Comments on economics, mystery fiction, drama, and art.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Is this any way to run a superpower? This is all--all--from one NYTimes article

 "And while Mr. Obama liked policy option papers that were three to six single-spaced pages, council staff members are now being told to keep papers to a single page, with lots of graphics and maps...“The president likes maps,” one official said."
One page, with lots of graphics and maps...and how much space does that leave for, you know, WORDS?

"Three weeks into the Trump administration, [National Security council] staff members get up in the morning, read President Trump’s Twitter posts and struggle to make policy to fit them. Most are kept in the dark about what Mr. Trump tells foreign leaders in his phone calls..."

"...what is happening under the Trump White House is different, officials say, and not just because of Mr. Trump’s Twitter foreign policy. (Two officials said that at one recent meeting, there was talk of feeding suggested Twitter posts to the president so the council’s staff would have greater influence.)"

"New Trump appointees are carrying coffee mugs with that Trump campaign slogan into meetings with foreign counterparts, one staff member said."

"Mr. Trump’s council staff draws heavily from the military...Many of the first ideas that have been floated have involved military, rather than diplomatic, initiatives."

"Last week, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was exploring whether the Navy could intercept and board an Iranian ship to look for contraband weapons possibly headed to Houthi fighters in Yemen...But the ship was in international waters in the Arabian Sea, according to two officials. Mr. Mattis ultimately decided to set the operation aside, at least for now."

  "Paper flow, the lifeblood of the bureaucracy, has been erratic. A senior Pentagon official saw a draft executive order on prisoner treatment only through unofficial rumors and news media leaks. He called the White House to find out if it was real and said he had concerns but was not sure if he was authorized to make suggestions."

"Officials said that the absence of an orderly flow of council documents, ultimately the responsibility of Mr. Flynn, explained why Mr. Mattis and Mike Pompeo, the director of the C.I.A., never saw a number of Mr. Trump’s executive orders before they were issued. One order had to be amended after it was made public, to reassure Mr. Pompeo that he had a regular seat on the council."

"Two people with direct access to the White House leadership said Mr. Flynn was surprised to learn that the State Department and Congress play a pivotal role in foreign arms sales and technology transfers. So it was a rude discovery that Mr. Trump could not simply order the Pentagon to send more weapons to Saudi Arabia — which is clamoring to have an Obama administration ban on the sale of cluster bombs and precision-guided weapons lifted — or to deliver bigger weapons packages to the United Arab Emirates."
 My comment:  Cluster bombs are anti-personnel weapons. And in Saudi Arabia, that means they are intended for use against civilians.

"Several staff members said that Mr. Flynn, who was a career Army officer, was not familiar with how to call up the National Guard in an emergency — for, say, a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina or the detonation of a dirty bomb in an American city."

And there's much more.

Did 14% on non-citizen residents vote? Not just no, but there is no evidence that any significant number of non-citizen residents voted.

If you keep hearing about an "academic study" which concludes that 14% of the non-citizen residents of the US voted, here's what the people who do the survey on which that study is based have to say about it:
"We found that NONE of the 85 individuals in the 2010-2012 panel survey who indicated that they were non-citizens in 2010 and again in 2012 in fact voted."…/10/trumps-bogus-voter-fraud-cla…/

They use a panel study approach, in which the sample consists of a fairly large group of people who are interviewed or fill out a survey response form repeatedly over time. They can then identify some response errors (e.g., someone who checked the "citizen" box in one year and the "non-citizen" box in another). And the sample of non-citizens is really small--85 in the repeated sample (none of whom claimed to have voted, you will note).

The people who maintain the database allow other people to use it for research purposes, but they are not the ones who did this research, about which they say: “The Richman and Earnest study is an incorrect use of the survey that we manage, and a false claim of evidence of non-citizen voting. It’s a dangerous, stray false-fact.”

12 February

The Second Inaugural Address

Fellow-countrymen: At this second appearing to take the oath of the presidential office, there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement, somewhat in detail, of a course to be pursued, seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself; and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago, all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it—all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union, and divide effects, by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war; while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered—that of neither has been answered fully.

The Almighty has his own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses! for it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through his appointed time, he now wills to remove, and that he gives to both North and South this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to him? Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, "The Judgments of the Lord are true and mighty altogether."

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the Intergenerational Compact

Just posted this (with minor modifications here) as a comment on Claire McCaskill's FB page:

Here's the thing. The Republicans, led by Paul Ryan, intend to make massive cuts to Social Security, to Medicare, and to Medicaid. The threat is much less to those of us who have retired and are signed up with Medicare and are receiving our SS payments (although the threat to Medicaid is real--so many seniors depend on it to pay for nursing home care--that I'd almost place protecting Medicaid above protecting SS and Medicare, for those of us over 65).

The REAL threat is to those younger, especially those 40 & older. They have (largely) built savings portfolios on the assumption that SS and Medicare (and, again, Medicaid) would continue to provide their current levels of standard of living for (future) retirees. THOSE are the people who are going to be really screwed--their benefits stolen, but without time to change the course of how they prepare for retirement.

Ryan and his acolytes are aiming to break the generations-long inter-generational compact that SS is, and they are hoping that those of us who will not be harmed don't care enough about the trailing generations to ACT. We need to prove them wrong.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

The status of international students and faculty

My letter to the president of DePauw University, where I received by B.A.
Dr. Mark McCoy
DePauw University

Dear Dr. McCoy:

I read today this article in the Detroit Free Press (…/university-michigan-studen…/97183426/), and I am writing you to urge that DePauw University take similar actions to protect its international students and its international faculty. I know from my own experience at DePauw (1965-1969) how important it is to be able to work with and learn from students and faculty members whose backgrounds, cultures, and experiences are different from my own, and I also know that DePauw has worked very diligently over the years to expand that part of its student body and of its faculty.

As has become clear, the new national administration is committed to making the position of non-citizens in the US more difficult, and in making opportunities for people from other countries to come here as students and residents (which, of course, includes potential faculty members) more difficult. Indeed, it seems anxious to close, rather than open doors.

I hope DePauw will honor its own past, and America's past, and provide, to the best of its ability, a safe place for students and faculty from all parts of the world to learn and to grow.

Donald A. Coffin
Emeritus Associate Professor of Economics
Indiana University Northwest
DePauw University Class of 1969

Friday, January 20, 2017

Unity? No thank you

I recently posted this as a comment on a FB page on which the page owner was calling for unity as we inaugurated a new president.
The time for politics is never over. Politics is how we mediate between different visions of a future for our country; politics is how we attempt to find ways to compromise. Politics is how we oppose policies and actions that we believe are destructive. To the extent possible, we should engage in politics with grace, dignity, and civility, without demonizing people whose politics are different from ours. But to put aside politics is not to demonstrate love for America, it is to abdicate our responsibilities as Americans.

Unity is not, particularly a virtue. Unity when there are strong differences between our conceptions of a good society means that we have given up, or been frightened or coerced into silence. Unity when there are sincere disagreements is to fail in our responsibilities as citizens.
I hope those of us who oppose the policies of Donald Trump and Paul Ryan can oppose them successfully, and with grace and dignity. But to oppose them, we must engage in politics. And politics can be divisive. That's life. We lived through divisiveness for the past 8 years, and the 8 years before that, and the 12 before that. As long as I can remember, there have been divisions. Franklin Roosevelt was reviled. Truman was referred to as too dumb to be president. Eisenhower was condemned for being a genial, passive figurehead. Kennedy was despised enough that many people actually, publicly, welcomed his assassination. Johnson was reviled, first, for pressing for civil rights legislation, and then for the war in Viet Nam. Nixon...well, let's not go there...

Play fair, yes. Don't lie, yes. Don't distort the other person's ideas, yes. Don't use fear and hatred to gain support for your policies, yes. As far as possible, treat your opponents with respect, yes. Give up your principles? Not ever. And if the people on the other side lie and fear-monger and race-monger and treat large numbers of our fellow Americans with disrespect, call them out for it. Play fair, fight hard for what you believe in. And try to make the world a better place.

But unity? No thank you. Not now. Probably not ever

Monday, January 09, 2017

Todd Rokita and the Revival of the Employment-At-Will Doctrine

I'm not sure how I missed this. One of Indiana's members of the House of Representatives (Todd Rokita) has introduced amendments to the Civil Service laws which would, essentially, eliminate civil service protections. (The linked website is a government employees' organization.)
This is apparently language from the proposed legislation:
Notwithstanding any other provision of law, any employee in the civil service (as that term is defined in section 2101 of title 5, United States Code) hired on or after the date that is 1 year after the date of enactment of this Act shall be hired on an at-will basis. Such an employee may be removed or suspended, without notice or right to appeal, from service by the head of the agency at which such employee is employed for good cause, bad cause, or no cause at all.
This is commentary:
In addition, the bill would
• Deny any pay adjustment whatsoever to workers who fail to receive a performance rating above “fully successful” in a new, management-designed rating system that would inevitably allow subjectivity, favoritism, and politics to influence ratings.
• Allow the government to deny earned pensions to any current or future employee who is convicted of a felony.
• Eliminate an employee’s right to representation at the worksite by no longer allowing union representatives to resolve disputes, address issues of discrimination or retaliation, or propose improvements in the workplace during the workday.
• Allow agencies to continue workplace investigations even after employees have quit or retired.
• Allow political appointees to demote career executives and reduce their pay without cause.
I spent a significant part of my professional life teaching labor economics, and two things I tended to point out a lot were:
1) Labor law in the US was, in the 19th century, essentially what was called the "employment at will doctrine"--the employer "owned" the job, could hire (or fire) anyone at any time using any criteria he (the employers were almost always men) chose. Discipline was at the discretion of the owner. Compensation was set by the owner (subject only to "market forces").
2) A recurrent theme in the first half (say, until 1970 or so) of the 20th century was restrictions on the "employment at will doctrine." Child labor laws, banning "yellow dog contracts" (google that if you don't know what it means), the National Labor Relations Act, minimum wage and overtime pay laws, anti-discrimination laws..
But now it seems as if we are seeing a resurrection of the "employment at will" doctrine. It disturbs me greatly.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

More Universitiy Campuses?

Noah Smith has a column at Bloomberg View arguing that the US needs not just to consider ways of subsidizing college & university attendance (as, for example, Andrew Cuomo's recent proposal, basically adopting Hilary Clinton's campaign proposal, which played off Bernie Sanders' proposal)--we should consider creating new campuses.  Why?  Because the capacity of the existing system is limited, and enrollment expansion without expanding capacity simply rearranges who get in.

His proposal emphasizes public institutions.  But I don't see why private institutions should be ignored.  For example, a number of private schools have been known to refer to themselves as "the Harvard of the Midwest."  Well, what about a real Harvard campus in the Midwest?  Or a Sarah Lawrence campus in Oregon?  Or (perhaps less plausibly) a University of Chicago campus in Georgia?  Princeton on the Plains?  Columbia on the banks of the Columbia River?  Dartmouth in Dallas?  Yale...well, you get the idea. 

Harvard, for example, has essentially the same undergraduate enrollment now that it had in 1965 (when I started college).  In 1965, it admitted about 20% of the students applying.  Now, it admits fewer than 5%.  The "elite" institutions (like the ones I have mentioned above) have similarly had relatively constant undergraduate enrollments,  large increases in applicants, and lower acceptance rates.*  The increases in applications have been driven by rising US population (now nearly 320 million, up from about 190 million in 1965) and by a huge increase in global demand for US higher education (driven by rising populations and rising incomes).

Obviously, the demand for enrollment at top-tier schools has exploded. "Standard" economics tells us that tuition will rise--and it has.  But "standard" economics also suggests that those institutions experiencing increased demand would respond by increasing capacity.  One might argue that, were Harvard (etc.) to expand its current campus, that the quality of the experience would decline.  But a new campus could maintain the scale, and, whatever the Harvards of the world might think, there are enough highly qualified faculty that educational standards would not decline. 

Many private colleges and universities have created new campuses--overseas.  Why not create new campuses in the US as well?

*This is not true just at "elite" institutions.  My undergraduate school--DePauw University, in Greencastle, IN, has also experienced a large increase in applications--and has reduced its undergraduate enrollment by about 10% since I was there.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

As the Republicans consider how to "repeal and replace" the ACA

Jon Kingsdale, who is a faculty member at Boston University School of Public Health has written a post for Vox  in which he makes quite clear that the Republican pledge to "repeal and replace" the Affordable Care Act (a/k/a Obamacare) will be very, very hard to fulfill; you should read his critique.  But then we get this:

It sounds implausibly optimistic, but the only way out of this dead end may be for Republicans to reform the ACA, even as they claim to have done away with it. There are many ways to do this, but my favorite is to punt the issue to the states, as Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) has suggested. The basic idea is to preserve most of the federal funding for the ACA, but vastly expand its state waiver provision, allowing each state to design its own replacement — or not — with its share of the federal dollars. States could enact mandates and market reforms that mirror the ACA (as Massachusetts did, before Obamacare existed), or modify them, or take entirely different approaches. Such approaches might range from Medicaid for all uninsured to high-risk insurance pools for those denied individual coverage.

Well, if you want "implausibly optimistic," this would be it.  The notion that creating 50--51, counting DC, and even more when we consider the territories (Guam, the Marianas, Puerto Rico...)--separate health care insurance systems is a solution truly boggles the mind.  One of the factors that has made the US economy as strong as it has historically been is the ease with which people can move in response to opportunities--better opportunities in the places to which they move.  As economist Timothy Taylor has pointed out, mobility has been declining, and quite rapidly, in the US since the 1970s (from more than 20% of the US population moving from one place to another in the 1950s and 1960s to 12% in recent years).  As he points out, we don't have a good grip (empirically) on why this is.  But, clearly, anything that raises the costs of mobility will tend to reduce mobility,

And being faced with the prospect of losing one's existing medical insurance, having to negotiate the process of re-acquiring new health insurance, being faced with inconsistent and perhaps conflicting requirement about such things as continuity of coverage will raise the costs of mobility.  The US economy would become just that much less flexible, that much less responsive to new opportunities, that much less entrepreneurial.* 

Far from devolving health care to the states, the truly realistic--albeit radical--solution is to move immediately to a single payer, unified system, with adequate (i.e., probably better than today's average) coverage being universal and consistent across geography, across income levels, and across age.  Moving to single-payer would, ultimately, mean the end of Medicare and Medicaid--they would no longer be needed.  It would end the issues involved with medical care being highly dependent on where one lives, or who one's employer happens to be (this week, or this year).  But making the system even more complex is a scary an idea.

Not as scary as what I am afraid the Republicans are likely to come up with, but that's a different, but perhaps more pertinent issue.

*The decreased rate of new business formation in the US--the decline in entrepreneurial activity--is a separate, but extraordinarily important issue.