Welcome to the Club

Michael Barone draws our attention to the following quote.

It seems plausible to wonder if government can build a nation abroad, fight social decay, run schools, mandate the design of cars, run health insurance exchanges, or set proper sexual harassment policies on college campuses, if it can’t even fix a 232-foot bridge competently.

Which pajama-clad libertarian said that? None. It’s Larry Summers, a former Harvard president, Clinton Treasury Secretary, and a leading figure in the liberal-Democrat establishment. The bridge he’s referring to spans the Charles River in Boston.

Of course, it must be noted that Summers has supported a lot of those government interventions, including running health insurance exchanges, i.e., Obamacare. That stuff was all bad for America, but it was generally good for the Ruling Class, which includes Summers. Maybe he feels just a tinge of regret.

Anyway, here’s a more pithy version of Summers’ point.

Everything government touches turns to crap.

–Ringo Starr

Is Measured Productivity Becoming Less Accurate?

Measured productivity growth in recent years has been alarmingly low; only about 0.5% per year since 2010. This compares to a postwar average of 2.3%, and about 1.8% since roughly accurate records began about 120 years ago. Economists at Goldman-Sachs, however, believe that measured productivity understates actual productivity, and that the discrepancy has increased since 2000. The reason for the increased measurement error, according to the theory, is specialized and unpriced goods in the technology sector.

[G-S chief economist Jan] Hatzius: “We think it is more likely that the statisticians are having a harder and harder time accurately measuring productivity growth, especially in the technology sector. The key issue, in our view, is the shift in the center of gravity from general-purpose IT hardware to special-purpose hardware, software, and digital products.”

And that “shift” Hatzius mentions makes productivity measurement more difficult in two ways. First, economists are not very good at measuring quality improvement in software and special-purpose hardware versus in general-purpose hardware like PCs.  Second, free goods such as Facebook and Google Maps don’t show up in GDP. Hatzius thinks they should. Taking all that into account, Hatzius has generated an alternate measure of productivity.

The alternative measure implies that the measurement error in conventionally reported productivity growth has increased by about 0.7% since 1995, but only 0.4% since 2000. Even after making these adjustments, however, recent productivity growth still seems low. The adjustment implies productivity growth of maybe 1.2% since 2010, barely half the postwar average. In contrast, adjusted productivity growth from 1999-2006 clocked in at about 2.7%.

Economist Hatzius says he expects productivity to pick up over the next few years. We’ll see.

Not-So Settled Science: Salt Edition

Everybody knows that salt is unhealthy and that Americans consume too much salt. That’s Settled Science, after all. And on that basis, New York City is moving to require restaurants to label the salt content of food.

New York City plans to start enforcing a first-of-its-kind requirement for chain restaurants to use icons to warn patrons of salty foods after getting an appeals court’s go-ahead Thursday to start issuing fines. But it’s not the final word on whether the regulation will stand.

The novel rule took effect in December, and some eateries already have added the requisite salt-shaker-like icons to menu items that contain more salt than doctors recommend ingesting in an entire day.

But penalties have been in limbo as the National Restaurant Association fights the measure in court. That clash is ongoing, but an appeals court Thursday lifted a temporary hold on issuing the fines while the case plays out. Fines can be up to $600.

The city will start enforcing the rule June 6.

[…]

The average American consumes about 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day, while the recommended limit is 2,300 mg, or about a teaspoon. Experts say eating too much salt, over time, can increase the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease.

Ah, but as Tom Maguire points out, recent scientific evidence is overturning that conventional view.

People with high blood pressure are often told to eat a low-sodium diet. But a diet that’s too low in sodium may actually increase the risk for cardiovascular disease, a review of studies has found.

Researchers reviewed four observational studies that included 133,118 people who were followed for an average of four years. The scientists took blood pressure readings, and estimated sodium consumption by urinalysis. The review is in Lancet.

Among 69,559 people without hypertension, consuming more than seven grams of sodium daily did not increase the risk for disease or death, but those who ate less than three grams had a 26 percent increased risk for death or for cardiovascular events like heart disease and stroke, compared with those who consumed four to five grams a day.

In people with high blood pressure, consuming more than seven grams a day increased the risk by 23 percent, but consuming less than three grams increased the risk by 34 percent, compared with those who ate four to five grams a day.

So 4000 to 5000 mg seems to be optimal, and less than 3000, dangerous. Americans consume on average 3400, and “experts” recommend no more than 2300. If the latest research is correct, therefore, the ‘expert’ advice would harm people’s health. If anything, Americans would be better off eating on average a bit more salt, not less.

We don’t want anybody ruling over us, experts or otherwise. But we’d be somewhat less opposed to letting the technocrats rule if they actually knew what the hell they were talking about.

In the video below, Mort Satin, the soi-disant Salt Guru, explains why the official salt advice is harmful to health.

Go Salt Guru Go!!

Surprise! Sanders Ducks Question about Venezuela

About two weeks ago we argued that somebody in the media should ask Bernie Sanders about the failure of socialism in Venezuela.

The grim situation in Venezuela got us thinking: Has anybody in the press asked Bernie Sanders about this? I mean, here’s a guy who explicitly advocates socialism, and who to date has won something like 19 statewide contests for the Democratic presidential nomination. Has anybody bothered to ask him why socialism isn’t working in Venezuela? Are the Venezuelans just not doing socialism right? Maybe Bernie should go down there and show them how to do it correctly.

Well, as far as we know, nobody has questioned Sanders from America’s state-controlled media. But in contrast, the Spanish-language network Univision did not feel so reticent. In an interview, Univision asked Sanders directly about the failure of Venezuela’s “socialist model.” In reply, Sanders…refused to answer!

LEÓN KRAUZE, UNIVISION: I am sure that you know about this topic: various leftist governments, especially the populists, are in serious trouble in Latin America. The socialist model in Venezuela has the country near collapse. Argentina, also Brazil, how do you explain that failure?

BERNIE SANDERS, DEMOCRATIC CANDIDATE: You are asking me questions…

LEÓN KRAUZE, UNIVISION: I am sure you’re interested in that.

BERNIE SANDERS, DEMOCRATIC CANDIDATE: I am very interested, but right now I’m running for President of the United States.

LEÓN KRAUZE, UNIVISION: So you don’t have an opinion about the crisis in Venezuela?

BERNIE SANDERS, DEMOCRATIC CANDIDATE: Of course I have an opinion, but as I said, I’m focused on my campaign.

Let’s face it; the political left is not known for intellectual honesty.

You know, many on the left consider themselves atheists, and hold in contempt people of religious faith. But truthfully, socialists deny reality more than do any religious adherents. Religion involves belief in things that can be proven neither true nor false. Socialists are worse, because they continue to believe in a system that has been proven a failure by one hundred years of experience.

Gas Cans Suck–Thanks to The Federal Government

Jeffrey Tucker has a pretty good rant about the new gas cans that don’t work–thanks to the federal government.

The nozzle doesn’t quite go in. I tilted it up and tried to jam it in.

I waited. Then I noticed gas pouring all down the side of the car. So I pulled it out and experimented by pouring it on the ground. There was some weird contraption on the outside and it wasn’t clear how it worked.

I poured more and more on the ground. Some got on my shoe. Some got on my hands. Some got on my suit.

Gas was everywhere really — everywhere but in the tank. It was a gassy mess. If someone had lit a match, I would have been a goner.

Finally I turned out the crazy nozzle thing a few times. It began to drip in a slightly coherent direction so I jammed it in. I ended up putting about one cup of gas in, started my car and made it to the gas station.

I’m pretty sure gas cans used to work. Yes. It was a can. It had a spout. It had a vent hole on the other side. You stuck in the spout and tipped. You never saw the gas.

Then government “fixed” the gas can. Why? Because of the environmental hazards that come with spilled gas. You read that right. In other words, the very opposite resulted. Now you cannot buy a decent can anywhere. You can look forever and not find a new one.

Instead you have to go to garage sales. But actually people hoard old cans. There is a burgeoning market in kits to fix the can.

The whole trend began in (wait for it) California. Regulations began in 2000, with the idea of preventing spillage. The notion spread and was picked up by the EPA, which is always looking for new and innovative ways to spread as much human misery as possible.

An ominous regulatory announcement from the EPA came in 2007: “Starting with containers manufactured in 2009… it is expected that the new cans will be built with a simple and inexpensive permeation barrier and new spouts that close automatically.”

The government never said “no vents.” It abolished them de facto with new standards that every state had to adopt by 2009. So for the last five years, you have not been able to buy gas cans that work properly. They are not permitted to have a separate vent. The top has to close automatically. There are other silly things now, too, but the biggest problem is that they do not do well what cans are supposed to do…

There is no possible rationale for these kinds of regulations. It can’t be about emissions really, since the new cans are more likely to result in spills. It’s as if some bureaucrat were sitting around thinking of ways to make life worse for everyone, and hit upon this new, cockamamie rule.

These days, government is always open to a misery-making suggestion. The notion that public policy would somehow make life better is a relic of days gone by. It’s as if government has decided to specialize in what it is best at and adopt a new principle: “Let’s leave social progress to the private sector; we in the government will concentrate on causing suffering and regress.”

Whenever bureaucrats actually do anything, they make our lives worse. The best we can hope for is that they just cash their paychecks and talk football around the water cooler.

In any event, online forums, particularly those related to boating, are full of comments by people bitching and moaning about the new cans. In one of those comment threads, somebody asked if it’s possible to fill a non-approved can such as a water can or jerry can at a gas station. No, came the reply, if they see you they will shut off the pump. That reply induced a frustrated commenter to speculate that there must have been more freedom even in Nazi Germany. Well, Nazi Germany was not in fact freer in every respect, but it’s true that under the Nazis you could as least go to a gas station and fill a jerry can. After all, they invented it!

Another response to the new cans is that people have posted loads of amusing youtube videos on how to hack the cans to make them work properly. For instance, in the video below, the hack involves drilling an air vent and plugging it with a tire valve stem. The problem with this hack, however, is that ethanol in the gas will cause the valve stem to deteriorate.

And why does the gas contain ethanol?

Washington Post: We Need to Ban Porn Because Donald Trump

In case we needed any more evidence that the political left has gone all-in with the Female Imperative, washingtonpost.com this week published a piece calling for a ban on pornography. And what is the specific social harm that justifies such a ban? Well, we read the article pretty closely, and here’s the only specific alleged social harm attributed to pornography.

Even the rise of Donald Trump provides evidence of pornography’s social harm. How to understand the success of Trump’s makeup-caked, misogynistic candidacy, except as an eruption onto the political stage of the pornographic subterrain?
If you cringe at Trump’s sneering misogyny, then join me in calling for a ban on the thing that made his crude appeal possible. Pornography’s enjoyments may be private, but its harms are inescapably public.

So pornography is “the thing” that made the rise of Donald Trump possible. We’ve read a number of different theories attempting to explain Trump’s support, but this one really takes the caked makeup.

But it’s not just that the article insanely links Trump to pornography. It’s that in justifying a ban, the only specific ‘social harm’ the article cited was Trump. No other specifics. Literally, we need to ban pornography because Trump!

Meanwhile, here’s a link to an article in Scientific American (“The Sunny Side of Smut”) that cites several peer reviewed studies suggesting that porn actually decreases the incidence of rape.

Needless to say, the Washington Post article cited none of those peer-reviewed studies. Such are the intellectual standards of the Washington Post.

Government Competence: Can’t Make This Up

This story is from three years ago, but we just ran across it.

The Internal Revenue Service is under fire again for sending $46.3 million dollars in tax refunds to one address in Atlanta, according to a 2012 Treasury Inspector General audit now gaining renewed attention through social media.

The audit report blamed IRS management for ignoring a tax loophole that allowed individuals to defraud the government.

“It’s ludicrous,” said Darrell Bell of Marietta. “How do you miss something like that? That’s crazy.”

The total was $46.3 million, but how many different checks were sent to this same address?

Answer: 23,994 refunds sent to the same Atlanta address.

Government bureaucrats. What else can we put them in charge of? Health care? Education? What could possibly go wrong?

Settled Science Update: The Origins of Civilization

For many decades, scholars believed that the invention of agriculture gave rise to civilization and also to organized religion. Agriculture meant that people no longer needed to remain on the move, searching for food. People for the first time could stay in one place and build permanent settlements and structures. As the settled population grew, religion developed as a way of establishing a social hierarchy and maintaining social order. The sequence of events can be summarized as follows:

Agriculture => Settlement => Civilization => Religion.

This sequence of events was very widely accepted by scholars–settled science, so to speak. But in just the last 20 years, a single archeological site in Turkey has turned the conventional wisdom on its head.

[D]ozens of massive stone pillars arranged into a set of rings, one mashed up against the next. Known as Göbekli Tepe (pronounced Guh-behk-LEE TEH-peh), the site is vaguely reminiscent of Stonehenge, except that Göbekli Tepe was built much earlier and is made not from roughly hewn blocks but from cleanly carved limestone pillars splashed with bas-reliefs of animals—a cavalcade of gazelles, snakes, foxes, scorpions, and ferocious wild boars. The assemblage was built some 11,600 years ago, seven millennia before the Great Pyramid of Giza. It contains the oldest known temple.

The amazing thing about Göbekli Tepe is that it is an example of monumental architecture built by people who were literally stone age; they had no wheels or metal tools. Moreover, they were foragers. Agriculture had not yet been invented. For foragers to build monumental architecture is something no one even imagined possible.

Discovering that hunter-gatherers had constructed Göbekli Tepe was like finding that someone had built a 747 in a basement with an X-Acto knife. “I, my colleagues, we all thought, What? How?” Schmidt said. Paradoxically, Göbekli Tepe appeared to be both a harbinger of the civilized world that was to come and the last, greatest emblem of a nomadic past that was already disappearing. The accomplishment was astonishing, but it was hard to understand how it had been done or what it meant. “In 10 or 15 years,” Schmidt predicts, “Göbekli Tepe will be more famous than Stonehenge. And for good reason.”

Given that the site appears to have served a religious purpose, the story of civilization would seem to start with religion. Accommodating this new evidence now seems to require reversing the historical sequence of events to put religion at the beginning and agriculture near the end. A common religion would have helped to foster settlement by increasing trust and cooperation among people.

Religion => Settlement => Agriculture => Civilization

That’s an amazing reorientation of our understanding of human history.

And the broader lesson is that science is never ‘settled.’

Obama Okays Rapists at College

The political left keeps telling us that rape is endemic on college campuses, even though FBI statistics indicate that rape incidence is actually lower on campuses than in the rest of America. But that fact hasn’t stopped the left from pursuing various policies, including suppressing fraternities and setting up kangaroo courts, to deal with the alleged problem of ‘rape culture.’

Fen’s Law, however, states that the left does not really believe any of the things they lecture the rest of us about. And so, consistent with Fen’s Law, the Obama Administration is now telling colleges they have to accept convicted criminals, presumably including convicted rapists. The Administration has even introduced a new Orwellian euphemism for students with criminal records: “justice-involved students.” As if they’re majoring in criminal justice or something.

The Obama administration has ordered the nation’s colleges and universities to stop asking applicants about criminal and school disciplinary history because it discriminates against minorities… Colleges and universities are to take it a step further by offering students with criminal histories special support services. This is to include targeted academic and career guidance as well as counseling, legal aid services, mentoring and coaching. “Institutions should recruit and train peer mentors with previous justice involvement to work with justice-involved students to ensure a smooth transition to postsecondary education and provide support and resources throughout their time at the college or university,” the new directive states. “These peer mentors could begin their work by acting as navigators who help acclimate justice-involved students to the educational institutions.” Perhaps colleges and universities should also start sending recruiters to jails across the country.

Now, if the left really cared about campus rape, why would they act to make it easier for rapists and other criminals to gain admission to college? Also, if they really care about getting tough with campus rapists, why do they adjudicate rape cases in campus tribunals rather than, you know, calling the police, and letting the justice system handle it? Rape tribunals, incidentally, would never fly in the corporate world. If corporate America starting adjudicating rape cases with internal committees, the left would howl with rage. So why is the same policy OK in academia?

One day, some coed will be raped or murdered by some ‘justice-involved’ student, and hardly anybody will remember that Obama and his minions made it possible.

Fen’s Law turns out to be remarkably accurate. And the reason for its accuracy is that leftists, regardless of what they claim, always act solely in the interest of enhancing their own status and power.

Free Speech Hardly Exists

If you ask most Germans if their country has freedom of speech, they will respond affirmatively. And German law, on its surface, seems to support that position.

Freedom of expression is granted by Article 5 of the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany, which also states that there is no censorship and freedom of expression that may be limited by law.

But the reality of free speech in Germany is that a court scrutinizes a poem to determine which lines may be publicized and which may not.

A court in the German city of Hamburg on Tuesday banned the author of a poem lampooning Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan from publicly reciting passages from his work.

The court ruled that only six lines of the 24-line poem by German comedian Jan Boehmermann could be recited, offering the Turkish leader a partial legal victory.

If that’s freedom of speech, what does censorship look like?

Now let us direct your attention to Canada. Most Canadians, like most Germans, believe their country has freedom of speech. And Canadian law makes assertions to that effect.

Freedom of expression in Canada is guaranteed by section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms:

2. Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms: … (b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication…

But in practice, freedom of speech in Canada looks like this.

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A true regime of free speech would be able to accommodate a debate on whether people with penises should be allowed in the ladies’ room. It follows that a law placing that debate off limits is not concordant with freedom of speech.

The political class in Western countries has done a remarkably good job convincing the peons that they have freedom of speech when in fact they don’t.