Archive for July, 2012
My latest for Who Said You Said:
The Renewable Fuel Standard’s ethanol mandate requires an increasing amount of ethanol be blended in gasoline every year. Last year, more than a third of America’s corn crop went to ethanol; this year, with decreased production and increased diversion, that proportion is expected to rise to at least 40%. This requirement has pitted ethanol producers against food and feed consumers of corn, driving up corn prices even faster than normal supply shortages would dictate.
The EPA could, if it chose, suspend the ethanol mandate altogether for the year, but so far has chosen not to do so. Not only Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, but Interior Secretary Ken Salazar have been strong supporters of ethanol. On July 16, 2008, Salazar, then a U.S. Senator from Colorado, spoke on the floor of the Senate in terms of ethanol’s contribution to America’s “energy independence,” its importance in keeping gas prices down, and the jobs that were then being created on Colorado’s eastern plains in the new ethanol plants being opened there.
The Obama Administration may have been caught off guard by the severity of the current drought, but questions about price distortions caused by the mandate aren’t new. Last year, in February of 2011, Vilsack addressed exactly these same concerns at a press conference [See CNSNews.com video above]:
“Certainly not worried in the long term about our capacity to produce enough corn to meet our food and feed needs as well as our fuel needs. The last time we had any issue relative to food prices when this issue was raised about ethanol production, our studies indicated that the ethanol production was a very, very, very small percentage of the food price increases.
“When you look at food price increases, you’re looking more at marketing, advertising, refrigeration, transportation, expenses that are incurred in the food chain. And you’re also recognizing that farmers are receiving an ever shrinking share of the retail food dollar. There are a lot of folks that have to be satisfied out of that retail dollar.
“So I’m not concerned about it. We obviously will continue to look at what the Spring will bring, in terms of cropping decisions. Part of what’s happening worldwide is the result of weather conditions in a number of countries. Export controls and restrictions by some countries have made it a little more difficult. But here in this United States, we’re anticipating food prices to rise somewhere between 2-3%, which is relatively moderate.”
The problem, of course, is that neither people nor livestock can wait for the long run to eat. It may be easy enough for us to adjust to some food price increases, but folks living closer to the margin, as in Mexico, don’t have that luxury. See Egypt for what happens when entire countries have to choose between food and fuel.
And while Vilsack has correctly identified the price inputs into food production, he’s forgotten that prices change because of action on the margin, and the price of corn has proven to be especially volatile, but also especially remunerative to farmers in recent years. A large part of this increase is a result of the ethanol mandate. And contrary to Sec. Vilsack’s protestations that little of the money is flowing through to farmers, agricultural land values have been shooting through the roof, indicating that investors see corn production as a good investment.
The winners include ethanol producers, who are guaranteed a market for their product, corn farmers, who see the results of the government bidding against private ranchers and farmers for their product, and fertilizer companies, whose nitrogen-based product is needed to save the soil from the increased corn crop. Much of the increased corn planting takes place at the expense of soybeans, which replenish the soil. (As a side note, a major component of fertilizer is natural gas; the combination of falling natural gas prices and rising corn plantings has been a windfall for those companies, so to the extent that the farm vote is in play, look for politicians to make hay with that.)
The losers include ranchers, who are having to bid against the government for corn to feed their herds, and you. Because not only are food prices rising faster than your paycheck, there’s little to no statistical evidence that all this diversion of food to fuel is keeping gas prices down. And in spite of the mandates, ethanol plants are shutting down, anyway.
For decades, as their agriculture became a running joke, the Soviet Union used to blame chronic food shortages and poor crops on the weather. A Russian history professor of mine responded to a student’s question about Gorbachev’s political prospects, “Well, he’s got his main rival (Yeltsin) in charge of agriculture, so I’d say he’s in pretty good shape.”
It’s doubtful that Barack Obama felt threatened by Vilsack’s presidential ambitions (his abortive presidential run ended in early 2007, about a year before his home-state Iowa Caucuses), but it’s likely that Vilsack will end up as collateral damage of this Administration’s misbegotten economic and energy policies, nevertheless, when he finds himself – hopefully – looking for work after the November elections.
This afternoon’s mail brought a letter from UnitedHealthcare, my insurance company from a previous job.
“They never write you to say they’re giving you back money,” said Susie.
The Affordable (sic) Care Act requires UnitedHealthcare Insurance Company to rebate part of the premiums it received if it does not spend at least 80 percent of the premiums [it] receives on health care services…
In 2011, UnitedHealthcare Insurance Company spent only 79% of a total of $58,159,006,54 in premium dollars on health care and activities to improve health care quality. Since it missed the 80 percent target by 1% of premium is receives, [it] must rebate 1% of the total health insurance premiums paid by the employer and employees in your group health plan.
I’m always happy to get money back, and getting money back from an insurance company is particularly delicious. But you know, it’s a little like finding out you won that game with Florida State three years ago because they committed a recruiting violation.
In all seriousness, what business is it of the government’s what G&A margin a private company has. For some reason, 20% is exactly right, but forcing 0% borrowing on these clowns is a violation of every holy democratic republican principle since the Romans.
Of course, we’ll take the money, though.
Another year, another school bond issue. This year, it’s Jefferson County where Referenda 3A & 3B will be on the ballot, asking property owners to increase the mill levy. 3A will fund operations, 3B capital investment.
The unions favoring the increase are using the usual scare tactics, of course. But this year, thanks to Sheila Atwell at Jeffco Students First (among others), they’re having to play defense on a number of issues, including the district’s PERA contributions.
The union claims, with some truth, that:
PERA contribution rates also cannot be changed through this November’s mill and bondelection. Money from 3A supports local schools and prevents further cuts to instruction; money from 3B goes to badly-needed maintenance and repair on the schools. Money from 3A and 3B does not go to PERA.
Currently, it is not possible for the Jeffco Board of Education to ask district employees to pay a higher percentage of their own PERA contributions to offset budget shortfalls. Senate Bill 11-074 was introduced in February 2011 and would have allowed school districts like Jeffco to raise the employee contribution rate and lower the employer rate, but that bill died in committee. No new legislation has been presented since 2011.
Because no new legislation has been introduced since 2011, changes made to PERA contribution rates can only made through legislation by the Colorado General Assembly at the state capitol.
Others have suggested that PERA is a union issue. It is not. Unions cannot change the state-mandated rates. PERA is a state issue and citizens who want to see it changed need to lobby their state representatives to do so.
Mixed in with the truth, however, is a healthy helping of disingenuousness. They are correct to this extent: The specifics of PERA are set by the legislature, and are not really negotiable at the local level.
That’s about where it ends. That PERA contributions are fixed, doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. They are a very real – and growing – part of the school budget. By taking that off the table for discussion, the CEA is asking homeowners – all taxpayers, really – to work harder and longer to fund union members’ retirements, while putting off their own.
The Democrats in the state legislature did indeed kill a bill, SB11-074, that would have permitted localities and school districts to shift some of the PERA contributions from employer to employee, as the state can do. A quick search of the Secretary of State’s site shows that among those instructing their lobbyists to oppose SB11-074 were PERA itself, the Colorado AFL-CIO, and the CEA.
To use the fact that the structure is set by the legislature as an excuse to persuade taxpayers to raise their own taxes for your benefit, advise them to seek redress at the Capitol if they don’t like it, and then actively work to frustrate that reform, is the kind of tactic that might have worked once, before the Age of Transparency, but no longer.
There was a 3% reduction in pay, but there’s no reason to attribute that specifically to PERA, to call it the teachers’ contribution to PERA solvency, as the union tries to do elsewhere on the page. What they want to do is to day that taxes aren’t going to PERA, while their pay decreases are. It’s the same sort of rhetorical shell game that unions often play.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics quarterly survey of wages shows that the average weekly JeffCO wage declined by 3.9% year-over-year in QA of 2011. So it’s all in the spirit of shared sacrifice.
UPDATE: Go to JeffCo Students First Action to see what you can do to stop this measure.
Being State Treasurer and trying to hold the Colorado Public Employees’ Retirement Association (PERA) to account can be a frustrating experience, as Walker Stapleton shared with Sean Hannity on Fox News Channel in June:
“I asked for some basic financial information about the defined benefit plan, where people were promised a rate of return, a massively inflated rate of return of 8%, Sean, that everybody from Warren Buffett to Michael Bloomberg have said is ridiculous and insane and preposterous. And they keep this rate of return promise, on purpose, to pervasively underfund the plan, and create a liability on the backs of our kids and their kids, and future generations of Americans.”
Now, it’s not just Mayor Bloomberg, it’s Moody’s.
Moody’s Investors Service has asked for comment on a proposed adjustment to its valuation of the public pension liability in the United States. One of those changes would lower both the discount rate and the expected rate of return to a standard of 5.5%.
This would have the effect of tripling the estimated unfunded liability, from $766 billion to $2.2 trillion.
With a T.
PERA has more than 97,000 current benefit recipients receiving an average monthly benefit of nearly $3,000. It runs a sensitivity analysis on its liability, varying the rate of return and the discount rate from 9.5% (no adjectives need apply) to a merely overstated 6.5%. At 6.5%, it is barely 50% funded, and Colorado’s unfunded liability is just a shade under $37 billion.
A reasonable estimation back to 5.5% puts the unfunded liability at $45 billion, and the funded rate near death-spiral territory at 43.8%. I’m sure that when PERA releases its 2012 annual financial report in about a year, they’ll have done those calculations themselves. Here’s the recently released 2011 version.
Stapleton, a PERA board member, sued last year to get access to PERA records. That effort was rebuffed in Denver District Court in April.
“This is a battle for transparency that is going on all across our country,” Stapleton said on Hannity’s show. “It’s critical that we win this battle, because it’s critical for state budgets going forward.”
One of the reasons I had – and still have – considerably more hope for the Romney campaign than I ever really did for the McCain campaign is that Romney has shown an ability to counter-punch, especially in the early, sparring rounds. But the Romney response to Obama’s discredited claims about outsourcing fall falt.
Let’s stipulate that a Democrat getting Four Pinnochios from the Washington Post on an ad is as close to metaphysical certainty that the ad is untrue as it’s possible to get in this lifetime. That still doesn’t make Romney’s response effective.
I’m unsure why featuring noted non-Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton doing the same thing that Mitt’s doing – telling Obama to cut it out – is supposed to help. To me, it just illustrates the tactic’s futility. It’s a little like Bob Dole futilely imploring George H.W. Bush to, “stop lying about my record.”
People expect their politicians to lie. People don’t expect their Presidents to lie, which is why Obama’s ad, explicitly saying that “What a President believes matters,” is so much more effective, even though the criticism would work better on him.
Daily Links From Glimpse From a Height
- New Jersey Budget Problem?
From the WaPo: The state’s fiscal woes have prompted serious concern from ratings agencies like Moody’s, which said recently that the state’s economy through the next year “will likely remain muted given recent tax revenue trends and our expectation that the state’s economic recovery will lag the U.S,” as the New Jersey Record reports. The revenue shortfalls […]
- Californians Break With Unions on Pensions
Walter Russell Mead on Californians and public pensions: What makes this all very much worse from the unions’ point of view is that if (and when) a truly major and prolonged statewide budget emergency comes, attitudes are likely to harden against them even more. When voters “get” just how much of a tradeoff they face […]
- The Political Cudgel – And The Embedded Nail
Pat Caddell: Why? Some Republicans are worried that the fight over Obamacare distracts from the issue of the economy. What these Republicans fail to realize is that healthcare and the economy are inextricably linked; Americans now realize that Obamacare was a detour on the road to economic recovery, so to remind them of one is […]
Recently, I posted about author Tom Holland, and his NPR interview where he claimed that any Muslim should be able to understand how he, as a non-Muslim, could try to make historical sense of the Koran, since he wasn’t bound by Muslim doctrine. Given the alarming level of violence directed by some Muslims (usually overseas) towards both Muslims and non-Muslims over the issue of blasphemy (for Muslims) or “slander” (for non-Muslims), I thought at the time, and still think, it represents the kind of self-delusion that one only finds with a high degree of education.
But the subject appears to be in the air, as they say, and Peter Berger at the American Interest has penned a more thoughtful andcontemplative piece about the role that historical scholarship, as applied to the Koran, might play in advancing the cause of Islamic reformers, and in undermining the more radical elements that are gaining ascendancy in the Muslim world.
The Society for Biblical Literature, “the largest professional association concerned with Biblical and related studies; it is now strongly committed to a theologically neutral methodology of modern historical scholarship,” is getting ready to add the Koran to its portfolio of religious texts that it studies.
In its self-description the SBL says that it is “devoted to the critical investigation of the Bible”. A co-director of the consultation says that it would, among other things, seek to approach the Koran in the context in which the text arose, “as an historical, literary and religious text.” “Critical”, “context”, “historical” – these are words, used in connection with the Koran, that could get you killed in many parts of the Muslim world. But let me leave aside for the moment the question of the likelihood that such an approach could get a hearing among traditional Muslims. Rather I will ask a different question: Given the core affirmations of Islamic faith, is this approach religiously plausible for believing Muslims? It goes without saying that only Muslims can decide what they can or cannot believe; a non-Muslim can be a historian of Islam, he cannot be an Islamic theologian. However, a sympathetic outsider can ask a question that does not presuppose belief: Are there intellectual resources for such an approach within the Muslim tradition?
A short answer to this question is yes. This answer, though, needs to be explicated.
Berger then goes on to describe a Muslim school of thought that, while maintaining the divinity of the Koran, nevertheless leaves room open for its allegorical interpretation in places. Muslim reformers evidently often cite this school of thought and its methodology in support of their efforts to “reconcile Islam with pluralism, democracy and modern thought.” It’s Berger’s contention that rationalist investigation into the Koran’s origin and development might not merely be left alone, as Holland hopes, but might actually inform such Islamic speculation. How these discoveries would be integrated into Muslim thought would have to be left to Muslim theologians, of course.
If such ideas have a chance to work, they do here in the US, where most Muslims are far from radicalized, came here to get away from radicalization and its discontents, and where there is perhaps the most active effort to reconcile Islam with democracy and an officially secular society. While Berger would probably deny that he’s underestimating the resistance that such ideas would meet in the Islamic world, I think he is, even here in the United States. Both evangelical Christianity and Orthodox Judaism are testaments (so to speak) to the ability of serious faith to simultaneously absorb and ignore historical scholarly scrutiny of their texts.
And then, there’s the outright hostility of the clergy. Here’s Imam Ibrahim Kazerooni, in a speech to a mosque in Dearborn. Kazerooni is an odd duck, and I’ve written about him before. An Iraqi Shia, he left Iraq as a teenager to study in an Iranian madrassah in Qom. He is totally in the tank for the Iranian mullahs, having “given over,” as they say, a speech by Ayatollah Mezbah Yazdi, Ahmedinejad’s spiritual advisor, on the 21st anniversary of the Iranian Revolution, at a mosque in London.
Also, note that at the beginning of his talk, at about 9:00 of the first clip, he obliquely praises the then-recent news of Hebollah’s ascendance to the leadership of the Lebanese government. So to go by external appearances is to deceive oneself about the nature of the man.
But here in Denver, he tries to portray himself as ecumenical, willing to work across religious lines for understanding between faiths. He’s had some success, at one point heading St. John’s Episcopal’s Abrahamic Initiative.
Kazerooni is also a doctoral student at the University of Denver’s Iliff School of Theology, and quite clearly recognizes the threat that academic examination of Islamic tradition poses to orthodox Muslim belief. Beginning at around 1:50 of the clip below, he begins a long peroration, exhorting young Muslims to enter the academy, not to learn academic techniques, but to prevent and forestall their use as they relate to Islam:
So it’s not as though American Muslim clerisy is unaware of the threat to their authority and to traditional beliefs posed by academia.
Still, Berger’s is an interesting thought, and one that indicates a great deal more understanding of how Muslims view the world and their book than Holland’s naive assertions.
Two posts getting some attention today. First, this from Derek Thompson at the Atlantic:
And then this, from Taylor Cotter over at the Huffington Post:
I suppose that I’m grateful that I can make all my car payments and start saving for retirement while most of my friends are living at home and working part-time jobs — but I often find myself lamenting the fact that I’m not living at home and not working a part-time job. From my perspective, these are just some of the life-changing, character-building experiences that I may never have.
Now, it’s easy to laugh at Taylor, and Lord knows, I have. Oh, the struggles of not starving, not having to live at home. The horrors of being able to go out for drinks and read a book from time to time. The sheer insipidness of knowing that your rent is paid and there’s food on the table. Really, who wants to live like that?
But at a more serious level, the fact that she seriously thinks that she’s missing out on something by not spending mandatory time in her parents’ basement or her old room, shows that that may slowly be turning into the norm. It slows down adulthood, accumulation of both social and financial capital, and becomes harder and harder to reverse. Subsidizing the trend by putting 25-year-olds with masters degrees on their parents’ health insurance only aggravates the problem.
As young Taylor shows, it can become a desirable thing to start off your life that way. And when you think about it, why stop at 26? Or 30? Why not keep going all the way to early retirement. (Retirement from what? If you have to ask, man, you just don’t get it.) Well, the Greeks and the Spaniards show why.
Michael Barone likes to say that American has the worst 18-year-olds and the best 30-year-olds. That’s because the time immediately after college toughens kids up, and teaches them what the real world is like.
God help us when 40 becomes the new 30.
Daily Links From Glimpse From a Height
- The plan to dismantle Egypt’s Great Pyramids.
Assyrian News Agency, Via Althouse: According to several reports in the Arabic media, prominent Muslim clerics have begun to call for the demolition of Egypt’s Great Pyramids–or, in the words of Saudi Sheikh Ali bin Said al-Rabi’i, those “symbols of paganism,” which Egypt’s Salafi party has long planned to cover with wax. Most recently, Bahrain’s […]
- New farm bill likely to be a budget and trade disaster
Leave it to the government to buy high, sell low: Effectively, Price Loss Coverage is a price-based income support program. When the market price for a commodity covered by the program falls below a new and, by historical standards, very high target price level, farmers will almost certainly get a payment for every acre they […]
- Europe’s Zionist Anti-Semites
Well, as long as we’re not their biggest complaint… Most went to Israel with a deep-seated conviction that the country — given its presence on the front line in the conflict with Islam, as Strache told SPIEGEL ONLINE last year — deserves greater support from Europe. Most came back with an even deeper mistrust of […]
- What’s Holding Back The Facebook Mobile App?
Rethinking the FB mobile app from outside: Yet maybe the problem isn’t just Facebook. (C’mon haters, there’s a lot of great information in Facebook, or we wouldn’t all use it.) Maybe the problem is that Facebook is too worried about being Facebook to rethink its experience on mobiles. Gabi certainly makes a case along those lines. […]
- Positive Liberties and Legal Guarantees
From Bleeding Heart Libertarians: I believe both negative liberty and positive liberty, so defined, are morally important. It matters that people are not subject to continued wrongful interference, from each other or from the state. It also matters that people have the effective means to exercise their wills, to do as they please (provided they […]
- A Plea for Smart, Forward U.S. Military Engagement
From The Diplomat: Our military posture should thus be tailored in a strategic way that reflects the imperatives of regional threats and respects the interests of partners and allies. In places such as the Korean peninsula, the Straits of Hormuz, or Malacca, a clear, visible U.S. posture is required; in other regions a less visible, over-the-horizon […]
- What Moves? Culture & Interaction Design
Seems so intuitive, doesn’t it? The choice of metaphor dictates the proper design for interaction. Similar issues show up in other domains. Consider the standard problem of scrolling the text in a window. Should the scrolling control move the text or the window? This was a religious debate in the early years of display terminals, […]
- The Birth of Conservative Judaism
Not a European-pedigreed movement, but largely an American attempt at reinvention: But [Schechter] did not intend to pioneer a movement. Rather, using the model of the United Synagogue in Great Britain, Schechter sought to create what Cohen calls “Americanized traditional Judaism” by training English-speaking, secularly educated rabbis who would preside over synagogues that would pray […]
- Re-opening the American mind
Reconsidering Allen Bloom’s book, 30 years later: Liberals are most closely associated with the promotion of this relativist outlook, and they (rightly) took Bloom’s criticisms as being directed at them. But then they – as well as conservatives – concluded that Bloom must be calling for a return to absolute, traditional values. But that’s not […]
- This is what global cooling really looks like…
So it turns out that this era is neither the hottest, nor the fastest-warming in the last 2 millennia, after all: h/t Watts Up With That
- How Europe Can Support the ‘Pivot’
Will it? The overriding—and heartening—impression I took away from the week’s events was that our European friends are serious people grappling with serious diplomatic and strategic problems. One question came up repeatedly, suggesting it weighs on their minds. How can seafaring countries like France support the U.S. “pivot” to Asia, or the “rebalancing” between oceans, […]
- New Mercatus Paper on the Costs of Special Interest Politics
Mercatus introduces a new series of papers on the costs of special interest politics: The financial bailouts of 2008 were but one example in a long list of privileges that governments occasionally bestow upon particular firms or particular industries. At various times and places, these privileges have included (among other things) monopoly status, favorable regulations, […]
- Lost in LaMancha
Via Marginal Revolution: Grandiose projects across Spain now sit empty and dying. The New York Times focuses in on Ciudad de la Luz, a mega-movie studio built far from cultural centers that is now foundering. The Daily Mail takes a look at Spain’s “ghost airport,” a billion Euro project that was meant to serve 5 million passengers a year […]
- Check Out NASA’s Amazing New Panoramic Photo Of Mars
NASA’s new panoramic picture of Mars: But go to the page to see a phenomenal inline zoom.
- Where Do Jobs Come From?
Roger Pielke Jr.: Jobs come from an expansion of economic activity, which is called economic growth. Where does economic growth come from? There are only a finite number of places. Any answer to the question about where jobs come from that does not invoke resources and innovation (but also effort and luck) is incomplete. I’m pretty […]
- E.P.A. Idiocy in Action: Inventing New Technologies for a Bogus Problem
From the Captain’s Journal: A pair of new technologies could reduce the cost of capturing carbon dioxide from coal plants and help utilities comply with existing and proposed environmental regulations, including requirements to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Both involve burning coal in the presence of pure oxygen rather than air, which is mostly nitrogen. Major companies […]
I don’t tend to post a lot on purely social issues. But there are times when the two issues intersect in their own very illuminating way. During the June 26 hearing on the Colorado Health Care District redevelopment, one gentleman, one of three African-Americans in the room, took exception to some of the concerns being expressed by the neighbors of the proposed project:
“I’m a civil rights activist and a member of this community. I have family and friends who live here in this community. I’m here tonight – I thought I came here for peace and unity. But I see, that’s not going to be the case. Why? Because I sit over there, stood over there, and heard you all use all these buzzwords and code words. ‘We don’t want that element out here. We don’t want our property values to go down. Those are code words to say we don’t want black and brown people…”
(Shouting and yelling)
“You say ‘No,’ then why don’t you…”
“We don’t want the people who shot the police officer.”
“You know something, I don’t either, I don’t want them either, and I’ve stood on the front line saying put his butt in jail. But at the end of the day, what I’m saying is this. You want to be fair about it, Wal-Mart has been a friend of the African-American community, and I think that it will continue to be a friend to our community, and we need their help, and we need your help.”
Right after he finished, one of the audience members yelled after him something about Wal-Mart keeping wages down. But that wasn’t his point. His point was twofold: first, without Wal-Mart, many of those people wouldn’t have jobs at all, and second, Wal-Mart keep prices down, making many things more affordable to people with lower incomes.
Now, I don’t think most of the people in the audience were consciously racist. But I do believe that the charge stung precisely because, as good liberals (the precincts surrounding the development voted from 75% to 85% for Obama in 2008), they believe themselves to be incapable of racism. And to be sure, their bias isn’t the kind that leads someone to put on the bedding and burn crosses.
But it is paternalistic. They are unable to imagine that they have neighbors who can’t afford the options they’d put in the place of WalMart, and who would welcome a WalMart in walking distance. And they were stunned to hear from a black man that he very much wanted something that they were convinced he had no business wanting.
Almost 60 years ago, Billy Wilder had Humphrey Bogart, in the character of Titan of Industry Linus Larabee, explain things to his ne’er-do-well kid brother, William Holden, in the 1954 Paramount picture, Sabrina:
Wilder wasn’t a corporate shill. In The Apartment, he showed that he understood as well as anyone how to satirize the business world. But this is a lesson that many of those yelling about Wal-Mart that warm evening might bear in mind.