Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Passenger rail economics (and subsidies)

Over at Cato @ Liberty, a piece on Crédit Mobilier as a Model for High-Speed Rail.

Why, if we have such large subsidies for Amtrak, do we think that high-speed rail is affordable? What's changed?

Priorities and their constituencies

Use of sloppy, imprecise language and [intentional] misreading of the U.S. Constitution are favorite gripe of mine, particularly when the abuse of the Constitution is at the hands of our representatives in the Congress.

During yesterday's NPR story on the repeal of the Congress' "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly opened the piece with:

For those anxious for the Clinton-era law that prohibits openly gay people from serving in the military to be repealed, the wait may be longer than expected.

Longer than expected? Why's that?

While he was on the campaign trail, President Obama promised to work to repeal "don't ask, don't tell." And in January, on the eve of becoming White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs reiterated that Obama would repeal the law.

But Obama can't simply sign an executive order to overturn the law — he has to persuade Congress to change it.

If Robert Gibbs really reiterated that [President] Obama would "repeal the law", I'm hoping that now Mr. Gibbs is in the White House, he has a better grip on the executive powers given to the president by Article II of the U.S. Constitution [hint: the president has no power to repeal a law].

That [obvious] fact aside, why does the 111th Congress need any persuasion?

And Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), who chairs the Armed Services Committee, says he does not expect the issue to be an early priority for lawmakers.

"I'm going to be working with colleagues to see how much support there is for it," Levin says. "And where along the process we can take that issue up. I just don't think we can give that a high priority, given the situation that we face," like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the economic meltdown.

That's rich. The Congress is spending time on the so-called District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act (S. 160 and H.R. 157), including a procedural vote today in the Senate. Given the fact the DC House Voting Rights Act has NOTHING to do with either the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the over-hyped, crisis du jour, "economic meltdown", Sen Levin's explanation seems oddly incomplete. 

Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-CA), who is sponsoring legislation as early as next week in the House to lift the ban, says it's a significant priority, but not necessarily while Congress is "triaging the effects of very bad tax policy from the Bush administration," and "people are losing their homes and their jobs."

I'd ask Rep. Tauscher why, if "Congress is 'triaging the effects of very bad tax policy from the Bush administration'", the Congress has time to spend on arguably unconstitional legislation that will likely tie up the federal courts.

Also, I hasten to remind readers that the U.S. Constitution contains the following passage: 

"Section 8. The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States; but all duties, imposts and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;

To borrow money on the credit of the United States;

...." -- U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 8.

Constitutionally speaking, the tax policy to which Rep. Tauscher (D-CA) refers is tax law, passed by the U.S. Congress. Blaming bad tax law off on the administration does real damage to our citizen's understanding of their constitution, and causes people like me to question if our representatives have read the document lately. Note: the venerable Sen. Byrd (D-WV) is known to carry a pocket version of the U.S. Constitution wherever he goes.

Secretary Gates is then quoted:

" 'Don't ask, don't tell' is law — it is a political decision," Gates says. "And if the law changes, we will comply with the law."

Yep. It's a political decision, made by the U.S. Congress, in accordance with Article I of our constitution. The Congress needs nothing from the administration to change this law.

And Tauscher says the argument about igniting a controversial debate is nonsense.

"I would only say that it is always the right time to right a wrong," she says. "And this has been a very big wrong."

The congresswoman calls repealing the law "the last big piece of civil rights legislation left."

Tauscher plans to introduce the legislation, but she's still waiting to see when the Obama White House will start fighting to allow gays to serve openly in the U.S. armed forces.

Okay, this is really too much. The administration is unneeded in this discussion, since we're talking about legislation, not regulation. Rep. Tauscher is waiting for the administration to "start fighting"? With what, and with whom? The U.S. Congress? Come on. The Congress is stalling, and it ought to fess up on the issue, instead of generating a smoke screen behind which it can hide.

“America is ready to get rid of the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy. All that is required is leadership.” -- President Barack Obama, in a speech to the Human Rights Campaign in November 2007

Actually, all that is required is legislation, and the 111th Congress certainly has proven their ability to pass legislation. So, Rep. Tauscher, let's see some of that leadership that the people in your district sent you to Washington, D.C. to demonstrate. Let the debate begin.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Maureen Dowd on crisis management

Maureen Dowd's column in the New York edition of today's NYT focuses on the administration's approach to describing (and managing) our present economic state of affairs. She makes some interesting (and comment-worthy) points.

In reference to [former] President Bill Clinton's suggestions regarding President Obama's engagement with the American people (and, for that matter, people outside of America whom we expect to loan us a HUGE amount of cash):

Instead, he implies, the president’s warnings of calamity, designed to gin up support for borrowing and printing trillions to shore up the sagging economy, might actually be dragging down our already sagging self-esteem.

It's less self-esteem than it is perception and confidence. We make  decisions based on perceptions of the future. Given a choice between saving, investing [speculating?] in the market (equities or bonds), paying down the mortgage [cost avoidance], or spending, we consciously or unconsciously select between those alternatives based on what we think [feel?] will happen. The alarmist drum-beat of late appears to be a cynical attempt to defuse opposition to the $US 8,000,000,000.00+ deficit spending bill.

It’s hard to muster moxie with stocks shriveling, Chris Dodd talking nationalization, and Paul Volcker making Chicken Little sound cheery — “I don’t remember any time, maybe even in the Great Depression,” he said, “when things went down quite so fast, quite so uniformly around the world.”

Yes, the market has retreated. That's what a market correction does - the market was overpriced for a long time, propped up by massive government intervention and misregulation (e.g., unprecedented and artificially-low interest rates, loan guarantees, nationalized financial institutions, bail-outs). The market will stop dropping as soon as assets are perceived to be priced correctly - no sooner, and no later. Hand-wringing (by politicians or columnists) isn't helpful.

We dutifully cut back on Starbucks macchiatos, designer water and even Girl Scout cookies, but we keep hurtling down.

Strangely tone-deaf for Maureen Dowd. The complaint in the MSM (and amplified by the administration and the Congress) is that AMERICANS ARE HURTING! It isn't about fewer caffè lattes, or drinking [heaven forbid!] tap water, it's about all the people being thrown out of their homes by craven bankers. Isn't it?

Many Americans lost a paper fortune when the equity market's valuation fell. Some of that fortune will come back, and some won't.

Many Americans are now structurally or cyclically unemployed. Individuals in real estate, housing, and related industries will need to shift industries, at least temporarily.

Many Americans lost another paper fortune if they owned a home (particularly in the big housing bubble states: California, Florida, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado). People who thought that the tremendous run-up in housing prices was sustainable were foolishly delusional. Remember, we even had cable television programs dedicated to house flipping (note: this show is still running new episodes! What's with that?). What were people thinking? I can't know what they were thinking then, but now they're thinking about getting bailed out.

Two words come to mind: moral hazard.

While W. and Dick conjured an alternative reality about Iraq, our avaricious bankers created an alternative reality about our financial system. Now our busted trust is not so easily fixed.

Aha. The obligatory shot at President Bush and Vice President Cheney. BDS is tough to cure. Did "avaricious bankers" really create an alternative reality about our financial system? Did these "avaricious bankers" force us to think that a 100% increase in the value of a home over a period of just a few years was at all realistic or sustainable? I'm inclined to believe that it is the avaricious consumer who ran those home prices up, then vacuumed home equity out as quickly as possible, who is responsible for this mess as the interventionist and over-regulatory policies of our government.

In an Associated Press article headlined “Obama Plans Eclipsing New Deal Spending,” the Rutgers University political science professor Ross Baker notes, “Not surprisingly, people are wary of some very expensive proposals with no guarantee of success or even a high probability of how well they’ll work.”

Wariness = uncertainty, which leads to sitting on the economic sidelines. Note that savings rates have increased significantly -- that, and chipping away at the mountain of credit card debt racked up by profligate Americans, is a good thing. [Note: at the end of 2008, consumer credit outstanding was a whopping $US 2,596,000,000,000.00].

In The Times, Eric Dash reported that Wall Street is losing confidence in Washington’s vague and shifting plans, sending shares of bank companies plunging to new lows on Friday.

"Washington" = the administration + the Congress. "Washington" doesn't have plans; the administration and the Congress, on the other hand, have plans and interventionist policies. Shares of banks and bank holding companies are heading down to their real valuation. The sooner we get there, the better. Let's rip the metaphorical bandage off all at once, instead of prolonging the damage.

He spoke for those who want a pound of flesh. With the Wall Street bailout, Mr. Obama at least gave bankers a bit of the belt, and capped their pay. But homebuyers who wanted more than they could afford seem to be getting a free ride.

More moral hazard. Why on earth should we think that the federal government should be in the pay-setting business? This is poor political theater, and even worse public policy. The federal government has no business attempting to pick winners and losers in the marketplace. And while I'm at it, since professional sports teams are often subsidized by the public, shouldn't we cap those salaries?

Yet Obama is oozing empathy compared with his attorney general, who last week called us “a nation of cowards” about race.

I've ignored the AG Holder remarks -- he's stepping on the administration's news cycle (and message).

We need leaders to help us through our crises, not provide us with crude evaluations of our character. And we don’t need sermons from liberal virtuecrats, anymore than from conservative virtuecrats.

I agree.

In the middle of all the Heimlich maneuvers required now — for the economy, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, health care, the environment and education — we don’t need a Jackson/Sharpton-style lecture on race. Barack Obama’s election was supposed to get us past that.

Whether or not we need a Jackson/Sharpton-style lecture, we're going to get it [routinely]. Witness the frivolous discussion over the NY Post cartoon this week (which also stepped all over the administration's message and killed another news cycle -- I wonder what would happen if President Obama told Reverend Sharpton to simply shut up).

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Terminology, and why it matters (Part 2)

Advice, from Copious Dissent, regarding words and phrases that we need to strike from our daily discourse. Well worth reading and sharing with others....

Copious Dissent - Your Daily Dose of Liberty

Terminology, and why it matters....

I watch The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer many nights for several reasons: the analysis is generally more thoughtful, and individual segments are longer, providing more context. There is a distinct leftist bent to the coverage, but it's not the shallow and superficial coverage available from the so-called broadcast networks or the shrill shoutfest at cable outlets such as MSNBC or CNN.

I had a few minutes, earlier this evening, to send a short note to the folks at The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, which I'll share here:

Selection of terminology is important to clearly and concisely explain complex subjects, such as the economic situation facing our country (and the world). I'm bothered by a selection of terminology that obscures, intentionally or not, the source of the treasure that will be spent. For instance, one of tonight's stories has the following lede on your web site:

"Nine weeks after automakers made their first plea to Congress for emergency aid, General Motors and Chrysler submitted new restructuring strategies and requests for additional federal funds that could bring the government's total tab to $39 billion."

Use of the term "federal funds" obscures the fact that funding will come from two sources: taxpayers and bondholders. While bondholders are important, and have a critical stake in the problem, taxpayers will bear the full brunt of any decisions made to "stimulate" the economy. Additionally, the phrase "government's total tab" can easily be interpreted by inattentive citizens as being somehow different from "taxpayer's total tab". Using the more accurate phrase will help avoid misinterpretation, and continue to remind taxpayers that they (and not "the government") are picking up the tab here, and are accountable for the decisions made by their elected representatives.

By the way, "bailing out" General Motors and Chrysler is a bad economics and bad public policy. It was a bad idea in December, and it's a bad idea now. Taxpayer intervention in market forces that are trying to establish the fair value of these companies will postpone (and increase the cost) of the inevitable.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Nelson County, VA

Two beautiful days in Nelson County, this weekend. The pond was still frozen from the last few weeks of chilly weather, but I was able to break the ice up this afternoon, to give the fish a break (and a little O2).
Posted by Picasa