Glenn A Knight

Glenn A Knight
In my study

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Road to Socorro

Friday we left Colorado Springs and drove through a snow-covered landscape down to New Mexico. (The section south of Pueblo down to Raton Pass really was snow-covered.) We were aiming to stay in Socorro, so we could make an early start at birding at Bosque del Apache NWR. But south of Isleta Pueblo, and five miles north of Las Lunas, we were brought to a halt. A convention of law enforcers stopped southbound traffic on I-25 and turned us back to Albuquerque. We never did find out the cause or nature of the accident.

But we found a room at the Best Western Inn & Suites near the Albuquerque airport, and we wandered down to Central Avenue near the University of New Mexico for dinner that night. The Olympia Cafe, it turns out, has a very nice Greek combination plate. So, a very nice experience achieved through happenstance.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Don't Sell Obama Short

Those of you who aren't into the stock market (not that I am, really) may not be perfectly clear on the term "to short." This used to be expressed as "to sell short," and what it means is to bet that a stock, a bond, or another security or commodity will go down in price. The short seller makes money by promising to sell someone a stock at some point in the future at a specified price, hoping that the market price will be even lower when the time comes to deliver the stock.

In this article, Daniel Gross talks about people who have been "shorting" Obama, both literally and figuratively, and how that has not been a good bet. Enjoy!

Happy Birthday, Bobby

It's Robert Frost's birthday. The poet of New England was born on this date in 1876 in (Are you ready for this?) San Francisco. My source says that Frost didn't see a New England state until he was ten.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

There are two bits in this poems that I don't think I really picked up on in earlier readings. First, there's the "And be one traveler, ... " line. It never hit me before that Frost was writing about integrity. One can't be one person and take two divergent roads, not just in the physical sense, but in other, deeper, senses as well.

Second, the ambiguity introduced into the last stanza by the introductory "I shall be telling this ... " In other words, he isn't saying now that this choice has made all the difference. Rather, he's saying that he will, at some point in the future, attribute the way his life has turned out to this single choice.

I sometimes think that way about my life. For example, from time to time I look back to my decision to join the Foreign Service, and I might well say with a sigh, "And that has made all the difference." But has it really!

Happy 134th Robert Frost!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Illusion of Cost Control

Just as people are starting to notice that both the Republicans and the Democrats are off in never-never land about the fiscal deficit, so Robert Samuelson thinks that the Obama administration is dealing in illusions about cost savings in the health care reform package.

Here's the thing, and I've said this before (and I'll probably say it again), you can't reduce prices by increasing demand. According to the fundamental rules of economics, increasing demand (all other things being equal) causes increased prices. One of the reasons that health cares costs are as high as they are is that Medicare, Medicaid, and various employer-paid insurance plans have increased the demand for medical services. Providing another 30 million people with health insurance will increase demand that much more, and that means higher prices. Samuelson goes into this at a more detailed level.

In an article in the Atlantic I recently read (November 2009 issue, I believe), the author pointed out that the insured and the uninsured spent about the same amount of their own money on health care each year. The insured, however, spent about three times as much of other peoples' money than the uninsured. So, you can expect spending by those 30 million to quadruple once they have insurance, and that, together with the provisions disallowing "pre-existing conditions" clauses is going to push up costs.

AIG May Pay Back Much of What We Lent It

I've listened to a couple of radio interviews lately with the author of The Big Short. Michael Levin wrote Liar's Poker a few years ago about the peccadilloes of investment bankers. He has a real talent for breaking down arcane (and sometimes deliberately obscure) financial operations into language normal people can understand. In The Big Short he goes at the myth that no one saw the financial crises of 2007 and 2008 coming. There were people who saw that the emperor had no clothes, and they made a lot of money betting against the boom.

The bottom line was that banks and insurers radically underestimated the risk inherent in certain securitized mortgage instruments and their derivatives. The premiums paid by purchasers of credit default swaps were absurdly low; when they went bust, the insurers didn't have the cash to cover the claims. That's the AIG story in a nutshell. They didn't charge enough in premiums to make up for the risk of the financial instruments they were insuring.

One could note that, by charging more for premiums, AIG would have protected itself in two ways: 1) It would have taken in enough money to cover the likely claims, and 2) it would have diminished the number of claims it would have had to cover. The latter effect would have come about because either investors would have chosen not to buy the expensive insurance, or they would have had second thoughts about buying securities that were so obviously risky. Premiums are a signal to the market of the degree of risk.

In this column, Daniel Gross estimates that the government bailout of AIG may wind up costing us only $12 or $15 billion. If we get some effective financial regulation out of the deal, that may be a small price to pay.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

David Broder on Discipline in the States

I agree with David Broder that the states are showing more fiscal discipline than Washington. I even agree that it's crazy to extend the Bush tax cuts, for anyone, at any income level, in the face of this deficit.

But I do have a couple of quibbles with his column.

For one thing, he notes that all of the states, with the exception of Vermont, have constitutional requirements to balance their budgets. That's true, but it's not as important as you might think. These requirements only apply to the operating budget. The states are also allowed to borrow money for their capital budgets, and so they can run very substantial consolidated deficits. And they do. The way the requirements come together is that, in order to balance the operating budget, you have to keep your debt service to a manageable level. That, in turn, limits the total amount of debt a state can take on.

Second, while the states may be free to cut spending, fire state workers, and so on, the Federal government is responsible for trying to fire up the economy and get us back to full employment. So the Federal government needs to run deficits. Actually, in many cases, those balanced-budget clauses cause the states to impose unnecessary pain and suffering on their residents, cutting budget just when private spending is also lagging.

I get very tired of governors running for president with the slogan: "I balanced my budget." Well, so what? First, you were required by law to do so. Second, it's a lie.

Another Voice on Dealing with the Deficit

E. J. Dionne is a pretty good political analyst. He comes from the port side of the political spectrum, but he can be thoughtful and, sometimes, insightful. This column makes a couple of points.

First, we shouldn't be crying so much about this year's deficit, or even next year's deficit. In the time-honored tradition of Lord Keynes, we're supposed to run a deficit during bad times. I like to think of the Keynesian principles as similar to those found toward the end of the book of Genesis. Pharoah has a dream in which seven fat cows are gobbled up by seven gaunt and starving cows. The prophet Joseph interprets this as meaning that seven prosperous years will be followed by seven years of famine. Joseph's prescription: Save up as much as possible of the produce of the good years as a provision against starvation in the lean years.

Second, we need to face the fact that we have a "structural deficit." That is, if you take all the things we are committed to buy, as a government, and all the sources of revenue available to the government, we will run a deficit even in good years. Our taxes are simply not high enough to cover the cost of all the things we want (Dionne's word: "need") government to do. Either we need to chop some beloved and well-regarded programs, or we need to raise taxes substantially to bring these two dynamics into balance.

Third, Dionne wants the federal government to adopt a provision common among the states: a capital budget. The idea is that we should not be borrowing in order to pay the ordinary expenses of government. Tax revenues, fees and imposts should cover the day-to-day cost of government services. We should be borrowing, as states and municipalities do, for capital expenditures, such as roads, buildings, bridges, airports, and rapid-transit systems.

In other words, we should balance the operating budget, and run a deficit only on the capital side. That's a good idea, but there are several problems with it. First, based on the experience of California and other states, I'd say that it's pretty easy to reclassify routine expenditures as being somehow capital costs. The motivation to do so is always present; it's always easier to borrow to pay your bills than it is to raise taxes.

The second problem with the capital budget idea is that governments tend to commit to more projects than are financially sustainable. Suppose we have $1 billion to spend on highways, but we want $20 billion in highway construction. Okay, if we borrow $20 billion from investors by selling bonds, we only have to pay $1 billion per year in interest and administrative costs. Look, Ma, I just multiplied my money by 20 times! But, if you do this year after year, eventually the debt service costs (interest and administration) rise to equal the amount of your annual borrowing, and then, after 20 years, you have to pay back the principal of the loans. So, in year 21, you have to pay back the $20 billion you borrowed in year one, and you have $20 billion in charges for your borrowings from years 2-19.

Third, the interest charges on your debt have to take priority over all other spending. I know, there have been instances of defaults on sovereign debt in the past. Even respectable countries such as Russia and Argentina have defaulted on their debt. But I don't think the people of California would enjoy the consequences of default one bit. That's part of the problem with the Federal government now. The service on the existing debt is around half a trillion dollars a year. That's a lot of money, and it has first call on our revenues.

There is another column from Thursday's Washington Post on a similar topic, and I'll post it soon.

A Missed Opportunity?

The other evening our kitchen phone rang, and I, standing right by it, answered the call. I found myself, as so often these days, talking to a computer. In this case, the computer was programmed to have pre-recorded questions played for my enjoyment, and, depending upon my answers. This represents advances in voice recognition software we don't really appreciate because they are so often used in either intrusive or obstructive ways.

The first question the computer asked me was, "Are you a tea party patriot?"

I replied, "No."

The computer then asked me, "Do you support Sarah Palin?"

Again, I said, "No."

The computer then muttered some jargon and hung up.

Afterwards I realized that, had I responded affirmatively to either question, or to both, I would probably have been treated to additional questions. Those questions might very well have provided me some insight into matters of concern to the fringe of the Republican Party. I missed a great opportunity to learn something about the priorities and the thinking of Tea Party/Sarah Palin supporters!

I think I'll survive the disappointment.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Good Walk Spoiled in Anji County

This article leaves me scratching my head. Am I supposed to be indignant on behalf of the owners of a golf course whose fairways were bulldozed by the government for technical legal violations? Or should I be shocked, shocked!, at the behavior of local officials who have uprooted local farmers in order to create an attraction for tourists and wealthy folk from Shanghai?

I think I'm coming down to saying that China needs a real legal system. Right now, there may be laws on the books, but enforcement is arbitrary and corruption is rife. That means that when we see laws enforced against one of China's 600 or so illegal golf courses, it's about politics, and it doesn't create a legal regime in which companies and individuals know what's expected of them.

The wild west lives, in the old Far East.

The Vituperative Ms. Cheney

One of the first principles of American legal practice is that everyone deserves a defense. Therefore, lawyers step up to defend unpopular defendants, guilty defendants, really nasty defendants, and we do not generally conclude that the lawyers agree with, or even sympathize with, their clients. Some do, some don't. Bill Kunstler, before he played a judge on Law and Order, defended lefties because he was a lefty himself.

Those of you who saw the miniseries John Adams, or read the book by David McCullough, or stayed awake in 10th grade American history class, know that the second President of the United States made his reputation by defending the British soldiers accused of perpetrating the Boston Massacre. So, Gene Robinson is quite right that it is unprincipled, unserious, and just plain wrong to attack the Obama administration for employing lawyers who have, in the past, defended clients accused of terrorism.

Well, Liz is a Cheney. Did you really expect truth and moderation from her?

Privileges, Immunities, and Guns

I was going to say that I don't like George Will very much. But I'm going to modify that sentiment to say that I don't read George Will very often, so I don't really know if I like him or not these days. For many years I subscribed to Newsweek, and Will's column (recycled from the Washington Post) was a mainstay of that magazine. His column would show up occasionally in our local paper The Gazette, but I came to avoid everything but the sports and the comics in that rag.

Be that as it may, today I read George Will's column in the Washington Post online, on entitled "How the Constitution, Filtered by the High Court, Affects Guns." I was expecting the usual right-wing argument about everyone's right to carry a gun in order to kill federal officers if they ever come to force you to give up your coal-burning furnace. (In my view, by the way, inciting people to carry guns for the purpose of opposing the authority of the federal government is treason or damned close to it.) But no! Will's column discusses whether the Supreme Court should use the "equal protection" clause or the "privileges and immunities" clause of the 14th Amendment to dispose of the gun laws of Chicago and Oak Park, Illinois.

This is a much more interesting argument. The chain of the argument goes something like this:

The Bill of Rights didn't create a bunch of rights by fiat of the Federal Government, but codified a number of pre-existing privileges - the rights of Englishmen, if you will. Therefore, the Bill of Rights is a list (an incomplete list) of basic human rights.

The Fourteenth Amendment stated two things: We are all entitled to equal protection of the laws, and the states have to recognize the common "privileges and immunities" of Americans. Will says, and I think he's right in this, that the Bill of Rights is a good starting point if you need a catalog of privileges and immunities.

Therefore, all of the protections of the Bill of Rights, which acted to restrict the Federal Government, were extended to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment. And I agree with Will that this was the intent of the authors of that amendment, and that their intent was frustrated by the Supreme Court in the 1870s. The extension of the Bill of Rights to the states, a process known as incorporation, was, in fact, mostly carried out, decision by decision, by the Warren Court in the 1950s and 1960s.

Will wants the court to use the privileges and immunities clause because, taken together with the 10th Amendment, it provides a framework for asserting all sorts of individual rights against both the state and the Federal governments. I'm not sure I like that, but I do think that the equal protection clause doesn't provide a very good basis, logically speaking, for overruling an ordinance that prohibited everyone from having a handgun.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Treasure Trove of Books on the Fall of Communism

Philip Zelikow, one-time director of the 911 Commission, is an expert on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. So he's the perfect choice to write a review article on a spate of books that came out in 2009, the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This is a very good article, and gives one some good insight into what each of these books has to offer.

You can use the links provided here to read Zelikow's article, which appeared in the November/December 2009 issue of Foreign Affairs, but I'm going to provide you with the names of the books he reviewed.

The Red Flag: A History of Communism. by David Priestland. Grove Press, 2009, 688 pp. $27.50.
The Fall of the Berlin Wall: The Revolutionary Legacy of 1989. Edited by Jeffrey A. Engel. Oxford University Press, 2009, 208 pp. $27.95.
There Is No Freedom Without Bread! 1989 and the Civil War That Brought Down Communism. By Constantine Pleshakov. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009, 304 pp. $26.00.
Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment. By Stephen Kotkin with a contribution by Jan T. Gross. Modern Library, 2009, 240 pp. $24.00.
The Rise and Fall of Communism. By Archie Brown. HarperCollins, 2009, 736 pp. $35.99.
Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire. By Victor Sebestyen. Pantheon Books, 2009, 480 pp. $30.00.
The Year That Changed the World: The Untold Story Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall. By Michael Meyer. Scribner, 2009, 272 pp. $26.00.
1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe. By Mary Elise Sarotte. Princeton University Press, 2009, 344 pp. $29.95.
Mitterrand, the End of the Cold War, and German Unification. By Frederic Bozo. Translated by Susan Emanuel. Berghahn Books, 2009, 417 pp. $110.00.

I might note that 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe is also reviewed by Andrew Moravscik in the "Western Europe" section of Recent Books on International Relations in the same issue of Foreign Affairs.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

It's Only Make-Believe

There are two popular songs I know of with the word "make-believe" in the title. There's Make Believe from Show Boat ("Can we find peace of mind in pretending?"). And there's an old Conway Twitty hit, It's Only Make-Believe. (That was when Twitty was in his rockabilly phase. I had a copy of the 45. The children are asking, "What's a 45?")

Now we have a column by Robert Samuelson entitled "Both Parties Fall Prey to Make-Believe Politics." At last, some good common sense! The Republicans want tax cuts. In the face of an estimated $12 trillion in deficits in the next ten years, the Republicans want tax cuts! And the Democrats would like to spend more on this and that. In the face of $12 trillion in deficits, the Democrats want to increase spending!

No one wants to cut Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, farm subsidies, business subsidies, military spending, transportation spending, or any of the other places where the big money gets spent. And no one, not even the Democrats, really wants to raise taxes. Even Mr. Obama wants to retain the Bush tax cuts for people making only $250,000 a year or less.

You know, I think the IRS, OMB, and CBO publish charts on where the money comes from and where it goes. I'm going to find one of those charts and bring it to this blog.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

How Economic Prediction Worked on the Olympics

This article is a follow-up to an earlier column in which Daniel Gross presented predictions by Daniel Johnson of Colorado College on how various countries would do in winning Olympic medals. So now we know the results. The US was predicted to take 26 medals (2nd) and finished with 37 (1st). Canada was predicted to take 27 and took 26, though they did better than predicting in gathering gold. Germany was supposed to fall from 29 in 2006 to 20, but the Germans took away 30. The model predicted Austria would take 25, but the actual result was 16, so reported Austrian unhappiness wasn't just subjective. Russia also underperformed, winning 15 medals (3 gold) instead of the projected 23. This could explain Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's hints of a purge of the country's Olympic program.

By the way, it appears that President Medvedev may be getting his wish.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Vail Goes Green

Yes, indeed, the symbol of indulgence, the giant Vail ski resort, has set a goal to cut energy use by 10%. Actually, some of these measures are to cut purchased energy use, as in putting solar panels on the roof of one of the restaurants. That might not cut the total energy consumption, but it will cut Vail's energy bills from local utilities. Still, there are some notes in this article that caution against assuming that energy reductions are easy to achieve.

Current Reading

There were several books on my "Current Reading" sidebar that I finished reading in January. I think that there has been plenty of time for anyone who's interested to check out the books concerned, and they were certainly no longer "current" in any meaningful sense. So I have begun removing them from the list. I started by deleting the entry for Michael Cox, The Meaning of Night, a weird novel that took me way to long to read.

I'll be deleting the other outdated entries in the near future.