Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Because Greensboro doesn't have enough nightclub shootings

Defying the two-thirds of North Carolinians who apparently oppose the measure, the radical Republican right has lurched forward its BYOG restaurant bill. From the local News & Record
The state House has agreed to allow people with concealed weapons permits in North Carolina to take their pistols into restaurants that serve alcohol and public parks.
Doncha feel safer already?

BTW, what's with restaurants that serve public parks?

There's an obvious pun about concessions to gun owners, but let's not go there.

Bad jobs worse than no jobs?

Gallup reports some intriguing findings about people's work and well-being:
American workers who are emotionally disconnected from their work and workplace -- known as "actively disengaged" workers -- rate their lives more poorly than do those who are unemployed. Forty-two percent of actively disengaged workers are thriving in their lives, compared with 48% of the unemployed. At the other end of the spectrum are "engaged" employees -- American workers who are involved in and enthusiastic about their work -- 71% of whom are thriving.
The results suggest that a bad job, at least bad in the sense that it doesn't engage or motivate you, is associated with lower well-being than no job at all.

If interpreted causally, the results further suggest that losing a bad job is actually good for you, which would be really good news in the current economy. However, that interpretation is a stretch.

Gallup's engagement measure is constructed from a series of questions that ask about expectations, feedback, relationships, and opportunities at work. Some of these questions ask about conditions that are (arguably) external to the worker, such as whether the worker gets "recognition or praise for doing good work" or receives performance reviews. I add the parenthetical term, arguably, because all of the reports come from the workers who may be viewing their employers' objective actions through a subjective lens.

However, many of the questions appear to be related to a person's general perceptions regarding his or her locus of control, that is, a person's belief that the person's own behavior can affect outcomes in his or her life. Thus, the answers to the questions may reveal as much about the respondent and about the power of positive thinking as they do about the respondent's job.

It's also hard to imagine that a negative external event like being fired would improve someone's perceived locus of control.

The question comes down to whether the engagement index reflects a bad job, a bad worker, or some combination of the two.

Gallup does caution that it's results "cannot definitively determine the direction of the causal relationship between engagement and wellbeing." However, it pushes the causal interpretation by describing disengaged workers as being in "bad jobs" and describing how employers can affect engagement.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Incentives matter for job growth

Some predictable things happen when you subsidize companies to buy one type of input but not another. Bloomberg reports
Even though employment tends to lag behind investment early in recoveries, BofA’s Dutta said the current gap is “unprecedented” in the postwar era: Capital expenditures are expanding at an almost 14 percent pace, while job growth stays below zero, according to calculations he based on a six-quarter annualized change from the ends of the recessions.

In addition, the “unintended consequences” of policy changes indicate the government may “undercut its own principal aim of job creation,” he said.

While the tax bill President Barack Obama signed Dec. 17 allows businesses to write off 100 percent of some purchases in 2011, there’s no similar incentive to speed up hiring. The Fed’s commitment to keep its benchmark interest rate near zero for an extended period also facilitates lower-cost financing for machines.

The administration’s goal to double overseas sales of American-made goods is another plus for investment over hiring, Dutta said, since the U.S. export sector is capital intensive rather than labor intensive.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Civitas misleads on rail

Surprise, surprise. Brian Balfour at the conservative Civitas Institute has posted a misleading and mistake-filled column, supporting North Carolina House Bill 222, which would potentially turn back the federal rail improvement funds that are coming to the state.

Some of the misleading statements
  • The column begins by explaining that the proposed legislation "would prohibit North Carolina’s Department of Transportation from accepting any federal funds earmarked for high-speed rail without first getting the General Assembly’s approval."

    Earmarked? No, the North Carolina rail grant was awarded through a competitive process; no earmarks were involved.

  • The column goes on,
    Refusing federal funds for light-rail boondoggle projects would follow in the footsteps of Governors in Wisconsin, Florida and New Jersey who have refused federal funds for high-speed rail.

    Light-rail boondoggle? The grant funds improvements to the primary passenger and freight rail corridor through North Carolina.

  • Next,
    North Carolina doesn’t appear to be a very appropriate location for high speed rail lines. According to this analysis, Charlotte is the only NC city among the top 40 in the nation for populations within 10 to 25 miles of downtown – an indication that this area lacks population density in its urban areas sufficient to justify rail projects. The analysis further concludes that passenger rail for intercity travel would only be viable with additional regional investments (more state and local taxpayer dollars).
    Balfour has taken some selective statements and fundamentally misrepresented the actual report, which not only rates the Charlotte-to-Raleigh rail link as one of the more promising in the country but also recommends exactly the types of incremental improvements that are being proposed. The rail links in and around Greensboro actually show up in the report as scoring in the top 10 percent of most of the review criteria for high speed improvements.

  • Next,
    But many will still insist that NC would be foolish to pass up 'free' federal dollars to build high-speed rail lines because it would 'create jobs.' I pointed out previously, however, that such federal funds are not 'free,' and in fact hinder a state’s economic growth prospects. A Harvard study examined the impact of federal earmark spending in states and found that federal 'fiscal spending shocks appear to significantly dampen corporate sector investment activity.'

    Again, Balfour compares the North Carolina rail project to earmark spending--it isn't.

  • Finally,
    HB 422 is a good idea because accepting these federal funds would put NC taxpayers at risk for paying for the very likely cost overruns and the politically-motivated rail projects will divert scarce resources away from entrepreneurs and make the state’s economy worse off.

    Balfour continues to describe the project in earmark terms (politically-motivated rail projects). He also describes a risk of over-runs but no evidence that these characterize this project.

On the bright side, if there is any leftover funding from the rail project, it might be used to straighten out Civitas' twisted statements.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Safer, faster, more reliable train service coming PLUS 4,800 jobs

While several states have recently canceled federally-funded rail improvement projects, North Carolina is finally ready to move forward with its project to make rail service safer, faster and more reliable.

The News-Observer reports
After months of wrangling with a reluctant freight railroad, the N.C. Department of Transportation says it has won the agreement it needed to secure $461 million in federal grants that will put faster, more frequent and more reliable passenger trains on the tracks between Charlotte and Raleigh.

Gene Conti, the state transportation secretary, said DOT will start seeking bids over the next two weeks for contracts to lay tracks, build bridges and buy trains.

The construction is expected to create 4,800 jobs over the next two years and cut the train time from Raleigh to Charlotte below three hours, including seven stops on the way.
The project will improve in several ways, including laying double track and passing sidings, straightening curves, replacing crossings with bridges, and purchasing additional rail cars.

The funds come from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the original stimulus legislation.

While conservatives point to business anxiety over policy "uncertainty" as a reason for slow jobs growth, the 4,800 jobs for the North Carolina project have actually been held up by a business, Norfolk Southern Railroad, which leases the tracks from North Carolina.

UPDATE (3/22/11): In an effort to prove that the government can indeed inject some uncertainty into its infrastructure improvement and job creation efforts, Republicans in the North Carolina General Assembly have introduced the "No High-Speed Rail Money from Federal Gov't" Act (H422, a.k.a., the "Run 4,800 Jobs Out on a Rail" Act) which would prohibit the state's Department of Transportation from accepting or spending any of the railway grant money that it was awarded.

Friday, March 18, 2011

O'Keefe not so keen on being videotaped

What's sauce for the goose, apparently isn't sauce for the gander. The TPMMuckraker reports
James O'Keefe, the conservative activist who made his name with a string of undercover video sting operations, doesn't like it so much when the camera is turned on him.

Speaking to around 100 members of the Bayshore Tea Party in New Jersey Thursday night, O'Keefe reportedly had members of the group ask a photographer from the Asbury Park Press to leave the event.
Could it be that people actually have a right not to be videotaped?

Deception overload

One piece of advice that I used to give my students at GW when considering whether an action or statement was right or wrong was to think about whether they would be comfortable with it being reported in the Washington Post. This would have been great advice for Richard Schiller, the former fundraising director for NPR, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and others who have recently been ambushed by impostors.

Michael Gerson has a column today on the morality of these ruses. The ruses are ethically dicey because they start with lies. The perpetrators' hope is that one wrong will cause another which will make the whole scheme right. Gerson concludes that these types of deceptions are rarely justified. He also points out that that the deceptive editing of the NPR "gotcha" video is unethical (the initial lie of the scheme is compounded by other lies in the presentation of the evidence) and that there was no good in the underlying objective (to cause embarrassment).

However, in a column that's thoughtful and balanced in most respects, Gerson slips in these digs against Schiller and NPR.
The interviewers posed as representatives of a Muslim organization that wanted to donate $5 million to NPR. The stingers bought access to NPR executives with fake money.

...There is no ethical imperative to provide a prostitute to a weak man and then videotape the scandal, or to provide drugs to a recovering addict and then report the result — or to promise $5 million to a radio executive to get him nodding to leading questions.
The implication is that meeting with the impostors itself was immoral and wrong and a sign of succumbing to temptation.

Although he is aware of it and mentions it earlier in the column, Gerson's later statements conveniently ignore that the executive in question was NPR's director of fundraising--the person responsible for developing relationships with potential donors. Thus, the only "access" that was "bought" was contact with the employees responsible for donor contacts (the director of fundraising and his assistant for institutional giving). Moreover, Schiller had an obligation and responsibility to meet with and encourage possible donors.

The deception put Schiller in a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation. If he meets with the imposters, he gets accused of providing "access" to a Muslim organization. However, if Schiller doesn't meet with the impostors, he's open to an accusation of discrimination against Muslims and more generally of not doing his job.

To be clear, none of this justifies or excuses Schiller's comments regarding the Tea Party, which were dumb, thoughtless and biased. He was wrong to have said them and embarrassed himself and NPR. Several other comments that he made were also embarrassing and ill-advised.

However, Schiller was obligated to follow up on the contact with the impostors. The deception didn't trade on Schiller's weakness but rather on his responsible and obligated behavior, which makes the deception even more under-handed.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Tsunami warnings part of Republicans' "discretionary spending" cuts

As devastating as the massive, record-setting earthquake was (and continues to be) in Japan, it's outcome would have been far worse without the substantial investments that Japan made in earthquake and tsunami protection.

The U.S. is far less prepared, and Republicans in Congress want to reduce those preparations even more as part of their effort to cut "discretionary" government spending. The Washington Post reports
A spending plan being pushed by Republicans would slash funding for the agency that warned the West Coast about the devastating tsunami in Japan.

The plan, approved by the GOP-controlled House last month, would trigger an estimated $126 million in cuts for the National Weather Service, the agency that houses the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii. The center issued widespread warnings minutes after Friday's earthquake and issued guidance and updates throughout the day.

A union representing workers at the tsunami center said the proposed cuts - part of $454 million in cuts for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - could result in furloughs and rolling closures of weather service offices. If so, that could affect the center's ability to issue warnings similar to those issued Friday, said Barry Hirshorn, Pacific region chairman of the National Weather Service Employees Organization.
Tsunami warnings and, more generally, weather warnings save lives in the U.S. and throughout the world. The cuts that the Republicans have voted to enact are irresponsible, short-sighted, and ultimately deadly.