Archive for the Links Category

On Prosecuting Torturers (And The Like)

Posted in Links, Poli-ticks on 20100227 by Avenging Sword

Given the recent headlines regarding the OPR Report on Yoo & Bybee, I figured I’d run the risk of repetition and whip some of my previous comments into an actual post regarding whether we should prosecute those who tortured.[1] If you’ve no desire for exposure to repetition, I’ll save you the trouble by presenting my conclusion up front:  I don’t think prosecutions are a good idea.

It’s not that I don’t think the potential targets of such prosecutions are guilty; though I’ve not looked into the question in detail, my SWAG is that yes, interrogators & the like did indeed [insert favored torture euphemism] detainees, prisoners, etc.  Nor would I be surprised if explicit or implicit approval of such behavior extended up the chains of command.  Well, torture is illegal, isn’t it?  If we truly believe in the rule of law, why shouldn’t we prosecute the torturers & their accomplices?

The rule of law is important, but it is not an end in itself.  It is a means to several ends, among them being the maintenance of social peace.  Strictly speaking, the “upholding the rule of law” would have required prosecuting every Confederate veteran for treason; this was not done, for the sake of social peace.  Strictly speaking, “upholding the rule of law” would require rounding up & deporting every single illegal alien; arguably, we’d be better off not doing that, again, for the sake of social peace.[2] As Gregory Rodriguez noted (albeit in a different context):

It is true that the failure to punish lawbreakers challenges the rule of law and our collective sense of fair play. When we abrogate that rule, we threaten to undermine the social contract. And yet the very idea of pardons and amnesties presupposes that law has its limits and that, on occasion, it is trumped by other values – social cohesion, for one, and a larger view of justice, for another. If the hunger for judgment and punishment is driven – and I believe it is – by a sense of resentment toward lawbreakers, then acts of political forgiveness represent the lifting of that resentment.

As a means to keep the peace, in 1795 President Washington pardoned the leaders of a rebellion against the whiskey tax, a controversial law that was later repealed. In order to “bind up our nation’s wounds” during and after the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson issued more than 200,000 presidential pardons to Union deserters and Confederate soldiers. Indeed, Johnson’s 1868 Christmas amnesty proclamation granted unconditional pardons to all participants in the war.

In 1947, President Truman issued pardons to 1,500 World War II draft resisters. A few years later, he granted amnesty to 9,000 deserters from the Korean War. A generation later, in 1974, Ford offered a conditional amnesty to men who evaded the draft during the Vietnam War. In 1977, in one of his first acts as president, Jimmy Carter granted draft evaders a “full, complete and unconditional pardon.” His act was meant to put the divisions and antagonisms of the war behind us.

If there was a near-universal domestic consensus that the Bush et al committed/condoned criminal actions worthy of prosecution, then I’d be far less leery of impeachment.  As it is, I see no such consensus.  When I look at polls[3] regarding torture (and the prosecution thereof), what’s striking to me isn’t the (occasional, sometimes-slim) majorities in that oppose torture & favor prosecutions, but rather the substantial minorities that support torture and oppose prosecution.

Having read about Jacksonians a while back, this frankly doesn’t surprise me.  Nevertheless, given the existence of such division amongst Americans, I fear that prosecutions of Bush et al, particularly if conducted by the other party, would be viewed by a non-trivial portion of the public not as “upholding the rule of law”, but rather the pursuit of a partisan political vendetta.  From which the take-home message would not be “Don’t do illegal stuff”, or even “Don’t get caught”, but rather, “If you hold political office, never let go of power, lest your enemies hound you ’till you’re in chains”.  This would not be a healthy development for the Republic.

I would say more along these lines, but John Hawkins already said it a while back:

Trying to prosecute key Bush Administration officials on what are viewed as trumped up, politically based charges would create a firestorm of partisanship and outright hatred that would surpass anything in American history since the Civil War. Members of a political party in the United States, whether it be Republican or Democrat, are simply not going to stand by idly with their hands in their pockets while their political views are criminalized.

At best, this would lead to tit-for-tat prosecutions. By that, I mean if Democrats throw George W. Bush in jail for ten years, Republicans will do their best to find an excuse to throw Barack Obama in jail for ten years — and don’t think it can’t happen. The American political system tends to be cyclical and so today the Democrats may be on top — but in four to eight years, when Obama leaves office, it’s entirely possible the GOP could be in charge of both Houses of Congress — and looking for an opportunity to get payback for Bush. Again, that is the best case scenario. The worst case scenario could mean blood in the streets, riots, and a breakdown of the “orderly transfer of power” that has always been a hallmark of American democracy.

One of the reasons that has never been an issue previously is precisely because the loss of power for an American politician doesn’t mean that he’s threatened with the loss of his life or liberty. If we throw the rule of law out the window and leaving office may mean a prison sentence or worse, those “orderly transfers of power” we have in this country are going to begin to break down — and politicians will use any means necessary to remain in charge. It’s understandable if that sounds farfetched since events of that sort haven’t happened on a widespread scale here since the Civil War, but there are many nations across the world where a change of leadership is a terrifying and violent ordeal for the populace. There’s very little to be said for potentially joining their ranks.

Ultimately, I’m more inclined to echo Matthew Yglesias’s opinion that, if we’re concerned about preventing torture in the future, we should be less concerned about prosecuting past torture than shrinking those aforementioned “substantial minorities” into the consistently-low-single-digit range.  Granted, on the one hand, it’s possible that torture prosecutions would present a “teachable moment” & further this goal.  OTOH, however, it’s also possible that they could indeed be seen as another data point on a trendline of using the criminal justice system to harass political opponents.[4] Does the risk of the latter outweigh the potential benefit of the former?  I’m not sure, but my gut tells me no.[5]

Interesting aside:  Brad Wendel notes the relevance of the torture memos debate to the question of legal (in)determinacy.  More on that rather dry & abstract question from Lawrence Solum here.

[1] Or “used enhanced interrogation techniques”.

[2] I fully recognize that there were/are other factors militating against prosecution in both of the cases.

[3] See, e.g., here, here, and here.

[4] And on the gripping hand, as Tyler Cowen points out, it’s possible that we might throw a torture trial, and the torturers might actually win.

[5] I wish I had more supporting evidence than a SWAG, but absent a handy-dandy alternate universe upon which I could run controlled socio-political experiments, it seems guesswork is all I’ve got to go on.  Alas.

Modest Health Care Proposals, and for other purposes….

Posted in Links on 20100115 by Avenging Sword

This morning, while haunting perusing Jerry Pournelle’s blog, I came across this Modest Proposal:

The simplest solution to the problem of health care costs is morphine as the only publicly paid for treatment for those 75 years of age and older. I haven’t actually worked the numbers, but from the generalities I have heard on costs of care in the last year of life, that would allow the present health care system to work fairly well. Older people who could afford it might opt for real insurance that they pay for, or pay for their own expenses while their expectant relatives fumed at the expenses — it would make for some good detective stories. The resultant savings — some 35% and more of Medicaid expenses are paid out in the last year of life — would pay for a lot of the health care dilemma.

This brings to mind Christopher Buckley’s recent Boomsday satire, wherein

One generation is pitted against another in the shadow of a Social Security crisis. Our protagonist, Cassandra Devine, is a 29-year-old public relations maven by day, angry blogger by night. Incensed by the financial burden soon to be placed on her age bracket by baby boomers approaching retirement, she proposes on her blog that boomers be encouraged to commit suicide. Cassandra insists that her proposal is not meant to be taken literally; it is merely a “meta-issue” intended to spark discussion and a search for real solutions. But the idea is taken up by an attention-seeking senator, Randy Jepperson, and the political spinning begins.

Of course, both of these were anticipated by a political cartoon I encountered a couple decades back, which proposed controlling Social Security costs by appointing Jack Kevorkian Surgeon General.

In other news:

How to use a starter pistol to protect your cameras.

I’m not a photographer, but I still find this hilarious.

HAMP Modifications & Due Process.

IMHO, something like this was inevitable, given that welfare benefits are already protected by due process.

Why panic about Obama’s Interpol order is overblown.

The current concerns about the Obama Executive Order are about the dangers of unaccountable international police operating in the United States. These concerns are without merit. Interpol staff do not even carry guns, and they certainly do not engage in policing in the United States.

Voluntary manslaughter & the Tiller case.  “It’s only murder when innocent people die.”

Random Links LX

Posted in Links on 20090629 by Avenging Sword

Credit Cards:,9171,1893507,00.html,8816,1897362,00.html

McCain Alternate Economic History:  Why the economy might be much the same had McCain beat Obama.

Obama Stimulus Timing:

McArdle & Co. Critique Warren’s Medical Bankruptcy Study:


Critiques by McArdle et al:

Phosphorous & Agriculture: Recall that there’s a difference between running out of phosphorous, & running out of _cheap_ phosphorous.  Note also the exported half of our agricultural production is (effectively) optional, insofar as it’s unnecessary for supplying American food needs.  See also Peak Oil Debunked, as well as USGS Mineral Commodity Summary for phosphate rock.

Bare Branches & Polygamy Redux:

Income Growth, Deleveraging, & Consumption Stabilization

UK Austerity

Second Amendment Incorporation

Random Links LVIV

Posted in Links on 20090623 by Avenging Sword

Nuclear Energy Costs:  What’s unclear from the article is the extent to which these cost issues may be permanent (as opposed to temporary).  Government-imposed delays (e.g., unwillingness to approve rate increases) are removable via proper policy (as the article acknowledges WRT India & China).  Moreover, I wonder how much of Finland’s cost & delay problems are due to the fact that the country hasn’t built a nuclear plant in 30 years (in which case, teething problems are inevitable on the first few plants, owing to lack of skills & experience on the part of those doing the construction).  Again, this latter problem wouldn’t be a long-term issue in a sustained campaign of nuclear construction; the first few plants would of course experience delays & cost overruns, as we scaled the learning curve, but the later ones would not (once we arrived at the maximum of said curve).

Reasoning by Analogy:  “…intelligence is the ability to use analogies validly.”

How & Why to Learn About Everything:

How Oil Pricing Works:

Terror Presidency Watch, Detainee Shell Game Edition:  To have clean hands is to have no hands at all.  A while back, I idly speculated that extending habeas & other rights to terrorist suspects at Gitmo & elsewhere (such it became effectively impossible for the USG to hold them w/o trial anywhere in the world) would result in the USG, military, etc., simply killing such suspects instead of capturing & interrogating them.  The inability to extract information from a dead (potential) terrorist would be (somewhat) balanced by the neutralization of the individual in question.  Looks like that might be happening.

Frannie Duration Mismatch: So long as securitized mortgages are turned into pass-through MBS, duration mismatch is irrelevant, since such MBS basically toss interest-rate risk onto investors.  If, however, these mortgages were purchased using agency debt, & interest rates increase, we could end up w/ a Frannie version of the S&L crisis (recall how the latter got killed when high interest rates both devalued their mortgage portfolios while blowing up their funding costs).  OTOH, if Hempton is to be believed, Freddie was on the lookout for this sort of risk, and acted appropriately to reduce it.

Squid Sight: “…certain squids can detect light through an organ other than their eyes as well.”

Nostalganomics:  So, mass low-skill immigration exacerbated US inequality, both by depressing low-skill wages, and by importing more poor people.  It follows that restricting low-skill immigration would halt/reverse these effects.  (It also suggests that increasing high-skill immigration while restricting low-skill types might actually reduce inequality, by exerting downward pressure on the upper end of the wage scale.)  This needn’t be done for racist reasons, simply out of a recognition that the interests of US citizens outweigh those of foreigners.  Domestic inequality has costs, in polarization, alienation between rich & poor, etc.  We shouldn’t want to import more of these costs just to benefit foreigners.

Megan McArdle on Abortion:  Interesting to see a self-avowed pro-choicer condemning both Tiller’s murder _and_ Roe.

Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience: Impressive.

UPC Birthday

GM Downfall Fallout

Wealth Effect Transmission Channels

Interest-Rate Swaps Explained

Random Links LVIII

Posted in Links on 20090617 by Avenging Sword

Renminbi as Reserve Currency:



Housing Deflation Watch:  A good overview of why we shouldn’t yet expect housing prices to bottom out.

Interest Rates & the Housing Bubble:  Contributions of the Fed rate reductions & the global savings glut to the housing bubble.

Corruption & Afghanistan:  “The challenge in Afghanistan is to bring down the level of violence, and to do that it will be necessary to establish a limited-access order, in which corruption is part of the solution.”

Miller on Multiple Intelligences: “…many of the new-fangled types of intelligence that have become popular recently…boil down to general intelligence plus some combination of the Big Five personality traits.”  If this is true, then multiple intelligences & general intelligence may not necessarily be mutually exclusive.

Harvard Shrinkage:  How Harvard gambled itself to the edge of bankruptcy.

Introvert Travelers:

Avian Intelligence:  “Rooks rival chimpanzees in their ability to use tools.”

Demographic Winter Redux:



Housing as Investment:

Geithner Hedge Fund:  This accords w/ the idea – noted here – that PPIP will flop ‘cuz banks are unwilling to sell loans at a loss.

Risk Management & Liquidity:  “Even owning a home that requires two incomes to pay the mortgage is not a risk worth taking.”

Duration-Matching & Home ATM: “…a general guideline is to match the term of the debt with the useful life of the asset. A 30 year loan for a house. A 5 to 7 year loan for a car. Pay cash for lunch. / Then – if the useful life and debt term match – when it comes time to replace the asset, the debt will have been retired.”

Krispy Kreme, Grease, & Fairfax: LOL.

Bad Loans: One reason banking isn’t yet out of the woods.

Negative Interest Rates Redux

Derivatives & Disclosure:

Buiter on the Lessons of the Crisis:

College Credit Downgrades

Solum on Judicial Brilliance

Random Links LVII

Posted in Links on 20090616 by Avenging Sword

Captcha as a Turning Test: Most interesting anecdote:  the use of captchas to aid the digitization of archives.

Sovereign Debt Crisis:  Remember the “holy trinity”:  a country can have any two of these three:  an independent monetary/fiscal policy; an open capital account; and fixed exchange rates.  Note that dumping the second is (or should be) a policy option for dealing w/ a dollar crash.

Mother of All Carry Trades:

Hmmm…this is something to consider – the notion that monetary stimulus by the Fed could merely end up getting exported to foreign countries via the carry trade, and stimulating _them_ rather than stimulating the US economy here at home.  (Another argument in favor of capital controls?)

OTOH, note that 1) carry-trade-mediated exports of liquidity would tend to weaken the dollar, thus boosting US exports; and 2) if the economies importing “dollar carry trade” funds utilized said funds to ramp up their purchases of US exports, this carry-trade-mediated exportation of US monetary stimulus could still end up (indirectly) stimulating the US economy.

Note also:  if the carry trade does become popular hereabouts, we must ensure that it doesn’t end up posing a systemic risk to the financial system.  Eventually, a carry trade must unwind (often violently); and investors who fail to unwind fast enough could get stuck w/ major losses (as the foreign currencies in which they lent end up being worth far less in dollar terms, as those currencies crash while the dollar strengthens).  If we let major US financials play in this arena, we risk a repeat of the ’80s LDC crisis (with large US banks getting stuck w/ large losses from overseas lending).

Why a Two State Solution May Be Unworkable:

My solution remains “Give War a Chance”.

British Libel Laws:  They apparently have non-trivial externalities.  “Special relationship” indeed….

Heroes:  The Republic will always need them.

Auctions & Politicians: Why the latter don’t always like the former.

Inflation & Output Gap:  Why the latter may not prevent the former.

LIBOR & Bank Spreads:  “The difference between the highest and lowest interest rates banks say they pay for three-month dollar-denominated loans is near the widest this year…signal[ing] that lenders still lack confidence in each other.”

Small Zombie Banks:  Worrisome.  Not sure there’s much to be done about this, though, other than expand FDIC as fast as possible.  Perhaps “private bad banks” (i.e., selling off the best assets along w/ deposit accounts, to healthier banks, & handing over the rest to bondholders), by reducing the need for FDIC staff to monitor the leftover assets of dead banks.

History of the Seas: “Medieval fishermen first took to the open seas in about AD1,000 as a result of a sharp decline in large freshwater fish, scientists have suggested.”

Polaroid Revival: One wonders why this would be so difficult.  Perhaps they could consult/hire former Polaroid employees.  I wonder if Polaroid’s formulae, etc., are still protected by trade secrets laws.

Dollar Crash & Emerging Market Reserves

Human Capital Contracts Redux:

Palacios Working Paper:

Note that, except for the public vs. private sector distinction, Reich’s proposal (first link) is strikingly similar to the Cato-esque notion of “human capital contracts”.  Weird….

Orwell on Gandhi

Sino-American Monetary MAD

Why the Gun is Civilization

Conscription & Old Army Buddies

Gurkha Homecoming

Random Links LVI

Posted in Links on 20090614 by Avenging Sword

More California Default Links:

Immigration Attrition Strategy:  “The Obama administration is expanding a program initiated by President George W. Bush aimed at checking the immigration status of virtually every person booked into local jails. In four years, the measure could result in a tenfold increase in illegal immigrants who have been convicted of crimes and identified for deportation.”

Obsessive Housing Disorder:

1.  CRA, IMHO, didn’t directly contribute much to the crisis.  (See Fed studies)

2.  Indirect effect (i.e., threat of CRA noncompliance used to convince banks to lower lending standards) is more plausible than #1; but even if so, there’s no inherent reason why banks’ lending standards should’ve slipped across-the-board (i.e., to non-CRA-related lending as well as CRA stuff).  A rational bank would’ve limited the underwriting slippage to CRA lending (basically, affirmative action as applied to mortgages), instead of generalizing it to all lending.  This is basically the “CRA made banks stupid” argument.  I am unconvinced.

3.  Frannie did contribute some (via purchases of subprime & Alt-A MBS), but significant private demand for private-label MBS suggests to me that, even absent Frannie purchases, we still would’ve had plenty of buyers for such securities.  Hence, Frannie wasn’t a necessary cause for this aspect of the crisis.

4.  Malanga does, however, get the general mentality correct:  “Promoting homeownership” has always been a political winner in DC.  As such, that mentality probably did much to both anesthetize government to the dangers of the housing bubble (which was driven by increased demand for housing – and how can that be a bad thing?), and to reduce their willingness to take actions (e.g., regulatory bans on mortgage “innovation” in favor of high-DP, fixed-rate mortgages; regulations arresting the general decline in underwriting standards) that _would_ have hindered the housing bubble.

5.  True “root cause” of declining underwriting standards was belief in perpetual housing appreciation.  Given such a belief, it was rational for banks to dumb down underwriting, since rising home prices would always ensure that they’d get paid.

6.  Pro-homeownership mentality of #4 was necessary but not sufficient; one could increase homeownership w/o eroding lending standards.  E.g., subsidizing DP’s & monthly payments.  If done gradually, this needn’t have bubbled the housing market (it still would’ve buoyed prices, but gradually increased supply could’ve moderated such price increases).

7.  His citation of Harriss is accurate; see  HOLC’s difficulties in dealing w/ delinquency (due to policy imperatives that made them reluctant to FC) are yet another example of the dangers of politicized lending.

Transactional v. Revolving Credit:

Credit Card Interest Rates:

MTM Redux:

Optimal Foreclosure Timelines:  “…the “sweet spot” for foreclosure timelines–long enough to allow borrowers to cure, short enough to correct incentives and control costs to investors–is “roughly 270 days” from DDLPI to completion.”

ROK Credit Card Crisis:  Interesting, though I would’ve preferred to see more statistics.

Feline Evolution:  “…whereas other domesticates were recruited from the wild by humans who bred them for specific tasks, cats most likely chose to live among humans because of opportunities they found for themselves.”  Why am I not surprised?

Green Bubble

Credit Report Tyranny

Crisis & Economic Pedagogy