From page 298 of Jack Weatherford’s Indian Givers: How Native Americans Transformed the World:

In the 1975 excavation on the White House lawn for the presidential swimming pool, builders found Indian relics that pointed to the commercial prosperity of a former Indian group. Only a few blocks away from the White House, the Indians had operated one of the largest Indian quarries for steatite or soapstone. Numerous manufacturing sites surrounded it where Indian craftsman made dishes, pipes, and implements from the soft stone. From here the Indians traded the manufactured goods all along the eastern coast in what may have been the last productive enterprise practiced by humans along this stretch of the Potomac.

I recommend the book. Very few people have an appreciation of how much of our modern lives was shaped by the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere.

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“Storm socialism” and other failures of imagination

This recent article by Christian Parenti at first seems to make a good point, considering what other people failed to consider. In times of weather disaster, it seems that the government can live up to its wildest dreams and really save the day. In any one instance, this may be so. When the National Guard airlifts people supplies that wouldn’t have been airlifted otherwise, good for them.

It then follows, for Parenti, that government is a categorically Good Thing. This may be so, but attempts to get to that result by examining one level deep are surely not the ticket. It may be that government intervention before the fact created conditions in which disaster was just a matter of time. Let’s take flood insurance.

As for flood insurance, the federal government is pretty much the only place to get it. The National Flood Insurance Program has written 5.5 million policies in more than 21,000 communities covering $1.2 trillion worth of property. As for the vaunted private market, for-profit insurance companies write between 180,000 and 200,000 policies in a given year. In other words, that is less than 5 percent of all flood insurance in the United States. This federally subsidized program underwrites the other 95 percent. Without such insurance, it’s not complicated: many waterlogged victims of 2011, whether from record Midwestern floods or Hurricane Irene, would simply have no money to rebuild.

At this level of reasoning, sure, federal flood insurance is a great thing. But let’s go one level further: why won’t private insurers write policies for so many of these places?

I’ll quote from John Stossel here, one of the beneficiaries of federal flood insurance:

In 1980 I built a wonderful beach house. Four bedrooms — every room with a view of the Atlantic Ocean.

It was an absurd place to build, right on the edge of the ocean. All that stood between my house and ruin was a hundred feet of sand. My father told me: “Don’t do it; it’s too risky. No one should build so close to an ocean.”

But I built anyway.

Why? As my eager-for-the-business architect said, “Why not? If the ocean destroys your house, the government will pay for a new one.”

What? Why would the government do that? Why would it encourage people to build in such risky places? That would be insane.

But the architect was right. If the ocean took my house, Uncle Sam would pay to replace it under the National Flood Insurance Program. Since private insurers weren’t dumb enough to sell cheap insurance to people who built on the edges of oceans or rivers, Congress decided the government should step in and do it. So if the ocean ate what I built, I could rebuild and rebuild again and again — there was no limit to the number of claims on the same property in the same location — up to a maximum of $250,000 per house per flood. And you taxpayers would pay for it.

Surely some of the people getting flood insurance were among the poor and downtrodden, but by and large this program is a way to let rich people make bad decisions and charge everybody else for them. The same kinds of commentators who in one article complain that the government unduly favors rich and powerful people over everybody else (think of the item about Warren Buffett’s secretary) can in the next article write that without federal flood insurance “we’d” be in trouble.

This is not to mention that the private market for flood insurance is distorted by the overwhelming presence in that sector of federal flood insurance. If that were removed or cut back, it would be distorted less. Since flood insurance is something that people in flood-prone areas demand, I would expect to see a lot more of it. Yes, private flood insurers would not insure or would charge more to insure risky places, but what is a compelling argument that the “heads I win, tails you lose” strategy is a good, just, or efficient one when it comes to building houses?

How about wildfires? Do these fires tend to happen on or near federally managed land? Are we not subtly making a case against federal management of land? There will always be wildfires, this we will have to deal with. It may be that we can minimize them with a different structure of property ownership, one in which there is some person or group of people with a direct, personal interest in better fire management strategies. That’s a conjecture, but it follows economic reasoning better than the current strategy does.

I could make similar remarks about each point Parenti has in his article, but I’ll spare you the reading. It’s the same each time.

At its heart, this piece commits the same error as a hundred million other pieces on related topics: the failure of imagination. If we could not have gotten to our current state of affairs without government intervention, that isn’t necessarily an argument in favor of government intervention. In some cases it could be, but why is it that societal conditions that obtain right now are the optimal ones? If society were permitted to develop more organically, why would that be a bad thing? Sure, it would be different, but it might be different in good ways.

One example is how much people complain about cars, sprawl, suburbs, and pollution. It just so happens that the federal government (and smaller-scale ones too) persistently intervened in the structure of society to support more roads, more cars, and more sprawl. Find me almost any city in America that has a vibrant downtown area where people can walk to and enjoy walking around in, and I’ll show you a city that had this downtown area before World War II. Many cities lost this kind of neighborhood, but very few cities—if any—developed this kind of neighborhood.

Government has a lot of power now and has had a lot of power in the past. That’s a poor argument for why it should have a lot in the future.

Politics as tribal affiliation

There’s a very strong argument, mostly from economists, that the Republican and Democratic parties are more like different teams than political opponents, and that support for one is more like a tribal identity than a meaningful expression of values. If values were really that important, the two parties would have radically different policies. Partisans of each camp routinely cherry-pick examples and hold these up as counterexamples, and I’m not saying this has zero validity. Surely ideology exists among the voter base and has some influence. I just don’t think it’s the main thing that animates policy.

As exhibit A, let’s take the antiwar movement. This was a very big and increasingly organized movement that, in this incarnation, got going early in George W. Bush’s reign and died out with Barack Obama’s candidacy for president. Although it helped Obama win the election, his record on war and peace issues has been the same as or worse than Bush’s. For people who were truly antiwar, not simply opposed to Republican wars, their inspiration should have only gotten stronger. They ought to be a constant thorn in Obama’s side. These people are still around, but the other 99.5% of the movement turns out not to have cared so much about war.

They did care about opposing George W. Bush, and most of them cared about supporting Barack Obama. But not for reasons that have to do with an ideological preference for peace over war, unless they all had a change of heart once Obama was in office.

The JFK assassination, pt. 8: Bonnie Ray Williams and the elevators in the TSBD

This is far and away the most searched-for post of my JFK assassination writings. You can see the rest here.

Continuing the theme from part 6, I want to speculate on the TSBD shooter(s). A handful of witnesses in Dealey Plaza stated that they saw two men on the sixth floor around the time of the assassination. This has been challenged, and frankly I’m not expert enough to really have a good opinion about it.

However, there’s still a question. Somebody fired a rifle from the sixth floor. Victoria Adams testified that when she and a colleague went down the stairs immediately after the shooting there was nobody else using them. The elevators were not working at this point. Officer Marion Baker encountered Lee Oswald on the second floor in a composed condition—not at all in the kind of condition somebody would be after shooting the president, running around stacks of boxes, hiding the weapon, and fleeing downstairs.

The shooter (or shooters, though I will just say shooter for now) left the sixth floor somehow and was not apprehended at the TSBD. Bonnie Ray Williams testified to the Warren Commission that at least just before the shooting, the elevators were stopped on the fifth floor. After running to a window on the west side of the building, Williams, James Jarman Jr., and Harold Norman went down the stairs. Williams testifies that although they heard shots directly above them, and although Harold Norman said he could hear shells hitting the floor, they did not hear any movement above them after that. As they were running to the west side of the building, they made quite a lot of noise themselves.

Victoria Adams would have been on the way down the stairs then, and almost immediately afterwards Marion Baker would have arrived. Oswald would already be downstairs at this point in the timeline. Also, the elevators would have resumed working but then stopped working again, as Luke Mooney testified.

What I am getting at is that it’s highly unlikely the shooter could have gotten off of the sixth floor a) by the stairs and b) before law enforcement officers arrived in the building. The Marion Baker situation makes it unlikely that Oswald was even the shooter, although it is still possible. Are we then dealing with a shooter hiding in the building, or taking the elevator out when the law is on the stairs? The TSBD’s elevators were the cargo type that do not hide the inside from view, making this risky. The various agencies combed the building in what I’m sure was a thorough enough way that hiding would be extremely difficult.

This leaves me in an uncomfortable position, and I don’t as yet know a reasonable solution.

The JFK Assassination, pt. 7: The secrets of speech

One of the reasons I find the Kennedy assassination so interesting is that it’s one of the greatest mental puzzles ever. We have the official story, but it’s so full of holes that it obviously conceals more than it tells. Then what is the real story? Occam’s Razor tells us not to assume complexity unless we have to, and in this case we have to. It becomes almost a game of how many parts we can mentally juggle until we can fit them all together just so.

I swear I wasn’t going to post about the Kennedy assassination. I was just going to watch the documentary “Secrets of Body Language” for kicks now that I have some free time. It’s about, well, the secrets of body language and speech, and it mostly focuses on politicians. If you’re interested in that sort of thing, it’s definitely worth a watch.

And then, right there at the end (beginning around 1:24:40), they had some voice analysis done on the Lee Oswald press conference. They use some kind of sophisticated software to determine if someone is stressed, telling the truth, saying something probably false, etc., with numbers indicating the degree. Clearly, Oswald was highly stressed during the whole interview, and this shows. His statement “I know nothing more than that.” is indicated as false. I don’t doubt this.

My impression of Lee Oswald during that interview is that he knows he’s in over his head. Even if he were one of the shooters—but why would he be?—he could not have acted alone either in the act itself or in the planning beforehand. His intelligence connections are shrouded in (possibly intentional) mystery. It requires a too much suspension of disbelief to think that he had no knowledge at all about the plot, so what we’re left with is his being unwilling or unable to say all that he knew. This fits perfectly well 1) with his behavior during the interview and 2) with the voice analysis in this documentary.

I wish they would have focused more on that voice analysis instead of simply assuming the Warren Commission narrative, but that would have been outside their scope.

[UPDATE: At the time I thought this was very intriguing, but I later learned this technology is considered highly suspect. If this were a book, this section would have to be cut out—maybe not, considering the low quality of so many JFK assassination books, but let’s aim high—but since this is a blog I’ll leave it here.]

The Cuban embargo and transportation costs

One of the cruelest long-term policies of the US government is the embargo against Cuba. It was enacted in 1960 as a reaction to the nationalization of US property by the Castro government. This was a foolish move on the part of the Castro government, but one in keeping with its other policies. It has been periodically strengthened since then, and rarely very slightly relaxed. The ostensible purpose of the embargo is to force Cuba to democratize, and if this is truly the main reason for the embargo it has been an utter failure. While in the US John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton successively left office, Fidel Castro continued. Only ill health forced him to end his term before George W. Bush ended his own. All throughout Castro’s term, poverty for the many and wealth for a select few government officials was the norm. He himself was estimated by Forbes magazine to have personal wealth of $900m in 2006.

It is cold comfort that Cuba still has the rest of the world to trade with. The US is both the wealthiest country in the world and a natural trading partner of Cuba, lying geographically beside it. The volume of trade would be vastly greater than that with its other neighbors: Mexico, Jamaica, Haiti, and the Bahamas. Transportation costs for Cuban products would be a fraction of what they are for countries like the UK, Germany, or China. Likewise, Cubans could afford more American goods for the same reason. This would make small production—the kind Cubans are currently better suited for—far more feasible economically. Products could be loaded into small boats and shipped multiple times a day over calm waters to Florida, or flown in small aircraft operated out of the US. This scenario would benefit small producers who are currently left out of the mix when only a very large vessel to Canada, Colombia, or China makes the transportation costs worthwhile.

The regime could not control this even if they wanted to. A large ship must dock at a visible port, there slowly to be filled with products that the government can monitor. A small boat or even a small plane could avoid detection. Perhaps not all the time, but frequently. (Then only US commissions like the USDA would stand in the way, as many but not all of the possible products are agricultural.)

That, I believe, is the best argument for why the regime in its current form would not survive the lifting of the embargo. Raúl Castro has made several small reforms, which I support, but the basic structure of the regime persists. A unilateral declaration of trade with Cuba would almost overnight encourage small-scale production and exchange that would immediately improve Cubans’ well-being and hunger for more freedoms, even if it were only on the black market.

It’s easy to see how the embargo aided Fidel Castro in keeping Cubans poor for so long. Not only is the government-run economy naturally inefficient, but when combined with the US government’s refusal to allow mutually beneficial exchange between Americans and Cubans, what is left for the average Cuban citizen? By all accounts, very little.

Soviet industrial espionage

Probably thousands of cultural works have been made about Soviet infiltration of Western governments. Not only does this plot line have a kernel of truth on which a thriller can be built, but it’s halfway written itself: the ideological Communist menace trying to undermine and destroy the free society. I don’t doubt that a lot of that actually happened, but there must be more to it.

For instance, I suspect a large part of the espionage carried about by Soviet agents in the West was economically motivated. The Politburo certainly wanted to know about Western military and diplomatic intentions and had a sophisticated intelligence system for this purpose. But they already knew how to run a country, how to conduct international relations, and how to wage war openly and secretly. What they didn’t know was how to produce anything efficiently. In their system there was no way to find out.

They could take a finished product of theirs, such as a camera, an automobile, or a loaf of bread, and judge its quality by comparing it to other products available abroad. And maybe they made better products. But what they couldn’t do was figure out the most efficient way to produce. What less costly combination of inputs could yield the same quality of output? What would they even do with the newly freed-up resources? Where should they go? Even more fundamentally than that, what about the capital goods that produced the intermediary goods that became the consumer goods? How much should they cost?

These are questions a command economy simply cannot answer. Even a halfway free economy such as we had in the West has vastly better answers. Soviet leaders may not have come to grips with the fundamental economic barriers they faced, but surely they could have understood that somehow the US and its Western European partners had better answers than they did.

As such it’s my guess that there was probably a huge amount of industrial espionage. I imagine a manager in a large automobile manufacturer passing the Soviets information on how much tires cost, how much engine parts costs, etc. Or an employee of a television manufacturer telling them feasible labor to capital ratios and kinds of capital. Or an assistant baker in West Germany making exhaustive notes about the business side of the bakery and reporting back. The list goes on and on. It’s known that Soviet economic planners used the Sears catalog to set their consumer prices, but I can’t imagine they didn’t also try to find out other prices. There are other catalogs such as those printed by chemical supply companies that could tell them approximate input prices, but this is only a fraction of what they’d need to know if they wanted to produce even the minimum amount to keep their citizens from revolting.

Of course this is all speculation, but it sounds reasonable to me.

UPDATE: I didn’t mention, but should have, that this all didn’t have to be done by professional agents. Certainly Soviet intelligence would have a guiding hand in it, but it could be something as simple as a Communist Party member from Russia interviewing Communist Party members in France, Italy, etc. These Western Communists might have thought it was odd, but surely the Party needed to know a great many things. Even in the heyday of the Communist Party USA they could have done it this way here. After it ceased to be much of a movement information gathering would be more complicated, but far from impossible.

One-handed economics

Harry Truman once begged for a one-handed economist. “All my economists say, ‘on the one hand…on the other’” When a president bills himself as a plain-talkin’ no-nonsense kind of guy, you could be understandably sympathetic to the president. When you’re an economist you know that no president is really that no-nonsense. It’s not simply that economists don’t know what they’re doing; some of that is true, but it’s a small part of the story. The main part of the story is that there’s not one clear goal for an economist serving in an advisory capacity.

On the one hand, presidents ultimately make the decisions, and economists know what their goals are. Call me cynical (and I’ll call you naive) but the goals that presidents work towards are not in general “good” goals. The banking-financial lobby, the military-industrial complex, and other similar groups are generally higher on the list of priorities than ordinary citizens. I don’t think most presidents do this out of malice; it’s just that they conceive the interests of the country in general to be served by promoting powerful groups. That’s how their vision of society works. Economists tell presidents how best to implement the goals they (presidents) have.

On the other, economists have a better idea than politicians do about what is going to promote the general welfare, so after telling presidents one thing they do the responsible thing and tell them another. I’m not saying economists are always right. They have limited knowledge of the state of the world just like everybody else does. (They have theories to tie the bits they do have together better than most people, but they can still make mistakes.) Moreover, many economists—especially the ones in political circles—drink the same Kool-Aid that politicians do and identify the interests of the politically-powerful classes with the interests of the country as a whole. But I am saying economists are more likely to know how to better serve the general welfare than presidents, better equipped to judge the real effects of government policies, and less influenced by poll numbers to make rosy predictions.

Frankly, the one-handed economist might be the last thing politicians want.

Italian inflation between 1872 and 2002

Letters of Note is an interesting and often amusing website which posts various, well, letters of note. They might be from a fan to a director, or from a musician to his producer, or from the FBI (anonymously) to Martin Luther King. They usually aren’t very relevant to what this blog is about, but this recent one caught my eye.

It was from a man who saw Verdi’s Aida twice and thought it was so bad he asked Verdi for his money back. Verdi sent the letter to his publisher with a request to pay the man. Verdi and his publisher thought the whole thing was funny. I don’t dispute this, but look at those prices:

Railroad, going: 2.60
Railroad, returning: 3.30
Theatre: 8.00
Disgustingly bad dinner: 2.00

Twice: 15.90

Total: 31.80

This is all in lire. When Italy adopted the euro the exchange rate was 1,936.27 ₤ to 1 €. That’s some inflation!

Wikipedia says:

World War I broke the Latin Monetary Union and resulted in prices rising severalfold in Italy. Inflation was curbed somewhat by Mussolini, who, on August 18, 1926, declared that the exchange rate between lira and pound would be £1 = 90 lire—the so-called Quota 90, although the free exchange rate had been closer to 140-150 lire per pound, causing a temporary deflation and widespread problems in the real economy. In 1927, the lira was pegged to the U.S. dollar at a rate of 1 dollar = 19 lire. This rate lasted until 1934, with a separate “tourist” rate of US$1 = 24.89 lire being established in 1936. In 1939, the “official” rate was 19.8 lire.

After the Allied invasion of Italy, an exchange rate was set at US$1 = 120 lire (1 British pound = 480 lire) in June 1943, reduced to 100 lire the following month. In German occupied areas, the exchange rate was set at 1 Reichsmark = 10 lire. After the war, the value of the lira fluctuated, before Italy set a peg of US$1 = 575 lire within the Bretton Woods System in November 1947. Following the devaluation of the pound, Italy devalued to US$1 = 625 lire on 21 September 1949. This rate was maintained until the end of the Bretton Woods System in the early 1970s. Several episodes of high inflation followed until the lira was replaced by the euro.

I’ve heard from many sources (and so have you, no doubt) that in the market for women’s clothing, sizes vary from store to store and over time within the same store. The sizes keep adjusting, so that what was a large twenty years ago is today’s medium. Women’s vanity keeps the labels on expanding clothes relatively stable. (Before resorting to the Marilyn Monroe objection, read this.) And of course, this isn’t limited to women. Men’s clothing is usually measured in inches, not in sizes, but where there are more or less arbitrary sizes the labels stay the same while much of the clothing gets larger. (For instance, go to Walmart and try on your normal t-shirt size. You’ll find it’s larger.)

This trend is well-commented on in other spheres, so I don’t have to do it here. What made me think of it is that on the packaging of a scale I just took out of the box, the screen shows 126.4 lbs as its sample weight. This sounds like a reasonable average weight to show, given that both adults and children of all sizes could be expected to use it. But I wonder if this, too, has shifted based on the increasing average weight of its potential buyer base.

It makes me wonder if Big & Tall Men’s stores are doing better or worse relative to their sales records of the past. On one hand more men are becoming potential clients, but on the other hand standard retailers are encroaching into the territory.

UPDATE: Via an article on Cracked.com, this article from Esquire is about men’s pants—the kind supposedly measured in inches—expanding also. I hope the reader will forgive me for not being aware of this as I pretty much stick to Wranglers, not the brands mentioned in the article.