February 1, 2015

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The cynicism and ham-handedness of the administration is illustrated in Josh Kraushaar’s account of the rise and immediate fall of the idea of taxing college savings accounts. 

To understand the backlash President Obama received after proposing to remove the tax exemption for college savings accounts, it’s essential to recognize how closely it struck at the political heart of his own party.

Contrary to popular stereotypes, Democrats depend nearly as much on upper-class voters as Republicans do. Democrats represent seven of the 10 wealthiest congressional districts in the country, and Obama also won those districts twice.

In 2008, Obama was the first Democratic presidential candidate in decades to win the vote of upper-middle-class Americans (those making a family income of $100,000 or more). Bill Clinton carried just 34 percent of those voters in his successful 1992 campaign; Obama improved on that total by 15 points in 2008.

It’s no coincidence, then, that the Democratic leaders who reportedly lobbied Obama to drop the proposal represent two of the most affluent districts in the country. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco seat is the 37th wealthiest in the country, while Budget Committee ranking Democrat Chris Van Hollen’s suburban Washington district is in the top 10.

Their districts are filled with constituents—both middle- and upper-class—who have utilized the 529 college accounts to save for their children’s tuition. …  

… The decision, and the initial White House response criticizing the tax-free vehicles as tools for the rich, offers a useful peek in the political thinking of the Obama White House. Several Democratic operatives interviewed said that since few of the proposals stood to pass through a Republican Congress, there wasn’t the same degree of scrutiny paid to the political impact of all of the budgetary details. …

… When Pelosi and Van Hollen are the politicians crying foul, it raises the specter of a president badly disconnected from his party’s best interests. …



New York City’s preparation for the snowmegeddon that didn’t happen is cause for some well directed mirth by Kevin Williamson

Last autumn, I argued in National Review (“Apocalypse Soonish“) that the real intellectual achievement of the climate-change alarmists has been to improve on the marketing model of the traditional fundamentalist-wacko/UFO-cult/Mayan-calendar-lunatic operation by eliminating its greatest weakness: the expiration date. When your UFO cult predicts that the world will unquestionably come to an end on December 21, 1954, then you start to look sort of silly by Christmas.

The broader environmental movement has had its share of similar problems, as the usual neo-Malthusians make the usual neo-Malthusian predictions — the most famous of which was the Simon-Ehrlich wager, in which environmentalist and Population Bomb author Paul Ehrlich made a fool of himself by making dire predictions about the scarcity of basic commodities over the decade leading up to 1990. (He also said that he’d be unsurprised if the United Kingdom had ceased to exist by 2000. It’s still there.) …

… The mayor’s response was pretty heavy-handed, though, closing the city’s schools, parks, and streets indefinitely — banning even bicycle traffic, an absolute affront to the city’s storied bicycle delivery men, who go about their business with kamikaze disregard for life and limb and a certain devil-may-care panache that is a credit to their profession. …

… New York’s response was in miniature what the global-warming alarmists would have us do on a planetary scale: adopt invasive, burdensome, and expensive measures against expectations of catastrophe that are rooted in a good deal less certainty than they’d have you believe. …

… If you happen to be a power-hungry politician, a state of emergency is a very useful thing. Which is, of course, why the climate-change panic is so attractive to teapot totalitarians like Bill de Blasio, and why there is neither a warm day nor a cold day — and not a sparrow that falls — that is inconsistent with their theology.



Williamson’s reference to the Simon-Ehrlich wager is cause for a detour. The dénouement of that bet was reported by John Tierney in the December 2, 1990 issue of the NY Times Magazine. We’ve had this in Pickings before, but the whole affair is close to becoming part of the free market canon. So, it is worth repeating. And it is also germane, because an ally of Ehrlich’s was John Holdren, who was picked by President Trainwreck to be his science advisor. Holdren had perfect creds; he is an academic who is usually wrong. Tailor made for this administration, we’d say. 

In 1980 an ecologist and an economist chose a refreshingly unacademic way to resolve their differences. They bet $1,000. Specifically, the bet was over the future price of five metals, but at stake was much more — a view of the planet’s ultimate limits, a vision of humanity’s destiny. It was a bet between the Cassandra and the Dr. Pangloss of our era.

They lead two intellectual schools — sometimes called the Malthusians and the Cornucopians, sometimes simply the doomsters and the boomsters — that use the latest in computer-generated graphs and foundation-generated funds to debate whether the world is getting better or going to the dogs. The argument has generally been as fruitless as it is old, since the two sides never seem to be looking at the same part of the world at the same time. Dr. Pangloss sees farm silos brimming with record harvests; Cassandra sees topsoil eroding and pesticide seeping into ground water. Dr. Pangloss sees people living longer; Cassandra sees rain forests being decimated. But in 1980 these opponents managed to agree on one way to chart and test the global future. They promised to abide by the results exactly 10 years later — in October 1990 — and to pay up out of their own pockets.

The bettors, who have never met in all the years they have been excoriating each other, are both 58-year-old professors who grew up in the Newark suburbs. The ecologist, Paul R. Ehrlich, has been one of the world’s better-known scientists since publishing “The Population Bomb” in 1968. More than three million copies were sold, and he became perhaps the only author ever interviewed for an hour on “The Tonight Show.” When he is not teaching at StanfordUniversity or studying butterflies in the Rockies, Ehrlich can generally be found on a plane on his way to give a lecture, collect an award or appear in an occasional spot on the “Today” show. This summer he won a five-year MacArthur Foundation grant for $345,000, and in September he went to Stockholm to share half of the $240,000 Crafoord Prize, the ecologist’s version of the Nobel. His many personal successes haven’t changed his position in the debate over humanity’s fate. He is the pessimist.

The economist, Julian L. Simon of the University of Maryland, often speaks of himself as an outcast, which isn’t quite true. His books carry jacket blurbs from Nobel laureate economists, and his views have helped shape policy in Washington for the past decade. …


… Ehrlich decided to put his money where his mouth was by responding to an open challenge issued by Simon to all Malthusians. Simon offered to let anyone pick any natural resource — grain, oil, coal, timber, metals — and any future date. If the resource really were to become scarcer as the world’s population grew, then its price should rise. Simon wanted to bet that the price would instead decline by the appointed date. Ehrlich derisively announced that he would “accept Simon’s astonishing offer before other greedy people jump in.” He then formed a consortium with John Harte and John P. Holdren, colleagues at the University of California at Berkeley specializing in energy and resource questions.

In October 1980 the Ehrlich group bet $1,000 on five metals — chrome, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten — in quantities that each cost $200 in the current market. A futures contract was drawn up obligating Simon to sell Ehrlich, Harte and Holdren these same quantities of the metals 10 years later, but at 1980 prices. If the 1990 combined prices turned out to be higher than $1,000, Simon would pay them the difference in cash. If prices fell, they would pay him. The contract was signed, and Ehrlich and Simon went on attacking each other throughout the 1980′s. During that decade the world’s population grew by more than 800 million, the greatest increase in history, and the store of metals buried in the earth’s crust did not get any larger. ..


… Each of the five metals chosen by Ehrlich’s group, when adjusted for inflation since 1980, had declined in price. The drop was so sharp, in fact, that Simon would have come out slightly ahead overall even without the inflation adjustment called for in the bet. Prices fell for the same Cornucopian reasons they had fallen in previous decades — entrepreneurship and continuing technological improvements. Prospectors found new lodes, such as the nickel mines around the world that ended a Canadian company’s near monopoly of the market. Thanks to computers, new machines and new chemical processes, there were more efficient ways to extract and refine the ores for chrome and the other metals.

For many uses, the metals were replaced by cheaper materials, notably plastics, which became less expensive as the price of oil declined (even during this year’s crisis in the Persian Gulf, the real cost of oil remained lower than in 1980). Telephone calls went through satellites and fiber-optic lines instead of copper wires. Ceramics replaced tungsten in cutting tools. Cans were made of aluminum instead of tin, and Vogt’s fears about America going to war over tin remained unrealized. The most newsworthy event in the 1980′s concerning that metal was the collapse of the international tin cartel, which gave up trying to set prices in 1985 when the market became inundated with excess supplies.

Is there a lesson here for the future?

“Absolutely not,” said Ehrlich in an interview. …



Michael Barone reviews a book on the recent financial crisis and suggests DC idiots are making the same mistakes again.

… The real problem was housing finance, argues my American Enterprise Institute colleague Peter Wallison in his new book Hidden in Plain Sight: What Really Caused the World’s Worst Financial Crisis and Why It Could Happen Again. Without changes in housing finance policy, he says, there would have been no financial crisis in 2008.

Government policies encouraged the granting of mortgages to non-creditworthy homebuyers, and government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (GSE’s) funneled securities laced with high-risk mortgages into major financial institutions. When house prices suddenly and unexpectedly dropped in 2007, these mortgage-backed securities became unsellable and the financial crisis quickly followed.

Wallison traces the policy mistake back to 1992, when Congress passed a law requiring the GSEs to purchase a certain percentage of its mortgages granted to low- and moderate-income homebuyers—30 percent originally, later adjusted up to 56 percent by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Previously the GSEs bought only mortgages in which the buyer made 10 to 20 percent down payments. That was revised downward to 3 percent and even zero. Such subprime mortgages proliferated until in 2008 they accounted for more than half of U.S. mortgages, 76 percent of which were on the books of the GSEs or government agencies like the FHA.

This was in line with the policy priorities of the Clinton and Bush administrations. They hailed the increase of homeownership from the 64 percent that prevailed from the mid-1960s up eventually, and temporarily, to 69 percent. They emphasized the importance of increasing homeownership by blacks and Hispanics who did not qualify as creditworthy under traditional credit standards, which were treated as superstitions.

The result was a house price bubble of unprecedented magnitude. Low-down payment mortgages inflated housing prices, because buyers could afford a larger house with the same down payment. Above-average households, though not the intended beneficiaries of lowered mortgage standards, took advantage of them by converting inflated housing values into cash by refinancing their mortgages. …