Saturday, August 20, 2016

From Stone Mountain of Georgia to the Molehills of Mississippi

My family and I just finished a trip from Stone Mountain Georgia to the molehills of Mississippi.  (see) We hit about 40 sites in 14 days across Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas.  Just in case anyone is looking for a hectic trip itinerary, here it is:

Day 1:  Atlanta; CNN tour, Coca Cola museum, Margaret Mitchell house, Jimmy Carter library
Day 2: Stone Mountain, Horseshoe Bend National Military Park, Cheaha Mountain
Day 3: Little River Canyon National Preserve, Birmingham; Sloss Furnaces, Civil Rights Institute
Day 4: Montgomery; capitol, state museum, first White House of Confederacy, F. Scott Fitzgerald house
Day 5: Eufaula; Shorter mansion, Fendall Hall
Day 6:  I'd recommend Gulf State Park, but we had business to do in a small Alabama town
Day 7: Mobile: USS Alabama, Mansion tours, Fort Conde
Day 8: Biloxi; Beauvoir  New Orleans, French Quarter, Preservation Hall
Day 9: McGee's Landing swamp tour, Baton Rouge; state museum, capitol
Day 10: Nottoway Plantation, Natchez; tour historic homes
Day 11: Vicksburg National Military Park
Day 12:  Highway 61 Blues Museum, BB King Museum
Day 13: Hot Springs: National Park, Quapaw Baths, Gangster Museum
Day 14: Little Rock; Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, Clinton library, capitol

The most fascinating historical characters we learned about were William Weatherford, Andrew Jackson, Jefferson Davis, Huey Long, Leo McLaughlin, Bruce Klunder, Lurleen Wallace, and Jimmy Carter.

It was also interesting to see an exhibit on Admiral Thomas H. Moorer in at the Shorter Mansion in Eufaula, Alabama.  He was involved in the Moorer-Radford affair, which was related to the Watergate affair.

I have travelled many times to the South, but Alabama and Mississippi were prettier and more prosperous than I had expected.  I downloaded some Census data and found that after adjusting for cost of living, mean income in southern states is 5% higher than in northern states.  This is remarkable given the larger black population in southern states.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Trump on the Issues - Immigration

The character and personalities of the candidates are interesting, but this election is also about more substantial policy differences than is normal in U.S. politics.  Both sides have legitimate positions on complicated issues, but my guess is that more voters agree with Trump on most issues than agree with Clinton.  The strategy of Democrats this year is to frighten voters about Trump's character and ignore issues as much as possible.

Regardless of whether voters agree with Trump on the issues, are his positions rational?  This week let's look at immigration.

Countries sometimes see emigration as a solution to their problems.  The British transported prisoners to Australia and North America, France did the same to French Guiana, New Caledonia, and North America, and Cuba sent convicts to Florida in the Mariel boatlift of 1980.  Historians have documented at least 56 incidents of engineered migrations around the world since World War II.

√Čtienne Jaurat: La Conduite des filles de joie (1755)
(The transportation of the prostitutes)

Mexico has many reasons to encourage migration to the U.S.  Migration keeps the Mexican unemployment rate low, and it increases Mexican influence in the U.S.  When criminals migrate the Mexican prison population is reduced.  This is what Trump meant when he said "they're not sending their best." Why would they?  A rational country tries to keep its most productive citizens, and if possible, export the rest.  I explained here why I think immigration is currently a net economic drain for the U.S., and why it causes social and political problems.

Any link between immigration and crime is controversial, but the U.S. population is 10% Mexican while the U.S. federal prison population is 15% Mexican.  States do not all report ethnicity or prisoners in the same way, but in Arizona, for example, 40% of prisoners are Mexican-American or Mexican nationals, while 26% of the population is of Mexican descent.  Prison populations include many long-term inmates who entered prison when the immigrant population of the U.S. was much lower, so the prison population is a lagging indicator of immigrant crime.

Even if the crime rate of immigrants is the same or lower than the native population, why should the U.S. take in any immigrants who have any significant risk of committing crime?  Why not take in foreign doctors, lawyers, and engineers, reducing the cost of hiring professionals instead of reducing the wages of gardeners and construction workers?

Hillary Clinton says that our current porous border is plenty secure, and that she would legalize immigrants who are now in the U.S. illegally.  It is obvious that this combination will lead to massive immigration of low-wage people from around the world.  The effects would be greater income inequality in the U.S., strain on public services, and a permanent Democratic Party majority in the U.S. - the real reason Democrats support more immigration.

With massive numbers of people illegally crossing the border, terrorists will certainly see it as an opportunity to smuggle in weapons and people.  Of course, they might not need to sneak across, since Clinton wants to significantly increase the number of refugees admitted to the U.S. from countries in which terrorist groups are based.  Clinton claims that these refugees would be screened, but it seems obvious to me and others that this is an impossible task.

As I have pointed out before, the U.S. limited immigration from the 1920s through the 1960s, with no clear negative economic or social consequences.  Canada uses a point system to evaluate whether potential immigrants have more to offer Canada than Canada has to offer them.  Why shouldn't U.S. immigration policy be geared to the national interest, instead of the interests of the Democratic Party and the immigrants themselves?

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Krugman's Contempt

Surprise of the week:  Paul Krugman disapproves of the Republican Party's choice of a presidential nominee.  In fact, he says that support of Trump is "despicable" and "worthy of our contempt."

Most of the column is a half-hearted defense of Hillary Clinton as "not a disaster."  Why exactly does he think Trump is so terrible?

...disgusting...attack on the parents of a war hero.

If so, then using the parents of a war hero to promote a political campaign should also qualify as disgusting, because doing so sets them up for attack.  If Democrats expected that it would be impossible to attack the Khans, then using them was analogous to using human shields or taking hostages to avoid attack.  After all, Khizr Khan did not simply tell his story and indicate support for Democrats, he launched into an attack on Trump on prime time television.  Arranging for him to do that on national television invited a counter attack while hiding behind his sacred status.

Khan said Trump "consistently smears the character of Muslims."  This is arguably untrue - even in an interview often cited as drawing Trump's strongest statement ever on Muslims he said "most Muslims are wonderful people" before pointing out that several recent terrorist incidents had been committed by Muslims.

talking about wildly irresponsible tax cuts

Trump has also proposed a 15% tax on all wealth in the U.S. to reduce the national debt.  That is the most "responsible" proposal I have ever heard from a presidential candidate, assuming, as Krugman seems to, that reducing debt is the responsible thing to do.

talking about...renegotiating debt

I wrote here about three past instances of renegotiation of U.S. debt that are now considered good economic policy.  I also make the case that some renegotiation of some U.S. obligations (not necessarily bonds) might be a good idea.

But Trump was not advocating default.  In the interviews usually cited he said "No. I don't want to renegotiate the bonds." and "Look, this isn’t a real estate deal where you can go in and buy out a mortgage at a big discount because the market crashes, okay? This is the United States government. The bonds are absolutely sacred."

Clearly markets around the world did not interpret Trump's comments as suggesting he would do anything harmful, because betting markets were showing a roughly 30% chance that he would be elected, and Treasury rates remain very low.  If there was a 30% chance of a default, markets would already have crashed.

talking about...ripping up trade agreements

Hillary also proposes to rip up trade agreements.  Maybe she doesn't really mean it, but if so, lying to voters seems just as reprehensible as making changes to trade policy.

Abandoning NATO allies if they don't pay up.

NATO allies have a duty to pay what they have agreed by treaty to pay.  Suppose they don't.  Should we really keep paying their share forever without making a peep?  Surely Krugman understands something about negotiation tactics - maybe if we call it game theory he would.  Making credible threats is often the only way to obtain compliance with agreements by another party.  After all, the U.S. still threatens to blow up the world if anyone attacks us - making crazy, credible threats is a time-tested U.S. strategy.

seems fine with Russian adventurism in Ukraine.

Trump seems to think that Ukraine isn't worth threatening a world war at the moment.  Does Krugman really think it is?  Or is he taking the opposite position from before about negotiating tactics?

his authoritarian streak.

A recent study found that Trump's supporters like his populism, not authoritarianism.  I can find hundreds of articles calling Trump authoritarian, but I have yet to find any examples of authoritarian policies he has advocated or practiced in the past.

Other than name-calling, there are no more arguments offered by Krugman in this column.  My guess is that, just like David Brooks, he is upset that Trump is not a member of the intellectual club Krugman belongs to.  The club includes Republicans and Democrats who follow certain rules, have similar tastes, and hang out in the same places.  Trump's election would mean a far greater loss of influence and access to power for Krugman than would the election of a normal Republican.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Why is David Brooks Upset?

David Brooks is not happy:
This week I left the arena here each night burning with indignation at Mike Pence.  I almost don't blame Trump.  He is a morally untethered, spiritually vacuous man who appears haunted by multiple personality disorders.  It is the "sane" and "reasonable" Republicans who deserve the shame - the ones who stood silently by, or worse, while Donald Trump gave away their party's sacred inheritance.
Why is he so angry?  Here is what Brooks said seven years ago.  By "us" he means intellectuals.
 I divide people into people who talk like us and who don’t talk like us.  Of recent presidents, Clinton could sort of talk like us, but Obama is definitely--you could see him as a New Republic writer. He can do the jurisprudence, he can do the political philosophy, and he can do the politics. I think he’s more talented than anyone in my lifetime. I mean, he is pretty dazzling when he walks into a room. So, that’s why it’s important he doesn’t f*** this up.
This was the same interview in which he said this about the future President Obama:
We were sitting on his couches, and I was looking at his pant leg and his perfectly creased pant and I’m thinking, a) he’s going to be president and b) he’ll be a very good president.
Brooks is angry because he saw Obama as a member of the intellectual club, and he knew in 2005 that if Obama was elected and wasn't a great president, voters would go next for a non-member.  Boy, have they!

Club membership is signaled by comportment and aesthetics more than actual intellectual achievement.  Creased pants, a conservative haircut, calm speech, big words, shared acquaintances and favorite places are what it takes.

The problem is that club members are not infallible rulers.  They pushed subprime homeownership and financial deregulation at the same time, which interacted in ways that damaged the economy.  They pushed for wars in poor countries and misjudged the consequences.  They pushed for more global trade without understanding the consequences for many American workers.  They pushed for immigration of workers who compete with the poor for jobs and government services while reducing labor costs for people like themselves.  They claim to act in the public interest, but everything they do seems to enrich themselves at the expense of ordinary people.

People like Brooks have a hard time understanding why anyone is upset at the results of the Bush/Clinton/Bush/Obama administrations.  They sputter out attacks on Trump that do not make sense.  Consider the first quotation above.  Here are Brooks' charges against Trump:

He is morally untethered.  Because he is divorced?  Brooks was recently divorced.  Because he sometimes doesn't pay his contractors?  How does Brooks know that these contractors performed according to the terms of their contracts?  Because he says rude things?  Really?  Are we that thin skinned?  Hillary Clinton has been credibly accused of helping to cover up rapes committed by her husband and misleading a court to free a rapist by making false accusations against a victim.  Why isn't she "morally untethered"?

He is spiritually vacuous.  Trump, like a growing number of Americans, does not attend church.  His time and attention are spent on work and family.  He does not appear to spend a great deal of time contemplating the great philosophical conundrums of the universe.  Why is doing so a qualification for the presidency?  If he is a good negotiator and has priorities that voters agree with, why shouldn't they vote for him?  Do we really need a high priest for president?

He is haunted by multiple personality disorders.  This is the most interesting charge.  My guess is that it is true of every politician, but Trump's personality is off of the scale, even for a politician.  He appears to be narcissistic, extroverted, and prone to disagreement.  Would this make him a good or a bad president?  I would say he is a high risk/high potential reward choice.  His personality suggests that he would take risks and be confrontational in attempts to achieve spectacular results.  For wealthy, influential people like Brooks, risk-taking has more potential downside than upside.  For those outside of the club, the reverse is true.

He has given away the Republican Party's sacred inheritance.  Party platforms change.  Democrats were once the party of racial segregation.  Republicans were once protectionist budget balancers.  For the past few decades they have ballooned trade and budget deficits.  So what is the "sacred inheritance" of the party?  Is it ending slavery?  Trump isn't proposing to bring it back.  It is not a consistent set of ideas, since those have changed many times.

It is interesting that Brooks uses terms like "sacred" and "spiritual," because it demonstrates that his intellectual club is really a religion, and Trump is a blasphemer.  Many things are sacred in this religion, including the environment, non-white people, colleges, universities, and government institutions.  Money is profane in the same way that sex used to be - necessary and desirable, but not to be flaunted or spoken of in polite company.

President Trump is Brooks' worst nightmare - his access to powerful people would be cut off, infidels would invade sacred spaces, and the holy word would no longer be preached from the bully pulpit.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Republican Convention, Cleveland

Political conventions are fun.  The week in Cleveland was filled with nonstop action, celebrity sightings, and great people.  It was a surprisingly happy place - everyone returned smiles, and it was incredibly easy to strike up conversations with dozens of different people every day.

I was elected an alternate delegate in April, and I was able to get a guest pass for my daughter.  We stayed with the Iowa delegation and attended multiple events with them every day, meeting senators, governors, ambassadors, journalists, campaign officials, party staff members, and other delegates.  We visited the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, ate in great restaurants, and took a boat ride on the Cuyahoga River.  Every evening we trooped over to the convention arena and stayed until around midnight.  Delegates and alternates switched places from time to time, so I was able to spend some time on the convention floor, which was really exciting.

I particularly enjoyed getting to know several state officials, including the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Speaker of the House, and the party chair and co-chair.  Over a hectic, sleep-deprived week, true personalities tend to come out, and all of these people were genuinely nice.  The Governor, Terry Branstad, knows the minute detail of every aspect of state government.  No matter what I asked, he responded with facts, figures and astute political analysis.  He struck me as a very capable CEO of state government.  The Speaker of the Iowa House, Linda Upmeyer, is a warm and kind person with a keen interest in political philosophy.  She is also a very capable politician.  The Lieutenant Governor, Kim Reynolds, went out of her way to help my daughter make the most of the convention experience.  She is well-liked, smart, and capable.  There are big things to come in her career.  The party chair and co-chair and the state party staff were thoughtful, helpful and fun to be around.

I also met Trump campaign people.  I was impressed by their competence in managing the convention.  It seemed to me that the campaign is far better organized and much better prepared for the election than is generally thought.

Given the state of the party just two months ago, the unity I saw in Cleveland was remarkable.  I met a few #nevertrump delegates and others who were unenthusiastic about Trump, but the overwhelming majority of the delegates I met now support Trump wholeheartedly, and were disturbed by Ted Cruz's unwillingness to endorse Trump.  I am convinced that the heckling Cruz received from the floor was spontaneous, not planned or encouraged by the Trump campaign people.

Most of the talk this fall will be about personalities and individual qualifications, but I think these are distractions.  Buried in the flood of sensational stories will be an election about substance - a true contest of differing policies and philosophies; interventionist vs. non-interventionist foreign policy, Main Street vs. Wall Street, higher taxes vs. lower taxes, police vs. BLM, etc. The map will be scrambled, and previously unimaginable alliances might form.  Anything is possible, including landslides on either side, or a close contest.  It will be a lot of fun to follow.

Sunday, July 17, 2016


In a post a few weeks ago I explained that food has gotten cheaper in recent decades, even relative to the minimum wage.  I constructed an equally weighted index of rice, ground beef, eggs, frozen orange juice, and frozen vegetables, and found that it has declined by 31% relative to the CPI, 9% relative to the minimum wage.

Of the four components of my index, vegetables had the largest nominal price increase since 1980, and fresh vegetables increased even more.  This article in a recent Wall Street Journal might help to explain why.  The article explains that in Chinatown, fresh vegetables cost less than half what they would cost in a supermarket.  Broccoli, for example, was 85 cents per pound.  The price at my local HyVee is currently $2.49.  If Chinatown prices were used in my index, the real decline would have been significantly larger.

Why are vegetables so much cheaper in Chinatown?  Less regulation.  Wholesalers operate outside of the mainstream food supply network, and retailers run shoestring operations with plywood shelves lined with newspaper and shoeboxes for cash registers.

Farmer's markets also operate with less regulation than supermarkets, but they are usually aimed at upscale customers who want organic, premium quality produce and a shopping experience, so prices tend to be even higher than in grocery stores.

You are more likely to get sick from food purchased from a farmer's market or a Chinatown shop than from a supermarket chain if you do not wash and cook what you buy, but in Chinatown you will pay less than half of grocery store prices.  If anyone was serious about reducing food insecurity, they would lobby for less regulation of the produce industry.  

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Black and Blue

At an outdoor cafe in downtown Iowa City last night, we saw at least a dozen people walking by looking at their phones more intently than is normal.  Our kids let us know that they were all playing a new game called Pokemon Go, which allows them to hunt down imaginary characters using GPS coordinates.  The game was released on Tuesday, and by Friday it had taken over city streets across the country.

It is amazing that ideas and products spread so quickly through modern media.  When I was young everyone watched the same three television networks, so it was no surprise that everyone learned the same things at once.  The Internet is far more fragmented, but somehow ideas still spread very rapidly.

Just as in the days of network television, ideas do not often go viral by accident.  It takes careful planning and knowledge of how media works to promote them.  One idea that has been promoted over new and old media recently is that the country faces an epidemic of white police officers shooting black people.  Two questions come to mind:  Is it true, and who is promoting it?

The answer to the second question seems clear.  Democrats are losing among white voters, but are winning overwhelmingly among minority voters.  Encouraging high turnout by minority voters is crucial for Democrats, so they promote the idea that minorities are being victimized.  They are hoping to push the story up to the point where they would lose more white voters than the minority voters they would gain.

Is the story true?  It is difficult to tell.  There are no official statistics on the number of people killed by police in the U.S.  This is likely because in the police unions have opposed the systematic collection of these data.  Private organizations have recently attempted to gather data from news reports, and one of them, the Washington Post, found that 990 people were killed by police in 2015.  Without much time series data, we can only analyze current cross sections of data.

Of the 990 killed, 95.8% were men.  90.5% of convicted murderers in the U.S. are male, suggesting that it is normal for a group to be killed by police at a somewhat higher rate than their rate of violent crime.  The reason is probably that criminality is normally distributed, and different groups have different distribution means.  Moving out to the right tail of the distribution, which represents extreme criminality, a group with even a slightly higher mean will dominate, meaning that they will have much higher rates of extreme crime.  Men commit murder more than women, and they are overwhelmingly more likely to commit heinous murders, which accounts for their higher likelihood of being killed by police - even higher than the murder rate would suggest.

I use murder rates to compare police killings by group for several reasons.  Murder is the best reported crime, the least ambiguous in definition, and is solved more often than other crimes.  It also seems appropriate to use the most serious crime to examine the reasons police use the most serious type of force.

26.1% of the 990 killed by police in 2015 were black.  According to Department of Justice figures, 52.5% of murderers are black, suggesting that blacks are killed by police less frequently than would be expected given that rate of offence.  The recent study promoted by the New York Times this week argues that blacks are more likely to have force used against them by police even when differential crime rates are taken into account, but the table on page 18 of the study shows that the mean use of force rate per 1000 arrests for violent crimes is 731 for blacks and 1003 for whites!  On page 20 the study shows that the rate of use of guns, tasers, dogs, and hands during arrests for violent offenses is higher for whites than for blacks, while the use of pepper spray and batons is higher for blacks.  Use of force is higher for black for arrests for nonviolent crimes, but no attempt is made to control for severity of offense in this category.  I hate to be blunt, but this study finds the opposite of what it claims to find.

Using the very limited time series data we have, are killings by police increasing?  One group has been gathering data since mid-2013.  Annualizing partial year data, total killings are as follows:

2013   1,160
2014   1,111
2015   1,208
2016   1,166

There does not appear to be an upward trend.  More than 12 million arrests are made each year in the U.S.  Even if every police shooting is considered an error, the lethal error rate of U.S. doctors is still 144 times that of police.

Moving from black to blue, what about killings of police?  Here the data are much better, probably because police unions want the data collected.  I used a time series of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty going back to 1791.  I calculated the rate of police deaths per homicide each year.  The idea is that police officers are more likely to be killed when the number of crimes is high.  The police death rate per crime is a measure of danger for police holding the overall crime rate constant.

I estimated the number of U.S. homicides from the homicide rate for New York City, which is reported back to colonial times.  The following is a 10 year moving average of the result:

Police deaths after controlling for the murder rate increased sharply after the Civil War, and continued to increase until roughly the end of frontier settlement.  It increased again after World War I until the beginning of the Great Depression, when it fell dramatically until about 1995.  It increased rapidly until about 2006, when the rate of increase declined, but it is still increasing slowly.  The increase after 1995 is probably the result of more police on the streets using more aggressive tactics.

Contrary to widespread opinion, police killings of civilians do not appear to be increasing, and the rate at which minorities are killed is lower than we would expect given the rate at which members of minority groups commit crimes.  Killings of police are still at historically low levels given the current crime rate, but the rate has been increasing over the past two decades.

Perhaps the attempt to convince voters that police are misbehaving will lead to more violence against police.  The events of this week suggest that this is possible, but it is not yet showing up in the data.