The $11,000 Op-Ed

Felix Salmon isn't too impressed with any of the three main candidates to replace Larry Summers as head of the NEC. Roger Altman and Richard Levin both have substantial ties to Wall Street, and then:

Finally there’s Sperling, who in some ways is the worst of the three when it comes to grubbing money from Wall Street. The other two have well-defined and easily-understood jobs; Sperling, by contrast, signed up with the Harry Walker Agency and started giving speeches to anybody with cash, including not only Citigroup but even Allen Stanford. He also wrote a monthly 900-word column for Bloomberg for $137,500 a year, which works out at about $13 per word.

This really brings things home to a scribbler like me. Being paid a million bucks a year for some kind of ill-defined financial "consulting" is one thing. I don't really know anything about what that entails. But writing? I know all about that, and $11,000 for an op-ed is a wee bit excessive, no? At least, it is if it's really just the writing you're paying for.

Darrell Issa's Agenda

Dave Weigel says that Darrell Issa's trash talk about Barack Obama being "one of the most corrupt presidents in modern times" is just that: trash talk. It's gaining him the spotlight, and now that he's got it he's going to pursue a fairly ordinary investigatory agenda:

Issa's in roughly the same position that John Conyers and Henry Waxman were in when they took over their committees in 2007. At one point, both of them went on record saying they'd consider ("keep an open mind" was Waxman's phrase) impeachment hearings. Voila, instant attention, instant pushback from leadership, and they went on to investigating the stuff that they'd intended to, like the U.S. attorney firings.

Issa became a national figure by taking a bank shot and bankrolling the petition to force the 2003 California recall; if anything he's savvier about media coverage than either Conyers or Waxman. He's got people primed for a 1995 redux of investigations of picayune scandals, but his talk about those scandals are only the entry point into what he really considers "corrupt." That's liberalism and corporatism, transparency about the ugly kludges that marked our response to the recession.

Maybe so — though I'm not sure Issa is quite as savvy as all that. Remember, when he bankrolled the recall of Gray Davis in 2003, it was because he figured it would make him California's next governor. That turned out to be a somewhat less than savvy read of the political situation.

That said, Weigel may be right about Issa's agenda. Still, my experience is that, for the most part, it's best to take politicians at face value. There aren't nearly as many of them pursuing clever three-bank shots as pundits tend to think. Issa's agenda will probably be 80% fairly normal conservative harassment, but I'd be surprised if the other 20% wasn't some pretty crazy red meat Dan Burton-esque lunacy. He may well decide that ACORN and the New Black Panthers are yesterday's news, but just wait. New stuff like that will crop up, and Issa probably won't be able to resist diving in.

Reducing Uncertainty

Republicans have been concerned about regulatory "uncertainty" holding back economic recovery, and the compromises reached during the lame duck session certainly helped to reduce uncertainty. However, the Wall Street Journal reports that at least one source remains:

The Republican gains in Congress in November's election added new questions to the outlook for health-insurance costs borne by companies. Since then, some party leaders have said they aim to reverse or at least starve the Obama health-care law; meantime, lawsuits challenge some aspects of it. "You don't know where it's going to go," said Robert J. Olson, CEO of Winnebago Industries Inc., a maker of motor homes.

So I guess the Republican caucus will listen to the business community and abandon its efforts to repeal little bits and pieces of the healthcare reform law. Right?

(Actually, it really is possible that both the healthcare sector and the business community in general, after they take a look at what kind of chaos might ensue from ad hoc partial defunding, will put some real pressure on Republicans to stand down on this. That would be an interesting turn of events, no?)

Foxes and Henhouses

Andrew Samwick writes about the well-known problem that employers — both private and public — have been underfunding their pension plans for years:

There is nothing inherently wrong with a defined benefit pension plan, but its implementation has been a challenge in both the public and private sectors. It is a promise to pay compensation in the future. To honor that promise responsibly, the plan sponsor needs to fund it adequately in the time interval between when the promise is made and when it is kept. Simply put, that hasn't been happening in large private sector plans and in most public sector plans. The problems are worse in the public sector because voters don't pay as much attention to the financial bottom line as shareholders do and because the accounting standards are sharper for private sector plans than public sector plans. For many years, elected officials have been making promises that future (now, near-future) taxpayers are not going to want to keep.

This seems like a problem that really could be solved via privatization: instead of allowing employers to self-fund their pensions, require them to use an outside fund (or funds). An outside fund would insist on contributions being adequate to fund projected payouts since they're the ones on the hook to make good. No gameplaying tolerated. And as long as there are enough funds out there, competition would keep them from going in the other direction and demanding contributions that are excessive.

What am I missing here? (Aside from the fact that employers wouldn't like the idea of not being allowed to play games, that is?) A whole swath of regulations would be required to make this work, but surely nothing more complicated than what we already have. Almost anything seems better than allowing employers to decide for themselves what's adequate and what isn't.

Parking Regulations

Matt Yglesias on requirements that businesses provide parking for their customers:

For the millionth time this isn’t something that needs regulating. Land is a valuable commodity. And ability to park one’s car is also valuable. Property owners in any given area are perfectly capable of evaluating what portion of land should be dedicated to parking based on the market demand for parking relative to the demand for other uses of land.

Requirements in cities and suburbs vary, but here in the burbs the general idea behind parking regulations is to make businesses pay for their own externalities instead of fobbing them off on other people. If I provide parking for my customers, and someone opens up next door and decides not to bother, then his customers will take up all my spots. If neither one of us provides enough parking because there's a neighborhood nearby, then our customers will take up street parking that owners of existing houses have paid for and are accustomed to using. In both cases, there are people who would like to regulate parking in order to make life more convenient and prevent free riding.

Now, if your goal is simply to reduce the amount of parking so that it's a pain in the ass and people will drive less, that's fine. It's a pretty roundabout way of doing it, but whatever. But if your goal is to match parking spaces to cars, then it's simply not true that property owners are the best judges of how much parking is needed. Like profit maximizers anywhere, they'll do their best to provide as little parking as possible and instead try to free ride on the parking that other people have already created and paid for.

If there were an efficient way to allow customers to park only in spaces specifically paid for by each business, then property owners could be left alone to determine their own parking requirements. But that's rarely the case. Thus, regulations.

Friday Cat Blogging - 31 December 2010

I think it's probably daft to pretend that I'm going to find something worthwhile to blog about today if I just keep staring at the computer long enough, so let's get straight to Friday Catblogging and call it a year. Unfortunately, even though I've had two weeks to get my act together, I haven't taken any fresh pictures of the furballs lately. So last night at 8:59 I decided instead to treat you all to a bit of cinéma vérité: Inkblot and Domino at snack time. Unfortunately, they didn't really put on a very good show. Still, vérité is vérité, and this is truly a slice of real life, dramatic qualities be damned. Sometimes life just isn't very dramatic. But still cute.

And with that, happy New Year, everyone. See you on the other side.

Convex Mirrors Coming to America?

Here's an entry from the annals of "things I've always wondered about but never had the energy to bother checking on": Why don't cars in the United States have convex driver's side mirrors? They sure seem to make sense to me, but who knows? Maybe there's something unsafe about them that I haven't thought of.

As it turns out, I still don't know. The proximate answer, of course, is that they're illegal, but I don't know why they're illegal. The reason is probably buried in the mists of time. However, according to the New York Times, the Department of Transportation, after a grueling three-year process, is thinking about maybe, just possibly, allowing carmakers to use them. Mike O'Hare, who is a positive sink of information about the most obscure topics imaginable, comments:

Thinking about bureaucrats in DOT taking three years to make a decision worth maybe half a day, having spent a couple of decades to even engage the question, through all of which millions of drivers outside the US have been running an enormous demonstration program showing the superiority of convex driver’s-side mirrors, can make a libertarian’s day.

....There’s more to the convex mirror than the Times story records. Not only is the field of view wide enough to cover the left-hand blind spot, but a convex mirror doesn’t have to be dimmed to prevent cars behind you from blinding you at night. Now, if we could get them in the right place, which is on the fender, visible through the dashboard so you don’t have to take your eyes off the road to be aware of what’s going on behind you, we’ll be making some real progress. For this location, they have to be convex, because at that distance, the field of view of a flat mirror is much too narrow. I’ve had convex fender mirrors (very hard to find, and it’s a nuisance to make a flat panel to replace the stock abortions on the doors) for twenty years and would never go back. I suppose I’m courting a ticket, but so far, no problems.

I still don't know why flat driver's side mirrors have been mandated in the U.S. for so long, so be sure and enlighten us in comments if you happen to know the answer. In any case, it looks like our long national nightmare may soon be over. Just please don't tell any conservatives that DOT is considering this change so that U.S. rules will be "harmonized with European requirements." You know how they feel about euro-weenies.

Snowy LA?

This was posted a few minutes ago on Andrew Sullivan's blog:

WTF? Is this a window facing a backlot at Universal Studios? We've had monsoon-like rain around here lately, but I haven't seen any snow yet. Or perhaps this is somewhere on the Tejon Pass, just barely within LA County and therefore technically "Los Angeles" even though it's 40 miles from the actual city?

Beats me. It's a pretty picture, though.

UPDATE: Turns out the picture is from Virginia Beach, not Los Angeles. Good to know that I'm not going crazy.

Krugman's Waterloo

Paul Krugman on NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg's hapless response to the city's recent blizzard:

He just faced a major test of crisis management — and it’s been a Brownie-you’re-doing-a-heck-of-a-job moment.

Krugman, again, a few minutes later:

Update: Commenters are right: I shouldn’t have been so casual about the comparison to New Orleans, where so many people actually died. I was thinking too narrowly of the political aspect, of the collapse of an undeserved reputation for competence; but the dead deserve more respect.

Can I vent? Krugman's crack wasn't in any way disrespectful to New Orleans, it was just a comparison that used a cultural touchstone that everyone would instantly recognize. Likewise, if you tweet that the world would be better off if someone were dead, it's not "eliminationist" rhetoric, it's just water cooler conversation from someone whose temper is frayed. No one thinks you really want to take out a contract on someone. And analogies to World War II aren't meant to trivialize Nazis, they're just handy comparisons that most people will understand because World War II is really famous.

This kind of "How dare you!" reaction is way too common in response to casual comments. Sure, we should all be careful with our smart remarks, but the outrage brigade needs to ease up. Either that or they need to start getting equally upset over "_____'s Waterloo" formulations. A lot of people died there too.

Five Books

This was kind of an odd year in books for me. I actually read a fair number of books that I liked, but not very many that I really liked. For example, at the beginning of the year I inhaled a whole slew of books on the financial crisis: Too Big To Fail, This Time Is Different, Fool's Gold, 13 Bankers, Econned, The Big Short, and Ship of Fools. They were all pretty good, and they all focused on different aspects of the crisis. But I don't know that I'd really recommend any one of them as the book to read on what happened. For me, the whole year was a bit like that.

Still, with that said, here are my picks for the best five nonfiction books I read this year (though not necessarily published this year):

  1. Winner-Take-All Politics, by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson. In this book, Hacker and Pierson explain the political foundations of growing American income inequality by focusing on the rise and fall of institutional pressure groups. I wish they'd spent more time on the mechanics of how legislation and regulatory changes have affected income distribution, but overall it's a masterful explanation. More here.
  2. Stayin' Alive, by Jefferson Cowie. This is primarily a book about the decline of organized labor in the 70s. Cowie intersperses this with chapters about music in the 70s (thus the title), and I don't think this conceit actually works very well: the music stuff is often interesting in its own right, but I don't think it illuminates the rest of the story the way he thinks it does. But that's a nit. The bulk of the book is a detailed and engrossing political history of a decade that too many people either ignore or misunderstand, and it's an excellent, highly readable primer for anyone whose knowledge of politics basically starts with Reagan. Highly recommended.
  3. The Promise, by Jonathan Alter. There were several books published this year about Obama's first year in office, and this was the only one I read (because the publisher sent me a free copy). So I can't say for sure that it's the best of the lot. But it's pretty good: a nicely written, deeply reported look at the world as Obama sees it. For political junkies a lot of it is inevitably a recap, but there's new stuff as well, and it provides a pretty good sense of why things happened the way they did during 2009.
  4. How Soccer Explains the World, by Franklin Foer. This is several years old, but I only got around to reading it this year, just before the World Cup started. As it turns out, it doesn't really explain the world, but it does explain a lot about soccer, including my perennial favorite: why the hell are soccer fans so crazy? I'm still not sure I know, but at least I'm closer to knowing.
  5. How Wars End, by Gideon Rose. This is just what its title says: a book about how American wars have ended over the past century and why they've ended (or continued to sputter on) the way they did. Rose's basic thesis is that (a) politicians routinely screw up by not thinking hard enough about what to do after wars end, and (b) they're too obsessed with not repeating the mistakes of the previous war, which blinds them to ways in which the current war is different, not just a rerun of some previous fight. In some ways I think his take on (a) is a little unfair, simply because the complexity of planning well for a postwar environment is really, really hard, but his illumination of (b) is pretty compelling. I've noticed the same dynamic myself over and over, but this is the first book I've read that really laid out the problem methodically.

They're all good books, but the top two are the best books I read all year. So if you're only going to read one, read one of those.