Questions and Observations

Free Markets, Free People

Contradictions? See the US Government

Well apparently the ultimate RINO is restless and looking for a nail on which he can use his legislative hammer.

John McCain is going to release a bill that would dismantle cable as it’s currently constructed, Brenden Sasso at The Hill reports.

The legislation would force cable companies and satellite TV providers to give consumers an option to pick and choose which channels they get. This is called “à la carte programming,” and it’s long been a dream of consumers who only want a handful of channels.

While I’d certainly be fine with a la carte programming, it is none of the government’s business.  When someone finds a way to offer that, consumers will reward them.

Speaking of the government, you’d think another thing that they and McCain would be for would be a la carte health insurance.  You know, a dream of health care consumers.  Instead we get bundled health care with 300 things we don’t want but have to pay for because the government says so.

You’d think people like McCain, et al, would want to do something abou that wouldn’t you … instead of worrying about TV channels.

~McQ

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Liberals Don’t Understand How Agricultural Subsidies Work

To be fair, they don’t understand how most things work, especially when there’s math involved, but this particular quirk is quite annoying.

I remember the first time I came across this general ignorance (see the comments), in a West Wing episode:

Actual dialog from a recent West Wing rerun:

Josh: What do I say to people who ask why we subsidize farmers when we don’t subsidize plumbers?
Farmer’s daughter 1: Tell ’em they can pay seven dollars for a potato.

Yes, I know it’s a TV show, but do people actually think like this? I always assumed that the reason we couldn’t get rid of farm subsidies was rent seeking by the farmers, but if people actually believe this, that could be part of the problem.

Yes, people actually do believe this. Indeed, here is David Sirota spouting the same ignorance:

GOP meat eaters aren’t free market – they want everyone to subsidize their eating via taxes that fund meat subsidies.

Among best ways to reduce meat consumption is to end ag subsidies so that the cost of meat is a true free market price – think: $9 burgers

David also makes the correct point that some GOP congressmen vote to keep these subsidies in place (particularly those in states with farms that benefit the most from them), but that doesn’t alleviate the complete misunderstanding of what these subsidies do.

In short: agricultural subsidies don’t reduce consumer prices, but instead raise them.

In fact, the entire point of these subsidies is to set minimum price levels (often called “price supports”) or trade barriers that create an artificial monopoly. The entire milk industry, as an example, is propped up with such subsidies. Why else do you think it costs about as much for a gallon of milk as does for a gallon of gas?

Although there had been several different forms of subsidies in the U.S. prior to the 1930’s, most were simple tariffs. When the Great Depression began, the Roosevelt Administration sought to prop up the nation’s farmers by raising their incomes. How did they propose to do that? Mainly by setting minimum prices and production quotas (remember Wickard v. Filburn?):

When Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated president in 1933, he called Congress into special session to introduce a record number of legislative proposals under what he dubbed the New Deal. One of the first to be introduced and enacted was the Agricultural Adjustment Act. The intent of the AAA was to restore the purchasing power of American farmers to pre-World War I levels. The money to pay the farmers for cutting back production by about 30 percent was raised by a tax on companies that bought farm products and processed them into food and clothing.

The AAA evened the balance of supply and demand for farm commodities so that prices would support a decent purchasing power for farmers. This concept was known as “parity.”

AAA controlled the supply of seven “basic crops” — corn, wheat, cotton, rice, peanuts, tobacco, and milk — by offering payments to farmers in return for farmers not planting those crops.

The AAA also became involved in assisting farmers ruined by the advent of the Dust Bowl in 1934.

In 1936 the Supreme Court, ruling in United States v. Butler, declared the AAA unconstitutional. Writing for the majority, Justice Owen Roberts stated that by regulating agriculture, the federal government was invading areas of jurisdiction reserved by the constitution to the states, and thus violated the Tenth Amendment. Judge Harlan Stone responded for the minority that, “Courts are not the only agency of government that must be assumed to have capacity to govern.”

Further legislation by Congress restored some of the act`s provisions, encouraging conservation, maintaining balanced prices, and establishing food reserves for periods of shortages.

Congress also adopted the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act, which encouraged conservation by paying benefits for planting soil-building crops instead of staple crops. The rewritten statutes were declared constitutional by the Supreme Court in Mulford v. Smith (1939) and Wickard v. Filburn (1942).

During World War II, the AAA turned its attention to increasing food production to meet war needs. The AAA did not end the Great Depression and drought, but the legislation remained the basis for all farm programs in the following 70 years.

The entire point of these subsidies is to increase the incomes of farmers. It has never had anything to do with making the price of a potato or a hamburger cheaper for consumers. By design, these programs intend to raise the price for agricultural products, as well as to transfer dollars from taxpayers to farmers.

How liberals like David Sirota and Aaron Sorkin came to think the exact opposite is puzzling. As Ronald Reagan said: “It isn’t so much that liberals are ignorant. It’s just that they know so many things that aren’t so.”

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The danger of guns. Dangerous, dangerous guns. Assault guns, even.

So, the Bureau of Justice Statistics has released their new report (PDF) on crimey, violency things. The key takeaway on homicide, is that it’s declined sharply over the last 20 years.

There were 11,101 firearm homicides in 2011, down by 39% from a high of 18,253 in 1993.

homicide

This actually understates the drop, however, because if you jump back to 1991, the FBI reports that there were 24,703 homicides that year. So, while homicides have declined by 39% from 1992, they’ve declined by 55% from 1991.

It’s not just homicide. In general gun crime is just…less.

Nonfatal firearm-related violent victimizations against persons age 12 or older declined 70%, from 1.5 million in 1993 to 456,500 in 2004. The number then fluctuated between about 400,000 to 600,000 through 2011.

guncrime

So, despite the fact that we have more guns in private hands than at any other time in living memory, we simply aren’t using them against each other anywhere near as much as we were just 20 years ago.

Maybe part of that is the profusion of concealed carry laws. Maybe part is because of things like 3 strikes laws, where we just lock people up for a really long time, and we have really a lot of people in prison. But what is clear is that violent gun crime has dropped precipitously since 1991.

~
Dale Franks
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Personal stuff

A couple of years ago my wife was told she needed a hip replacement.  To say it shocked her would be an understatement.  After finally accepting it, she got on Google.  And she did research.  She found there were two types of hip replacement surgeries – a posterior approach and an anterior approach.  She also found out the difference was like night and day in terms of recovery.

The anterior approach is by far the superior.  But, since it is a fairly new approach and requires a very expensive table, most doctors who do hip replacement surgery use the posterior approach.  Unfortunately, in the Atlanta area there were only two groups who do the anterior approach and neither of them take our insurance.   So she had a dilemma.  She could get the hip replaced but she was stuck with the posterior approach which required the cutting through a number of muscles in the hip area.

However, we’re talking my wife, Ms. “Never say never”.  She got on the phone with our insurance carrier and started pitching the anterior approach, telling them how superior it was to the other approach and how it would save them money, etc.  Finally, the insurance provider told her to widen her search to a 100 mile radius and she found a doctor in Gainsville, GA, about 40 minutes from where we live who does the anterior approach.  After consultation with him, she made her decision and surgery was today.

I’m amazed.  She went into surgery at 7:30am, was out at 9, in her room at 12, and here’s the amazing part, walking down the hallway of the patient floor at 1pm.  She made an entire circuit.  Not only that, they took her by the physical therapy room and she went up and down stairs.  With her new hip.

Phenomenal.  She leaves tomorrow to go home.  Had she had the other approach she’d be facing 2 weeks in a rehab hospital and months of rehab afterward.

Well, maybe not her, but you get the picture.  She’s a trooper, but her experience isn’t at all uncommon with this approach.  Hip surgery was a huge and painful ordeal that took you out of circulation for a while.  With the anterior approach, it doesn’t have to be anymore.  I don’t know if you or a loved one may have that in their future but if so, insist on finding a doctor that uses the anterior approach.

It is well worth the search.

~McQ

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$3.4 billion for new DHS headquarters

One of the things I’ve noticed over the years is governments at all levels building expensive monuments to itself.  From local city halls and county administration buildings to Washington DC, governments spare no expense in ensuring they have the very best in terms of buildings to house them. And, it appears, the Department of Homeland Security is not to be denied either:

Washington notables broke ground on the future home of the Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday, symbolically starting construction on the biggest federal building project in the Washington area since the Pentagon 68 years ago.

The project will bring together more than 15,000 employees now scattered in 35 offices in the region, placing them on a 176-acre campus strewn with historic buildings in a long-neglected corner of Washington, five miles from the Capitol building.

Department leaders hope the $3.4 billion consolidation will help the department fulfill its core mission — protecting the homeland — in ways big and small.

“It will help us hold meetings,” Secretary Janet Napolitano said. “It will help us build that culture of ‘One DHS.’”

“It will help us hold meetings.” That’s the best she can come up with (I mean, with today’s technology, I guess virtual meetings are just too much work)? And when I read about her hope of building a culture of “One DHS”, I saw an image of my freedoms flitting out the window while a band play “Deutschland Uber Alles”.

By the way, the site on which this building will be built is the former site of an insane asylum.

I love irony.

~McQ

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Observations: The QandO Podcast for 05 May 13

This week, the podcast is 1:07, but, really, the last fifteen minutes or so is such an arcane discussion of GDP calculations that it’s probably unlistenable. But, first we discuss Benghazi and the recent poll that shows 29% of Americans think they may need to grab a rifle and head off into the hills to raise an in the next few years.

The direct link to the podcast can be found here.

Observations

As a reminder, if you are an iTunes user, don’t forget to subscribe to the QandO podcast, Observations, through iTunes. For those of you who don’t have iTunes, you can subscribe at Podcast Alley. And, of course, for you newsreader subscriber types, our podcast RSS Feed is here.

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The obvious question

I find something really interesting. In my previous post on creating the 2 Quickscript fonts, no one asked what I’d think was an obvious question, which is, "Wait. You made fonts? How the hell do you make a font?"

I find it fascinating that, especially today, when we have daily access to electronic typography, there’s so little interest in what fonts are, or how to make make them. Especially when literally anyone with a computer can make their own fonts. There’s even a free, online bitmap font creation program called Fonstruct. We spend our lives surrounded by typography and almost no one cares about it at all.

Which brings me to a trilogy of fantastic documentaries about design by a film-maker named Gary Hustwit: Helvetica, Objectified, and Urbanized. All three of them are enormously interesting, and one of them is about a font, Helvetica, which every single person in the Western world sees every single day of their lives. You should watch all three of them.

Also you should go read my latest auto review at Medium: Doctor Hoon: 2013 Mini John Cooper Works GP. And you should "recommend" it after reading, to make my Medium stats shoot up really high.

~
Dale Franks
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Top ten newspapers and their circulation–a six month update

Six months ago, I did some numbers and commentary on declining newspaper circulation.* By chance, I noticed a couple of web articles that give some more current numbers, so I decided to revisit the older article and see how things are proceeding.**

Here is a table I created with print numbers from 2004, mid 2012, and late 2012-early 2013 for the current (2013) top ten newspapers. The current top ten list is taken from an AP article on Huffington Post, and is ranked by their current circulation.

 

Newspaper

2004

2012

Early 2013

6 mo +/-%

Total +/-% since 2004

WSJ

2101017

1499204

1480725

-1.23

-29.52

USA Today

2192098

1627526

1424406

-12.48

-35.02

NYT

1119027

717513

731395

1.9

-34.64

LA Times

983727

489792

476148

-2.79

-51.60

Wash Post

760034

434693

432454

-0.52

-43.10

Chicago Sun-Times

453757

361523

392889

8.68

-13.41

Chicago Tribune

603315

388848

368145

-5.32

-38.98

NY Daily News

712671

389270

360459

-7.40

-49.42

NY Post

642844

344755

299950

-13.00

-53.34

Denver Post

340169

236223

223871

-5.23

-34.19

 

Back in November, I said

USA Today looks vulnerable to me, because it looks like the easiest national newspaper to replace with a web-based aggregation app. They do very little original reporting except for the sports section. They have not yet ramped up a decent web presence, and it’s pretty late in that game.

In the latest numbers, USA Today’s print circulation is down a staggering 12% in just six months. I’d like to say I was prescient, but that’s so much, I suspect that the data isn’t comparable. I suppose it could be correct, especially if they lost a major hotel chain or two as a distribution channel. It does seem indisputable that they they are on a long term trend of losing circulation fairly rapidly.

It appears that USA Today did ramp up their web presence somewhat. The reported number of “web subscribers” went from about 86,000 to 250,000. I suspect they’ve started counting the numbers differently; that much increase out of the blue, with no special reason for more eyes on their site, looks unlikely. Since they have no paid web subscribers, it almost doesn’t matter anyway because the revenue from web advertising isn’t going to support their current business model. (The uncertainty about web numbers is one of the reasons I think the methodology might have changed enough to make the print comparisons suspect.)

I also noted circulation alarms for the Washington Post last time:

The Washington Post looks vulnerable too. It also has limited web presence, and print circulation is down a staggering 40%+ in eight years.

The six month circulation change isn’t too bad for them, but Ed Driscoll noted yesterday that their financials have taken a big hit in that time period. Their earnings are down 85%. 

There are a couple of reasons I don’t pay much attention to the web numbers. First, it’s hard to compare the numbers or get any idea of trends without details on their methodology for counting “subscribers”. For example, they could take the count of people who have gone through a silly registration process where they ask for an email. Someone might register that way for one article and never come back. Or it might be based on visits, but there are lots of ways to fudge those, depending on how you count and define things.

Second, I’m guessing they are using a methodology that’s favorable to their numbers, and they still lag. For example, the largest reported number of web subscribers by any of the majors is about half of what the Drudge Report gets in unique daily visits. Drudge’s monthly unique visits would make that ratio fifteen to one instead of two to one. I mentioned last time that Huffington Post has passed NYT in daily visits.

The overall story means steadily decreasing revenues for everyone except possibly the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, and I wouldn’t be too sure about the Times. Occasionally a regional paper will have a good run and make up some ground, as the Chicago Sun-Times has done recently (passing the Tribune on circulation in fact), and I called out the San Jose Mercury News for impressive growth in the last post. But those cases are rare, and don’t seem to be long lasting effects.

Way less money to spend is convenient in some respects, though. It’s easy for an editor to rationalize ignoring a complex story such as Benghazi. Unconsciously, he may not want to cover it because of the danger to his precious historic president, but he can tell himself he just doesn’t have the resources.

One of the messages the right needs to communicate and make part of the popular understanding is how declining revenues have constrained the reporting at major newspapers. That would be one way to explain to people, without getting partisan about it, that those newspapers shouldn’t be regarded with the authority most everyone gave them thirty years ago.

 

* The Washington Post link in that blog post, showing 2012 circulation figures, is dead now. It was apparently based on an AP story, and got removed after a while. I found the original AP story on Yahoo, with all the numbers from the original cite. It’s here.

** I should repeat the same caveat as last time: I am looking primarily at print circulation declines, and so I have to do some arithmetic because the newer numbers combine web and print. Those numbers also give the web number, so I subtract to get the presumed print circulation. It’s possible that I’m misunderstanding what the web numbers mean. Some of the “web subscribers” might also receive a print edition. In that case, the print numbers would be higher. But since I think the industry would want those numbers to look as high as possible, I don’t think they’re defining things that way.

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