Thursday, January 29, 2009

Roquefort, ewe!

As my family will attest,
Stinky, blue-veined cheeses I detest.
Still, I can hardly cheer
over tariffs to make Roquefort so dear.

From the Washington Post,
In its final days, the Bush administration imposed a 300 percent duty on Roquefort, in effect closing off the U.S. market. Americans, it declared, will no longer get to taste the creamy concoction that, in its authentic, most glorious form, comes with an odor of wet sheep and veins of blue mold that go perfectly with rye bread and coarse red wine.
It sounds like someone in the Bush administration couldn't stand the stuff either.

"Wretched excess," quite possibly

This morning's Washington Post contains two thoughtful conservative criticisms of the economic stimulus legislation that was passed by the House of Representatives and that is now before the Senate.

George Will counsels congressional Republicans that President Obama deserves some deference on the stimulus package but also observes that,
Congressional Democrats have turned the 647-page stimulus legislation into an excuse for something that never needs an excuse -- an exercise in wretched excess. They have forfeited some of the president's claim to deference.
Will is right that the legislation has been larded up with spending that has little to do with the current economic crisis and a lot to do with Democrats advancing parts of their agenda.

At the risk of goring my own ox, one of these provisions is the $17.6 billion that would be spent on Pell Grants, infrastructure at colleges and universities, and other student financial aid, including student loans. There is considerable merit in some of this spending. There is also some need to address problems in the student loan programs that stem from the financial crisis. However, much of this spending could be addressed in other legislation and falls outside the "stimulus" category.

In another column, Martin Felstein writes
On this page in October, I declared my support for a stimulus. But the fiscal package now before Congress needs to be thoroughly revised. In its current form, it does too little to raise national spending and employment. It would be better for the Senate to delay legislation for a month, or even two, if that's what it takes to produce a much better bill. We cannot afford an $800 billion mistake.
He goes on to criticize specific tax cut and spending increase provisions of the legislation. He points out that some of the personal tax cuts are likely to go towards savings and debt payments rather than spending, weakening their stimulative effects. Similarly, some of the "infrastructure investments," such as computerizing medical records, may have little effect on jobs growth.

While the legislation is portrayed as an immediate stimulus, it is in fact a multiyear bill. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the net fiscal impact (spending increases plus tax cuts) from the legislation will be $817 trillion billion,* but this is the total over 10 years. Of this amount, $170 billion will be "spent" in what remains of FY 2009 (i.e., between now and September); $356 billion will be spent in FY 2010; $174 billion goes to FY 2011, and $114 billion doesn't appear until the out years of FY 2012 - FY 2019.

Some delays in spending are necessary. The government can't turn around and spend an extra $817 billion in a day. Many of the infrastructure projects will take time to complete. Federal agencies, state governments, and local governments need to be able to plan their spending. For many reasons, it's prudent to spread out some of the funding and to plan on continuing that funding into next year.

Some spending in out years is also reasonable. Unlike the last administration, which never included out year spending for war emergency spending in its budgets, the current administration is acknowledging what we already know--that many of the spending projects will continue to incur costs for several years. The government is unlikely to cut off funding for multi-year capital projects partway through their funding; it should budget and has budgeted accordingly.

Nevertheless, $288 billion (a third of the package) is slated for FY 2011 and beyond. Some of the $288 billion continues earlier projects, but a portion involves projects that won't be initiated until after September 2010. There's just no good reason to rush into those commitments.

As the legislation moves into the Senate, leaders there should look to trim some of the extras from the immediate portions of the bill and should strip out altogether new commitments beyond FY 2010. These other portions of the bill deserve more scrutiny and can be addressed later when we have more information about the effectiveness of the initial spending, the state of the economy, and other possible problems that we may confront.

* Corrected 1/30/2009, 8:10 a.m.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Blog by a colleague

I just found out that my next door colleague in the Economics Dept. at UNCG, Dennis Leyden, has been blogging for the last few months. Dennis is accumulating a nice set of economic observations to use in his classes, using local, national, and personal events.

Monday, January 19, 2009

I Love It When You Call Me Names, um Not

Why do some people, especially bloggers and commenters, write the things that they do?

Are they trying to advance a dialog where people might come to a genuine consensus of some issues or at least a better understanding of their fundamental differences? Or are they writing in a way that effectively tries to shut off debate?

You can tell that writers have settled for the latter course when they can't offer anything but insults for people who hold different opinions.

Thoughtful people read, listen to, and evaluate different views. If they disagree, they try to come up with facts and arguments that address the disputed points. If they disagree and are motivated enough, they might actually write something along these lines.

You seldom, however, see thoughtful people do the following in discussions and in their writing.

Name-calling. People who regularly address or categorize their opponents as idiots, morons, brats, liars, zealots, bigots, cowards, or even more colorfully as baby-killers, Nazis, fascists, flat-earthers, etc. have already lost the argument. More to the point, it says something about people's value of time if they spend time engaging people who actually fit these descriptions.

As George Carlin observed years ago,

There are a lot of little phrases and expressions too, language items that occur in your childhood that you don't get to use when you grow up. Things you leave behind. Stuff you don't say anymore. Like NYAHH NAH NAH NYAHH NAH! I have an awful time working that in.
George might have had problems working that in, but many bloggers don't.

Arguing with the insane. Along the same lines, you really have to wonder about people who see everyone who holds a different opinion as being crazy. If someone other than a psychological professional regularly uses the words like Bush Derangement Syndrome, Obama Syndrome, wingnuts, moonbats, whackos, delusional, fanatic, lunatic, pathalogical, etc., he or she has many more issues to deal with than his or her opponents. Yes, there are kooks, nuts, and fringe elements on both sides, but these people are the exception, rather than the rule.

Questioning other people's motives. Thoughtful people can not only disagree but can also have valid reasons for those disagreements. It's easy to assign bad motives to a disagreement; it's harder to figure out how someone with reasonable or even similar values found a way to a different conclusion. You don't have to be a war-mongerer or traitor to differ on military policy, a bigot, racist (of either the regular or reverse varieties), or an advocate of victimhood to differ on race relations, or greedy or a bleeding-heart to differ on social policy.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Mars farts, Earth on edge

"Pull my finger."

In the science department, the Washington Post and other papers are reporting that scientists detected an eruption of methane on Mars and have interpreted it as a "sign of life."

Funny, my wife used the same words when she detected an eruption of methane from me after I had fallen asleep in front of the TV.

In an informal poll, all the Earth men I spoke to thought the news from Mars was terribly funny. The Earth women? Not so much.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Implications of torture

Two follow-ups on Judge Crawford's statement that she had dropped charges against Mohammed al-Qahtani because she had concluded that he had been tortured.

The New York Times hosts an on-line symposium on the topic, with responses ranging from a call for further investigations and prosecution of the torturers
It is not enough to drop criminal charges against the torture victims, as Ms. Crawford did. Indeed, if wrongdoers can be prosecuted without reliance on coerced evidence, they should be. Rather, we must hold the torturers accountable. To date, not a single high-level military or administration official has been deemed responsible for the torture policy – even though it was specifically authorized by Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and many others in the highest levels of the Bush Cabinet and executive branch.
to claims that the conduct has been blown out of proportion
Ms. Crawford’s conclusion is another instance of the military getting it wrong. Isolation and temperature variations of the type we are talking about here are not torture. To contend otherwise is to trivialize something that is truly heinous. It may be politically correct, but it is wrong. American law has always maintained a bright line between the egregious pain and suffering caused by actual torture and other forms of abusive conduct. Ms. Crawford’s suggestion that abusive conduct that has a "medical impact" meets the “legal definition of torture” is preposterous.
Over at, Dahlia Lithwick and Phillipe Sands argue that the U.S. has now passed a critical turning point
Under the 1984 Torture Convention, its 146 state parties (including the United States) are under an obligation to "ensure that all acts of torture are offences under its criminal law." These states must take any person alleged to have committed torture (or been complicit or participated in an act of torture) who is present in their territories into custody. The convention allows no exceptions, as Gen. Pinochet discovered in 1998. The state party to the Torture Convention must then submit the case to its competent authorities for prosecution or extradition for prosecution in another country.

The former chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces and general counsel for the Department of the Army has spoken. Her clear words have been picked up around the world. And that takes the prospects of accountability and criminal investigation onto another level. For the Obama administration, the door to the do-nothing option is now closed. That is why today may come to be seen as the turning point.
Regrettably for our country, Lithwick and Sands have it right. An allegation of heinous and illegal behavior by a credible and knowledgeable official requires investigation.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Prices rising in the service sector

A well-known exchange, sometimes attributed to Winston Churchill and Lady Astor, goes as follows:
Churchill: "My Dear, would you go to bed with me for a million pounds?"

Astor: "Well, yes, I guess I would."

"How about 100 pounds?"

"What kind of person do you think I am?"

"My Dear, we have already established that. We are merely haggling over the price!"
It turns out we need to update the exchange. A student in San Diego is auctioning her virginity to pay for graduate school. The going price right now is $3.7 million.

What me torture?

Last week, Vice President Dick Cheney, told the Weekly Standard,
I think on the left wing of the Democratic party, there are some people who believe that we really tortured...
Make that the left wing of the Democratic party and the Bush administration official in charge of trying the remaining Guantanamo detainees.

From this morning's Washington Post
The top Bush administration official in charge of deciding whether to bring Guantanamo Bay detainees to trial has concluded that the U.S. military tortured a Saudi national who allegedly planned to participate in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, interrogating him with techniques that included sustained isolation, sleep deprivation, nudity and prolonged exposure to cold, leaving him in a "life-threatening condition."

"We tortured [Mohammed al-]Qahtani," said Susan J. Crawford, in her first interview since being named convening authority of military commissions by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in February 2007. "His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that's why I did not refer the case" for prosecution.
Judge Crawford, who previously served in defense department posts in the Reagan and earlier Bush administrations, would now appear to be a fellow traveler in Dick Cheney's book.

In another blow to actually trying the terrorists, there may be insurmountable problems with the evidence in these cases. From another article in this morning's Post
A former military prosecutor said in a declaration filed in federal court yesterday that the system of handling evidence against detainees at Guantanamo Bay is so chaotic that it is impossible to prepare a fair and successful prosecution.
To that, you can add some outright bungling
Military defense lawyers also said yesterday that the Office of Military Commissions may have accidentally withdrawn the charges against all defendants at Guantanamo Bay facing trial, including Jawad and even Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the operational mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The Bush administration has held detainees for seven years and only successfully prosecuted a handful. At least that's what some on the left wing of the Democratic party say.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Disappointments, Bush has had a few

One of the nice things about living in Greensboro is that you seldom face any serious traffic. But back when I lived in Northern Virginia, hoo boy, were there ever some colossal jams. Living there, it's one just of the things you become accustomed to and try not to get too upset about.

Occasionally, though, when the jam was unexpected or the car had been idle and boxed in for a while, the frustration would boil over, and an angry and misanthropic thought would pop into my head--"This had better be worth it!" As if a particularly grisly accident or mangled car would provide some cosmic compensation for the time spent idling.

Angry thoughts often lead to others. Sometimes this took the form of being disappointed if the traffic cleared with no visible initial cause for the jam.

Those kind of thoughts, of course, are completely misguided. There is certainly nothing admirable or really even defensible about them. Once the frustration passes, they are actually kind of shameful. It's horrible to wish misfortune on some other random motorist and not to take some solace from no one being hurt. The thoughts also conveniently overlook my and others' contributions of herding behavior, unwillingness to pay road taxes, poor driving, etc.

It turns out, though, that I'm not the only misanthrope walking the planet. The same kinds of sentiments colored President Bush's last press conference yesterday.

When asked for the umpteenth time by a reporter whether he had "made any mistakes," the President started with some defensive and grudging admissions of errors with the "Mission Accomplished" banner, his rhetoric, the Katrina response, and Social Security reform.

However, he then paused and began listing "disappointments."
There have been disappointments. Abu Ghraib obviously was a huge disappointment during the presidency. Not having weapons of mass destruction was a significant disappointment. I don't know if you want to call those mistakes or not, but they were -- things didn't go according to plan, let's put it that way.
So let's get this straight. Saddam Hussein not having weapons of mass destruction was a significant disappointment. Disappointed with the underlying intelligence, okay. Disappointed with his own decisions, sure. But disappointed with the absence of WMDs? Wow.

If we take the President at his word--and the word he emphasized was "disappointment"--he would have been comforted, relieved, or possibly even happy for Hussein to have actually had WMDs. Never mind the danger to our troops, the Iraqi population, the region, and the world if this had been the case.

Like the ignorant bravado the President showed when he said of the Iraqi insurgents, "bring 'em on," his latest comments reveal that he is unconcerned about others' well-being, at least for a while, so long as his ego is massaged.

To the extent that the quieter life of Crawford or wherever the President retires to affords him time to reflect, maybe he will see how misguided and misanthropic his policies and outlook have been. However, if he runs into traffic down there, I've got a fair idea of where his thoughts will go.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Can't ask, can't tell

The Washington Post reports on how the widespread use of cell phones is complicating the jobs of health and social science surveyers.
Cellular telephones are perhaps the biggest threat to survey data that epidemiologists have confronted in years.

...Federal law requires that calls to cellphones be hand-dialed; it is illegal to use automatic dialers, which are standard tools for survey and polling firms. Furthermore, a huge fraction of "owners" of cellphone numbers are children ineligible for the health surveys. Once reached, some cellphone users are reluctant to talk at length because they have to pay for incoming calls.

The article also describes "mode effects:"
For example, when a group of people with the same age, race and education are called on a conventional phone, 25 percent say they smoke, but on a cellphone 31 percent say they do. On a land line, 38 percent say they have been tested for HIV, while on a cellphone 54 percent say they have.

These are all serious problems with few good or inexpensive alternatives.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Largest annual loss of jobs since 1946

This morning's report by the U.S. Department of Labor on the December jobless rate is as bad as was expected. More than half a million jobs were lost on net in December according to the payroll figures, and national unemployment rose to 7.2 percent, the highest since January 1993.

The payroll figures indicate that 2.6 million jobs were lost on net for all of 2008, with 1.9 million of these losses occurring in the last four months. In absolute terms, the December to December loss in payroll employment is the largest 12-month loss since February 1946 during the demobilization from World War II. In percentage terms, the loss is the largest since December 1982.

Household data indicate that the percent of the U.S. population that is employed has fallen from 62.7 percent to 61.0 percent over the last year.

The median duration of unemployment spells is up to just past 10 weeks, meaning that half of all spells are lasting more than two and a half months. The mean duration is nearly five months.

In a separate study issued last month, the Department of Labor also reported that involuntary part-time employment has nearly doubled in the last year and a half. We typically conceptualize employment as either being with or without a job but overlook that there is a continuous dimension. People sometimes aren't able to work the number of hours that they would like, and this problem, along with unemployment, gets worse in recessions.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Joblessness in Greensboro and the rest of North Carolina

The economic situation in Greensboro and the rest of North Carolina is deteriorating quickly. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that the unemployment rate in Greensboro reached 8.1 percent in November, up more than a full percent from the month before and up more than three percent from a year earlier.

The figures are only slightly worse than for all of North Carolina, which had an unemployment rate of 7.8 percent in November. All major metropolitan areas in the state are seeing substantial unemployment increases. Especially hard hit are the cities of Hickory and Rocky Mount, where unemployment rates have now reached the double digits.

Unemployment rates in North Carolina and selected cities
Area Nov. 2007 Oct. 2008 Nov. 2008

North Carolina




















Greensboro-High Point








Rocky Mount








Private surveys and jobless claims indicate that the situation will look even worse when the December figures are available.