Amateurs went hunting for the Boston bombers, and ended up hurting innocent people.
Crowdsourcing triumphalists are feeling pretty glum today. Reddit's attempt at sleuthing seems to have fallen very, very flat. Actually, that's too weak; they ended up quasi-harassing innocent people by broadcasting their pictures on the web.
There's been some justifiable worry about web vigilanteism. But I want to push back just a leetle bit. Let's not forget law-and-order disasters like Richard Jewell and Steven Hatfill, whose lives were ruined by overzealous government investigators. The problem is not with inviduals taking on government responsibility. The real problem is when anyone--civilian or law enforcement--jumps the gun with insufficient information.
Common, cheap, and deadly, ammonium nitrate is a necessary evil
As of this afternoon, the confirmed death toll in the West Texas fertilizer plant explosion is 12. 60 people are still missing, and while some of them will undoubtedly turn out to simply have been out of touch with friends or relatives, I think we have to assume that a lot of those people are dead.
This isn't the first time that a fertilizer plant has exploded.
Sgt. William Patrick Swanton, a Waco police spokesman who is helping out the city's smaller neighbor, said Thursday there was no indication the blast was anything other than an industrial accident. The Texas Department of Public Safety said it could take as many as six months to determine the cause of the fire.
The worst ever industrial accident in the U.S. was also caused by an explosion of ammonium nitrate, as was possibly the case here, and also took place in Texas. In that blast, in 1947, some 581 people died aboard a ship docked near Texas City.
Overreaction? Or a life-saver?
Shutting down a whole city to search for one man arguably sends the message that the terrorists have won: they have succeeded in closing a major metropolis. I don't know how much this will cost in lost productivity, but millions and millions would be a conservative guess.
On the other hand, it also sends another message: if you set off bombs in a public space, we will shut down the city and hunt you like vermin until we find you.
I doubt it's necessary to shut the city down in order to catch Tsarnaev. Unless he's got a plastic surgeon stashed in his back pocket, the next time he goes out in public, someone will recognize him, and he'll be caught.
On the other hand, the brothers seem to have had a lot of explosives with them. How many more people are we willing to see blown up in order to keep normal life flowing in the city? The incentives for the police and the government are pretty clear, and I'm not willing to second-guess them. Boston lost one Friday. But no one else lost their lives.
Two Chechnyan brothers have been fingered in the attack. One is dead, one still at large. Why did they do this terrible thing?
America has been attacked by a terrorist who seems to be named after Tamerlane. That's not a sentence I expected to be typing on any Friday morning, ever.
By now, you probably know the news; if not, you should read our story on it. The Boston bombers have now been identified as two brothers, 19 and 26, asylum-seekers from Chechnya who have been in the United States for at least a decade. It's not clear what motivated them, though the older brother, Tamerlan, seems to have had some sort of affinity for Al Qaeda. We don't know whether they're part of a network, or freelancers. We don't know why they did it. We do know that last night they got into a lengthy police chase during which they apparently hurled explosives at the cops. Tamerlan was shot during the chase and later died. The younger brother, Dzhokar, is still at large. Boston is effectively shut down--no trains, no busses, no schools--while police hunt for him.
Should we call them terrorists? There's as yet no public evidence that they're affiliated with a formal organization. But bombing the Boston Marathon seems like as good a definition of terrorism as any. So they're terrorists of some sort.
The worst possibility is that they are affiliated with Al Qaeda or some other terrorist network. Of course, that doesn't really alter the havoc they've wrought. But it means that Al Qaeda has decided to focus on soft targets that are hard to defend, rather than airplanes, symbolic buildings, or military targets. That would be very, very bad news.
Is Our Administrators Learning?
It's not malevolent. But the results of data secrecy can be.
While we're on the subject of Reinhart and Rogoff, Tyler Cowen has a nice little post on "Who shares data". Basically, most economists don't share data, and the ones who do are more likely to be full professors with tenure and a clear personal committment to sharing.
This seems to be pretty common in a lot of social sciences. When I was reporting on the controversy over counting Iraqi civilian casualties, there was strong wall around the data. Only a few researchers were allowed to see it, and being a strong critic of the study seemed to be an exclusion criteria for access. I was shocked--until public health researchers assured me that no, this was pretty much normal.
Which caused me to think about who doesn't share data--and why.
Before I go on, let me be clear that I'm not talking about Rogoff and Reinhart, who are in the middle of this controversy because they did share their sources. And kudos to them for that. No, this is a general meditation on a broad problem in the social sciences.
He asked for too much, and got nothing.
Adam Winkler has a quietly devastating piece on the gun control process that places the blame squarely on the tactics of the gun controllers. They waited too long, squandering the political opening afforded by Newtown. They appointed a commission to make recommendations that they could have gotten from the Violence Policy Center the day after the Sandy Hook shootings. And they asked for too much, of the wrong things. Winkler notes:
Focusing on assault weapons played right into the hands of the NRA, which has for years been saying that Obama wanted to ban guns. Gun control advocates ridiculed that idea—then proposed to ban the most popular rifle in America.
Gun control advocates have told me the assault weapons ban was intended to be a bargaining chip. Ask for the moon, settle for less—in this case, universal background checks. If that was the strategy, it backfired. For most of February and March, gun advocates focused their criticisms on the assault weapons ban. They correctly observed that it outlawed guns but did nothing to keep outlaws from having guns. And they used the time to organize their base, comprised largely of gun owners who love the AR-15 and its variations. Many gun owners might have supported background checks had they not been distracted by the assault weapons issue, which caused them to distrust gun control proponents even more than before.
I never understood why so much time was spent pushing an assault weapons ban. It was bad politics--long before a bill was even proposed, it was clear to everyone that an assault weapons ban would never pass. Moreover, the government's own research showed that the previous assault weapons ban (upon which the new one was modeled) had had little impact on shooting crime. Connecticut's existing assault weapons ban (also modeled on the old federal ban) certainly had no impact on Adam Lanza.
The subsidies will undercut their biggest selling point
Yesterday I asked whether Big Labor was turning on Obamacare, after the Roofer's union called for its repeal. This morning I got to talk to an expert who pointed out that the roofers are in a particularly unattractive position. Roofing companies are mostly small shops, which makes them hard to organize. And it just got much harder, because now open-shop roofing companies are essentially getting subsidized health insurance for their employees.
Under Obamacare, small firms don't have to provide insurance to their employees. That probably describes most of the non-union roofing firms in the country. Meanwhile, non-union roofers are going to be eligible for heavily subsidized insurance on the exchanges. Union workers get the health insurance, but no subsidy. This will mean one of two things:
1. Union workers will get paid less than non-union workers, as wages are diverted to cover the union health plan.
2. Union firms will have higher costs than non-union firms, as they cover the extra cost of an unsubsidized union health plan.
A union is calling for the law's repeal
I've been hearing for a while that unions are becoming increasingly disenchanted with Obamacare. Multi-employer union health plans cover an estimated one in six private sector workers, so they're a big enough market presence to worry about. And as with pensions and other union benefits, the structure of multi-employer plans is unique enough that they need special rules to cover them. For example, employees are not given health insurance based on the number of hours a week they work; instead, you qualify by working a certain number of hours in the quarter.
Some unions are worried that Obamacare is taking away some of the tools they use to control utilization and costs. There's also a lot of concern that these plans are going to get hit by the "Cadillac Tax" on generous health benefits. The unions are unhappy about this, and not just because health insurance is tax advantaged; they view the generosity of their benefits as both an organizing tool, and a form of social engineering. It takes the same number of hours worked to qualify for health benefits whether you're a single or a family, and the unions like it that way. They're fairly socially conservative organizations. And besides, the spouses like the benefits, which keeps 'em in the union.
Obamacare did very little to accomodate the multi-employer plans. Perhaps that was due to be hashed out in the final bill, but of course, we didn't get a final bill, because the election of Scott Brown threw everything into chaos. Instead they hastily passed what was basically a draft bill, which had done virtually nothing about the MEPs. The unions supported it anyway, undoubtedly because they were assured by the Obama administration that the problems would be fixed later. From what I understand, they still haven't been.
But until now there hasn't been an outright break, just a lot of behind-the-scenes grousing. That changed today, as the 22,000 member Roofer's union has just called for Obamacare's repeal.
Macro is hard
After yesterday's fracas, the two economists offer a lengthy response to the FT. My takeaways:
1. The coding error is confirmed. That by itself raises the mean growth rate of high-debt countries from -0.1% to 0.2%. So the negative growth result is gone.
2. Rogoff and Reinhart offer what is to me a convincing defense of their decision to omit the immediate postwar data from New Zealand, Australia, and Canada, which is that in 2010, when the paper was published, they had just gotten the postwar data from these countries, and had not yet had time to clean it up. I find this convincing because they have subsequently published using the omitted data.
3. Reinhart and Rogoff make a fairly strong defense of their decision to weight by country, rather than country year:
A much-cited figure on debt and growth comes under fire.
Bit of a bombshell in the econoblogosphere yesterday. Several economists from the University of Massachusetts are contesting one of the key findings by the authors of This Time is Different, a landmark study of financial crises and debt dynamics from Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff. At issue is their observation that once the debt-to-GDP ratio passes 90%, growth slows down dramatically.
We should be careful about what we're actually refuting. Since this critique broke, there's been a bit of strengthening up Rogoff and Reinhart's claims in order to beat them down--claiming, for example, that Rogoff and Reinhart asserted that high debt mechanically causes low growth. I've interviewed both of them about their work, and they've always been most modest in their claims, emphasizing that they've isolated an empirical regularity, not causality. While the paper under question does speculate about possible vehicles for causality, its claims are more modest than both its critics, and those who have bandied about the 90% statistic, would have you believe.
Why are there thresholds in debt, and why 90 percent? This is an important question that merits further research, but we would speculate that the phenomenon is closely linked to logic underlying our earlier analysis of “debt intolerance” in Reinhart, Rogoff, and Savastano (2003). As we argued in that paper, debt thresholds are importantly country-specific and as such the four broad debt groupings presented here merit further sensitivity analysis. A general result of our “debt intolerance” analysis, however, highlights that as debt levels rise towards historical limits, risk premia begin to rise sharply, facing highly indebted governments with difficult tradeoffs. Even countries that are committed to fully repaying their debts are forced to dramatically tighten fiscal policy in order to appear credible to investors and thereby reduce risk premia. The link between indebtedness and the level and volatility of sovereign risk premia is an obvious topic ripe for revisiting in light of the more comprehensive cross-country data on government debt.
Of course, there are other vulnerabilities associated with debt buildups that depend on the composition of the debt itself. As Reinhart and Rogoff (2009b, ch. 4) emphasize and numerous models suggest, countries that choose to rely excessively on short term borrowing to fund growing debt levels are particularly vulnerable to crises in confidence that can provoke very sudden and “unexpected” financial crises. Similar statements could be made about foreign versus domestic debt, as discussed. At the very minimum, this would suggest that traditional debt management issues should be at the forefront of public policy concerns.
It would be easy to kill lots of people every day in a place as open as America. How come it doesn't happen?
As soon as I saw the news yesterday, I called my father. Dad moved to a little town north of Boston a few years back, and for all I knew, he'd driven down to the marathon to take in the running on this beautiful spring day.
He picked up his home phone. "Are you all right?" I asked, then realized. "Of course you're all right. You're in the house."
He had no idea it had even happened. We reassured each other for a few moments, then I hung up.
I didn't write about it yesterday because I didn't know what to say. The air was full of indescribable suffering and questions for which I have no answers. Who did this terrible thing? Why?
Get rid of the corporate income tax. It's not worth it, and there are better ways to collect the money.
James Livingston, historian and author of a book on consumerism that I didn't like very much, has taken to the op-ed pages of the New York Times to suggest that we ought to get rid of payroll taxes and replace them with corporate income taxes. It is a festival of bad statistics:
So, by slashing corporate income taxes and forcing a new reliance on payroll taxes to finance government spending, we have redistributed income to the already wealthy and powerful. Our tax system has actually fostered inequality.
The fiscal problem we face is not, then, a lack of revenue sources. We can finance any amount of transfer payments and “entitlements” by taxing corporations’ profits in the same way we tax personal income, using a progressive formula. If necessary, give them a mortgage deduction — they already get something like it in the form of accelerated depreciation allowances on their purchases of capital equipment — but make them pay higher taxes on their income. Do that, and the federal deficit goes away.
The now-familiar objection to a tax increase on corporate profits is that it will discourage private investment and thus dampen job creation. The retort is just as obvious: since when have tax cuts on corporate profits led to increased investment, faster job creation and higher per capita consumption out of rising real wages? It didn’t happen after the Reagan Revolution, it didn’t happen during the Clinton boom of the 1990s, and it sure didn’t happen under George W. Bush.
As the government debt gets higher, it's harder for the central bank to raise interest rates
Carmen Reinhart has a very good, very sobering interview with Spiegel about government debt and central bank independence:
No central bank will admit it is keeping rates low to help governments out of their debt crises. But in fact they are bending over backwards to help governments to finance their deficits. This is nothing new in history. After World War II, there was a long phase in which central banks were subservient to governments. It has only been since the 1970s that they have become politically more independent. The pendulum seems to be swinging back as a result of the financial crisis.
But it is certainly more difficult for a central banker to raise interest rates with a debt to gross domestic product ratio of over 100 percent than it is when this ratio stands at 39 percent. Therefore, I believe the shift towards less independence of monetary policy is not just a temporary change.
Colony Collapse Disorder was decimating hives. So the market built more.
You may have read about Colony Collapse Disorder, the mysterious condition in which honeybee colonies abandon their hives (and, presumably, die somewhere in the wild). No one knows what causes it, though the leading candidates currently seem to be pesticides, some sort of imported parasite, or both. But it's obviously a big problem for beekeepers--and by extension, for the billions of dollars worth of crops that rely on pollination services from commercial beekeeping operations.
However, a new paper from PERC argues that it actually isn't as big a problem as the media coverage has suggested. Despite the problems, the number of hives hasn't fallen since CCD first showed up in 2006. In fact, it's risen slightly.
Why? Because beekeepers have responded to the loss of hives by creating new ones. This isn't free--the cost of pollinating some crops has definitely risen. But these are not crippling price increases. In fact, they're rather modest compared to increases that occurred before CCD reared its ugly head. The market has taken a big shock entirely in stride, adjusting prices to help keep pollination services flowing with no interruption.
Jim DeMint’s new hard-right outfit is threatening any Republican considering a ‘yes.’ By Eleanor Clift.
Did Obama lock down the independent vote with his move to reform immigration law? Newsweek and The Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky and David Frum debate the liberal and conservative perspective on the latest immigration reform.