Not All Shi’ites Are in Cahoots

If you don’t believe Pat Lang’s denunciation of the idea of some sort of Shi’ite cabal in the Middle East as absurd, maybe you’ll believe Juan Cole. He is, after all, the most prominent U. S. authority on Shi’ism. It would be pretty difficult to get more different in the American political spectrum than Col. Lang and Dr. Cole.


Fools, Drunkards, and the United States of America

Note that George Friedman sees the same things that I’ve pointed out:

In Iraq, the United States is providing support to Shiites – and by extension, their allies – by bombing Islamic State installations. In Syria, U.S. strategy is so complex that it defies clear explanation. That is the nature of refusing large-scale intervention but being committed to a balance of power. The United States can oppose Iran in one theater and support it in another. The more simplistic models of the Cold War are not relevant here.

with two differences. He sees them as a coherent strategy and, apparently, he sees it as good for us. Is there any evidence of the former? Strategy requires knowledge and intent.


Half Empty or Half Full?

There’s an old wisecrack that the optimist thinks the glass is half full while the pessimist thinks the glass is half empty (my favorite add-on to that is that the engineer thinks the glass is too large). When I read this post at The Daily Beast on California’s drought and agriculture’s water utilization, which declaims:

Consuming 80 percent of California’s developed water but accounting for only 2 percent of the state’s GDP, agriculture thrives while everyone else is parched.

my immediate reaction was to wonder whether GDP were the right way to allocate California’s water resources? There are other ways. For example, according to the state of California about 10% of California’s jobs are in agriculture. Without doing further research I’m guessing that another 10% of jobs are dependent on agriculture in one way or another. That’s still a lot less than 80%, though.

Let’s take another assertion from the linked article into account:

Not only is California the world’s eighth largest economy, it is an agricultural superpower. It produces roughly half of all the fruits, nuts, and vegetables consumed in the United States—and more than 90 percent of the almonds, tomatoes, strawberries, broccoli and other specialty crops—while exporting vast amounts to China and other overseas customers.

Let’s quantify that “vast” a bit. Based on California’s total agricultural products sales and the breakdown of California’s agricultural exports, California exports about a third of its agricultural products. Almonds, a big target of the article, constitute a tiny fraction of California’s agricultural exports. By far its largest agricultural product is beef. I have no idea of how intensive water use is for beef cattle. Offhand, I’m guessing it doesn’t make as good a target as almonds.

Consider this. If you think that Americans should be eating more fresh fruits and vegetables and you think that California should be using less of its water for agricultural, it’s practically necessary that you also believe that we should be importing a lot more of our fruits and vegetables, i.e. using a lot more fossil fuels to transport imports.

Much of California is desert which can be astoundingly productive for farming with water and fertilizer. Here’s another way of looking at things. California’s problem isn’t that it’s devoting too much water to agriculture. Its problem is that its land is too valuable for farming to build houses on. California doesn’t need less farming (and fewer farm jobs). It needs fewer people.


Yes, We Think Healthcare Costs Are Increasing

You might want to take a look at this post that examines the differences between the ways that experts look at healthcare costs and what ordinary people think. I think it’s actually a lot simpler. As long as healthcare costs are eating up an ever-greater share of wages that are growing slowly if at all, they’re increasing too fast.

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Why Is U. S. Infrastructure So Expensive?

The best post I’ve read in a long time on the high cost of U. S. infrastructure is this one at RealClearPolicy. If its findings are correct none of the usual suspects is actually responsible for why it’s so expensive to build, improve, and maintain roads, bridges, tunnels, etc. in the United States. It isn’t any of the following:

  • Land costs
  • Non-labor construction costs
  • Davis-Bacon wages or, indeed, labor costs generally

Grasping for explanations, they propose that the reason that building, improving, and maintaining our roads, bridges, and tunnels is expensive in the U. S. is due to our legal and political systems:

Many of the world’s most expensive projects are in the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand, which, like the United States, have common-law systems. So it might be that common-law systems provide legal protections for property owners — allowing more lawsuits over noise, smoke, and other nuisances, as well as limits on eminent domain — that increase costs by forcing the government to pay off opponents or to locate projects inefficiently to avoid angering property owners. But some non-common-law countries, like Germany, also have strong legal protections for property holders yet low rail-construction costs.

So it’s not that, either. Maybe it’s politics:

Political fragmentation may also be a culprit. Rail projects often have to run through many localities and states. Local governments frequently have difficulty contracting with one another, which can inflate construction costs by encouraging duplication rather than sharing resources.

A common solution to the problem of inter-local contracting is creating regional bodies, but these entities have their own problems — particularly in terms of accountability.

One factor they don’t explore which may be an indirect measurement of legal and political dysfunction is schedule overruns. I wonder how the conformity of U. S. highway, etc. construction compares with that of other OECD countries?

I have no direct experience of government building projects at any level but I do have substantial experience with government projects. My experience has been that politicians and other policymakers here are not willing to allow professionals to control their own specialties here. Is that different from other countries? I think it may be.


How the Other Half Lives

There’s an article over at The Economist that muses over whether Americans (and the world for that matter) are getting their money’s worth by sending so many young people to college:

The world is moving in the American direction. More universities in more countries are charging students tuition fees. And as politicians realise that the “knowledge economy” requires top-flight research, public resources are being focused on a few privileged institutions and the competition to create world-class universities is intensifying.

In some ways, that is excellent. The best universities are responsible for many of the discoveries that have made the world a safer, richer and more interesting place. But costs are rising. OECD countries spend 1.6% of GDP on higher education, compared with 1.3% in 2000. If the American model continues to spread, that share will rise further. America spends 2.7% of its GDP on higher education.

If America were getting its money’s worth from higher education, that would be fine. On the research side, it probably is. In 2014, 19 of the 20 universities in the world that produced the most highly cited research papers were American. But on the educational side, the picture is less clear. American graduates score poorly in international numeracy and literacy rankings, and are slipping. In a recent study of academic achievement, 45% of American students made no gains in their first two years of university. Meanwhile, tuition fees have nearly doubled, in real terms, in 20 years. Student debt, at nearly $1.2 trillion, has surpassed credit-card debt and car loans.

Sadly, they’re still accepting the comforting pablum that has been the prevailing wisdom here in the States for the last several decades:

None of this means that going to university is a bad investment for a student. A bachelor’s degree in America still yields, on average, a 15% return. But it is less clear whether the growing investment in tertiary education makes sense for society as a whole. If graduates earn more than non-graduates because their studies have made them more productive, then university education will boost economic growth and society should want more of it. Yet poor student scores suggest otherwise. So, too, does the testimony of employers. A recent study of recruitment by professional-services firms found that they took graduates from the most prestigious universities not because of what the candidates might have learned but because of those institutions’ tough selection procedures. In short, students could be paying vast sums merely to go through a very elaborate sorting mechanism.

which is proof positive that demanding that J-school graduates be required to take and pass a rigorous statistics course before graduating should be a societal demand. If the top 1% of income earners are garnering an ever-increasing share of the national income, does it really matter what the average wage is? The important questions go far beyond averages to the median, mode, and standard deviation. I would submit that of the roughly 2 million who graduate from institutions of higher learning every year if you excepted the 100,000 who would go on to become doctors of medicine, graduates of the top 20 law schools, graduates of the top 20 MBA programs, and a smattering of others, the average income of those college graduates would plummet to about the same level as that of high school graduates. The largest difference would be that the college graduates had educational debt to pay off.

But that’s the least of the problems. Yesterday as I was running my errands I heard an interview of an education advocate on the radio who offered some sobering statistics. Roughly 32,000 young people enter Chicago high schools every year. Of those roughly 20,000 will graduate with high school diplomas after five years. Or, said another way, when you take transfers, etc. into account about half will graduate in five years (!).

Two questions. Are all of those who graduate college material? And, more importantly, what do they expect the other half to do?


More On Middle East Policy Disarray

At Fiscal Times Patrick Smith make a point similar to the one I did here about the internal contradictions of our Middle East policy:

We’re in Orwell country now. What Obama’s people call “policy” designates a critical vacuum thereof. What’s tagged as “strategy” means something closer to “winging it.”

but he arrives at a starkly different conclusion. His advice is that we should make nice with the Iranians.

I think he’s neglecting to take a few things into consideration. First, the primary barrier to better relations with iran has not been the U. S. but Iran. Time and again over the period of the last 30 years practically every overture we’ve made has been rebuffed. Second, opposition to the United States is a staple of Iranian politics. No Iranian political speech or demonstration would be complete without chants of “Death to America!”

Third, the clarification that the Bush Administration and now the Obama Administration had made, that we are seeking a change in the behavior of the Iranian regime rather than regime change, is a distinction without a difference. The regime behaves as it does because it is the regime it is.

Finally, do we really want a cozier relationship with a country that executes children? Or homosexuals just for being homosexuals?

To sup with this particular devil we should have a very long spoon. And be behind a curtain. And be wearing noseplugs.


Why We Need Better Batteries

Tim Loh explains why better batteries are necessary to make wind and solar energy work:

Between the present and a low-carbon future lies a technically vexing gap — building a better battery. Solar and wind power are cheaper than ever, but the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow. More powerful batteries could solve the problem of keeping the lights on, plus expand the market for electric cars by eliminating so-called range anxiety. Battery research today is hotter than any time since Thomas Edison and battery costs are falling faster than many had hoped. But the science is still daunting. There may be limits to how much better current technologies can be, and bolder new approaches depend on big breakthroughs. Price is an issue, too. Wind and solar were helped by tens of billions of dollars in global subsidies of a kind not available for the less-sexy work of storing power.

I think he needs to think outside the box a bit more. Although we’re not particularly good at storing electricity, we’re pretty good at storing heat. The problem there is what it’s always been: conversion loss.

What if we already have the best batteries we’ll be able to make? Or nearly so? What if the cost of developing the next generation of better batteries is exponentially higher than the cost of developing the last?

These are the considerations that make me believe that solar and wind will always be niche technologies. That and their requiring such huge subsidization to be competitive.


Middle East Balance of Power

Noah Feldman argues that an Arab military coalition would be good for the United States and good for Israel. He opens with a conventional balance of power argument:

The Iranians see the Saudis as their adversary across the Persian Gulf, and any foothold on the Arabian Peninsula is a potentially important chess piece to use against Saudi Arabia. In any case, the Islamic Republic of Iran hasn’t insisted on a precise overlap of Shiite beliefs when choosing Arab allies.

Conversely, the last thing the Saudis want is an Iranian-supported regime in Yemen. That’s why they’ve been bombing Sanaa — to dispossess the Houthis. The challenge of the Saudi bombing is that, from a regional perspective, it looks simply as though Saudi Arabia and Iran are engaged in a proxy war in Yemen.

and closes with this:

If Egyptian-Saudi-Jordanian military cooperation succeeds in Yemen, then it becomes conceivable that Egyptian troops could provide the main body of an eventual ground force against Islamic State. Egypt would get money from the Saudis — but, more important, Sisi could help Egypt regain some of the international prestige it has lost in recent decades. This could help his domestic legitimacy considerably. It could also occupy the Egyptian Army in a military task, which would enable Sisi to consolidate his control of the military.

Even Israel would be unlikely to object. Egypt and Jordan have peace treaties with Israel, and Saudi Arabia has shown openness to such a treaty in the past. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clearly sees Iran as the major geopolitical threat. In the Sunni-Shiite struggle, Israel increasingly looks like it’s on the side of Sunnis.

All of this assumes that the states involved are able to use all the hardware they’ve bought over the years effectively and that their ground troops are willing to fight. I think that Mr. Feldman exaggerates the role that sectarianism plays in what’s going on in the Middle East right now. IMO the evidence that whatever support the Iranians have provided to the Houthi in Yemen is substantial or relevant is pretty weak. I think it’s more along the lines of “the enemy of my enemy”. There’s a Bedouin proverb that may be relevant: I against my brother, my brothers and I against my cousins, then my cousins and I against strangers.

We have a proverb, too: he who sups with the devil should have a long spoon. We will always be the strangers and should be very cautious in evaluating our interests in so fractious a region of the world.


Mish Fisks Bernanke

Long-time blogger Mike Shedlock treats blogosphere newcomer Ben Bernanke to an old-fashioned fisking. Mish’s final assessment:

Is it any wonder the Fed has blown asset bubble after asset bubble with increasing amplitude over time?

I think I’d be a little kinder. I think that, when you get to define your terms in ways that are very different from the way ordinary people might define them, you have practically complete freedom of action and almost no accountability, the factors you consider in making your judgments will be pretty different from what the ordinary guy might have done. You don’t care about the effect on the ordinary guy. You’ve got the Buffetts and Dimons of the world to consider.

Welcome to the blogosphere, Dr. Bernanke!