Then and Now, Part Trois

Our third installment of Then and Now is inspired by the police response to a shooting last weekend at a mall in Columbia, Maryland (second pic below).
















police_now2It appears that our cash-strapped governments somehow managed to scrape up enough money to purchase some military police gear.

Great Moments in Parenting and the Drug War

Via the always entertaining Newark Star-Ledger:

It was a case of snap, crackle and pot.

Police say a New Jersey man mixed Rice Krispies and oregano and sold it as marijuana to a 17-year-old for $210.

Lakehurst Police Sgt. Ron Heinzman tells the Asbury Park Press the teen told her mother she had taken the money to pay for half an ounce of marijuana. Police were called when the mother and girl confronted 22-year-old Richard Erving on Wednesday.

Erving is charged with distribution of imitation marijuana.

The girl is charged with a drug offense.

This raises some interesting questions:  If Mr. Erving was selling “real” marijuana he could be charged for selling the “real” thing.  But, it must also be illegal to sell “fake” marijuana thus defrauding customers trying to make illegal purchases?  It might also be illegal to resell Rice Krispies and oregano without a New Jersey food vendor’s license, so he might have been charged even if he provided full disclosure about the ingredients. 

Now on the consumer side I’m not sure what bothers me more.  The fact that this 17 year old girl was stupid enough to try to buy drugs and end up paying $210 for Rice Krispies and oregano or that she later complained to her mother! or that her mother’s reaction was to take her back to the “drug dealer” to get a refund!!  Actually, the fact that more than a penny of taxpayer money will be spent on any of this nonsense is the biggest crime here. 

Update: French union thugs

Back in July we wrote about the French labor union that was fighting to prevent Goodyear from closing a money-losing tire plant. The union’s antagonistic attitude toward management was exemplified by their t-shirts, emblazoned with the words Patrons Voyous–“thug bosses.” Earlier this month, however, the union revealed who the real thugs were by…wait for it…kidnapping their managers.

Two Goodyear managers who had been held hostage for more than a day inside a company factory in France regained their freedom Tuesday afternoon after police intervened.

French union workers, angry that the plant in Amiens was going to close, took Michel Dheilly, the plant’s direction of production, and Bernard Glesser, the head of human resources, captive on Monday and held them overnight. The union was seeking assurances about bonuses and severance packages for the factory employees who will be out of jobs when the plant closes before the end of this year.

Goodyear refused to come to the negotiating table as long as its employees were being held against their will.

The “boss-napping,” as this practice is known, was yet one more entry in a history of violence that has marked the Amiens plant in recent months. In March, workers protested, burned tires and fought with riot police.

Other unions in France have pulled-off similar kidnappings.

During the economy’s nadir in 2009, French workers of Sony, Caterpillar and other companies held managers hostage to send a message about layoffs and severance pay.

But labor lawyer Sylvain Niel told the Associated Press that agreements made under such circumstances were later nullified in court. This should come as no surprise, given that the tactic amounts to a textbook definition of kidnapping and extortion.

It’s textbook kidnapping and extortion that goes unprosecuted by the French government. What’s more, we suspect that the authorities and the media would take a rather different view if the roles were reversed. Imagine the hue and cry if management kidnapped workers and held them hostage until they signed a contract.

Such selective enforcement of the law constitutes a form of lawlessness by the French government. And as usual, lawlessness is very bad for business and for the economy.

Until kidnapping managers becomes a thing of the past, bosses in France should watch their backs.

Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg himself attempted to find a buyer for the plant last year. But so far, no one has stepped forward.

Gee, can’t imagine why.

The declining murder rate: Social progress?

Surveying what’s left of our culture and our society engenders a gloomy foreboding. All the social indicators seem to trend in the wrong direction. The number of households on food stamps only goes up, as does the illegitimacy rate. Labor force participation keeps falling; the national debt keeps rising. The quality of governance seems only to get worse. The Christian Science Monitor, however, claims to have found a social variable that’s actually trending in the right direction. As part of its “Progress Watch” series, the Monitor runs an article with the title “US crime rate at lowest point in decades.”

The last time the crime rate for serious crime – murder, rape, robbery, assault – fell to these levels, gasoline cost 29 cents a gallon and the average income for a working American was $5,807.

That was 1963.

This statement, however, is true only for murder, not for the other three crimes mentioned: rape, robbery, assault. A look at the FBI crime statistics shows that the rate per capita of all these crimes was much higher in 2012 than during the mid-1960s. Compared to 1964, the rate is now 2.4 times as high for rape, 1.6 times for robbery and 2.6 times for assault. The violent crime rate overall is now about twice as high.

The murder rate, however, is indeed at its lowest level in about 50 years, which would seem to suggest some type of social progress. Maybe people, for whatever reason, are not trying to kill each other as often. But why would people kill less but at the same time do so much more raping and assaulting? Why is murder in particular so out of step with other violent crimes?

Mike Anissimov, writing at More Right (a blog that apparently uses a WordPress template very similar to this blog’s), might have pinpointed the answer. Anissimov links to a research summary published in the British Medical Journal back in 2002. The research claims to demonstrate that the decline in the murder rate is attributable to advances in trauma care.

Murder rates would be up to five times higher than they are but for medical developments over the past 40 years.

According to new research, doctors are saving the lives of thousands of victims of attack who four decades ago would have died and become murder statistics…

In the research he and a team from Massachusetts University and Harvard Medical School found that technological developments had helped to significantly depress today’s murder rates, converting homicides into aggravated assaults.

“Without this technology, we estimate there would be no less than 50 000 and as many as 115000 homicides annually instead of an actual 15 000 to 20000,” they say in a report of the study in the journal Homicide Studies.

The team looked at data going back to 1960 on murder, manslaughter, assault, and other crimes. It merged these data with health statistics and information on county level medical resources and facilities, including trauma centres, population, and geographic size. The researchers then worked out a lethality score based on the ratio of murders to murders and aggravated assaults.

They found that while the murder rate had changed little from a 1931 baseline figure, assaults had increased. The aggravated assault rate was, by 1997, almost 750% higher than the baseline figure.

The team also described the dramatic overall decrease in trauma mortality in the second half of the 20th century.

The period of greatest change came between 1972 and 1977, on the heels of the US involvement in the Vietnam war, which triggered big advances in trauma care.

The team found that at county level significant drops in lethality of assault were linked to availability of high levels of care. The impact of a county simply having a hospital also had a significant impact, reducing lethality ratios by as much as 24% a year.

Improvements in medical care must also have played a role in the declining homicide rate before 1960. For instance, Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution reproduces the following chart showing a dramatic downward trend in the homicide rate going back to 1700.

Homicide_1700Note, however, that despite the apparent downward trend, the rate in 1980 was higher than in 1900. If not for the improvements in medical care, the homicide rate in recent years would have been comparable to, and perhaps much higher than, the rate during the historically violent years leading up to the Civil War.

Furthermore, the downward trend in the homicide rate also reflects demographic changes. In the comments to Tabarrok’s post, “Asher” points out that most murders are committed by young men. Compared to the past, young people now comprise a much smaller percentage of the total population, simply because life expectancy has increased. As Asher puts it, “Some of the change is not related to people being less murderous but rather to fewer people in the demographic category to which almost all murderers belong.”

Given the above considerations, it seems that a downward trend in the murder rate does not necessarily provide an indicator of social improvement such as better policing, more social harmony, etc. Medical care has improved and continues to improve, yes. But society, no.

Ballpark Security

This is sad.  Over time, this will be seen as normal and our children and grandchildren will laugh at our tall tales about being able to go to a baseball game without any security checks:

NEW YORK (AP) — Entering a big league ballpark will be a bit like going through an airport by 2015. Major League Baseball has told its 30 teams they must implement security screening for fans by then, either with hand-held metal detection or walk-through magnetometers. “This procedure, which results from MLB’s continuing work with the Department of Homeland Security to standardize security practices across the game, will be in addition to bag checks that are now uniform throughout MLB,” baseball spokesman Michael Teevan said Tuesday.

Corporate Welfare

It looks like citizens in Sacramento are successfully fighting back against a $700 million corporate welfare arena boondoggle being pushed by Mayor (and former NBA All-Star point guard) Kevin Johnson. The large and growing peer-reviewed economics literature on the economic impacts of stadiums, arenas, sports franchises, and sport mega-events has consistently found no substantial evidence of increased jobs, incomes, or tax revenues for a community associated with any of these things.  The tide might finally be turning in the pork barrel battle:

Sacramento Taxpayers Opposed to Pork, better known as STOP, reached an important milestone in their campaign to put a public subsidy for a new arena on the June ballot Friday.
The Sacramento County Registrar of Voters said that the group surpasses its required number of petition signatures.

No, UD profs, communism doesn’t protect the environment

French scholars put together The Black Book of Communism, which carefully documents that international communism during the 20th century was responsible for the deaths of something like 100 million people. A number of years ago, however, we heard that a UD professor thought that communism nonetheless had a silver lining–protecting the global environment. The professor was telling his students that a downside of the demise of communism was that the newly capitalist countries would produce more pollution. The professor’s idea is an interesting one. Interesting because no one with even a casual acquaintance with the facts of reality could take it seriously for even a nanosecond. Colin Grabow, in a new article at, shows that communism was in fact much worse, and capitalism much better, for the environment.

When the Berlin Wall came down and the Iron Curtain was finally lifted to expose the inner workings of communism to Western eyes, one of the more shocking discoveries was the nightmarish scale of environmental destruction. The statistics for East Germany alone tell a horrific tale: at the time of its reunification with West Germany an estimated 42 percent of moving water and 24 percent of still waters were so polluted that they could not be used to process drinking water, almost half of the country’s lakes were considered dead or dying and unable to sustain fish or other forms of life, and only one-third of industrial sewage along with half of domestic sewage received treatment.

An estimated 44 percent of East German forests were damaged by acid rain — little surprise given that the country produced proportionally more sulphur dioxide, carbon dioxide, and coal dust than any other in the world. In some areas of East Germany the level of air pollution was between eight and twelve times greater than that found in West Germany, and 40 percent of East Germany’s population lived in conditions that would have justified a smog warning across the border. Only one power station in East Germany had the necessary equipment to clean sulphur from emissions.

East Germany even had a town in the running for the title of Most Polluted Town in the World.

Pronounced by Der Spiegel as Europe’s dirtiest town, Greenpeace as well as government statistics suggested it may have been the filthiest in the entire world. Home to a variety of manufacturing facilities which spewed a witch’s brew of chemical and industrial byproducts into the air and water, Bitterfeld was nothing less than an environmental horror show. This is how the Washington Post’s Marc Fisher described the town in the spring of 1990:

“Here, rivers flow red from steel mill waste, drinking water contains many times the European Community standards for heavy metals and other pollutants, and the air has killed so many trees — 75 percent in the Bitterfeld area — that even the most ambitious clean-up efforts now being planned would not reverse the damage. East Germany fills the air with sulfur dioxide at almost five times the West German rate and more than twice the Polish rate, according to a recent study. One chemical plant near here dumps 44 pounds of mercury into the Saale river each day — 10 times as much as the West German chemical company BASF pumps into the Rhine each year.”

Writing for The New York Times in September of that year, reporter Marlise Simons said of Bitterfeld that “[t]he air stings, and the water in brooks and rivers has turned to syrup[.]” And a 1994 article in the UK newspaper The Independent recalled that in communist times the town’s leaves would turn brown by June, a local guest-house featured “gas-masks lining the walls of the lobby,” and that in the years since reunification “Bitterfeld’s children were sent for up to a month each year to the coast or the mountains” to give their lungs a break from the relentless assault.

The problem was not confined to East Germany. All the other East Bloc countries were polluted too.

[A] 1992 Cato Journal paper noted that “[c]hildren from the Upper Silesia area of Poland have been found to have five times more lead in their blood than children from Western European cities,” while half of the region’s children suffered from pollution-related illnesses. Some areas of Romania, the paper added, experienced such heavily polluted air that horses were only allowed to stay for two or three years.

A similar story was found in the Soviet Union. Writing for the now-defunct (and Ralph Nader-founded) Multinational Monitor in September 1990, James Ridgeway noted widespread pollution of both the air and drinking water:

“40% of the Soviet people live in areas where air pollutants are three to four times the maximum allowable levels. Sanitation is primitive. Where it exists, for example in Moscow, it doesn’t work properly. Half of all industrial waste water in the capital city goes untreated. In Leningrad, nearly half of the children have intestinal disorders caused by drinking contaminated water from what was once Europe’s most pristine supply.”

A 1996 Russia country study published by the Library of Congress’ Federal Research Division described the country’s air as “among the most polluted in the world,” and found that 75 percent of its surface water was polluted and 50 percent of all water not potable according to 1992 quality standards.

The Soviets trashed the environment.

The Soviets trashed the environment.

The author of this article not only did a superb job summarizing the evidence of environmental destruction, he even put his finger on the economic reason why communism was so bad for the environment: the lack of property rights.

[C]ommunism means an absence of property rights, having all been surrendered to “the people,” which is to say the state. As that which belongs to everyone in fact belongs to no one, who is to be confronted over the factory sending toxic plumes into the sky which then descends on the cornfield, or the dumping of waste into the river plied by tourists on cruise boats? And who really owns the cornfield or the boats?

Property rights are in fact the single most important reason why capitalism is better than communism at protecting the environment. So long as property rights are enforced, nobody can pollute someone else’s resource without compensating them.

In any event, the idea that communism was good for the environment is so ludicrous that the UD professor who espoused it became a laughingstock on campus, so that he was embarrassed to even show… Oh, who are we kidding. As far as we know, nobody on campus ever expressed disagreement with him. Except us. We ran into students who believed him, and when we tried to set them straight, a lecturer from finance told us we were wrong. A lecturer with a PhD.

Bill Nye, the Junk Science Guy

The polar vortex phenomenon hit the continental U.S. this week and temperatures at Chateau Yet, Freedom! plunged to -9F (-23C) with wind chills as low as -33F (-36C). Television producers naturally wanted to book ‘experts’ to discuss the science behind the frigid weather, and so they did what they usually do, they chose guests on the basis of their television experience, rather than their scientific expertise. Hence the audience for CNBC was subjected to the not-so-deep pensés of Bill Nye, Disney’s ‘science guy.’

Now, recall that the Political Class, never wanting to let a crisis go to waste, is very much in favor of promoting the agenda of climate change. And it so happens that Bill Nye is a member in good standing of the Political Class, having served on the national board of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a notoriously political organization that, back during the days of America’s Cold War struggle against Soviet tyranny, did the bidding of the Soviet side by advocating for the U.S. to unilaterally disarm. Not surprisingly, therefore, Bill Nye on CNBC linked the polar vortex to climate change:  “What if this polar vortex is the way it’s going to be often over the coming decades.”

Princeton University physicist Will Happer, in an interview with Climate Depot, set the record straight.

Polar vortices have been around forever. They have almost nothing to do with more CO2 in the atmosphere…Here is a thumbnail sketch of the physics. The poles have little sunshine even in summer, but especially in winter, like now in the Arctic. So the air over the poles rapidly gets bitterly cold because of radiation to dark space, with negligible replenishment of heat from sunlight. The sinking cold air is replaced by warmer air flowing in from the south at high altitudes. Since the earth is rotating, the air flowing in from the south has to start rotating faster to the west, just like a figure skater rotates faster if she pulls in her arms. This forms the polar vortex. The extremely cold air at the bottom of the vortex can be carried south by meanders of the jet stream at the edge of the vortex. We will have to live with polar vortices as long as the sun shines and the earth rotates.

A phenomenon, you say, caused by the rotation of the earth? Wouldn’t be the first

Bill Nye: I'm not a scientist, but I play one on TV.

Bill Nye: I’m not a scientist, but I play one on TV.

time that Bill Nye confused a consequence of the earth’s rotation with global warming. Back in 2007, on CNN’s Larry King Show (see the video below), Nye repeated a pet theory of scare mongers, claiming that fresh water from melting ice could cause the Atlantic Gulf Stream to shut down, which in turn would cause Europe to freeze. This notion was refuted by another panelist, Richard Lindzen, the Sloan Professor of Meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Nye was talking about fresh water perhaps shutting down the Gulf Stream. But that isn’t what physical oceanographers think. First of all, we’ve measured the heat transport from the tropics to high latitudes. It’s almost all in the atmosphere. The Gulf Stream is mostly driven by wind. To shut it down, you’d have to stop the rotation of the earth, or shut off the wind.

Nye seems to get tripped up a lot by that tricky ‘earth’s rotation’ concept. And that wasn’t the last time Nye spewed nonsense on CNN.

On March 12, 2011, Nye made an appearance on CNN to discuss the evolving nuclear incidents in Japan as a result of the devastating earthquake and tsunami there. Nye erroneously stated that cesium is used to “slow and control” the nuclear reaction. In reality, cesium (specifically cesium-137) is a nuclear fission product, not a control rod material. Nye also erroneously stated that the nuclear reactor involved in the Three Mile Island incident is still running and that the use of boron to slow the nuclear chain reaction is uncommon, when in fact boron-10 is commonly used in control rods, and is circulated in the coolant of reactors in the United States, as well as stored on site as a method of emergency shutdown.

In a video available here, Nye, referring to the world population, says that “By the time people in 4th grade are my age, there could be 12 or 15 billion.” The United Nations estimate for the likely range of the world population at mid-century is 8 to 10.5 billion.

Man, this guy is wrong almost as often as Paul Krugman.

But in closing, let’s return to the interview with the real scientist, Princeton’s Will Happer, which included this interesting story about how the polar vortex saved America.

About this time of year in 1777, just before the Battle of Princeton, there was a similar sequence. On January 2, Cornwallis’s men marched south from New York City through cold rain and muddy roads to try to trap George Washington and his little Continental Army in Trenton . On the night of January 2-3, a polar vortex swept across New Jersey, with snow and a very hard freeze. Aided by the extremely cold weather, Washington was able to evacuate his troops and artillery over newly frozen roads and to avoid Cornwallis’s encirclement. Reaching Princeton on the viciously cold morning of January 3, Washington won another battle against the British and escaped to winter quarters in Morristown. Thank you polar vortex!




Corruption in New Jersey?

It’s pretty obvious that Christie is finished. It looks like he was done in by the NJ crony political hack network. You have to ask the question: what were the qualifications of the aides who have been fired/resigned when they were hired? It seems pretty obvious that anybody with common sense would know that email is a horrible way to plan a conspiracy!

Crony Capitalism: The venture version

Hey, wanna invest your money in dubious and risky “Cleantech” (green energy) startups? No? Well, too late, because you already have. The federal government has done it for you, and most of the money has already been lost, as explained in a surprisingly enlightening report on this week’s edition of 60 Minutes (watch the whole report below).

The federal government has allocated a total of $150 billion to Cleantech – through loans, grants and tax breaks with little to show for it.

A long roster of these companies have gone belly up (Abound Energy, Beacon Power, Fisker, Solyndra, etc.), while the rest have lost more than 80 percent of market value and are on life support. A program that was supposed to create breakthrough technologies and jobs has created neither. Just more billions lost, your money and my money, everyone who pays taxes.

And notable was the following exchange between reporter Lesley Stahl and Vinod Khosla, the “father of Cleantech,” who has taken more than $100 million of taxpayer money to support his various ventures.

Lesley Stahl: The taxpayers have lost a lotta money in the general Cleantech area.

Vinod Khosla: Look, we have to take risks. And risks mean the risk of losing money.

What do you mean WE kemosabe? Khosla is perfectly free to risk his own money on these ventures, but the rest of us should not be forced to make these investments without our consent.

The idea that government must play a role in financing R&D is dubious, but there do exist some valid arguments in favor. As the 60 Minutes report points out, however, in the Cleantech field the government wasn’t even supporting the research stage so much as the manufacturing stage.

But under the Obama Stimulus Act, the government wasn’t just supporting research. With Cleantech it was shoveling money to build assembly lines, helping startups in the manufacturing phase.

At the manufacturing phase, the only justification for government intervention is a bogus jobs argument that doesn’t hold up.

Stahl then interviews an executive from a Chinese company that gobbled up an American Cleantech firm at a fire sale price.

Lesley Stahl: There’s something that just doesn’t feel right about a Chinese company coming in and scooping it all up after the taxpayers put so much money into it.

Pin Ni: My answer will be: Do we like the capitalism or not? If we do, that is the capitalism.

No way, dude. That’s not capitalism. That’s crony capitalism. Big difference.

Venture capitalism–trying to pick winners–should be practiced only by the private sector, not the government. When the government does venture capitalism, it is spending someone else’s money, and nobody ever spends someone else’s money as prudently as they spend their own. With the government involved, economic considerations will inevitably yield to political considerations and cronyism.