Saturday, August 20, 2011

Number of Unemployed

I don't know how widely known this is:  we have more unemployed people in the US now (about 15 million officially, but actually more) that were unemployed in  the year of highest unemployment in the Great Depression, 1933 (about 13 million).

We need a serious jobs plan - not more half-measures like the 2009 stimulus.  Yes, it probably save the economy from falling into the abyss, but it was clearly inadequate, and we need more than another inadequate plan now.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Excess cash

Bloomberg reports that U.S. companies are holding about $2 trillion in cash,  that the amount keeps growing, and it's not being put to productive use.

Their editorial is a discussion on what to do with all this cash: pay dividends, buy back stock, or make acquisitions.  It's an interesting view into the mindset of the financial world that there is no mention of one obvious use for this cash:  paying the companies' employees more.

Wages have been stagnant for the last 30 years or so, lagging behind the growth in productivity, with the result that "the broken connection between labor productivity growth and compensation growth for average workers has undermined mass upward mobility and the ideal of a growing middle class", as the authors of this paper note.

The rewards from the growth in productivity have gone mainly to the wealthy.  If I were asked, I'd say: share the increased wealth, that $2 trillion sitting around, with the employees responsible for productivity growth by significantly increasing wages and salaries.  Not only would it be the right thing to do morally, but would also put money in the hands of those most likely to spend it, and so give our lagging economy a boost.

The economy needs a stimulus: it doesn't have to come wholly from government.

Burqa ban

Banning the wearing of the burqa in public seems to me misguided.  It is discriminatory against Muslim women.

But I'm not happy with people going around in public wearing masks.  I would suggest a complete ban on wearing masks in public, which would cover the wearing of the burqa without singling it out.

I do see exceptions to the ban:  costumes at Hallowe'en, for instance, and those face hiding motorcycle helmets while actually riding a motorcycle. 

But otherwise, show us your face.

Sunday, August 7, 2011


I recently watched the movie Serpico for the first time since it came out in 1973.  A brief description for those who haven't seen the movie: it's a dramatization of the true story of Frank Serpico, a New York policeman who tried to avoid the police corruption he saw around him, and was rebuffed when he tried to report what had witnessed to the higher echelons of the police force.

What struck me was that, while I remembered the basic story and situations, I had forgotten the particular crime that Serpico's unit was combating: it was the numbers game, the private lottery that was illegal (and I suppose still is) in New York.   At the time, there was a large underground lottery system, with counting houses, banks, and runners.  That's all gone away now: the numbers racket has been superseded by the state lottery.

Which made me think to myself: what a waste.  If the lottery is benign enough to be run by the state, why can't it be run privately? (With proper oversight and protection of the public against fraud, of course.)  What a waste of police resources that could have been used to prevent real crime.  What a waste of people's lives when they are imprisoned just for providing a service that is wanted by the public.  And also, it's just this sort of victimless "criminal" activity that is a fertile field for the corruption that so dismayed Frank Serpico.

If one looks back to the 1920s, one can see a similar waste of resources and ruining of lives (as well as the rise of organized crime families) in the enforcement of prohibition.

And today the same dynamic is being played out in the enforcement of drug laws.  Just as there was no really good reason to outlaw lotteries and alcohol, there is no really good reason to outlaw the more harmless drugs like marijuana, and even the mildly harmful like cocaine.  Again, I see the waste of resources and the ruining of lives (one reason the US has proportionately more people in prison than any other country is the enforcement of drug laws, along with convictions for the ancillary criminal activities that arise out drug trafficking), but other serious consequences as well.  The demand for cocaine in this country has devastated Colombian society, and US demand for marijuana has led to astonishing levels of violence in Mexico.  Yet I see no acknowledgement from our elected representatives of the havoc they are causing both in this country and in others by our wrongheaded insistence on passing and enforcing laws against some people's choice of recreation.

Yes, there is some danger in taking drugs, and serious abuse can be ruinous to some individuals' health.  The same can be said of tobacco and alcohol - yet we have never criminalized tobacco, and admit that criminalizing alcohol was a mistake.  Our drug laws simply make no sense.

I'm reasonably sure that at some future time marijuana, and perhaps other drugs, will be legal.  And future generations will be looking back at us and wondering: why such a waste?  So if only they'd ask me - I'd say repeal the drug laws. (And think of the money now wasted we'd save by eliminating the DEA - money that could be put to productive rather than destructive uses.)

The Diallo shooting

It 's been over twelve years since Amadou Diallo was shot by police in New York, but the case stays with me.

A reminder:  four police officers approached Diallo, thinking he might be the person they were looking for that night.  When he pulled out his wallet (presumably to identify himself), one of the officers yelled "Gun!", prompting the other officers to join him in firing at Diallo.  Diallo was shot nineteen times, and was killed. The officers were distraught to find there was no gun - Diallo had not been a threat to them.

The officers were charged with second degree murder, but were acquitted on the grounds that they reasonably considered themselves threatened.  I think the decision to try the four as a group was a mistake by the prosecution:  as the officers were tried as a group, the jury considered their group reaction to the misperceived threat, and clearly when the threat of a gun is loudly announced, police officers would be expected to respond in self protection.

I believe the officer who yelled "Gun!" should have been the only officer charged, and he should have been charged with manslaughter.  Yes, he made an honest mistake, but that mistake predictably led to the death of Diallo.  It's my understanding that making a mistake leading to someone's death justifies a manslaughter conviction.  And when a mistake can predictably lead to a death, it seems to me that there is a duty to be particularly careful NOT to make a life threatening mistake.

If I may make what may seem a distant analogy:  imagine you are driving on a city street, and see a pedestrian in a crosswalk. You jam on your brake - except you made a mistake, you jammed your foot on the accelerator thinking it was the brake, so the car sped up and killed the pedestrian.  Would your "honest mistake" absolve you from any criminal prosecution for causing that death?  I don't believe so.  A driver has a responsibility to be careful in controlling a car when a life is at stake - and a police officer has a responsibility to be careful in identifying threats if death is the likely result of a carelessly calling out a non-existent threat.  (One could also think of the well-known saying that free speech does not allow one to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater.)

So if I had been in a position to decide on prosecution in the Diallo case, I would have focused on the action that precipitated the shooting, not on the shooting itself.