Peak Radicalization

I hesitated to get involved with this story but I finally caved in. This morning I stumbled across this story about the newly elected mayor of Kinloch being barred by the city’s police from taking office on the grounds of vote fraud.

Kinloch is a small, poor, almost exclusively black suburb of St. Louis, north of the city not far from Ferguson which has become infamous lately. Kinloch once had a population of about 10,000 but in the 1980s St. Louis began purchasing plots of land for noise abatement reasons (Kinloch isn’t far from the airport) and by the 2010 census its population had fallen below 300.

The article describes Kinloch as once having been “thriving”. I suppose that depends on your operative definition. It was once more populous but it has been poor for as long as I can recall.

What really caught my attention was the comments to the article which included complaints that the newly elected mayor was being prevented from taking office due to racism. That is nonsense. Yes, the new mayor was black but the old mayor was black, too. I don’t know for sure but I seriously doubt that Kinloch has had anything but black mayors for the last half century and the same is true of police chiefs. Kinloch’s population has been 95% or more black for as long as I can recall.

My point here is that not every bad thing that happens to a black person is caused by racism. Assertions of racism in this particular case points to a level of radicalization with respect to race that assumes the level of farce.


Chasing Rainbows

Mort Zuckerman opens his Wall Street Journal op-ed on President Obama’s agreement with Iran with two lines from the popular song “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” and remarks:

The vaudeville song by Harry Carroll and Joseph McCarthy, popularized by Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand, is all too appropriate to this moment, as we consider the implications of a nuclear Iran and the prospect of mushroom clouds over the Middle East.

The song was popularized in 1918 by Charlie Harrison (his version is above) back when a “hit song” meant you sold a lot of sheet music with your picture on it and before Judy Garland was born. The melody is adapted from Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu composed in 1834 and published in 1855. It’s been popular ever since, one of Chopin’s most popular works. The popular song has a new revival about once a generation. It’s been covered hundreds of times.

In his op-ed Mr. Zuckerman lists the reasons he’s skeptical about the agreement but IMO there only needs to be one: the only vote in Iran that means anything is that of the Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and, judging by his public statements, an agreement that would meet with his approval is not one that should meet with U. S. approval. Contrary to Sec. Kerry’s claims if Khamenei answers to any constituency it is a handful of ayatollahs with very different views and objectives from those of an American politician.

As I’ve said from the announcement of the “framework agreement”, it certainly appears that President Obama is desperate for a deal and I think the Grand Ayatollah has that impression, too.


Economic Ignorance

I knew that I couldn’t in good conscience vote for George McGovern when I was treated to the spectacle of seeing his chief economic advisor, John Kenneth Galbraith, being compelled to apologize shamefacedly for the candidate’s extraordinary economic ignorance. The editors of the Wall Street Journal find themselves somewhat in that position in critiquing the position of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker on legal immigration:

In a radio interview Monday with Glenn Beck, Mr. Walker said “the next President and the next Congress need to make decisions about a legal immigration system that’s based on, first and foremost, on protecting American workers and American wages.” He went on to say, “I’ve talked to folks, I’ve talked to Senator Sessions and others out there.” At the “forefront of our discussion going foward,” he says, must be what legal immigration is “doing for American workers looking for jobs” and what it “is doing to wages.”

By all means let’s have that discussion on jobs and wages. Because Mr. Walker seems to be taking his cue from Senate hearings Mr. Sessions held recently to spread a whopper: that Americans with degrees in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math) can’t get jobs because foreigners are stealing them.

Mr. Sessions is the Senate’s leading crusader against any immigration, legal and illegal, and his latest targets are H-1B visas for skilled workers. Practically speaking, these visas are the only way U.S. companies can bring foreign talent to work in America, and more are going to STEM specialists.

The Senator calls claims of a skilled-worker shortage a “hoax.” But the numbers suggest otherwise: The U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services announced last week that it received a record 233,000 requests from American business for the 85,000 H-1B visas available.

The WSJ editors are displaying a bit of economic ignorance of their own. There’s more than one reason that the number of requests for H-1B visas might be so large. It might be, as the editors suggest, that the workers are simply not available. Or it might be that the wage being offered for the workers is below the market clearing price. The editors present no evidence for their position; they merely assume it. I would submit that anyone who has ever worked for a company that requested H-1B visas could testify as to how frequently they’re used as a way of reducing wages. The employers aren’t short of workers; they’re chaffering down wages.

In the technology sector in particular it has been demonstrated so frequently that the industry leaders, e.g. Microsoft, Oracle, etc., are using H-1B visas in just that way that it requires no additional proof.

One bit of evidence that might be produced for the WSJ’s position is if median wages in the U. S. were rising (and median wages equalled average wages or nearly so). That isn’t the case so I think we should be skeptical of the claim.

The editors also say this:

As for jobs overall, in 2010 the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco concluded “there is no evidence that immigrants crowd out U.S.-born workers in either the short or long run.” It also found that the long run effect on the income of Americans is small but positive.

which is a bit of lying with statistics. There’s more than one way that could be true, for example it might mean that the incomes of top managers were rising even as the incomes of ordinary workers were falling.

I want American employers to be able to get all of the skilled workers they need and I’ve produced my strategy for doing that any number of times. Remove any limits for the number of H-1B visas that will be available. Create a central clearing house for jobs for which employers wish to obtain H-1B visas. Let the employers pre-commit to hiring any applicant that meets the qualifications stated in their application. If the employer fails to hire a qualified applicant or if the wage being offered for the position can be demonstrated to fall below the prevailing market wage, deny that employer any H-1B visas for a period of five years. Let all of this be handled administratively rather than going through the courts.


Rules of the Road

One of the great little-known truths is that when you’re dealing with a large enough organization and you catch the right person at the right time in the right mood you can get practically anything. I learned this many years ago when dealing with a Fortune 500 company. After spending dozens (maybe even scores) of hours on the telephone talking to various people in the company, looking for some specific information nearly by chance I got ahold of that right person at the right time in the right mood. A few days later by mail I received an enormous dump of what was clearly company proprietary information. I think the person I spoke with was thrilled that I expressed interest in her work. As a result of that dump I became something of an authority on an obscure little subject—basically, the only person who didn’t actually work for the company who really knew anything about the subject.

It’s harder than it used to be now in this day of voicemail and auto-response systems but it’s still not impossible. It’s just harder to catch that right person than it used to be.


The Search Engine Business

Glenn Reynolds drew my attention to this paper on search engines which explores whether competition among search engines will result in optimized search results. I have a problem with the paper almost from its outset because I think the authors are operating under a fundamental misconception. Here’s the sentence that stuck in my craw:

By and large, when a product or service is offered for free, the primary dimension of competition is typically quality.

There are a lot of problems packed into that sentence. Remember, they’re talking about search results.

I believe they have misunderstood what business search engine companies (like Google) are in. They do not provide their service “for free” because they are not in the business of delivering search results to users. They are in the business of delivering prospects to subscribers and they emphatically do not provide that service for free. The practice of giving subscribers priority in search results isn’t an unfortunate byproduct of their searches. That’s the business they’re in.

Once that’s understood, optimization takes a rather different form. It doesn’t involve optimizing the search results but optimizing the delivery of prospects to subscribers and, although I haven’t examined that seriously, I would be willing to bet that process is highly optimized.

All that Google really needs to do with respect to people using it as a search tool is convince enough prospects that their search results or good enough. Since Google’s search results, whatever their actual quality, something I’m not sure whether the tools are available to determine, are the gold standard for search results, the question is circular.


No Strippers, Please

I realize I’m not in China but just in case anybody was thinking of it when it comes time for my funeral, no stripper, please.


Comcast to Abandon Time-Warner Deal?

Now that it looks as though Comcast will abandon its plans to merge with Time-Warner, this may be my last opportunity to count the ways in which the idea was a terrible one.

What was the worst aspect of the Comcast/Time-Warner merger:

A. It would create a horizontally integrated monopoly.
B. It would create a vertically integrated monopoly.
C. It would create a horizontally and vertically integrated monopoly.
D. One big, crappy cable company wanted to join with another big, crappy cable company to make an even bigger and crappier cable company.

I believe the last alternative was Al Franken’s immediate reaction to the idea. Do you have thoughts on the merger?


The Impact of Professional Management

There’s an interesting post at RealClearPolicy on the potential for substantially improved earnings from assets owned by the federal government if they were placed under professional management:

In the U.S., for every 1 percentage point increase in yield from the federal government’s asset portfolio, general taxes could be lowered by 4 percent. Worldwide, professional management of public commercial wealth among central governments could easily raise returns by as much as 3.5 points, to generate an extra $2.7 trillion. This is more than the total current global spending on national infrastructure — for transport, power, water, and communications combined. This alone should make every individual citizen, taxpayer, investor, financial analyst, and stakeholder stand up and pay attention. And it should spur demand for action.

More than 25 percent of all land in the U.S. is owned by the federal government. Along with all this land, it holds buildings with a book value of $1.5 trillion. In addition, state and local government assets amount to $6 trillion. The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis calculates that the value of nonfinancial public assets in the U.S., as a whole, was equal to 74 percent of GDP in 2011.

The post continues to develop this idea in considerable detail.

The reasons this will never happen are obvious: professional management would present fewer opportunities for graft. According to Gallup today Americans consider the federal government the single largest problem facing the country and this illustrates why. We know what’s going on—that the politicians we elect are in it for themselves. They may not start off that way but by the time they’ve been in office for ten or twenty or forty years they have so conflated the public good with their personal benefit they can’t see the difference.

This would be a good opportunity to make an observation about Bill and Hillary Clinton but you can fill in the blanks for yourself.


The Moral of the Story

As I read this post about the “spectacularly wrong” predictions made on the first Earth Day, it occurred to me that there is one country in the world in which those predictions or something like them is coming true: China. For examnple this:

In January 1970, Life reported, “Scientists have solid experimental and theoretical evidence to support…the following predictions: In a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution…by 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half….”

is true or nearly true in China. The sunlight hasn’t been reduced by a half but it’s significant. And the pictures of China’s urban dwellers in face masks aren’t hard to find.

The moral of the story is that authoritarian government and industrialization make a very bad combination. There’s very little we can do about China now—that ship has sailed. I’ll only give the reminder I’ve given before: we can change our own behavior. Nobody is forcing us to purchase Chinese manufactured goods.


The Way We Live Now

International relations scholar Henri Barkey foresees continuing collapse of the states of the Middle East:

The state as we know it is vanishing in the Middle East. Strife in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen, foreign intrusion from states within the region and outside it, and dreadful rule by self-serving elites have all contributed to the destruction of societies, infrastructure and systems of governance. Nonstate actors of all kinds, most of them armed, are emerging to run their own shows. Generations of mistrust underlie it all.

It is difficult to see how Humpty Dumpty will ever be put back together again. To be sure, many Middle Eastern states were mostly illegitimate to begin with. They may have been recognized internationally, but their governments exercised authority mostly through repression and sometimes through terror. They relied on a political veneer or constructed narrative to justify the rule of ethnic or sectarian minorities, mafia-like family clans or power-hungry dictators. In most countries, the systems that were built were never intended to create national institutions, so they did not.

Let’s take a little tally. Somalia hasn’t been a state for decades. Sudan has split into two states, at least one of which is descending into chaos. Libya, abetted by the stupidity, recklessness, insanity, or malice (take your pick) of the United States, Britain, and France, is in chaos. As long as the two largest factions won’t accept the rule of the other over their territory, the country can never be put back together again.

Iraq (see Libya, above) has split into a Sunni stronghold, a Shi’ite stronghold, and a Kurdish stronghold. Will those territories become distinct states? Not as long as civil war continues in Syria and the Turks have a say over the fate of the Kurdish region. The Syrian government is unlikely to regain control over the country’s territory without more force than the “international community” (such as it is) will allow it.

Yemen appears to be headed in the same direction as Iraq. The shotgun marriage of North Yemen and South Yemen has ended in a violent divorce.

Leapfrogging over Iran, Pakistan has ongoing rebellions in the north, the south, and the west. Its control over its territory has always been notional and now it’s even less than that.

Can anyone really doubt that if U. S. forces completely depart Afghanistan the country will fall into a condition a condition similar to Pakistan’s with some governmental control in Kabul and its environs and little anywhere else? The state there is only being maintained by foreign troops.

That leaves Iran, Saudi Arabia, the various tiny Gulf sheikdoms, Israel, Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. Jordan is being challenged by the chaos surrounding it. Saudi Arabia is bombing (and blockading) Yemen, presumably in the hope that if the Yemeni people are made miserable enough it will achieve some imagined objective. Iran is playing hob in various countries in the region. Egypt, through main force, is holding on to its statehood. Tunisia is holding on by the skin of its teeth. Lebanon is what is has been for the last thirty years (whatever that is). Turkey has been making occasional forays into the Kurdish areas of Iraq and Syria in an attempt to maintain its own territorial integrity.

Does that about sum it up? Across a broad swathe of West Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa the Westphalian state which had never been robust in those areas is evaporating completely, not just changes of regime but changes in concept and there is no ready replacement. The United Nations? It is to laugh.

The next step is recognition of the reality. People or regions don’t hold seats in the UN General Assembly. States do. There is a huge area in which the rules just don’t apply and we need to start thinking about the implications of that.