Questions and Observations

Free Markets, Free People

Economic Statistics for 18 Dec 12

The following US economic statistics were announced today:

In weekly retail sales, Redbook reports a 2.4% increase from the previous year. ICSC-Goldman reports a strong weekly sales increase of 4.3%, and a 3.5% increase on a year-over-year basis.

The Housing Market Index tose to 47, as homebuilders report the best conditions in more than five years.

The US current account deficit fell by $11 billion in the 3rd quarter, to -$107.5 billion. 

~
Dale Franks
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If you’re not upset by Newtown …

Well, I’d just have to wonder about your humanity.  Tragedies like Newtown are gut wrenching, horrifying, just about any emotional descriptor to signal dispair you can imagine.  It’s simply horrible to see murders on that scale, but it is even more horrible when those murders are of children.

As adults we all live with the understanding that there is such a thing as “evil” and we, as a whole, we know we have to deal with that.  We understand both the concept and the risk.  What we saw on 9/11 was a manifestation of evil. Timothy McVeigh’s attack on the Federal building in Oklahoma City was also such a manifestation.

In both cases, none of the perpetrators in either mass killing used a gun.

The point, of course, is the instrument of the killing isn’t the problem, it’s just the instrument. Evil is the problem.

And no matter how many laws we pass or bans we put in place, evil will find a way to do it’s dirty murderous work. As we mentioned last night on the podcast, the number one murder weapon in the US is a baseball bat.

It’s not about the weapon, it’s about the evil person. 3,000 people were killed on 9/11 – with airplanes. 168 were killed in OKC.

One of the things we have to keep in perspective is the nature of the problem. Feel good bans aren’t going to solve a thing. Those bent on murder are going to find a way to murder and contrary to reason, many seem to feel the way to stop that is to disarm. It makes no sense, logically, and, if you need examples, just look at Europe and other countries where firearms have been banned.

It’s not about guns – it’s about people and evil.  It is those seemingly obvious facts we appear to want to ignore when we talk about “banning guns”.   It’s the simple, feel good “solution” that the graphic above shows is worthless, and, in fact, gives people and evil a leg up.

We need to understand that one of the fundamental rights any human being has is the right to self defense.   And as much as we may hate the necessity, perhaps the way to limit the work of evil people is to not ban guns, but to arm ourselves instead.

~McQ

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Observations: The QandO Podcast for 16 Dec 12

This week, Bruce, Michael, and Dale discuss the Newtown shootings.

The direct link to the podcast can be found here.

Observations

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What’s happening to us?

I‘m just sick about today. It’s really incomprehensible, isn’t it? Sure, it was the act of a lunatic, and lunatics are, almost by definition, incomprehensible. So, I can’t even begin to get my mind into the sort of space where you massacre children. It’s just been a day of grief and depression.

These kinds of shootings seem to be coming ever faster, and I honestly don’t know what we can do about them. I’m sure that we’ll be spending a lot of time talking about gun control for the foreseeable future, but…well…that’s not really going to solve anything. Quite apart from anything else, there’s 300 million guns floating around in the US. Good luck rounding them all up.

Besides, that’s not really the root of the problem.

I just can’t escape the sense that we are watching our society and culture slouching towards collapse, and that what happened today is a symptom of that. There’s a streak of mad decadence in American culture; a streak of anger, and a lack of civility, and a surfeit of selfishness that can’t sustain a functional civil society.

Our politics are so angry that otherwise sane men physically attack other men, and scream at them like angry children for holding a different political opinion. Our popular media is drenched in sex and violence. Our news media are little more than mouthpieces for socialist pieties. Traditional religion is belittled and reviled in popular entertainment as New Wave beliefs are treated with credulity. Individual responsibility is ignored, while victimization is fetishized.

The litany is depressing, and none of it indicates a confident, forward-looking culture. And it puts out a vibe of craziness and violence that even lunatics can pick up. Maybe they could always pick up on it, but, at least prior to the 1970s, we could lock lunatics up through involuntary commitment. Since then, of course, we’ve ensured that we can only lock up lunatics after they violently act out. So there are a lot of them lurking about, now, many of them homeless, walking the streets.

I honestly have no idea how to fix this. Clearly, government isn’t the answer. A government that can’t even do what is obviously necessary to balance—or even produce—a budget certainly isn’t going to effect any useful cultural change. Besides in a democratic system, the government reflects the culture, not the reverse. Our government is increasingly one that is characterized simultaneously by arrogance and incompetence. Those would be incompatible characteristics in a rational culture, but they accurately describe our culture, the government that reflects it.

We’ve had it so good in this country, for so long, that I’m afraid the culture has internalized the idea that it’ll always be that way. There’ll always be second chances if you screw up, and someone will always be there to keep the machinery running. What problems we do have are First World problems: the free in-flight wi-fi doesn’t work; Starbucks ran out of Pumpkin Spice. We go into debt getting our degrees in Gender Studies, and we expect a lucrative job as a reward. Our kids come in last place in their soccer league, but they’ll always get their trophy for participation.

We’re living off the financial, moral, and intellectual capital of people who opened a continent-wide frontier, defeated horrific foreign tyrannies, and then sent men to the moon. We, of course, will do none of those things.

Quite apart from anything else, we couldn’t afford to. We’ve spent the last thirty years going ever deeper into debt to defer ever making any hard choices. Instead, everybody got everything they wanted. I mean, we got our Great Society, and our Cold War military build-up; Medicare Part D, and No Child Left Behind; wars in the Mideast, and subsidized college loans. We’ve denied ourselves nothing that we wanted, and now that the bill is coming due, all we can figure out how to do is raise taxes, and have the Fed buy back some bonds so we can keep the party going on longer, and stretch out the time that we’re allowed to go ever deeper into debt.

But, not only can we not afford to, we don’t want to embark on some great cultural mission whose rewards will be enjoyed by our children instead of ourselves. We just want to pull up some porn on our iPads, and watch Netflix after we finish.

The founders of the Republic understood that democratic self-governance is only suited to a moral, responsible people. A people who cannot strive to create a polity where ethics and responsibility are primary principles are a people who are not capable of governing themselves. And I no longer see us as a people who can create that kind of polity.

Some of my libertarian friends think that a financial or societal collapse will lead to a better understanding of the importance of freedom, and that a new flowering of liberty will bloom in the aftermath.

That’s a foolish and stupid idea.

What will actually happen is what happened when Rome fell: a period of barbarism and tyranny and darkness will sweep over us at worst, or at best, people will demand that a man on a white horse punish the appropriate scapegoats and make the trains run on time again. Sure, I hope I’m wrong, but history is on the side of pessimism. As nearly as I can tell, all we can do is hold on tight, because we’re getting ready to ride this puppy down in flames.

Still, Rome didn’t collapse in a day, and maybe we can manage to avoid a total collapse and ensuing Dark Age for another 30 years or so, until after I’m gone. Frankly, that’s about all the optimism I have left in me.

But, maybe, in 500 years or so, a confident, adventurous people will once again step onto the surface of the moon. No doubt they will be amazed to learn that the mythical figures of Buzz Aldrin, Alan Shepard, and their companions actually did exist, and set foot there once upon a time, and left behind six beautiful, red-striped banners, spangled with white stars on a field of blue.

~
Dale Franks
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Economic Statistics for 14 Dec 12

The following US economic statistics were announced today:

The Fed reports that industrial production rose a strong 1.1% in November, while capacity utilization in the nation’s factories rose to 78.4%.

The Consumer Price Index fell -0.3% in November, but the core rate rose 0.1%. On a year-over-year basis, the CPI rose 1.8%, and the core rate rose 1.9%

The PMI Manufacturing Index Flash rose almost 2 points to 54.2 for the first half of December.

~
Dale Franks
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A little good news: US will not ratify latest UN attempt at grabbing power over the Internet

Thankfully, the US has taken the proper position on this one:

The United States said Thursday that it will not sign a United Nations telecommunications treaty that U.S. technology companies warn would disrupt governance of the Internet and open the door to online censorship.

The U.K. and Canada also said they would not ratify the treaty after negotiations ended at a conference hosted by the U.N. International Telecommunications Union (ITU) in Dubai.

Kramer, who led the U.S. delegation during the conference, told reporters on a conference call that the U.S. could not sign the treaty because there were “too many issues here that were problematic for us.”

The treaty is intended to govern how telephone calls and other communications traffic are exchanged internationally. While it is not a legally binding document, Kramer said the U.S. opposed extending the scope of the treaty to include Internet governance and online content matters.

“The U.S. will continue to uphold and advance the multi-stakeholder model of the Internet,” Kramer told reporters.

The U.S. believed the treaty should not apply to Internet providers or private and government networks. Instead, U.S. delegates argued that only traditional telecommunications operators, such as AT&T and Verizon, should be subject to the updated rules.

Another attempted power grab by the UN and more importantly, something to provide a thin veneer of legality to all the 3rd world dictators attempts to control the net.  Not that they won’t do that anyway, they just wanted it to be “legal”.  So they will ratify this treaty.

“What is clear from the ITU meeting in Dubai is that many governments want to increase regulation and censorship of the Internet,” a Google spokesman said in a statement. “We stand with the countries who refuse to sign this treaty and also with the millions of voices who have joined us to support a free and open Web.”

Good.

~McQ

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Economic Statistics for 13 Dec 12

The following US economic statistics were announced today:

Initial jobless claims fell 29,000 last week, to 343,000. The 4-week moving average fell 27,000 to 381,500. Continuing claims fell 23,000 to 3.271 million.

The producer price index in November fell -0.8%. The core rate, which excludes both food and energy, rose 0.1%. On a year-over-year basis, the PPI is up 1.4%, while the core PPI is up 2.2%.

Retail sales rose 0.3% overall in November, while sales ex-autos were unchanged, and sales ex-autos and gas rose 0.7%.

Business Inventories rose 0.4% in October, but falling sales pushed the stock to sales ratio up to 1.29.

The Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index fell another -0.7 points to -34.0.

~
Dale Franks
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US terrorism agency free to use government databases of US citizens

It is coming to the point that it is obvious that the terrorists have won.  Why?  Because they have provided government the excuse to intrude more and more into our lives and government is more than willing to use it.  If this doesn’t bother you, you’re not paying attention:

Top U.S. intelligence officials gathered in the White House Situation Room in March to debate a controversial proposal. Counterterrorism officials wanted to create a government dragnet, sweeping up millions of records about U.S. citizens—even people suspected of no crime.

Not everyone was on board. “This is a sea change in the way that the government interacts with the general public,” Mary Ellen Callahan, chief privacy officer of the Department of Homeland Security, argued in the meeting, according to people familiar with the discussions.

A week later, the attorney general signed the changes into effect.

Of course the Attorney General signed the changes into effect.  He’s as big a criminal as the rest of them.

What does this do?  Well here, take a look:

The rules now allow the little-known National Counterterrorism Center to examine the government files of U.S. citizens for possible criminal behavior, even if there is no reason to suspect them. That is a departure from past practice, which barred the agency from storing information about ordinary Americans unless a person was a terror suspect or related to an investigation.

Now, NCTC can copy entire government databases—flight records, casino-employee lists, the names of Americans hosting foreign-exchange students and many others. The agency has new authority to keep data about innocent U.S. citizens for up to five years, and to analyze it for suspicious patterns of behavior. Previously, both were prohibited.

Your activities are now presumed to be “suspicious”, one assumes, just by existing and doing the things you’ve always done.  Host a foreign exchange student?  Go under surveillance.  Fly anywhere the government arbitrarily decides is tied into terrorists (or not) it is surveillance for you (can the “no-fly” list be far behind?).  Work in a casino, go onto a surveillance list.

And all of this by unaccountable bureaucrats who have unilaterally decided that your 4th Amendment rights mean zip.  In fact, they claim that the 4th doesn’t apply here.

Congress specifically sought to prevent government agents from rifling through government files indiscriminately when it passed the Federal Privacy Act in 1974. The act prohibits government agencies from sharing data with each other for purposes that aren’t “compatible” with the reason the data were originally collected.

But:

But the Federal Privacy Act allows agencies to exempt themselves from many requirements by placing notices in the Federal Register, the government’s daily publication of proposed rules. In practice, these privacy-act notices are rarely contested by government watchdogs or members of the public. “All you have to do is publish a notice in the Federal Register and you can do whatever you want,” says Robert Gellman, a privacy consultant who advises agencies on how to comply with the Privacy Act.

As a result, the National Counterterrorism Center program’s opponents within the administration—led by Ms. Callahan of Homeland Security—couldn’t argue that the program would violate the law. Instead, they were left to question whether the rules were good policy.

Under the new rules issued in March, the National Counterterrorism Center, known as NCTC, can obtain almost any database the government collects that it says is “reasonably believed” to contain “terrorism information.” The list could potentially include almost any government database, from financial forms submitted by people seeking federally backed mortgages to the health records of people who sought treatment at Veterans Administration hospitals.

So they just exempted themselves without any outcry, without any accountability, without any review.  They just published they were “exempt” from following the law of the land or worrying about 4th Amendment rights.

Here’s the absolutely hilarious “promise” made by these criminals:

Counterterrorism officials say they will be circumspect with the data. “The guidelines provide rigorous oversight to protect the information that we have, for authorized and narrow purposes,” said Alexander Joel, Civil Liberties Protection Officer for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the parent agency for the National Counterterrorism Center.

What a load of crap.  If you believe that you’ll believe anything government says.  Human nature says they’ll push this to whatever limit they can manage until someone calls their hand.

And, as if that’s all not bad enough:

The changes also allow databases of U.S. civilian information to be given to foreign governments for analysis of their own. In effect, U.S. and foreign governments would be using the information to look for clues that people might commit future crimes.

So now our government is free to provide foreign governments with information about you, whether you like it or not.

This isn’t a new idea – here’s a little flashback from a time when people actually raised hell about stuff like this:

“If terrorist organizations are going to plan and execute attacks against the United States, their people must engage in transactions and they will leave signatures,” the program’s promoter, Admiral John Poindexter, said at the time. “We must be able to pick this signal out of the noise.”

Adm. Poindexter’s plans drew fire from across the political spectrum over the privacy implications of sorting through every single document available about U.S. citizens. Conservative columnist William Safire called the plan a “supersnoop’s dream.” Liberal columnist Molly Ivins suggested it could be akin to fascism. Congress eventually defunded the program.

Do you remember this? Do you remember how much hell was raised about this idea?  However now, yeah, not such a big deal:

The National Counterterrorism Center’s ideas faced no similar public resistance. For one thing, the debate happened behind closed doors. In addition, unlike the Pentagon, the NCTC was created in 2004 specifically to use data to connect the dots in the fight against terrorism.

What a surprise.

I’m sorry, I see no reason for an unaccountable Matthew Olsen or his NCTC to know anything about me or have the ability to put a file together about me, keep that information for five years and, on his decision and his decision only, provide the information on me to foreign governments at his whim.

I remember the time the left went bonkers about the “Privacy Act”.  Here’s something real to go bonkers on and what sound do we hear from the left (and the right, for that matter)?

Freakin’ crickets.

~McQ

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US average marginal effective tax rate about 40%?

So tell me again why the government can’t seem to get along with what it already gets?

Taking into account all taxes on earnings and consumer spending—including federal, state and local income taxes, Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes, excise taxes, and state and local sales taxes—Edward Prescott has shown (especially in the Quarterly Review of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, 2004) that the U.S. average marginal effective tax rate is around 40%. This means that if the average worker earns $100 from additional output, he will be able to consume only an additional $60.

And yet the prevailing political attitude seems to be that of France’s “leadership”, i.e. government, has first claim on all your earnings and if you protest you’re “greedy”.

Who’s greedy?

Speaking of France, California seems bound to duplicate its latest tax scheme:

Consider California, which just enacted higher rates of income and sales tax. The top California income-tax rate will be 13.3%, and the top sales-tax rate in some areas may rise as high as 10%. Combine these state taxes with a top combined federal rate of 44%, plus federal excise taxes, and the combined marginal tax rate for the highest California earners is likely to be around 60%—as high as in France, Germany and Italy.

Yet they wonder why people are fleeing the state.

Impact and implications?

Higher labor-income and consumption taxes also have consequences for entrepreneurship and risk-taking. A key factor driving U.S. economic growth has been the remarkable impact of entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates of Microsoft, Steve Jobs of Apple, Fred Smith of FedEx and others who took substantial risk to implement new ideas, directly and indirectly creating new economic sectors and millions of new jobs.

Entrepreneurship is much lower in Europe, suggesting that high tax rates and poorly designed regulation discourage new business creation. The Economist reports that between 1976 and 2007 only one continental European startup, Norway’s Renewable Energy Corporation, achieved a level of success comparable to that of Microsoft, Apple and other U.S. giants making the Financial Times Index of the world’s 500 largest companies.

Yet we continue to try to recreate Europe’s debacle here.

The economy now faces two serious risks: the risk of higher marginal tax rates that will depress the number of hours of work, and the risk of continuing policies such as Dodd-Frank, bailouts, and subsidies to specific industries and technologies that depress productivity growth by protecting inefficient producers and restricting the flow of resources to the most productive users.

If these two risks are realized, the U.S. will face a much more serious problem than a 2013 recession. It will face a permanent and growing decline in relative living standards.

These risks loom as the level of U.S. economic activity gradually moves closer to that of the 1930s, when for a decade during the Great Depression output per working-age person declined by nearly 25% relative to trend. The last two quarters of GDP growth—1.3% and 2.7%—have been below trend, which means the U.S. economy is continuing to sink relative to its historical trend.

But your political and financial lords and masters know best, don’t they?  Just ask them.  They continue down this road despite the fact the destination is in plain sight in Europe and it isn’t pretty.

Occam’s Razor states “entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily.” Said another way, the simplest explanation is usually the most likely explanation. In this case the simplest explanation is incompetence.  But is it really incompetence?  With the European example staring them right in the face it’s hard to believe anyone is that incompetent.  The conclusion to their policies have already been proven to be a disaster.

So one has to being to consider other possibilities when those who are pushing the policies seem oblivious to the obvious.

You have to begin to wonder if it is a problem of hubris.  I.e. “the only reason it hasn’t worked before is we weren’t in charge”.  We’ve seen that in any number of instances throughout history where discredited or obviously illogical ideological ideas were tried and they again failed.

Or you have to consider the words “by design”.  But then you’re stuck with trying to come up with a valid reason “why”.  Recreating Europe’s debacle, or Japans’s or, for heaven sake, our’s in the ’30s would seem to be something smart politicians would attempt to avoid.

But here we are.

Economic growth requires new ideas and new businesses, which in turn require a large group of talented young workers who are willing to take on the considerable risk of starting a business. This requires undoing the impediments that stand in the way of creating new economic activity—and increasing the after-tax returns to succeeding.

And yet, we see a government bent on erecting even more impediments via increased taxation, costly new laws and onerous regulation.

Isn’t it about time we demanded to know “why?”  More importantly, maybe we should ask whose side they’re on.

~McQ

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