February 2011 Archives

(HT: SM.)

Federal judge upholds Obamacare under the theory that "mental activity" is "activity" and can be regulated by Congress.

[Judge Gladys Kessler] claimed that Congress has the right to regulate mental activity that has an economic effect.

Oh, you think I am kidding? Well, dear reader, here’s a direct quote:

As previous Commerce Clause cases have all involved physical activity, as opposed to mental activity, i.e. decision-making, there is little judicial guidance on whether the latter falls within Congress’s power…. However, this Court finds the distinction, which Plaintiffs rely on heavily, to be of little significance. It is pure semantics to argue that an individual who makes a choice to forgo health insurance is not “acting,” especially given the serious economic and health-related consequences to every individual of that choice. Making a choice is an affirmative action, whether one decides to do something or not do something. They are two sides of the same coin. To pretend otherwise is to ignore reality.

So... this judge believes that Congress can literally regulate what we think. In our own brains.

Legal Insurrection says of the Commerce Clause:

The following sentence has now become a justification for regulating decision-making even where the decision is just to do nothing:
The Congress shall have power.... To regulate commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes;

I find it hard to believe that our Founding Fathers intended that interpretation.

(HT: RB.)

With everything so in flux in "the Arab world" it's hard to form a coherent thought that hasn't been expressed much more expertly elsewhere. I guess the main point to realize is that these protests mark the end of the stability that the Cold War superpowers imposed on the region. America has three goals in the Middle East:

1. Protect the flow of oil. Necessary not just for America, but for the world economy.

2. Protect our ally, Israel.

3. Mitigate the influence of our enemies. For a long time this meant opposing Soviet influence, but now our enemies are Iran and various supranational Islamofascist groups.

These goals were a lot easier to achieve when we had local dictators than they will be if we have to deal with a host of new democracies -- especially if Islamofascist elements wield significant power in whatever new governments emerge.

Modern Russia shares at least goals one and three with America, and they seem to have decided to side with the dictators.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Tuesday predicted decades of instability in the Arab world if protesters whom he called fanatics come to power, adding no such scenario will be permitted at home. ...

Speaking at a security meeting in the Caucasus city of Vladikavkaz, Medvedev didn't name countries, but he was referring to the crisis in the Middle East and North Africa — which has brought down governments in Tunisia and Egypt and sparked protests in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Iran, Morocco and Jordan.

"These states are difficult, and it is quite probable that hard times are ahead, including the arrival at power of fanatics. This will mean fires for decades and the spread of extremism," Medvedev said in televised comments.

He's right, but that doesn't mean that he's choosing the side that will eventually win. Stability is ephemeral.

Also interesting: "Why do protests bring down regimes?".

There are a lot of people in the world who need prayer right now.

(HT: Ann Althouse.)

Instapundit commenter Dave Gamble highlights the difference between how the media treats the threat of global warming vs. how the media treats the threat of crushing debt.

Reader Dave Gamble notes an inconsistency in terms of how the politico/media establishment deals with the budget crisis — certain to come — versus global warming — a possibility: “Somehow protecting future generations from possibly having to endure the hardship of an extra tenth of a degree over the next century is a high moral calling, while fighting against the certainty of mortgaging their financial future with trillions in government debt is the work of the devil. Odd.” Not so odd when you realize that “climate change” measures increase the power of the political class, while budget cuts reduce it.

As the Prof points out, no matter what the crisis is the media always seems to come down on the side of increasing government power.

The Speculist asks "did the Singularity just happen on Jeopardy?" The answer is "no". Not that Watson isn't incredibly cool, but the Singularity will require self-improving super-human artificial intelligence.

"Self-improving" probably isn't quite the right term. I don't mean that the AI needs to "learn" in the sense that it can improve it's score on Jeopardy each time it plays. That sort of improvement is necessary, but not sufficient. In order to reach the Singularity, an AI will need to be able to create new AIs that are qualitatively more capable than itself. Each new AI generation will need to have a broader domain of capabilities than the previous generation, not just be slightly better at accomplishing the same tasks.

Maybe "self-expanding" is better than "self-improving".

Ezra Klein properly categorizes the modern federal government: "An insurance conglomerate protected by a large, standing army".

Two of every five dollars goes to Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid, all of which provide some form of insurance. A bit more than a buck goes to the military. Then there’s a $1.50 or so for assorted other programs -- education, infrastructure, environmental protection, farm subsidies, etc. Some of that, like unemployment checks and food stamps, is also best understood insurance spending. And then there’s another 40 cents of debt repayment. Calvin Coolidge once said that the business of America is business. Well, the business of the American government is insurance. Literally. If you look at how the federal government spends our money, it’s an insurance conglomerate protected by a large, standing army.

Professor Bainbridge draws the right conclusion.

At some point, we're going to have to suck it up as a society and decide that the ever-growing "insurance" sector has simply gotten too expensive to be sustainable.

If the purpose of the government is to take wealth from the top X% and redistribute it in the form of insurance policies to the bottom (100-X)%, I bet there's a more efficient way to do it. How about if we gave people insurance vouchers that they could use to purchase retirement/health/unemployment/food insurance from private companies? Use the government to collect and redistribute the funds, but have the actual services be provided by for-profit companies?

Scott Stewart breaks down the various classes of weapons used by Mexican drug cartels and explains where the weapons come from. Hint: despite the widespread myth, far less than 90% come from America.

As we discussed in a previous analysis, the 90 percent number was derived from a June 2009 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report to Congress on U.S. efforts to combat arms trafficking to Mexico (see external link).

According to the GAO report, some 30,000 firearms were seized from criminals by Mexican authorities in 2008. Of these 30,000 firearms, information pertaining to 7,200 of them (24 percent) was submitted to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) for tracing. Of these 7,200 guns, only about 4,000 could be traced by the ATF, and of these 4,000, some 3,480 (87 percent) were shown to have come from the United States.

This means that the 87 percent figure relates to the number of weapons submitted by the Mexican government to the ATF that could be successfully traced and not from the total number of weapons seized by Mexican authorities or even from the total number of weapons submitted to the ATF for tracing. In fact, the 3,480 guns positively traced to the United States equals less than 12 percent of the total arms seized in Mexico in 2008 and less than 48 percent of all those submitted by the Mexican government to the ATF for tracing. This means that almost 90 percent of the guns seized in Mexico in 2008 were not traced back to the United States.

Perhaps Mexico should loosen their gun laws and America should loosen our drug laws?

J. Christian Adams accuses the Obama Department of Justice of stonewalling Freedom of Information Act requests from political opponents while fast-tracking requests from political allies.

Eric Holder’s Justice Department has even politicized compliance with the Freedom of Information Act. According to documents I have obtained, FOIA requests from liberals or politically connected civil rights groups are often given same day turn-around by the DOJ. But requests from conservatives or Republicans face long delays, if they are fulfilled at all.

The documents show a pattern of politicized compliance within the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division. In particular, I have obtained FOIA logs that demonstrate as of August 2010, the most transparent administration in history is anything but. The logs provide the index number of the information request, the date of the request, the requestor, and the date of compliance.

Let's see the logs. If these accusations are true then the people responsible should go to jail.

I can't even count how many times I've been told, in all seriousness, that there are more liberals than conservatives in academia because liberals are simply smarter. I pity anyone who tried to use that reasoning to explain why there are more male than female engineers. Megan McArdle points out that the simple "explanation" that continually comes from academics is a serious blind spot.

In blog years, this is an age-old argument. I find it particularly intriguing because it completely reverses the standard argument about discrimination. Conservatives are usually reluctant to agree that women and minorities are still often victims of structural or personal bias--despite numerical underrepresentation and some fairly compelling studies showing that hiring is not race or gender blind. Yet when it comes to conservatives in academia, they suddenly sound like sociologists, discussing hostile work environment, the role of affinity networks in excluding out groups, unconscious bias, and the compelling evidence from statistical underrepresentation.

Meanwhile, liberals, who are usually quick to assume that underrepresentation represents some form of discrimination--structural or personal--suddenly become, as Haidt notes, fierce critics of the notion that numerical representation means anything. Moreover, they start generating explanations for the disparity that sound suspiciously like some old reactionary explaining that blacks don't really want to go into management because they're much happier without all the responsibility. Conservatives are too stupid to become academics; they aren't open new ideas; they're too aggressive and hierarchical; they don't care about ideas, just money. In other words, it's not our fault that they're not worthy.

Academics should also consider that the under-representation of conservatives among them creates a significant image problem that leads to dismissal and mistrust of the academy by the general population.

(HT: Autoblog.)

California perpetually squanders its vast natural assets... will they ever run out? I don't know... but Texas is sure taking advantage of the situation.

In 2008, 70 percent of all the jobs in the country were created in Texas. In 2009, all of America's top five job-creating cities were in Texas.

More recently, "Texas created 129,000 new jobs in the last year -- over one-half of all the new jobs in the U.S. In contrast, California lost 112,000 jobs during the same period," according to "Texas vs. California: Economic growth prospects for the 21st Century," a new report by the Texas Public Policy Foundation released in October.

Texas is home to 64 Fortune 500 companies -- more than any other state in the union. (California has 51 and New York has 56.) For five years in a row, Texas has topped Chief Executive magazine's poll of the best state to do business.

Meanwhile, California is ranked dead last in the Chief Executive's survey. California state treasurer Bill Lockyer even went so far as to pen a Dec. 20 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times denying "the claim that we have a hostile business climate."

Growth isn't zero-sum, but it that doesn't mean that you can't grow your state by stealing from somewhere else.

California Representative Jane Harman is resigning from Congress. I lived in her district for many years. She is a liberal Democrat, but she has generally been sensible and mostly hawkish on security issues. She is almost certain to be replaced by a far more left-wing local politician.

Los Angeles is fortunate that the Los Angeles Air Force Base was revitalized before Harman's resignation.

It's hard to blame her for the move, considering she'll earn a lot more money in the private sector and probably have more influence than she would as a member of the House minority.

Los Angeles-area Democrats scrambled for the chance to fill a rare open seat in Congress after veteran Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice) announced Monday that she would probably resign to run a Washington think tank. ...

Harman's announcement came three months after her reelection. She told constituents in an e-mail that she had been in discussions to become president and chief executive of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the center's decision was imminent. An official announcement was expected Tuesday.

Ann Althouse dismembers Larry Tribe in an agonizing public display of sarcastic ridicule. Oh, it's about Obamacare, but that's almost incidental.

(HT: Instapundit.)

I don't know enough to attest to Mark Blyth's correctness, but his explanation of Eurozone debt-buck-passing was enlightening to me. I don't feel I really grok the situation yet, but the imagery in his final paragraph is compelling.

So the state put that ‘put’ on the taxpayer. But in a democracy there is only so much you can put on the taxpayer before they throw out the rascals and vote for someone that promises to put that ‘put’ elsewhere, and the only place left is back on the bondholders. So if the bondholders know that the haircut is coming, they can try and put the put back on the banks, but given the state of the bank’s balance sheets and overall business model (it’s bust – and its not coming back), that’s not going to happen. So bondholders have only one out. They pressure the EU, and the Germans in particular, by squeezing peripheral bonds to make sure that taxpayers there take the hit that they don’t want to. But this of course, has a limit. That limit is called Spain. When you put $750 billion in a bag and say ‘bailout funds’ that tells everyone how much you are really willing to lose. It’s a chunk of change and it will take care of Ireland and Greece. But if everyone is, metaphorically speaking, trying to get towards the door in case someone shouts ‘fire’ in the crowded theater, then there is no guarantee it will stop there as contagion mechanisms take hold. In which case Spain’s liabilities, dotted across the bond portfolios of major Eurozone banks, blow through the bag of cash and the limit is reached. When that limit is reached, the mother of all bank runs will begin and the endgame for not just the Euro, but also the EU, will enter its final act.

If I can attempt to summarize: bondholders and taxpayers (from various nations) are struggling over who is going to lose money on all this debt. Bondholders have better organization and knowledge, but taxpayers have armies. It's not yet clear who is going to win, but the "final act" is going to be ugly.

Rand Paul outlines his ideas for dramatically cutting federal budget.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, this will be the third consecutive year in which the federal government is running a deficit near or greater than $1 trillion. The solution to the government's fiscal crisis must begin by cutting spending in all areas, particularly in those that can be better run at the state or local level. Last month I introduced legislation to do just that. And though it seems extreme to some—containing over $500 billion in spending cuts enacted over one year—it is a necessary first step toward ending our fiscal crisis.

My proposal would first roll back almost all federal spending to 2008 levels, then initiate reductions at various levels nearly across the board. Cuts to the Departments of Agriculture and Transportation would create over $42 billion in savings each, while cuts to the Departments of Energy and Housing and Urban Development would save about $50 billion each. Removing education from the federal government's jurisdiction would create almost $80 billion in savings alone. Add to that my proposed reductions in international aid, the Departments of Health and Human Services, Homeland Security and other federal agencies, and we arrive at over $500 billion.

It sounds like a lot of cuts, right? But even a $500 billion cut would only reduce our deficit by half. Yes, that's how screwed we are.

To revisit an issue I've blogged about several times, does President Obama support health care "death panels" or not?

Obama: So that's where I think you just get into some very difficult moral issues. But that's also a huge driver of cost, right?

I mean, the chronically ill and those toward the end of their lives are accounting for potentially 80 percent of the total health care bill out here.

Leonhardt: So how do you--how do we deal with it?

Obama: Well, I think that there is going to have to be a conversation that is guided by doctors, scientists, ethicists. And then there is going to have to be a very difficult democratic conversation that takes place. It is very difficult to imagine the country making those decisions just through the normal political channels. And that's part of why you have to have some independent group that can give you guidance. It's not determinative, but I think has to be able to give you some guidance. And that's part of what I suspect you'll see emerging out of the various health care conversations that are taking place on the Hill right now.

As James Taranto notes, this sounds like a literal death panel.

Obama proposed a "conversation" between "doctors, scientists [and] ethicists" for the purpose of giving "guidance" to government bureaucrats making decisions outside "the normal political channels" as to when to deny medical care.

"Death panel" describes this perfectly. Sarah Palin was even more right than we gave her credit for.

Yep! There's a reason why the majority of Americans want Obamacare repealed.

This actually made me cry. It's absolutely amazing.

(HT: Gizmodo and Instapundit.)

Using statistics to crack the lottery.

The trick itself is ridiculously simple. (Srivastava would later teach it to his 8-year-old daughter.) Each ticket contained eight tic-tac-toe boards, and each space on those boards—72 in all—contained an exposed number from 1 to 39. As a result, some of these numbers were repeated multiple times. Perhaps the number 17 was repeated three times, and the number 38 was repeated twice. And a few numbers appeared only once on the entire card. Srivastava’s startling insight was that he could separate the winning tickets from the losing tickets by looking at the number of times each of the digits occurred on the tic-tac-toe boards. In other words, he didn’t look at the ticket as a sequence of 72 random digits. Instead, he categorized each number according to its frequency, counting how many times a given number showed up on a given ticket. “The numbers themselves couldn’t have been more meaningless,” he says. “But whether or not they were repeated told me nearly everything I needed to know.” Srivastava was looking for singletons, numbers that appear only a single time on the visible tic-tac-toe boards. He realized that the singletons were almost always repeated under the latex coating. If three singletons appeared in a row on one of the eight boards, that ticket was probably a winner.

The story contains a few more examples, as well as informed speculation that several state scratch games have been "broken" without detection.

And then there’s Joan Ginther, who has won more than $1 million from the Texas Lottery on four different occasions. She bought two of the winners from the same store in Bishop, Texas. What’s strangest of all, perhaps, is that three of Ginther’s wins came from scratch tickets with baited hooks and not from Mega Millions or Powerball. Last June, Ginther won $10 million from a $50 ticket, which is the largest scratch prize ever awarded by the Texas Lottery.

As a computer scientist with knowledge of pseudorandom number generation algorithms, I can add to the discussion slightly: obtaining tickets in the same sequence they are generated would also give insight into the number sequence. The tickets I've seen are printed in perforated rolls (like toilet paper). The best way to crack the lottery would be to get access to these rolls.

Scott Adams (author of Dilbert) suggests a few (self-admittedly bad) ways to tax the rich more while making them feel good about it. Example:

Gratitude. Imagine that the government arranges to provide genuine person-to-person gratitude to the rich in exchange for higher tax rates. Suppose (bad idea alert) the government makes it a condition that anyone applying for social services has to write a personal thank-you note to a nearby rich person who, according to a central database, hasn't lately received one. Gratitude goes a long way. It's easy to hate the generic overspending of the government. It's harder to begrudge medical care to someone who thanks you personally. It's a bad idea, I know. Don't judge it. Just let it nudge your imagination to someplace better.

The article as a whole is entertaining but only slightly useful. Yes, we need to tackle the incentive structures that are built into our current social system. However, contra Adams' premise, I don't believe that America and the world are facing a debt crisis because the rich are hoarding money. In my opinion, the far larger problem is that our elected officials and unelected bureaucrats (which includes executives at subsidized corporations) are incentivized to use their positions to accumulate personal wealth and power.

(HT: NW.)

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