Friday, April 30, 2010

UK Election Update

In a previous post, I wrote that the UK was heading to a hung parliament and a coalition government. After two more debates and Gordon Brown's pathetic "bigotgate", they're still heading there. The latest polls have the Conservatives at 34%, Labour at 27-29%, and the Lib-Dems at 27-31%. At these levels, either the Tories or Labour will need to find around another 4% to eke out a majority, and nothing that's happened in the past two weeks have created that much movement.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Russian Silicon Valley: Update

What a shocker! Turns out the Russian "system" for defense spending is rife with corruption. From NRO:

Recently, Russian president Dmitri Medvedev announced that the Kremlin would spend 4–10 billion rubles ($134–335 million) to establish a Russian analogue of California’s Silicon Valley....

Several sites in Russia were in the running for this project, among them the Siberian “science city” of Tomsk, where the company NPF Mikron produces complex radars for the latest Russian fighter, the MiG-35 — one of the Russian defense industry’s few real success stories from the last several years. But, to the dismay of many defense-industry observers in Moscow, the final decision by Medvedev was to build this new R&D center in the Moscow suburb of Skolkovo.

..."It is almost certain that large portions of this money will be stolen — like with the Superjet — and siphoned off in the process of creating this new scientific complex." And the land in Skolkovo, which the government is expected to buy for $20–25 million per hectare (a hectare is roughly 2.5 acres), just happens to belong to a government official.

My prior criticism of the project - that it's difficult to enact innovation through government spending - didn't even consider this aspect. Of course the project is doomed.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Democrats' Long Game on Health Care

If you read the conservative press, you'll see a litany of stories about how the health care bill is already showing signs of trouble. It'll increase costs, they say. It'll force people to change insurers, they say, or even to change doctors. It'll increase budget deficits, they say. It'll create moral hazard for people to game the system (as they have in Massachusetts under a similar plan), they say. All of this runs counter to the Obama administration's statements during the debate about the bill.

I can't, however, shake the feeling that this is all part of the plan. Of course a massive reform of our health care system is going to cause unexpected consequences, many of them painful. Of course you can't increase coverage massively while also cutting costs. Surely the Democrats know this. So what, exactly, is the plan?

It's simply this: the worse, the better. The existing bill is a horrendous mishmash of conflicting measures, poorly-understood provisions, and possibly unenforceable and/or unconstitutional mandates. This will all become apparent in a few years. And when it does, what will the Democrats say? Think they'll say, Oh, sorry, we were wrong, now we're ready to consider the Republican ideas? No. They'll say: See what happens when we're forced to compromise?

President Obama is already getting ahead of this. He laments the exigencies of democracy. If only, he said, he could have crafted a perfect bill with an academic imprimatur and no messy legislative fingerprints. That "perfect" bill will, of course, be single payer. Next time this comes around, that's what they're going to demand. Enough compromise, they'll say. It's time for purity.

The conservative pundits highlighting the problems are not wrong to do so, though. Their hope is that all or part of the bill might actually be repealed before it's implemented. This won't happen before 2013 at the earliest, because of Presidential veto power, and it's unlikely even then. But pointing out all the flaws as they become apparent is the best way to swing enough public opinion to make repeal a possibility. So more power to them... but watch out for the other side's long-term strategy.

Friday, April 23, 2010

You Can Take the Boy Out of Texas...

Kevin D. Williamson writes today in the Corner:

Governor Perry sums up the Texas model in five words: "Don't spend all the money." Here's what a good long run of small-government, low-tax conservatism has achieved in Texas: Once a largely agricultural state, Texas today is home to 6 of the 25 largest cities in the country, more than any other state. Texas has a trillion-dollar economy that would make it the 15th-largest national economy in the world if it were, as some of its more spirited partisans sometimes idly suggest it should be, an independent country. By one estimate, 70 percent of the new jobs that were created in the United States in 2008 were created in Texas. Texas is home to America's highest-volume port, the largest medical center in the world, and the headquarters of more Fortune 500 companies than any other state, having surpassed New York in 2008. While the Rust Belt mourns the loss of manufacturing jobs, Texans are building Bell helicopters and Lockheed Martin airplanes, Dell computers and TI semiconductors. Always keeping an eye on California, Texans have started bottling wine and making movies. And there's still an automobile industry in America, but it's not headquartered in Detroit: A couple thousand Texans are employed building Toyotas, and none of them is a UAW member.

These words warm the cockles of my expat Texan heart. Meanwhile, my adopted state of New Jersey is flirting with bankruptcy, and losing both population and jobs... probably some of which are going to my native land.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Athwart History Notes

Couple of quick notes to loyal readers of Athwart History:

1. I welcome and encourage your feedback! I've enabled commenting without the need to have a Blogger or iGoogle account. So if you think I wrote something brilliant - or insane - or just have something to add, please leave a note.

2. I keep the book log pretty well updated, over there on the left side of the page. Recently I set it up to link to Amazon. If you see a book you're interested in, you can buy it through that link and I'll get a (small) cut of the sale. It's just a small way to show your appreciation for Athwart History.

Thanks to all!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Path to a Hung Parliament

I've been playing with these interactive tools at BBC: poll tracker and election seat calculator.

If we leave the Other category fixed at 9%, and set the Lib-Dems to various fixed positions (I used 2% intervals between 18% and 30%), then we can use the calculator to determine the breakeven points at which Labour or the Conservatives can obtain an outright majority. The breakdown looks like this:

ConservativesLabourLib Dem

To read this table, assume the Lib-Dems get the percentage given in their column. Then the other two columns give the minimum fraction of total votes needed to secure a majority.

The latest polls have the Lib-Dems with 30-31% of the vote, the Conservatives with 33%, and Labour with 27-28%. That is, both Labour and the Conservatives are around 4% short of a majority. Even if the Liberal-Democrats slide in the polls, either of the major parties would need to capture nearly all of the defecting voters to get a majority. For example, suppose the Lib-Dems slide to 20% by election time. In this scenario, there are 10% up for grabs. To reach a majority at that level, the Conservatives need 40.6%, up 7.6% from their current polling. But Labour would need 35.2%, up 7.2-8.2%. So in either case, the defectors would have to split something like 3:1 for one of the major parties to avoid a hung parliament.

It's worth noting, by the way, that the poll of polls result before the debate shows Conservatives 39%, Labour 32%, Lib-Dems 18%, Other 9%... and the calculator shows that to be a hung parliament as well.

Monday, April 19, 2010

What Nick Clegg Means

I can't claim to have followed the British election campaigns very closely. But it seems clear that this weekend's televised debates changed everything. Going into the debate, the Tories had a big lead in the polls, translating (due to some peculiarities in the Parliamentary system that I don't pretend to understand) into a likely small majority in Parliament (and hence into the formation of a stable Tory government under David Cameron). Labour was next (under Gordon Brown), distantly followed by the Liberal Democrats under Nick Clegg.

But then Clegg pulled a Ross Perot in the debate, emerging as the clear winner, and now the Lib Dems appear to have pulled into a three-way tie (effectively). The polls are roughly split 30-30-30 with 10% undecided. Will the Clegg effect remain until the election? It's only two weeks away.

During the last Presidential campaign, some Canadian told me that the best and worst thing about the U.S. system was the interminable campaigning. It's certainly grueling, both for the participants and politics-minded observers. But by the time the election comes around, there are few surprises - the candidates have been put through such a wringer that we know them well, or should.

With the foreshortened Parliamentary schedule, can the same be said of Nick Clegg? The Perot bounce after the first debate in 1992 faded and he ended up a distant (but still meaningful) third by the time of the general election. What will happen to Clegg? It's a very important question, particularly in the UK, because if no party wins a majority of seats, it's possible that no government can be formed. Even before the debates, the best the Tories could have hoped was a small majority of seats. If they can't get even this, then an unstable coalition government may be the only possibility. This is bad news for the Tories, since the alliance would probably be between the Lib-Dems and Labour.

However the election comes out, though, the emergence of Clegg probably heralds a leftward swing in the next British government.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Siliconski Valleyevich

Russia is trying to replicate the success of Silicon Valley by building a scientific city of its own. The initiative is an attempt to improve Russia's historically poor track record of converting its excellent pure science into technology products.

It's pretty much doomed to failure, though. You can't force innovation. A place like Silicon Valley has a myriad factors behind its dominance in the tech industry. Some of it is government-based, yes: the first post-WWII defense industry contractors were largely based there. But the reason they were there is because of an existing university presence. And (at the time) low taxes and a good supply of well-educated, imaginative minds. The climate probably has something to do with it, too.

Once an industrial center gets a certain head start over its rivals, it can enter a virtuous cycle in which it becomes ever more efficient to grow larger. Obviously, the cycle must end at some point. But in the meantime, a tremendous amount of innovation is possible. This has happened all over Europe and America back to pre-Industrial Revolution times. A particular locale would, because of random factors, become known as the best source of wool manufacturers. Pretty soon, all the other top wool producers would flock there (no pun intended), and its lead would be even greater, and almost insurmountable.

The problem Russia faces is trying to do this deliberately. I suppose it's possible. But the attempt recalls Soviet times and Five-Year Plans. Industrial policy is rarely successful. There's no reason to believe it will work here, either. But best of luck to them.

More Tax Day Musings

Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said: "I like paying taxes. With them I buy civilization."

Yeah, well, couple of problems here. First of all, civilization predates taxes, and certainly income taxes. Heck, in America we didn't have internal taxes at all from 1817 to 1862. How'd we buy civilization then? The income tax only became permanent in 1913 with the passage of the 16th Amendment. So Holmes is just wrong.

Of course, a modern welfare society is just too costly to run without taxes, so today we probably need them. But that leads me to the second problem. Suppose I said: "I like paying $100 to the local deli. With it I buy a ham sandwich for lunch." I enjoy the ham sandwich. It's a very tasty sandwich. But $100 is still too much to pay for it. Likewise, just because I enjoy the benefits of civilization doesn't mean I'm willing to overpay for it.

A separate question is whether we're actually overpaying. I think it's pretty obvious we are, but there's room for disagreement here. I will leave that for another blog.

No Need for "No, Sir"

Senator Waxman has canceled the hearings I previously blogged about. Good for him.

Some Tax Day Advice

Suppose I make you an offer: either I can loan you $1,000 for a year, interest free; or you can loan me $1,000 for a year on the same terms. If you loan me the money, I promise that my credit is as good as the government's. Which deal would you take?

The answer seems obvious, yet millions of people choose otherwise when it comes to income taxes. According to Kiplinger, 78% of taxpayers got an average refund of $2,753 in 2009. They could, by changing their claimed exemptions on their W-4, have arranged things so that they got no refund, or even paid a little. And by doing so, they would have had nearly $230 per month in additional take-home pay for the entire year of 2008.

In the grand scheme of things, timing this money to come earlier (in your paycheck) instead of later (in your refund) doesn't make a huge difference. If you can earn 5% on your money - about what you'd get from a decent bond fund - then the average taxpayer is giving up no more than $100 in lost income. You can push this a bit, though. You don't have to shoot for a zero tax bill on April 15. Current tax law (and please double-check this with a real tax lawyer or accountant before you try this) says that you owe no penalty if you owe no more than the greater of $1,000 or 10% of your total tax bill. So if your bill is $10,000 and you currently get an average refund of $2,750, you can actually reduce your withholding by $3,750 throughout the year, and then pay $1,000 on April 15. That maximizes your interest-free loan potential.

When I bring this up with people who get refunds (and I'm going to a tax-refund party on Saturday, so I'll be sure to gather more anecdotes then), the most common reason people don't follow this strategy is that they think they'll just foolishly spend the extra paycheck cash instead of whatever wise thing they think they'll do with the refund windfall. But that "wise thing" is often something like paying off credit card debt. If they put their extra take-home pay to a high-interest credit card and didn't wait for the windfall, and their interest rate is 20% or more (as many are), then we're talking about maybe $400 per year in unnecessary interest fees. That's real money.

As I wrote the above about people fearing they would spend their money foolishly, I couldn't help but think this described some deep malady in modern America. We do fear we'll spend, and invest, our money foolishly. This is partly because modern life is very complicated. Even professional financial analysts miss things. How can a regular person hope to stay current with all the various tax deductions, investment strategies, credit card deals, sales, rebates, and on and on and on, that a totally with-it person might take advantage of? It's impossible. A rational response might be to just worry about the big stuff and keep one's ears open. But I think many people just give up in the face of overwhelming complexity and live in the moment.

Added to this is the fact that our reliance on regulations to minimize the caveat emptor aspect of capitalism leads (some) people to be less careful than they should be. After all, Uncle Sam is watching, right?

And speaking of Uncle Sam: if people really do fear they'll handle their own money foolishly, doesn't that reduce their resistance to being taxed more heavily? The government - supposedly - is doing something responsible with your tax dollars. We may not trust the government much, but if we trust ourselves even less, to whom else can we turn? It's just more evidence that our nation is losing - has lost? - its tradition of self-reliant individualism.

The Horror of the Rubber Rooms

Imagine a life in which you are condemned to sitting in a trailer for eight hours a day. You have no responsibilities other than to clock in when you arrive and clock out when you leave. You may play games, read, study, surf the internet, or do whatever other activities you like as long as you stay in the trailer for the appointed hours. Finally, you are paid your normal salary, with generous benefits, and have three months of vacation per year.

Such is the horrific fate of New York state teachers who have been "accused" of incompetence, or some worse offense, and who are awaiting a ruling on whether their employment may be terminated. Some of these teachers have been consigned to their trailer - dubbed a "rubber room" - for as long as three years. They tell of how they develop a camaraderie with one another, how they support new "members", of how they work to make their little corner of hell a little more livable by re-arranging the furniture or decorating the walls. One is even working on her Ph.D. in education.

Those of us who work in regular industry are lucky. If we are terminated, it happens quickly, like ripping off a Band-aid. There is no slow torture in which we are forced to continue to get paid to sit around and do nothing why a union lawyer adjudicates our case. No, ours is a kinder fate: we are released back into the rat race, to sink or swim, to find another job.

So on this April 15, Tax Day, the day you symbolically pay those rubber-room teachers' salaries, spare a thought for these poor souls.

UPDATE: WNYC had a story about the rubber rooms today. Later in the day came the news that the city is now planning to shut them down. Apparently the hit to both the city's and the union's public relation was too much to bear.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Review: Brahms Piano Concerto No. 3

I know what you're thinking: Brahms only wrote two piano concertos! True. But he also wrote a violin concerto, and an enterprising young Croatian pianist by the name of Dejan Lazic has arranged it for his instrument (Brahms (arr. Lazic): Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Major - after Violin Concerto Op. 77; Rhapsodies Op. 79; Scherzo Op. 4). Perhaps it's a bit cheeky of him to title the work "piano concerto no. 3" instead of something humbler like "violin concerto (arr. for piano)". But it works surprisingly well.

This is a long-time project of Lazic's, who said in an interview with Listen magazine that he had always loved the violin concerto, but couldn't perform it since it wasn't written for his instrument. So he resolved to arrange it for piano. This creates numerous problems. The two instruments have very different timbres. The piano is fundamentally a polyphonic instrument, while the violin is - by and large - a monophonic one. The bottom notes of a violin are only in about the middle of a piano's range. And so on. Lazic decided not to change a single note of the orchestral part, so the task he set himself was to rearrange the solo part.

This sort of project goes against many modern tendencies that try to recreate the composer's sound as closely as possible. It used to be more common to rearrange music for different ensembles. There are many reasons why modern practice prefers more faithful orchestration. We can afford it, for one thing: even community orchestras have all the instruments needed to put on nearly any work in the classical repertoire. But our slavish need to follow every jot and tittle of the composer's thoughts can be stifling. Lazic's project is a breath of fresh air.

The end result is not, admittedly, a masterpiece on the same scale as the two real piano concertos. But it is definitely worth a listen for the lover of Brahms.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Assassinating Awlaki

There is a bit of back-and-forth on the Corner about President Obama's announcement that he is targeting Anwar al-Awlaki, a member of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The complicating factor here is that Awlaki is an American citizen. Thus, as Andy McCarthy puts it:

If an alien enemy combatant, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, mass-murders 3000 Americans and is then captured outside the U.S. in wartime, we need to bring him to the United States and give him a civilian trial with all attendant due process rights. If an alien enemy combatant is sending emails from outside the U.S. to an al Qaeda cell inside the U.S., the commander-in-chief needs a judge's permission (on a showing of probable cause) to intercept those communications. If an American citizen terrorist outside the United States — say, Awlaki in Yemen — is calling or emailing the United States (or anyplace else), the commander-in-chief needs a judge's permission to intercept those communications. If we capture an alien enemy combatant conducting war operations against the U.S. overseas, we should give him Miranda warnings, a judicial right to challenge his detention as a war prisoner, and (quite likely) a civilian trial. But, if the commander-in-chief decides to short-circuit the whole menu of civil rights by killing an American citizen, that's fine — no due process, no interference by a judge, no Miranda, no nothing.

McCarthy thinks that's fine, because in this case he agrees with the President that Awlaki is a "proven threat." But Kevin Williamson demurs:

Odious as Awlaki is, this seems to me to be setting an awful and reckless precedent. Consider how "interstate commerce" has been redefined over time to cover that which is neither interstate nor commerce, for the sake of political expediency. It is easy to imagine "national security" being treated the same way, particularly in an open-ended conflict against a loosely defined enemy. And we aren't assassinating U.S. citizens under the rubric of interstate commerce.

The solution here, it seems to me, is to follow established procedures for stripping Awlaki of citizenship, then proceed in the interests of national security. It used to be common practice to strip traitors of citizenship, but the notion of "treason" seems to lie too close to "nationalism" (that ugly word) to be invoked much these days. Still, if a court can demonstrate that Awlaki has taken up arms against the U.S., he could be stripped of citizenship.

Furthermore, while I agree with Williamson that this sets a dangerous precedent, I don't think his argument would be at all persuasive to the President. He is a "pragmatist", you see, and as such is likely to look at each problem as a separate, distinguished entity, not as a variation on a theme whose general solution has already been established by precedent. A pragmatist wants to have the freedom to pick the "best" solution, unconstrained by precedent.

The problem with this view is that others will view your actions as precedent regardless of whether you do. People want predictability. Ours is also supposed to be a nation of laws and not of men. That is, given a conflict between competing principles, law is supposed to provide an impartial resolution; there is not to be recourse to the partiality of a human. (It is an unreachable goal, of course, if for no other reason than that the law is interpreted by human judges. But the principle remains.) Law and precedent are inextricably related. Obama and the "pragmatists" do not wish to be constrained by the law, or precedent, when they are inconvenient. The Awlaki case is just one small example among many.

Green Rockers

NPR has a story on how modern rock-and-rollers are obsessed about their green footprints, contrasting this with their traditional reputations as cocaine-snorting hotel-room-trashers.

I suppose this could be interpreted in either of two ways: either rockers have elevated themselves to a higher moral plane, or the modern environmental movement provides them with the same self-indulgent narcissism they've always craved. You decide.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

No Nukes, He Said

President Obama made the nation a little less safe today by announcing limits on when we would use nuclear weapons.

For the first time, the United States is explicitly committing not to use nuclear weapons against nonnuclear states that are in compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, even if they attacked the United States with biological or chemical weapons or launched a crippling cyberattack.

Just curious: what good is this expected to do? For the record, there are chemical and biological weapons (CBW) bans, too, which have been joined by nearly every nation. So a nation attacking us with those weapons would likely be out of compliance with some WMD treaty. We have long committed not to use CBW ourselves, so the only WMD we have left with which to respond is our nukes.

Which are rapidly aging, by the way. We could replace them, except that Obama is also preventing that:

To set an example, the new strategy renounces the development of any new nuclear weapons, overruling the initial position of his own defense secretary.

Does our President think we should conduct diplomacy as if we were running a kindergarten? I'm curious if it has worked, ever, for a nation to "set an example" by disarming itself. What do other nations typically do? Do they disarm themselves, act nicely, start cooperating, out of a spirit of lovingkindness? I don't know of any cases where this has ever happened. There's no reason to think this time will be any different.

In fact, the great danger here is that, by systematically weakening the U.S. nuclear umbrella that currently stretches over the Western Hemisphere, Obama's policy actually increases the likelihood of nuclear proliferation. Many nations that could go nuclear easily rely on the U.S. to protect them: take Japan, Germany and the rest of the Anglosphere as obvious examples. India, a growing ally of ours, has never been under the umbrella: it went publicly nuclear in May, 1998, in response to a growing threat from Pakistan's nuclear program. Pakistan then went nuclear itself two weeks later.

It's not pleasant being the world's sheriff, and it's understandable that Obama doesn't relish being the leader of the nation that has been stuck with the job. But if he abdicates his responsibilities, he will end up making the problem of nuclear proliferation worse, not better.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Mandate, Pick One: Unconstitutional or Unenforceable

Jed Lewison, from DailyKos, writes:

First, the health care bill does not give IRS employees any power to enforce the mandate -- there will be no audits, no IRS agents, not even any penalties.

Daily Kos, of course, wants to view this in only the best way possible: The mandate is so constitutional you can't scare up a law professor to take the other side, they say. And it won't lead to more IRS hiring, no sir, because it won't be enforced.

If the mandate can't be enforced, then it won't be followed. And that means that healthy people can drop out of insurance at no risk to themselves. If they get sick, they can buy insurance then, and be guaranteed coverage because pre-existing conditions must be covered under the health reform bill.

If what Lewison says is true, then it really doesn't matter if the mandate is declared unconstitutional. The bill is already a failure.

No, Sir!

Imagine a TV show or movie in which the protagonist is a young minority trying to work his way out of the 'hood. At some point, Hollywood being Hollywood, our hero is probably going to get hassled by the cops. And when that happens, we'll all cheer when he stands on his rights: "No, I don't consent to a search!" "Are you arresting me? Or am I free to leave?"

Shouldn't it be similarly heroic if a real-live CEO stands on his rights and tells Congressman Waxman, "No, sir!" in response to his summons to explain why his company is taking the unprecedented move of following FASB accounting standards?

And the reason the CEOs will show up and kowtow is analogous to why sensible, cautious minorities cave to repressive cops: otherwise, you end up getting arrested for a "broken taillight" or for "reckless driving."