December 3, 2012

Posted by orrinj at 8:04 AM


Switching from $1 bills to coins is no small change (Associated Press, December 3, 2012)

It's a simple matter of dollars and cents -- congressional auditors say doing away with dollar bills entirely and replacing them with dollar coins could save taxpayers some $4.4 billion over the next 30 years.

This projection from the Government Accountability Office came as lawmakers begin exploring new ways for the government to save money by changing the money itself.

At a House subcommittee hearing Thursday, the focus was on two possible new approaches:

•Moving to less expensive combinations of metals like steel, aluminum and zinc.

•Gradually taking dollar bills out the economy and replacing them with coins.

The GAO's Lorelei St. James told the House Financial Services panel it would take several years for the benefits of switching from paper bills to dollar coins to catch up with the cost of making the change. Equipment would have to be bought or overhauled, and more coins would have to be produced upfront to replace bills as they are taken out of circulation.

But over the years, the savings would begin to accrue, she said, largely because a $1 coin could stay in circulation for 30 years while paper bills have to be replaced every four or five years on average.

Why waste money trying to preserve any physical currency?

Posted by orrinj at 7:59 AM



It's been almost a century since the British economist Arthur Pigou floated the idea that turned his name into an adjective. In "The Economics of Welfare," published in 1920, Pigou pointed out that private investments often impose costs on other people. Consider this example: A man walks into a bar. He orders several rounds, downs them, and staggers out. The man has got plastered, the bar owner has got the man's money, and the public will get stuck with the tab for the cops who have to fish the man out of the gutter. In Pigou's honor, taxes that attempt to correct for this are known as Pigovian, or, if you prefer, Pigouvian (the spelling remains wobbly). Alcohol taxes are Pigovian; so are taxes on cigarettes. The idea is to incorporate into the cost of what might seem a purely personal choice the expenses it foists on the rest of society.

One way to think about global warming is as a vast, planet-wide Pigovian problem. In this case, the man pulls up to a gas pump. He sticks his BP or Sunoco card into the slot, fills up, and drives off. He's got a full tank; the gas station and the oil company share in the profits. Meanwhile, the carbon that spills out of his tailpipe lingers in the atmosphere, trapping heat and contributing to higher sea levels. As the oceans rise, coastal roads erode, beachfront homes wash away, and, finally, major cities flood. Once again, it's the public at large that gets left with the bill. The logical, which is to say the fair, way to address this situation would be to make the driver absorb the cost for his slice of the damage. This could be achieved by a new Pigovian tax, on carbon.

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Posted by orrinj at 5:04 AM


Charles Portis, a Journalist With True Grit : The novelist Charles Portis, best known for his novels Norwood and True Grit, was also a brilliant reporter, and with the likes of Tom Wolfe and Jimmy Breslin, helped introduce New Journalism. Jay Jennings, the editor of the new collection Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany, on the legacy of Portis's reporting on the civil rights movement. (Jay Jennings, 9/25/12, Daily Beast)

In his fiction and magazine pieces over more than a half-century, the novelist Charles Portis, most celebrated for True Grit and much admired by fellow writers like Roy Blount Jr., Donna Tartt, and Wells Tower, has made relentless fun of journalists of all stripes. Ray Midge, the copy editor who tracks his errant wife to Mexico in The Dog of the South, comments about the fellow copy editor who stole her away: "His dress was sloppy even by newspaper standards." In Masters of Atlantis, newspaper people "treat as pests those who walk in off the street with inquiries, or even news." In a New Yorker humor piece, he describes the "journalist ants" of Burma, "scurrying about on the forest floor and gathering tiny facts." And in a long travel story about a river in Arkansas--included in the upcoming collection of his work I edited, Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany--he offers an opinion on both the climate debate and himself as a journalist: "Knowing nothing about changing weather patterns, but, being a journalist and thus having no scruples about commenting on the matter, I think they may well have changed."

These various put-downs, especially of himself, are a dodge, because although Portis the novelist is press-shy and publicity-averse, in his early career he was a skilled, diligent, and sometimes brilliant journalist, which the selection of his best newspaper work in Escape Velocity will demonstrate. After serving in the Marine Corps during the Korean War, he studied journalism at the University of Arkansas. (Looking back at those years in an interview with fellow newspaperman Roy Reed, he said, "I must have thought it would be fun and not very hard, something like barber college. Not to offend the barbers. They probably provide a more useful service.")

After graduating, he worked briefly at The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, moved to the Arkansas Gazette in 1959 (a year after the paper had won two Pulitzer Prizes for covering the integration crisis at Little Rock Central High), and then began a four-year stint (1960-64) with The New York Herald Tribune, ending as London bureau chief before he quit to write novels. At the latter, he shared a newsroom with Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin, and other reporters who were stretching their craft into what came to be known as New Journalism. In fact, in a 1972 piece in New York magazine excavating that "movement," Wolfe cites Portis as one of the preeminent feature writers in the city who followed the philosophy that "it just might be possible to write journalism that would ... read like a novel." Wolfe's own flamboyant style bears little resemblance to Portis's straightforward one, but in their reporting both showed--and eventually brought back to their respective novels--expertise in conveying "scene" and an eye for the telling detail. These qualities and other examples of Portis's extraordinary abilities as a journalist are best seen in his brief, overlooked tenure on the civil-rights beat, particularly during a busy spring and summer in the South in 1963.

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Posted by orrinj at 4:51 AM


The Ricky Rubio Experience : Playing against Ricky Rubio is harrowing, but the point guard prodigy is playing against more than just his match-ups. (FLINDER BOYD, 11/28/12, The Classical)

The first time we played Spain was an exhibition in Seville. A couple minutes into the game, I stood next to him at half court during a free throw and wondered what all the fuss was about. Despite the presence of All-Stars Pau and Marc Gasol and local legend Juan Carlos Navarro, the sold-out crowd couldn't get enough of Ricky. From middle-aged men to teenage girls, everyone screamed his name; there was literal ooh-ing and aah-ing each time he touched the ball.

And yet he seemed to me to have no discernible physical gifts. He weighed 170 pounds dripping wet, wasn't nearly as Iverson-quick as I expected him to be and it took him a Mesolithic era to get his shot off. Of course, it was in my interest to believe all this. I'd been given the task of trying to shut Rubio down.

At only 5-11, I made a career out of being the smartest player on the court, understanding the nuances it takes to play the most difficult position on the floor. I'd spent the better part of the day studying tape, checking Rubio's tendencies and searching for weaknesses in his game, especially in the pick and roll, his bread and butter.

The pick-and-roll, elementary though it seems, is the single hardest play to perfect in all of sports and the basis of any good basketball team. Once a screen is set, a good point guard will go through his reads like a quarterback. Navigating through the matrix of defensive possibilities, he reacts to the other nine guys on the floor, then counter-reacts and possibly further counter-counter-reacts as the court shifts into a geometric puzzle, all in the blink of an eye. That super-fast dynamism is one of the fundamental challenges of basketball: hold the ball a split second too long, what was open has surely been gobbled up by time and space, and you're left at the defense's mercy. Years of practice and hundreds of games on, you begin to see the same patterns develop. Then, finally, a complex problem opens enough to reveal a straightforward solution.

Halfway through the first quarter, Rubio called for a screen on the right wing. I bodied him up, forcing him out of his operating zone, then quickly dove under the pick. We had planned to change up our defensive tactics often against the kid, to confuse him and get the ball out of his hands sooner than he wanted. He shifted to his left hand, then paused, just for a moment, switched hands again and used the screen again. I jumped over the pick, and my big man, the long, athletic Joel Freeland, held firm. Suddenly, like a racecar driver, Rubio changed gears from third to fourth and then fifth in the space of about three feet. I fought through the screen, and just when I thought we had him bottled up he froze for a millisecond, waiting for the defense to collapse. Then, at that exact right moment, Rubio flipped it right handed over to an open Navarro on the money. Navarro drove to the hoop and our collapsing defense fouled him before he could get a shot off. Ball out of bounds. A completely meaningless play in the scheme of the game. Also, though, a perfect play.

A few plays later, on a fast break, an open Navarro was in the corner, and Sergio Llull, another great shooter, was on the same wing guarded. There are several things that could have, and ordinarily would have, happened in this situation. Rubio might have lobbed it over to Navarro, allowing the defense to react and forcing Navarro to penetrate and make a play himself; that would ultimately ruin the fast-break. Rubio could have waited for the trailer, or simply dribbled to the opposite side of the floor where there was limited resistance. Rubio did none of these, instead making a beeline straight toward the defender. In essence Rubio, his defender, Llull and Llull's defender all converged at the intersection on the wing. It was a kamikaze play that no coach would ever teach, yet Rubio's choice ensured that the defense couldn't recover when he fired a bounce pass through a keyhole size opening to Navarro. Three points.

It was personally demoralizing, in a way that perhaps only people who have played the position would fully understand. What took me decades to decode seemed to be hardwired into his brain; he was playing with information I didn't quite have, while running an operating system different than my own. I felt like I was trying to catch an antelope with a butterfly net. No matter what I did or how quickly I beat him to the spot he'd make the right play at just the right moment.

And yet, curiously, Scariolo rarely took the reins off and let Ricky be himself. For much of the game Rubio would just slouch in the corner as a decoy, sucking his teeth and rolling his eyes like a petulant teenager.

A month later we met again in the European Championships in Warsaw. This was a game in which we nearly beat the mighty Spaniards, and from the opening tip it was clear the walls were closing in on Ricky. He was overthinking. When he had the ball, I almost stopped guarding him, playing, five and even ten feet away, daring him to shoot. At other times I almost completely forgot he was on the floor.

He'd given up probing the defense and attacking the paint, in favor of pointless swing passes around the perimeter. Strangest of all, he had stopped running the break, instead walking it up and surrendering to Scariolo's deliberate play calling. It made my job easier, but it was almost tragic watching the future of basketball banished to the bench every time he made a turnover, his head wrapped in a towel while politely cheering on his teammates. The kid with the permanent grin and unshakable confidence had stopped smiling.
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Posted by orrinj at 12:52 AM


Tax Pollution, Not Income: A Winning Issue for Politicians?  (David Callahan, 5/08/12, Demos))

[T]here may be an easy way to sell energy taxes: Which is to promote such taxes as an alternative to other taxes. Yes, you'll pay more in energy taxes, but you'll pay less in income taxes.

A new poll by Yale and George Mason Universities offers support for this strategy. Respondents were asked the following question:

Would you be more or less likely to vote for a candidate who supports legislation to reduce the federal income tax that Americans pay each year, but increase taxes on coal, oil, and natural gas by an equal amount? This tax shift would be "revenue neutral" (meaning the total amount of taxes collected by the government would stay the same), and would create jobs and decrease pollution?

An impressive 61 percent of respondents said they would be more likely, or somewhat more likely, to vote for such a candidate. Only 20 percent said they'd be less likely.

Posted by orrinj at 12:44 AM


The Military-Industrial Complex's Waning Political Influence (CHRISTOPHER PREBLE, November 29, 2012, US News)

In a recent paper, economists Christopher Coyne and Thomas Duncan paint a dire picture of the harmful effects of the permanent war economy. Most studies focus on total military spending (measured in either real or nominal dollars) to show the enormous growth in such outlays over the past 15 years. A few studies focus on the size of the Pentagon's budget relative to total federal spending, or to the economy as a whole, and claim that such costs are, in fact, quite modest.

But Coyne and Duncan, who are both affiliated with George Mason University's outstanding economics department, take a different approach. The true costs of the military-industrial complex, they explain, "have so far been understated, as they do not take into account the full forgone opportunities of the resources drawn into the war economy." A dollar spent on planes and ships cannot also be spent on roads and bridges. What's more, the existence of a permanent war economy, the specific condition which President Dwight Eisenhower warned of in his famous farewell address, has shifted some entrepreneurial behavior away from private enterprise, and toward the necessarily less efficient public sector. "The result," Coyne and Duncan declaim, "is a bloated corporate state and a less dynamic private economy, the vibrancy of which is at the heart of increased standards of living." [...]

There is now broad, bipartisan agreement that military spending should come down. A poll taken earlier this year (.pdf, Q56) found that 52 percent of Republicans, and 57 percent of independents, are opposed to any increase in taxes in order to maintain U.S. military superiority "over rising powers like China." A just completed Rasmussen survey found strong support for across-the-board spending cuts, and reported that voters "are notably less enthusiastic if the defense budget is exempted."