Piedmont Earthworks: Dead End or Fulcrum?

Environmentalism is not a topic I’ve tackled here at Difficult Run, and it’s not something I write about a whole lot. That doesn’t mean that I don’t care, however. I just recognize that it’s way outside my area of expertise. I’m at once incredibly skeptical of most environmentalism that comes from a politically liberal mindset because I find it ideologically blind and totally impractical. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t care. I just don’t know what to do.

2013 02 20 Chris Fields-JohnsonThe person I respect the most on this issue is Chris Fields-Johnson. Chris is a PhD student in crop soil & soil environmental science at Virginia Tech and is the founder of The Piedmont Earthworks. Chris knows his stuff, and he has spent years studying and honing his skills so that his passion is matched by his depth of expertise. When I want to talk about environmental policy without the politics and with someone who knows what they are talking about, I talk to Chris.

Today he posted a fascinating and informative environmentalism piece discussing the environmental history of the southeast (especially Virginia) from the arrival of early European settlers to this day. The short version (although you should read the full article), is that a combination of beaver hunters and tobacco growers eviscerated the diverse ecosystems, and only the advent of widespread planting of loblolly pine prevented the total desertification of the region.

However, as Chris writes, the loblolly pines are not valuable enough as pulpwood to justify continued investment in the land, and so the degradation continues. Chris asks the question: what next? He suggests homesteading, as he is currently doing, to use the loblolly pines as a basis from which to begin reclaiming the original biodiversity of the region.

I’d like to hear more details about Chris’s suggestion, so I left a comment there. I’m turning comments off on this post so that if you have questions, you can ask them there as well.


Global Cyber War Escalates

A week or two ago there was a spate of stories about big-name US newspapers like the Wall Street Journal and New York Times getting hacked by the Chinese. I thought it was pretty noteworthy, and I was going to put up a note when I got distracted by other things.

Then it all went to Hell.

It’s been an open secret for quite some time that the Chinese military are behind an onslaught of cyber attacks on US soil, but outside of tech security circles you probably didn’t hear very much about it. This all changed when US cyber security firm Mandiant issued a scathing report linking the attacks (perpetrated by a group known as “APT1”) with a specific unit within China’s People’s Liberation Army: unit 61398.

2013 02 20 APT1 Attacks

Mandiant’s report, summarized via Slashdot, specified that:

“Since 2006, Mandiant has observed APT1 compromise 141 companies spanning 20 major industries,” the report continues. “APT1 has a well-defined attack methodology, honed over years and designed to steal large volumes of valuable intellectual property.” APT1 has the ability to access victim networks for an average of 356 days, stealing terabytes of compressed data during that period.

Sound ominous? It should. So what’s the point of all this hacking? 

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Hiking the Minimum Wage

President Obama made a surprise call to increase the national minimum wage to $9 per hour. Is that actually a good idea? Becker and Posner took the issue on directly. Becker writes in a measured, but skeptical tone:

The two main issues debated are the effects of a higher minimum on employment of the low skilled, and its effects on the degree of poverty. Both theory and evidence indicate that higher minimums reduce employment for teenagers and other workers with low productivity, and that it does little to alleviate poverty. Neither conclusion, however, is without controversy, especially the employment effect.

He adds at the end that since recipients of minimum wage are also the customers of companies that have to bear the brunt of paying their workers above market rate:  “low-income families are hit by two bullets: some of their members find it harder to get jobs, and they face a higher cost of the goods they consume.”

Posner weighs in with skepticism as well:

The proposal will not commend itself to most economists who study the economic consequences of minimum wages. They make three principal arguments: minimum wage laws reduce employment (and efficient resource allocation) by pricing labor above its market rate; the laws do not reduce poverty, because most beneficiaries of minimum wage laws are not poor; and as a means of reducing economic inequality, such laws are inferior to the Earned Income Tax Credit (i.e., the negative income tax). I will try to assess these arguments.

His conclusion is that,  since we know so little and the proposed increase is so large, we should start with a more modest increase. He also suggests that indexing to inflation is a bad idea:

And I don’t think indexing the minimum wage to inflation is a good idea; should inflation surge, which is always a possibility though not (it seems) an imminent one, an equal increase in the minimum wage might contribute to an inflationary spiral.

I actually found an interesting article by Michigan macro professor Miles Kimball which addresses the controversial employment effect. Kimball cites work by Isaac Sorkin (an incredibly brilliant grad student who started the PhD program at the same time that I did) who explained that the employment effect might be much greater than expected; it just takes a long time to go into effect. A lot of companies engineer their production around assumptions about wage, and when the wage assumptions change (e.g. minimum wage goes into effect), they only gradually move to less labor-intensive production because of adjustment costs. In other words: they don’t go out and buy brand new machines on day 1, they just gradually phase out machines and processes to shift towards using fewer employees. That’s more reason to suspect that a minimum wage hike will do more harm than good, and indexing it to inflation would compound the problem.

And then there’s Greg Mankiw (very respected macroeconomist, but also openly Republican) who asks the simple question: why $9? Mankiw’s point is that if minimum wage is a magic wand to increase the salaries of the poor, why wouldn’t you you jump all the way to $25 (equivalent to the current median income of $50,000 for 2,000 hours/year)? Some mysterious force suggest we shouldn’t go too high, but the President isn’t talking about it. What is it? Good question.

My own take is that it is socially useful to have jobs available that pay less than what a person could live off of, primarily for teenagers to gain initial job experience. You need to have a bottom rung of the ladder, a place where you can go, start a resume, and use it as a launching pad for better jobs. I got my first minimum wage job when I was 14, and I’ve worked ever since: janitor, file clerk, bus boy, dishwasher, etc. I didn’t life myself up  by my bootstraps, so a starter job is not enough. But it does help. Taking that away won’t help anyone. Fighting poverty and reducing income inequality are valid goals, but this is not a valid strategy to accomplish them.

2013 02 19 Minimum Wage

Edelstein on The Gatekeepers – Shedding Light on Israel’s Secret Service

2013 02 14 Gatekeepers

I love David Edelstein’s reviews, but this one is especially interesting because it deals directly with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The documentary The Gatekeepers is based on interviews with six leaders of Shin Bet. Why have they decided to open up at this time? From the review:

They are different kinds of men, but their conclusions are remarkably similar: that a series of repressive and/or opportunistic Israeli politicians have endangered — perhaps murdered — any chance of a lasting peace. That’s right, folks, it’s the spooks taking the long view. You know the Holy Land is an unholy mess when the professional paranoiacs with a license to kill come off like peaceniks.

Fascinating reading.

Tyranny in the United States

2013 02 14 Three Felonies A DayMy father once told me something he had learned from an older friend who had grown up in the USSR. He said that one of the most important tools for a tyrannical government was to ensure that every citizen was always breaking the law. This was one of the benefits of the dysfunctional Soviet economy: everyone had to resort to the black market. That meant everyone was a criminal. And, since Soviet law enforcement knew that, it meant that it was entirely in their discretion to arrest you or not. When anyone can be arrested at any moment, you live in a constant state of fear.

We’re not there yet in the United States, obviously, but the rapid expansion of regulation means we might be closer than some think. In 2011, Harvey Silvergate published Three Felonies A Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent, which argued that on average, each individual American commits at least three felonies every single day without any knowledge that they are doing so.

Now Glenn Reynolds has a new paper out called Ham Sandwich Nation: Due Process When Everything is a Crime. According to the abstract:

Though extensive due process protections apply to the investigation of crimes, and to criminal trials, perhaps the most important part of the criminal process — the decision whether to charge a defendant, and with what — is almost entirely discretionary. Given the plethora of criminal laws and regulations in today’s society, this due process gap allows prosecutors to charge almost anyone they take a deep interest in.

What good is due process on a crime-by-crime basis if there are so many unknown criminal statutes that everyone can be prosecuted–successfully–for something?

Did Penicillin Start the Sexual Revolution?

The theory is that by providing an effective way to treat syphillis, penicillin kick-started the sexual revolution in the 1950s, 10 years earlier than most people would assume. From EurekAlert:

Syphilis reached its peak in the United States in 1939, when it killed 20,000 people. “It was the AIDS of the late 1930s and early 1940s,” Francis says. “Fear of catching syphilis and dying of it loomed large.”

Penicillin was discovered in 1928, but it was not put into clinical use until 1941. As World War II escalated, and sexually transmitted diseases threatened the troops overseas, penicillin was found to be an effective treatment against syphilis.

“The military wanted to rid the troops of STDs and all kinds of infections, so that they could keep fighting,” Francis says. “That really sped up the development of penicillin as an antibiotic.”

Right after the war, penicillin became a clinical staple for the general population as well. In the United States, syphilis went from a chronic, debilitating and potentially fatal disease to one that could be cured with a single dose of medicine.

The basic idea, that people react to incentives, is not new. Just the incentive. And, in this case, I can’t help but think about the fact that treating syphillis might have made sex a lot safer for men, but women still had the risk of pregnancy to worry about. I wonder if the unequal shift in incentives had any social impact.

Let’s Control the Government’s Guns

2013 02 13 SWAT

You might think that that’s a sarcastic comment, but it’s not. The increasing militarization of law enforcement agencies is totally unneccesary and deeply disturbing. Deroy Murdock explains why for the National Review in one of those rare pieces that I’d expect the Nation to also grudgingly agree with. There’s a lot of scary and wrong in that article, but the worst is definitely the police murder of Jose Guerna in 2011:

Fearing that criminals were invading his home on May 5, 2011, Iraq veteran Jose Guerena, 26, hid his wife and son, age 4, in a closet. He grabbed his rifle and went to investigate. An Arizona SWAT posse seeking marijuana kicked down Guerena’s front door, saw his rifle, and lethally pumped 71 bullets into him. Guerena did not fire a shot. Indeed, his rifle’s safety mechanism remained engaged. The dead father and husband had no criminal record, and his home was devoid of contraband.

Jose Guerena, murdered by a SWAT team while trying to defend his family.
Jose Guerena, murdered by a SWAT team while trying to defend his family.

None of the officers involved in killing Guerena ever faced criminal charges. Some of Guerena’s family members were later found to be guilty of drug trafficking, but Guerena himself has no criminal record, was never charged, and had no contraband of any kind in his home. All of this leads me to two thoughts:

  1. Murdock doesn’t fully diagnose the problem. It’s not just about excess money. It’s also about incentives: No government official wants to have to explain why cops got killed when a SWAT team was available. They get held responsible for that. They don’t get held responsible for killing innocent people or shooting the family dog. (Which they do a lot, read the article.)
  2. The fact that neither the Democrats or Republicans are willing to take a stand on this issue shows you how pathetic our current political parties are, and how divorced they are from common sense and basic principles.

The Paranoid Style in (All) American Politics

Richard Hofstadter sort of wrote the book on paranoia in American politics with his 1964 essay in Harpers: The Paranoid Style in American Politics (full text). In the first paragraph, Hofstadter wrote that the paranoid “style of mind… is not necessarily right wing,” but (written during the heydey of the John Birch Society) he did focus more on contemporary right-wing rather than historical left-wing examples. It’s been nearly a half-century, but the partisan dichotomy has stuck around.

Today there is no doubt that paranoia and conspiracy continue to thrive among the right wing. The most prominent example would be Glenn Beck. I actually used to watch him regularly, but I grew too disgusted after the episodes about George Soros being some kind of international puppetmaster. And of course there’s the well-known Birther movement and a whole ecology of lesser-known conspiracies including everything from chemtrails to faked moon landings.

2013 02 11 Glenn Beck

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The Gun Control Post (Part 2 of 2)

On  Monday, in The Gun Control Post Part 1, I focused mostly on the differences between how conservatives and liberals approach the issue of gun control. In short, liberals see gun control primarily as a public health problem. Guns, like asbestos or lead, are a dangerous part of the environment that lead to tragic deaths through suicide, murder, and mass killings. In order to limit this unnecessary loss of life, guns should be restricted. Liberals often include a condescending exception for “hunters and sportsmen”, but the real consequence of that rhetoric is to preemptively invalidate the conservative view of the issue. In reality their paradigm leaves little room for co-existence with guns of any kind. An ideal liberal society is a society with practically no guns in the hands of private citizens.

Of course I realize this does not describe all liberals, but I believe it is a good representation of the majority view on the American left. Furthermore, it is a reasonable position to hold. Societies like Japan and Western Europe, where civilian ownership of weapons has been heavily regulated for centuries (before firearms even existed, in many cases), have significantly lower murder rates and it is due at least in part to the fact that guns are extremely rare. A desire to move our society in that direction is neither intrinsically un-American nor a symptom of some nefarious desire for centralized control. Longing for a society where we are all safe from violence (and especially the most vulnerable) is a noble and American sentiment, and wanting to minimize the availability of guns in society to move towards that goal is rational. That is why the liberal position must ultimately entail not only limited measures such as universal background checks or bans on assault-style weapons, but in the end a near-total prohibition. The liberal vision is a society by and large without guns in the hands of private citizens.

It is worth pointing out, however, that the link between firearm laws or firearm prevalence and violence is anything but simple. This FactCheck.org article has a rundown of some of the claims from both sides, and shows how each cherry picks (or in some cases fabricates) statistics to their liking. I also did some ultra-simplistic analysis on some data that was gathered and made available for download by The Guardian. One of the interesting observations in the article is that the US has–by far–the highest rate of civilian ownership in the world. In the US, there are privately-owned 88 guns for every 100 citizens. The runner-up, Yemen, has a rate of only 55 for every 100 people. Despite this fact, the homicide rate for the United States is nowhere near #1 in the world. We’re at #28. I put together a comparison of the firearm homicide rate per 100,000 people vs. the firearm rate per 100,000 guns for the United States and some comparable nations, and the results are pretty interesting.

Firearm Rate Comparison

When you just look at homicide rate per 100,000 citizens, the United States is a huge outlier (at least compared to this group). But when you consider the firearm homicide rate per gun (in other words, a very naive attempt to control for the fact that the United States has a lot more guns floating around), we go from being well more than triple the #2 country to placing fourth in the list. Portugal, Ireland, and Belgium all have higher firearm murder rates per gun than the United States, and other developed nations like South Korea aren’t very far behind either. Over all, the rates are much more evenly distributed. It would be very interesting to compare this data to aggregate crime data (non-firearm homicides along with assaults, burglaries, etc.), but in the meantime it’s a simple snapshot illustrating how complex inter-country comparisons can be.

Back on the conservative side of things, however, the American right does not see the issue in terms of public health but in terms of civil liberties. Conservatives believe that individual Americans have a right to personal protection and that in practice this means they ought to have access to the kinds of weapons they can reasonably expect to encounter. Furthermore, conservatives believe that the widespread distribution of arms throughout society acts as an important deterrent to criminals, a last line of defense against foreign invaders, and a vital check on the growth of centralized government authority. Fundamentally, conservatives recognize that there is a cost to be paid for preserving the Second Amendment, but they also believe that there would be an even heavier cost to be paid in sacrificing it.

Most of the debate, however, does not take place at the level of rational discussion, but at a much more visceral level. Conservatives and liberals increasingly behave as separate and opposed tribes within American politics. They fundamentally do not understand each other, and from that lack of understanding extremism spreads. Although I certainly have an opinion on the gun rights debate, and I tend to come down with the conservatives, I am also deeply troubled at the divide that I believe is growing within our society.

So my goal in my concluding post on gun control is two-fold. First: I want to critique the gun control policy debates and uncover what I see as a fundamental lie that both the conservatives and liberals engage in. Secondly, I’d like to present my own proposals which address the shortcomings in current proposals and at the same time seek to find common cause among liberals and conservatives. I certainly don’t think I have all the answers and I expect my ideas to take heat from both sides, but I’d at least like to be talking to rather than at both sides of this debate. So, here goes nothing.  

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