Friday, January 28, 2011

Beef -- it's what may not be for dinner

Cowabunga! Even beef production is suffering in this economy. Bloomberg reports
The U.S. cattle herd probably shrunk to the smallest size since 1958, and the drop in beef supplies may boost prices to a record, analysts said.

Ranchers held 92.211 million head of cattle as of Jan. 1, down 1.6 percent from a year ago, according to the average estimate of seven analysts surveyed by Bloomberg News. That would be the smallest herd in 53 years, said Ron Plain, a livestock economist at the University of Missouri in Columbia.
Look for prices for your favorite hamburger or steak to rise and profit margins at many restaurants to fall in the coming year.

One culprit for the declining herd and higher prices may be the government's push to promote corn-based ethanol as a fuel. The Bloomberg story cites "surging prices for corn," up 82 percent this year as a key factor in declining profit margins for beef producers.

One other thing to look for is an oversupply of beef in about two years, as producers follow the well-worn cobweb cycle (and no, it's not the "some pig" variety of cobwebs).

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Journal of Universal Rejection

A colleague with a great sense of humor forwarded this description of the Journal of Universal Rejection.
The founding principle of the Journal of Universal Rejection (JofUR) is rejection. Universal rejection. That is to say, all submissions, regardless of quality, will be rejected. Despite that apparent drawback, here are a number of reasons you may choose to submit to the JofUR:
  • You can send your manuscript here without suffering waves of anxiety regarding the eventual fate of your submission. You know with 100% certainty that it will not be accepted for publication.
  • There are no page-fees.
  • You may claim to have submitted to the most prestigious journal (judged by acceptance rate).
  • The JofUR is one-of-a-kind. Merely submitting work to it may be considered a badge of honor.
  • You retain complete rights to your work, and are free to resubmit to other journals even before our review process is complete.
  • Decisions are often (though not always) rendered within hours of submission.
I don't think that the colleague was describing my editorial behavior at the Southern Economic Journal, even though my handling of manuscripts seems to be eerily similar to the JofUR.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


Okay, we all get it, a presidential election is just short of two years away, and there are a number of interesting GOP wannabees trying to elbow each other out of the way.

But with nearly 15 million Americans officially unemployed, the nation's old-age security programs sliding into insolvency, 100,000 troops at risk in a faltering campaign in Afghanistan, a chasming federal debt, and an unaddressed climate catastrophe, is a GOP horse-race article really the best use of WaPo newsprint?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Reynolds Price gone too soon

A quiet, reflective, and equinimous voice was silenced yesterday, with the passing of author and Duke professor, Reynolds Price, at the too-young age of 77.

Readers of Price's novels are awakened to good in many characters that hardly seem deserving of this treatment from an author. Readers also find humility in recognizing the failings that are in us all and the undeserved grace that we often receive.

The books' lessons are taught gently and patiently, and they stick.

North Carolina is fuller and better for the books that Price created. It is a shame though that we now only have the books.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Will health care demagoguery lead to the "holocaust?"

It is fair to tag Republicans with spreading the "big lie" with respect to the Affordable Care Act, especially their hysterical claims regarding "death panels" (Politifact's 2009 Lie of the Year) and the "government takeover of health care" (Politifact's 2010 Lie of the Year).

And if Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen had left it at that, he would have been on solid ground. Instead, in a speech from the House floor last night, Rep. Cohen went on to equate the Republicans' lies with the Holocaust, saying "The Germans said enough about the Jews and people believed it--believed it and you have the Holocaust."

Rep. Cohen's slurs are reprehensible. He should retract them and apologize for them.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Who needs the Affordable Care Act?

Who needs the Affordable Care Act? Maybe the estimated 129 million Americans under age 65 with pre-existing health conditions.
As many as 129 million Americans under age 65 have medical problems that are red flags for health insurers, according to an analysis that marks the government's first attempt to quantify the number of people at risk of being rejected by insurance companies or paying more for coverage.
The ACA, which will prohibit insurers from denying coverage or charging more on the basis of existing medical problems, would be a tremendous benefit.

The Party of No offers those of us with medical conditions nothing but further discrimination from insurers.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Compassionate conservatism

Local Republican, Larry Brown, for whom idiocy is a life-style choice, joins the Death Panel caucus
State Rep. Larry Brown said during a discussion of his legislative goals for the year that the government should not spend money to treat adults with HIV or AIDS who "caused it by the way they live."

Coble against sensible, bipartisan energy standards

The local News & Record reports that Congressman Howard Coble wants to repeal part of the bipartisan energy package that was signed by that old lefty, President Bush, in 2007.
U.S. Rep. Howard Coble is among those urging colleagues in Congress to turn off the lights on a controversial provision of the 2007 energy bill.

The Greensboro Republican is a co-sponsor of a bill to repeal what some refer to — erroneously — as the incandescent bulb ban. Texas Reps. Joe Barton and Michael Burgess and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, all Republicans, were the original sponsors of the repeal measure.
The part of the legislation in question raises the efficiency standards for light bulbs by 25 to 30 percent starting in 2012 and further in 2020. The new standards will lower utility bills for consumers, reduce electricity consumption, and reduce pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions.

Shortly after the legislation was enacted, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) estimated that energy-efficient replacements for the now-standard 100-watt incandescent bulb were substantially cheaper when evaluated over the lifetime of the bulb. Although the replacements have higher up-front costs, they cost less to operate and last longer than 100-watt incandescent bulbs. The CRS calculated that the extra up-front cost of an equivalent 70-watt Halogen light used five hours a day at an electricity cost of 10 cents per kilowatt hour would be recovered in four to seven months. A compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulb would recover its extra up-front cost in two to seven months. Thus, the new bulbs are cost-effective.

The bulbs also offer substantial environmental advantages. The CRS report states, "By one projection, the new standards will cumulatively save more than $40 billion on electricity costs and offset about 750 million metric tons of carbon emissions by the year 2030."

What then is the Congressman's objection? The N&R article quotes Rep. Coble as stating it "ought to be a personal decision rather than being an edict from on high."

There's a childish, spiteful "don't tell me what to do even if it's good for me" element to Coble's answer. You can imagine him throwing a similar tantrum when he's served his favorite tapioca pudding without being asked.

"But Howard, tapioca is your favorite."

"Not if you tell me that it is, dammit!"

Rep. Coble's tantrums aside, there is still the question of why a regulation would be needed in the first place if the energy efficient replacements are really such a good deal.

One answer is that consumers may not take the full personal costs and benefits of the bulbs into account when they make their purchases. Consumers see the up-front cost, which is tangible and tied directly to the purchase, but may overlook the operating costs, which will show up in future utility bills and never be tied directly to the bulb. This problem is especially likely to occur in small purchases, where people are more likely to rely on intuition and simple rules of thumb, than in larger purchases.

Another issue, raised by Richard Thaler and Cass Suntein, in their book, Nudge, is that there can be irrational inertia in human behavior. People tend to value losses more strongly than gains (loss aversion); they also exhibit "status quo bias," more readily choosing the old and familiar over the new and different. Again, these biases would lead people away from energy-efficient purchases.

Yet another issue is that to the extent that they do consider costs and benefits, people only consider the costs and benefits that they would personally face. The broader costs of pollution and energy dependence are externalities, which aren't considered in purchase decisions.

The regulation in this case is a relatively modest one. It sets a performance standard but does not dictate that a particular technology be adopted. There are several alternatives to current incandescent bulbs and technological improvements are likely to lead to even more alternatives, including incandescent alternatives. However, the regulation is likely to be very beneficial.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Okay Rep. King, but what about the rest of us?

In the wake of the murderous shooting rampage in Tucson, Rep. Peter King, the Republican chair of the House Homeland Security Committee intends to submit "legislation which would make it a federal crime to carry a weapon within 1,000 feet of any event which is attended by the President, the Vice President, members of the Senate, members of the House of Representatives, Cabinet officials, including the CIA director as well as federal judges."

As the Church Lady would say, "how convenient." The legislation might protect you if you're a federal official or meeting with one, but how about the rest of us that might end up the targets of one of these nuts at a Luby's, a McDonalds, an immigration center, a financial office, a beer distributor, or a university.

King insists that his legislation is not so much about protecting officials but more about protecting people who attend events with the officials. However, aren't these other public places equally or possibly even more dangerous?

The mass-murder in Tucson was tragic, but not just because a congressperson and federal judge were victims.

If Rep. King is serious, he might consider legislation to require renewable licenses to carry weapons, to strengthen background checks required to purchase firearms in the first place, and to re-impose the ban on extended ammunition clips that Congress let lapse.

Friday, January 7, 2011

More on the sanitized Constitution

Dahlia Lithwick at Slate offers a comprehensive analysis of the Republicans' selective reading of the Constitution and concludes that it was a "whitewash."

With their "unique" reading of the Constitution and rejection of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the Republicans appear to have decided that they are an authority unto themselves.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The just-say-no gang that couldn't shoot straight

The new House leadership must be glad that today is over after an embarrassing and gaffe-filled session.

Some of the embarrassment came from a new CBO estimate that the 10-year cost of repealing health care reform will total a whopping $230 billion. Republicans, who had initially held up votes on enacting the reforms so that the CBO could score it and who touted the CBO estimates at the time, have now turned to attacking the CBO. Said Rep. Boehner, the "CBO is entitled to their opinion." At the same time, the leadership must see some credibility in the CBO numbers, because they have written rules that explicitly exempt HR 2 from their pledge not to enact legislation that would add to the deficit.

Speaking of that Rules Committee, it turns out that someone who wasn't formally a member of Congress presided over parts of its meeting. Representatives Pete Sessions and Mike Fitzpatrick were so busy attending what may have been an illegal fund-raiser elsewhere in the Capitol, that they never made it to the floor of the House yesterday to be sworn in. From The Hill
The two Republicans missed the official swearing-in ceremony on the House floor Wednesday because they were attending a separate event for Fitzpatrick elsewhere in the Capitol.

The snafu sent Republican leaders scrambling Thursday afternoon because Sessions and Fitzpatrick had already recorded votes on the House floor and Sessions had even chaired the Rules Committee for a period during a hearing on the healthcare repeal bill. Sessions and Fitzpatrick were spotted huddling with staff off the House floor shortly after a vote on congressional budget cuts.

...A Web site promoting his (Rep. Fitzpatrick's) event in the Capitol Visitor’s Center said it cost $30 per person, but fundraisers are not permitted in the Capitol complex. The event was billed as "Mike Fitzpatrick's swearing in celebration."
Although a Fitzpatrick spokesman denies it was a fundraiser, the web site advertising the event describes the payments as "donations" and "contributions." It looks like an ethics hearing might soon be needed.

Speaker Boehner spent much of his first major press conference backtracking on pledges. With respect to his "open rules" pledge, the Hill quotes him saying, "I promised a more open process. I did not promise that every single bill would be an open bill." Rep. Boehner later danced around the Republicans' pledge to cut $100 billion in spending during the coming year.

The Party of No couldn't even read the Constitution without mucking it up. First, they read a sanitized version that dropped all the nasty bits with references to slavery and blacks being three-fifths of a person. So much for celebrating the framers' intent. Next, they managed to skip reading two sections.

What will tomorrow bring?

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Open rules

The new Speaker of the House, Rep. John Boehner, opened the new session of Congress with the following pledge.
To my colleagues in the majority, my message is this: we will honor our Pledge to America, built through a process of listening to the people, and we will stand firm on the Constitutional principles that built our party, and built a nation. We will do these things, however, in a manner that restores and respects the time-honored right of the minority to an honest debate and a fair, open process.

To my friends in the minority, I offer a commitment. Openness – once a tradition of this institution, but increasingly scarce in recent decades, will be the new standard. There were no open rules in the House in the last Congress. In this one, there will be many. With this restored openness, however, will come a restored responsibility. You will not have the right to willfully disrupt the proceedings of the People's House. But you will always have the right to a robust debate in open process that allows you to represent your constituents. . .to make your case, offer alternatives, and be heard.
"Open rules" for debate refer to the ability to offer amendments to legislation from the floor of the House. Sen. Addison Mitchell McConnell, Jr., the Republican leader in the Senate has also called for more leeway to offer amendments.

We'll soon see whether the Republican leadership will actually stand by these words. The House is scheduled to debate and vote on a resolution to repeal the Affordable Care Act next Friday. Democrats want to offer amendments to the resolution. However, the Republican Majority Leader, Rep. Eric Cantor, has indicated that amendments won't be allowed.

Republicans have already exempted the resolution from their own rules regarding legislation to not add to the deficit. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that repeal will add $143 billion to the national debt over the next 10 years.

It looks like their "open rules" pledge will also fall by the wayside.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Party of No Lawmakers: Better thee than me

The New York Times reports that Republican budget cutting is about to begin in earnest.
The incoming Republican majority in the House is moving to make good on its promise to cut $100 billion from domestic spending this year, a goal eagerly backed by conservatives but one carrying substantial political and economic risks.

House Republican leaders are so far not specifying which programs would bear the brunt of budget cutting, only what would escape it: spending for the military, domestic security and veterans.

The reductions that would be required in the remaining federal programs, including education and transportation, would be so deep — roughly 20 percent on average — that Senate Republicans have not joined the $100 billion pledge that House Republicans, led by the incoming speaker, Representative John A. Boehner, made to voters before November’s midterm elections.
Hmm, so 20 percent cuts in discretionary spending are necessary for the Republicans to keep their promise.

Let's then look at one of the Republicans' first scheduled votes, concerning the operation of Congress itself. Will Republican lawmakers hold themselves to the same 20 percent standard as other parts of the government? Not even close.

The Hill reports
The House will vote Thursday on a resolution cutting House office expenses by 5 percent, one day after Republicans take over the chamber.

The GOP estimates that the budget cuts will save $35.2 million in 2011, according to a House aide. The resolution, sponsored by Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), will cut salaries and expenses at personal and leadership offices by 5 percent, according to a copy of the proposed legislation.

The resolution would be effective for the next two years. Cuts to leadership offices save $1 million; committee reductions save $8.1 million; and cuts to members' office budgets save $26.1 million.
It's not as if there aren't some discretionary and wasteful Congressional activities to cut, what with the Party of No staging a go-nowhere vote against health reform and lining up lots of investigative hearings.

If Republicans were the least bit serious about the budget, they would find the discipline to cut their own budgets by 20 percent.