Monday, November 16, 2015

War Without Strategy

Amongst the last several days of calls for war and calls for peace, comics and hashtags, it has been difficult to articulate where the country, or the West, is right now. Mark Steyn, however, puts it well:
I have not called for more bombing raids, more boots on the ground, more war. Because, I regret to say, it's not worth brave soldiers "fighting, killing & dying" for a home front as enervated as ours. As I said a few hours ago, war is merely the sharpest tool of national strategy, and so, if you have no national strategy, there's no point going to war.
Why would anyone would expect a president who campaigned on it being wrong to remove a brutal, terrorist-supporting dictator in Iraq to lead a war to remove brutal terrorists from Iraq and Syria? Luckily, perhaps, we do not demonize the French when they take the lead.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

When is it Acceptable to Compliment Terrorists?

Minnesota's Star Tribune reports:
A [Minnesota Democrat's] campaign for the state House abruptly ended Sunday morning within hours of him posting on social media that ISIS "isn’t necessarily evil" and is "made up of people doing what they think is best for their community."
Washington state's Patty Murray made similar comments about Osama bin Laden in 2002:
He's been out in these countries for decades, building schools, building roads, building infrastructure, building day-care facilities, building health-care facilities, and the people are extremely grateful. He's made their lives better.
Murray did not resign. In fact, she subsequently chaired the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and is currently the fifth-ranked Democrat in the US Senate.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A Dirty Bomb Doesn't Have to be Very Dirty

War on the Rocks has a pair of competing pieces on the threat of dirty bombs (Don't Fear the Dirty Bomb vs. Why I Fear the Dirty Bomb and You Should Too), but the second one has the most realistic view of how people would react. Regardless of the actual, scientifically-measurable risk, people will still be terrified:
Think of it as if somebody sprayed asbestos in your apartment building. No one would die and you could go in and out, but nobody would for fear of exposing themselves to cancer-causing agents.
Read the whole thing here--and remember, people are already afraid of irradiated food.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Can a State Mandate Financial Literacy?

From KELO, according to the Center for Financial Literacy:
South Dakota schools are receving [sic] an "F" in teaching students personal finance in high school... South Dakota requires high school students to take a half-year course in either personal finance or economics but does not require students to choose personal finance or require schools to offer personal finance.
These ratings appear to be based entirely on whether or not a high school personal finance course is required by law. Based on more well-rounded methodology, South Dakota was recently rated the 6th best state for Money-Savviness.

For the Center for Financial Literacy, it doesn't seem to matter whether students retain any knowledge of personal finance or learn it at home or independently, only if they were required by law to slog through a course before most of them even have any financial responsibilities which they can relate the course to. The takeaway: if you don't learn it in a government class, you never will.

I come from another F-rated state, Washington. We covered personal finance as a small part of another course, but that doesn't count as "financial literacy" because it wasn't required by law. It also would have been a serious waste of time to extend it out to a full semester. Personal finance is just not that complicated. Do we want to tell students that they can't take another year of a foreign language or calculus because the state mandates a full semester on why you shouldn't buy an iPad if you can't pay your rent? (And do we really think it will change them if we do?)

Monday, October 26, 2015

Rates are Higher on Unsecured Loans

Interests rates are higher on unsecured loans. That's really all there is to it.

Now, for the background: Socialist Senator and Democrat presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was quoted as saying, "It makes no sense that students and their parents pay higher interest rates for college than they pay for car loans or housing mortgages."

Robert Tracinski at the Federalist responds:
Why do car loans and mortgages have lower interest rates? They are secured by a tangible asset that can be reclaimed by the lender if the borrower stops paying. The bank can foreclose on your home or repossess your car, so they end up with an asset they can sell to recoup their losses. Rates on these loans are likely to be lower because the lender’s risk is lower. An education, by contrast, is not a tangible asset. It cannot be reclaimed and has no value other than to the person who acquired it.
He has graphs and stories and some economics to continue the story, and we could discuss how student loans drive up education costs, but secured vs. unsecured is really as far as we need to look for why the Sanders quote makes no sense.

Friday, October 09, 2015

GMOs, Migrants, and Nationalism

What do GMOs and migrants have in common? Hungary doesn't want either sneaking in.

Hungary was celebrated by the anti-GMO world in a recycled news story about how it had previously destroyed crops grown from genetically modified seeds banned in the country. A devoted ally in the organic jihad against science? Probably not.

If we recall that Hungary has a nationalist government, a little protectionism might explain the whole thing.

Then came the wave of migrants from the Middle East. Hungary is the first contiguous member of the Schengen Area on the Balkan route to Central Europe. Faced with an onslaught of migrants, Hungary began to construct a border fence ("A wall!"). For this, Hungary was condemned.

I suspect that the same parties who hailed Hungary for burning GMOs would condemn it for trying to control immigration, when these two actions are actually quite consistent.

"Hungarian Conservatives Reject GMOs" at Seed in Context, provides substantial background on Hungarian national attitudes including this:
A nationalist program which is associated with the rejection of gypsies and international biotech capitalists suggests vague similarities to the Nazi program which rejected gypsies and international Jewish bankers, but too much should not be made of the comparison. The Fidesz party is conservative, not radical or racist. The comparison does suggest the importance of GMOs and their creators as symbols of cultural identity which the Fidesz hopes to use to justify and represent their national leadership.


In important parts of Hungarian society there is both a deep-seated social distrust of biotech crops and a belief that Hungarian farmers profit from being a leading ‘GMO-free’ supplier of food and feed to European markets. Hungary is somewhat unusual in that this distrust is associated with the right side of the political spectrum.

Burning crops grown with imported seed is an easy win for the nationalist government of a small country. What GMOs and migrants have in common--they are feared foreign unknowns.

Monday, September 28, 2015

John Boehner and the Reality of Divided Government

Speaker of the House John Boehner's decision to resign in October has produced victorious howls and calls for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to join him. This attitude seems to come from a fundamental misunderstanding of the structure of the government of the United States.

With a divided government (Congress controlled by Republicans, the presidency by a Democrat), there is basically nothing notable other than appropriations that can become law. Standalone bills with any kind of a conservative aim would be vetoed if they made it past Senate Democrats' filibusters. Congress cannot directly repeal anything (e.g., Obamacare) until there is a new president. That leaves the option of attaching legislation to spending bills. But a spending bill from the House which tries to accomplish anything would also be filibustered or vetoed. Some people advocate for Congress to allow government shutdowns in order to pass policies that could not become law on their own, but historically this fails. The administration engages in shutdown theatrics, Republicans are demonized in the mainstream media (which most people do listen to), and eventually they pass a continuing resolution.

As Eric Cantor writes:
...somewhere along the road, a number of voices on the right began demanding that the Republican Congress not only block Mr. Obama’s agenda but enact a reversal of his policies. They took to the airwaves and the Internet and pronounced that congressional Republicans could undo the president’s agenda — with him still in office, mind you — and enact into law a conservative vision for government, without compromise.

Strangely, according to these voices, the only reason that was not occurring had nothing to do with the fact that the president was unlikely to repeal his own laws, or that under the Constitution, absent the assent of the president or two-thirds of both houses of Congress, you cannot make law. The problem was a lack of will on the part of congressional Republican leaders.
Boehner and McConnell are leadership, not dictators.  They represent their caucuses. They can set the tone, they can negotiate. But they still have to face a Democrat president. As Jay Cost explains:
The last Republican speaker to face a president nearly so liberal was Joseph Martin, who served from 1947 to 1949. But Martin could often count on an alliance with the now-extinct faction of conservative Southern Democrats. Boehner had no such bipartisan opportunities, so he could get precious little accomplished with Obama in the Oval Office.


In the long run, though, [possible successor Kevin] McCarthy will succeed only if a Republican wins the White House next year.

Maybe he can keep the conservatives happy for the next 12 months, but without a GOP presidential victory, it will eventually be for naught.
McConnell has the added problem of filibusters. Controversial bills typically don't pass the Senate without 60 votes to end debate and the Republicans have 54. That is where bills die. They never make it to President Obama because Senate Democrats won't allow them to leave the Senate.

The challenge for critics of Boehner and McConnell's is to explain exactly what they would do differently and what the result would be. Complain obnoxiously, turning off voters but ending up with the same legislative non-results? Want to repeal Obamacare or impeach the president? How are you going to get 43 out of 188 Democrat representatives and 13 out of 46 Democrat senators to vote against the leader of their party?

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Don't Borrow the Maximum

An article on student loans at The Federalist includes this piece of advice, similar to advice heard frequently from the "financial aid" world:
I was so scared of my looming financial commitments that I didn't attempt to make a single payment while I was in school... If I could go back in time, I would tell myself to put some money on my loans each month, instead of hoarding it all in my savings account.
There is a much more direct way to address this.

1. Mathematically, if you are making loan payments while in school, you have borrowed too much. You have borrowed money in order to make loans payment on that borrowed money. Do not simply accept the full loan amount offered. In college and law school I scratched out thousands of dollars in student loans from my financial aid offer every year. Loan offers were based on inflated estimated student budgets (cost of attendance). I could have borrowed tens of thousands of dollars and made payments while in school, but instead I lived within a reasonable annual budget and declined any loans that went beyond that budget.

Here is an example from a U.S. News article: making in-school interest payments on a $5000 loan could save $71 over the term of the loan. However, according to the calculator they used, simply not borrowing the extra $292 which was used to make payments would save $374 over the same term.
Default (Borrow $5000, make no early payments): Costs $6410.
Recommended (Borrow $5000, make payments immediately): Costs $6339.
Better (Borrow $4708, make no early payments): Costs $6036.

U.S. News example has 3.9% interest rate, 18 months deferment, and 10 year repayment term.
The savings come from both the reduced borrowing and not having to pay interest on money that was only borrowed to make loan payments.

2. If you do find yourself hoarding student loan money in a savings account, you should make significant payments as soon as you realize it. This means right away, not a little bit every month. Making payments can help, but the practice of borrowing student loan money in order to make student loan payments is convoluted and costly.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

What Corporations Are For

In the Washington Post, Harold Meyerson writes on the question of wage stagnation and concludes:
At the root of our great pay stagnation is the appropriation by major investors of the funds that used to go to businesses' research, modernization, expansion and workers.
This perpetuates a common misunderstanding of for-profit corporations. There may be an issue of long-term thinking in business, reflecting our national attention span, but "appropriation" is not the problem. Shareholders (the above-demonized investors), not (non-investor) workers, are the actual owners of corporations. Earnings belong to them as a matter of right. The only reason to spend profits to increase research or salaries is if it creates more value for the shareholders than paying a dividend. This could include improved employee performance or retention, as with Wal-Mart's recent announcement, but workers simply do not get to direct profits to their own pockets except through shared ownership as investors.

Corporations exist to make money for their investors.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Declining to Preempt: The New Nullification?

The refusal of the current administration to enforce selected federal laws in selected states has led to what may be an unprecedented legal question: what happens when a federal statute clearly preempts a state law, but the federal government refuses to enforce it? Colorado's neighbors are dealing with this question. The LA Times reports:
In December, the attorneys general of Nebraska and Oklahoma filed a lawsuit to stop what they say is a steady flow of marijuana across the Colorado state line. Kansas is considering joining as well.

The suit, filed directly to the U.S. Supreme Court, seeks to strike down Colorado's law legalizing recreational marijuana. It argues that Colorado's statute conflicts with federal drug laws, which consider marijuana illegal, even in small amounts.


Colorado's marijuana law was approved by voters in 2012. It allows the sale and possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for recreational use for anyone 21 and over with a valid driver's license.

Shortly after the new law took effect, the U.S. Justice Department outlined its enforcement priorities, saying it would not interfere with Colorado's legal pot operations but would instead focus on, among other things, preventing marijuana from crossing state lines.
Colorado's marijuana law clearly conflicts with and is preempted by federal law which, if enforced, would negate it. But how does federal preemption work when the executive refuses to enforce federal laws? If Colorado had, for example, lowered its minimum wage (currently $8.23/hour) to even $6/hour, it would be superseded by the federal minimum wage (currently $7.25). It would be inconceivable for the federal government to look the other way.

Colorado's neighbors are not, as many have suggested, trying to impose their views outside of their borders in a hypocritical assault on federalism. Those views were already imposed on the entire country through The Controlled Substances Act and further upheld in Gonzales vs. Raich.

Federal laws are already responsible for banking problems faced by Colorado's new marijuana dealers. Financial institutions are more than aware of the litany of federal crimes they could be charged with, despite promises from the Department of Justice that they would probably not be prosecuted. From Forbes:
It is easy to see why banks remain wary of marijuana money. Notwithstanding the Justice Department’s memo, [University of Alabama law professor Julie Andersen Hill] notes, “Any bank or credit union providing services could face criminal prosecution at any time.” FinCEN’s guidance, even if it is interpreted as creating a safe harbor, “seems to set the bar for financial institution compliance quite high.” In any case, Hill writes, “the Department of Justice and FinCEN are only two of the many federal authorities with regulatory oversight of financial institutions.” Banks and credit unions also have to worry about how the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and the National Credit Union Administration will view their willingness to serve state-legal businesses that routinely commit federal felonies.
Congress could make an exception for Colorado, but it hasn't.
Legally, the federal felonies are still federal felonies.

As a very short civics lesson, note that the case goes directly to the Supreme Court:
Taking advantage of a provision of the Constitution covering cases “in which a State shall be Party,” Nebraska and Oklahoma filed their complaint in the Supreme Court of the United States. (
For various technical reasons (e.g., standing, non-commandeering) legal commentators are dismissive of the lawsuit. The Court may also find it difficult to formulate a remedy to inaction.

In a sense, the state of Colorado is participating in a criminal enterprise, but the federal government will not act against it. Colorado cannot be compelled to enforce federal law, but can it actively assist its citizens in breaking it?

For further discussion of non-enforcement, the Federalist Society had a good panel discussion in January on the topic: "The Executive Power to Not Enforce the Law."

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Wherefore Art Thou Walls?

A lost, unpublished post from October/November 2006, but a wonderful lesson in history.

Following in the footsteps of Eugene "I-Forgot-About-Internment" Robinson, Washington Post's Joel Garreau argues that a fence on the Mexican border is pointless because... the Allies won World War II?

He begins with a poetry-based public policy:
"Something there is that doesn't love a wall," wrote Robert Frost in "Mending Wall." The poem is in part about being driven nuts by a neighbor who ceaselessly repeats "Good fences make good neighbors."
Poems are always a good basis for public policy, right? I vaguely recall a similar short story that concluded that what is most neighborly is a fence with a gate.
As part of his own version of a good neighbor policy, President Bush signed into law yesterday the "Secure Fence Act of 2006." It authorizes construction of 700 miles of new walls along parts of the 1,951-mile-long border from San Ysidro, Calif., to Brownsville, Tex. The Secure Fence Act does not include funding for the project, the cost of which is estimated to be at least $6 billion.
The first $1.2 billion was actually provided in an earlier bill.

While the Great Wall of China was designed to keep people out, the Berlin Wall was built to keep people inside; ultimately, neither structure lasted.

Starting 2,200 years ago, Chinese dynasties built walls to keep the Mongols at bay. The most famous of these is the Great Wall, which is twice as long as the U.S.-Mexico border. It did not prevent the Manchu from conquering China in 1644.

I guess this one is a math question. If we take Mr. Garreau's figures, that's somewhere around one thousand eight hundred and forty four years of effective defense.
The Romans built Hadrian's Wall across 74 miles of what is now northern England to keep the tribes from Scotland in their place. This did not prevent the Romans from eventually abandoning this outpost of empire.
Hadrian's Wall served as an effective border for more than two centuries and inspired other border fortifications throughout the Roman Empire.
The Berlin Wall was a shock because it was intended to keep people in. To this day, hefting chunks of it can feel spooky. Maybe it's all in the imagination, but those shards of pebble and concrete still seem to give off a palpable chill of evil.
And it kept people in - for almost three decades.
However, history tells us that walls usually work the other way.
That would mean walls draw people in. Those aren't walls, those are escalators.
After World War I, the French built the Maginot Line to slow down the Germans. The Germans invested in high mobility. When they moved, they drove and flew around and over this wall. They were well into France in five days.
The existence of the Line made getting around and over it one of the primary tactical goals of a major industrial nation (hence the investment mentioned above). The Maginot Line suffered from the same kind of short-sighted thinking that almost brought about France's defeat in World War I.
During World War II, to defeat an Allied invasion, the Nazis built the Atlantic Wall along the west coast of Europe from the French-Spanish border to Norway. It included 6 million mines in northern France, concrete pillboxes, machine guns, antitank guns, light artillery and underwater obstacles. Devotees of "Saving Private Ryan" know how that movie ends.
Devotees of "Saving Private Ryan" also know how that movie begins, with a difficult and bloody invasion. No soldier remarked "I'm so glad the Nazis fortified the coast, it will make our invasion so much easier."

It sounds like Mr. Garreau needs an apology trip to Normandy American Cemetery, where nearly ten thousand American soldiers are buried - men who I doubt share Mr. Garreau's cartoon-like views of the Atlantic Wall.

A quote "devotees of 'Saving Private Ryan'" should recall:
"Every inch of this beach has been pre-sighted. You stay here, you're dead men."
Besides all the bad history, the attempt to draw analogies between organized invading armies and illegal immigrants seeking work and welfare should be very disturbing.

One of the founding premises of cities -- from the beginning of fixed settlements 8,000 years ago -- was that you were safer inside their walls than out.

"The archetypal chieftain in Sumerian legend is Gilgamesh: the heroic hunter, the strong protector, not least significantly, the builder of the wall around Uruk," writes Lewis Mumford in "The City in History."

That wall evolved into the medieval walls of Vienna, raised against the Turks, along with walls around cities from Avignon to Fez. The expression "beyond the pale," now meaning beyond acceptable behavior, once referred to things outside walls made of palings, forming a palisade of poles.

The example of Vienna is particularly instructive, since it was at Vienna in 1529 and 1683 that the Muslim Ottoman Empire was repelled from Central Europe. The walls saved Vienna.
Walled cities with gates that closed at night existed in China in the 20th century. In America, the walled city was represented by frontier stockades like Fort Laramie in Wyoming. Artillery and airplanes decreased the strategic effectiveness of city walls. Many of them were torn down. The small Tuscan city of Lucca, however, neglected to modernize, and now is the richer for it, with tourists coming to see its walls.
Should we be anticipating illegal immigrants with "artillery and airplanes"?
The conceptual artist Christo even loved a Roman wall enough to wrap it in cloth in 1974.
That's... nice.
As this recitation suggests, not only can walls be beautiful and quaint, they are reassuring. They unquestionably show that the leaders are doing something.
And they work.
It will be interesting to see what effect our latest wall has. With some 350 million legal crossings per year, the U.S.-Mexico boundary is the most frequently crossed international border in the world, according to the American embassy in Mexico City.
There isn't really a point here except to remind us why it might be good for those crossings to be through legal points of entry.
Once walls existed to keep one culture from taking over another culture, but in this case, that battle has long since been lost by both sides. There is a broad swath of North America from the Pacific to the Gulf, and from Denver to very deep into Northern Mexico -- as far as Cabo San Lucas and San Luis Potosi -- where it is increasingly difficult to know where abstractions like the United States and Mexico begin and end.
Given the DC Metro system's recent replacement of incomprehensible English announcements with incomprehensible Spanish announcements, that's an interesting point, but again, not the purpose of the border fence.
According to the book of Joshua in the Bible, Jericho was a city of walls. When determined enough people challenged them, they came tumbling down.
So now not only do American leftists want to take God out of public discourse, but they want to take him out of the Bible too? Jericho fell because God delivered it to the Israelites who in turn slaughtered and razed all but the house of Rahab. The city did not fall because of unpopular walls, but because of an act of God and Israelite invasion.

History teaches us this: walls help and when they don't, you were going to lose either way.

Monday, January 05, 2015

When Poverty is not Poverty and Wealth is not Wealth

The New York Times notices that states are not all the same. Richard Florida writes:
Red state economies based on energy extraction, agriculture and suburban sprawl may have lower wages, higher poverty rates and lower levels of education on average than those of blue states — but their residents also benefit from much lower costs of living. For a middle-class person, the American dream of a big house with a backyard and a couple of cars is much more achievable in low-tax Arizona than in deep-blue Massachusetts. As Jed Kolko, chief economist of Trulia, recently noted, housing costs almost twice as much in deep-blue markets ($227 per square foot) than in red markets ($119).
This is a perfect example of why the federal government should not be in the business of deciding who is poor and who is rich. Without cost of living, the largest of which is housing, setting minimum wages, poverty lines, and even tax brackets can never be fair. (And with so much variation across the country, attempting to consider cost of living at a federal level would quickly become unmanageable.)

We relocated from Washington DC to rural South Dakota in January 2013. The cut in pay was substantial--from nearly six figures to approaching the federal proverty line--but our actual standard of living did not decline. Housing costs were no longer consuming every other paycheck. But for federal policymakers, $27,910 in South Dakota is the same as $27,910 in New York City.

We do not need the federal government to penalize "red states" for the difficulties "blue states" have made for themselves (Mr. Florida's main concern later in the article). We need to let state and local governments know their own economies and serve their own people.