Monday, August 29, 2016

Government regulation of volunteer help in flooded Louisiana

I recently saw a blog post complaining that the government and official relief agencies (specifically the Red Cross) are refusing or throwing away donations to help with flooding in Louisiana. This includes requiring the full permit process to perform repairs on houses (and likely refusing to allow repairs to older houses which no longer meet code) and wanting to register the "Cajun Navy" volunteers helping rescue stranded people. It all sounds like another example of government overreach and control of our lives.

Then I find a report of an illegal immigrant driving (and crashing) a bus full of volunteers. Maybe some control of volunteers isn't such a bad idea. This report is from a right wing site which would normally be in the forefront opposing government interference in volunteer efforts (and they don't mention that in the report), but the site is also very anti-illegal immigrant, explaining why it showed up there.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and China's 9 dash line

The Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument has been in the news recently as President Obama expanded the size of the protected area. This National Monument extends northwest from Hawaii along a string of small islands.

So what do islands near Hawaii have to do with China? China and other nations in the area have been arguing over the ownership of several groups of small islands and reefs. Much of the debate is over the exact nature of the islands since this determiens the amount of territory around the islands which can be claimed by the country as territorial waters or an exclusive economic zone.

In reading news stories it appears that whether islands are inhabited, whether they are above water all the time (or only at high tide) and similar factors are involved. Truly territorial waters are best enforced for inhabited islands.

Now look at the National Monument near Hawaii. As far as I can tell few of the islands are inhabited yet by declaring a National Monument the US is expressing an exclusive economic zone out 200 miles from these islands (a map shows the monument to be roughly a 400 mile wide by 1000 mile long region).

While there are no nearby nations to dispute the US ownership of these islands, I can imagine the controversy if some nation tried to fish in the region and disputed the US claim to this wide an area. Claiming this much territory around uninhabited islands could provide a precedent for China or another nation making claims to islands off their own coasts.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Back to 55? Unintended consequences

The US wants to force lower speeds on truck and bus drivers. The linked article explains that the government has proposed capping the maximum speed of large trucks and buses. This will be done by an engine limitation so that the driver cannot drive faster even if desired (or the safer course of action).

 The reason is a reduction in fatal crashes -- the government estimates the reduction in fatalities if trucks were limited to a lower speed. They also promote the savings in fuel costs.

Of course, this is the government's side. Any fuel cost saved by driving slower will be offset (or perhaps exceeded) by extra wages to the driver. Or for independent drivers by lower incomes as they are paid the same amount but take longer to get to their destination. Assuming, of course, the driver doesn't drive extra time to make up for the lower speed (illegal but easier to get around than an engine limiter).

As pointed out briefly in the article, but apparently not part of the government's reasoning, is the increased accidents as trucks drive slower than cars. Many highway accidents are a result not of the absolute speed involved but in differences in speed between vehicles. Trucks limited to 60mph (one proposal) will have to watch out for cars driving a legal 75mph weaving in and out of lanes.

To those of us old enough to remember the 1970s and 1980s the lower speeds are nothing new. The government imposed a nationwide 55mph speed limit, ostensibly to save fuel and money. If truck speeds are going to be limited and there follows an increase in accidents due to slow trucks and fast cars, how long until speed limits are reduced? Auto makers could then be ordered to limit the car's maximum speed to help enforce the speed limit. Maybe Sammy Hagar's classic song "I can't drive 55" will top the charts again.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Kudos to the University of Chicago

The University of Chicago has been in the news for a letter it sent to entering freshmen. In the letter the University rejects the recent move toward "trigger warnings" and "safe spaces". It also affirmed the University's commitment to academic freedom, freedom of expression, and diversity of opinion.

Three cheers to the University.

The reaction to the letter is predictable. Many students and faculty praised it, but there was also criticism. The criticism shows the nature of today's "political correctness" or "social justice" movement.

One criticism is that the University already sponsors "safe spaces." A quick web search finds the the LGBTQ office has a Safe Space program. There are probably others. Perhaps these "safe spaces" are times or locations where like minded people can get together. Or perhaps they are the room with teddy bears and coloring books of some news reports. One hopes the former.

On the subject of safe spaces, I found an interesting quote in an explanation of safe spaces:
"For me as a black woman, it's really nice to just go out with other black women sometimes," said Sabrina Stevens, an activist and progressive strategist. "I have to do so much less translation. When you're black around white people, you have to explain every little thing, even with people who are perfectly nice and well-meaning."
I can see the reason for a group with membership limited to a particular race, sex, nationality, etc. However, the courts have ruled this to be illegal. At least, if the race and sex are white and male. See male only clubs must admit women.

So there is a double standard. Any group which can claim to be in some way "disadvantaged" is ok. Any group consisting of the "oppressors" (whites or males) is not.

This is even recognized by the U.S. Congress. The Congressional Black Caucus excludes non-blacks. The Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues consists only of female members of Congress.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Islamic State a good thing? So says one Israeli expert

In a recent paper the director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies argues that we should not destroy Islamic State (ISIS). It seems a weak but continuing ISIS will make a good magnet for would be terrorists and keep Syria, Iran, and other states weak.

Here we see why Middle East peace won't happen. The author of this paper looks more at keeping Israel's traditional enemies weak (by having ISIS continue to destabilize the region) than at building any sort of lasting stability in the region.

50 years ago in the 1960s the PLO engaged in a political revolt. It had Muslim and Christian groups within its umbrella. While anti-Jewish and anti-Israel, it was largely a secular organization. Today instead of a group wanting to destroy the State of Israel, the Middle East has moved to the point where groups wanting to destroy all non-Muslims (and many insufficiently pure Muslims) are gaining political power and followers around the world.

Do we really want ISIS, with its proven propaganda abilities, to remain even in a weakened state? Will keeping Syria and Iraq perpetually unstable really improve Western security?

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The trials of writing regulations

The Agriculture Department (USDA) has recently proposed new rules for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps). The reaction to these rules shows the inherent problems of government regulations.

It begins with a laudible cause -- providing healthier foods for SNAP recipients. Many convenience stores accept SNAP benefits. I once worked at a convenience store when they were Food Stamps. People would send their kids to buy a candy bar with a food stamp dollar. Part of this is giving the kid a treat. The other part is that change under a dollar for food stamps was given in coins, so a dollar food stamp used to buy an 18 cent candy bar (the price at the time) yielded about 80 cents of cash which could be spent on cigarettes (57 cents a pack) or other non-food items.

So it appears that Congress included changes in the 2014 Farm Bill (note this was under a Republican Congress). These changes mean retailers must "offer(s) for sale, on a continuous basis, a variety of at least 7 foods in each of the 4 categories of staple foods specified", these staples being meat/poultry/fish, dairy, bread/cereals, and vegetables/fruit.

So USDA proposed new rules. I haven't found the actual rules (just the response to comments linked above) but it appears the rules might have required that, for instance, 7 types of "meats, poultry, or fish" meant 7 different species (e.g. beef, pork, chicken, turkey, cod, salmon, and tuna). Complaints were apparently made that stores would have to carry lamb and duck. As the USDA response says, what did Congress mean when they said 7 types? Could canned chicken, canned tuna, beef jerky, and turkey jerky count as four items? How processed or fresh must food be to count as a "staple" food? Can ground beef and steaks count as two types of perishable meats or do they count as one because both are from cows?

Similar questions about vegetables lead to the claim stores will have to sell kale.

As a sometime shopper at convenience stores, the typical convenience store will not meet the new law unless they are very broadly interpreted (e.g. meat sticks, jerky, etc. counting as different types of meat). On the other hand, some of the stores in question in poor areas are not snacks only convenience stores but small grocery stores which have a limited selection. They may include some fresh foods (e.g. apples and bananas) but not enough variety to meet the new law.

So now the blame game begins. The new rules are in the law, meaning Congress mandated them. Yet close to half of Congress is demanding that USDA not implement the new regulations. The obvious solution is for Congress to amend the law to remove the new provisions if they are that onerous. Yet passing such a law leaves members of Congress vulnerable to the claim they are anti-nutrition or anti-health.

So the political process continues. Congress passes a feel good law. An agency attempts to implement that law. Interest groups complain and are joined by members of Congress, demanding that the agency not made these harmful changes. The agency argues it is just following the law.

It would be nice if fresh, healthy foods were available to all. To some extent they are but poor people don't buy them. There are any number of reasons and any number of solutions given. Food Stamps (or their modern equivalent) will continue to be used for junk food and sugary kids cereals. But it's clear from the USDA's current exercise that there's no simple solution to the problem.

Friday, August 12, 2016

The DEA's reasons for banning marijuana. Or tobacco?

The DEA recently denied two requests that marijuana be removed from Schedule I, meaning it has no legitimate medical or other uses. See / Headquarters News Releases, 08/11/16.

I've taken the DEA's list of reasons to keep marijuana under Schedule I control and applied them to tobacco:

(1) Tobacco has a high potential for abuse.

(2) Tobacco has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.

(3) Tobacco lacks accepted safety for use under medical supervision.

The DEA's response runs to about 150 pages, but replacing marijuana with tobacco still applies to most of the detailed response. Yet banning tobacco obviously wouldn't work, just as banning alcohol didn't work in the 1920s. Perhaps its time to follow the lead of Colorado and Oregon (neither of which have experienced a drug addict apocalypse) and recognize that marijuana prohibition doesn't work. It might even put a few criminals out of business.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

A common experience?

I am currently reading two book by ex-CIA employees. One is "From the Shadows" by Robert M. Gates (former CIA director and Secretary of Defense). The other is "The Master of Disguise" by Antonio J. Mendez. I find that both books contain almost the same story about maintaining a cover in Washington of working someplace other than the CIA.

From the Shadows:
At a cocktail party, a man came up and asked where I worked. I mumbled vaguely something about working for the government (a dead giveaway in Washington that you work for the CIA). He pressed me on what department and I replied "Defense." His face brightened and he said he did as well. Where did I work? I replied, "The Naval Munitions Building on Constitution Avenue." He said, "So do I -- where aer you?" I gave him my legend office number. He paused, then frowned and said, "They tore that wing down about two months ago." With an ease and suaveness Sean Connery would have envied, I -- totally undone -- muttered that "I don't get into the office much" and simply fled the conversation.
The Master of Disguise:
My cover legend was tested during my first year in the CIA at a party thrown by a neighbor to celebrate his promotion to air force lieutenant colonel. “So where do you work?” another guy from the block asked me. “For the government,” I replied. Unfortunately, that answer was always a dead give-away to the amateur spook hunters thriving in Washington. “What department?” he pressed. I responded with my nominal government agency, but he claimed to have friends there and asked me for the exact location of my office. Frustrated, I provided the floor and room of my cover job but a sly, grin spread across his face. “That’s the mail room,” he proclaimed. “I service the Xerox copy machines in that building.” He lowered his voice. “You work for the Company.” All that was missing from the encounter was a conspiratorial wink. After the James Bond craze, it seemed that everybody wanted to be a spy.
Leaves me wonder whether this is a common story / myth in the CIA that both authors thought would be a good anecdote for the book. Or perhaps they each had the same experience.

Friday, August 5, 2016

The Sky Is Falling

The media tirade against Donald Trump has reached a new high. A few days ago news stories came out that Mr. Trump will drop out, he's being asked to drop out, or that Republicans are planning in case he drops out.

Reading a few of these stories it's clear that they are largely wishful thinking. The New York Times story is based on the fact that prediction markets (British bookies in this case) give the Republican party a slightly larger chance of gaining the Presidency than Donald Trump. No indication from the Times whether the chance Hillary will be elected is different from the chance the Democrats will take the Presidency. The difference in percentage is small (24.1 vs 25.8) and the volume of betting on Republicans is much lower than on Mr. Trump (so probably has a higher margin of error, though I don't have any real idea how to interpret the numbers at So this different is likely not statistically significant but, because Republicans get a slightly higher percentage than Donald Trump, is enough for the New York Times to argue that bettors think Donald Trump will drop out.

Other news stories are similarly thin on facts and big on speculation and innuendo. The Economist has dedicated a large part of its United States section on why Mr. Trump is a disaster (as they have done every week for months).

The media is running scared.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Political consistency and funding

I'm on a number of email lists on both sides of the political spectrum. MoveOn.Org just sent me an email (MoveOn is hiring organizers to stop Trump) to hire organizers to "stop Trump." Looking at the email, I see two things of interest:

First, MoveOn is practicing what they preach. Conservatives have gleefully reported past occasions where Democratic members of Congress don't pay their interns or pay less than the current definition of a "living wage". The magazine The Nation had a similar "scandal" about unpaid interns. According to this email, while MoveOn doesn't specify a specific salary, these 3 month temporary jobs are advertised as coming with full benefits -- medical, dental, vision, and life insurance. They also come with vacation (presumably paid) at a rate of 4 weeks a year and sick leave at a rate of 2 weeks a year. This is perfectly consistent with MoveOn's progressive politics. So kudos to MoveOn for practicing what they preach.

Second is the fact that MoveOn can pay these benefits, which easily translate into the equivalent of $8.50 per hour above and beyond the "competitive salary". They are hiring multiple people in each of 10 states, meaning they have a significant source of money. While it is possible there are a lot of people making small contributions to MoveOn, I don't notice MoveOn making much of a fundraising effort. This leads me to the conclusion that MoveOn has major, deep pockets sources of funding rather than being "grass roots" funded.