Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Quote of the Week (Czech edition)

A few weeks back, I wrote a post about how I was still proud to be an American, because the beer is cheap and plentiful. That is still a glorious fact. Nevertheless, I am at least considering the alternative of moving to Prague, where the median income may be lower, but the beer prices are too. Diving right in...


"At a typical local pub, a pint—500 milliliters, actually, in this metric-measuring country—costs about $1. A similar portion of water, juice or soda generally costs twice as much. Offering free tap water as at U.S. eateries is extremely rare. At U Zelenku, a neighborhood institution for more than a century, for instance, a pint of the cheapest beer goes for 99 cents. The same size of soda water is $1.30. At the fancier Kolkovna restaurant in touristy Old Town, a pint is $2.50, while mineral water is $2.29, for a bottle less than half the size."
                                      - Sean Carney; Wall Street Journal

This dynamic isn't exactly new to me, as I experienced a similar economic curiosity in my trip to Italy a couple of years ago—the house wine carafes (vino della casa) sold for prices around €3.50 (about $5) for a half-liter. That's not quite cheaper than water, but it was certainly in the same ballpark as the soft drinks at many restaurants. Wine for lunch, it is, then...

Of course, there's always a risk to looking only at the price of one product and trying to determine anything meaningful about the overall state of the economy. Beer prices alone are meaningless, for example, without also knowing what typical food prices might be—it could be that in Prague, general business practice is to slash the prices of booze, and to attempt to make the money on the food instead (as I've previously argued, the opposite seems to be the case in many U.S. restaurants). Or there may be dozens of other factors at play, all of which help drive down the cost of beer in restaurants.

Either way, who wants to go on a Czech pub crawl with me? First pilsner is on me.

[Wall Street Journal]
(h/t Tyler Cowen)

Friday, January 25, 2013

Clip of the Week

Let's sneak the Clip of the Week in here before the weekend, then hopefully I'll have some more good stuff coming your way next week.

There's not all that much to share this week, but what we do have here is pure gold. It's also all from the world of sports. First, let's welcome back the NHL (the what? Hockey? Never heard of it...) with this video of a couple of Edmonton Oiler rookies doing something that is way more difficult than they make it look.

Next up, baseball lost a couple of legends this past week, when a pair of Hall of Famers—Stan Musial and Earl Weaver—died mere hours apart. No, this may not have been quite as dramatic as July 4, 1826, but it's about as close as it gets in baseball land. I always felt a certain strange kinship with Weaver, in large part because he was one of only a few sports figures with whom I shared a birthday (Magic Johnson was another, Tim Tebow copied me a few years later). He was also a bitter, foul-mouthed old man with a beautifully sarcastic wit (and a code of ethics), and so... yeah. We had some things in common.

I wish there were more Earl Weavers around, is what I'm really trying to say. So if you're into managers cursing up a storm, enjoy some of Weaver's best hits, here and here. Be warned that these clips are both extremely unsafe for work environments, so proceed with caution. Unless you're a major league manager, in which case, carry on. My apologies to Stan the Man—he, too, was a baseball legend, but this clip just isn't nearly as entertaining as Weaver's best. Sorry, man. Better luck next time.

But ultimately, none of those is your Clip of the Week. Instead, courtesy of the Red Cowboy comes this clip from the HGTV show "Million Dollar Rooms". It's the backyard of legendary golf coach Dave Pelz, and it's sick. If you're a golf fan, you'll recognize some familiar sights back there. It's like a golf version of Las Vegas, in one man's backyard. Crazy.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Quote of the Week (Japan Edition)

I wanted to pull this week's Quote of the Week from Arnold Schwarzenegger's Q&A on Reddit last week, I really, really did. The concept of 1,000 duck-sized Predators is just too great to not mention, and I couldn't get that mental image out of my head all week. Brilliant stuff.

But I decided instead to give the honor to Japan's new Finance Minister (their 11th since 2007!) Taro Aso, whose brutal bout of honesty this week added a neat little twist onto Japan's growing fiscal problems (and demographic nightmare). In a statement that is almost certainly intended directly for the ears of Jiroemon Kimura, the oldest man in recorded history, Aso uttered a phrase (well, a few of them, really) that you might end up hearing a lot of around the world over the coming decades...


"Taro Aso said on Monday that the elderly should be allowed to 'hurry up and die' to relieve pressure on the state to pay for their medical care.

'Heaven forbid if you are forced to live on when you want to die. I would wake up feeling increasingly bad knowing that [treatment] was all being paid for by the government,' he said during a meeting of the national council on social security reforms. 'The problem won't be solved unless you let them hurry up and die.'

Aso's comments are likely to cause offence in Japan, where almost a quarter of the 128 million population is aged over 60. The proportion is forecast to rise to 40% over the next 50 years.

To compound the insult, he referred to elderly patients who are no longer able to feed themselves as 'tube people'. The health and welfare ministry, he added, was 'well aware that it costs several tens of millions of yen' a month to treat a single patient in the final stages of life."
                                                     - Justin McCurry; Guardian

So, first of all, it needs to be said that this dude is completely off his rocker. If you read Mish Shedlock's whole piece, you'll see that Aso has previously made bizarre off-color remarks about Jews, Taiwanese, and blue-eyed U.S. diplomats, so clearly he has a habit of saying outlandish things to provoke a reaction (sort of like another economist we all know and love).

That said, this little moment of honesty might hit just a little close to home for all of us here in America. Our Medicare costs are already projected to go through the roof over the coming decades, in large part because we continue to refuse to have difficult conversations about end-of-life care (specifically, how much is it worth to keep somebody alive for an extra year at age 65, versus at age 75, versus at age 85? Is there an infinite value? A declining value? Do we even begin to know?).

We can choose to spend an infinite amount of money to keep a person (any person) alive for another day, and hospitals and doctors will surely be glad to dispense those services as long as somebody (i.e. the taxpayer) is willing to pay. But sooner or later, we simply can't afford to do so for everybody, and we have to have that difficult little conversation with each other. Japan is having it now; it's coming our way sooner than you might think.

[Mish Shedlock]

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Smart highways

I feel like I might have posted about these things before, but given my past blog posts on the topic, I figured it was worth sharing either way. Via Barry Ritholtz comes a quick summary of these so-called "smart" highways, which are scheduled to debut in the Netherlands later this year. Pretty cool stuff.

From their own fact sheet (with some funky translations):
Smart Highway are interactive and sustainable roads of today. Designer Daan Roosegaarde and Heijmans Infrastructure are developing new designs and technologies for this Route 66 of the future. 
New designs include the ‘Glow-in-the-Dark Road’, ‘Dynamic Paint’, ‘Interactive Light’, ‘Induction Priority Lane’ and ‘Wind Light’. The goal is to make roads which are more sustainable and interactive by using light, energy and road signs that automatically adapt to the traffic situation. 
Awarded with a Best Future Concept by the Dutch Design Awards 2012 the first meters Smart Highway will be realized mid 2013 in the Netherlands. 
The "Dynamic Paint" design, for example, puts designs on the road that will change based on temperature and general road conditions, to better inform drivers of what to expect. And the "Induction Priority Lane" has induction coils underneath the surface, which can allow electric cars to recharge their batteries as they drive on them.

Here's a short video showing what these guys are doing, and what's possible.

Futuristic highways glow in the dark by Daan Roosegaarde and Heijmans from Daan Roosegaarde on Vimeo.

While this still seems like pretty crude and early-stage technology, I think it's a good step toward being more creative with how we think about our roads and their functions. The days of having a piezoelectric national highway system that powers the cars that drive on it may not be so far away, after all.

More nerd humor

I'm working on a few posts for later today (and later this week), but until I've got those ready to roll, I thought I'd share some more excellent nerd humor that I've come across lately. First, from the always brilliant nerds over at XKCD:

And second, from imgur, courtesy of my man Killagroove:

Yup, it's a big Wednesday around here. More coming your way later today... I think.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Clip of the Week

It's time for this week's Clip of the Week. I wanted to share this little montage of Tom Brady and Ray Lewis from last year's AFC Championship Game, but I figured I'd hold off until after Sunday's rematch, just in case...

Besides, there's plenty of other stuff to choose from this week, so there's no need to go that far back into the YouTube archives. In the sports world, we've got this new ad for Nike golf, combining Tiger Woods with Rory McIlroy. Unfortunately for Nike, their two big stars both missed the cut this week in Abu Dhabi, so... yeah. Good marketing. Also in sports, Kevin Durant is good, and this shot from Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson is incredible.

Then we've got a few animal videos, like these ducks taking their first swim ever, these dogs interrupting a soccer game, and these dolphins attempting to take over the world (wait, what?). And finally, we've got another excellent parody video from The Onion, this time taking on Facebook. Or maybe Twitter. Or Instagram. Hell, I don't know, it's about social media business or something.

Anyway, your Clip of the Week is still football-related, and still involves Tom Brady, because I feel like it has to. From the guys at Bad Lip Reading, who killed it with Mitt Romney a while back, this is Bad Lip Reading, the NFL version. Enjoy, and go Pats.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Weather trends

Last week, Barry Ritholtz's Big Picture blog published a guest post from Climate Central's Andrew Freedman, which shared some fairly astonishing data about the year in weather. I'll post Freedman's eye-popping charts here along with some of his analysis, which mostly speaks for itself. Take it for what it's worth...

"The 1°F difference from 1998 is an unusually large margin, considering that annual temperature records are typically broken by just tenths of a degree Fahrenheit. In fact, the entire range between the coldest year on record, which occurred in 1917, and the previous record warm year of 1998 was just 4.2°F."...

"During the summer, nearly 100 million people experienced 10 or more days with temperatures greater than 100°F, which is about one-third of the nation’s population, NOAA reported.

With 34,008 daily high temperature records set or tied the year compared to just 6,664 daily record lows — a ratio of about five high temperature records for every one low temperature record — 2012 was no ordinary weather year in the U.S. It wasn’t just the high temperatures that set records, though. Overnight low temperatures were also extremely warm, and in a few cases the overnight low was so warm that it set a high temperature record, a rare feat."...

"According to data from NOAA's National Climatic Data Center, there were 356 all-time high temperature records set or tied across the entire U.S. in 2012, compared to four all-time low temperature records. All of the all-time record lows occurred in Hawaii."

So, yeah. Climate change, no climate change, who really knows, right? But if you're interested in seeing more about this topic, this video gives some more context.

[Climate Central]
(h/t Big Picture)

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The idiocy of New York's new gun law

I'll keep this one quick, because it's essentially an update to a couple of recent posts. As could have been expected, some states are already moving toward stricter gun control laws in the wake of the Sandy Hook incident last month. The first state to enact a policy response is nearby New York, as CNBC notes.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and legislative leaders tentatively agreed on Monday on a broad package of changes to gun laws that would expand the state's ban on assault weapons and would include new measures to keep guns away from the mentally ill. 
Approval of the legislation would make New York the first state to act in response to the mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., last month. Monday was the first full day of this year's legislative session in Albany; the State Assembly opened its session with a moment of silence for those killed in Newtown, and lawmakers from both parties said they expected to vote on the gun package late Monday or early Tuesday. 
"We don't need another tragedy to point out the problems in the system," Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, said at a news conference just before 9 p.m., during which he detailed elements of the proposed legislation. "Enough people have lost their lives," he added. "Let's act."
That's basically okay so far, I don't have any major gripes with those first paragraphs, even if it does reek a bit of the "DO SOMETHING" dynamic that I loathe so much. Let's keep going.
In an acknowledgment that many people have suggested that part of the solution to gun violence is a better government response to mental illness, the legislation includes not only new restrictions on gun ownership, but also efforts to limit access to guns by the mentally ill.
The most significant new proposal would require mental health professionals to report to local mental health officials when they believe that a patient is likely to harm themselves or others. Law enforcement would then be authorized to confiscate any firearm owned by the patient. 
"People who have mental health issues should not have guns," Mr. Cuomo said. "They could hurt themselves, they could hurt other people." 
But such a requirement "represents a major change in the presumption of confidentiality that has been inherent in mental health treatment," said Dr. Paul S. Appelbaum, the director of the Division of Law, Ethics, and Psychiatry at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, who said the Legislature should hold hearings on possible consequences of the proposal. 
"The prospect of being reported to the local authorities, even if they do not have weapons, may be enough to discourage patients with suicidal or homicidal thoughts from seeking treatment or from being honest about their impulses," he said.
Okay, now we've got problems. "Addressing mental health issues" in our society does not mean "treating those with mental health issues like convicted felons and second-class citizens". The proposal, as stated, would strongly discourage those who are struggling with mental illness from ever disclosing their problems, lest they be forced to give up their rights as Americans as a result. That would make the societal issues we now face much worse, not better.

The goal of these policies should be to minimize the number of mentally ill people in the country, and to pro-actively treat the symptoms of those who become viciously disillusioned or inclined toward violence, not to further isolate those people and make them even more bitter and pissed off at society. This is not a step in the right direction; on the contrary, it's a huge step backward for New York and the country as a whole.

Unfortunately, this type of response is exactly what I warned about in my previous missives on gun control, only worse. Instead of ignoring mental health issues (as I had feared), New York politicians are seemingly trying to actively antagonize the very people they should be seeking to help. That's a dereliction of duty of the highest order, and a complete failure by those politicians to protect the rights and well-being of all citizens equally.

I see no reason to be diplomatic or civil when policy proposals that are so boldly idiotic are put forth. Citizens and politicians of New York, what in the fuck are you thinking?


Quote of the Week

We had two solid contenders for this week's Quote of the Week crown, one of whom is a familiar face around these parts. In an epic rant about the ludicrous trillion-dollar platinum coin proposal that inexplicably gained traction last week before quickly being shot down (but not before turning our political and economic discourse into a Simpsons-esque farce), Stephen Colbert delivered a classic line about the recently re-elected President Obama, saying, "we should have known a coin was Obama's solution to everything—it was right there in his slogan... CHANGE!"

The whole clip is worth a watch, if only because Colbert does an excellent job of breaking down the whole it's-legal-because-it's-not-technically-illegal basis upon which the entire proposal relied, which is interestingly pretty much the same basis upon which Obamacare was upheld by the Supreme Court this summer. Nevertheless, this week's Quote of the Week is going to come from a totally different source, although also technically a familiar "face" around here.

A couple of years ago, an IBM supercomputer named Watson made waves when he (it?) beat two great Jeopardy! champions in an exhibition match, in the process demonstrating the potential for computing in the next generation. The IBM team has continued to fiddle with Watson, hoping to refine the computer's ability to comprehend human language (and to minimize some of the memorable gaffes that he made on the show). Part of that tinkering process involved incorporating slang into Watson's vocabulary, which... well, let's just let Fortune's Michael Lev-Ram tell the rest of the story.


"[IBM research scientist Eric] Brown attempted to teach Watson the Urban Dictionary. The popular website contains definitions for terms ranging from Internet abbreviations like OMG, short for "Oh, my God," to slang such as "hot mess." But Watson couldn't distinguish between polite language and profanity—which the Urban Dictionary is full of. Watson picked up some bad habits from reading Wikipedia as well. In tests it even used the word "bullshit" in an answer to a researcher's query. Ultimately, Brown's 35-person team developed a filter to keep Watson from swearing and scraped the Urban Dictionary from its memory. But the trial proves just how thorny it will be to get artificial intelligence to communicate naturally."
                                                - Michael Lev-Ram, Fortune

Too funny. I can't get the concept of a foul-mouthed robot spewing insults at everyone out of my head. In fact, it makes me want to build a Watson for myself and program him only with things he picked up from Urban Dictionary. But I digress.

I still think that the potential for artificial intelligence is incredibly high, but this speaks volumes about how weird and nuanced human thought and communication can be, and therefore how difficult it can be to replicate. Given how frequently public figures put their feet in their mouths with episodes of careless and thoughtless speech, I can only imagine how bad things might be for a computer that hasn't been programmed to understand the subtleties of (and contradictions in) modern language.


Friday, January 11, 2013

The credentialization of America

Last week, I wrote a post about government policies gone bad in Chicago, and how those policies are getting in the way of innovation and economic growth. I wrote:
The fact of the matter is that most politicians don't have a clue about what it actually takes to promote economic growth, even while they recognize that it's the absolute only way out of our current budgetary morass, given those same politicians' utter unwillingness to do anything meaningful to address it. 
As I've written here before, if we really want sustainable economic growth, then we need to be incentivizing innovation and entrepreneurship, not stifling it with overly onerous regulations that turn a simple task like starting a food truck business into a Sisyphean struggle. But, of course, we seem to be consistently doing the opposite, just about everywhere we look. 
We pass regulations on top of regulations from coast to coast, and we issue overly broad patents that protect the large companies at the expense of the small and innovative start-ups. We pass bizarre "taxpayer relief" bills without reading them, rubber-stamping a plethora of corporate kickbacks and subsidies in the process when nobody's looking. And we require that ever more trivial jobs require credentials and continuing education, increasing the cost of pursuing just about any career path we may choose (I'll have more on that topic next week).
Well, here it is, next week, and I am a man of my word. I happen to follow the Bureau of Labor Statistics on Twitter, largely because it's amusing to do so. Last week, they posted a status talking all about certificates, and how they were the "fast track" to careers. They linked to this strange little marketing pamphlet, which talks all about how awesome these certificates are. In it, they wrote:
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has identified 33 occupations as typically requiring a certificate or other postsecondary nondegree award for people entering those occupations. In 2010–11, according to NCES, the most popular disciplines for certificate programs were healthcare, personal and culinary services, and mechanic and repair technologies and technicians. But people also earned certificates in a wide range of other occupational areas, such as computer and information sciences and protective services.
This includes jobs like hairdressers, nannies, fitness trainers, all the way down to computer programmers and web administrators. Strangely enough, most accountants, preschool teachers, and paralegals reported that they didn't need any special sort of certificate, which is honestly a little bit bizarre.

Now, in many of these cases, the tendency toward requiring certificates provides a very valuable protection for consumers—they can be assured that they're getting at least a minimum level of competence from the people they hire, and that's usually a good thing. But as these credentials and certificates creep their way down into even the most "unskilled" of occupations, I have to wonder what the point of it all is.

Is all of this just making it harder for everyone to meet basic job requirements? And is that a good thing for the economy at large? Or are these requirements just destined to get in the way of economic growth, like the licensing requirements for food trucks in Chicago in my earlier post? I'm all for safeguarding certain professions and making sure that the people who are in high-risk or high-impact positions don't blow up the world, but I think we've gotten way beyond that now.

I've been through a few of these types of training courses on my own over the years (TIPS training was a personal favorite), and I can tell you first-hand: they're not all exactly academically rigorous. Generally speaking, I'm not any more or less likely to do the right thing as a bartender or a financial advisor or a manicurist or whatever else just because I forked over a few hundred bucks and took a couple of classes with some common-sense tests attached to the back of them. Ultimately, there's a big difference between knowing the right thing to do, and then actually doing the right thing. Shocking, I know.

As consumers, we can't be so willing to outsource our due diligence to these certificate-granting institutions, whichever they may be. Many times, we in fact allow ourselves to become more vulnerable as a result, because it's incredibly easy for a scam artist to get himself a license or certificate and then hide behind his "credentials". And in the process, we may actually have made it more difficult for an honest and hard-working man to get that same job. That's bad.

Maybe none of this matters, and I'm just howling at the moon a bit, but I don't think this world needs any more licenses and certificates and credentials than it already has. What it does need is more common sense, more personal accountability, and more innovation and entrepreneurship. Unfortunately, again, we seem to be headed in the wrong direction.

[Bureau of Labor Statistics]

Inflation since 1800

Presented without comment, I came across a chart showing inflation in America since 1800 (thanks, Tim Iacono), and I thought it was worth sharing, given all the talk I do about the Fed. The red line shows the cumulative effect of annual inflation, while the blue bars behind it show the actual annual rates. Do with it what you will.

[Tim Iacono]

Clip of the Week

Okay, Clip of the Week time, let's get right to it.

First, an update on a past Clip of the Week. About a month ago, I shared the Mine Kafon video with you all, which I thought was incredibly cool. Now, the Mine Kafon project is on Kickstarter, looking to get funding to make the thing a reality (by the way, more than 10% of films at Sundance this year were funded on Kickstarter, which is just crazy... Kickstarter is doing big things). They've already more than met their £100,000 goal with 5 days still remaining, but you can always donate some more to the cause, and get some cool perks for your trouble.

Plugs aside, we had some decent clips this week, coming at you from all sorts of weird places. One of those weird places is Sugarbush Resort in Vermont, where a moose got loose and chased around some skiers, while some other skiers (okay, boarders) stood around and gawked at it. Another of those weird places is a music studio populated by weird humanoid robots playing Motorhead. Number 5 is alive!!

We also had Alabama QB A.J. McCarron, not exactly responding well to the news that his girlfriend had become a Twitter celebrity during the national championship game, and that she was now being followed by LeBron James. Finally, some fun with word images, passed along by Barry Ritholtz. That one probably deserves more of an explanation than that, but just watch it, okay?

But the weirdest place of all was the PDC World Darts Championship in England, where one guy put on a ridiculous performance in a game of "501". The fact that his opponent was apparently drunk and/or blind is somewhat irrelevant, because that is some awesome darts work by my man (too bad he lost in the finals). At any rate, Michael van Gerwen is your Clip of the Week this week, because bar games are awesome.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

An update on prohibition

A couple of days after Christmas, I published the one and only post that I intend to write about the tragedy in Newtown (and the surge in support for gun-control laws in its wake). You may have missed it if you were still out celebrating the holidays, so I'll summarize some of my points here.

In the post, I shared some of my skepticism with respect to the efficacy of bans on (or prohibition of) behaviors that many people find dangerous or distasteful. I wrote,
The last thing we need is to institute a counterproductive law that ironically makes our problem worse, not better. History has shown that when people have an intense desire to possess or to do something, they typically will find a way. People and corporations are incredibly resourceful when they need to be, which of course is why we now have corn in our Coca-Cola.
That's a viewpoint that I'd shared here on previous occasions, most notably in the wake of the tragedy at the Harvard-Yale game in New Haven in 2011. In that case, I wrote about the trend toward banning kegs at tailgates, and the at-best-uneven success that they'd had. As I wrote then,
Harvard first banned kegs at its tailgates in 2000, while I was a student there. The primary argument that I remember at the time—when keg bans were very much in vogue at Boston-area colleges—was that kegs were a "symbol of binge drinking", and that eliminating them would temper binge drinking. I called bullshit then, and I'm calling bullshit now. If you want a real "symbol of binge drinking", I'll show you a 9-dollar handle of bottom-shelf vodka. Popov was always a favorite; Aristocrat was a winner, too. 
The irony of kegs—an irony lost on most administrators—is that while they may indeed have looked like a symbol of binge drinking, they were in fact the administration's best friend. Beer, with its high water content and low alcohol content, is in fact the alcoholic beverage least likely to directly result in alcohol poisoning. The administration should have been doing all they could to encourage the drinking of beer, and to discourage the drinking of cheap wine and rot-gut liquor. 
Unsurprisingly to those who knew better, the keg ban was a disaster. In the first year of the keg ban (2002), alcohol poisoning cases skyrocketed, leading to calls from student newspapers to reverse the ban entirely for the next home Game. Some accommodations were indeed made, but not enough to turn back the clock entirely. From what I have learned and witnessed at recent Games in Cambridge, less drinking is happening on-site, and now much more drinking is happening off-site, away from the watchful eyes of Harvard and Boston Police.
I bring up the Harvard/Yale case because just this weekend, a similar mistake was made up in Green Bay during the Packers' Wild Card Playoff game against the Vikings. Concerned about the potential for binge drinking with an 8pm (7pm Central) kickoff time, the team decided to cut off all alcohol sales after halftime, hoping to control fan behavior.

Somewhat predictably, the plan backfired a bit, as resourceful Packer fans did what resourceful Packer fans do—they got loaded before they even entered the stadium, and many of them double-fisted drinks once they got there. A total of 21 fans ended up getting arrested on the premises, and I'd guess that a few more got arrested for drinking and driving on their way home.

While it's hard to know exactly how things would have gone without the attempted alcohol ban, the principle of the matter is still clear—if you ban something for which people have an intense desire, they will find a way to get around the ban, legally or not. In the case of gun control, gun sales have soared to record levels around the country in anticipation of new legislation. Even if the government does pass new laws, will it really be able to put that cat back in the bag and confiscate the weapons that were purchased ahead of time? Is there any reason to believe that a ban on any type of gun would be any more successful or productive than the long-standing ban on marijuana?

I continue to raise this issue because I refuse to believe that simply banning guns or certain types of guns will eradicate the mass murders that we've seen at schools and elsewhere in recent years. To actually tackle serious and complex issues, we need to attack the roots of the problem, not merely to take away the tools or "symbols" of those issues. We can get rid of all the guns we want, but there will still be people in this country (and the world) who are disillusioned, angry, or mentally unstable, and who want to do great harm to other people.

Until we try to figure out why these people exist—and what we can do as a society to temper their anger or mental illness—our gun control laws will be a sideshow at best, just like the alcohol bans at Harvard, Yale, and Lambeau Field. If you want to get rid of a behavior, you don't do it by getting rid of the tools. You do it by getting rid of the underlying mentality, and that's a much harder (and much more essential) task. And in the greatest country in the world, I'm sure we won't shy away from those difficult tasks, right?

Quote of the Week

We had two very serious contenders for Quote of the Week this week, and both of them are going to get a little bit of love here. The first one comes from Brazil, where a cat was caught trying to wriggle through prison gates while carrying a cell phone, drills, an earphone, batteries, and a phone charger. When discussing the case, prison guards shared that it was tough to get the cat to sell out his accomplices, because he wasn't talking. Shocking. Note to self: teach cat how to commit petty crimes.

But this week's winner comes from the great state of California, where a man is seemingly determined to prove that corporations are not, in fact, people (contrary to the beliefs of a certain electoral runner-up). From NBC News, it's your Quote of the Week.


"When Jonathan Frieman of San Rafael, Calif., was pulled over for driving alone in the carpool lane, he argued to the officer that, actually, he did have a passenger. He waved his corporation papers at the officer, saying that corporations are people under California law... Frieman doesn't actually support this notion. For more than 10 years, Frieman says he had been trying to get pulled over to get ticketed and to take his argument to court—to challenge a judge to determine that corporations and people are not the same." 
                                                    - NBC News

At the heart of the issue is the Supreme Court's controversial 2010 decision in the "Citizens United" case, which essentially brought the issue of corporate personhood into the public eye and made it a hot-button political issue. It's still unclear exactly where the concept of corporation-as-person begins and ends, and this latest incident is clearly part of the process of drawing out those lines in the sand.

Unfortunately (and somewhat unsurprisingly), it doesn't look like Mr. Frieman's case is going anywhere. A judge has already ruled against him, and although an appeal is planned, it's unlikely to gain any traction. Nevertheless, kudos to the man for coming up with a creative way to draw attention to an issue that likely won't be going away any time soon. As far as Quotes of the Week go, this one is among my favorites.

[NBC News]

Friday, January 4, 2013

On government policies gone bad

In a post earlier today, I talked about unintended consequences and provided a link to this post from last year, in which I discussed the ramifications of "when regulatory bodies go wild". Unfortunately, John Cochrane (the self-dubbed "Grumpy Economist") shared a few similar examples from his own backyard of Chicago, showing that this regulatory madness is spreading, not abating. He writes,
If you travel from California or New York to Chicago, especially the beautiful but food-deserted campus of the University of Chicago, you will notice a striking absence: food trucks, which serve a bewlidering variety of tasty treats in other cities. 
Finally, last summer, our City council passed an ordinance allowing food trucks to cook food, along with a bewildering variety of restaurant-protecting restrictions, such as that they may not operate within 200 feet of a restaurant, they can't park for more than two hours, they must carry an on board GPS to verify position, and so on.   
Today, the Chicago Tribune reports on the success of this program:   
Of the 109 entrepreneurs who have applied for the Mobile Food Preparer licenses that allow onboard cooking, none has met the city's requirements... 
The process of getting a license is just too daunting, according to Rodriguez and Fuentes, who cite bad experiences with city bureaucracy, steep additional costs and the need to retrofit equipment among the reasons. 
"I think many food truck owners are hesitant to even pursue cooking onboard because of their haunting experience with working with the city," Rodriguez wrote in an email.  
(Kudos to Rodriguez for having the courage to write on the record, and good luck with her next application.)
....Chicago's code includes rules on ventilation and gas line equipment that "are meetable but extremely cumbersome and can raise the price of outfitting a truck by $10,000 to $20,000."...
...the additional ventilation equipment (with intake and exhaust fans similar to those in brick-and-mortar kitchens) also raises the height of trucks to 13 feet, making certain Chicago underpasses impassable. 
Aaron Crumbaugh, who operates the Wagyu Wagon ... said he is outfitting several trucks for franchisees in other cities whose processes for licensing are clear-cut.  "But here they don't know exactly what they want," he said. "Every time a truck comes in (health officials) say 'You need this' but then when you come back they say 'No you need that' and then the next time they find something else."
The Tribune did a much more balanced job of including quotes from city employees defending themselves. I'm a blog so I don't have to be balanced. The numbers speak for themselves. Zero. 
Yeah. Cochrane also shares a story from the Hyde Park Herald that discusses the ridiculous red tape that is currently preventing a South Side movie theater from opening on time. As Cochrane concludes, "Chicago, like the US, is broke. It says it wants more businesses. Until actual businesses try to open. Really, if we can't get food trucks and movie theater regulations to work, how do Dodd Frank and the EPA have a hope?"

Well said, John. The fact of the matter is that most politicians don't have a clue about what it actually takes to promote economic growth, even while they recognize that it's the absolute only way out of our current budgetary morass, given those same politicians' utter unwillingness to do anything meaningful to address it.

As I've written here before, if we really want sustainable economic growth, then we need to be incentivizing innovation and entrepreneurship, not stifling it with overly onerous regulations that turn a simple task like starting a food truck business into a Sisyphean struggle. But, of course, we seem to be consistently doing the opposite, just about everywhere we look.

We pass regulations on top of regulations from coast to coast, and we issue overly broad patents that protect the large companies at the expense of the small and innovative start-ups. We pass bizarre "taxpayer relief" bills without reading them, rubber-stamping a plethora of corporate kickbacks and subsidies in the process when nobody's looking. And we require that ever more trivial jobs require credentials and continuing education, increasing the cost of pursuing just about any career path we may choose (I'll have more on that topic next week).

Absolutely none of these government policies does anything but slow economic growth and the pace of innovation, and they must all therefore be considered counter-productive with respect to American prosperity. As Mr. Cochrane so eloquently wrote, if we can't get a food truck to start up in Chicago without violating some arcane city code, how can anybody ever do anything of any value in this country without breaking the law? I wonder.

[Grumpy Economist]

Clip of the Week (Gil Santos edition)

I'm going to go in a totally different direction with this week's Clip of the Week, using it as an opportunity to honor one of my favorite Boston sports figures of the past 20 years (no, not Tim Wakefield, we already took care of that one).

For those of you who don't share my Boston roots (or rooting interests), you'll probably move right along and ignore this post, and that's fine. I don't blame you. But for anyone who grew up watching the Patriots transform themselves from a laughing stock into a model franchise—something I still can't believe happened, but for which I give Drew Bledsoe and Bill Parcells a ton of credit, not to mention Bob Kraft—the unavoidable soundtrack of a million Sundays was the tandem of Gil Santos and Gino Cappelletti, one of the greatest radio play-by-play pairings I've ever heard. Those two made growing up as the son of a Boston sportswriter (and thereby inheriting my Patriots fandom) significantly more enjoyable, and I can't overstate the joy I received from listening to them.

Gino retired at the beginning of this season, and Gil will retire at the conclusion of this year's playoffs. This past Sunday, during the Patriots' last regular season game, the two were re-united for one final quarter together, and the CBS national broadcast even joined the pair for a live cut-in. It was a fitting send-off for a duo that teamed up to call more than 500 games over 28 seasons, and I wanted to take a minute to pay tribute to the men who I so often listened to while watching the game on TV with the audio on mute (something I know was commonplace among Patriots fans in the good old days).

Gil was always a fair and balanced announcer, something that I think is in short supply these days. When the Patriots deserved his scorn, he was quick to deliver it—of course, those instances became increasingly less frequent as the years wore on. But at the end of the day, Gil was a Patriots fan like the rest of us in the Boston area, and he let it show for one day at least, at Super Bowl XXXVI in New Orleans.

For those who don't remember, the Patriots pulled off a resounding upset that day, taking down the heavily-favored St. Louis Rams (led by Marshall Faulk and Kurt Warner) on a last-second field goal by Adam Vinatieri. It was the first title in franchise history, and Gil's call of the final kick can still be heard today on various highlight packages and retrospectives.

To the greatest play-by-play announcer I'd ever hope to hear, this is my official "thank you" for decades of listening pleasure. Things won't be the same without you, and I'll honor you with this week's Clip of the Week—a compilation of clips from the radio call of that famous day in the Superdome eleven years ago. Here's hoping we can send you off in proper fashion a few weeks from now in the very same venue. Thanks for everything, Gil.

The NCAA and unintended consequences

Earlier today, my attention was drawn to a tweet from John Infante, a former NCAA compliance officer who writes the Bylaw Blog for Athnet. I've written a fair amount about the NCAA and its relationship with "student-athletes" before, so I thought this latest tidbit was worth sharing. In an article teased in his own tweet, Infante writes:
In the wake of last summer’s highly publicized transfer battles (Ed. Note: like these), the news that the NCAA was looking at changing the transfer rules was refreshing. What appeared to be an inconsistent standard for waivers along with student-athletes needed permission to contact other schools lead to a popular backlash against the NCAA’s transfer regulations, a sentiment that was echoed by NCAA President Mark Emmert... 
There is no formal proposal yet, but the Leadership Council published a set of principles for updated transfer rules that make it easy to see what those specific rules might be.
One of those principles is the topic of this post (and of Infante's tweet), the principle regarding a GPA contingency:

In general, I think this principle is a clear step in the right direction, as it restores some rights to student-athletes who, through no fault of their own, are left in a situation that is dramatically different from the one they entered (like a coach leaving for the NFL, or dying, or a program being put on probation for violations that occurred before the player arrived, etc.). It also hypothetically provides these student-athletes with an incentive to actually go to class, which is definitely a positive for everyone involved.

However, as usual, it wouldn't be a policy if there weren't some unintended consequences to consider. In this case, I see a great problem with setting a GPA threshold that doesn't (and can't) vary based on the quality of the institution. Are we to pretend that a 2.6 GPA is as easily attainable at Stanford or Notre Dame as it is at San Jose State or Arizona? Since we know that it isn't, doesn't this proposal effectively penalize those students who choose to go to schools with rigorous academics? And by extension, isn't it also penalizing those schools for not watering down their academic programs to benefit the student-athletes? If so, is that really what we want our NCAA policies to be doing?

As I wrote in a Twitter response to this news, encouraging schools to downgrade the rigor of their academic programs is a poor long-term strategy. Unfortunately, that's arguably what this policy would do, simply because of the incentives that it creates for student-athletes when they are considering schools. If an athlete with a 2.6 GPA has more rights than an athlete without one, then every kid should do everything in his power to make sure that he can attain a 2.6 GPA.

In an ideal world, that would mean that the athletes in question would all buckle down and work harder in school, and we'd end up with a world full of student-athletes with sparkling collegiate transcripts. But over here in the real world, all it does is encourage the kids to go to schools where they can get a 2.6 just by showing up, thereby immediately receiving more rights as an athlete.

Is that really what we want? Do we actually want to steer athletes away from the top academic schools, simply because they're likely to have more rights at the lower-tier ones? I don't think so, and I hardly think that's the idea at the core of this proposal. But unintended consequences are consequences nonetheless, and they require careful consideration by policy-makers at all levels of governance.

This winter, we have seen several top-rated schools play in meaningful football games—from Northwestern gaining its first bowl win since 1949 to Stanford winning the Rose Bowl for the first time in 40 years to Notre Dame playing for the national title for the first time in what seems like forever. Hell, even Vanderbilt won itself a bowl game, in a bowl season where most SEC teams can't seem to get out of their own way.

Against all odds, teams are finding a way to excel both in athletics and in academics, and yet the NCAA wants to pass a rule that would take us in the opposite direction, even if unintentionally. That would be a terrible shame, and I encourage the NCAA to reconsider this proposal, which has good intentions but potentially dire consequences.


Thursday, January 3, 2013

Quote of the Week (Fiscal Cliff edition)

I don't have a lot to say about the recent "resolution" to the fiscal cliff, largely because it resolved nothing and is, once again, merely a prelude to the next "fiscal crisis" that is mere weeks away. However, I thought that Tyler Cowen of the Marginal Revolution blog shared the most succinct (and sobering) summary of the entire fiscal cliff experience. From New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, it's your Quote of the Week.


"If a newly re-elected Democratic president can’t muster the political will and capital required to do something as straightforward and relatively popular as raising taxes on the tiny fraction Americans making over $250,000 when those same taxes are scheduled to go up already, then how can Democrats ever expect to push taxes upward to levels that would make our existing public progams sustainable for the long run?"
                                                     - Ross Douthat, New York Times

Indeed. Which of course just shows us that there is, ultimately, zero political will to address the problems about which I've spilled so much ink (okay, pixels) on this blog. If we can't raise revenue, then we can't fund programs, period, end of story. It's just a matter of when we choose to recognize this fact (or when the markets decide to recognize it for us, as is usually the reality when it happens elsewhere, and is almost assured given that politicians are already setting up to capitulate on the next crisis).

All of this means that charts like this one aren't likely to change any time soon, regardless of what some people might want to tell you:

Source: Bianco Research via Barry Ritholtz
But hey, at least the markets liked the deal, that must be good news, right? Uh, maybe. Or maybe this thing was just like every other piece of legislation out of Washington lately—hastily thrown together, not well-understood even by those who voted on it because they didn't bother to read it, and loaded up with all sorts of kickbacks and favors to the corporate elite that don't belong in there to begin with.

Business as usual in Washington, right? Good grief.

[New York Times]
(h/t Marginal Revolution)

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The oldest man in history

In case you missed it last week (as I did), the world now has a new oldest man in recorded history. The record for oldest person, however, is still a long ways off.
Jiroemon Kimura, a 115-year-old Japanese man born when Queen Victoria still reigned over the British Empire, became the oldest man in recorded history today, Guinness World Records said. 
Kimura, of Kyotango, western Japan, was born April 19, 1897, in the 30th year of the Meiji era, according to London-based Guinness. That makes him 115 years and 253 days as of today, breaking the longevity record for men held by Christian Mortensen of California, who died in 1998 at the age of 115 years and 252 days. The oldest woman in recorded history, Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment, died in 1997 at the age of 122.
Of course, it wouldn't be my blog if I didn't also try to throw some sort of a lesson into this post, so here it is, from the same article:
Kimura is among 22 Japanese people on a list of the world’s 64 oldest people compiled by the Los Angeles-based Gerontology Research Group, highlighting the challenges facing Japan as its population ages. A combination of the world’s highest life expectancy, the world’s second-largest public debt and a below- replacement birthrate is straining the nation’s pension system, prompting the government to curb payouts, raise contributions and delay the age of eligibility.
And yes, in case you were wondering, we in the United States should be paying attention to Japan's lessons, as I've enumerated here before.

But for today, I'll mostly leave those lessons alone, just to marvel at what it means to be 115 years old. This guy was born in 1897 (the same year as Amelia Earhart, William Faulkner, Elijah Muhammad, and Joseph Goebbels), two weeks after William McKinley was inaugurated as President of the United States. He's six months older than the oldest underground subway in North America (Boston), and ten years older than Katharine Hepburn and Orville Redenbacher.

He was 21 when World War I ended, 44 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and a spry 94 when Al Gore invented the internet. If you think things are different now than when you were growing up, try being Jiroemon for a couple of days—he remembers when the airplane was invented. I only remember when it was actually enjoyable to fly in one.