The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

The Laffer-stock of real economists

In a move one can bet the President Trump himself doesn't really understand, he will later today confer the Presidential Medal of Freedom—our nation's highest civilian honor—on fraud economist Art Laffer:

Laffer's journey to this moment began 45 years ago with a round of drinks in a Washington cocktail lounge. At the time, Laffer was a young economist at the University of Chicago, trying to persuade President Ford's deputy chief of staff — a guy named Dick Cheney — that lowering taxes could actually boost government revenue.

"Art was trying to explain to Cheney how the Laffer Curve works," recalls Grace-Marie Turner, a journalist who later went to work on Ford's reelection campaign.

Cheney was struggling with the idea, so Laffer resorted to a visual aid.

"He sketched out this Laffer Curve on a paper cocktail napkin at the Hotel Washington, just across the street from the White House," Turner said.

Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman has had a lot to say about Laffer over the years. For example:

Back in 1980 George H. W. Bush famously described supply-side economics — the claim that cutting taxes on rich people will conjure up an economic miracle, so much so that revenues will actually rise — as “voodoo economic policy.” Yet it soon became the official doctrine of the Republican Party, and still is. That shows an impressive level of commitment. But what makes this commitment even more impressive is that it’s a doctrine that has been tested again and again — and has failed every time.

Yes, the U.S. economy rebounded quickly from the slump of 1979-82. But was that the result of the Reagan tax cuts, or was it, as most economists think, the result of interest rate cuts by the Federal Reserve? Bill Clinton provided a clear test, by raising taxes on the rich. Republicans predicted disaster, but instead the economy boomed, creating more jobs than under Reagan.

Then George W. Bush cut taxes again, with the usual suspects predicting a “Bush boom”; what we actually got was lackluster growth followed by a severe financial crisis. Barack Obama reversed many of the Bush tax cuts and added new taxes to pay for Obamacare — and oversaw a far better jobs record, at least in the private sector, than his predecessor.

So history offers not a shred of support for faith in the pro-growth effects of tax cuts.

The recent history of Kansas also provides just the evidence you need to conclude the Laffer curve is laughable.

Essentially, then, the president is handing out a medal to a party stalwart, much as previous authoritarian rulers would have handed out the Order of Lenin. We can no doubt expect more of this over the next two years.

The evolution of puppy-dog eyes

No, literally:

You know that face your dog makes, the one that’s a little bit quizzical, maybe a bit sad, a bit anticipatory, with the eyebrows slanted? Sometimes you think it says, “Don’t be sad. I can help.” Other times it quite clearly asks, “No salami for me?”

Scientists have not yet been able to translate the look, but they have given it a very serious label: “AU101: inner eyebrow raise.” And a team of evolutionary psychologists and anatomists reported Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that dogs make this face more often and way more intensely than wolves. In fact dogs, but not wolves, have a specific muscle that helps raise those brows.

The scientists hypothesize that humans have unconsciously favored eyebrow-raising dogs during fairly recent selective breeding. Dr. Burrows said that one tantalizing hint that could lead to future study was that one of the dogs, a Siberian husky, was more like the wolves and did not have the levator anguli oculi medialis.

I had a conversation the other day with a scientist (not a biologist, however) about when natural selection ended and breeding began for dogs. We didn't have any conclusions but we hypothesized it might be as recently as 8,000 years before present or as long ago as 40,000 YBP. This article suggests that it may be both, depending on the breed.

MH370: Epitaph

William Langewiesche, a pilot and journalist, has examined some of the worst air disasters in modern history. I read Fly By Wire in an hour and a half. His reporting on the demolition of the World Trade Center is legendary.

In the upcoming issue of The Atlantic, Langewiesche assembles the best evidence we have about the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight 370 on 8 March 2014. It's a must-read for anyone interested in aviation:

Primary radar relies on simple, raw pings off objects in the sky. Air-traffic-control systems use what is known as secondary radar. It depends on a transponder signal that is transmitted by each airplane and contains richer information—for instance, the airplane’s identity and altitude—than primary radar does. Five seconds after MH370 crossed into Vietnamese airspace, the symbol representing its transponder dropped from the screens of Malaysian air traffic control, and 37 seconds later the entire airplane disappeared from secondary radar. The time was 1:21 a.m., 39 minutes after takeoff. The controller in Kuala Lumpur was dealing with other traffic elsewhere on his screen and simply didn’t notice. When he finally did, he assumed that the airplane was in the hands of Ho Chi Minh, somewhere out beyond his range.

The Vietnamese controllers, meanwhile, saw MH370 cross into their airspace and then disappear from radar. They apparently misunderstood a formal agreement by which Ho Chi Minh was supposed to inform Kuala Lumpur immediately if an airplane that had been handed off was more than five minutes late checking in. They tried repeatedly to contact the aircraft, to no avail. By the time they picked up the phone to inform Kuala Lumpur, 18 minutes had passed since MH370’s disappearance from their radar screens. What ensued was an exercise in confusion and incompetence. Kuala Lumpur’s Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre should have been notified within an hour of the disappearance. By 2:30 a.m., it still had not been. Four more hours elapsed before an emergency response was finally begun, at 6:32 a.m.

The mystery surrounding MH370 has been a focus of continued investigation and a source of sometimes feverish public speculation. The loss devastated families on four continents. The idea that a sophisticated machine, with its modern instruments and redundant communications, could simply vanish seems beyond the realm of possibility. It is hard to permanently delete an email, and living off the grid is nearly unachievable even when the attempt is deliberate. A Boeing 777 is meant to be electronically accessible at all times. The disappearance of the airplane has provoked a host of theories. Many are preposterous. All are given life by the fact that, in this age, commercial airplanes don’t just vanish.

This one did, and more than five years later its precise whereabouts remain unknown. Even so, a great deal about the disappearance of MH370 has come into clearer view, and reconstructing much of what happened that night is possible. The cockpit voice recorder and the flight-data recorder may never be recovered, but what we still need to know is unlikely to come from the black boxes. Instead, it will have to come from Malaysia.

What follows should give anyone who cares about functioning institutions pause. Langewiesche doesn't so much indict the Malaysian government for incompetence as simply lay out the facts and let the reader decide, a la Robert Mueller. Example:

For all its expensive equipment, the air force had failed at its job and could not bring itself to admit the fact. In an Australian television interview, the former Malaysian defense minister said, “If you’re not going to shoot it down, what’s the point in sending [an interceptor] up?” Well, for one thing, you could positively identify the airplane, which at this point was just a blip on primary radar. You could also look through the windows into the cockpit and see who was at the controls.

Had MH370 belonged to (or flown out of) a functioning, institutional government, we might actually have found it and known what happened.

Langewiesche alone should give you enough reason to subscribe to The Atlantic. Grab this month's issue and see so many others.

More news today

Though we'll probably talk about this week's news out of Mauna Loa for many years to come, other stories got to my inbox today:

And finally, the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild has a new Summer Passport program that entitles people to a free membership after getting stamps at 40 brewpubs and taprooms between now and August 10th. Forty breweries in 87 days? Challenge...accepted!

Stevens' own private Heller

Former Associate Justice John Paul Stevens believes District of Columbia v Heller was "unquestionably the most clearly incorrect decision that the Supreme Court announced during [his] tenure on the bench:"

The text of the Second Amendment unambiguously explains its purpose: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” When it was adopted, the country was concerned that the power of Congress to disarm the state militias and create a national standing army posed an intolerable threat to the sovereignty of the several states.

Throughout most of American history there was no federal objection to laws regulating the civilian use of firearms. When I joined the Supreme Court in 1975, both state and federal judges accepted the Court’s unanimous decision in United States v. Miller as having established that the Second Amendment’s protection of the right to bear arms was possessed only by members of the militia and applied only to weapons used by the militia. In that case, the Court upheld the indictment of a man who possessed a short-barreled shotgun, writing, “In the absence of any evidence that the possession or use of a ‘shotgun having a barrel of less than eighteen inches in length’ has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia, we cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear such an instrument.”

So well settled was the issue that, speaking on the PBS NewsHour in 1991, the retired Chief Justice Warren Burger described the National Rifle Association’s lobbying in support of an expansive interpretation of the Second Amendment in these terms: “One of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word fraud, on the American public by special-interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”

And after Heller came Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs...and on and on.

First, let's kill all the townships

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 divided most of the land west of Pennsylvania into 6-by-6 mile squares called "townships." You can see the physical effects of the Ordinance any time you fly over the Great Plains: uniform squares of roads linking towns about 9½ km apart.

The Ordinance established townships to allow rural residents to get to their centers of government and home in the same day. In the era of travel by horseback, this saved days or weeks of travel for farmers and townsfolk alike.

In the era of travel by car, however, we no longer need the redundancy. Chicago magazine recommends getting rid of them altogether:

It’s not just urban counties that find remnant townships burdensome. Some rural counties want to get rid of their townships, too. Last month, State Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, passed a bill that would allow McHenry County townships to dissolve themselves.

“My goal is to reduce the number of governmental bodies — it’s one of the reasons our property taxes are so high,” McSweeney said. “Consolidation, I think, is the key to reducing property taxes and administrative fees.”

Like most Illinois counties, Cook was originally platted with a grid of townships. The townships now contained by Chicago, including Rogers Park, Hyde Park, and Lake View, passed out of existence upon annexation. In the suburbs, townships still exist, even if all their land has been incorporated. In Cook County, remnant unincorporated bits of township could be required to join the nearest municipality, which would then take over township duties, as Evanston did.

There’s a saying that bureaucracy perpetuates itself, and that’s certainly true of townships. They’re so hard to get rid of because they’re a juicy source of jobs, patronage, and double-dipping for elected officials.

The Daily Parker agrees. Time to move on from one of the best ideas of the 1780s.

Is Moneyball killing a game show?

Washington Post columnist Charles Lane sees a disturbing connection between Jeopardy! champion's streak on the show and the data-driven approach that has made baseball less interesting:

People seem not to care that Holzhauer’s streak reflects the same grim, data-driven approach to competition that has spoiled (among other sports) baseball, where it has given us the “shift,” “wins above replacement,” “swing trajectories” and other statistically valid but unholy innovations.

Like the number crunchers who now rule the national pastime, Holzhauer substitutes cold, calculating odds maximization for spontaneous play. His idea is to select, and respond correctly to, harder, big-dollar clues on the show’s 30-square gameboard first. Then, flush with cash, he searches the finite set of hiding places for the “Daily Double” clue, which permits players to set their own prize for a correct response — and makes a huge bet. Responding correctly, Holzhauer often builds an insurmountable lead before the show is half over.

Dazed and demoralized opponents offer weakening resistance as his winnings snowball. And, with experience gained from each new appearance on the show, Holzhauer’s personal algorithms improve and his advantage grows.

In short, this professional gambler from Las Vegas does not so much play the game as beat the system. What’s entertaining about that? And beyond a certain point, what’s admirable?

Of course, Holzhauer’s strategy could not work without his freaky-good knowledge of trivia, just as baseball’s shift requires a pitcher skilled at inducing batters to hit into it. The old rules, though, would have contained his talent within humane channels. As it is, he’s set a precedent for the further professionalization of “Jeopardy!,” a trend which began 15 years ago with 74-time winner Ken Jennings.

If you enjoy watching nine batters in a row strike out until the 10th hits a homer, you’re going to love post-Holzhauer “Jeopardy!”

Also interesting is the timing: Charles van Doren died April 9th. He won the equivalent of $1.2m in 1957 by cheating on a game show.