Saturday, February 23, 2013

Coral reefs

Today is my Sabbath so I would not normally be posting anything here but I thought it might be a good occasion to publicize my new special-purpose blog on coral reefs.  The blog gathers together the most recent "wisdom" on coral reefs and the way they are "threatened" by global warming.  Rebuttals of that "wisdom" are also included of course.

The idea of the blog is as a one-stop-shop for anybody who is talking about coral reefs and wants to use just one link to blow the Warmist nonsense out of the water.  Link to the above blog and tell any coral alarmist to "go do some reading"

Because articles about coral reefs do not come up daily, the posts to the blog will not be daily.  The blog is intended as a reference rather than as regular reading.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Childhood TV watching and crime

This study has excited both liberals and conservatives but it has been much overhyped.  See the comments following the report below

Children who watch excessive amounts of television are more likely to have criminal convictions and show aggressive personality traits as adults, a New Zealand study has found.

The University of Otago study tracked the viewing habits of about 1,000 children born in the early 1970s from when they were aged five to 15, then followed up when the subjects were 26 years old to assess potential impacts.

The research, published in the US journal "Pediatrics" this week, found a strong correlation between childhood exposure to television and anti-social behaviour in young adults.

"The risk of having a criminal conviction by early adulthood increased by about 30 percent with every hour that children spent watching television on an average weeknight," co-author Bob Hancox said.

The study also found excessive TV viewing was linked to aggressive personality traits and an increased tendency to experience negative emotions.

It said the links remained statistically significant even when issues such as intelligence, social status and parental control were factored in.

"While we're not saying that television causes all anti-social behaviour, our findings do suggest that reducing television viewing could go some way towards reducing rates of anti-social behaviour in society," Hancox said.

He said the findings supported the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendation that children should watch no more than one to two hours of quality television programming a day.

The study said it was possible that children learned anti-social behaviour by watching it on TV, leading to emotional desensitisation and the development of aggressive behaviour.

But it said the content of what children were viewing was not the only factor, highlighting the social isolation experienced by those who spent hours watching the box.

"It is plausible that excessive television viewing contributes to anti-social behaviour in ways unrelated to violent content," it said.

"These mechanisms could include reduced social interaction with peers and parents, poorer educational achievement, and increased risk of unemployment."

Hancox said the study concentrated on children's viewing habits in the late 1970s and early 1980s, before the advent of personal computers, and further research was warranted into how such technology affected subsequent behaviour.


My immediate reaction to this report was that we are just seeing another social class effect here:  Working class children are more likey to come from criminally-inclined homes and also are more often left to be "minded" by the TV.

Such effects are well known, however, so the authors were unusually conscientious and controlled for them.  They used analysis of covariance to remove the effect of class variables.  And what did they find when they did that?  I quote: "After controlling for additional covariates, associations between viewing time and criminal conviction and antisocial personality disorder remained statistically significant, although the association between television viewing and violent convictions did not."

So I was pretty right. Watching a lot of TV as a kid does not of itself make you more likely to be a violent criminal but coming from a lower social class does. It is only non-violent criminality (presumably drug offences and the like) that is somewhat associated with childhood TV viewing.

The study is actually good evidence AGAINST the concerns of the TV haters. Reading the actual "Results" section of academic journal articles has long been a pesky habit of mine. Sorry to puncture any treasured bubbles

AN IMPORTANT UPDATE. I should have mentioned above that ALL of the correlations reported were trivially small. They were statistically significant only by virtue of the large sample size. By any criterion of real-life significance, TV viewing predicted NOTHING. To put that another way, TV viewing explained at best only around 2% of anything else

The name of the original study is "Childhood and Adolescent Television Viewing and Antisocial Behavior in Early Adulthood" (by Lindsay A. Robertson et al.) -- JR


The lazy French

The boss of US tyremaker Titan has provoked outrage in France after mocking its workers for putting in only "three hours" a day and said his company would be "stupid" to take over an ailing French factory.

Maurice Taylor, chief executive of Titan, berated the French work ethic in response to a request for the US company to consider investing in a loss-making Goodyear plant in Amiens, northern France, in an attack which has infuriated unions.

"I have visited that factory a couple of times. The French workforce gets paid high wages but only works three hours," Mr Taylor wrote in a letter to Arnaud Montebourg, French Industrial Renewal Minister, dated February 8 and obtained by French business daily Les Echos.

"They get one hour for breaks and lunch, talk for three and work for three. I told this to the French union workers to their faces. They told me that's the French way!"

Goodyear said last month it planned on closing the plant, which employs 1,173 workers, following five years of failed talks with unions.

Mr Taylor said Titan had a long history of buying and turning around troubled factories but in this instance was not in any way interested.

"Sir, your letter states that you want Titan to start a discussion. How stupid do you think we are? Titan is the one with the money and the talent to produce tyres. What does the crazy union have? It has the French government," Mr Taylor wrote.

The Titan boss, who made an unsuccessful run for the Republican nomination in the 1996 presidential election, said France's industrial base was under threat from low productivity and cheap imports, including tyres from China that he said were made in subsidised factories.

"Titan is going to buy a Chinese tyre company or an Indian one, pay less than one euro per hour wage and ship all the tyres France needs. You can keep the so-called workers. Titan has no interest in the Amiens North factory," he wrote.

Mr Taylor's incendiary comments have drawn fury from French unions. Mickael Wamen, a representative for the major CGT union at the Goodyear factory, said they showed the Titan boss "belongs more in an insane asylum than at the head of a multinational corporation", and threatened to file legal action in the US against Goodyear and Titan over the closure of the plant.

However, the insults have received some assent in the Gallic nation.

Bernard Accoyer, an opposition politician, said that while Mr Taylor's assessment amounted to a "mocking caricature", it was "not completely unfounded", adding that the country's "serious competitiveness problem" was linked with the "extremist hardliner" views of some unions.

France's Socialist government, led by President Francois Hollande, is struggling to boost the productivity of its industries in the face of increasing global competition. French firms have announced thousands of job cuts in recent months as the economy stagnates.

The country's labour minister Michel Sapin stoked panic last month after describing France as "totally bankrupt" while being interviewed on radio, a gaffe hastily dismissed as "inappropriate" by finance minister Pierre Moscovici, who said: “France is a really solvent country. France is a really credible country, France is a country that is starting to recover.”

Mr Montebourg told reporters he would reply to Mr Taylor in writing, but declined to comment verbally.


The French minister responded that there is a high level of American invrestment into France anyway.  But he did not say how much of that investment has taken place since the socialists gained power.  Most of the investment probably took place under the previous conservative government


An Agent of Intolerance Seeks to Stifle Debate

When you hear the name Southern Poverty Law Center, it immediately evokes images of Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Freedom Rides... all iconic symbols of the civil rights movement. And rightly so, for these are the events that inspired it’s founding. Founded in 1971, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) made a name for itself by defending the poor and disenfranchised against organized forces of hate and bigotry in a society torn by racial tension. Unfortunately, as the years have passed, SPLC has allowed its work to become less about defending the constitutional rights of all Americans and more about prosecuting a far-left ideology in our courts of law and in the court of public opinion. In the process, it has become an agent of intolerance and an enemy of free conscience and religious liberty.

There has always been an inherent tension between individual liberties and the greater social good. The American people are always struggling to strike a balance between protecting the freedoms of speech and conscience and protecting those who might be harmed by the misuse of those freedoms. As time passes, new issues arise and new debates emerge. Most recently, our society has been engaged in a fierce debate over the issue of homosexuality and what place it should occupy in America's social and legal milieu.

The right of individuals to freely associate – in public and behind closed doors – has been an issue that has sparked controversy in all quarters. The question remains as to what level of acceptance society must accord homosexual behavior – conduct that is fraught with social, religious, moral, and medical implications. Those who treat homosexuality as normative behavior rooted in immutable characteristics find their view in conflict with those who subscribe to more orthodox views of sex, marriage, and family. SPLC has very strong views on where society should come down on this issue, and anyone who dares to disagree with its "progressive" worldview is branded hateful and bigoted and assaulted with all the vigor it can muster.

The Family Research Council (FRC) is Exhibit A to this proposition. For its work to preserve and advocate traditional values and morals, including the defense of a one man, one woman view of marriage, it has been branded as a "hate organization," by SPLC. No matter that the FRC's views are rooted in ancient, universally-recognized social and religious principles, or that a free society should welcome and encourage vigorous debate on this topic. SPLC fueled the fire of intolerance and hate and made the FRC a target for retribution. Is it any wonder, therefore, that an unstable, self-styled vigilante took it upon himself to "punish" FRC for the organization's "anti-gay" views?

But indicting organizations like FRC in the court of public opinion is not enough. SPLC apparently feels that the most effective way to silence debate on key moral issues is through the courts. Recently, SPLC has filed suit against Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing, or JONAH. According to its website, JONAH is a "faith-based, nonprofit organization that offers assistance to men and women seeking to resolve their sexual conflicts, including unwanted same sex attractions." SPLC asserts that homosexuality is fixed and immutable, and that because of this JONAH's work to help people overcome their same-sex desires amounts to consumer fraud. They further assert that JONAH's work is emotionally and psychologically harmful, and that it fosters “anti-gay bigotry.”

A victory for SPLC in this case would set a frightful legal precedent with broad-sweeping implications for the foundational constitutional freedoms of speech, conscience, religion, and association. As a private organization, JONAH has every right to offer reorientation or conversion counseling to willing clients. Individuals with unwanted same-sex attractions have every right to pursue resources to help them overcome these attractions. SPLC is seeking to silence the voices of faith and tradition in America by making it "hateful" and “fraudulent” to advocate for these causes. What's next? Suits against churches for preaching about a "nonexistent" God? Suits against Creationist research groups for advocating intelligent design? Suits against those who reject the theory of man-made global warming? Suits against Weight Watchers for suggesting that fat people can become thinner and healthier by changing their lifestyle choices? The possibilities are limitless.

SPLC appears to have no use for freedom of thought or freedom of speech. Its once noble mission has been perverted to radical ideological ends. It is unwilling to accept that life in a free society means that people will disagree on a host of issues, even issues that SPLC considers to be matters of "settled science." In light of this, it is more important than ever that people of faith and conscience be vigilant. If we assume that organizations like SPLC will never be successful in their campaign to legally hamstring our constitutional rights, we'll find ourselves shocked when the legal rug is pulled from beneath our feet. I, for one, am not prepared to cede my First Amendment liberties without a fight.



The terminal poison of the European 'liberal'

by Melanie Phillips

If anyone still doubts that European culture is suffering from a terminal sickness, and that the poison in its bloodstream is oozing out foully to pollute the atmosphere as it steadily disintegrates, what has happened to Lars Hedegaard stands as a graphic corrective.

Hedegaard, President of the Danish Free Press Society and The International Free Press Society, is the nearest thing to a quintessential European liberal. He is a heroic icon of the fight against tyranny. He believes in freedom of expression, life and liberty. He not only detests those who threaten to destroy those things, but has been prepared to stand up and be counted in the fight to defend them.

As such, he was reported speaking in his own home about child abuse and violence against women in Muslim culture. The day after these remarks were published, he stressed that his opinions were not intended to refer to all Muslims.

What then happened to him was the kind of nightmare associated with totalitarian regimes, and which I wrote about in 2011 here and here. He was put on trial in Denmark accused of hate speech and racism. He was unable to mount a defence, because under the Orwellian rules of the Danish legal system he was in effect convicted before his trial even took place. After a roller-coaster of a case in which verdicts went first one way and then the other, the Danish Supreme Court finally ruled that he was not guilty after all of hate speech and racism.

That, however, was not the end of the trials of Lars Hedegaard. Some two weeks ago, he answered his front door to a man in his twenties posing as a postman who fired a gun at his head and missed. Douglas Murray reported that 70-year old Hedegaard punched him in the head; the man dropped the gun, picked it up and fired again.  The gun then jammed and the man ran off. According to Hedegaard, he looked like a ‘typical Muslim immigrant’. Hedegaard has had to leave his home for an undisclosed location under police protection.

The attempted murder of Lars Hedegaard for speaking out against Islamist violence has received virtually no public attention – except in Sweden. As reported here, several Swedish newspapers published wicked distortions about him in order to portray him entirely falsely as an acknowledged racist.

Hedegaard’s Free Press Society campaigns for the rights of journalists and cartoonists to express themselves without fear of being murdered. Now an attempt has been made to murder Hedegaard himself, after he was dragged through the courts in an attempt to stifle his warnings about Islamic violence by labelling these protests ‘hate crime’.

Yet far from the uproar one might expect in any sane and decent society following these attempts to destroy both the reputation and the life of a man who fights for freedom from tyranny, Hedegaard finds himself now victimised three times over – by the Danish judicial system, a fanatical would-be assassin and a European liberal class for whom fighting Muslim extremism and violence constitutes ‘Islamophobia’ and must be stopped.

The message from this most chilling tale of our times is that in Sweden and other western ‘progressive’ circles, anyone who protests at the phenomenon of ‘honour violence’ that terrorises Muslim women and children is a racist; and if a supposed Islamic fanatic tries to murder that protester, well, that just proves what a racist the protester is.

Stalin would have approved.




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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Defense and the pensions racket


A nation's choice between spending on military defense and spending on civilian goods has often been posed as "guns versus butter." But understanding the choices of many nations' political leaders might be helped by examining the contrast between their runaway spending on pensions while skimping on military defense.

Huge pensions for retired government workers can be found from small municipalities to national governments on both sides of the Atlantic. There is a reason. For elected officials, pensions are virtually the ideal thing to spend money on, politically speaking.

Many kinds of spending of the taxpayers' money win votes from the recipients. But raising taxes to pay for this spending loses votes from the taxpayers. Pensions offer a way out of this dilemma for politicians.

Creating pensions that offer generous retirement benefits wins votes in the present by promising spending in the future. Promises cost nothing in the short run – and elections are held in the short run, long before the pensions are due.

By contrast, private insurance companies that sell annuities are forced by law to set aside enough assets to cover the cost of the annuities they have promised to pay. But nobody can force the government to do that – and most governments do not.

This means that it is only a matter of time before pensions are due to be paid and there is not enough money set aside to pay for them. This applies to Social Security and other government pensions here, as well as to all sorts of pensions in other countries overseas.

Eventually, the truth will come out that there is just not enough money in the till to pay what retirees were promised. But eventually can be a long time.

A politician can win quite a few elections between now and eventually – and be living in comfortable retirement by the time it is somebody else's problem to cope with the impossibility of paying retirees the pensions they were promised.

Inflating the currency and paying pensions in dollars that won't buy as much is just one of the ways for the government to seem to be keeping its promises, while in fact welshing on the deal.

The politics of military spending are just the opposite of the politics of pensions. In the short run, politicians can always cut military spending without any immediate harm being visible, however catastrophic the consequences may turn out to be down the road.

Despite the huge increase in government spending on domestic programs during Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration in the 1930s, FDR cut back on military spending. On the eve of the Second World War, the United States had the 16th largest army in the world, right behind Portugal.

Even this small military force was so inadequately supplied with equipment that its training was skimped. American soldiers went on maneuvers using trucks with "tank" painted on their sides, since there were not enough real tanks to go around.

American warplanes were not updated to match the latest warplanes of Nazi Germany or imperial Japan. After World War II broke out, American soldiers stationed in the Philippines were fighting for their lives using rifles left over from the Spanish-American war, decades earlier. The hand grenades they threw at the Japanese invaders were so old that they often failed to explode.

At the battle of Midway, of 82 Americans who flew into combat in obsolete torpedo planes, only 12 returned alive. In Europe, our best tanks were never as good as the Germans' best tanks, which destroyed several times as many American tanks as the Germans lost in tank battles.

Fortunately, the quality of American warplanes eventually caught up with and surpassed the best that the Germans and Japanese had. But a lot of American pilots lost their lives needlessly in outdated planes before that happened.

These were among the many prices paid for skimping on military spending in the years leading up to World War II. But, politically, the path of least resistance is to cut military spending in the short run and let the long run take care of itself.

In a nuclear age, we may not have time to recover from our short-sighted policies, as we did in World War II.



Who owns us?

Leftists from Hegel on definitely think the State does

If the "rich" really do owe their wealth to the State then surely you would not claim that just one separate group of people (the hated rich) are owned, but logically we all also owe all we have to the State. If that is so, then logically it follows that if the State owns the rights to all we have produced, then in essence it owns us. Logically then, it also follows that if we agree the State owns us, it is then the right of the State to determine all aspects of every person's life, even ultimately to whether they live or die. That is the essence of Nationalism...Fascism.

When Republicans constantly talk about "National Interest" that is also what they mean, so the Democrats do not have a corner on support of Nationalism.

Ironically the two slightly different "flavors" of Nationalism meet. Of course the D's and R's think they are quite different from each other, but scratch the surface and both are based on the same philosophy of State ownership of the person. I have debated with many Democrats and Republicans who dismiss the very idea of self ownership and even ridicule it as a silly concept.

We libertarians, most Austrian economists, anarcho caps, are on the other side of the equation. We think that self ownership is the defining concept that is at the core of one's life view. Either we own ourselves or we are owned by others. Of course, the "State" is merely a concept. Ownership by the State actually means, quite simply, those few humans who control the State control and own those other humans over whom they have established control.

Probably the most recent terrible examples of Nationalism are Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, China and North Korea and many countries in Africa. But also "soft," more benign examples exist. Sadly, a little bit of tyranny cannot be content. Power is ever-hungry and morphs into larger power. A close examination of those "soft nationalistic" societies show many examples of the gradual move away from personal freedom in those people's lives. Over time, the State envelopes the people and their formerly soft totalitarianism also takes on aspects of the more horrific societies.

Interestingly, in this country the founders grasped part of the concept as they stated the idea of inalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence. Later in the Constitution, the rights of the enslaved were sadly ignored.

The later insightful, ardent and consistent abolitionists developed the relationship and logic of freedom to self ownership. They intellectually challenged the absence of this idea of self ownership. They further tied it logically to one's ownership of his own labor. The next logical realization was the right to actually posses property with the personal earnings. Many abolitionists grasped that the ownership of any property was a vital element of freedom for all people, not just the slaves.

Of course, at the time the abolitionists were making their discoveries and writing about them, Lincoln was President and he hated this idea of self ownership. Probably the peaceful resolution of the slavery problem was thwarted by his animosity to the idea that black people had innate rights. This is contrary to current romanticizing of Lincoln, however a close examination of his writings and speeches and actual history (not movies) reveal his hostility to black people. Because he favored Nationalism and the ultimate State ownership of all "citizens," his totalitarian personality was not about to concede the abolitionist's insight. He gave no quarter to the idea of each person's self ownership, let alone to the blacks he scorned as less than human and wanted to deport.

The State (power hungry politicians and administrators) perhaps subconsciously, have not forgotten how much easier it was to accumulate power when the Black and Native American people were enslaved. As power accumulation is the default operation of the State, the State continues its agenda to keep them enslaved.

The various laws, regulations  and benefits, whether to individuals or entities, are the means the State uses to enslave all people but neither political camp, Democrats or Republicans, realize this. Instead each camp begs for more controls over the activities of which they disapprove. Foolish folks  cannot see that they are also empowering the entity that will take away the particular freedoms they personally value.

The sad truth is that people who see and grasp one aspect of enslavement, turn around and advocate for other types of control by the State. Ayn Rand was certainly not the first to see through this, but she saw through much of it, though not quite all. Would that she had been perfect, but alas, none of us are. The irony is that writers such as Hartman do not criticize her for her lack of consistency in a few areas but rather her ideas on individualism that are pro liberty.

Fortunately, the last 40 years have seen a rapidly growing body of libertarian literature and media, speakers, teachers and writers. They understand the enormous importance of the concept of self ownership. With the Internet the ideas of individualism, self ownership and self determination, are abundant. People can be awakened to the dangers of Nationalism (fascism).

The crux of the problem is the mistaken idea that we do not own ourselves but that we are owned by someone or some "thing" else.

The first important step is to grasp that the danger lies in giving more control and power to something outside ones self — the State, for example. This is, almost inevitably, the path to slavery.  

The measure of a person's value of liberty is not how much liberty one desires for oneself, but how much liberty one is willing to allow others.



Thoughts on the Minimum-Wage

One of the arguments regarded by the cognoscenti as being too pedestrian to use against minimum-wage legislation goes like this: “Heck, if raising the minimum-wage from $7.25 to (say) $9.00 per hour will make unskilled workers better off, why not raise the minimum-wage to $90.00 per hour and make unskilled workers much better off?”

Minimum-wage proponents understand (correctly) that such a huge increase in the legislated minimum would indeed catastrophically reduce the (legal) employment options open many workers, and especially to workers further down the skills ladder.  These proponents grant, without any hesitation, that such a massive hike in the minimum-wage would cause unemployment to rise exactly as textbook supply-and-demand analysis predicts.

So why are these same minimum-wage proponents – some of whom, I’m embarrassed to say, are professional economists – so sanguine about smaller increases in the minimum-wage?  I can think of four possible reasons.  (Whether or not one or more of these reasons is held consciously by any particular minimum-wage proponent is irrelevant.)  I offer the following four reasons in order of what I believe to the the prevalence of the reason in the popular mind.

First, monopsony power among employers of unskilled labor really is rampant enough to justify minimum-wage legislation.  (Wonkee: In theory, monpsonist purchasers of labor will, under certain conditions, hire more labor if the wage those purchasers are obliged to pay is forcibly raised by legislation.)

The empirical absurdity of the monpsony-labor-market argument seems to me to be obvious.  But if unskilled labor really were bought and sold in a market infected by monopsony power, a relatively modest hike in the legislated minimum might well benefit workers while a huge hike would indeed harm them.


Second, while a hike in the legislated minimum-wage will indeed cause some regrettable unemployment of unskilled workers, the resulting losses to these out-of-work employees are more than made up for by the higher earnings taken home by those unskilled workers who remain employed at the higher minimum-wage.

Obviously, though, at some point the rise in the minimum-wage becomes so large that the gains to the few unskilled workers who do remain employed at the absurdly high minimum-age are too small to compensate the large losses of the many additional workers who are pushed into unemployment by such a high minimum-wage.


Third, employers of unskilled labor will indeed react predictably to a legislated hike in the minimum-wage, but that reaction is likely to take the form of employers extracting more value-per-hour from their workers rather than the form of hiring fewer workers (or, more precisely, hiring fewer hours of work from workers).  Employers of unskilled and low-skilled workers affected by the minimum-wage hike will work their employees harder: fewer breaks; less leniency regarding arriving at work late and leaving early; greater strictness in enforcing rules against using work time to attend to personal business; etc.  (We can toss into this second reason the reduction also of monetary non-wage benefits such as employer contributions to worker pensions and employer willingness to help cover part of their workers’ child-care expenses.)

Some employers no doubt do react in this way, to a degree, to increases in the legislate minimum-wage.  And such reactions, being substitutes for hiring fewer hours of labor, reduce the amount of unemployment that would otherwise be caused by the rise in the minimum-wage.  (Whether or not minimum-wage employees who keep their jobs because of such employer responses are made better off or worse off as a result is a separate question.)  Here, too, a modest rise in the minimum-wage might cause very little, or even no, increase in the unemployment of unskilled workers, while a substantial hike would indeed cause significant unemployment.  (Employers of unskilled workers might well be able to re-arrange work conditions so that each unskilled worker produces an extra, say, 20 percent more value for the employer per hour.  Re-arranging work conditions so that each unskilled workers produces an extra 200 percent more value for the employer per hour is far less likely.)


Fourth (and I suspect most commonly held), employers can “afford it.”  Employers can afford to absorb small, legislatively prompted increases in their wage bill.  Employers’ profits might fall a bit, of course, but not by enough to cause them to go out of business or even to scale back business significantly enough to reduce the number of hours of work that they hire.  Alternatively, employers can simply raise the prices they charge for their outputs, recovering in the (assumed) higher revenues the higher costs they incur by hiring workers.  [Note, by the way, that it does not work for minimum-wage opponents simply to retort with the rhetorical question "Well, why don't those employers raise the prices they charge anyway, without being prompted to do so by a hike in the minimum-wage?"  This retort, I believe, has much merit, but a great deal more explanation and explication of background assumptions must be offered for it to carry the day among people who know economics.  I leave it to the comments section for Cafe patrons to divine what I have in mind here.]

Relatively small hikes, therefore, in the minimum-wage are paid for by employers taking home a tad fewer profits or consumers paying a tad more for the products they purchase (or a combination of the two).  A large hike in the minimum-wage, in contrast, would indeed reduce profits, or raise product prices, far too much.  The effects of these large reductions employers’ profits would indeed cause significant unemployment of unskilled workers.

This fourth reason is a squirrel’s nest of economic misconceptions.  I content myself here, though, to mention just one – namely, even if it’s true that all, or the great majority, of employers of unskilled workers have enough lee-way in their profits and prices to enable them to absorb, without negative effects on their employees, modest legislated increases in their costs of operation, focusing on the modest effects of only one such legislated increase (the minimum-wage hike) is to mistakenly ignore many other such mandated ‘modest’ increases in costs of operation.

Taken together, the additional costs – whatever the corresponding benefits – of regulations such as a legislated minimum-wage surely are real and extend well beyond lower (presumably lower excess) profits for employers.

In short, given the plethora of existing regulations that artificially raise the costs of operating businesses and employing workers, it’s mistaken to believe that there will be no negative consequences – probably higher unemployment – inflicted upon unsuspecting unskilled workers by a higher legislated minimum-wage.

More here



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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Who needs the facts when you've got theory?

Prof Crabtree at work

Would you be surprised to hear that the human race is slowly becoming dumber, and dumber? Despite our advancements over the last tens or even hundreds of years, some ‘experts’ believe that humans are losing cognitive capabilities and becoming more emotionally unstable. One Stanford University researcher and geneticist, Dr. Gerald Crabtree, believes that our intellectual decline as a race has much to do with adverse genetic mutations. But there is more to it than that.

According to Crabtree, our cognitive and emotional capabilities are fueled and determined by the combined effort of thousands of genes. If a mutation occurred in any of of these genes, which is quite likely, then intelligence or emotional stability can be negatively impacted.

    “I would wager that if an average citizen from Athens of 1000 BC were to appear suddenly among us, he or she would be among the brightest and most intellectually alive of our colleagues and companions, with a good memory, a broad range of ideas, and a clear-sighted view of important issues. Furthermore, I would guess that he or she would be among the most emotionally stable of our friends and colleagues,” the geneticist began his article in the scientific journal Trends in Genetics."

Further, the geneticist explains that people with specific adverse genetic mutations are more likely than ever to survive and live amongst the ‘strong.’ Darwin’s theory of ‘survival of the fittest’ is less applicable in today’s society, therefore those with better genes will not necessarily dominate in society as they would have in the past.


The fact that all the studies show a substantial rise in IQ during the 20th century is beneath Prof. Crabtree's notice, apparently.  If you've got time to waste, his full essay is here


Industrial renaissance in the US: miracle or mirage?

Throughout his presidential election campaign last year, Barack Obama talked up signs of the revival of US industry. Only to be expected from someone seeking re-election, you might think. But he did highlight something tangible that a lot of others outside his political circle have also been discussing: how after years of the outsourcing of American jobs to China and other emerging markets, businesses are now ‘insourcing’ and ‘bringing jobs back to America’.

The notion of the revival of US industry, and of US manufacturing in particular, has been growing for some time now. In the summer of 2011, the prestigious Boston Consulting Group popularised the idea of a ‘manufacturing renaissance’ in its seminal article, ‘Made in America, Again: Why Manufacturing Will Return to the US’. It argued that a ‘combination of economic forces is fast eroding China’s cost advantage as an export platform for the North American market’. Rising costs abroad and falling costs in the United States mean that America ‘is becoming more attractive as a place to manufacture many goods consumed on this continent.’

And it’s not just starry-eyed politicians and consultants hoping that things are on the economic mend. Business leaders have endorsed this prospect of expanding production in the US. Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of the outsourcing pioneer General Electric, who is also head of President Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, thinks outsourcing is now outdated as a viable business model. Taking advantage of low-wage Chinese workers at the end of the 1990s, when they earned about 50 cents an hour (about one thirtieth of an American worker’s salary), seemed to make a lot of sense. But now things are more complex (or perhaps they always were?). ‘Outsourcing that is based only on labour costs is yesterday’s model’, says Immelt. ‘Complex trade-offs have always been involved in location decisions, but as these trade-offs have shifted, around 2008, we came to the conclusion that outsourcing was quickly becoming mostly outdated as a business model for GE Appliances.’

Moreover, Immelt has been putting his money where his mouth is: last year GE brought back to Kentucky the production of water heaters and refrigerators that had been outsourced to China and Mexico. Immelt told the Harvard Business Review last March that his company is now ‘outsourcing less and producing more in the US, [and] created more than 7,000 American manufacturing jobs in 2010 and 2011’. At the end of last year the influential Atlantic magazine ran two articles giving many more examples of returning US companies, ranging from home appliance maker Whirlpool, lift maker Otis, and even the frisbee maker Wham-O. Since then, other huge global companies, including Apple and Lenovo, have announced plans to bring production facilities home from Asia.

A range of arguments are advanced to explain the reshoring trend. Most commonly, it’s pointed out that Chinese wages have been rising substantially year-on-year, so the gap in labour costs is now less pronounced. The Boston Consulting Group highlights how ‘wage and benefit increases of 15 to 20 per cent per year at the average Chinese factory will slash China’s labour-cost advantage over low-cost states in the US, from 55 per cent today to 39 per cent in 2015, when adjusted for the higher productivity of US workers. Because labor accounts for a small portion of a product’s manufacturing costs, the savings gained from outsourcing to China will drop to single digits for many products.’

Other champions of the inshoring trend point to a previous overestimation of the benefits of going abroad: outsourcing relationships aren’t that simple to manage, and more complex and expansive supply chains can go wrong, not least when disrupted by natural catastrophes like the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the Japanese one of 2011.

And then there’s all that cheaper energy from booming US shale oil and gas encouraging the reshoring of manufacturing. Techniques such as horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, have transformed North America’s energy landscape, unlocking vast reserves of shale energy that were long thought uneconomic. The shale boom has fuelled a rise of almost one-fifth in US gas production over the past five years. About 30 per cent of America’s gas is now sourced from domestically produced shale gas, according to Goldman Sachs, up from one per cent in 2001. The consensus forecast is that US natural gas production will rise between 25 and 30 per cent from 2010 to 2030.

How has the US benefited from this ‘industrial renaissance’? Not much, so far, judging by the latest data. While America’s trade deficit in energy has improved from where it was a few years ago, it is still no better than it was during the 1980s and 1990s. (See chart below.) Of course, if shale energy production takes off in the way it could, the picture will change dramatically over the next few years.

However, the benefits of the industrial renaissance to the rest of the trade deficit are more difficult to discern. One would expect to be seeing at least signs of a narrowing of the non-energy trade deficit. Manufacturing exports did hit a new record in 2011, but so too did imports. More of the same is forecast for 2012 when the annual figures are published. The American Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation (MAPI) reports that the US trade deficit in manufactures actually increased by seven per cent in the first half of 2012, continuing the upward trend since the end of the 2009 global recession.

The broader merchandise trade deficit figures, excluding energy, show a continuing deterioration after the fading of the normal recession-induced improvement, when imports fall away in line with declining production and household consumption. (See charts below.) This suggests, contrary to expectations of an even embryonic industrial renaissance, that the US is becoming more reliant on overseas production, not less.

The trade body, the US Business and Industry Council, concluded that this record trade deficit ‘should put to rest widespread claims by the president and others that American manufacturing is in renaissance mode’. In a more recent study, Alan Tonelson, one of the council’s research fellows, reported that imports in 2011 captured a record share of US markets even for advanced manufactured goods, ranging from semiconductors to pharmaceuticals to ball bearings to machine tools and dozens of other capital- and technology-intensive sectors. And this is an area where the US is supposed to hold a relative competitive strength because of its higher levels of R&D and technology.

The import penetration rate exceeded 37 per cent in 2011, well up on the 25 per cent in the earliest data year of 1997, and slightly up on 2010, when the industrial renaissance supposedly was stirring. Tonelson concluded, ‘The analysis strongly indicates that, contrary to widespread optimism about an American industrial renaissance, domestic manufacturing’s highest value sectors keep falling behind foreign-based rivals.’

Far from economic recovery being driven by a domestic manufacturing revival, the rising trade deficit accompanying a return to even sluggish growth expresses how weak the US production machine continues to be. The fact that we’ve seen a continuing deterioration in the trade deficit, even with the competitiveness benefit to US industry of a fall in the dollar’s exchange rate of over 25 per cent since 2002, including nearly 10 per cent since the end of the recession in June 2009, reinforces how dire is the current state of US industry.

The recent revival of US manufacturing jobs doesn’t do much to justify the renaissance story either. As Obama has highlighted, about 500,000 factory jobs have been created over the last three years since their low of 11.5 million jobs in January 2010. This compares to the US peak manufacturing jobs in the summer of 1979 at 19.6 million. As the chart illustrates, manufacturing employment drifted down slowly and a little erratically for the next 20 years, and then more precipitously with almost 6 million more jobs being lost since the start of 2000.The return of some production to the US from abroad will have contributed some of the recent welcome half-million increase. However, this pick up over three years is less than a quarter of the 2.3 million jobs lost in the two-year period from the official start of the recession in December 2007.



An Icelandic lapse?

Over the last few years, Iceland has provided a bit of counter-narrative to the anarchist critique of political government.

Most western democracies declared their pieces of the international finance sector “too big to fail” and bailed them out at taxpayer expense after the 2008 bank collapse. Iceland took the opposite tack.

Voters in Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, elected an anarchist mayor, and six members of that mayor’s “Best Party,” to the city’s 15-member municipal council in 2010.

Voters in Iceland’s South, Southwest, Reykjavik North and Reykjavik South districts sent members of “The Movement” to the Althing (Iceland’s parliament, the oldest on Earth). Of particular interest is Reykjavik South representative Birgitta Jonsdottir, a Wikileaks volunteer and press freedom activist whose Twitter records were subpoenaed by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (Iceland’s Interior Minister courageously refused to cooperate with the FBI’s harassment of Wikileaks).

Not bad, I have to admit, as states go.

Alas, something is rotten in Denmar … er, Iceland. That same Interior Minister, Ogmundur Jonasson, is pushing an Internet censorship agenda in the name of protecting children.

Halla Gunnarsdottir, one of Jonasson’s advisors, is out front with the usual bait-and-switch: “This move is not anti-sex,” she says. “It is anti-violence because young children are seeing porn and acting it out.” In fact, the initiative is neither anti-sex nor anti-violence: It’s just anti-freedom.

Thankfully, some heroes can be counted upon to remain heroic: Birgitta Jonsdottir opposes the scheme. She assesses its chances of passage as “near zero” and its chances of working if it did pass as even lower. Her only sign of weakness in the matter is that she sympathizes with Jonasson, musing that maybe he just doesn’t know any better.

Be all that as it may, Jonsdottir puts her finger on the big problem with political government, even in such an enlightened nation as Iceland: “The fact is that this bill has already made many companies think twice before hosting their business in Iceland — not because they support porn, but because they fear the country’s laws could transit into the kind of full-blown censorship commonly attributed to countries like China and Saudi Arabia.”

Jonasson’s scheme, in other words, produces regime uncertainty (per Robert Higgs, “a pervasive uncertainty among investors about the security of their property rights in their capital and its prospective returns”).

Regime uncertainty is the state’s version of herpes: Its eruptions are unpredictable, it makes people think twice about intimate contact with the carrier, and yes, it sometimes literally kills babies. Among states — even Iceland, as this episode establishes — the infection rate is 100%.

The only issue I take with Higgs’s definition is that he defines it in solely economic terms and with respect to investors. I see no reason why it would not apply just as well to — for example — same-sex couples considering vacations in Uganda.

As Gideon J. Tucker put it in 1866, “no man’s life, liberty or property are safe while the Legislature is in session.” Not even in Iceland.



Book review: Heavens on Earth – How to Create Mass Prosperity

For those who, after five years of austerity (and rising deficit), despair about how to create growth, Heavens on Earth is indispensable bedtime and boardroom reading. In it, JP Floru investigates eight countries which have transformed their economies to create lasting high growth.  In different times and places the methods used to make the switch from scarcity to plenty have been remarkably similar. At times it is surprising: who would think that there are great correlations between the Industrial Revolution in Britain, 2013 Communist China, post-World War II America and Pinochet-era Chile?

“If Julius Caesar had met George Washington in 1760, he would have found the world barely changed. He would have been served food prepared by slaves in a stately home. The average age would have been twenty-eight to thirty-five. Just 250 years later he would have heard talk of missions to Mars...” So what happened? The book brings these arguments to life throughout with such insights.

Meet “Sideline Stan”, the New Zealand Minister of Labour who systematically refused to intervene in social conflicts. Meet Hong Kong’s John Cowperthwaite, who sent statisticians arrived from Whitehall on the first plane back: statistics would only be used to interfere and harm the economy. At the same time Heavens on Earth explains the main economic concepts which are relevant today: the Laffer Curve, Austrian economics, the wisdom of Adam Smith (no coincidence: JP Floru is a Fellow of the Adam Smith Institute) and the workings of Keynesian economics (or rather: why they do not work).

Although well-known existing ideas and quotes are used, at times the book is highly original: “Regulatory Failure Spiral” is the common enough situation of governments trying to rectify failing regulations with more failing regulations. The “Holy Trinity of Profligate Government: taxing, printing and borrowing” is extensively identified and lambasted. As said before, the links between highly different economic cultures may seem surprising. Some may also be surprised to learn that concern for the poor permeates the book. Poverty is not just a state in which people exist, it has to be created: it is created by economic oppression and only free markets can free the poor.




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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Government Excels At Creating Long Lines!

One part of President Obama’s State of the Union speech actually provoked some deep thinking in me:

"We should follow the example of a North Miami woman named Desiline Victor. When Desiline arrived at her polling place, she was told the wait to vote might be six hours. And as time ticked by, her concern was not with her tired body or aching feet, but whether folks like her would get to have their say. And hour after hour, a throng of people stayed in line in support of her, because Desiline is 102 years old. And they erupted in cheers when she finally put on a sticker that read “I Voted.”"

I can empathize a bit since when I voted in Virginia, I showed up just as the polls were opening and waited half an hour.  Of course, that’s nothing compared to six hours, so, like I said, I can empathize a bit.

Nevertheless, that passage precipitated the following thoughts:

1. After all the efforts taken to make voting easier such as absentee ballots and early voting, government still manages to create long lines for voting.  Amazingly, when lines start to form in private sector establishments, they implement a nifty little innovation called “open another checkout stand.”  Sources tell me they have had this innovation in the private sector for quite some time.  I wonder why the government hasn’t adopted it at polling stations?

2. But perhaps that’s the wrong way to look at it.  Maybe we should look at it in a positive way such as: Government Excels At Creating Long Lines!  Bureaucracy has a talent for this.  Go down to your Department of Motor Vehicles any day of the week.  Or if you are an immigrant and want to migrate here legally, sign up with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.  Or if you live in Britain or Canada, let some of your joints degenerate and then try to get a hip or knee replacement.  Indeed, here in the U.S. we may be on the brink of finding out what that is like.

3. Given how well government is at making voting a convenient, time-saving endeavor, I have the utmost confidence that government can create manufacturing hubs, combat climate change, produce a clean energy market, drive new research with an Energy Security Trust, cut in half the energy wasted by our homes in the next 20 years, produce high-speed rail, help families refinance their homes, and fund and regulate pre-school.  In short, all of the things that Obama laid out in his SOTU.

Yes, the government’s ability to make voting efficient has shown us the way.  The future is very bright!  FORWARD!



Baltic Success Reveals The Folly Of Obama’s Doublespeak

This week’s State of the Union address was full of plans for government action and spending to combat U.S. economic malaise. At the same time, the President claimed that there were drastic cuts to the federal budget on the way (referring to sequestration, under which spending actually continues to grow but at a slower rate). This doublespeak mirrors that of European politicians and hides reality: more government isn’t making the economy any better.

Illustrating this point is the dichotomy in economic performance between Western European countries — whose politicians claim to have made cuts but in reality have increased budgets each year since the Eurocrisis began in 2009 — and their Baltic counterparts — which underwent actual cuts in the size of government.

Eurostat just released fourth quarter 2012 data on economic growth this week, and it follows the three-year trend of Baltic over-performance relative to the rest of Europe. The Euro Zone as a whole registered dismal Q4 2012 growth of -0.6 percent while Latvia and Estonia grew by 5.7 and 3.4 percent, respectively.

As I wrote in National Review last month, there is a world of difference between austerity that leaves out the public sector while businesses suffer from recession, and austerity that forces government to tighten its belt along with the private sector. The first strategy, which I like to call “phony-austerity,” doesn’t work. The second one, which I like to call “real austerity,” does.

President Obama should take note.

His calls for federally planned “manufacturing hubs” and more investment into renewable energy won’t jump start growth. Trimming back the federal budget and leaving more money in the pockets of entrepreneurs will.

When crisis hit the Baltics, countries cut public wages and administration, discretionary spending, and social services. Governments felt it best to reduce their burden upon businesses, so that private enterprise could more easily adapt to hard economic times and bounce back quickly. Since the end of austerity in 2010, the Baltic economies have been the fastest growing in Europe.

On the other hand, Western and Southern European countries have decided to prolong the pain of recession by either belaboring cuts to government budgets or avoiding them altogether. In fact, many countries (those not receiving bailout funding) have actually increased spending and taxes since the start of the crisis. And they have had persistently low or negative levels of growth ever since.

A new report by Catholic charity Caritas Europa indicates that the persistent unemployment and increases in taxation in Greece, Spain, Ireland, Italy, and Portugal have been especially harmful to low- and fixed-income individuals. Instead of following the Baltic example of strong but short-lived economic pain, these countries instead decided to prolong agonizing economic hardship by refusing to cut government largesse sharply and swiftly and by inhibiting creative destruction within the private sector by propping up inefficient businesses. Wealthier European countries like France and the U.K. have also been undergoing similar, though less severe, long-lasting economic hardship.

Instead of following where Europe has failed in the West, President Obama should learn from where it has succeeded in the East. Reforming costly entitlements, lowering taxes, and cutting red tape is the way to create jobs — and more importantly, wealth.



The Argentina example

Americans wondering what to expect as their government piles on more debt and refuses to cut spending do not need to look any further than Argentina. A nation once among the most prosperous in the world is now deeply in debt, hemorrhaging cash, and trying to inflate its way out of the mess it has created. This inflation, naturally, has caused prices to rise sharply, and so the government is doing what all governments do in such a situation: instituting price controls.

The government of President Cristina Fernandez claims the annual inflation rate is 10 percent, which, if true, would be bad enough. Private economists believe it’s closer to 30 percent, but they dare not say so publicly for fear of being fired, fined, or even jailed. However, as the Associated Press points out, “The government says it’s trying to hold the next union wage hikes to 20 percent, a figure that suggests how little anyone believes the official index.”

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) certainly doesn’t believe it. The IMF censured Argentina for exploiting the difference between the official and private inflation rates to make it appear as though the country had saved $6.8 billion since 2007.

No one else is fooled, either. Investors were withdrawing billions of dollars from Argentina until Fernandez “tightened controls in the foreign exchange market and forced companies to repatriate revenue,” Bloomberg reports. Argentines trying to protect their savings by buying U.S. dollars — also depreciating, but at a considerably slower rate than the Argentine peso — were thwarted when the government imposed currency controls on them.

Apparently not content with the level of suffering she has already inflicted on her people, Fernandez is now instituting a two-month price freeze on “every product in all of the nation’s largest supermarkets,” according to the AP.

The intention, of course, is to conceal further the rate at which the peso is being devalued, though the policy is, naturally, couched in the language of helping average people who cannot afford the skyrocketing prices. In fact, it will do just the opposite.

When the price of a product is held below the market level, two things occur. First, since they will be making less profit on each unit sold— or perhaps even taking a loss — producers offer less of the product for sale. Second, recognizing that they are getting the product at a bargain price, consumers purchase more of it than they otherwise would. The end result: a shortage of the very product the government was supposedly trying to enable more people to buy. (Argentines have had experience with this: price controls imposed in 2007 led to food shortages then, too.)

The market will continue to function, of course, but it will be a black market. Scarce products will be available, but almost certainly at prices even higher than would be the case in the absence of the price controls. Consumers fortunate enough to obtain products on the black market will have no legal recourse if those products turn out to be faulty. And everyone involved will live in fear of getting caught engaging in peaceful commerce.

Eventually the price controls will be lifted. (These controls are set to expire on April 1, but who knows what kind of tricks the government might pull that day?) At that point prices will return to their market levels, though they will probably be even higher than they would have been if the controls had not been imposed in the first place, as producers — at least those who didn’t go out of business in the interim — scramble to make up for lost revenue. In addition, observed Tyler Durden of, “many of the local stores will not be around as their profit margins implode and as owners, especially of foreign-based chains, make the prudent decision to get out of Dodge while the getting’s good and before the next steps, including such measures as nationalization, in the escalation into a full out hyperinflationary collapse, are taken….” (Fernandez nationalized the country’s largest oil company last year.)

Is today’s Argentina tomorrow’s America? It is certainly within the realm of possibility. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Argentina was one of the freest and most prosperous nations on the globe. Then came the Great Depression and the rise of demagogues such as Juan Peron, who turned Argentina into a basket case, nationalizing industries, giving vast power to labor unions, and spending as if there were no tomorrow. The country has never fully recovered from the damage, having suffered multiple rounds of inflation, price controls, and even debt default in the ensuing decades, though it is still the second-largest economy in South America.

So, too, with the United States. Prosperous before the Depression, the country elected Franklin Roosevelt to four terms as president during that downturn. He greatly accelerated the process of centralizing power in Washington, cartelizing industries, boosting union leverage, and spending enormous sums of money. Since then the United States has experienced inexorable inflation, price controls (under Richard Nixon), and ballooning debt. The U.S. government now spends more than $1 trillion more than it takes in each year, is roughly $16 trillion in debt, and has many trillions more in unfunded liabilities. The country is still an economic powerhouse compared with most of the rest of the world, but the decades of gargantuan government have taken their toll.

Economist Soledad Perez Duhalde told the AP that instead of price controls, the Argentine government should “reduce government spending, which is financing an expansion of the money supply.” Unfortunately, slashing spending is about as likely to happen in Argentina as it is in Washington. Equally unfortunately, the results of such profligacy — debt, inflation, price controls, and national decline — are also about as likely in America as in Argentina.



Decayed moral and ethical  foundations can bring down the mightiest

Victor Davis Hanson

Why do once-successful societies ossify and decline?

Hundreds of reasons have been adduced for the fall of Rome and the end of the Old Regime in 18th-century France. Reasons run from inflation and excessive spending to resource depletion and enemy invasion, as historians attempt to understand the sudden collapse of the Mycenaeans, the Aztecs and, apparently, the modern Greeks. In literature from Catullus to Edward Gibbon, wealth and leisure -- and who gets the most of both -- more often than poverty and exhaustion implode civilization.

One recurring theme seems consistent in Athenian literature on the eve of the city's takeover by Macedon: social squabbling over slicing up a shrinking pie. Athenian speeches from that era make frequent reference to lawsuits over property and inheritance, evading taxes, and fudging eligibility for the dole. After the end of the Roman Republic, reactionary Latin literature -- from the likes of Juvenal, Petronius, Suetonius, Tacitus -- pointed to "bread and circuses," as well as excessive wealth, corruption and top-heavy government.

For Gibbon and later French scholars, "Byzantine" became a pejorative description of a top-heavy Greek bureaucracy that could not tax enough vanishing producers to sustain a growing number of bureaucrats. In antiquity, inflating the currency by turning out cheap bronze coins was often the favored way to pay off public debts, while the law became fluid to address popular demands rather than to protect time-honored justice.

After the end of World War II, most of today's powerhouses were either in ruins or still preindustrial -- China, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Russia and Taiwan. Only the United States and Great Britain had sophisticated economies that survived the destruction of the war. Both were poised to resupply a devastated world with new ships, cars, machinery and communications.

In comparison to Frankfurt, the factories of 1945 Liverpool had survived mostly intact. Yet Britain missed out on the postwar German economic miracles, in part because after the deprivations of the war, the war-weary British turned to class warfare and nationalized their main industries, which soon became uncompetitive.

The gradual decline of a society is often a self-induced process of trying to meet ever-expanding appetites, rather than a physical inability to produce past levels of food and fuel, or to maintain adequate defense. Americans have never had safer workplaces or more sophisticated medical care -- and never have so many been on disability.

King Xerxes' huge Persian force of 250,000 sailors and soldiers could not defeat a rather poor Greece in 480-479 B.C. Yet a century and a half later, a much smaller invading force from the north under Philip II of Macedon overwhelmed the far more prosperous Greek descendants of the victors of Salamis.

For hundreds of years, the outmanned legions of the tiny and poor Roman Republic survived foreign invasions. Yet centuries later, tribal Goths, Visigoths, Vandals and Huns overran the huge Mediterranean-wide Roman Empire.

Given our unsustainable national debt -- nearly $17 trillion and climbing -- America is said to be in decline, although we face no devastating plague, nuclear holocaust, or shortage of oil or food.

Americans have never led such affluent material lives -- at least as measured by access to cell phones, big-screen TVs, cheap jet travel and fast food. Obesity rather than malnutrition is the greater threat to national health. Flash mobs go after electronics stores, not food markets. Americans spend more money on Botox, face lifts and tummy tucks than on the age-old scourges of polio, small pox and malaria.

If Martians looked at the small box houses, one-car families and primitive consumer goods of the 1950s, they would have thought the postwar United States, despite a balanced budget in 1956, was impoverished. In comparison, an indebted contemporary America would seem to aliens flush with cash, as consumers jostle for each new update to their iPhones.

By any historical marker, the future of Americans has never been brighter. The United States has it all: undreamed new finds of natural gas and oil, the world's pre-eminent food production, continual technological wizardly, strong demographic growth, a superb military and constitutional stability.

Yet we don't talk confidently about capitalizing and expanding on our natural and inherited wealth. Instead, Americans bicker over entitlement spoils as the nation continues to pile up trillion-dollar-plus deficits. Enforced equality rather than liberty is the new national creed. The medicine of cutting back on government goodies seems far worse than the disease of borrowing trillions from the unborn to pay for them.

In August 1945, Hiroshima was in shambles, while Detroit was among the most innovative and wealthiest cities in the world. Contemporary Hiroshima now resembles a prosperous Detroit of 1945; parts of Detroit look like they were bombed decades ago.

History has shown that a government's redistribution of shrinking wealth, in preference to a private sector's creation of new sources of it, can prove more destructive than even the most deadly enemy.


There is a  new  lot of postings by Chris Brand just up -- on his usual vastly "incorrect" themes of race, genes, IQ etc



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Monday, February 18, 2013

The big picture is hopeful

People who have been around for a while all seem to agree. Never in living memory has the atmosphere on Capitol Hill and in Washington, D.C., generally been so toxic.

I don’t find this to be true out in the hinterland. The country as a whole is divided politically. But it’s not obviously more divided than it was 50 years ago. The toxicity of politics is a D.C. phenomenon. What’s more, the polarization is worse among the elites. It seems that the more education they have, the more polarized people become.

Why is that?

I have a theory. Any period in which there is radical political change is likely to be a period when raw emotions are strained. The reason: political change means we are moving from an old system to a new one. When that happens, people who were wedded to the old system will perceive that they are losing something — a way of life, a shared way of looking at the world, institutions that they relied on.

We are living in such a period. Over the past 30 years the entire world has seen a complete reversal in the political trend of the twentieth century. There was a time, not long ago, when many of us believed that the march toward communism and socialism was inevitable. Country after country moved left. In the first eight decades of the twentieth century, I can’t think of a single place where individual liberty increased — unless you count the aftermath of war in Germany, Italy and Japan.

Collectivism, it seemed, was unstoppable.

Then, in the last two decades of the last century, everything changed. Communism was dismantled almost everywhere. It was not only politically dismantled. Collectivism was intellectually discredited. All around the world, a new wave of thinking emerged — one which saw that the left was wrong. Wrong about everything. Wrong about communism. Wrong about socialism. Wrong about the welfare state.

In country after country, the power of government was rolled back — through deregulation and privatization. It’s hard to exaggerate how fundamental this change has been. When Ronald Reagan was president, not even the most conservative politician would dare talk about privatizing Social Security. This was true in other countries as well. Yet today, more than 30 countries around the world have fully or partially privatized their social security systems. We haven’t done it yet. But we’ve discovered that a presidential candidate can talk about it and still win two elections.

About 40 countries now have a flat tax and tax rates have been generally falling almost everywhere. In Europe, talk of privatizing health, education and welfare was once as taboo as talk of privatizing Social Security was in the US. No longer.

Sweden, once thought of as the model for the modern welfare state, now has a full-fledged school voucher system, has privatized large segments of its health care system and is on the way toward privatization of almost all of its welfare state. Britain, which once boasted that its system of socialized medicine was “the envy of the world” has been privatizing health services for the past decade. Since 2008, National Health Service (NHS) patients have been able to choose any provider (NHS, private for-profit, private non-profit, etc.) they wish for elective care.

The dismantling of the state has not been smooth or even continuous. Some countries have seen reversals. Venezuela, Argentina, Ecuador and France come to mind. In our country we have gone from Bill Clinton’s declaration that the era of big government is over to a massive new entitlement created by ObamaCare.

These reversals give people on the left hope that the trend is not inevitable. Rather than being resigned to defeat, they see hope that collectivism might rise again.

A persistent myth is the idea that polarization and toxicity in politics has originated on the right. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Tea Party folks are…well…just plain folks with a point of view. If you want to find real bitterness, go interview the participants of Occupy Wall Street.

Paul Krugman is a New York Times columnist who routinely questions the motives, the ethics and even the sanity of people who disagree with him. You can’t find editorials on the right that come close to his routine level of vitriol.

For the most part, the left in this country feels deeply threaten by events occurring all over the world. Every cherished belief of theirs is proving to be wrong. The institutions they revere are being dismantled.

They’re mad.



Why Downton Abbey riles the Left

One of the first things one notices, if one is a regular viewer of BBC productions, is that Downton is unusually ideologically and religiously balanced. One of the other effects one notices when one watches a lot of BBC is that one starts referring to oneself in the third rather than the first person. But one digresses.

If the viewer is expecting vintage BBC, Downton is full of surprises. This is not PG Woodhouse, with Jeeves the butler easily thinking rings around his Lord. This is not Brideshead Revisted‘s take on the upper classes, packed with alcoholic elders and simmering, repressed homosexuality amongst their offspring. It is not Noel Coward’s Easy Virtue with easy satiric shots at the hypocrisy which arises amongst the upper classes and their dysfunctional patter of religious and sexual…yes there it is again, repression.

The upper classes at Downton aren’t repressed, they’re restrained. They are not inbred, intellectually backward fools; they are intelligent and thoughtful. As a general rule they treat their servants well, care about their welfare and are generally respected by them in turn. They are, in a word, admirable. And for a period drama, that treatment is, in a word, surprising. And surprise is an essential element of compelling drama.

Films and series about Edwardian upper caste manners which portray the genteels uncharitably are boring, like the steady, unending (until one turns the switch off) hum of a fluorescent lamp.Downton Abbey is what George Gilder would call the entropic disruption to the background noise of revolt against the old world. To portray Lord and Lady Grantham as anything other than drunks, fools, hypocrites or either sexpots or sexual glaciers (or best of all, alternately both) is itself an act of cultural rebellion.

That’s arguably why the left is bashing Downton Abbey. The New York Times Art Beat column has reported that British critics are ‘torching’ Downton Abbey. Apparently Downton Abbey is snobbish, culturally necrophiliac (and if you don’t yet know what that word means, I suggest you leave it that way) and its popularity in the United States is due to the rise of the Tea Party movement and conservative opposition to the death tax. Even worse, creator Julian Fellowes is the holder of a Tory Peerage. Definitely not the right sort of people.

Now at first glance one might think that all of this goes a bit too far, dragging politics in where it has no proper place. But on second look, the left’s reaction is understandable. Julian Fellowes and they are on the opposite side of something. But it’s not that Fellowes is on the right, and they on the left. It is that Fellowes is in the middle and they on the far left. Downton Abbey is not an apologetic for the old order. It just gives them a fair shake.

Lord Grantham is admirable, yes, but wrong on many things. He makes a pass at one of the house maids. He flies off the handle at Bates unfairly. He foolishly squanders the family fortune on a bad investment. He expresses bigoted views towards Catholics (of which Fellowes, a practicing Catholic, must surely disapprove). Most tragically, he lets his upper class solidarity lead to a medical decision which may have led to the death of his daughter.

But, in general, Lord Grantham is a faithful, intelligent, decent and benevolent. The world has to change; he knows it, but he wants the world to change more slowly than it wants itself to change. His wife and children are not in general wiser than he (which marks the show as distinct from almost all TV advertisements set in families), but they are sometimes wiser than he…just like in life.

Fellowes seems to be saying that the old order had its day; it was good, though not perfect, during its time. It deserves a decent burial and a fond memory. And he also seems to be saying that change for change’s own sake is just as destructive as preservation for preservation’s own sake. Liberation of women, good. Growth of an all-encompassing set of regulatons, bad. My friend John Tamny (editor of this page) has given a good account of Fellowes’ political philosophy as expressed in his novels

But Downton Abbey is also a rejoinder to the current rage (in both senses) of class warfare. In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal:

“I think the—well, not even the subtext, the supertext—of ‘Downton,’ is that it is possible for us all to get on, that we don’t have to be ranged in class warfare permanently—that for the general public, the fact that people are leading different lives with different economic realities and different expectations is perfectly cope-able with.”

 “If you can’t deal with that,” he continues, “then your life would be unlivable. And I think politicians try to encourage us to think in a hostile sense [of] people who have a different circumstance to our own. Which I find very unproductive and uncreative.”

So Downton Abbey‘s message is an anti-class warfare one. The fact is that the spirit of the critics is hard left, and maybe that’s why Downton Abbey makes them so angry, because the success of the series shows that this group does not speak for America.

It also shows something equally important to the future of our culture: that there is no inherent need for good TV to be left of center. Stories sympathetic to virtue, preservation of property and admiration of nobility and of wealth can be told beautifully and to wide audiences, and I suspect they will be more and more in the future.



A choice example of government "investment"

And so do the taxpayers of Timmins:  A tourist attraction celebrating country-pop singer Shania Twain has officially become a $10-million money pit of taxpayer dollars.

The Shania Twain Centre in this northern Ontario community permanently closes its doors today, barely a dozen years after its grand opening, and will be demolished to become part of an open-pit gold mine.

You can't make stuff this up. It just wouldn't be believable. For those of you who are not up on their Ontario geography, the city of Timmins is located about seven and a half hours north of Toronto. It has a population of 43,165 and the current temperature is -34 celsius. I don't even want to know what the windchill is. The main industry is gold mining. The city's two most famous ex-residents are Myron Scholes (of Black-Scholes fame) and Shania Twain. In fairness it should be noted that Mr Scholes left Timmins at the age of ten to move to the bright lights of Hamilton. Shania left after graduating high school.

I'm guessing that's why Myron got the Nobel and Shania only got a Juno.

Apparently the city coughed up $5 million to build the Shania Twain Centre, while a provincial agency kicked in the rest. The Centre has run a $1 million loss over the last dozen years. The local authorities are blaming the closure of the centre on a lack of marketing and a failure of support from local residents. The centre never attracted more than 15,000 visitors in a given year. The property has now been sold to a mining concern for $5 million dollars.

So let's do some elementary math. There are 43,165 residents in Timmins. The original estimates were that 50,000 people a year would come to the Shania Twain Centre. So once everyone in town has visited the Centre once, why would they go back again? How many times can you gaze in awe at Shania's first guitar? How many people in Timmins like Shania Twain? This would mean that for the Centre to be a viable concern it would need to attract visitors from out of town.

To visit Timmins.

The nearest major towns are Kirkland Lake and Cochrane. The nearest major city is Sudbury. Recall that most people in southern Ontario consider Orillia to be the edge of civilization. Most Torontonians consider Steeles Avenue to be the edge of civilization. Who the hell is going to travel hundreds of miles to visit a museum about a country music singer? They do that for Elvis. But Elvis is Elvis and Graceland is in Memphis. Timmins is not Memphis. There are other things to do in Memphis. In Timmins it's the Shania Twain Centre and then it's the open pit gold mine.

There might be many laudable reasons to live in Timmins. There might be many very fine people in Timmins. But unless you intend on living in Timmins there isn't much of a reason to visit. At least Windsor has a casino. Sudbury has a huge nickel and a gigantic smoke stack. The business case for this cente was not well thought out.

I bring this story to your attention not to mock the good people of Timmins. At least not directly. Their political leadership has spent millions of dollars, which no doubt could have been better spent elsewhere, on a tourist attraction for a city that no sane tourist would willingly visit. Yes, I know Shania Twain is huge. But if Jesus had been born in Timmins I doubt the crowds would have been much larger. Say what you will, but at least Bethlehem is warm.

There is no private investment firm, excepting perhaps one seeking a massive tax write-off, which would invest $10 million in so ludicrous a project. Yet it seems, with something which for bureaucrats approaches insouciance, the provincial and municipal governments forked over a considerable fortune to build a musically themed white elephant. If government officials cannot figure out that Timmins is not a good tourist destination, what makes anyone think they're clever enough to run a health care system? Or a school system? Or a transit system?

Much of the Canadian economy is littered with white elephants and grossly inefficient public services. The Shania Twain Centre is a small fiasco in the larger disaster that is the modern Canadian state.



South Korea Unveils New Missile

South Korea staged large military training and disclosed that it has a new cruise missile capable of hitting any target in North Korea.

"The cruise missile being unveiled today is a precision-guided weapon that can identify and strike the window of the office of North Korea's leadership," ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok told reporters."

Comment: As they said on the 13th, the South Koreans wasted no time demonstrating that they are not technologically behind the North in weapons design and development. That is probably also true of nuclear weapons development. South Korea is not known to have an active  weapons program, but it operates 23 nuclear reactors at four power generating stations that produce about 30% of its electricity requirement. It also exports reactors. It certainly has the know-how or can find it quickly, should it need it.

As for the Hyunmoo, South Korean authorities first disclosed the existence of the Hyunmoo (Eagle) III series of cruise missiles in April 2012, after the failure of the first North Korean satellite launch in the Kim Jong Un era. Today they showed its versatility, with film clips of launches from a surface ship and a submarine.

Last April the South Korean defense sources indicated it had a range of 930 miles, which is more than enough to reach any installation in North Korea and some in China. The Hyunmoo III C reportedly has a range of 1,500 miles.

The claims of accuracy are not exaggerated. Some news reporters have called it a ballistic missile. South Korea has short-range ballistic missiles, but what it showed today is a cruise missile, "similar to the US Tomahawk," according to one description.




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Sunday, February 17, 2013

Operation Hubris

 Jonah Goldberg

One of the great things about American politics is its capacity for punishing hubris.

For the ancient Greeks, hubris didn't merely describe god-like arrogance. It was a crime, usually defined as taking too much pleasure in the humiliation of your foes. In its modern usage it usually means the pride that comes before the fall.

In the wake of Barack Obama's State of the Union address, both connotations seem at least a little apt. We are well into our fourth month of epidemic thumb-suckery over the question, "Are the Republicans doomed?" The latest New York Times Magazine asks, "Can the Republicans Be Saved from Obsolescence." The wished-for answer doesn't require much reading comprehension.

Since the election, a slew of political reporters and analysts -- never mind the self-declared Obama boosters -- have argued that Obama will, must or should crush his enemies (and by enemies, I mean the Republicans). Slate's John Dickerson wrote that if Obama "wants to transform American politics, he must go for the throat."

"Obama's only remaining option," Dickerson continued, "is to pulverize. Whether he succeeds in passing legislation or not, given his ambitions, his goal should be to delegitimize his opponents."

Many conservative observers agreed. Michael Barone wrote, "Obama begins his second term with a strategy to defeat and humiliate Republicans rather than a strategy to govern." Rich Lowry, my boss at National Review, wrote that Obama's approach to the debt-ceiling fight should have been called "Operation Humiliation."

That strategy worked for Obama, he figures, so why quit now? His second inaugural address was a frilly campaign stump speech, dividing fools and devils (Republicans) from the wise and the sainted (Democrats).

His State of the Union address, already fading from the mind's eye like the afterglow of a flashbulb, showed that Obama remains committed to his hammer-and-tongs style. His ludicrous claims that massive new expansions of government won't add a "single dime" to the deficit -- technically true, since they would add trillions of dimes to the deficit -- alone made it clear that he's still in campaign mode.

Obama and many in his chorus remain convinced that, after that momentary hiccup known as the 2010 midterm elections, America is finally on a glide path to the new progressive era they'd long been promised.

This is where the two meanings of hubris come together. Liberals panting after the transformative Obama presidency are only seeing what they want to see. The GOP suffered from the same sort of wishful thinking when Republicans believed that George W. Bush -- and Ronald Reagan before him -- signaled a partisan realignment.

Look closely at Obama's State of the Union address, and you see not a progressive colossus poised to conquer all in his path, but a mostly spent force, desperately trying to figure out how to get anything done at all. His main policy ambition was to keep from getting the blame for his own idea: the sequester.

But the emotional heart of the State of the Union comprised three issues: immigration reform, climate change and gun control. Well, as Senate Democrats have made clear, the only way immigration reform passes is if Obama stays out of the process entirely.

On gun control, all Obama is asking for is a vote. He's not even asking for passage of a largely ludicrous assault weapons ban. Why? Because gun control is a wedge dividing Democrats, not Republicans.

So is climate change. Liberal donors want Obama to kill the Keystone pipeline (which Obama failed to mention) and push a green agenda. The union and blue-collar base want good jobs and cheap gas. Indeed, while climate change and gun control may be imperatives for the editors of the New York Times, they are pretty low priorities for Americans growing increasingly nostalgic for economic growth Obama can't deliver. How can it be springtime for liberalism when liberalism's top priorities aren't the public's top priorities?

The remainder of Obama's agenda was fairly pathetic boilerplate. Hike the minimum wage! Redesign America's schools! Manufacturing hubs! Make-work programs!

This is supposed to be liberalism reborn? Lame ideas cribbed from a playbook with 60 years of dust on it? Slogans hatched by pols who needed a few more nouns to round out Obama's sentences? Legislative initiatives that will cost Democrats seats in 2014 and beyond?

Obama's State of the Union had the lowest ratings in 13 years for a reason -- and it's not that America is excited for a new golden age of liberalism. The momentum Obama feels is the pull of gravity, as he starts his fall.



Default must be avoided at all costs and should not be an option on the table?

Will U.S. government one day simply refuse to pay what it owes people who have lent it money?

This is from Jason J. Fichtner and Veronique de Rugy, "The Debt Ceiling: Assets Available to Prevent Default," January 25, 2013.
What's their reasoning? Here is the full extent of it:

"Raising the debt ceiling without a commitment to improve our long-term debt problem has adverse consequences as well. Recently, the rating agency Fitch warned the US government that while it wants the debt ceiling to be raised, it also wants the government to come up with a credible medium-term deficit-reduction plan."

Without it, the agency could downgrade the US credit rating by the end of this year. Other rating agencies have also warned the United States of the negative consequence of not dealing with the country's long-term debt.

The rest of the article is about how to avoid default, not whether it's a good or bad idea.

I'm unconvinced. The U.S. government has dug itself a deep hole. Commitments that it has made to various people must be broken. There is no plausible way, for example, that the U.S. government will be able, 20 years from now, to pay for all the Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security benefits that it has committed to pay. One such commitment to consider breaking is the commitment to pay the debt.

Bruce Bartlett, in The Benefit and the Burden, his book about taxes, writes that default "would constitute a grossly immoral theft of trillions of dollars from those who loaned money to the federal government in good faith." In my review of his book, I commented, "Really? It's worse to default on creditors who took a risk than to forcibly take money from taxpayers who have no choice?"

Now you could argue that the commitment to pay the debt deserves a priority because of part 4 of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which says:

"The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void."

I take the U.S. Constitution seriously. But note that Fichtner and de Rugy don't make an argument based on the Constitution. Their argument is based on the economics--and, as I noted, I don't think it's that persuasive. To lay out why default might be a good idea takes too much space here. If you want to see a sustained case for default, see Jeffrey R. Hummel, "Some Possible Consequences of a U.S. Government Default," Econ Journal Watch, January 12, 2012.
Fichtner and de Rugy write that it is "irresponsible to signal to the international community that a default on the debt obligations owed by the US government is possible while Washington works through whether it will raise the debt limit before or after it formulates a plan to reduce government spending."

But I think it's irresponsible to tell people that there is unlikely be a default. I'm planning my financial future on the idea that there's a substantial probability that the U.S. government will go right up to the big financial cliff and then default and limit Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. The earlier we prepare, the better.



Lifeboat Drill

Word has come of a gruesome accident in the Canary Islands. A cruise ship anchored there staged a test of its lifeboats, and five crewmen died. At the moment, the cause is said to have been a break in one of the cables by which lifeboats are lowered to the water. A picture shows a capsized lifeboat next to the ship. The dead crewmen were trapped beneath it.

This is sad, but why is it of any more interest than any other industrial accident? Because lifeboats are constantly hailed as a solution, not a cause, of naval disaster.

The 101st anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic arrives on April 14. We will hear a great deal about the importance of government regulations to ensure that every ship has enough boats for its whole company of passengers and crew.

Since the Titanic, this kind of regulation has been in effect. But as with most regulations, the effects have been mixed, to use a conventional kind of understatement. When American total-lifeboat regulations came in, two things happened. One was the ruin of America’s passenger steamship lines to the Orient. The owners couldn’t afford to meet the new standards (which, admittedly, included labor-protectionist provisions only notionally connected with safety). The other was the sinking of the steamship Eastland. The Eastland capsized in the Chicago River, with immense loss of life, because it had been overloaded with lifeboats.

The Eastland before it rolled over

The story of the Eastland is ably presented by George Hilton in his book on the subject. I myself have analyzed the lifeboat issue in my book about the Titanic. I’ll hit some high points:

Only one large passenger ship has ever been evacuated solely by its own boats, and that was a vessel in which almost all the passengers and crew were under military discipline. If a large ship gets into trouble, it ordinarily sinks right away (as did the Lusitania, with horrible results from the attempted launching of lifeboats), or it takes days to sink. In the first case, few boats will probably be capable of successful launch (even the Titanic used remarkably little of its available lifeboat space). In the second case, other ships will appear to take people off the stricken vessel, if that vessel is anywhere near normal lines of travel.

It is a fearful thing to enter a lifeboat and be lowered 50, 60, or 70 feet into an ocean that is probably cold and turbulent. Usually, it’s better to stay with the ship. If the passengers on the Costa Concordia, which suffered a disastrous mishap off the coast of Italy in January 2012, had understood this, they would not have panicked, and they would have sustained fewer deaths. Instead, they remembered propaganda about the Titanic and concluded that they were doomed, because their lifeboats were not efficiently launched. In some cases, they jumped off the ship, and died.

By the way, the Costa Concordia never sank. It’s still there, lying on its side, along the coast of Italy. If you were a passenger without an operative lifeboat, you could still be living on board. Yet watching the one-year retrospectives on this event, one would think that the ship had sunk — and passengers had died because lifeboats were not available.

The truth is that everything people do, or plan to do, has its own risks. Even tests of government-mandated rescue equipment can go wrong, terribly wrong. There is no such thing as a free lunch, or a free rescue, either. Let’s end the pious pretense that there is.




Obama’s reactionary jobs plan:  "Does it bother anyone else that the president of the United States seems to believe that our collective future entails assembling battery parts in a government-subsidized factory for $9 an hour? Is that really what Americans envision for their kids -- an assembly line? Because when you look past Barack Obama's mesmerizingly hollow rhetoric, what he's proposing is a return of jobs that progress and prosperity have left behind."

How will ObamaCare affect Health Savings Accounts?:  "If you are one of the more than 22 million people enrolled in a Health Savings Account (HSA) or a Health Reimbursement Arrangement or if you work for the one of every two employers who now offer one of these consumer-driven health plans, in the future you will have fewer options. The new healthcare law does not outlaw HSA-eligible plans, but it takes away HSA options and future regulations could make these plans impractical and undesirable."

America: Extorting data access:  "U.S. law enforcement wants companies to covertly install so-called computer back doors in the software they produce. This would allow the government to access information on any computer using the software without being detected and without going through an authentication process that protects privacy."

Mail delivery should be privatized:  "The U.S. Postal Service announced last week that it intends to end Saturday mail delivery beginning Aug. 1. The move would save the government's beleaguered mail monopoly $2 billion a year, according to the USPS. The USPS has lost over $40 billion since 2006 and it has maxed out its $15 billion line of credit with the U.S. Treasury. With mail volume in permanent decline, the USPS has no choice but to try and cut costs. ... With the USPS literally on the verge of not being able to pay its bills in full, it will be interesting to see if Congress finally relents. Even if Congress does allow the USPS to drop Saturday mail delivery, the postal service faces a bleak future."

Elite Iranian general assassinated near Syria-Lebanon border:  "A senior commander of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards has been killed while travelling from Syria to Lebanon, according to Iranian authorities. A man identified as General Hassan Shateri was reportedly assassinated by what Iranian officials described as 'the agents and supporters of the Zionist regime' while travelling from Damascus to Beirut."



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