelerando (an Ad-Hoc Book Club selection from earlier in the year) solidly in second — perhaps to Stross's surprise. I think the voters got that right. Stross's self-criticism is basically right in implying that Spin is the more cohesive novel.

Wilson leaves the technology behind Spin's central mystery, involving some alien engineering that threatens to advance the end of the world within the Social Security trustees' non-infinite analytical horizon (*), as magic; his accomplishment is in constructing a plausible story of the human reaction to the catastrophe along with a cracking scientific detective story that otherwise rigorously plays within the story's rules. (Little of what's good about that can be discussed without major spoilers; if you're interested in such things, just go ahead and read it.)

Stross, in contrast, starts off extrapolating from a very recognizable near future as the world's aggregate computing capabilities increase exponentially (which in its own way leads to the end of the world as we know it), and up to a point plays within something resembling the limitations of known science. It could be argued that the future shock interferes with the development of characters from the first part of the book (**). This can cut a couple ways, as Ken MacLeod's fourth-place Learning the World, set some ten thousand years in the future with nothing remotely resembling faster-than-light space travel (***), didn't seem to me to have enough future shock to show for the elapsed time.

Last, the Hugos demonstrate that fancy voting systems can have somewhat strange results. While first and second place were solid, the nominee that finished third in the first-place tournament ended up fifth when the dust settled; the fourth and fifth place finishers from the first-place round each moved up a notch. Perhaps more curious are the 17 cranky voters (3% of the electorate) whose first choice was "no award" given the more than respectable field. Go figure.


(*) The eponymous Spin is a temporal anomaly that dilates time as experienced on Earth such that the death of the Sun billions of years hence would occur in a few decades per terrestrial clocks. Don't even think of asking how such a thing might be done.

(**) That, IIRC, is what lost fellow Clubber Brayden King around the halfway point.

(***) But, in the end, an interesting take on the 'anthropic principle.'

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Which Decade(s) Should We Do Over?

by Tom Bozzo

(The current one excepted, I should say.)

Last night's "History Detectives" included a segment investigating the question of whether the automotive-oil-industrial complex did in Cleveland's electric streetcars, and by extension helped rid the country of the streetcar networks that some municipalities are now seeking to recreate at great expense. I don't know if it was routine legal department caution at work or the new era of the Private Broadcasting System needing to avoid annoying major potential underwriters, but Wes Cowan's answer was the most circumspect confirmation I've seen. (Recall, the basic idea was to replace the streetcars with buses, pull up the tracks, and make money on some combination of automobile and bus sales.) While the Cleveland system wasn't bought up by the GM-Firestone-Standard Oil National City Lines conspiracy, it was on the hit list; moreover, some key local politicians left public life to careers as GM dealers. All pure as the driven snow, I'm sure.

While the postwar era lately has been lauded as the zenith of American egalitarianism, nostalgia for the era must be strictly limited by recognition of what can most charitably be called massive failures of judgment. Not only abandoning but also totally destroying what now would be many billions of dollars worth of urban rail infrastructure certainly is high on the list, along with sowing the seeds of today's auto- and oil-dependence. In the fifties suburbia where I grew up — especially looking at it from the perspective of the thirties suburbia where I now live (now the model for the New Urbanism) — I can just about hear the "planners" (if there were any) saying, "Shoulders? Sidewalks? What, cars not good enough for you? Oh, and by the way nutrition in capsule form is so much more convenient than fragile, perishable, and above all inconvenient fresh food.

As a State Journal article on an effort to revise the city's building demolition ordinance shows, the era was also notable for knocking lots of other stuff down in the name of progress. While in some cases, the "progress" could be argued to be at least on par with the extent of the destruction, as with the Interstate highways driven through city centers, you can't help but feel a contempt for the old in plenty of cases. In Madison, for instance, the old City Hall on the Capitol Square was razed in to make way for a Woolworth's (whoop-de-do); the store's long-vacant home was in turn torn down to build the 100 Wisconsin Avenue condo.

That said, the theoretically more enlightened eighties and nineties took faceless suburbia and ran with it on all eight cylinders of the dying SUV market, to the extent that any city's exurbs are well on their way to being Stephensonian "burbclaves" (but without the cool VR internet). But since most real economic questions are counterfactuals, we might ask what we'd have seen if the concept of modern exurban sprawl had been around with postwar modernistic disdain for the old in full swing. Could small-m modernism hold a candle to the corporatist juggernaut?

Monday, August 28, 2006

A Little Kitchen Design History

by Tom Bozzo

Fun fact from yesterday's block party: The house next door was built for and owned for quite some time by Westye F. Bakke, founder of the Sub-Zero Freezer Co., who built his first freezer in the basement. Potential kitchen appliance history tourists take note.

Our neighbors are less-than-half-jokingly tempted to write a letter to the company, now headquartered about two miles southwest of us, insisting that a house of such singular importance to the company should have a Sub-Zero fridge. (Hey, the next door neighbors would really like a 400-Series wine fridge.)

Sub-Zero's history slideshow (op. cit.) offers an amusing take on interior design history — and, in the first picture, child safety restraint history. While modern ultra-high-end kitchen design can be over-the-top, I'd take this any day over:

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Quote of the Day (We've Got A Bigger Problem Now Dep't)

by Tom Bozzo

From Frank Paynter, on yesterday's Nazi "rally" in Madison:
Another issue I have relates to the expropriation of the terms National Socialism and Fascism. These pansies couldn’t organize the local chamber of commerce, much less achieve an integration of national government with corporate industrial power. While the Bush administration colludes with Halliburton, Bechtel, and big oil… while the Republicans disband the citizen army and rely on professional reserves and mercenaries like Black Water… while the entire public infrastructure is scrapped and private enterprise takes over public education, trash hauling, water supplies, municipal power and light… while two generations’ carefully crafted social statutes are flushed down a toilet and replaced by private security guards protecting privileged classes while poverty spreads and disempowerment of the poor is institutionalized… while the biggest state budget items are for new prison construction and a bizarre proportion of poor, young black and latino males are incarcerated, IT JUST DOES NOT SEEM RIGHT FOR THESE LITTLE PUD PULLERS TO OWN THE NAME FASCIST. We know who the fascists are and it ain’t them.
Frank is right that it's best to let those f*ckwits have their say with a large crowd on hand to exercise their right to ridicule, annoying though it was that they got to impose a sizeable external cost on Madison society by closing down the Farmer's Market early. Even if such things might somehow be construed to pass First Amendment muster, hate speech laws create a raft of problems of their own, as Glenn Greenwald notes today.

(I wouldn't let off the pud pullers who so misuse the term as to equate it with phantom interblog communication networks, either.)

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Ad Hoc Book Club: Glenn Greenwald

by Tom Bozzo

While blogging comrades are reviewing slim political monographs that people should read, let me put in a plug for my recent airplane reading: blogger Glenn Greenwald's How Would A Patriot Act? At least for now, I can assure you, it can be carried through airport security checkpoints without triggering those double secret full body cavity screenings.

For any of you who may not be familiar with his blog (towards the bottom of the "others" list in the sidebar), Greenwald has been the go-to guy on the Bush Administration's war on U.S. civil liberties since opening up shop less than a year ago. So his indictment of the Bushies deals extensively with the cases of the U.S. citizens (Hamdi and Padilla) declared 'enemy combatants' by the WPE, and to a somewhat lesser extent with the warrantless domestic surveillance programs (news of which had been breaking around the time Patriot was being written).

Having followed the cases via both the blogs and also traditional news sources, not much of the first two-thirds of the book was exactly news. I'd even dog-eared a page (in the seventies out of ~125) where George F. Will was quoted saying the obvious for what seemed like the first time — in effect, that only someone who'd flunked middle school U.S. history and never recovered academically could possibly think that the powers asserted by the Bushies were meant to be conveyed to the office of the president by the founders — while thinking Greenwald had buried his lede.

But really, he was just at that point getting to the meat of the indictment: with nice use of the Federalist, Greenwald shows that even if the plain language of the Constitution weren't enough for you, the founders made it abundantly clear that they did not mean to establish an elected monarchy — let alone hereditary monarchy, as in Judge Anna Diggs Taylor's recent opinion in ACLU v. NSA.

I see this as boiling down to a huge political problem stemming from the fact that we're forced to take seriously a legal theory of the U.S. presidency that makes 9/11 conspiracy nuttery look like general relativity (squandering of intellectual credibility to the contrary notwithstanding).

If you need a reason why it's worth getting the Republicans out of power in the legislative branch, Greenwald's book is an excellent place to start.

(Originally posted to Total Drek.)

Saturday Toddler Extra

by Tom Bozzo

Victory in the battle of the East Coast preschooler distractions goes to Terrific Tuesday at Winterthur's Enchanted Woods (oops, forgot the [TM]*). This offered half-price admission for the kids, while I got to contemplate life with robber-baronial wealth for free as an adult accompanying one.

The theme of the Woods [TM] is fairies, and a number of girls had come prepared in various levels of fairy dress. This triggered something in our adult womenfolk, who ensured that Julia would not go through life without full fairy regalia:

(Not shown: Fairy crown that's a little to big for the time being, even for Julia's high-percentile noggin.)

The fairy stuff reduced the economic advantage over Sesame Place, and lunch at the venerable Pizza by Elizabeths in Greenville actually was more expensive (though infinitely better) than the theme park fare. And Julia was entranced by Elmo's World Live. Still, I score it as a second-round knockout for old-money Wilmington over corporatized entertainment.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Widening Gap Between Information-Rich and Information Super-Rich

by Tom Bozzo

Neat stuff, from Alan Schussman:
Beginning August 21, articles and book chapters from the University of Arizona Libraries print collections will be scanned and delivered to your desktop for free. You will now receive, free, all articles you need whether the UA library own[s] the journal or not.
Alan reports that this should make his off-campus life a lot easier; having spent a year of grad school off-campus, I couldn't disagree.

As a non-academic with occasional scholarly interests, what it highlights for me is a yawning gap between information services available to the general public and to people associated with higher education institutions.

Twenty years ago, open stacks were just about enough to level the playing field. Even for access to specialized research databases, this is fine if you are close to central Madison or otherwise have time to kill.

Virtualization of the libraries is another matter, since the advanced electronic library services usually aren't available to users with any old IP address. I'm inclined to view this as inefficiently low information dissemination due to missing markets for the information services. The UW libraries, for instance, will sell borrowing privileges to Wisconsin residents for $30/year, but apparently not outside access to the metalibrary for anything short of enrollment or employment.

This arguably isn't even good for the copyright holders who impose the access restrictions. For one thing, most of the contents of research university libraries have negligible commercial value outside of databases offering full texts (or more). Moreover, libraries could perform a useful database aggregation service, increasing the value of databases that potential users might not otherwise be inclined to pay for à la carte. With distribution costs near zero (*), the revenues would be pure gravy to the database providers and/or the copyright holders behind them. (I assume, of course, that anything of commercial value will already have been pirated by other means.)

So providing, on reasonable terms, public access to public research libraries' electronic collections would be good not only for the occasional blogger and in line with libraries' missions, but also — if a carrot is needed on the legislative side — for the bloggers' small business employers. Is there any reason completing markets in this direction wouldn't be good for everyone?


(*) An interesting question related to the UA electronic document delivery service is whether the documents provided under the service will be added to a database to minimize the marginal cost of repeated requests, as in the "Librareome Project" of Vernor Vinge's Rainbows End (which involves digitization of research libraries' dead-tree collections to make pre-digital materials accessible to modern information retrieval systems).

In Which Tom and I, imitating "30 Days," switch Geographies

by Ken Houghton

While Tom and family, especially Julia, "travel all the Northeast states" (to borrow from the sage whose second marriage may be going the way of his first—or not), the eldest (5) and I are about to embark on a trip to Mishawaka/South Bend, IN, driving at night both ways in hopes that she'll be well-rested by the time we get to Grandma's.

While there are several Hoosier-based bloggers, such modern conveniences are not likely to be available to me for the next several days. (Fear not: Tom is re-energized, and has a few in the pipeline.)

Have fun storming the castle.

(Time changed to push U of A post to rightful position at top of blog.)

Thursday, August 24, 2006

The One Percent Fruit Juice Doctrine

by Tom Bozzo

Some of you have surely seen this brilliant post from Kung Fu Monkey (via Dean Dad or other sources, h/t also to Tom C. from NYC) showing just how low Bushism has taken us since the Greatest Generation. Quotes of money:
FDR: Oh, I'm sorry, was wiping out our entire Pacific [battleship] fleet supposed to intimidate us? We have nothing to fear but fear itself, and right now we're coming to kick your ass with brand new destroyers riveted by waitresses. How's that going to feel?
US. NOW: BE AFRAID!! Oh God, the Brown Bad people could strike any moment! They could strike ... NOW!! AHHHH. Okay, how about .. NOW!! AAGAGAHAHAHHAG! Quick, do whatever we tell you, and believe whatever we tell you, or YOU WILL BE KILLED BY BROWN PEOPLE!! PUT DOWN THAT SIPPY CUP!!
Traveling as we just were with two small children (the elder of whom doesn't exactly enjoy flying) and two empty sippy cups, the mind can wander into trying to locate brighter sides of the whole stinkin' mess. That doesn't count dreaming that someone might respond by locating the money needed to build a high-speed rail corridor from NYC to Minneapolis via Madison, the thought of which crossed our minds yesterday evening as we watched an Acela Express pull into the Wilmington train station while we were having drinks nearby.

The main positive externalities, IMHO, derive from a dramatic reduction in carry-on baggage following the liquids ban. This in turn speeds travel through security checkpoints as well as loading and unloading of aircraft. Some additional preservation-of-civil-society benefits arise as the marginal carry-on no longer needs to be checked at the aircraft door, and there's less risk of being clobbered by a roller bag fumble.

So at PHL, where after five freakin' years the enhanced Terminal E checkpoint still looks like an afterthought, the screening line this morning was unsurprisingly long but moved along at more than double the speed of similarly long lines of post-9/11 yore.

As we approached the checkpoint wall, I noticed that a word or two had been blacked out in the liquids-ban notice: upon close inspection, they turned out to be "or juice." As in, juice for infants or small children — one of the few exceptions to the initial ban, along with human milk and infant formula — is no longer permitted. At the time, I said something like, "I'd like to have been a fly on the wall in that meeting, to discuss the sippy cup threat," which later signage suggested might have come close to the civilly and/or criminally punishable joking about security threats in line. But upon reflection, this almost makes sense, as the definition of "small children" otherwise could easily make for some testy checkpoint moments.

That didn't stop us from having a testy checkpoint moment. Julia seemed put out by having to have her shoes taken off (no exceptions to shoe removal for toddler sneaks), but as she and Suzanne were about to head through the magnetometer, the TSA screener staffing it ordered that Julia's "baby" (a plush Red Riding Hood-like doll) had to be X-rayed along with the shoes.

Julia must have sort-of understood, because her grip on the baby tightened immediately; while she's pretty good about dropping it in her crib on request, she just gripped it closer when Suzanne asked her for it.

It took a good yank to separate Julia and the baby — and with no crying, fussing, or for that matter the slightest peep, Julia removed her pacifier and whipped it at the screener at the input end of the X-ray machine, who was startled out of some chit-chat about screener social lives, much to the delight of every other TSA employee in sight who evidently got the Big Laff of the shift.

It's such a relief to know that the homeland is well-defended against the toddler threat.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Productivity and Inequality: Observations from the Peanut Gallery

by Tom Bozzo

There's been a quite interesting free-for-all going on in the upper reaches of the econoblogosphere, summarized by Brad DeLong here, originating in Treasury Secretary Paulson's 'close your eyes and think of England' comment that rising inequality "is simply an economic reality, and it is neither fair nor useful to blame any political party [for it]."

Much of the question boils down to whether there's reason to believe that an increase in relative productivity accompanies the increase in payments to the inhabitants of the nosebleed section of the income distribution. For reasons I'll explain in additional detail once I have some blogging time, I'm inclined to side with Paul Krugman and Mark Thoma and say that on balance there isn't.

My two cents — and I'm calling myself the 'peanut gallery' from a position I'd characterize as informed but non-expert on the subject — is that there are prima facie flaws with the main stories that purport to explain the increasing inequality. This is not to say that these cannot be overcome by careful analysis; it's just that I'd need to see compelling analysis on the subjects before changing my mind.

One is that increased returns to education can explain why the working classes are falling behind but not why narrower segments of the educated classes are pulling ahead. Assuming the coporate executives, investment bankers, and top-tier professionals were highly educated to begin with, the relative marginal education effects should be stronger for people whose next best alternative is a blue-collar vocation.

The other is that high-income elites also aren't obviously the greatest beneficiaries in relative marginal productivity of IT improvements. That is, can someone refute a claim that the largest relative marginal productivity increases have been for, e.g., office workers who, armed with a computer and common commercial software, can carry out the function of rooms-full of drones with adding machines?

So when DeLong observes:
To a good neoclassical economist, the statement that the relative price of a factor of production--like the labor of the elite top 1% of America's wage and salary distribution--has risen is the same thing as the statement that the relative productivity of that factor of production has risen[,]
the relative part is critically important. High-income elites can enjoy large absolute productivity increases which, if they're outstripped in relative terms by the masses, would be predicted to reduce inequality, other things equal.

Another economics 301 point to keep in mind is that a really good neoclassical economist has to acknowledge that this result is not totally robust to imperfectly competitive factor markets. So it's necessary to decompose productivity, market power, and other structural change effects.

These effects can work in various directions. For example, the pro athlete division of the high-income set has benefited from 'technological change' increasing their 'marginal revenue product' (much wider mass-media distribution of their product) which reinforces a market power effect (having greater claims to the proceeds of their services via free agency and unionization). The latter effect, it would seem, is moving in the opposite direction for office and production-line workers.

And this should, thank heavens, get Nixon off the top of the main page.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Richard Nixon Plays His Piano Concerto #1

by Ken Houghton

My experimenting with YouTube continues. Note especially the dig at Harry Truman just before the performance begins. (I am probably not the only legacy-Republican to wish that his prediction had been accurate.) Following is dedicated to the memory of Bruno Kirby (see below):

Lt. Hauk (Kirby): Respectfully, sir, the former VP is a good man and a decent man.
General (Noble Willingham): Bullshit! I know Nixon personally. He lugs a trainload of shit behind him that could fertilize the Sinai. Why, I wouldn't buy an apple from the son of a bitch and I consider him a good, close, personal friend.

The Rich Stay Healthy, the Sick Stay Poor

by Ken Houghton

I want to say nice things about my job.

I'm now halfway through antibiotics, 20g having been dropped into my body over the past five days. I've made it into my assigned office one day in the past six working, and an office two days (this being the second).

If this were twenty years ago—or even ten—one of several things would have happened. I might have missed all of last week. I might have forced my way into the office and sweated and coughed all over people. Or I might have been told not to come in until the antibiotics were finished.

As it is:

  1. As a salaried employee, I will be paid in full on Wednesday (paid sick leave, as Tom has noted, is an incentive in employer selection)
  2. I was allowed to postpone this week's scheduled vacation trip to South Bend
  3. The drugs were mostly covered by our insurance plan (not the best, but better than paying $110 out of pocket and eventually being reimbursed for some—or not being reimbursed at all)
  4. I was able to work via VPN and file transfers so that I only lost two days to illness (and the company gained two days of productivity while I was out of the office).

All of these are advantages one could take for granted. But in reality, they are hard-fought accomplishments gained over several decades of effort—which we can tell, in part, by the simple fact that many lower-level workers are not provided with some or all of the advantages that are clear in that list above.

Today—and especially Wednesday—I celebrate the good fortune of an employment agreement that often seems far from ideal, but which is much better than the vast majority of workers have.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Brighter Sides to Global Warming: More Heat or Light?

by Tom Bozzo

Orley Ashenfelter writes, in regard to this post:
Sorry, but global warming does mean more solar radiation. The usual
model involves a prediction of heat, but could as easily have been a
prediction of solar radiation increase. The normal argument is that CO2
will alter the atmosphere permitting more solar radiation to effectively
hit the earth--needless to say this is complicated.
True that it's complicated, though Ashenfelter's is not the best explanation around. To my mind it would be more accurate to say that a lot of radiation reaches Earth via sunlight ("solar radiation"), heating it to habitability, most of which is relatively promptly re-radiated into space. "Greenhouse" gases in the atmosphere absorb some of the re-radiated energy and send it back to the surface at different wavelengths. Indeed, it took me about two minutes with Google to come across this science news item from the Beeb from last fall, remarking on a paper recently published in Geophysical Research Letters that used this factoid to identify the source of increased energy reaching the earth. The main result:
"We observed that between 1995 and 2002, the amount of longwave radiation coming downwards to the Earth in Europe increased significantly [the main culprit, reportedly, being increased water vapor], whereas solar radiation did not," said study leader Rolf Philipona, from the World Radiation Center in Davos, Switzerland. [emphasis added]
Meanwhile, Ashenfelter continues:
I would suggest you read our paper, as we make it clear that the theory of solar radiation works great when there is no atmosphere (indeed, we assume that for
purposes of making some calculations, and it works well for our prediction of vineyard prices because, of course, what atmosphere there is in such a small area is the same for each vineyard--so held constant for our purposes). So your critique misses the point--solar radiationis how you get heat--and indeed, your tomatoes will get riper if it stays warm at night, even if it is dark out--check with a gardener (or botanist)! The same is true for grapes or any other plant.
A not-republished disclaimer that he doesn't read blogs notwithstanding, Prof. Ashenfelter might have read my critique more closely. For one thing, the earlier post was sprinked with hints that I did, in fact, read his paper, even though I only quoted the abstract. I also never suggested that solar radiation isn't how you get heat.

The point of that portion of my critique is that heat and light are imperfect substitutes for the purposes of growing plants — pace the tomato example (and the heat wave was, indeed, good for mine) stick one plant in a hot closet and another plant in a cool closet, and I guarantee identical results after a few days.

My impression from Ashenfelter and Storchmann's paper is that variations in the vineyard-specific solar energy input used to explain vineyard quality are largely due to variations in solar radiation (e.g., due to orientation), while there's evidence out there (as noted above) that Europe is warming due to non-solar radiation. This is not to say that more warmth needn't help the grapes, other things equal — that's why I mentioned another paper co-authored by Storchmann where the warming effect appeared to be transmitted via degree-days in the growing season as at least being clearer in the mechanisms. Maybe the solar radiation and re-re-radiation heating effects are sufficiently strongly correlated that this doesn't matter, but Ashenfelter and Storchmann haven't (to my reading) shown it.

Now we get to the bottom line.
On the other hand, though this paper shows a location (in Germany) that will unambiguously benefit from global warming there are, of course, many places that will be harmed. Providing a really credible measure for even one area (helped or harmed) is extremely difficult--which is a key point of the paper. (As of this time, by the way, there are really no estimates other than simple correlations between climate and agriculatural prices.) Ideally, the same method we use could be used in other places and for other plants to provide evidence of help or harm.
Here's where Ashenfelter remains in big trouble with what was my main critique from before, which is that he's on shakier ground than he seems to think in suggesting that Mosel valley vineyard owners will "unambiguously benefit" from global warming. There are really two potential layers to the failure of the other-things-equal analysis. As mentioned previously, nature might not cooperate in the sense of providing the potentially beneficial (to them) temperature increase along with other changes (precipitation patterns, seasonal temperature extremes) that need not benefit the grapes. Second, there's no guarantee that global warming will arrive (or proceed) without demand-side effects — as customers near oceans find themselves substituting flood protection for all other expenditures. Then there's the prospect of really big changes like disruption of ocean currents massively changing European climates, possibly even in the face of a net warming.

So, as I said before, and at the risk of being pre-declined for membership in the wine economics association, Mosel valley vintners shouldn't be taking global warming to the bank.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

But What About the Children?

by Tom Bozzo

While in D.C., it was brought to my attention that it's been a while since the kids have appeared on the blog. So here they are, with teddy bears!


Friday, August 18, 2006

I Experiment with YouTube

by Ken Houghton

This isn't as cute as Tom's kids, but I think it needs to be seen by some of the small, deeply demented followers of this blog, or at least the awful-video blogwar of a few weeks ago.

Liberace and Cassius Clay

When Capital Cannot be at its Efficient Frontier

by Ken Houghton

Billmon notes an intriguing point about the recently-deceased housing bubble, one we all knew but never emphasized:
It's also why it took almost ten years for the last home price boom/bust cycle in California to come around again. According to the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight, the reg agency that tracks these things, home prices in the greater Los Angeles metro area didn't return to their 1990 peak until the spring of 2000. [emphasis mine]

Anecdotally, the New York area data is that the peak was in 1989 and the break-even was around early 2003.

I know several people, most on Long Island, who almost literally could not afford to move during the 1990s. And those were only the ones who might have wanted to do so. People with a two-hour commute each way, every day. (Which also implies that industry didn't follow the housing expansion.)

The bursting of a housing bubble—among other, more significant, things—creates a decent amount of endemic inefficiency in the system, much of which will not be reflected directly in data, since it is primarily opportunity cost. But it will be a loss nonetheless.

Equity Premium: Entre'acte

by Ken Houghton

I still plan to extend this post eventually, but I see that knzn has done the heavy lifting.

At a 2.55% premium (his or her midpoint, which I consider optimistic), an appropriate asset mix for a prudent investor not near retirement would something closer to 40-60 (at most 50-50) than the more common 80-20 recommendation. (Stocks to bonds in both cases.)

National Security Porn

by Tom Bozzo

We have just enough influence here that I'm loath to use the "p" word in the post title and risk unleashing a flood of unsavory Web searchers. But I'm at somewhat of a loss for another term that adequately describes the orange alert airport experience, with its barrage of announcements at least mentioning the Department of Homeland Security if not counseling compliance with its directives.

I witnessed a couple of security fatigue datapoints while waiting for my flight to Detroit. A sample of passengers from the flight were being interviewed by a data collector working for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority on a variety of topics related to the National Airport experience, and one of the survey questions asked subjects whether the security return was worth the incremental hassle of the last week. Two women in a row (one African-American, fortysomething-ish, arrived by Metrorail; one white, thirty-ish, arrived by taxi) answered "somewhat" on a scale where "none" was the only less-worth-it response category. So A+ to the Rude Pundit for this remarkably non-rude observation:
See, the Rove-cultivated Republican playbook is still fear and terror, but it doesn't play anymore because it's been played out. What happened yesterday at America's airports? Sure, there were long-ass delays, aggravations, and more. But any major freak-outs? Nope: everyone just sort of sighed, dumped out their mouthwash, and cursed. And that's because we've gotten used to this. So the reaction of the citizenry now to terror alerts and colorifically raised warning levels is, "Yeah, we know. What else ya got?" People actually took the Bush administration's words to heart: we have gone about our daily lives, just incorporating the "life in the time of terror" adjustment to our routines. Republicans have been framing everything for the last five years based on one big event. It ain't gonna work anymore. The 9/11 justification is gonna be met with comical eye rolls around the country.
Speaking of comical eye-rolls, I'd nearly forgotten about one lovely bit of 9/11 kitsch, hidden in an alcove off a now lightly used corridor between the old National Airport terminal and the newer barn from which NWA operates. This time, I had the digicam (packed to get pictures of friends' kids for Suzanne) along...
What is it? Why it's Saint George, the man who has made air travel so safe that you can't carry a cup of coffee brewed inside a "secured" area onboard an airplane, leading the multitudes out of Ground Zero under the approving light of Heaven. I can only imagine what the airport's bills for vomit-removal are. Click through for more detail... if you dare!

Thursday, August 17, 2006

If these gits had been in the 4H, they wouldn't graduate

by Ken Houghton

You might not know this is a case of Our Guys Redux from the lede.
A judge decided two high school athletes can complete the football season this fall before they serve 60-day jail sentences for a car crash caused by a decoy deer placed in a country road. Two teens were injured. [emphasis mine]

Doesn't sound too serious, right? Maybe 60 days is reasonable?

Second 'graf:
"I shouldn't be doing this, but I'm going to. I see positive things about participating in football," Judge Gary McKinley said Tuesday.

First hint something might be wrong. (Memo to the Judge: When you can verbalize "I shouldn't be doing this," your brain is trying to tell you something.)
Robert Roby Jr. crashed his car into a pole and broke his neck, collarbone, arm and leg. His passenger, Dustin Zachariah, suffered brain damage, Bailey said.

Rabbi Gellman, Cosmopolitan Jews, and Baseball

by Ken Houghton

The headaches and ear pains of the past week and a half turned out to be a full-blown sinus infection, so the long rants will have to wait. Instead—yes, I know it's two days ago, which is a decade in Internet time—I want to address Rabbi Gellman's comments on how evil it was that around 4 out of 9 Jews actually voted for Ned Lamont. (He of Wednesday's WSJ editorial page.)

As noted by Duncan, Gellman calls those who didn't vote for Lieberman "cosmopolitan Jews":
The problem with cosmopolitan Jews is that they have trouble loving other Jews. The reason for this split is you are Jewish by blood and not by belief. Judaism, which is the religion of Jews, has many wonderful beliefs but you can reject them all and still be Jewish. [emphases mine]

(Note that Gellman's definition excludes many people from being Jewish who might voluntarily convert—including the children of Jewish men who marry outside of the faith, but not, at least explicitly, children of Jewish women who do so.)

Gellman earlier used Lieberman as a touchstone:
Another consequence of this historic selection is that it now frees Jews to vote against Lieberman even though he is Jewish. His selection is the historic moment that marks full Jewish acceptance in America—not the rise of Henry Kissinger, not the movies of Steven Spielberg, not the corporate mastery of Michael Eisner.

It is left as an exercise to the reader whether those three are a list of great Jewish accomplishments. What I want to talk about is baseball. (Ah, got your attention back!) Gellman again:
I was jolted into Jewish consciousness by Koufax’s decision not to pitch on the Sabbath in the 1965 World Series.

This simply marks Gellman as being Of A Certain Age. However, there is a major problem with that sentence: Koufax did not opt not to pitch on the Sabbath.

Koufax declined to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series, which was held on October 6, 1965. Wednesday, October 6. Not the Sabbath.

Rather, Yom Kippur. The Day of Atonement. The highest of High Holy Days.

There are several Jewish baseball players (and others, of course) who have eschewed working on Yom Kippur, though I would freely admit that Ken Holtzman does not have the cachet of Koufax and Greenberg presumably was before Gellman's time.

But there are Jews and there are Jews in Gellman's world, and in Gellman's world, Koufax—who pitched many a Friday night and Saturday afternoon—is a Cosmopolitan Jew. His first major league appearance in a game was on a Friday (24 June 1955), while his first win came on a Saturday (27 August 1955); Two of his four career no-hitters were thrown on Saturday (11 May 1963 and 30 June 1962).

If "[t}he problem with cosmopolitan Jews is that they have trouble loving other Jews," then surely Gellman—following in the path of his idol, Sandy Koufax—is a Cosmopolitan Jew.

I Agree with George W. Bush

by Ken Houghton

"Set aside enough money now."
"Americans who spend a lifetime working hard should be confident that their pensions will be there when they retire," Bush said. "Some businesses are not putting away the cash they need to fund the pensions they promised to their workers."

The cover of today's CBO Update [PDF], which assumes the "sunsetting" of all of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts as currently required by law.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Bush pardons S&L embezzler, Deserter, Coke Dealer

by Ken Houghton

Among the 17 Minor Criminals pardoned by George W. Bush today, three stand out:
-Kenneth Clifford Foner, Niobrara, Neb., conspiracy to impede the functions of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., commit embezzlement as a bank officer, make false entries in the records of an FDIC-insured bank, and commit bank fraud. Sentenced July 19, 1991, to five years probation, conditioned upon performance of 1,000 hours of community service and payment of $17,750 in restitution.

Looks as if he's a minor fish from the S&L Crisis days. John McCain, as a member of the Keating Five, should be proud of this one. Can't wait until Felix Gillette tells us what he did "was not illegal in itself." The FDIC's mileage may vary.
William Grover Frye, Indianapolis, Ind., absence without leave (two specifications), escape from lawful confinement, sale of a stolen motor vehicle in interstate commerce. Sentenced Oct. 3, 1968, by U.S. Army general court-martial to confinement at hard labor for one year, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and a bad conduct discharge. Sentenced Oct. 15, 1973, in U.S. District Court to two years probation.

From those charges, seems to be a Viet Nam-era deserter who broke out of military jail, stole a car, and sold it to try to remain free.

Why does George W. Bush hate the troops?

And, finally,
Jerry Dean Walker, Newark, Del., possession with intent to distribute cocaine Sentenced April 10, 1989, to three years imprisonment, as amended Oct. 19, 1989

There are a couple of other soldiers and a couple of other drug dealers (as best I can tell Victoria Diane Frost of Medina, Ohio, was involved in methedrine "conspiracy to possess and distribute L-Ephedrine Hydrochloride"), but that, as per John Tierney, is not an epidemic (though some conservatives such as the AEI and Mark Kleiman may use facts to disagree), the way, say, cocaine is supposed to have been in the 1980s.

The Stingiest Pardoner has certainly selected an interesting cast of criminals this time.

Monday, August 14, 2006

(Washington, D.C.) On the Road (sic) Again

by Tom Bozzo

I'm in D.C. for business — as interested, you can hear me get grilled during the Postal Rate Commission hearings on Wednesday via webcast. Additional security BS notwithstanding, travel here was smooth. The MSN-DCA nonstop flight is apparently doing well enough that it's currently operated with a 70-seat Avro RJ with a first-class cabin (vs. a very cramped Bombardier CRJ). Since the weekend's flights seemed to be packed with refugees from this drum and bugle corps extravaganza at Camp Randall, I was privileged to pay a fare that entitled me to sit up front. On the economy class return, I'll be curious to see what the new security rules have done to the space in the overhead compartments.

Jeremy may be able to joke about the $12/day hotel broadband at the ASAs, but my hotel doesn't offer broadband of any description. Moreover, the historic building's two-foot-thick masonry walls interfere with the obvious alternative of trying to pick up an open wireless access point from an apartment in the surrounding neighborhood. So my information input has contracted towards the contents of the hardcopy Washington Post (eeek!) plus a little more sucked through 28.8 kilobits of dialup bandwidth.

(Note to readers: Pointers to free wireless internet access points in downtown Washington would be gratefully accepted.)

Some scary PowerBook flakiness seems to have resolved itself after pulling a bum stick of 5-1/2-year-old RAM, but I think this is the sign that a MacBook Pro is in my near future. Darn!

Accordingly, output will be lower even by recent standards. But I did get mail with from Orley Ashenfelter complaining about this post, about which more when I'm back in broadband-land.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Destroy the Dominant Media Narrative!

by Tom Bozzo

Wheeeeeee! says D, as the Newsweek poll finds that terrorism in the news ups the WPE's approval ratings on terrorism and homeland security issues. To the Marginal Utility extended blogfamily, if someone wants to suggest to you that the Bush administration really wants to keep airplanes from being blown up, just remember this:
Associated Press: Bush staff wanted bomb-detect cash moved: While the British terror suspects were hatching their plot, the Bush administration was quietly seeking permission to divert $6 million that was supposed to be spent this year developing new homeland explosives detection technology...

Homeland Security's research arm, called the Sciences & Technology Directorate, is a "rudderless ship without a clear way to get back on course," Republican and Democratic senators on the Appropriations Committee declared recently...

Lawmakers and recently retired Homeland Security officials say they are concerned the department's research and development effort is bogged down by bureaucracy, lack of strategic planning and failure to use money wisely.

The department failed to spend $200 million in research and development money from past years, forcing lawmakers to rescind the money this summer.

The administration also was slow to start testing a new liquid explosives detector that the Japanese government provided to the United States earlier this year...

Japan has been using the liquid explosive detectors in its Narita International Airport in Tokyo and demonstrated the technology to U.S. officials at a conference in January, the Japanese Embassy in Washington said.

This happened to be too much even for the Chamber of People's Deputies, but that isn't saying much — recall from yesterday that there's a de-fund the TSA caucus in the Republican majority.

This is not to say that the TSA should have a blank check to probe every cavity they wish to probe. But if Democratic strategists can't assemble a strategy based on their advantages in competent execution government in general, and thereby of antiterrorism policies in particular, then they're even bigger losers than I think.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Charity Redux

by Ken Houghton

I asked below if there was any way to help Lebanese refugees.

Juan Cole provides one good answer. (Direct link here.)

UPDATE: Catholic Relief Services is working with folks on the ground as well (h/t Badger Tracker).

UPDATE 2: Via Crooked Timber, below is a map from Human Rights Watch of the cities and areas attacked by Israel—not comprehensive, but it gives a good idea of how difficult it would have been for civilians to leave the area, even if they had the resources. The full HRW report is here(PDF).

(Yes, I do intend to keep this post at the top of the blog until there is a cease-fire. [Me too -- ed.])

Security Theatre, Broadway Style!

by Tom Bozzo

Dep't of oh freaking joy: The latest assaults on such remnants as may remain of the days of gracious air travel, just in time for two airline trips in the next two weeks. On the plus side, word from a colleague just returned from D.C. was that the National Airport security checkpoints were a breeze.

Now, none of us — especially those of us who make portions of our living as frequent flyers — want to have injury added to insult by being blown up in flight. But the important context for the present security crackdown is that similar methods had reportedly been planned for a plot to blow up multiple U.S. airliners over the Pacific, which was disrupted in the mid-90s. So the dire liquid threat has been bubbling, so to speak, for eleven or twelve years (if not much more), and only now merits a ban. Like the immediate post-9/11 ban on pointy stuff, subsequently partly rescinded in some common-sense directions, the impression is one of purely reactive ass-covering.

We are also told about how scary it is that everyday objects were to be employed to conceal the bombs' electronics, which should be non-news, though the additional wrinkle of separating the electronics package from the rest of the bomb is mildly diabolical. Of course, polls are suggesting that a sizeable minority of the public can't remember in what year the attacks of 9/11/01 occurred, so memory is short.

Needless to say, as my blogofascist betters have noted, the court stenographers are already reporting how great this will be for Republicans, even though what it really should say is that the moronic "flypaper" theory of the Iraq war is dead, and has had a stake driven through its heart and lots of garlic stuffed in the relevant body cavities. The damning reporting is that some Transportation Security Administration R&D funds had been redirected to fund agency operations. Per the NYT (op. cit.):
Cathleen A. Berrick, director of the Government Accountability Office’s homeland security and justice division, told a Senate committee in February 2005 that the Transportation Security Administration... redirected more than half of the $110 million it had for research and development in 2003 to pay for personnel costs of screeners, delaying research in areas including detecting liquid explosives. It has continued to redirect some research and development money, she said Thursday.
This is a byproduct of what should be Highly Telling as to the Republicans' ability to successfully wage the War on Terra — namely, certain Republican members of Congress hate the idea of staffing airport security checkpoints with well-paid and theoretically professionalized federal employees enough to shortchange the TSA.

There is a technological alternative to flying Naked Air (now with added thirst and sensory deprivation!) — while you might be able to get a doctored iPod past security eyeballs, sneaking same past sufficiently advanced scanners and image processors is another thing. Likewise, screening portals that add trace chemical detection to the usual magnetometer function are something you read about from time to time (h/t Sadly, No!). The former is the sort of problem that smart weapons solve when trying to hit tanks instead of rocks, and is certainly amenable to some throwing of money (including computing power) at it. Like, say, a fraction of the hundreds of billions of dollars blown on the Administration's quagmire-creation project.

That's not to say that there aren't some positive externalities. More people should check their bags than actually do — among the airlines' grand screw-ups, I'd have to count making people want (or think they want) to drag their bags on board planes, and the related boarding and deplaning delays. Of course, a total hand-luggage ban would effectively kill the industry as it would be the last the airlines saw of business travelers and their expensive electronics.

So qui bono (or who should)? My short list:

Inhumane Workplace or Disingenuous Boss?

by Tom Bozzo

Odd piece here from Mike Ivey in the Capital Times business section. Chamberlain Research Consultants, which made waves during the battle over the Madison smoking ban by publishing a study suggesting counterintuitively that the city was narrowly divided over the issue (reality: probably not), is moving to a new office building on the near south side, and the boss is Darn Glad the sick leave ordinance didn't pass. Sharon Chamberlain's claim:
"I remember thinking I don't want to leave Madison but the sick leave ordinance would have added close to $100,000 annually to our costs," she said. "It would have killed us, trying to compete against people like Gallup, Harris or the other big research firms."
Well, I don't know what CRC's paid leave policy is — the one posted job listing on its website is silent on the subject of salary and benefits — though the implication is that it's ungenerous. (*) Recall that the Madison sick leave proposal would have allowed any form of paid leave to count towards the mandate, such that a newly hired employee of ours would be granted roughly twice the mandated leave overall — and so the sick leave mandate would have added exactly nothing to our costs.

An easier question is whether chiseling employees on leave really would help CRC compete with the likes of Gallup. Not for talent, if Gallup's workplace values page is to be believed:
When associates find their work and personal lives difficult to reconcile, not only do those individuals suffer, so does the company as a whole. Gallup provides associates with the support and flexibility needed to minimize the conflict between job requirements and family responsibilities. Full-time associates are offered a complete range of benefits and family leave options, and are generally given latitude in setting their work schedule. Gallup has twice been named one of America's "100 Best Companies for Working Mothers" by Working Mothers magazine. Gallup also ranks as the number-one consulting firm for "quality of life" and is the 16th "most prestigious firm" in the nation, according to a survey of more than 2,500 practicing consultants at top firms. (Source:
Somehow, I think sick leave is part of the package.


(*) Since leave benefits of some sort are de rigueur in professional employment, if CRC doesn't offer them to its employees, it would be expected to have to provide the equivalent utility in some other way — additional pay, other benefits, etc. — so the gross cost of the leave required by the mandate isn't the net economic cost to the employer.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Setting the bar lower

by Ken Houghton

My morning radio listening today included Nachum reading this article by Jonathan Kay, which is another of those "the MSM doesn't tell you the good news pieces." Here's the good news:
But the truly amazing part of it is that the mission happened at all. Instead of risking the lives of its most elite soldiers, Israel easily could have dropped a bomb on the building and taken out their targets while they slept.

I expect all of those still living in that building will be buying $2,000 worth of Israel Bonds in celebration of their good fortune.

We are told that "Israel stubbornly adheres to a more humane creed," after which Kay declares, "This is not a new policy that Israel adopted in response to the July 30 Qana bombing"—apparently without intent of irony. He soon follows that up by bemoaning the 23 Israeli soldiers who died destroying the city of Jenin.

But it gets even better:
Nor is Israel simply following the letter of international law. A Hezbollah rocket crew can kills [sic] dozens, or even hundreds, of Israelis with a single volley. Demolishing that apartment building in Tyre arguably would have been a proportionate, and entirely legal, Israeli response to the threat posed by its occupants.

Per Kay, 2,000 rockets have been launched. Most of which have been aimed at Safed (Tsfat), Haifa, and other Northern cities. They have caused much structural damage but less total loss of civilian life than the aforementioned (by Kay) Qana bombing. The Israeli civilian deaths to date are in the mid-tens—not insignificant, but hardly justifying the FUD of "can kill dozens or hundreds in a single volley."

But Kay wants to believe—and presumably his readers want to believe—that the damage inflicted by Israel is "proportionate." Note especially his careful use of "arguably"; even he knows that few other than John Yoo or Alberto Gonzales would try to support the argument.

Kay then piles it on:
Moreover, Israel had warned the residents of Tyre to evacuate many times. Most of those who remain in the city are Hezbollah supporters. Last week, Haidar Fayadh, a Tyre cafe owner, told The New York Times: "Everyone has a weapon in his house. There are doctors, teachers and farmers. Hezbollah is people. People are Hezbollah." Luckily for Fayadh, Israel doesn't take him at his word, or he'd be dead and all of Tyre would be a smoking ruin.

Check out the map below (the same one used in the Charity Redux post), noting Tyre's location. Given the bombings and their timings, where, precisely, were the members of that royal city of yore supposed to go, even if they could? Into the sea?

So the people who remain are Hezbollah supporters, even as those who stayed in New Orleans Just Didn't Listen. And we know this because they have weapons. (Really? People who live in a country that was occupied by outsiders for 18 years have accumulated weapons to protect themselves? Next thing you know, Kay will describe Red Dawn as a "terrorist wet dream.")

Might as well just wipe out the whole lot of them, I guess. There's a word for that...I'm certain it will come to me...heard it once or twice when we were visiting a place in Israel.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Risk Mismanagement, or, It's the Infrastructure, ******

by Ken Houghton

The other thing (besides this) that caught my eye in the 29 July- 4 August issue is this Economist story about the Queens blackout (may require subscription) is this 'graf three paragraphs from the end, almost a throwaway:
Indeed, one of the ironies of this week's power failures is that America is at last starting to grapple with the most entrenched problems in its electricity system. After the 2003 blackout, a joint American-Canadian taskforce delivered a withering 228-page report highlighting the failings of the utilities—which, among other things, had not been regularly monitoring the condition of transmission lines [emphasis mine].

It is difficult note to speculate that this situation was caused in no small part by the deregulation of the energy companies. But that's not (directly) what brings me to discussing this.

Rather, in a fortunate dovetail (via Mark Thoma), Brad DeLong notes that "the death of distance" is very dependent on having a functioning infrastructure. As such, one of the advantages of our tax code is that it is structured to ensure that infrastructure is maintained, at least within a given company.

The corollary to a need for infrastructure is our generous Depreciation and maintenance tax credits. Between them, there should never be an infrastructure maintenance issue for any firm that can fairly be described as a "going concern."

Everyone who owns a car or an appliance (including computers) is exposed to maintenance costs. It's a central tenet of the TCO religion that maintenance expenses should be considered before any purchase.

For companies, the compensation for having to replace machinery that is past its value, or to do maintenance is that they get tax credits and are allowed to depreciate the value of their assets. They can then effectively buy and replace capital assets at no net cost to the company (assuming the firm has the cash flows to cover such replacements, but we are talking about going concerns here, not a fly-by-night operation).

So, unlike my household, which "boasts" three 8-track players (one of which works, sometimes), there is no excuse for a company such as BP, whose latest Alaska oil spill came about:
BP discovered corrosion in the transit lines only after the Department of Transportation ordered an inspection following a 270,000-gallon spill in March at another section of the field....

BP officials said the line where the leak was found was last checked for weakness in 1992, using a technology called a "smart pig" in which a device is sent down the tubes to assess pipeline integrity. [emphases mine]

So we have a utility company that doesn't monitor the quality of its transmission lines and an oil companies that doesn't worry about its pipeline (in far from optimal conditions).

I don't monitor every little piece of my car, either--but I know well that Ray's people are going to charge me $65/hour and am willing to take the tradeoff between that and spending a couple of years in auto shop.

Who will charge BP and Con Edison? If the status quo remains, unfortunately, Attaturk provides the answer here.

When I was a wee trader, in the mid-1980s, our firm did its annual "let's-make-fun-of-ourselves-for-the-holidays" reel. One skit had a deal being done in the Cleveland office:
We'll book the profits in Cleveland, the risk in Dallas, and the expenses in Los Angeles.

Apparently, those bankers are now running BP. And Con Edison. And maybe you're infrastructure-dependent firm as well.

On the Internet, about 137 AOL users are Pete Townshend?

by Ken Houghton

Perhaps they really are doing research. Or were looking for a recent article.

Meanwhile, I hope User 17556639 is an aspiring mystery writer.


by Ken Houghton

I won't go into the wrong-headedness of this article from the Economist of 29 July; their campaign against Venezuela's attempt to balance free trade with having to answer to the vote of the people is disingenuous at best.

Instead, the pull quote for today is:
Cuba's 79-year-old dictator, Fidel Castro, signed a modest trade accord and delivered a rousing speech, quieting rumors that he is too infirm to govern.

And Generalissimo Francisco Franco is Still Dead.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

What does this have to do with the price of oil? Everything

by Ken Houghton

It took me until reading Jenny Diski's Skating to Antarctica (and, iirc, reviewing Sage Walker's Whiteout around the same time) to realize why control of The Malvinas is of singular import to the British. (The 1982 war is remembered primarily two things: that one of the queen's sons served, and for the crack British programming that identified three incoming Exocet missiles as friendly; note the newspaper headline in this video for a flavor of the times.)

The treaty that prevented drilling in Antarctica expired in 2003. The nearest land mass to the continent—and therefore the place you most want to use for storage and/or processing of Antarctic crude—is the Malvinas.

Journalists who didn't mention that in 1982 might be forgiven, but those reporting on the islands now have little excuse. Which is why this:
It seems an unlikely scrap of land to squabble over. Treeless, remote, and blasted by the full fury of the South Atlantic, the Falkland Islands are home to less than 3,000 people, and thrilling only to those who love nature, big winds, and spectacular isolation.

is the type of disingenuous reporting I would expect from The Washington Times, not the Christian Science Monitor.

This is one of the times when the Economic Way of Thinking would make it clear there is a gap in the argument:
Britain says that as long as the islanders want to remain part of Britain there can be no question of ceding sovereignty, despite the annual £100 million ($191 million) bill of keeping 1,200 soldiers on the islands.

It is only near the end that the reporters examine the ROI, and only the current ROI at that:
The economic potential of the islands has not been lost on Argentina. It has repeatedly protested to Britain about oil prospecting and fishing activities in the waters around the islands. The fisheries, professionally run, have proved so lucrative in fact that several Falklanders have become millionaires in recent years. In response, the Argentines have strongly criticized the Falklands government for extending commercial fishing permits from one to 25 years.

This isn't generating anywhere near the 100MM quid in tax revenues referenced above, though. The economic reason to control the Malvinas is, quite simply, the option on Antarctic drilling.

End of the E-mail World, Nigh

by Tom Bozzo

A couple years ago, it had seemed that spam filters had briefly obtained an upper hand, albeit at the cost (in my experience) of occasionally ensnaring e-mails near the dividing line between mere junk and spam. It may in part reflect good net hygiene, but time was I'd almost never see a spam in my actual inbox. That has changed, and not for any user-behavior reason I can identify.

I don't know if ISP-level filter parameters have been twiddled to reduce false positives or what, but I've spent a lot more time in the last few months training my Bayesian last line of defense. On the plus side, Apple's Mail does seem to eventually get the hint.

That's more than I can say for the work filtration, which like Ken's has been less than less than impressive — though I think I've bludgeoned it into accepting mail from my home accounts and from frequently e-mailed client contacts without applying a "SUSPECT:" tag or worse.

What's also fascinating is the cycles in the stuff that gets past the filters. At one point, as many of you may have seen, certain classes of spams entered territories of incomprehensibility not normally associated with measurable advertising response rates — you could take those as a sign of just how near zero the message costs were. Now, I have p3n1s-enhancing drug come-ons and penny stock advice arriving in nearly clear text. I'd suppose this might exploit some cyclical dynamics of adaptive filters, such that the gobbledygook will return before I knew I missed it. Were I not a bit overwhelmed, I'd go looking for papers.

L'Etoile Me

by Tom Bozzo

Yum, yum.
Tuesday, August 8th, 2006 at 6:30 pm

Celebrating Thirty Years in the 'L'Etoile Style'
August 8 1976-August 8, 2006

First Course:
Baked Fantome Farm Chevre in Herb Infused Olive Oil, with Black Olive Tapenade, Pickled Mushrooms, Oil-Roasted Garlic and Crostini

Second Course:
Seared Foie Gras on Lavendar Biscotti with Blackberry Gastrique [Can't eat this in Chicago! -ed.]

Third Course:
Lightly Smoked Artesian Farm Rainbow Trout 'en Papillote' Baked in Parchment with Shiitake Mushrooms, Haricots Vert and Hickory Nut Compound Butter

Fourth Course:
Fountain Prairie Farm Highland Beef on Heirloom Tomatoes with Haystack Potatoes, Béarnaise Sauce and Worcestershire Jus

Fifth Course:
Salad of Creekside Greens with Pleasant Ridge Reserve in Creamy Basil Vinaigrette

Dessert Course:
Molten Chocolate Vesuvius with Framboise Truffle, Caramel-Sea Salt Crème Anglaise, and Raspberry Coulis
Our food scene's prodigal daughter will return for the event. (NYT readers might have seen R.W. Apple's article on Mr. Odessa's campaign on behalf of Austrian wines.)
In honor of L’Etoile’s 30th anniversary, Odessa is coming back to town to team up with Chef Tory to present this meal, revisiting some of their favorite dishes from the 70's to the present. You won’t want to miss this dinner!
And here's the marginal benefit vs. marginal cost challenge:
The price for the Decade Dinner is $85 for the tasting menu with wine pairings. (Other beverages, tax and gratuity are not included.)
Depending on where you live and your tastes for fine dining, this may appear to be a screaming bargain or a colossal waste. I am in the former camp. It's six courses with wine! I don't expect "other beverages" to constitute more than an opening glass of Champagne. It is a school night for me, after all.

After dinner update: The sparkly stuff (Pierre Gimonnet, Blanc de Blancs Cuis, "aligns the urbaneness of Champagne with a sense of charm and fruit that suggests the wines of Vouvray") was compris. So were four Gail Ambrosius dark chocolate truffles. A good time was had by All, but the event underscored the need to get a very compact digicam that can go everywhere.

(Ref. the very first post to this blog, from 8/18/04.)

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