Topic: General

Hey Baby

Did you know that last year, Paris was a much more popular girls’ name than Britney? Or that Madison was the 3rd most popular girls’ name, while Jefferson was only ranked 628th among boys’ names? Or that 179 baby boys were actually named Baby?

More importantly, do you care about any of this? I sure don’t, but the government does.

As Senator Tom Coburn points out, the Social Security Administration, wastes significant time and money compiling this report on popular baby names.

Senator Coburn astutely jests, “Increasing one’s web traffic doesn’t seem to be in the Constitutional charter of the Social Security program. Your tax dollars hard at work, indeed.”

Should We Criminalize OPEC?

Well, should we? An increasing number of Congressmen seem to think so. Last year, Sen. Mike DeWine (R-OH) introduced the “No Oil Producing and Exporting Cartels Act” (S. 555), aka “NOPEC,” which would make oil-producing and exporting cartels abroad illegal. Although the bill went nowhere, supporters have tried repeatedly to attach it to energy legislation moving through the House and Senate. The idea was last spotted when Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) embraced elements of the bill in his relatively unhinged “Oil and Gas Antitrust Act of 2006” (S. 2557), and the trade press is full of reports that the next GOP energy bill might well include NOPEC in its legislative basket of economic buffoonery.

You might think that imposing U.S. antitrust law on foreign, state-owned companies that (with the exception of CITGO) operate nowhere near U.S. borders is such a crackpot idea that only an American politician could entertain such a thing with a straight face. You would be wrong. The other day, Ariel Cohen and William Schirano at the Heritage Foundation gave NOPEC an enthusiastic thumbs-up. “If Congress is serious about alleviating the price-gouging that contributes to high gas prices,” they wrote, “it ought to begin by allowing the federal government to sue OPEC.”

The temptation is to simply ignore nonsense like this. But nonsense like this (particularly on the energy front) is increasingly the coin of the legislative realm. So let’s do what its proponents have obviously not done and give the idea a few moments of thought.

First, the obvious question arises—exactly how would the U.S. government enforce such a law? After all, I rather doubt that Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran, Venezuela, et al will quickly disband the cartel in a panic once Uncle Sam deems their club illegal under U.S. law. “You and who’s army?!” is the natural response we might expect. Given that no army would be on the way to stamp out such illegal activity, which leaves trade sanctions or nothing. The former would be counterproductive while the latter would be embarrassing.

Next, exactly what gives the Congress the right to impose U.S. economic regulations on companies that aren’t doing business in the United States? Do all national governments have this right, or only the United States? If the former, what’s to prevent Saudi Arabia from declaring it illegal for U.S. banks to charge interest on loans (an activity ostensibly banned in many Islamic countries)? If the latter, then it’s a naked statement that U.S. policy is premised upon the idea that the biggest guy on the playground makes the rules for everyone else whether they like it or not—might makes right. And if so, then wouldn’t those forced against their will to live under U.S. law rightly argue that subjects of governmental power ought to have a right to vote about the laws they are compelled to live under? Or is that a right that only applies for some and not others?

Finally, there’s an economic principle of real importance at stake. To wit, who should have the final say over how much of a product or service is delivered by a commercial enterprise; the owners or the customers? If the latter, then companies are merely slaves of the state, dictated to produce as much as the public wants regardless of business considerations. Does the Heritage Foundation really want to plant their flag on that proposition?

One might argue that the state can prohibit price fixing and collusion without prohibiting companies from having the final say over their own production schedules absent coordination between firms. But there are a large number of oil economists who maintain that OPEC is not really a cartel at all—it’s simply a vehicle through which Saudi Arabia unilaterally exercises power over the market—and that collusion within OPEC is not particularly meaningful. If so, then NOPEC would have little effect even if by some miracle it could be enforced.

Even so, what if OPEC countries preferred to constrain production so that sufficient reserves would be available down the road when they would presumably be more valuable? In that case, production restraint might simply be another form of national savings. Should the U.S. Congress be in the business of declaring such trade-offs between present and future revenues “illegal”?

Sure, it would be wonderful if private companies owned oil reserves, not national governments. And it would be nice from the consumers’ point of view if those companies produced as many barrels of crude as a normal profit would allow. And it would be wonderful if OPEC disappeared tomorrow. But Congress’ ability to translate those wishes into reality as far as foreign petroleum operations are concerned is probably nonexistent.

The best we can do is to refuse to help the Cartel or its members in the course of their enterprise. Sending the Texas Rangers or some such after them would render us an international joke.

Universal Preschool Goes Down in CA

Congratulations to California voters for keeping their preschools from becoming, well, like the rest of their schools.

Despite being the brainchild of famous director Rob Reiner, and having the support of many other Hollywood types, yesterday roughly 60 percent of California voters turned down Proposition 82, which would have provided “universal” (read: “government”) preschool for all state 4-year-olds.

In the past, such a touchy-feely proposal probably would have flown through the polls. But California voters might be wising up to the fact that “warm and fuzzy” doesn’t necessarily mean “good.” From the San Jose Mercury News:

Many San Jose area voters took their skepticism about the measure to the polls.

“Prop. 82 sounded really good, but the more I looked at it, the more I realized it was subject to shenanigans,” said David Yomtov, a San Jose resident who said he voted against it.

To read all about the political shenanigans and wheeling-and-dealing behind Proposition 82, check out the work of Lisa Snell at the Reason Public Policy Institute, who started fighting the good fight against Reiner’s initiative almost the moment it was introduced.

They Don’t Make Trade Associations Like They Used To

For those of us who tire of witnessing British Petroleum apologize for being in the oil business, or roll our eyes over Chevron PR campaigns dedicated to telling us how we can and should buy less of their product, it may seem that it was always thus. But it was not. Check out this 1956 short film produced by the American Petroleum Institute. Now THAT’S what a self-confident, take-no-guff industry looks like. Someone should tell “Big Oil” to take it’s thumb out of it’s mouth and start defending their right to exist.

Waiting for FEMA

The New York Times reports on a new production of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” which “implies that that the mysterious, perpetually awaited Godot, often thought of as God, is actually the Federal Emergency Management Agency.”

Which makes sense, since too many people in the theater and allied worlds think that the federal government is God.

Topics:

“Underpaid Teachers” Richly Rewarded

Everybody knows that teachers are underpaid, right? Actually, we don’t know what teachers should be paid because individual teachers aren’t allowed to negotiate their pay with the people using their services–unions and politicians do the bargaining. Still, a few stats in a Washington Post article about a proposed contract for Washington D.C. public school teachers suggest that, if anything, many D.C. teachers are overpaid.

Using salary information in the article, we see that under their current contract D.C. teachers must work 7 hours a day for 192 days, and their starting salary is $39,000. Per-hour, that comes to $29.01, which beats the mean hourly pay for all D.C. residents by 59 cents.

Under the proposed contract, the starting salary would become $42,500 to work 7 ½ hours for 196 days, actually dropping the hourly rate by 10 cents. Importantly, though, the four extra days would be dedicated to “training,” and the extra half-hour to “planning,” so there really wouldn’t be much work added to the teachers’ load.

As impressive as these starting salary numbers are, though, the real eye-opener is at the top of the teachers’ salary ladder.  Currently, the highest rung on the ladder is $75,000, or a hefty $55.80 an hour. Adjusting that to 40 hours per week for 50 weeks a year (roughly what most people work) the highest paid teacher would get an annual salary of $111,600 – not bad! Under the new contract that would become even more generous, with the unadjusted salary rising to $87,000, the new hourly rate hitting $59.18, and the “normal” annual salary reaching $118,360!  And, of course, none of this includes teachers’ benefits, which are generally considered to be more generous than what’s available in the private sector.

Now, before anyone starts calling for my head, as happened the last time I wrote on this topic, let me say I don’t doubt that that many teachers work beyond their contracted hours. Of course, there’s also no question that lots of people work in excess of their time “on the clock.” With that in mind, the hours in the teachers’ contract are what teachers have agreed to, so it is the only fair basis on which to calculate their remuneration.

So let’s put this in perspective. As mentioned, a starting D.C. teacher makes more per hour than the average wage for all D.C. residents. Even more surprising, under the proposed contract a teacher making the top wage would get $12.16 more per-hour than the average D.C. citizen in a management position, including sales managers, marketing managers, and IT managers. Indeed, the only managerial group that would make more than teachers on an hourly basis would be the absolute head honchos – chief executives.

And here’s the kicker: What have D.C. teachers produced to deserve all this money? According to the Post article’s main point, a school system so decrepit that parents are leaving it in droves.