2009 - %3, December

A New WPA?

| Tue Dec. 1, 2009 1:40 PM EST

Megan McArdle writes about why a WPA-style jobs program would be unlikely to work in 21st century America:

My father was the head of a trade association for the heavy construction industry, and most of my closest relatives either work for the government, or have done so in the past.  As you can imagine, over my lifetime I've had a lot of conversations about government procedure and government projects.  Every so often I'll read some description of a project out of the olden days — the battle against malaria in Panama, the handling of the Great Mississippi Flood, or the creation of the WPA — and just marvel at how fast everything used to be.  The WPA was authorized in April of 1935.  By December, it was employing 3.5 million people.   The Hoover Dam took 16 years from the time it was first proposed, to completion; eight years, if you start counting from the time it passed Congress. 

Contrast this with a current, comparatively trivial project: it has been seventeen years since the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor was established by USDOT, and we should have a Record of Decision on the Tier II environmental impact statement no later than 2010.  This for something that runs along existing rail rights of way, and in fact, uses currently operating track in many places.

....Many of the procedural hurdles involve court rulings, concerning law which Congress cannot overturn in some cases (due process), or isn't going to (civil rights legislation, civil service protections).  The obstacles arise out of things that individually, people, specifically Democrats, like: transparency, due process, environmental care, civil rights, unionism.  Cumulatively, they are devastating to federal productivity.  But it's hard to get much support for repealing or altering them individually — which is what you would have to do.

I think there's a lot of truth to this.  In fact, the last time I wrote on this subject, I got into an email exchange with a guy who thought I was wrong and explained in detail exactly how big infrastructure projects could be ramped up more quickly.  But it was one of those "assume a can opener" moments.  Sure, there are ways that projects could be speeded up, but first you'd have to pass a whole bunch of laws preempting current regulations and then win a bunch of court fights over them.  Even if you could do it, it would take years.

But anyway, here's a question: where can we find a reasonably trustworthy list of "shovel ready" infrastructure projects?  At a bare minimum this means projects that have been approved by local authorities and have already gone through the environmental impact process.  Is there such a thing?

Alternatively, how about non-construction jobs?  Building jobs are sort of a talisman in these kinds of programs, but there's no reason that has to be the case.  So what other areas can you think of that could absorb, say, a million unskilled and semiskilled workers quickly and without impossible political pushback from a hundred different interest groups?  Let's hear it.

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War Crimes Looming, Sri Lankan General Eyes Presidency

| Tue Dec. 1, 2009 1:30 PM EST

Six months after he engineered the defeat of the LTTE (Tamil Tigers), Sri Lanka's former top general announced plans Sunday to headline a broad opposition ticket in his country's special elections in January. His bid—on the heels of one of the bloodiest and longest-lived civil conflicts in modern history—is not without international controversy.   

Sri Lanka came under heavy international criticism beginning last September, when it evicted the UN and all foreign NGOs from contested northern territories. Observers speculated that the military was gearing up for an endgame with the rebel Tamil Tigers—a separatist group from the island's ethnic Tamil minority that fought the Sinhalese majority for close to a quarter century. According to official estimates, as many as 20,000 Sri Lankan Tamil civilians were killed between January and May of this year. Six months later, 280,000 of them still languish in Displaced Persons (DP) camps; today, for the first time, 130,000 were given clearance to leave what observers have described as an "open-air prison". A recent US State Department report implied that both the president and the general (among others) may be responsible for war crimes. And yet, between Sri Lanka's president and its army chief, the battle is more about who deserves the glory than who should take the blame. 

Sunday's announcement comes after weeks of political infighting between the sitting President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and ex-Army General Sarath Fonseka. The president accused the general of hogging the spotlight, and 'promoted'  him to a largely ceremonial post, from which the general promptly resigned. Now, with early elections looming, Fonseka's lobbing criticism at the government, which he says continues to impinge freedom of the press (foreign reporters were barred from the country in the final weeks of fighting and access to DP camps is still severely restricted) and has done too little to resettle refugees. 

Playing Chicken With Republicans

| Tue Dec. 1, 2009 1:23 PM EST

I'm as intrigued by an unusual bit of contrarianism as the next guy, but Tyler Cowen seriously jumps the shark here:

Another example of misleading good vs. evil thinking stems from the budget.  Many people believe:

3. "If the Republicans win, they will irresponsibly cut taxes and do nothing real to control spending."  You may have even seen this view in the blogosphere.

One response to this is 4. "We should ensure that the Republicans do not win and criticize them every chance possible."

An alternative response is 5. "Sooner or later the Republicans will in fact win and I cannot prevent that.  Right now the Democrats should spend less money, given the truth of #3.  In this regard the Republicans, although evil, are in fact correct in asking the Democrats to spend less money, if only to counterbalance their own depravity."

I do not see many people entertaining #5.

No, I suppose not.  "I think we should rein in social spending in order to create some budget room for more tax cuts for the rich in 2017" really doesn't seem like a very politically savvy suggestion.

Anyway, this is hardly something that we liberals haven't thought about.  Just the opposite, actually: liberals are very keenly aware of Republican efforts to wreck the budget in order to prevent Democrats from ever spending money on their own priorities.  In fact, "keenly" understates things.  So this time around we've quite consciously decided not to let this stand in our way.  We'll do our best to keep things like healthcare reform deficit neutral, and we'll try to honor PAYGO rules, but beyond that we're at least going to try to enact some liberal social policies.  The days of scrimping on food because Dad is threatening to blow a wad in Vegas the first time we let him out of our sight are over.

And if America eventually elects Dad to the White House anyway even though he hasn't yet cleaned up his act?  Then America's in big trouble.  But at least America will have better healthcare.

Neocon Target Trita Parsi Wins $200,000 Prize

| Tue Dec. 1, 2009 12:41 PM EST

In recent months, Trita Parsi, the founder and president of the National Iranian American Council, has been the target of conservative attacks. The Weekly Standard's Michael Goldfarb implied that Parsi works for the Iranian regime. In a controversial piece for the Washington Times, Eli Lake suggested that Parsi potentially broke federal lobbying laws. Parsi and his defenders point out that there's no evidence for the first charge and say that the second charge stems from a broad campaign against him by right-wing activists who oppose President Obama's policies.

In any case, none of that controversy stopped Parsi from winning the 2010 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for "Ideas Improving World Order," which is worth $200,000. In fact, the attacks on Parsi may even have helped his cause. "We are aware of the political controversy around us, and we are expecting to get some heat as well as opening some light," Rodger Payne, the political science professor who administers the awards, told the Louisville Courier-Journal. If Payne is thinking that all publicity is good publicity, he got his wish. Over at the American Thinker, a conservative website, Ed Lasky slams the prize as an award from an "anti-Israel" group. "This is a disgrace," Lasky writes:

Rodger Payne, a University of Louisville political science professor, directs the award. He has left-wing views which is not a surprise. He thought George Bush's foreign policy was Orwellian. And he is a big believer in climate change (at least before Climate Gate).

He also is a big fan of the Israeli left and wants a one-state solution between the Israelis and the Palestinians that would inevitably lead to the destruction of Israel as millions of Palestinians who live in Gaza and the West Bank are joined by millions of refugees.

He was a research fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and at the University of Chicago. Is it a coincidence that the two men most responsible for promoting the conspiracy theory regarding Jewish control of American foreign policy (Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer) both teach at these universities?

Working at Harvard and the University of Chicago, opposing Bush's foreign policy, believing in climate change, and supporting the Israeli left? Rodger Payne truly is history's greatest monster.

Chart of the Day: Active Mutual Funds Still Suck

| Tue Dec. 1, 2009 12:20 PM EST

You probably already know this, but here's yet another paper that demonstrates the foolishness of putting money into actively managed mutual funds.  The authors used historical data and simulations to figure out if actively managed funds performed better than passive investments, and the chart on the right shows the answer: the blue line represents active funds and the red line represents the average distribution of passive investments.  The zero point on the x-axis represents average performance.

Along the entire curve, the authors found that a higher percentage of funds performed worse than passive investments.  For example, about 70% of active funds perform at zero or worse, compared to only 50% of passive invesetments.  90% perform under +1.0 compared to only 80% of passive investments.

If you drop out fees, active funds do slightly better: there are still more big losers than with passive investments but there are also a few more big winners.  When you add in fees, though, this small effect is completely swamped and active funds are lousy investments all the way around.  Don't waste your money.

Next up: could somebody please do with hedge funds?  I suspect the results would be about the same.  Via Felix Salmon.

Chuck Norris Takes on Obama's Climate One World Order

| Tue Dec. 1, 2009 12:14 PM EST

Chuck Norris is worried about climate change. Not the environmental effects caused by rising temperatures—that phenomenon, he thinks, is a "con game." No, he's worried that Obama and other world leaders are using global warming as an excuse to create "a one world order" when they meet in Copenhagen next week.

That's what Norris argued on a recent appearance on Fox News' Your World with Neil Cavuto, warning that if the US signs on to a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, "Our country as we know it now will no longer exist."

"My big worry, is that we as a nation, if we start having to be obligated to other countries ... Like, in this conference they're going to try to take our money and send it to third world countries, because of since we spend so much oil, and these other countries have suffered, then we're going to give our money to these third world countries."

In his Townhall.com column, Norris has also called attention to the phrases in draft versions of the negotiating text indicating that climate negotiations are a stealth attempt to create a unified world government:

Phrases such as "creation of new levels of cooperation," "a shift in global investment patterns," "adjust global economic growth patterns," "integrated system of financial and technology transfer mechanisms," "new agreed post-2012 institutional arrangement and legal framework," "new institutional arrangement will provide technical and financial support for developing countries," "global fund," etc., are messages that make one wonder how far this political body's arm would reach into our country and force our hands into others.

All this leads Norris to the inevitable conclusion: "Now, if that isn't one powerful intergovernmental or global-governmental group overseeing and manipulating America's and others' economic and political conditions, I don't know what is."

Video below the jump:

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Where to Buy an AK-47 for a Mentally Ill, Abusive Felon This Holiday Season

| Tue Dec. 1, 2009 11:07 AM EST

With legislation to close the gun-show loophole stalled in Congress, Virginia Tech shooting survivor Collin Goddard teamed up with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence to show just how easy it is for anyone to legally buy firearms—even individuals who would otherwise be barred from gun ownership, such as convicted felons or domestic abusers.

While most gun purchases require prospective buyers to submit to a National Instant Check System background check by the FBI, in 33 states proof of residency is all that's needed to buy firearms from unlicensed private dealers at gun shows. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives estimated that each year some 2,000 to 5,000 gun-shows take place nationwide.

In the video below, Goddard, who was shot four times in the Virgina Tech massacre that left 32 dead, buys firearms in his native Virginia and at gun-shows in Ohio, Minnesota, and Texas with the help of local activists in those states. Wearing a hidden camera, he records the purchase of a weapons cache that includes cheap handgun, a pistol with a silencer, and yes, an AK-47. Goddard and an Ohio resident were even able to obtain the Maadi Egyptian assault rifle without showing any form of ID, as federal law requires.

 

Eco-News Roundup: Tuesday, December 1

| Tue Dec. 1, 2009 8:03 AM EST

Mean Geeks: Just because scientists gossip doesn't mean their climate research isn't sound.

Solar Flares: California homeowners fight to install solar, one panel at a time. [Los Angeles Times]

Healthy Sales: Wal-Mart changed Black Friday sales to ensure fewer crowd-related deaths.

Hopenhagen: Copenhagen may be better than expected, thanks to US and China promises.

Green Tide: In Japan, green items are hot buys for the holiday season. [Planet Ark]

Temptation: Christians tout the "side hug" as an alternative to the sinful, frontal version.

 

 

 

 

 

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 1, 2009

Tue Dec. 1, 2009 6:59 AM EST

GOLESTAN, Afghanistan (Nov. 25, 2009)—Chief Hospital Corpsman Anthony Geron, left, and Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Nicholas Becker assigned to India Company, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, look out from a mountain. Marines and sailors patrol the mountain to find caves and hiding spots used by the Taliban. (US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Chad J. Pulliam.)

Need To Read: December 1, 2009

Tue Dec. 1, 2009 6:57 AM EST

Today's must reads:

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