Thursday, September 29, 2011

Class Warfare

The clearest comment I have heard on the "class warfare" issue was by Elizabeth Warren, who is runniing for the US Senate in Massachusetts.

The video of her explaining why wealth should be taxed is plain, clear and to the point. Worth watching.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Buy Now, Pay Later

We've heard a lot about debt lately. According to some (mostly conservatives), public debt is illegal, immoral and probably fattening as well. This is only a slight variation on themes we have heard ever since Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated in 1933.

Our current economic downturn, though, was not caused by public debt. It was brought on by a breakdown in the over leveraging of private debt. It was a consequence of financial deregulation and the resulting bubble in housing. After the bubble collapsed, in 2007, 2008 and 2009, we saw a massive reduction in overall debt in the U.S. Overall borrowing (net increase in debt, including US state and local government, federal government, financial companies, non-financial companies, and US household borrowing) dropped like a shot from about four and a half trillion dollars in 2007 to two and a half trillion in 2008 to negative 438.4 billion dollars in 2009. Yes, federal government borrowing increased, but that increase was overwhelmed by reductions in borrowing and spending by state and local governments and private borrowers.

"Neither a borrower nor a lender be," Polonius advises Laertes in William Shakespeare's Hamlet.

That's very bad advice if the goal is economic prosperity. In fact, debt (properly managed and regulated) was the foundation of our postwar prosperity. Without consumer debt, aggregate demand for products would be a fraction of what it became in the 1960s.

Just imagine the consequences to the economy if we were to abandon "buy now, pay later." Actually, I don't have to imagine it. I remember it. If my grandmother wanted to buy something at the department store - say a winter coat - she would put it on "lay-away." She would pay the store a certain portion of the price and the store would set it aside (or lay it away) until she completed paying for it. Then she could take it home.

It was possible in the 1940's to take out a loan for a major purchase such as a car. It helped to know the banker. That was possible, since most banks were local businesses. That made travel a problem. Only local businesses would accept a check made on your local bank. If you went on a trip you needed to take enough cash for expected expenses. There were no credit cards.

If you worried about being robbed of your cash, you would buy traveler's checks before setting out. To cash a traveler's check, you had to countersign it in front of the cashier. That system was "pay now, buy later."

The ordinary transactions of daily life were very much more complicated sixty years ago than they are now.

Do you remember long distance telephone calls? I'll save that for another time.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Irene's Wake

I've been a bit busy lately cleaning up after Irene. I've got a couple of posts in the works, but have to sleep on it. Tomorrow is another day.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sex And The Military

At last Thursday's Republican debate, Rick Santorum declared "any type of sexual activity has absolutely no place in the military.”

What arm of the military did he serve in?

He didn't?

That explains it.

Language and the Constitution

While boxing up stuff to put in storage while the house is restored from Irene, I came across an interesting clipping.

The late James Kilpatrick, conservative columnist, commentator on the US Supreme Court, in his final years published a regular column titled "The Writer's Art." One of his final columns, "Simplify Overstuffed Sentences," printed on page 13A of the News and Observer of Saturday, August 30, 2008, shed an interesting light on the Court's 2008 decision that the Second Amendment grants an individual right to keep and bear arms. I posted a comment on that issue last January.

Kilpatrick's 2008 column takes issue with loose use of "people."

"A recent item in the Washington Post began 'Federal prosecutors charged 11 people yesterday with the theft and sale of more than 40 million credit card numbers...'
People? Eleven people? Suppose the charges are dismissed against 10 of them. What's left? One people.

"The solution to this perplexity is to reserve 'people' for lots and lots of human beings with some common bond - e.g. the dispossessed people of Darfur. The noun 'person' carries a smaller load of baggage.

"Thus the Constitution speaks of the right of 'the people' peaceably to assemble, to keep and bear arms, and to be secure in their homes. But when it gets to crime and punishment, the Constitution says that no 'person' shall be put in double jeopardy, no 'person' shall be compelled to be a witness against himself, and no 'person' shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.

"Those old boys who wrote the Bill of Rights had a lovely feel for language. I wish our present leaders were equally blessed."

Kilpatrick didn't say so right out, but one of the leaders he might view as linguistically challenged is justice Antonin Scalia, who drafted the decision in District of Columbia Vs. Heller. In that decision Scalia concluded the "right of the people to keep and bear arms" was an individual right.

Kilpatrick would dissent.

If the authors of the Second Amendment had intended the right to be an individual right, they would have written 'persons.'

Friday, September 23, 2011

Imprison Mosquitos?

My last post on mosquito control was intended as a tongue in cheek comment not only on mosquitoes, but on programs that obviously need to be carried out by government. The idea of relying on individuals to spray their own property is (I thought) patently ludicrous.

Had I attended last Monday's county commissioners meeting, I would have learned that one commissioner insisted the county's spraying program confine itself to public rights of way.

You can't control mosquitoes that way.

Normally, mosquitoes confine themselves to an area within one to two miles of the place they hatched. Some are more peripatetic, and have been found seventy-fives miles from where they hatched.

Unless the commissioner in question knows of some way to confine mosquitoes to the lot on which they hatched, the policy she proposes will be totally ineffective for mosquito control.

Why worry? Aren't mosquitoes just a nuisance? Well, no. They transmit diseases that can be fatal to man and beast. West Nile virus and equine encephalitis, for example.

My father suffered from malaria. He didn't contract it in the jungles of New Guinea where he served during WWII - he contracted it as a child in Holmes County, Mississippi.

Malaria disappeared from the US in the 1940's as a result of a number of measures, including aggressive use of DDT. We know better now about other adverse consequences of DDT.

Maybe someone will develop mosquito prisons.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Another Government Program

I was up early this morning and saw the public works crew fogging for mosquito control.

Another government program.

Why don't we just let each homeowner fog his or her own property or implement his own preferred mosquito control measures?

Is a Penny Saved a Penny Earned?

Benjamin Franklin told us "a penny saved is a penny earned."


Three years ago, during the budget process, Oriental's town manager briefed the commissioners (I was one of them) on increases in various insurance premiums. One of the expenses was (as I recall) about $900 for flood insurance. We discussed the option of self-insuring on the grounds that during hurricane Isabel, the highest storm surge in anyone's memory, the only loss was the carpet. Two or three years' premiums would more than cover such a cost.

We deliberated and decided to self-insure for flood loss.

Hurricane Irene confounded our expectations. The storm surge flooded Town Hall about a foot deeper than Isabel. There was quite a bit of damage.

Some of the damage would have been covered by flood insurance. Some would not. Mold, for example. Some damages would have been reduced by depreciation. It would be good to do a careful calculation of the benefits we would have received from flood insurance against the expense we avoided by self insuring. The board might or might not want to reinstate flood insurance.

As Yogi Berra said, "it's difficult to make predictions, especially about the future."

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Do We Really Need Smaller Government?

Yesterday's New York Times had an op-ed piece entitled "Our Hidden Government Benefits." The article summarized a 2008 survey.

"A 2008 poll of 1,400 Americans by the Cornell Survey Research Institute found that when people were asked whether they had “ever used a government social program,” 57 percent said they had not. Respondents were then asked whether they had availed themselves of any of 21 different federal policies, including Social Security, unemployment insurance, the home-mortgage-interest deduction and student loans. It turned out that 94 percent of those who had denied using programs had benefited from at least one; the average respondent had used four."

I confess. I have used government services all my life. Still do.

Did you put your hurricane debris out in front of your house to be picked up? FEMA pays most of that bill, the state of North Carolina a big chunk and town government the rest. How would we deal with that without government? Not very well. Today I received a check from FEMA and one from my insurance company (to be repaid from the National Flood Insurance Program). There will be more payments. I also received my monthly social security check.

This afternoon I have a doctor's appointment to review my annual blood test results. Who pays? The U.S. Government. Earlier this week the town's mosquito control operation fogged mosquito breeding areas. Who pays? Town government, supplemented by state government.

The list goes on. We all use government programs.

We live in a democracy. The government isn't "they," it is us.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Rising Tide?

President Lyndon Baines Johnson was fond of saying that "a rising tide lifts all boats."

Perhaps that was so in the 1960's. Much has changed since then.

A graph prepared by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows that from 1947 until 1975, income gains increased at about the same rate for all income groups. Rates of increase for the bottom fifth of families, median income families and wealthy families were almost indistinguishable.

Since 1975, though, there has been no income gain for the bottom one-fifth of families (2010 income same as 1973); about a 15% increase in incomes of median income families over the same 35 year period, and more than fifty percent increase in income for wealthy families.
If people who work for a living believe they have not got ahead at all in the past three and a half decades, they seem to be right.

The 95th percentile, of course, refers to families with income greater than 95% of the population. What about those in the top 1%? How about the top 0.1%? Here's another graph showing who has really made out. Based on slightly different data, but it tells the same story.

So if there is class warfare, who's winning? Billionaire Warren Buffet got it right: "my class is winning."

Why The "Dismal Science" Is So Dismal

I have to share the following post from yesterday's blog by economist Jared Bernstein:

There's No Market For Good Economic Policy

A few weeks ago I referred to austerity economics—fiscal or monetary tightening when we need both to be expanding—as akin to the medicine of medieval times.  Bleeding patients was thought to cure them, but it generally made them weaker and less resistant to disease.

Paul Krugman uses the same analogy today and I was reminded of an aspect I hadn’t thought of before, having just finished a (great) historical novel covering the period in history when medicine was just beginning to wake up (World Without End by Ken Follett).

The way Follett tells it, by the end of the 14th century, private hospitals began offering alternative treatments to those in the monasteries.  Monks were still practicing bleeding and other “austerity” measures, but early physicians were beginning to understand that such practices were…um…contractionary to your health.
So people began to migrate away from the monks and their ancient ways.

In other words, there was a market—you could choose, and once people were able to assess the different results, the choice was obvious.

And here is where the analogy breaks down.  Unemployed workers, families unable to make their budgets on shrinking paychecks and falling incomes, small businesses suffering from a lack of foot traffic—they can’t go across the street and try a different macroeconomic policy.
They have to accept the austerity whether it’s coming from the Fed (“we’ve got some other tools here but we’re just not ready to use ‘em”), the Congress (“the President’s jobs plan won’t work”), the European Central Bank (“price stability uber alles!”), or the medievalists of Europe (“only by contracting will you grow!”).

I guess one could argue there’s an election market for such choices, and in some sense, the “throw the bums out” dynamic fulfills that role.  But it’s a slow, cumbersome, and noisy process—there’s so much misinformation that it’s hard for people to sort out the facts, so you end up with politicians who claim to be different but have their leeches and bleeding bowls at the ready (see Republican field).

The only way out of this mess is to reach more people—voters—with the evidence-based facts of the case.  It won’t always work—the noise machine is powerful and well-funded.  But the truth will out.
I mean…I hope it will…it will…um…right??  Hello…anyone there??!!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Risks of Risk Avoidance

Life is full of risks. It may be that most risks can be avoided. Avoiding risks also avoids benefits.

Take, for example, the case of Wikileaks. The failure to share information among government agencies contributed to the attacks of September 11. But sharing information carries the risk that someone with access will abuse that access.

Or take the case of Solyndra, the risk of government guaranteed loans against the possibility of a technological breakthrough. No risk, no breakthrough. That outcome is certain.

The best comment on that issue, and the most appropriate cautionary advice, was posted today by economist Jared Bernstein:

Solyndra, Risk, and Risk Aversion

Think about that the next time you use a cellphone, GPS, or post or read a blog.  We should always strive for better, more accurate risk analysis.  But if we try to avoid any risk at all…well, then we can enjoy ourselves kicking back and watching the rest of the world pass us by.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Employment to Population Ratio

Here's a graph from the St. Louis FED showing changes in the ratio of working age employed to the population. The ratio began falling in 2007, plunged in 2008 and only stabilized about eight months after President Obama was inaugurated. The graph doesn't address wages or quality of employment.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Death Panels?

My sister would have become eligible for Medicare three and a half months from now. She didn't make it.

I don't blame anyone in particular for her early death. She had health insurance. She received excellent care. But she might have lived a longer and still productive life except for two failures of our health care system. Both were caused by our reliance on market mechanisms to provide solutions to health problems.

There are seemingly endless choices of pharmaceutical products for chemotherapy. Sharon's oncologist, based on extensive diagnostic tests, chose one particular treatment. It worked well. Her cancer seemed under control.

As time passed, the manufacturer and medical practitioners learned that, though the drug was effective for my sister, it wasn't effective for many others. The manufacturer withdrew it from the market.

My sister's condition worsened.

The oncologist searched the pharmacopeia and found another treatment that he thought might be effective, though not as effective as his (no longer available) first choice.

As he expected, the second choice was not quite as effective, but seemed to be working.

Then a few weeks ago when another round of chemotherapy was scheduled, the hospital informed my sister that they were unable to find any of the necessary medication. A few days later, on August 19th, I read in the New York Times that government officials, the drug industry and doctor's groups were "rushing to find remedies for critical shortages of drugs to treat a number of life-threatening illnesses, including bacterial infection and several forms of cancer."

By mid August of this year, 189 drugs crucial to treatment of childhood leukemia, breast cancer, colon cancer and certain infections were in short supply. The drug for treating my sister's cancer was among them.

Weakened from lack of treatment and related complications, my sister passed away September 2d.

There were many factors affecting her death, some out of our control. But the final straw was the failure of the drug market reliably to supply life saving medications. Does the drug industry have death panels?

In any case, when the drug companies withdrew one medically necessary, safe and effective drug from the market and drastically reduced the availability of another, not for medical reasons but for marketing reasons, they had no regard for my sister's life.

"Do not ask for whom the bell tolls -
It tolls for thee."

-John Donne

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Hurricane? What Hurricane?

In case you missed the news, today North Carolina Senator Burr joined 37 other Republicans and voted against funding disaster relief for Hurricane Irene.

Just reflect on what our communities would look like now and in the coming weeks without FEMA and SBA efforts in disaster assistance. What would businesses do in Eastern North Carolina? Has anyone in Pamlico County seen Senator Burr lately? If you do, you might want to ask him what he was thinking about the needs of his constituents.

Jobs? Income?

The poverty and income statistics released today look pretty bad. The headline is that real median income (in 2010 dollars) since 2007 has been pretty much in free fall. Median income peaked at the end of the Clinton administration and went into decline during most of the George W. Bush administration, bottoming out in 2005 and beginning a moderate improvement until 2007. Then free fall. The rate of decline slowed a bit in 2008 and 2009, leading some political figures to prematurely declare recovery at hand. Any economist who joined that chorus should lose his or her economist license (if there is such a thing).

Just a reminder: President Obama was elected in November 2008, but was not sworn in until Tuesday, January 20, 2009.

Mobsters and Racketeers

My wife and I watch a lot of movies on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). A recurring theme is about criminal enterprises. In 1930's and 1940's movies, the bad guys were into bootlegging and associated entertainment, the numbers racket, gambling and loan sharking.

Bootlegging was mostly done away with by repeal of prohibition, except in states like Mississippi that continued prohibition except for local option beer and wine. (Mississippi figured out a way to capture revenue from the illegal sales of liquor, while maintaining the moral purity of formal prohibition.)

Bootleggers were awash with cash and had to invent other enterprises. Some even invested in legitimate businesses. Joseph P. Kennedy, for example, went into movies.

In the last three or four decades, state governments have muscled into territory formerly controlled by mobsters and racketeers. The numbers game, for example, has been largely taken over by state lotteries. Gambling has migrated to casinos, many on native American reservations. States across the country either have their own ABC stores or regulate alcohol sales to their own benefit.

What's an honest bootlegger to do?

And now banks and other financial institutions regulated by the states and the federal government have moved into loan sharking in a big way. Much of the discussion at last night's Republican Party presidential debate was devoted to a plea for less regulation in order to free financial institutions interested in expanding the loan sharking business.

The struggle between the lending (creditor) class and the borrowing (debtor) class is an ancient one wherever there is a money economy. When you hear people speaking about "sound money," you know the speaker is representing the interests of the creditor class. In the late nineteenth century, the dispute was over use of gold alone or both gold and silver for coinage. William Jennings Bryan's famous "cross of gold" speech addressed the issue.

Today the same class and their lackeys rail against any inflation, no matter how slight, in favor of minimal regulation (if any at all) of financial institutions, in favor of draconian restrictions on bankruptcy and so forth.

It seems we have exchanged mobsters for banksters.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Wars and Rumors of War

Yesterday was the tenth anniversary of Al Quaida's attack on two symbols of American wealth and power: the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. There were observances and remembrances all over America.

Let them be the last such observances.

In three months, we will have the seventieth anniversary of Japan's attack on America at Pearl Harbor. I remember that day quite clearly.

Unlike September 11, December 7th was not remembered with a one-month remembrance, a six-month remembrance, annual remembrances and a tenth anniversary remembrance. We were too busy on the home front collecting scrap paper, tin cans, scrap metal, growing food in victory gardens, converting from peacetime to wartime production, freeing resources for the troops in the field by rationing most products, and putting everyone's shoulder to the wheel.

In the six months after Pearl Harbor, Colonel Doolittle led a B-25 raid on Tokyo, our aircraft carriers fought Japanese carriers to a standstill in the Coral Sea, and our carrier task forces sank four Japanese aircraft carriers near Midway, halting the Japanese advance. Before the first anniversary, we built a major army air corps base in New Guinea, started ferrying supplies to China over the hump of the Himalayas and the Burma Road and our submarines took the war to the very gates of the Japanese home islands.

In the meantime our scientists and engineers developed nuclear weapons and a way to deliver them.

Three years and eight months after Pearl Harbor, Japan surrendered at a ceremony on the decks of the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Three months earlier, we had accepted the German surrender in Europe.

By that time, the only celebrations we wanted to observe were V-E Day (victory in Europe) and V-J Day (victory in Japan).

No wonder I don't remember national remembrances of December 7th. A lot of other things were going on.

In 1947 the Truman Doctrine established a policy of supporting "free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures." Later that year we created the Marshall Plan to speed European recovery. In 1948, we responded to a Soviet blockade of Berlin by the Berlin Airlift. In June of 1950, North Korean troops attacked South Korea across the 38th parallel, and we came to their aid. Later that year, the Chinese People's Republic entered the war.

By the tenth anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, we had just recently defeated the Chinese at the Battle of Heartbreak Ridge. No anniversary observance that year, either.

We never pretended that Japan attacked the United States because they hated our freedoms. We understood that The United States stood in the way of Japan's imperial ambitions. That's why they attacked.