Thursday, January 31, 2013

What gun control logic is up against

At the US Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on gun law reform, Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, thinks he has scored a massive point by showing that the Washington DC murder rate went up in the years after a gun ban was introduced. The Baltimore police chief Jim Johnson -- an actual law enforcement official -- points out that Northeastern cities experiencing this phenomenon were being swamped by unlicensed guns flooding in from outside.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Different kinds of closure

Two Irish actors on very different business in Northern Ireland yesterday, but both representative of the recent history of Ireland (via Irish Times): Stephen Rea carrying the coffin of his ex-wife, convicted IRA bomber Dolours Price, and Liam Neeson in Ballymena to collect the freedom of the city, an honour about which he had rightly expressed some reservations before given the town's reputation as a hotbed of Paisleyism. The right way to look at it is that Ballymena gave the freedom of the town to Michael Collins.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

It was the Olympics wot done it

As theories abound about why the UK has such miserable GDP growth despite other stronger economic indicators, the Office of National Statistics extended rumination on the 4th quarter growth numbers includes this observation --

It is not possible to quantify the overall impact of the Olympics and Paralympics purely from surveys and indeed some of the activity may have displaced others (for example, comments were received from businesses that consumers watched the Games in preference to films or DVDs or shopping on line).

Friday, January 25, 2013

She didn't claim to have won it on a horse

Irish Times --

A daughter of bankrupt businessman Seán Quinn has told the Commercial Court she received €379,170 under employment contracts with three Russian companies, which she signed without reading because they were in Russian. Aoife Quinn said the contracts covered the year July 2011 to July 2012, and her husband Stephen Kelly, brother Seán or cousin Peter would have told her they were employment contracts.  ... She understood she would receive a wage but didn’t know what work she would have to do or how much she would be paid when signing them. ...  She did not keep the contracts, which were returned to the companies. “Maybe I’m unusual but I’ve never kept a contract,” she said. Her salary was paid through Ocean Bank in Moscow and she had disclosed the sums in the Ocean Bank accounts, plus text messages from Ocean about the accounts, as she had never received bank statements from it.

While stretching credulity, her explanation of her financial affairs is no stranger than that of his affairs of Bertie Ahern, who ran the country for 11 years.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Single Market (

After his big speech yesterday saying that for the UK, the EU is all about the Single Market, David Cameron went for some Starbucks-bashing today among the elites at Davos --

Any businesses who think that they can carry on dodging that fair share or that they can keep on selling to the UK and setting up ever-more complex tax arrangements abroad to squeeze their tax bill right down. Well, they need to wake up and smell the coffee because the public who buy from them have had enough. And let’s be clear: Speaking out on these things is not anti-capitalism. It’s not anti-business. If you want to keep low tax rates then you’ve got to keep taxes coming in. Put simply: no tax base – no low tax case. This is the argument that has been made brilliantly by the economist Paul Collier *– and I am delighted he’s been advising my Government on this ahead of the G8.

Thus yesterday's advocacy of an emphasis of the right of any firm in the EU to sell any good or service in any EU country becomes today's we're going to need to look at where you're reporting your revenues before you get to operate here. Which sounds at least as intrusive as complaints about limits on working hours or regulation of the curvature of bananas, the normal bêtes noires of the Euroskeptics.

*link not in original.

Two direction Europe

Yesterday in Britain, a man panicked about imminent defeat and in an attempt to seize the initiative, left bystanders astonished at his brusque behaviour. But enough about Eden Hazard.

Dodgiest logic in David Cameron's Europe speech --

And I say to our European partners, frustrated as some of them no doubt are by Britain’s attitude: work with us on this. Consider the extraordinary steps which the Eurozone members are taking to keep the Euro together, steps which a year ago would have seemed impossible. It does not seem to me that the steps which would be needed to make Britain – and others – more comfortable in their relationship in the European Union are inherently so outlandish or unreasonable.

There's no reason at all why the EU's progress in creating special integrating institutions for the Eurozone means an increased willingness to create a special a non-integrating zone for the UK, especially when it already has the mother of all opt-outs in not being obligated to join the Euro.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Hall of mirrors

Paul Wolfowitz, leading Bush administration booster of the 2003 Iraq War argues in the Wall Street Journal that not getting embroiled in Middle East wars is a bad policy because it can lead to getting embroiled in Middle East wars, as Iraq shows --

It is perfectly understandable why the Obama administration wants to do nothing that would lead to a repetition of the invasion of Iraq. But no one is arguing for any such thing. The administration seems not to remember that the first Bush administration's failure to protect Iraqi Shiites in 1991, when their uprising was crushed by Saddam Hussein, helped lead to a second war in Iraq 12 years later.

Is that anyone's memory of the decisive actual factors or stated rationale for the Iraq war in 2003?

The fellowship of the tax-cut

The governor of the Central Bank of Cyprus has an opinion piece in Wednesday's Financial Times, the backdrop being the long delay in the country getting its EU bailout approved. Among the defences to the criticisms of the country that are circulating --

Taxation is another issue misunderstood by some. We have one of Europe’s most competitive corporate tax regimes – but there is a big difference between tax havens and low-tax jurisdictions such as Ireland, Luxembourg and Cyprus. The former often have zero-tax, lax company registration processes and avoid signing double-tax treaties that would require an exchange of information between tax authorities. None of these characterises Cyprus.

Credit where it's due. The quicker path to Franco-German ingratiation might have involved saying we're not as dodgy as those Irish.

The elites are revolting

Reuters headlineDavos leaders uneasy over glut of easy money

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Reader service

Wall Street Journal editorial sympathetic to Ireland's bailout concession needs --

But there are strong reasons why Ireland deserves a carve-out if the bank bailout fund doesn't end up authorized to address pre-existing problems like Ireland's. In Ireland's case, unlike Spain's, the primary beneficiaries of bank rescue funds weren't local creditors and depositors. Many of them were themselves privately owned financial institutions elsewhere in the EU. At the end of the third quarter of 2010, not long before Dublin requested a bailout, German banks had $208.3 billion in total exposure to Ireland, according to data from the Bank for International Settlements. That includes $57.8 billion in exposure to Irish banks, an amount exceeding British and French banks' exposure to Irish lenders combined.

That German exposure number is one of those statistical bad pennies -- it keeps turning up. Here's the original source (give or take 3 billion), and the need for skepticism since it includes German banks operating in Dublin's financial center is noted here.

On the other hand, the orders of magnitude in this Daily Telegraph article -- on the extent to which Ireland has already been bailed out by British taxpayers due to the money put into RBS and HBOS -- look about right.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Global Wild Goose Chase

Wall Street Journal editorial --

Between his Inaugural address Monday and the State of the Union speech next month, we hope President Obama finds space to include some comments on Algeria. And Mali. And Benghazi. This isn't an attempt at foreign-policy snark. It's an effort to see the world as it is. Mr. Obama of late has been doing what can only be described as a mission-accomplished riff on Iraq and Afghanistan, announcing last week an accelerated timetable for getting U.S. troops out of the Afghan theater.

Which is pretty close to being self-refuting. What's the value of ever having sent troops to Afghanistan and Iraq if Al Qaeda just popped back up in North Africa?

Two sides to every story

Long-time overseas war booster Max Boot plugs his book on guerilla warfare in the Wall Street Journal --

A similar strategy of relying on international support was pursued by Cubans against Spain in the 1890s and Algerians against France in the 1950s; it remains a key Palestinian strategy against Israel. A spectacular vindication of this approach occurred during the Vietnam War, when the U.S. was defeated not because it had lost on the battlefield but because public opinion had turned against the war. The same thing almost happened in Iraq in 2007, and it may yet happen in Afghanistan.

With 3000 Iraqis a month dying during 2006 from mass casualty attacks, Max Boot thinks that the American public wanted out not because the war had gone disastrously wrong, but because Al Qaeda in Iraq had successfully targeted American public opinion.

Making the GWOT* look good

Good quote in this AP article on the Algeria gas plant siege --

An international outcry mounted over the Algerians' handling of the crisis. Experts noted that this is how they have always dealt with terrorists. "It's the Russian training for dealing with terrorism," said Matieu Guidere, a longtime expert on al-Qaida and Algeria. "The message is: We will terrorize the terrorists. ... This is clear. The life of hostages is nothing in the balance."

Same approach as Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

*Global War on Terror.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

It's revenge for Shergar

In Dáil Éireann (Irish lower house) today, Leaders' Questions opened with an extended and pointless who-knew-what-and-when on the horseburgers courtesy of lame scandal-mongering by the Leader of the Opposition, before Gerry Adams managed to raise the topic of the chronic riots and disturbances in Belfast. Partition priorities.

Middle Class Squid

Wall Street Journal on the Goldman Sachs results for the last quarter --

Yet the average Goldman staffer will take home $399,506 for 2012, compared with $367,057 a year earlier, as staff dropped to 32,400.

The thresholds to pay the new higher rates of US federal income tax under the fiscal cliff deal -- demanded by Republicans to protect the middle class -- are $400,000 for an individual and $450,000 for a couple.

"I'll gladly pay you Tuesday" is default

Conservative lawyers David Rivkin and Lee Casey in the Wall Street Journal last week --

... a failure to raise the debt ceiling—to prevent new borrowing—does not and cannot put America's current creditors at risk. So long as this government exists, and barring a further constitutional amendment, those creditors must be paid....  If the executive chose to act irresponsibly and unconstitutionally and failed to make any debt payments when they come due, debt-holders would be able to go to the Court of Federal Claims and promptly obtain a money judgment. These basic facts should inform any credible decisions by credit-rating agencies in establishing the government's creditworthiness. Significantly, these agencies have traditionally acted favorably when heavily indebted countries have not defaulted on their debt but cut deeply their public spending. Second, despite White House claims that Congress must raise the debt ceiling to pay the bills it has incurred, the obligations protected as "debts" by the 14th Amendment do not include entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security. These programs are not part of the "public debt," which consist of loans that are made to the federal government through bonds and similar financial instruments ... Congress can reduce a wide range of payments to various beneficiaries at any time by amending the statutes that authorize them or simply by failing to appropriate sufficient funds to pay for them.

In other words, as long as the USA keeps servicing the public debt, which they claim it has to because of the 14th Amendment, it can't be downgraded.

OK, now to an actual credit rating agency, Fitch --

With no legal authorisation for net debt issuance, the Treasury would be forced to immediately eliminate the deficit - a fiscal contraction twice as great as the recently avoided 'fiscal cliff' - by delaying payments on commitments as they fall due. It is not assured that the Treasury would or legally could prioritise debt service over its myriad of other obligations, including social security payments, tax rebates and payments to contractors and employees. Arrears on such obligations would not constitute a default event from a sovereign rating perspective but very likely prompt a downgrade even as debt obligations continued to be met.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Riot accessory

Belfast rioter wearing tasteful Cabrini sports line (available at all fine JD Sports outlets).

"After so many decades of conflict, I am so proud, Madam Speaker, to be the first Irish leader to inform the United States Congress: Ireland is at peace."-- Bertie Ahern to Joint Session of US Congress, April 30,2008.

Photo: Reuters screen grab.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Lax construction

On the opinion page of the Wall Street Journal, David Rivkin and Lee Casey (alt. free link) -- who were always ready with an argument that whatever George W. Bush wanted to do was constitutional -- take on the argument that Congress can't refuse to raise the debt ceiling because to do so would undermine the ability to service existing debts, which are protected by the 14th Amendment. Their logic is as follows --

The original concern of this provision was to guarantee the integrity of federal debts incurred during and immediately after the Civil War (while the debts of the Confederacy were nullified permanently), and to ensure that a newly "reconstructed" Congress—to which the Southern states were readmitted—would not reverse these decisions. However, the amendment's language was not limited to the Civil War-related debts. In Perry v. United States (1935), the Supreme Court made clear that the provision "indicates a broader connotation" protecting the nation's debts as a whole. This means that a failure to raise the debt ceiling—to prevent new borrowing—does not and cannot put America's current creditors at risk. So long as this government exists, and barring a further constitutional amendment, those creditors must be paid ...  If the executive chose to act irresponsibly and unconstitutionally and failed to make any debt payments when they come due, debt-holders would be able to go to the Court of Federal Claims and promptly obtain a money judgment. These basic facts should inform any credible decisions by credit-rating agencies in establishing the government's creditworthiness. Significantly, these agencies have traditionally acted favorably when heavily indebted countries have not defaulted on their debt but cut deeply their public spending.

Leave aside the lawyers suddenly becoming economists and credit rating specialists in the last sentence. The problem is the jump from the Constitutional requirement not to question the "validity" of the public debt to their claim that the President is obliged to service that debt above all other requirements. And it's a specific problem for strict constructionist conservatives, who would be looking to see whether the Constitution precisely spells out whatever power is being claimed. The point is that the US Constitution never sets out any absolute priority for debt service payments -- Rivkin and Casey are simply reading such a priority into the 14th Amendment and the penumbra of the various case law that followed.

How do we know that the Constitution doesn't set a priority for debt service? Because if it did, it would include language like the Constitution of Delaware --

Prior to the beginning of each fiscal year of the State, the General Assembly shall appropriate revenues of the State to pay interest on its debt to which it has pledged its faith and credit and which interest is payable in the year for which such appropriation is made and to pay the principal of such debt, payable in such year, whether at maturity or otherwise. To the extent that insufficient revenues of the State are available to pay principal of and interest on such debt when due and payable, the first public moneys of the State thereafter received shall be set aside and applied to the payment of the principal of and interest on such debt. To make up for such insufficient revenues, the General Assembly may increase the rate of taxes and fees without regard to the limitations of subsection (a) hereof after the failure to pay when due the principal of and interest on such debt.

In other words, the state is explicitly obliged to set aside sufficient money, through tax hikes if necessary, to pay the state debts before any other government business is done. There is no such article in the federal Constitution. Many US state constitutions set similar priorities, and there's considerable effort put into documenting which do and which don't. And for the same reason, the Eurozone debt crisis has prompted interest in including an absolute priority for debt service in national constitutions.

But Rivkin and Casey -- pushing a conservative cause -- simply assert that such priority is already there in the US constitution. Minting the trillion dollar coin would be better founded in the text than that.

UPDATE: Also on the Wall Street Journal opinion pages, James Taranto claims that the 14th Amendment gives priority to debt service:

[In a funding shortfall] The president would be obliged to comply with any laws governing which expenditures take priority under such circumstances, including the 14th Amendment's mandate that servicing of existing debt is at the very top of the list.

The plain language of the Amendment provides absolutely no such priority; there is no Delaware-style ordering in the federal constitution.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Muslim Sisterhood

United Arab Emirates official news agency report --

The UAE Attorney General, Salim Saeed Kubaish, announced today that as part of investigations being carried out by the Office of the Public Prosecution into the members of the secret organisation who are accused of establishing and managing an organisation that aims to seize power in the country, to oppose the basic principles of the UAE system, and to damage social harmony and peace, the Public Prosecution has started investigation of female leaders of what is called the Women's Branch of the organisation. This branch is an essential part of the overall structure of this secret organisation, he said.

Another Iran exchange rate

Syrian prisoner swap details  --

A spokesman for a Turkish Islamic aid group that helped coordinate the release said the regime had agreed to release 2,130 people in exchange for the Iranians, who were released Wednesday. The aid group said four Turks were among those to be freed. Speaking in Istanbul, Umit Sonmez of the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief said the 48 Iranians were handed over to aid workers soon after the Syrian regime let a group go.

2130 Syrians for 48 Iranian "piligrims."

Those are some pricey pilgrims.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Life Panels

Economist magazine plague-on-both-your-houses editorial --

Democrats pretend that no changes are necessary to Medicare (health care for the elderly)

Actual machinations on Capitol Hill within the last week --

House Republicans signaled Thursday they will not follow rules in President Obama's healthcare law that were designed to speed Medicare cuts through Congress. The House is set to vote Thursday afternoon on rules for the 113th Congress. The rules package says the House won't comply with fast-track procedures for the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) — a controversial cost-cutting board Republicans have long resisted. The rules package signals that Republicans might not bring up Medicare cuts recommended by the IPAB — blocking part of a politically controversial law, and resisting Medicare spending cuts ...  House Republicans have tried unsuccessfully to repeal the IPAB, the central cost-cutting feature in the Affordable Care Act. The IPAB was designed to take Medicare payments largely out of Congress's hands, similar to the independent panel that recommends closing military bases, because lawmakers would rarely sign off on such politically risky moves. 

Basil Fawlty has been located

Irish Times -- The landlord of a well known Dublin guesthouse has barricaded himself inside the premises and has refused to let anyone in, the High Court heard today. Desmond Killoran, who owns the Leeson Bridge Guest House on Upper Leeson Street, last week took up occupation of the guesthouse’s reception hall, and has nailed shut the front and rear doors and the emergency fire exit ...Last month AIB appointed a receiver over Mr Killoran’s interests in the premises. Mr Byrne was informed that as a result that appointment any rent due would have to be paid to the receiver. ... Mr Byrne’s said his staff and the guests have been effectively locked out after Mr Killoran entered the premises on January 2nd last. He tried to speak with Mr Killoran who told him that the lease had been terminated, that Mr Byrne’s insurance had been cancelled and that nobody else was coming through that door. He said he discovered Mr Killoran had broken into the reception desk and accessed his computers, visa machine, booking records and the master keying system and had recoded the system to bar him from accessing all but one of the guest rooms. As a result of Mr Killoran’s actions Mr Byrne said that he has had to make arrangement to find alternative accommodation for guests that had been booked in. Until the situation is resolved he cannot take any bookings.

Monday, January 07, 2013

It's a sideways Irish flag

Current sensitivities in Kuwait lead to the following row: the screen capture shows footage from the Kuwait fan area of a Gulf Cup match in Bahrain. The bottom stripe which should be red is clearly showing as orange. For some in Kuwait this meant that fans had changed the flag colour to that of the 2006 Orange Movement, whose protest colour is being revived by the current wave of dissent in Kuwait. The quasi-official explanation --

The change in the red color of the Kuwaiti flag to orange during the Gulf Cup match between Kuwait and Yemen was due to the stadium lights effect said Kuwait Ambassador to Bahrain ... low quality material which the flag was made of and the stadium spotlights resulted in an orange reflection to the red color.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Once a dictator, always a dictator

The most revealing sentence of Bashar al-Assad's delusional rant before an even more delusional audience in Damascus today --

The political solution will be along the following lines:

His supposed solution -- ceasefires, dialogues, constitutions, and reconciliation conferences -- shows that Syrian regime has learned to ape the language of actual peace processes elsewhere, while of course having zero commitment to the substance.

It's his business card

It's a sign of the times in the Middle East that the most senior fugitive from the Saddam regime -- Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri -- can pop up in Iraq, with uniformed men at his side and cameras for al-Arabiya at hand, and give a speech that falls on fertile ground in its condemnation of an Iranian plot to take over Iraq.

The longer Bashar al-Assad sticks around, the more he's creating the climate where these guys can get back in business. Is this the most dastardly Baathist plan of all?

Friday, January 04, 2013

Can Princeton still flunk him in philosophy?

Newly elected US Senator for Texas, Ted Cruz writes in the Washington Post about "opportunity conservatism" --

We should assess policy with a Rawlsian lens, asking how it affects those least well-off among us.

From The Principles of Justice, by John Rawls (page 54):

Liberties not on the list, for example, the right to own certain kinds of property (e.g. means of production) and freedom of contract as understood by the doctrine of laissez-faire are not basic; and so they are not protected by the priority of the first principle.

UPDATE: Cruz used an identical formulation in his National Review Institute speech

He also proposed a 666% tax rate

It's only a matter of time before a conservative economics outfit is proclaiming "Iron Maiden supports flat tax!" It's true, with a catch. A big catch. Here's the actual quote from Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson in an interview with the Wall Street Journal Europe, it's in the context of his current career as an aerospace entrepreneur in Cardiff:

The alternative [to current income tax], endorsed by Mr. Dickinson, would be a flat rate. "You simply say everybody has to pay it—if you're born in this country, you pay 20%. End of story, no tax exiles, you want to live in Monaco, fine—20%."

So yes, it's a flat tax. But it's a flat tax applied on the basis of citizenship, not residency, a basis that only the USA currently uses -- to much criticism -- among major countries now. Yet despite the criticism, the US system has an inherent logic of simplicity and obligation: if you want to be a citizen, you pay for it, and all the dodges based on residency and domicile go out the window -- dodges which are disproportionately available to high income individuals anyway.

But the flat tax headbangers may not see the subtlety in Bruce's argument.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Petro web

National Review's Kevin Williamson on the Current TV-Al Jazeera deal --

it appears that Middle Eastern petro-potentates find some real value in left-learning American media, especially that of a greenish hue. Fancy that.

He seems unaware that Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz is the biggest non-Murdoch shareholder in News Corp., owner of Fox News.

That was your war

In the Wall Street Journal, Karl Rove offers a begrudging accounting of his bad predictions for 2012 and new ones for 2013:

Syria's Bashar Assad will be forced from power, but Mr. Obama's failure to provide active, sustained U.S. leadership will result in a new Islamist regime in Damascus friendly with Iran.

Is there anyone who knows anything about Syria who thinks that a Sunni-dominated insurgency supported by the Gulf States and Turkey against the Assad regime backed to the hilt by Iran would lead to a new government any way friendly with Iran?

On the other hand, if you roll the dice in overthrowing a Sunni dictator in a Shia majority country, one of the downside risks is that that you might indeed end up with a major Arab country having a government uncomfortably friendly with Iran.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

3 1/3 green fields

Interesting BBC Radio  4 program (hosted by Will Crawley) for the quiet days discussing the apparently emerging post-Paisley phenomenon of identifying as "Northern Irish." The comments of Jonathan Burgess beginning around 17 minute mark have particular resonance as he notes that given the choice between watching Newsnight and RTE News, he'd never watch RTE News. For him it's a matter of identity but it's worth noting that you can be in the Republic and be equally bemused at the news priorities not just of RTE but the republic's media culture in general. One way to characterize the problem is as an obsession with local personalities crowding out any longer-term perspective on local developments, let alone on the outside world. Where, for the purposes of the Irish media, "outside world" includes Northern Ireland.