What Have You Got?

The grand jury considering the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson has decided not to bring charges against the police officer who shot him:

FERGUSON, Mo. — The streets were quiet but fires continued to burn Tuesday following a night of violence triggered by a grand jury’s decision not to indict white police officer Darren Wilson for the August shooting death of unarmed, black teen Michael Brown.

Demonstrators taunted police, shattered windows and set fire to two St. Louis County police cars at the protest’s furious peek. Scattered, intermittent gunfire was also reported.

and, predictably, a riot has broken out. People are protesting because they are angry. What do they want to happen? Vengeance, maybe. What policy change would have altered the outcome?

Ferguson’s mayor and police department have handled the situation badly from the very start but Ferguson is a tiny, nothing town that has suddenly had big city problems thrust upon it in the form of protesters, some peaceful, some just wanting to raise hell, coming in from outside. I sincerely believe that most of the residents just want to protect their lives and property and wish the whole thing would go away.

Question: What are you protesting?
Answer: What have you got?


Productivity Is Worse Than You Think

Alan Blinder laments the slow growth productivity that’s dogging the economy:

Attention nowadays is focused on the degree of slack in the U.S. labor market. The financial news is full of stories about payroll employment, the unemployment rate, labor-force participation rates, quits, initial claims for unemployment insurance, and the like. Fed staffers devote thousands of hours to combing the data for hints about how tight or loose the labor market is or might become. Investors devote millions of hours to divining what Fed Chair Janet Yellen and her colleagues think about these matters.

Meanwhile, another variable that is just as important to the forecast is being almost completely ignored. I refer to labor productivity.

Just as important? Yes, because the Fed wants to forecast the so-called GDP gap—that is, the difference between actual and potential gross domestic product. Potential GDP, in turn, depends on the number of hours of work the economy would have at full employment, which is what all the fuss is about. But it also depends on the future track of output per hour of work (labor productivity). The Fed and the markets could err in forecasting potential GDP either by getting the availability of labor wrong or by getting productivity wrong.

Yet oddly, while enormous amounts of research, energy and chatter are poured into analyzing and forecasting the labor market, hardly anyone is talking about productivity—though that may be the greater source of uncertainty.

Allow me to provide several possible explanations.

First, the percentage of the economy that relatively unproductive sectors, e.g. healthcare and education, has risen. These are both highly compensated labor-intensive sectors and, practically by definition, the growth in productivity in them is slow. Changing that would require the abandoning of artisanal medicine or education and preserving those is the object of the game.

Second, we import too much. Retail is not an area in which we can expect sharp growth in productivity and over the years America has slowly been transforming from a country that makes things to one that sells things. Think you’re buying a car made in America? Think again. Odds are that the engine of the “Made in the U. S. A.” car you’re driving was manufactured in Japan or South Korea.

Third, due to the reliable supply of low-cost unskilled or semi-skilled labor, rather than requiring fewer, more expensive hours but more capital investment jobs are being structured to require more, less-expensive hours at lower capital investment.

It’s the policies, stupid.


What’s the Right Policy?

And while we’re on the subject of Ferguson, what policy change would effect the outcome the protesters there are seeking? Short of the parousia, I don’t think there is one. Indeed, most policy changes I can think of wouldn’t change the outcome and might well be worse than the status quo.

I think that Missouri should bring its state law into accord with current Supreme Court jurisprudence but that wouldn’t have changed the outcome in this particular case.


What About the Ferguson Grand Jury Decision?

While we’re speculating, what do you think the decision of the Ferguson grand jury will be and why do you think they’re dragging their feet about arriving at it?

I think that the law probably dictates no indictment but the jury is worried about that and they’re trying to come up with some strategy for following the law while avoiding mob action.

I know that if I were a Ferguson police officer I’d be looking at the grand jury’s actions very closely.


The Legality, Politics, and Policy of the President’s Immigration Move

Sean Trende muses over whether President Obama’s executive order on immigration will establish a precedent for future presidential actions:

Most Democrats were apoplectic over the so-called “nuclear option” to end the judicial filibuster, but somehow convinced themselves that Republican use of the filibuster was different enough to warrant the use of the device. Likewise, Republicans who complained about the use of the filibuster for Court of Appeals appointments didn’t think twice when they had the opportunity to use it. Democrats were apoplectic over liberalized use of signing statements by President Bush, yet President Obama often uses the same device.

To make it a bit clearer: Litigants often fight about the creation of precedent, and it is somewhat unseemly to argue one way in one court while simultaneously arguing a different way in a different court. But once you’ve lost the argument, you’ve lost the argument. The precedent is there, and it applies to all parties equally.

President Obama is likely to win this argument on legal grounds. Once he does, there will be nothing to stop a future president from using the precedent for his benefit. There’s simply no unringing this bell, and we’re all likely to regret its having been rung in the near future.

In quick bullet form here are my views on the subject:

  • The President’s action was probably legal.
  • It was also probably unconstitutional because the empowering legislation allows the president too much discretion.
  • What’s a little unconstitutionality among friends?
  • It’s likely to encourage more illegal immigration.
  • It’s highly popular with some Americans but not a particularly popular move with most Americans.

I would like our immigration policy to move more towards that of Canada, the United Kingdom, or France—other developed countries with which we have much in common. To do that we’ll need to constrain “family reunification” as the bedrock of our immigration policy and be a bit more steely-eyed about it. But it would be very unpopular with some which will make it a hard sell which means it won’t happen regardless of the color of the lapel pin the president wears.

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Under Construction

I have updated WordPress to the current version and doing so has introduced a problem with my old theme. While I update my old theme, I’ve switched to one of the WordPress default themes temporarily.

Pardon our dust!


I’ve updated my old theme to its current version. Unfortunately, it’s going to take me a little time to get things looking the way I want them to. As I make modifications please leave your observations on the site’s aesthetics and readability.


All Is Proceeding

As I have been predicting since it was enacted, the patch that Illinois’s legislature attempted to put on the state’s public pension system has been struck down by the court:

Strikeout: Sangamon County Circuit Judge John Belz has ruled Illinois’ pension reform law unconstitutional.

“The Act without question diminishes and impairs the benefits of membership in State retirement systems,” he wrote in a firm, six-page ruling released Friday.

And the import of that? Illinois law, Belz wrote, clearly states that “any attempt to diminish or impair pension rights is unconstitutional.” He said Illinois courts consistently have held that the protection “is absolute and without exception.”

Notice the phrase “pension rights.” In essence Belz is saying that whatever benefits were in force the first day of a worker’s employment are in force until the moment of his or her death.

Now it’s on to the Illinois Supreme Court where I have little doubt the state’s case will suffer the same fate.

The Illinois legislature needs to stop wasting time and actually address this pressing problem. They created the problem and it’s up to them to solve it.


The Only Living

Can you name the only living top box office silent movie star? Don’t look it up. You may know the answer if you’re a movie buff but otherwise you probably won’t.

Diana Serra Cary, whose real name was Peggy Montgomery and who became a star as “Baby Peggy”, is 96 now. She appeared in her first comedy short in 1921 and became a major star in the silent era, the only child actor to compete for the title with “the Boy King”, Jackie Coogan. Later she appeared in vaudeville and I wonder if she and my mom ever crossed paths. There is something indefinable about Mrs. Cary that reminds me of my mother. A certain poise or flair.

Last night my wife and I managed to catch a documentary on her, Baby Peggy, the Elephant in the Room. It’s not available streaming or I’d give you a link. If you have the opportunity to catch it, do so. It’s illuminating and heart-rending.

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen it mentioned before but several of Shirley Temple’s vehicles were in fact Baby Peggy movies remade as musicals.

I’d seen Mrs. Cary in a previous documentary some years ago and one thing that struck me was that she seems to have come to terms more peaceably with her childhood over the last decade. I wish her all the best.


Mike Nichols, 1931-2014

The comic, writer, and director Mike Nichols has died:

Mike Nichols, who emerged in the late 1950s as half of a groundbreaking satirical comedy team and found his true calling in the next decade as director of the landmark films “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “The Graduate,” has died. He was 83.

Nichols, who was married to ABC News’ Diane Sawyer, died Wednesday night, ABC News President James Goldston announced. His representative, Leslee Dart, told The Times that Nichols suffered a cardiac arrest at his home in New York.

Along with Elaine May, Nichols created two-person character sketches that deftly ridiculed the neuroses and pretensions of American life during the Eisenhower and Kennedy eras. Their Grammy Award-winning partnership peaked in a 1960-61 Broadway run of “An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May,” then the duo parted ways and he changed course.

As a director over the next five decades, he won an Oscar and multiple Tony and Emmy awards while amassing a string of movie credits that includes “Catch-22,” “Carnal Knowledge,” “Silkwood,” “Working Girl” and “The Birdcage.”

Many of the obits mention that Mr. Nichols was a member of a select club: people who’d won a Grammy, and Oscar, a Tony, and an Emmy. Too infrequently when mentioning others who are among that number one name is not mentioned so I’ll do it here: Rita Moreno.

The first time I ever heard of Mike Nichols was from my mom and dad. Every week my mom and dad made a point of getting away from the house and children and going on a real date. Sometimes they went out to dinner. Sometimes they went to a movie. Other times they went to see live acts at Gaslight Square, a nightclub district in St. Louis now long gone, which I’ve written about before.

One night they came home from an evening at Gaslight Square raving about the wonderful comedy team they’d just seen: Nichols and May. These were Mike Nichols and Elaine May. They were cerebral, funny, incisive, and not blue, as even back then live comedy was increasingly becoming.

I have seen plays directed by Mr. Nichols on stage (Luv, Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, all of which I still quote), his movies on the screen, and heard his records but, sadly, I never saw him perform live. Here’s a video (I think from the Jack Paar show) of Nichols and May:


Buy on the Rumor; Sell on the News

If Rasmussen’s daily presidential approval tracking poll is any gauge, there is no notable upswing in presidential approval as a consequence of the president’s immigration announcement last night. Rather, more along the lines that I predicted, what happened was a very mild uptick before the announcement and a return to trend afterward.

Much as I predicted. I wonder if those who predicted a 5 point improvement in the president’s approval rating after the announcement will feel chastened. I’m guessing not.