Archive for January, 2007

Why use a Rock when you can use a Nuke?

Saturday, January 20th, 2007

There is a fair amount in the news about the Chinese knocking a satellite out of orbit. I have to say that I am surprised that I have not seen any conservative bloggers getting all hysterical about this yet.

Maybe I just read all the wrong blogs, I don’t know.

In truth this ought to be a non-story. The Chinese have had nukes and ballistic missiles for a long time now. And unless I am even more ignorant then I think I am, that is all you need to clear out almost all the satellites from the skies.

After all, very few satellites can put up with a nuke going off in their neighborhood. So all the Chinese have to do to take down satellites is to send a few nukes up. After they went off, there would not be much left of the US space infrastructure.

Frankly, it seems awfully inefficient to knock out one satellite kinetically. As I understand it, a big part of a satellite’s cost is just getting it up there in the first place. And you have to pay launch costs no matter if you are putting a satellite up or a rock to knock out that satellite.

According to this article it cost 20 million just to get something into orbit in 2004. Now I am sure that the Chinese military does not have to pay that much. Still, it can’t be cheap even for them. Otherwise they would have a lot more ICBM’s in their arsenal. So I tend to think that this little stunt should be put in the same category as when the Chinese put a man into orbit. It’s more about looking cool and proving you can do it then anything of a practical nature.

One thing people should be keeping in mind though, is how pathetic the US military is with out its electronic warfare toys. As this Time article notes….

The U.S. dependence on its technological edge is considerable: Green explains that in recent joint exercises held with the Indian Air Force, less technologically advanced Russian Sukhoi jets defeated American F-15s when the latter were deprived of support from satellite and AWACs systems.

So if the Chinese are technically advanced enough to destroy a satellite kinetically, what else can they do to deprive the US of their electronic warfaretoys?

The Chief pontificated about this issue awhile ago in his first essay. Though he was not focused on the Chinese….

Ape man's guide to the Internet: Marginal Revolution

Friday, January 19th, 2007

I know that most people have already heard of the Marginal Revolution. But I figured that if I was going to review all the sites that I keep tabs on for my Apeman’s guide to the Internet page, I might as well start with a site that everyone knows. That way, they can get a feel for how my reviews stack up against their perception of reality before I start in on the more obscure sites.

If you want to see what a comment section on a blog should look like, you need to check out the Marginal Revolution if you have not already done so. It has the best comment section I have ever seen on any blog regardless of subject matter. If all blogs had a comment section half as good as the Marginal Revolution, the World Wide Web would be a much better place.

What makes the comment section of the Marginal Revolution such an exemplary example to the rest of the world?

It would be easier to enumerate what the comment section lacks than what it has. Fact is, the only major deficiency that I can think of off the top of my head would be a lack of intelligent commenters who are strongly religious (Yes, doubters, such people do exist.) Other than that, the Marginal Revolution’s comment section pretty much has it all.

After all, at the Marginal Revolution you will find a lot of big name commenters who represent a broad spectrum of ideological views such as Brad DeLong, Barkley Rosser, Steve Sailer, and Jane Galt, to name just a few. Even the commenters who are not as well known are intelligent and broadly representative of the ideological spectrum (though libertarians are a little over represented).

Better yet, everyone is reasonably respectful of each other and there are no perennial trolls like you will find on most other active blogs. Nor is there an overabundance of fan boys (though you will occasionally find a few of these). Most of the time, whenever some one comments on the Marginal Revolution it is because they have something worthwhile to say. If only commenters on other big name blogs would be so restrained.

The net result of this intelligent, diverse, and respectful group of commenters is a comment section that is worth its weight in gold. I often read what the commenters have to say before I even bother reading the post.

Without the comment section, I probably would not check the Marginal Revolution all that often.

I don’t mean to say that actual blog posts themselves are bad. In fact, I would say that Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok run a good mix of thought-provoking pieces and interesting links. But when you get right down to it, they are not particularly original. A lot of times they are just picking up a ball that another blog has gotten rolling. Nor would you go to Marginal Revolution to find fine writing (which is something I particularly value).

Bottom line: My time is scarce and there are a lot of interesting blogs in the world. Without the comment section, there is nothing to make the Marginal Revolution stand out from a crowd of excellent blogs.

Barkley Rosser's Irving Fisher imitation.

Wednesday, January 17th, 2007

Barkley Rosser has done me the honor of responding to one my of my comments on Brad Setser’s post on Social security and I am repaying him with a snide blog post. I am a baaaaad man…..

For those who don’t already know, I should point out that Barkley Rosser is a well known economist. At least, he is well known amongst those people who read economic blogs. And I am not being sarcastic when I say that the fact that he responded to one of my posts is an honor. But being honored does not stop me from thinking that he is wrong.

Before I go any further, let me reprint what he wrote to me….


Yes, the size of the surplus will soon start declining, but the intermediate projection that says it will reach zero in 2017 is based on ridiculously pessimistic assumptions, notably that the economy will start growing at 1.8% per year rather than its historic rate of twice that, and that immigration will decline sharply very soon.

The Trustees for over a decade have also provided a low cost scenario, which has proven overly pessimistic as well. However, that forecast has the fund running a surplus forever, with no changes being made. There really is a serious question why anybody is going on about this, especially as I think most Dem voters think they elected a Congress to preserve social security.

There is more to this than meets the eye. On Saturday, Jan. 12, the Washington Post had a tiny story on page A6 that only appeared in a few hard copy editions. It reported that Sen. Kent Conrad of ND (Dem), Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, is setting up a bipartisan commission to recommend changes to social security, but he would not answer questions because he did not want “the baby strangled in the crib.” You can read the story by going to maxspeak and looking at the posting by me that is labeled “Bipartisan Social Security Hit Squad Rides into Town under the Radar,” along with lots of comments.

Barkley Rosser

Now at first glance, Rosser seems to have a good point. Why should we assume that future economic growth will be half of the historical growth rate? Shouldn’t that be the high cost estimate instead of the mid cost estimate for Social Security’s future cost?

But as they say in the financial business, past returns are no guarantee of future results. And in the case of America’s future growth rate, there are some very good reasons to believe that future growth will be far lower than the historical norm.

The biggest reason for assuming that future growth will be lower than the historical norm is the baby boomers. As everyone who is reasonably well educated knows, the baby boomers are the big bulge going through the demographic pipeline. When they hit retirement age, there will be a far larger number of retirees to workers than the historical norm.

Now it stands to reason that a country with lots of retirees will not be able to grow GDP as fast as a nation with more people in the work force. To be sure, immigration is the big wild card here, but I don’t think that it will save our bacon.

For one thing, political pressure is mounting to clamp down on immigration. Also, our immigration laws are geared towards letting poorly educated people in and keeping highly educated people out. Thus, even if the politicians allow enough immigration to keep the retiree-to-worker ratio at historical levels, we still might not be able to keep up the historical rate of growth.

And demographics is only one of the reasons for thinking that the growth rate will be lower in the next decade or two. There is also the current account balance, the war in Iraq, global warming, and so on, and so on.

So I wonder why Rosser thinks that it is ridiculously pessimistic to believe that we will only see growth at the 1.8% level in the coming decades. I could understand if he was a Bush supporter…..

A Devastating Critique

Wednesday, January 17th, 2007

Nobody can hurt you like somebody who knows you. J. Dueck recent post called “Dia Gnosis” is a hand’s on demonstration of that truth.

J. Dueck purpose is to call attention to a common flaw in American Christianity (primarily of the evangelical variety). His form is that of a biblical parable. The result is a devastating critique of American Christianity that fits into three paragraphs.

I would like to note that there is a little bit of word play going on with title. As it stands, the title is means Separate Knowledge. But if you put both words together it forms the English word diagnosis. I think that Dueck has both meanings in mind.

I also wonder if he is trying to call to mind the Gnostics, but that might be over thinking it on my part.

Et tu, Setser?

Wednesday, January 17th, 2007

Brad Setser runs one of my favorite blogs on economics. So I was a little disturbed to see him jump on the “Social Security Trust Fund has lots of assets” bandwagon. My feelings on this score are pretty close those expressed in the Chieftain of Seir’s essay J’accuse (Though I have to say that the Chief is a little over the top).

The strange thing is that I don’t even understand what set Setser off. Supposedly he was writing in response to this Washington Post article. If you just read Setser’s post you would think that the Washington Post article is letting Bush off the hook and blaming all our coming fiscal problems on Social Security. But that is not my understanding of what the Washington Post article is trying to say at all. Am I just missing something?

At any rate, Setser did not completely disappoint me. He at least came up with a novel reason as to why we should consider the IOU’s in the trust fund to be assets. But he does not advance this novel explanation until he is challenged by another commentator by the name of Emmanuel.

At first, Setser tries to shake Emmanuel off with a spurious analogy. But Emmanuel keeps after him and to his credit Setser gets serious and says…

Emmanuel —

One part of the federal government (soc sec) set aside $10 out of its current revenue. Another part (the rest of the gov) spent $10 more than it took it. The rest of the government promised to repay social security with interest …

at some point this will simply be reversed. the rest of the government will pay Social security $10 back plus interest (or borrow the funds needed to repay social security from the private market).

The social security surplus that finances a deficit elsewhere in the government will turn into a social security deficit financed by a surplus elsewhere (or my external borrowing).’

why does the internal accounting matter?

Simple — different parts of the government have different revenue sources. Social security is financed by a flat payroll tax up to a cap. That’s regressive (Soc sec benefits/ insurance is, by contrast, progressive). The rest of the gov. is financed by a progressive income tax.

The increase in the regressive payroll tax to build up the trust fund (keeping the progressive income tax or the deficit lower than it otherwise would have been) only makes sense in my view if the progressive income tax is used to collect the revenue needed to pay the social security system back.

Otherwise, as Dean Baker likes to point out, all those folks who paid more soc sec payroll taxes that needed to cover current soc sec benefits will have gotten royally screwed.

That is the best justification I have ever come across for the Social Security Fund. I don’t find Setser argument at all convincing, but I always enjoy reading arguments that I have never encountered before.

Still, I like challenging arguments that I have never come across even better, so I said….

Mr. Setser,

I have a lot of respect for you but I fail to understand the problem you have with the Washington Post article.

The strongest part of your argument seems to be that the Washington Post should not have said that the Social Security Trust fund will run out in 2017. But while I grant you that Washington Post’s terminology is incorrect, pointing that out does nothing to change their argument.

The basic thrust of the Washington Post article as I understood it is that as the baby boomers start to retire, the fiscal position of the Untied State Government is going to get a lot worse. Nothing you have said changes that argument and I don’t understand why you have a problem with it.

Nor do I understand why you seek to maintain the fiction that the Social Security Trust Fund has assets. To my way of thinking, assets are things that give you options. If I have money in the bank it gives me more options then if I don’t have money in the bank.

But the Social Security Trust fund does not give the government any more options to fund Social Security that it would not already have had without the trust fund. There is nothing to stop Social Security from being funded out of the general fund even in the absence of the trust fund.

To put it other way, would you say that it is all right for a private company to fill its pension fund with IOU’s and promise to pay them with profits? If one argued like you do, you could argue that such an arraignment is alright because those IOU’s will be paid out of company profits, not money taken from the workers….

The fact of the matter is that the retirement of the baby boomers is going to make the current fiscal situation a lot worse and the “assets” in the trust fund will do nothing to fix that fact.

The almost perfect password solution?

Tuesday, January 16th, 2007

Velcro Van (A.K.A J. Dueck) has an article up on his Newsvine site describing how he manages his passwords.

In a nutshell: He uses Keepass to store all of his passwords on a flash drive that he keeps on his key chain. Mr. Van claims not to be worried about losing his flash drive because he has everything on it encrypted.

Seems like a pretty good idea to me. But I worry about how well a flash drive would survive on my key chain…..

What do you guys think?

Strange Facts: Wild Parrots in Brooklyn

Tuesday, January 16th, 2007

I went to New York City once and I have no need to go again. The only things there that I had any use for was the USS Intrepid carrier and riding on the ferry (I was young then, you see). I can’t remember a time in my life when being in even a small city did not make my skin crawl. I dread going to one and I am always happy to leave.

But if perchance life should force back to that horrible city I should hope that I would have a chance to see the parrots that fly free in Brooklyn.

I must confess that it was a shock to me to discover that such birds live wild in Brooklyn. If there were not so many pictures and testimonials all over the internet I would not have believed it no matter what people said.

But here is a Washington Post article on the birds…

And here is a web site devoted to the birds

And here are some pictures of a parrot fighting over pizza with a starling…..

And last, but not least, here is the post by Dymphna that first alerted me to this fascinating fact.

Insanely Good Architecture….

Sunday, January 7th, 2007

If I were to compose a list of things that I dislike, the government of New York State would rank rather high on the list. In any fair minded list of the most dysfunctional governments in this United States of America, the State government in New York would rank in the top 10.

But there are few things in this world in which some good can not be found. In the case of the New York State government this good can be found is some of the insanely good architecture that the government had the good sense to acquire.

In this particular case, I am thinking of two old State Asylums. One of which can be found in Buffalo and the other can be found in Binghamton. If you have any kind of appreciation for architecture you should check these buildings out.

We will start with the old Buffalo State Hospital…

Not too many modern building mange to achieve that affect……

I am kinda bashful about stealing photographs so if you want to see more you should go to the site that I took this from.

An even better overview of the old Buffalo State Hospital is available on Andrew Cusack’s blog.

Now I happen to think that the old Binghamton State Hospital is even better. But the only photographs I could find on the web don’t show it off quite as well�.

If you want to see more photographs of the Binghamton site go here�.

I think one of the reasons that I like Binghamton better is that I prefer stone work to brick. Also, the practical part of me doesn’t like the fact that the towers on the Buffalo State Hospital are for ornamental purpose only. They should have at least made them into bell towers or something.

Minor gripes aside, I think they are both cool and I think it is a shame that they are both slowly decaying like the great state of New York itself.

Arguing for Royalty…

Sunday, January 7th, 2007

I get so tired of seeing the same old arguments all the time. Conservative, Liberal, Green, Libertarian; It does not matter if I agree with them or not, they all get boring the 40 millionth time you see them.

I say that by way of explanation for my strange hankering after eccentric and off the wall arguments. Should any of my gentle readers feel similarly inclined, I present to you an old article from Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn arguing the case for the institution of monarchy that Andrew Cusack has so kindly put up on his site.

You can read the article here…..