What Should Government Do?

What Should Government Do?

On the Fox News Channel the 6 pm – 7 pm show is “Special Report with Bret Baier.”  The last twenty minutes or so is a roundtable discussion called the “Fox All-Stars.”.   It has four individuals including Mr. Baier as moderator.  On a show in May the discussants were Tucker Carlson, Kirsten  Powers, and Charles Krauthammer.  Mr. Carlson made an observation about the proper role of government in our lives.  His position, as I recollect, was that it should be reduced because it is philosophically wrong to say nothing of its abysmal track record.  Ms. Powers disagreed, believing that government can be a force for good.  They went back and forth on this issue for a few minutes.

It got me thinking about the proper role of government and  at which level: local, state, or federal;  any such activity should take place.  My belief, similar to Mr. Carlson’s, is that the influence and intrusiveness of government in our lives should be drastically reduced.  The incentives facing government employees are to expand its sphere of influence.  They need to have people in distress, the more the better.  This translates into bigger budgets and more control.  On the other hand, private charities engage in a form of triage.  They rank order those in need so that resources tend to go to those in the most dire straits.  They do this because their resources are limited; simply put,  they can’t print money.  In order to induce people to contribute they must show that the funds are well spent.  At the same time, their approach causes the  demands on them to be smaller than those on government agencies because they “size up”, if you will, those who request help.  Government agencies are notoriously lax in doing so.  A pulse is usually all that is required, sometimes that isn’t even necessary.  Today, there are close to eleven million people on disability in this country, even as the economy becomes more service-oriented and manufacturing has become safer.  Would these same people who have no qualms about taking funds from the ‘government’ be as likely to take money from their fellow citizens if they had to get it via the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, etc.?  I doubt it.

Even if one believes that government should do many of the activities it does the question arises as to which level of government should do it. Again, it is my belief that as much as possible should be done at the local level.  Welfare reform in the mid-1990s resulted in major programs being transferred to the states.  By all accounts this reform of the welfare system was a resounding success.   On the other hand we have the spectacle of FEMA and not just Katrina’s debacle.  If a tropical storm trashes beach houses built in areas that are susceptible to storms like coastal beaches, FEMA will rebuild homes in the same spot as they went down.   There are instances of houses being rebuilt at taxpayer expense multiple times.  Why should someone from Montana or the Upper Peninsula of Michigan which get snow storms and manage to take care of themselves subsidize this behavior?    Does anyone think that a program overseen and funded locally would be as generous as a federal government bureaucrat is in enabling that sort of behavior?  Of course not.  They are close to the scene and recognize risky behavior.  Folks at the federal level don’t have the same incentive because it isn’t their money in any meaningful sense.  As Milton Friedman has pointed out: I would spend your money on a third party with minimal regard for the results.

While doing things at the state level are superior to doing them at the federal level, it still leaves much to be desired.   I live in Western NY.  The politicians in Albany are predominantly from the New York City area since the bulk of the state’s population lives there.  Policies enacted in Albany are standardized for application across the State.  Seems reasonable, however, in practice this means one size has to fit all.  Needless to say, this can lead to serious waste as officials follow the playbook irrespective of the logic of doing so.  They don’t have the flexibility of adapting to local circumstances.

We, also, have the spectacle of state officials around the country signing up people for food stamps because they view that as a way to bring federal funds into their state.  The long-run implications of making people less independent seems to be irrelevant to them.  It is doubtful that this would occur if the funds were taken solely from one group of residents in the state to hand over to another.  Or, even better, from citizens of the same county to others in the county.   Again, local agencies and, especially, private ones are much more cognizant of the harm that will be done by subsidizing people , making them dependent on handouts, to say nothing of the disincentives they are creating for those taxed to continue producing at the same rate.

As a taxpayer, one has little real influence on how tax dollars are spent doing “good”.  On the other hand, if one doesn’t like the way a certain charity is spending the funds entrusted to them, it is very easy to stop supporting them.  They know this and, invariably, spend their funds as judiciously as possible.  If they don’t their reputation will be tarnished and contributions will dry up.  Private institutions more closely reflect the values of the community they serve.  Funds will be spent most wisely.  The only thing one can say about government programs is that they will spend lots and lots of money, with outsized portions on overhead.  Because of that one can be sure the government programs will be wasteful in the extreme when compared to a private sector provider.

Cycling back to Ms. Powers’ view, while we can see the “fruits” of government spending that doesn’t tell the whole story.  Five or six years ago the Congress was embarrassed into not funding the so-called “bridge to nowhere.”  This was a very expensive bridge to an island in Alaska that was home to a few hundred people (who had made the decision to live there knowing it didn’t have bridge.)  If the bridge had been built people would have admired the engineering prowess involved.  They wouldn’t have stopped to think about all the things that weren’t built which represent the true cost of the bridge.  Government officials loves to build things because they can put plaques with their names on it.  I believe the only plaque on any government building that isn’t dedicated to the members of our armed forces should read: paid for by the taxpayers.

In the final analysis the only reason to do something through government is that it can do it less expensively than the private sector. On this basis, government’s role in our lives would be reduced dramatically.  As it should, in my opinion.

Gun Control: Be Careful of What You Wish for (with an update).

Wilson, NY, is a rural community located on the southern shore of Lake Ontario about 70 miles west of Rochester and 12 miles east of the Niagara River.  It was the scene of a tragedy on July 24, 2012.  A home blew up and was totally destroyed.  It looked as if a tornado had come through.  It hadn’t.  The cause was a propane leak.  The 14-year old daughter of the owners died.

What does this have to do with gun control you may ask; a lot, actually.  Some of the worst incidents: the April 20, 1999, Columbine, CO, shooting which left 13 dead and the July 20, 2012, Aurora, CO, which left 12 dead, in particular; were done by individuals who were bound and determined to cause as much carnage as they could.

At Columbine, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold used a TEC pistol, a shotgun, 99 explosives, and 4 knives.  One of their weapons was a propane tank that had nails taped to it.  Fortunately, it didn’t function as planned and didn’t explode.   As I pointed out above, propane can create quite an explosion.  From Harris’ writings it was clear he intended to kill and maim as many as he could.  If had been unable to get hold of the pistol and the shotgun he would have devoted more effort to ensuring that the propane alternative worked.  In the school cafeteria where the shootings took place the death toll would have been much greater if the propane tank had exploded.  While no one, least of all me, wants minimize the loss of life caused by these disturbed individuals, it is fortunate that they had obtained the pistol and the shotgun: these are lousy ways to kill lots of people.  Propane tanks are far more deadly.

In Aurora, the alleged perpetrator used tear gas to cause confusion.  He had also booby-trapped his apartment.  The apartment held more than 30 homemade grenades, wired to a control box in the kitchen, and 10 gallons of gasoline. The bombs themselves weren’t sophisticated but the layout was.  Ten gallons of gasoline exploding in the apartment would have brought the whole building down with a consequent loss of innocent life.  Here, again, we find an individual who was determined to kill and maim as many as possible.  He used a rifle with a 100 round magazine.  It jammed, fortunately. He wasn’t aware that those drums are really designed so you don’t have to reload as often when shooting at a rifle range.  Attempts to fire rapidly cause them to jam.  The intricate trap set in his apartment is clear evidence that he would have opted for explosives if he couldn’t have obtained a rifle.

If we go back in time to May 18, 1927, we can see the slaughter caused by explosives.  A Mr. Andrew Kehoe was annoyed about rising property taxes (join the club!) and his deteriorating financial position.  First, he blew up his farmhouse, then turning his attention to the local school he detonated dynamite and hundreds of pounds of pyrotol, an incendiary explosive used by farmers at the time, which he had secretly planted inside over a period of time.  Thirty-eight people were killed, mostly children, in this blast.  As people rushed to the school, Kehoe came in his car which he had filled with scrap metal, shrapnel, and detonated a bomb that was inside his vehicle, killing himself and others. During rescue efforts searchers discovered an additional 500 pounds of unexploded dynamite and pyrotol planted throughout the basement of the school’s other wing.

My point is that more onerous gun control laws will not stop the carnage.  Ninety-nine plus percent of gun owners are law-abiding who would never consider doing anything like these acts.  They are outraged by them.  People intent on doing these types of abominable acts, though, will find a way to do them.  Guns have been around for hundreds of years.  They were made mainly by hand up until the mid-1800s.  Any tool and die maker worth his salt can make one in a garage shop.  Gun control laws, then, will only impact those who would never use who would never use them irresponsibly in the first place.

Let’s assume we do enforce draconian gun control measures, then what.  There will still be individuals who have some perceived gripe against society.  They will find a way to “get even” as we can see by the Columbine killers’ diaries or the actions of Mr. Kehoe in Bath.  What then? Are we going to outlaw gasoline or propane next?

Earlier this year an individual bought a knife in a store in Salt Lake City and started stabbing people.  A bystander who had a concealed carry permit witnessed the attacks.  He drew his pistol and challenged the knife-wielder who decided bringing a knife to a gun fight wasn’t a winning proposition.  He was arrested.  Are we going to outlaw steak knives, too?  How about cars?  They have been used before and probably will be used again to mow down people the driver has a grudge against. Where will it stop?

We have learned that Harris and Klebold had been rather explicit about their intentions and attitudes on their website.  The authorities were knowledgeable about the increasingly deranged and deadly postings.  Nothing was done.  On January 8, 2011, U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords was shot and injured while six people were killed by Jared Loughner.  It is clear that Loughner had serious mental problems but the authorities did nothing.  James Holmes, the alleged Aurora killer, also has serious psychiatric issues.  The common thread is that we, society as a whole, have made it extremely difficult for mental health professionals to inform authorities of their concerns without violating the rights of their patients.  The threshold for committing someone to a psychiatric hospital is quite high these days.  We believe that this is a good thing; we don’t want unscrupulous individuals getting rivals incarcerated just to be rid of them.  This stance, though, has a cost.  Every so often someone will commit a heinous act.  There needs to be a mechanism whereby a medical professional can relate their concerns to the proper authorities similar to getting a warrant.

Today, we have NYC’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, the representative from the nanny state, posturing for more gun control laws.  NY senator Charles Schumer, never one to pass up any TV exposure, wants more laws.  Layering on more ineffectual gun control laws by preening politicians who are urged on by sanctimonious, self-righteous, and ignorant editorial page writers and even less-informed letters-to-the-editor writers will not make a dent in the problem, much less solve it.  There will always be evil people.  Don’t disarm the good people thinking it will make a bit of difference, it won’t.  If the laws are passed, what do you tell the families of future victims, as there assuredly will be,  after it is clear that the laws did nothing.  Rest assured, a sense of complacency will set in with people thinking  “now we are safe.”  Why?  Because the government said so.  Oh, Gertrude!.  More competent regulations in the treatment and control, if you will, of the mentally  disturbed need to be enacted regardless of whether or not they offend the ACLU?  Results matter, not sophomoric symbolism.

Update 8/7/12

Sunday we awoke to the news that a white supremacist had killed six people at a Sikh temple.  The shooter who was killed by a police officer was a member of a neo-nazi rock band.  Described as a “frustrated neo-Nazi,” Page started a “racist white-power” band called  End Apathy in 2005, according to the Montgomery, Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, SPLC.  It said it had been tracking Page for a decade.

Of course, we also witnessed NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg frothing at the mouth, demanding more gun control.   (There have also been reports of killings and maiming with knives but we don’t hear calls to ban knives.)

These killings are a tragedy.  Before we succumb to the mayor’s vision of a more perfect world, though, we need to reflect on the implications.

Drugs are illegal and have been for 75 or more years.  The result has been to spawn a thriving illegal business in importing them and manufacturing them illicitly.  Turf wars between drug dealers account for most of the shootings in America.  When alcohol was illegal in the 1920s the results were similar.

Today, the U.S. has no problem with contraband guns entering the country or the illegal manufacture of them here.  Does any sentient person believe that we could stop the flow of guns if it became lucrative for the bad guys to do so?  Of course not.  We can’t stop the flow of illegal aliens into the U.S.   Guns, especially handguns, can be disassembled and brought over piecemeal and reassembled here.  The costs of trying to interdict this would blow even bigger holes in our budget.  As noted above, any tool & die maker can make guns in his garage.

There is an alternative.  Encourage more people to obtain concealed carry permits.  Most of the thugs who are killing people would think twice if there was the possibility that a potential victim would shoot back.  John Lott’s book, “More Guns, Less Crime, 3rd ed.” documents this.  The police can’t protect us all of the time, in fact, they can’t protect us very much, at all.  It’s not their fault; it is just reality. By making more people able to defend themselves, we are  increasing the amount of effective security.

Again, we need to think before we jump onto the “more gun control” bandwagon.  It will make things worse.

Posted by Jim

How Could We Have Missed These Uprisings?

This is a question that has been asked numerous times over the past three weeks as, first, Tunisia, and, then, Egypt exploded in the streets with thousands demanding freedom.  The US’s intelligence agencies were faulted for not anticipating these events.  I think that this judgement is a bit unfair.  To know something is going to eventually explode is not the same as knowing the precise time.  Think of our ability to predict volcanoes.  We know where they are, which ones are most likely to blow, but not when.  Similarly, we know that societies that have large, young, educated, and unemployed populations with minimal political and economic freedoms are powder kegs.  Depending upon the ruthlessness of the regime uprisings are more (Tunisia) or less (Iran) likely.

Professor Timor Kuran, currently at Duke University, wrote a book, “Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification (Harvard University Press: 1995)” that explains how this toppling of the regimes came so quickly and unexpectedly.

I want to quote from his book, p. 250-251.

Imagine a ten-person society featuring the threshold sequence

A: Individual a b c d e f g h i j
Threshold 0 20 20 30 40 50 60 70 80 100

Person a, whose threshold is 0, supports the opposition regardless of its size, just as person j always supports the government.  The remaining eight people’s preferences are sensitive to the expected size of the public opposition.  Depending on its level, they will opt for one camp or the other. Initially, as in the geometric illustration [p.249], the opposition consists of 10 percent of the population, so Y=10 [where Y is represents the size of the opposition to the government].  Specifically, person a supports the opposition, and persons b through j support the government.  Because individuals other than a have thresholds above 10, a public opposition of 10 is self-sustaining [implying the regime maintains power].

Suppose now that person b has an unpleasant encounter at some government ministry [such as, for instance, the street vendor in Tunisia, or the person beat up by the cops in Egypt].  Her alienation from the regime deepens, pushing her threshold down from 20 to 10. The threshold sequence becomes

A’: Individual a b c d e f g h i j
Threshold 0 10 20 30 40 50 60 70 80 100

The new threshold of b happens to equal the existing Y of 10.  So she switches sides, revealing her decision by tossing an egg at the country’s leader during an official rally [or self-immolating oneself as the Tunisian did].  Y thus becomes 20.  The new Y is not self-sustaining but self-augmenting, as it drives into opposition.  The higher Y of 30 then triggers a fourth defection, raising Y to 40.  And the process continues until Y reaches 90 – a new equilibrium.  Now the first nine individuals are in opposition, with only j supporting the government.  A slight shift in one individual’s threshold has generated a revolutionary bandwagon.


I believe that this analysis succinctly captures exactly what has taken place in northern Africa.  Once one individual shook his fist at the government other realized that they weren’t alone in their discontent.    Gone are the days when opponents of a regime could be locked away and the only means of communication with the outside world was on purloined sheets of toilet paper.  In the US, in the 1950s and early 1960s, the civil rights movement got started because decent-minded citizens saw on TV scenes that they never thought could happen in the US.  In the 1980s, the VCR brought news of freedom to the communist bloc.  Today, cell phones and the internet have all but eliminated a regime’s ability to suppress the news of their treatment of their citizenry.

The various intelligence agencies can only guess at the thresholds of the citizens of other countries.  They could only engage in some scenario exercises of the “what-if” variety.  It is doubtful that any of them would have been able to predict these topplings much less the speed, any more than they could have predicted the collapsing of the Soviet puppet states, one by one, in the late 1980s.  We must learn that no one is omniscient and that not every event can be forecasted with precision.  We shouldn’t look for a scapegoat. Instead, the lesson here is that the desire for freedom is innate in all human beings.  America needs to give moral support to those who stand up and defy the regimes.

Posted by Jim

Guile on the Nile

Probably no nation is so constantly reminded that its best days are behind it than is Egypt. Tourists from around the world marvel at the extraordinary monuments, some over 4600 years old, erected by the people who lived and prospered on the shores of the Nile. The ancient Egyptians were not only accomplished builders and engineers but they developed an expressive form of writing, papyrus to write on, a reasonable calendar, and pioneered effective techniques in medicine and surgery. What have Egyptians accomplished since? Between Cleopatra and Omar Sharif the Egyptians haven’t played a leading role in much of anything.

We have been told for years that the Arab “street” was seething with hatred for western, especially American, thought and culture. In the past few weeks we have discovered that the people who actually go out in the street seem to share a lot of our values and wish we supported them instead of their government. We learned much the same thing last year when the Persian street tried to overthrow a stolen election but, shamefully, we watched as the mullahs crushed them. The government that condoned voter intimidation by the New Black Panthers extended the same courtesy to the Revolutionary Guards. We did a little better this time, although in truth, the Egyptian demonstrators neither looked to us nor relied on us. They seem to have been inspired by the earlier Tunisian uprising that booted out the long serving Ben Ali.

Most revolutions, including our own, are caused by economic forces, often related to foodstuffs. The Tunisian revolution was sparked by a frustrated and humiliated young vegetable vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, who operated an unlicensed cart in the town of Sidi Bouzid. After a policewoman confiscated his cart and produce, slapped him, and spit on him, he attempted to complain to the municipal authorities who denied him an audience. As anyone who has ever dealt with the Registry of Motor Vehicles can appreciate, a frustrated Bouazizi then set fire to himself and, subsequently, to the political power structure of his country. Bouazizi’s despair and choice of death is symbolic of the economic stasis that has frustrated the aspirations of Muslims, especially Arab Muslims, since the end of their golden age 700 years ago. A lot of reasons are given for the decline of the Muslim Arab world but one is surely excessive government regulation and limitations on people’s economic lives. Some reports indicated that Bouazizi had tried unsuccessfully for five years to get the permits required for his vegetable stand.

Most of the discussion following the revolts has understandably focused on the political outlooks for the two countries. But the success of both will depend on creating effective and growing economies. Unshackling the Egyptian economy will be extraordinarily difficult; some like the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Henninger think it nearly impossible. Tunisia looks to have the better chance. Tunisia is more economically liberal than is Egypt. Tunisia, one of the more liberal economic environments in the Arab world, ranks 55th on the World Bank’s index of ease of doing business. Egypt, the largest Arab country, ranks 94th. In perceived corruption, the Egyptians rank 98th while the Tunisians are only 59th. With respect to property rights, a decent proxy for economic freedom, Tunisia is tied for 40th, Egypt trails far behind tied for 73rd. Perhaps the most comprehensive rankings, the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitive Rankings place Tunisia 32nd and Egypt 81st. Every one of the restrictions, regulations, and impediments to a competitive market economy has an entrenched beneficiary who will fight to preserve his favored position. The Egyptian army, seen by many as the guarantor of political liberalization, has extensive interests in the economy; some estimate its holdings at 20 to 30 percent of the nation’s productive assets. Good luck getting them to part with it. Half the population is under 24 and most are unemployed or under-employed.

What can the Egyptians do to get their people usefully employed? Apart from the Nile and a little bit of oil, Egypt doesn’t have many natural resources. They have a lot of tolerably literate people and not much else. One possibility, suggested by Egyptian Keynesians, is to build some more pyramids; there is a precedent and constructing each would employ tens of thousands of people for decades. But the country already has about 140 of the things and its not clear that anyone even knows how to build one anymore. The Mexican option, sneaking across the U.S. border, is not practical since few Egyptians speak Spanish, which has become a requirement for getting an entry-level job in many parts of the U.S. The Greeks, a once-great people who retired early, were able to lie their way into the subsidizing arms of the E.U. but it’s unlikely the Europeans would fall for that again; they won’t even admit Turkey, a Muslim country with a real economy. Most of the rich nearby Muslim countries are either furiously trying to develop indoor golf courses and ski runs or buying off their own restless populations.

There is one nearby country that has a vibrant economy, a flair for developing innovative products, but a relatively small and expensive labor force and so might be interested in investing in Egypt and outsourcing production. That country has even fewer natural resources than Egypt but has a per-capita income six times as great. Many of that country’s citizens can even trace their ancestry to Egypt. Of course, they parted ways on very bad terms about 3000 years ago.

Posted by Bob

The Evolution of the Fastball

It is a scientific fact: Man evolved to throw and to hit baseballs. Even before we were advanced toolmakers, we were proficient throwers and clubbers. These skills and the anatomical specialization to perform them well are uniquely human. Our nearest cousins, chimpanzees, will occasionally toss sticks and rocks around but they cannot direct them accurately. Many paleontologists believe that the development of the ability to throw and to swing sticks with accuracy and authority marked a major turning point in hominid evolution. These capabilities enabled early hominids to escape the tedium of playing soccer and had enormous social advantages as noted by Professor Richard Young:*

“The best throwers and clubbers in a community would rise in the male dominance hierarchy and thereby obtain more breeding opportunities.”

Any evolutionary advantage that confers a rise in the male dominance hierarchy and greater access to breeding females is sure to spread rapidly through the species and to be continually refined by competitive pressures. The relative advantages of exceptional throwing and batting skills persist to this day, as a quick glance at the seating section for ball players’ wives and girlfriends confirms. (More evidence could be cited easily but this is a family-friendly blog.)

The critical evolutionary developments for throwing and hitting came in the shoulder and hands. The shoulders of other apes are designed so that the socket accommodates vertical extension of the arm – handy for hanging from trees but not so good for pin-point control from the mound. The human shoulder has the greatest degree of rotational movement of all our joints and it is also the most vulnerable to injury. Baseball made famous the rotator cuff, the bundle of muscles and tendons that hold the upper arm and shoulder together. The fellow below is doomed to hang around in the bush leagues.

Our hands and fully opposable thumbs are far better suited for throwing and especially for gripping bats and racquets than those of chimpanzees whose hands likely resemble those of our common ancestor. Even the fatty tissues or pads on our hands are positioned and sized to absorb the impact shocks of clubs and bats colliding with skulls and baseballs.

Our throwing ability has come pretty far in the past 500,000 years or so. The Baseball Almanac lists 27 pitchers whom have reached or exceeded 100 miles per hour in a game since Nolan Ryan cranked it up to 100.9 in 1974. The fastest speeds on that list belong to Mark Wohlers a former Atlanta Braves’ closer, who recorded 103 mph in a 1995 spring training game and Joel Zumaya, a Detroit Tigers reliever who reached 103 mph in 2006. The current record is held by The Cuban Missile, the Reds’ Aroldis Chapman, who was recorded firing a baseball at 105 mph in 2010.

Evidence on a pitcher’s velocity was very spotty in my dad’s day and not much better in mine. For the most part, the relative speeds of pitchers were judged subjectively by other players. Technologies such as photovoltaics and slow motion cameras that used frame counts to estimate speeds had progressed somewhat when I started paying attention but they were primitive compared to the radar guns that became standard in the 1980s.

Before the radar gun became a fixture at ball games, pitchers had to travel to laboratories, often weapons facilities with the expertise to measure projectile speeds, and use various paraphernalia to measure the velocity of their throws. In 1917 a Bridgeport Connecticut weapons laboratory using a device called a gravity drop interval recorder** clocked Walter Johnson at 91.36 mph, Christy Mathewson at 86.59 mph and “Smoky Joe” Wood at 84.55 mph. I suspect that, like a stop-watch, these devices were triggered by human action and the tiny delay this entails accounts for the relatively low measured velocity.

The recently deceased Bob Feller, the great Cleveland Indians’ pitcher of the 1940s and 50s who was known as Rapid Robert was especially eager to measure his heater. A famous black-and-white film shows Feller throwing a baseball past a speeding police motorcycle at Aberdeen Proving Grounds. Although the test is inherently flawed, Feller claimed that he was measured at 104 mph. In 1939 Feller and teammate Johnny Humphreys threw baseballs into a 2-foot square hole cut in the side of a trailer in which photovoltaic tubes spaced 5 feet apart measured the balls’ velocity. Rapid Robert’s reading that day was a less-than-spectacular 81.14 mph, significantly slower than Humphrey’s 86.59 mph which equaled Mathewson’s earlier trial.

How fast can a ballplayer throw? We might already be at or near our natural physiological limit. At this point in our evolution, the human elbow is likely be the limiting factor in how hard a pitcher can throw. Glenn Fleisig, a scientist at the American Sports Medicine Institute, tested cadaver elbows (the first thing most kids ask when told this is “how do you get a bunch of cadaver elbows?”) and found that their ulnar collateral ligaments (UCLs) snapped at about 80 Newton meters (about 59 foot-pounds for those of us who have adopted non-metric standards – Myanmar, Liberia and the USA) which is approximately the same rotational torque as experienced by a professional pitcher’s elbow in throwing a fastball. UCL replacement is better known as “Tommy John surgery,” named after the first pitcher to undergo the procedure. Curiously, many pitchers return from UCL replacement surgery throwing faster than before. This raises the issue of whether discretionary surgical arm enhancement might be pursued in the future and how it ought to be treated relative to chemical enhancement.

There has been some recent discussion that human athletic performance is peaking. Records last longer and many believe that we’ll soon exhaust our native potential. I’m not so sure, the performance enhancing drug era proved that we could exceed normal constraints with a little help from chemistry. The next era of enhancement may be surgical improvements to what Nature has given us.


*Richard W Young, Professor emeritus, Department of Anatomy, University of California Medical School, Los Angeles, California, “Evolution of the human hand: the role of throwing and clubbing,” Journal of Anatomy, 2003 January; 202(1): 165–174. Professor Young’s article focuses on evolution of the hand for throwing.

**I have tried unsuccessfully to find out what a “gravity drop interval recorder” was.  Ballistics experts and physicists I have asked have not heard of the device.  I suspect it was a contraption that utilized the known and constant rate of acceleration due to gravity to time a ball over some course but have no idea how the beginning and termination of the ball’s flight was captured by the machine.  If a reader knows about this apparatus, I’d appreciate learning more about it.

Posted by Bob

Stimulus II – Beyond Parody

The President has announced a second stimulus which, by the way, is not referred to as a stimulus, given the success of stimulus I. It is being referred to as an infrastructure rebuilding program, or some such thing. The purpose is not to stimulate the economy before the election; it is too late for that, but to get some positive ink portraying the Republicans as dyed-in-the-wool obstructionists. There are many good reasons for questioning this $50 billion largess.

I have always found it odd that Democrats, in particular, push for fixing roads and bridges during a recession. They quote studies that say our infrastructure is crumbling which, I’ll agree, is probably correct. However, it was crumbling even faster before the recession when it had more vehicles plying their way across it. Where was the concern, then? If the recession hadn’t occurred they would be in even worse shape. Obama also mentioned redoing airport runways. Are we to understand that planes are landing on crumbling landing strips. Where are the FAA and the transportation safety boards? The railroads are also being included in this spending spree. I thought they were privately owned.

Government bodies have done this for years: pushing off maintenance and repair because doing it would require either raising taxes or, shudders, restraining spending elsewhere. Runways, roads, and bridges are physical capital that need to be maintained and upgraded on a regular ongoing basis, not an episodic one whose primary goal is to obtain votes or campaign contributions.

Attempting to use infrastructure projects to boost the economy is doomed to utter failure. A critical complaint about government spending to counteract recessions is the lag between the approval of spending funds and the actual spending. Infrastructures are at the extreme end of this spectrum. By their very nature they are long-lived with the funds entering the economy relatively slowly. This round of projects is to be a six-year endeavor. The unemployed won’t be with us if they have to wait that long for the economy to turn around.

A second point is the question of whether or not we should put all of our stimulus funds into one sector: civil engineering projects. On the margin does the citizenry think this is the most critical area to devote resources to, today. I don’t know the answer, and it is doubtful we will ever find out. A third point is that these big infrastructure projects are not very good at getting people back to work. These projects tend to be very capital intensive so that for any given amount of stimulus dollars spent they increase employment less than many other activities would.

The upshot is that the politicians are continuing to treat the populace with callous disregard by their dereliction of responsibility to keeping the roads, bridges, and runways at acceptable levels of repair. (Would a private insurance company be willing to underwrite coverage on some of these roads and bridges?) The spending of the $50 billion won’t impact employment or GDP now. It may add excess demand for resources in three years when the Fed is trying to slow the economy. The only things that it can be assured of doing are increasing the national debt and giving politicians talking points. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

Posted by Jim

It’s All the Yuan’s Fault

The Chinese currency, the Yuan, is the current whipping boy for the fact that the US is running an enormous Balance of Payments deficit on its Goods and Services account. This is the sub-category that gets all of the attention since the unions and big businesses are most affected. It has become an article of faith, or urban legend, that the Yuan is undervalued by 40% due to currency manipulation by the Chinese government. The implicit assumption is that if the Yuan were just permitted to find its true equilibrium value, assumed to be 4.8771 Yuan/$ based on the May 26th closing price of 6.8293 Yuan/$, then all of the manufacturing jobs that have disappeared over the past decade or so would return to American shores.

Not so fast. A little history will show the tenuousness of this assumed sequence of events. In the 1980s, Japan was the whipping boy for the decline in manufacturing jobs in the US. It is important to note that the issue that most vexes people (read: unions, politicians, newspaper columnists) is the decline of union jobs. Manufacturing output has continued to rise over time, by the way, although one would never realize it from the press reports. Using the 2002 annual average as the base, that is, setting it equal to 100.00, Industrial Production in the US rose from 60.9454 in January, 1985 to 112.3962 in December, 2007. It currently is 102.2666. From January, 1985 to December, 2007, then, output increased by more than 84%. It is down 9% due to the recession.

In January, 1985, the US-Japan exchange rate was 254.1829 Yen/$, that is, the US had what was considered to be a very strong currency. Japanese products didn’t cost all that much, relatively speaking. The Balance of Payments that January was -$3.868 billion. In December, 2007, the exchange rate was 112.4490/$. This means that Japanese goods now cost 2.26 times as much in US dollars as they did in 1985.  This nets out the effect of inflation in both countries.  The Balance of Payments was -$6.578 billion. As of March, 2010, the exchange rate was 90.7161 Yen/$. The Balance of Payments was -$5.317 billion. Hmm? Japanese goods became more expensive and, yet, we ratcheted up our consumption of them. This wasn’t supposed to happen, was it? What went wrong?

The fundamental problem is that the prognosticators either didn’t read their Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, or have forgotten it. Implicit, also, in their assumptions is the belief that the Chinese, like the Japanese were supposed to, won’t adjust to the new prevailing set of prices. They will be happy to have reduced demand for their production, thus accepting a lower standard of living. As can be seen from the Japanese-US results, the Japanese became much more productive, aggressively so. It is entirely likely that this situation will be repeated in China. In fact, since China is starting from a much lower base of productivity, they have the ability to make even greater proportional improvements in a short period of time. The end result of our browbeating the Chinese to revalue their currency to a rate that we would prefer is that we will have caused them to become an even more formidable competitor, especially in markets besides ours and theirs.

The other aspect that the pundits forget is that the US is not the only trading partner China has.  This is true for virtually every country.  A country buy inputs from some countries and sell finished goods to others.  Inputs and finished goods mean different things to different countries.  Australia is a net exporter of raw materials.  These are its finished goods.  Their inputs are the heavy equipment they acquire to mine the ores.  In China or Japan’s case, they acquire the ores and manufacture consumer products.  China and Japan will run trade deficits with countries like Australia, while running export surpluses with countries like the US.  The appreciation of the Yuan may reduce China’s overall balance of trade surplus but it doesn’t guarantee that the deficit with any specific country will be reduced.  As we saw with Japan, the enormous appreciation of the Yen did not make a difference to its trade balance with the US.

Our pundits seem to believe that one can legislate prosperity and cause the return of manufacturing jobs to the US regardless of the efficiency with which that output is produced. It is stunning how little we have learned from our previous attempts to legislate an economic nirvana. Ohio and Michigan lost many manufacturing jobs in the early 2000s. No one seems to have connected the dots and observed the relation between our imposing steel quotas, designed to protect a small number of steelworker jobs, and the ensuing uncompetitiveness of our much more numerous steel using industries. Successful firms and industries are those that have recognized that increased productivity is the only way to prosper in a world where consumers want the best quality for a given price, or the lowest price for a given quality.

Bashing China and its exchange rate policy will not improve our manufacturing employment base. It may, however, cause it to dwindle further. Be careful of what you wish for.

Posted by Jim