Friday, June 27, 2008

MDRC on Career Academies

Just back from the Hill for the release of this new MDRC report on career academies. Interesting stuff, awesome looking data... I'm gonna bug the authors to see if it's publicly available for one of my current research ideas:

"Should we be evaluating employment programs like we evaluate new drugs?: Group Based Trajectory Analysis as an evaluation methodology"

Eugene Robinson on the Court Ruling

I have always been impressed with Eugene Robinson's columns, and he didn't disappoint this morning, either. Aside from his skittishness about the practical effects of the court repeal of D.C.'s handgun ban, he took the words right out of my mouth - especially on questions of jurisprudence and the constitution. Robinson published in a suite of three op-eds, where he was joined by E.J. Dionne and George F. Will. Normally I like E.J. as well, but this morning he was a complete jackass - totally misrepresenting Scalia's majority opinion. George Will irks me from the other side of the aisle. But Robinson presented a simple and reasonable approach:

When the Constitution says "no" it means "no." In the many instances where the constitution doesn't say anything, you give democratically elected officials the opportunity to shape the contours of policy. The constitution simply says that gun ownership cannot be outlawed in the U.S.. It doesn't say that it can't be regulated or that it can't be ruled on by the powers that be, much like speech and association. These rights are guaranteed and unfettered - but can be reasonably managed. Outright bans, like D.C.'s (and perhaps gun laws in other cities) fly in the face of our constitutional rights - but sensible regulations based on local opinion do not fly in the face of the constitution. I think this perspective was stated very clearly by Scalia as well, unlike Breyer's dissent - which threw all constitutional constraints on government into question (if not out the window).

I like this perspective on constitutional rights and American liberty particularly because it overcomes the libertarians' stranglehold on what freedom means in America. Freedom does not mean a weak, complacent, lazy government - freedom is perfectly compatible with what Hamilton and Madison called an "energetic" government, so long as bedrock liberties are guaranteed. We need an (1.) energetic federal system that (2.) decentralizes questions most appropriately handled by the states that is (3.) also well corralled by the strictures of the constitution. If you remove any one of these three components, you risk threatening the other two. This recent Supreme Court decision lays out a very similar constitutional philosophy and I am very pleased by it. I look forward to seeing the District erect a strict, stern system regulating gun possession that is consistent with the unique needs and wishes of its residents, and also consistent with the rights guaranteed by the constitution.

Note: this very constitutional philosophy was completely abandoned by Scalia in his recent opinion the rights of Guantanamo detainees, which shows how much work there is left to do to shore up constitutional democracy in this country.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Individuals have a right to own guns

Great news out of the Supreme Court - they struck down the DC handgun ban!

Granted, the devil is in the details on these decisions - the current Post article that's up is very short. But once people get a chance to read the decision we'll have a better perspective on what exactly they said - but the Post coverage seems to suggest that it is the most conclusive interpretation of the second amendment since the amendment was written. However, the article also says that it shouldn't change most gun laws. Not sure how that will work, but it sounds fine to me. States and the federal government have a right to regulate commerce - so proper licensing and sales requirements make perfect sense and don't really have anything to do with the second amendment - those never bothered me. A ban on guns - as has been the case in D.C. for thirty years - absolutely violates the second amendment and its about time they took a firm stand on it.

George Will on High-Skilled Immigration

This morning, George Will wrote about high-skilled immigrants, and advocated increasing the number of H1-B visas that these workers use to enter the U.S. I'm very torn on this issue. On the one hand, I can't reasonably oppose free markets and open borders. The logic behind these policies is absolutely unimpeachable, in my mind. However, that doesn't mean there aren't extenuating circumstances, market failures, and opportunities for government to pursue a "sub-optimal solution" that satisfies other goals.

One thing that Will does make a good point on is the irony that we throw the doors wide open for foreign students to study in the U.S., and then errect barriers to coming here to work. These foreign students take up as much as two-thirds of the slots in prestigious science and technology graduate programs in the U.S., and are then forced to go back to their home countries, or to Europe for employment. Essentially that means that we are subsidizing the economic growth and human capital stock of our competitors, and that is ridiculous. We need to open the doors to our universities and our corporations in a coordinated way - if we only let students in, but not workers, we are shooting ourselves in the foot.

However, there is a very real question about whether a skills shortage even exists in the U.S., an issue which Lou Dobbs addresses with his usual gusto. If this research is correct and skills shortages don't really drag down the U.S. economy, there is no reason to get apoplectic about the availability of H1-B visas. In fact, strong evidence against the existence of real skill shortages may even force us to reconsider further cuts in H1-B visas, although I'm not necessarily convinced that's a wise move right now. I'm going to be exploring this issue further in a paper I'll present at the 2008 Southern Economic Association conference, and I may blog on this research in the future.

Currently I'm an agnostic on this issue, but Will raises interesting points. It's also great that he considers student visas and H1-B visas together - they do need to be understood as two sides of the same coin. Ultimately, I'd like us to be able to have a very liberal student visa and H1-B visa policy - but I don't think we should move there until we find a way to get American companies to hire American graduates in these high-skill fields. As the research summarized by Lou Dobbs suggests, we seem to have a surplus of American graduates... who is hiring them???


A second note that my more philosophically inclined readers may be interested in:

I was struck by one line in the Will article about modernity. Speaking of computer chips, he wrote: "modernity means the multiplication of dependencies on things utterly mysterious to those who are dependent"

An interesting thought. But that leads me to ask... how is that any different from pre-modern dependencies on various superstitions and shibolleths?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

!!!!! I want one !!!!!


Another reason to accuse me of being a protectionist even though I swear I'm not, I just think its an important development...

Toyota soon to overtake GM in US market share, reported by the WSJ yesterday

The Militarization of Space

Interesting article from the Washington Times on the militarization of space. I'm baffled by people who oppose missle defense and other space militarization efforts. Burying our heads in the sand and pretending the space will not become militarized won't make it so. And on the subject of missle defense especially - since when does protecting oneself get construed as an aggressive action. If military engineers think it's not a technically feasible program right now, that's one thing - I can understand holding off for those reasons. But if it is technically feasible, what the hell are we waiting for?

On the issue of space militarization more broadly, the world certainly isn't waiting for us. It would be suicide to sit on the sidelines here. I'm honestly a little disappointed in the Obama campaign's position, as stated in this article. Obama seems so rational and pragmatic in his approach to Iraq and terrorism - I'm not sure what the disconnect is on space. Granted, Obama will probably move forward on this regardless of what he says on the campaign trail. The question is - how central will it be to his defense policy?

I'm all for demilitarization, cutting nuclear arsenals, etc. We need to come back from the brink of mutually assured destruction, and we need to cultivate diplomatic relations that will obviate the need for war. But that doesn't mean we leave new frontiers undefended or leave the back door wide open at a time when aggressive powers (::cough::CHINA::cough::) are on the rise.

You also need to keep in mind the potential threat of near earth objects. I would rather have a Pentagon that is very comfortable operating in space when these things come whizzing by the Earth, rather than a Pentagon that decided to sit this one out.

As George Washington said: "Experience teaches us that it is much easier to prevent an enemy from posting themselves than it is to dislodge them after they have got possession"... if only that worked for you in western Pennsylvania, George... nevertheless - good advice

Jomo Lager

So last night I had Star Hill Brewery's (Charlottesville, VA) Jomo Lager - not for the first time - but I'm going to use the opportunity to review it. The Jomo Lager is a great example of a malty lager that still has strong hoppy accents to it. Usually I think you find that it's one or the other - either the round sweetness of a malty beer, or the crisp spice and aroma of a hoppy beer.

Jomo's hoppiness is just barely spicey - more aromatic - which makes it much easier to drink. I think a lot of the micro-brewery crowd get infatuated with hops because they have been so neglected by large commercial breweries. Sometimes they can go overboard as a result, making a beer with such spice that its hard to have more than one. In addition to an overpowering spice content, this type of over-hopping can totally kill the floral aromatics that are characteristic of the lighter hopping. The Jomo Lager is an excellent example of a brew that not only has a little bit of self control on the hops, but also weds it perfectly with strong malt characteristics.

I've also started reading a book on homebrewing, and the chapter I'm currently reading is going through all the different types of beer. Hopefully this will make my reviews a little more sophisticated. I'm finding already that describing beer is a lot more challenging than describing wine. The advantages of the Jomo Lager are quite obvious and fairly easy to describe, but I'm not sure that will be true of other brews.

One final note on beer I've had recently - if you haven't had JW Dundee's before, go pick it up today and see what you think. I've been working my way through a twelve pack of this as well. JW Dundee's is one of my favorite "bargain beers" - the twelve pack was under $9! The quality is great, though. Their Honey Brown Ale is probably the best known, but they also have a great Pale Ale, a balanced IPA, and yesterday I tried their Pale Bock for the first time - also tastey. I don't know exactly what a Bock is supposed to be like, so I'm not sure if it measures up to others, but I enjoyed it. JW Dundee's isn't the highest quality beer, but it is a great value buy; if the cost of sampling higher-quality brews is racking up for you, I recommend moving some JW Dundee's into the mix. I have only seen them at Harris Teeter and Shopper's Food Warehouse.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Justice Department Litmus Test

Justice department auditors find that political ideology played a role in the selection of candidates for their presitgious summer intern program.

This is a real shame. They don't have the best interests of the country or justice in mind here - they have the best interests of party and faction.

A president needs to implement his policies. There need to be political appointees to some posts. But career civil servants are different, and summer interns - who are going to be the future career civil servants - should not be partisan pawns.

The Cato Institute on China and "Economic Nationalism"

This is an interesting article by James Dorn, China specialist at the libertarian Cato Institute, also appearing in the Beijing Review today. I am impressed that a Cato researcher would be so cautious about foreign investment in the U.S. - I'm encouraged by that. But predictably, he also rails against the potential for "economic nationalism" and is an apologist for a lot of aggressive economic policy on the part of the Chinese government with respect to exchange rates, labor laws, and exports.

He does make good points; that the real changes China needs to make right now are primarily institutional (i.e. - property rights), and that we should not be afraid of trading with China, and that we should embrace China's entrance into the community of developed nations.

Unfortunately, Dorn belittles concerns about the trade deficit with the PRC and the exchange rate manipulation that's been going on as "economic nationalism". I'm not sure what's wrong with being an "economic nationalist" or even what he means by that exactly, but it's clear that Dorn intends it to be an insult. We can embrace economic openness and the rise of China and still be concerned about our trade deficit with them, and the effect of the trade deficit on the domestic economy.

The Washington Administration's Energy Policy

Odd title, huh? "Energy policy" in the early republic? In fact, George Washington was deeply concerned with the supply of energy to the early American economy; it's just hard to appreciate that fact when we look at the 18th century through a 21st century lens.

Washington was incredibly passionate about building a network of canals and roads to unite the young republic. Joel Achenbach's wonderful book, The Grand Idea: George Washington's Potomac and the Race to the West, lays this passion out in detail by telling the story of Washington's efforts to build a Potomac canal stretching into the virgin Ohio River Valley. Aside from his pecuniary and speculative motives for the canal, Washington dearly wanted a strong union between the newly independent states, and he believed that this was best accomplished by the free flow of information, people, and goods.

So what in the world does this fledging transportation network have to do with energy? It's not like they were using internal combustion engines to get up and down the canal. Although these early efforts at tying the nation together pre-dated gasoline, combustion, and even the steam engine, energy was still required to move barges up and down the canals, or wagons up and down roads. For the most part, that energy was drawn from the backs and legs of draft horses, oxen, porters, servants, and slaves. The chemical reactions that released the energy may have changed over time, but from a physicist's point of view we're essentially talking about the same stuff.

Once we realize this, it becomes obvious why Washington's fervent canal building is perfectly analagous to modern Congressional regulation of CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards, which dictate fuel efficiency requirements to the U.S. auto industry, or tax incentives for renewable energy. Canals not only made river transport more extensive than it had previously been - they also made it more efficient! Likewise, the major difference between cleared roads and woodland trails is that it took a lot more effort (a lot more energy) to move people and goods along a trail than it did to move those same people and goods along a road.

The literature on Washington's disdain for the underdeveloped roads of the South, his admiration for the state of the roads in New England, and his complete fascination with canal engineering is extensive. These sentiments crop up in letters, diary entries, public addresses, and state papers. What I think we've failed to appreciate is that they also represent a dedication to a pro-growth energy policy for the early republic. I have yet to read or hear about Washington's work on the canals from this angle.

One day I'd like to present this perspective in a conference paper or journal article, documenting what the expected energy savings of specific canal and road projects were in the late 1700's. Washington and his contemporaries may not have been able to articulate their policies as "energy policies" at this pre-OPEC, pre-automobile point in history, but that doesn't mean he didn't comprehend the unparalelled importance of securing a ready supply of energy for the new nation... it just so happened that that energy supply was bound up in a relatively frictionless, smooth road, or a powerful canal lock.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Anti-Mercantilism in Early America

As I alluded to in the first post, one of the topics I am especially interested in is the historical context of competitiveness policy in the United States. I think that some of the perspectives of the early federalists especially, but also Jefferson, and the whigs, have important insights for modern American policymaking. Unfortunately, I think a lot of this insight was dashed to the side with the evolution of the whigs into the new Republican Party in the middle of the 19th century.

"Pro-market economic planning" as a movement did seem to reemerge in the Progressive era, and especially with the rising influence of Keynesians in the Roosevelt administration, but I'm still afraid we've lost the old federalist distinctions in this policy arena. Federalists embraced liberty and states rights as it was enshrined in the Constitution more than most people give them credit for, but they still had a vision for a national economy that was stabilized and promoted by the federal government. A social-democratic agenda with Jeffesonian sensibilities, if you will - very different from what you might call "big government liberals" in the 21st century. I think this overarching "federalist" perspective is still apparent in what we occasionally call "Blue Dog Democrats" - Webb, Warner, Lieberman, and their ilk - as well as some moderate Republicans.

This is such an amorphous topic and I know only bits and pieces about it as yet. But I do have one thought to share in this post - that is that to understand the essentially republican nature of federalist economic policy, we need to understand colonial anti-mercantilism as a perspective that is very distinct from laissez-faire capitalism. Federalists were anti-mercantilist, but not laissez-faire. Jeffersonian republicans were anti-mercantilist and laissez-faire. However, none of these labels fit exactly because all of these political movements were proto-industrial.

In our post-imperial society, however, federalist anti-mercantilism isn't truly appreciated, and the dichotomy is therefore reduced to pro- and anti-laissez-faire. When that is the dichotomy, it's no wonder that the federalists begin to look like big-government economic planners, rather than the more nuanced perspective that they actually represented.

Mercantilism, as understood by colonial America, is essentially state favoritism, a point convincingly made by Licht (1995). Mercantilism was not conceived of as being anti-trade (quite the opposite - the point was to trade, and mercantilist England was hyper-commercial). Contrary to popular belief, imperial England did not oppose free trade in the abstract - they simply opposed free trade for some merchants - namely, colonial merchants. Mercantilism was not so much anti-trade as it was selectively-pro-trade. This impoverished American merchants relative to their English counterparts and kept the American colonial economy underdeveloped, and this infuriated the early patriots. It's easy to see why, 250 years later, we would get the impression that England was anti-trade and therefore the early Republic was fundamentally pro-free trade (until Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams mucked it all up), but it just isn't so. There was no groundswell for or against free trade - there was a diversity of opinion on it in the early republic. What was strongly opposed by everyone was a government that would patronize some businesses at the expense of others, and it was in opposition to this type of government that the federalists and the Jeffersonians were in agreement.

So I would argue that the dichotomy in the early republic was not between liberty-loving republicans and quasi-monarchical federalists that would soon be swept from the scene. The dichotomy was between Jeffersonian republicans and a sophisticated but small band of political moderates who stressed economic "balance" and the undiscriminating promotion of economic activity. This was in stark contrast to English mercantilism, and it was a passionate demonstration of state-directed growth consistent with liberty and a small government. When the federalists were subsumed by the wave of Jeffersonian republicanism that washed over the nation, I think we really lost their legacy forever. When the whigs reemerged from the republican landslide, they presented a perspective that was very different from the federalists. The whigs, and Lincoln's Republicans who would follow them, represented the big-government, anti-market, anti-trade economic planning and protection that Americans today have such an antipathy towards.

I don't think we've really seen a resurgence of the unique perspective of the federalists - balanced, state sponsored growth that eschews special treatment and direct state support, and respects the limits placed on government by the Constitution. We get an important glimpse into federalist economic thought when we investigate the differences between the federalists and the loyalists on English mercantilism. When we view mercantilism as an economic policy that is more nuanced than "anti-trade" we start to see the true contours of how federalists thought the state should interact with the economy.

Five Virginia Wineries in Late June

Hi everyone -
Kate and I went to five wineries around Leesburg yesterday; Breaux Vineyards, Hillsborough Vineyards, Doukenie Winery, Loudon Valley Vineyards, and after getting a little turned around in the town of Waterford (we were coming up on our fifth winery of the day, after all), Village Winery.

Village Winery was actually a nice treat at the end - it was a small, out of the way place. The tasting room was unfinished wood frame with a cement floor, and the walls were lined with cases of wine. No decorations, nothing fancy. The tasting room had been open for only three years, and the vines have been growing only a few years longer than that - but they had some delicious products. One bottle we bought from Village Winery was a bottle of Elderberry Wine. This was nice, because unlike strawberry or blackberry wines (which are also good, granted), the elderberries tasted very much like grapes. So it only had hints of being a berry wine. If you weren't informed that it wasn't made from grapes, you probably wouldn't notice. We also bought a Merlot from Village, as well as a small block of locally produced cheese.

Now I'll go from the end back to the beginning. Our first stop was Breaux Winery, which was probably my favorite for the day, only beating out Village by a little. Breaux had been in operation for ten years and they had some fantastic wines available. Great Cab Franc, and great blends of Merlot, Cab Franc, and Petit Verdot - some of our favorite stand-by's. But they also had new winers for us to try. One was a "Nebbiolo" - which is apparently a grape that is very popular in Italy but not grown much in the U.S.. It was delicious, but very pricey (probably the most expensive I've seen sold in the tasting room of a Virginia winery) - so we just enjoyed our taste of it, and left it at that! I was also impressed with the whites from Breaux - there was one with some Petit Manseng blended in, which has a nice soft (not very acidic) tropical fruit taste to it. I first tasted Petit Manseng at Whitehall Vineyards, in Charlottesville, and have been very impressed with it ever since. Anyway, my point is that Breaux did a great job blending the sometimes overpowering Petit Manseng with other varietals, and I think I liked the blend better than the Petit Manseng on its own. The other thing that impressed us about Breaux was the person giving the tasting. She was from Peru, where apparently there isn't a whole lot of wine production, but she was very knowledgable about wine-making in Chile and Argentina (where it is huge), as well as France, Napa, and upstate New York. She told us all kinds of great stories about traveling to these places and gave us great backgroudns on the wines. We're convinced that next year's vacation needs to be a drive to the Finger Lakes in New York, and a trip through NY wine country. Eventually we'll save up for a Napa trip, but we're happy patronizing Virginia wineries for now!

Surprisingly few Norton's on this whole trip (they were used in a lot of the wineries around Middleburg that we went to a couple weeks back). But there was enough Cab Franc and Petit Verdot to keep our appetite for nice strong reds satisfied.

OK - I need to get to some work now. There are three other wineries I'll review, and as we slowly open these bottles I'll review those as well. In the next couple weeks look out for a review of some Charlottesville wineries - we'll probably be making a trip down there. We'll definitely hit First Colony winery, one of our favorites, and Horton - one that we've been dying to try. The woman that gave the tasting at Breaux also suggested King Vineyard and Jefferson Vineyard in the Charlottesville area, so look out for these soon!