Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Did The Hunter Biden Laptop Come From China?

Did The Hunter Biden Laptop Come From China?

 The election season is nearly over, thank heavens, but I guess I shall throw one more story for it out there, one I really did not expect and find plenty weird, but with two different sources pushing it, well.  As it is, I must say that given how totally lacking in any credible support this whole Hunter Biden story was from the get go, I found it hard to believe that the Russian GRU was behind it. I think they are more competent than that. The Chinese I think are maybe less practiced at this sort of thing, although the versions of this going around are plenty weird.

So one version I saw this morning in the editorial page section in the Washington Post by Josh Rogin, who, it must be noted, seems to have somewhat of an anti-China bias, so I note that and would not have posted this if that were the only source.  According to him the story was promulgated by a supposedly dissident Chinese figure who many now think has switched and is now working for the CCP, attacking various dissidents abroad.  This story is a serious mess, frankly, and Rogin at the end of it admits that he really cannot figure it out and is not sure what is going on.

I saw the second one on daily kos in a post by Mark Sumner.  In that one, he reports that various right-wing social media sites have been claiming that the laptop and its emails are for real based on an analysis by a “Marten Aspen,” supposedly a cybersecurity expert in Switzerland.  But, according to Sumner (he does not report his sources), there is no such person, certainly not one in Switzerland, and that the photo supposedly of him seems to have been artificially created.

Abolish The Office Of The Director Of National Intelligence (ODNI)

Abolish The Office Of The Director Of National Intelligence (ODNI)

 A sign that this entity should be abolished, and I mean really gone, done in, not with its parts redistributed to other entities, is that it is an an entity defined by its director, not itself.  In preparing to write this post I checked on it, and I thought it was the ONI, the Office of National Intelligence. But, no, it is the ODNI, spelled out as above, really. And it should go.

Why was it ever created in the first place, this unnecessary entity?  It was created in 2005 as a reaction to the failures of the US intel establishment to “connect the dots” in the runup to the 9/11/01 disastrous attack that killed about 3,000 people in a terrorist attack, about 1.5% of the number of people who have died this year in the coronavirus pandemic in the US. Indeed, there were failures of communication between the FBI and the CIA then that helped lead to that attack.  But the creation of a supposedly overseeing entity has not remotely overcome the tendency of these agencies not to share information with each other, even though various politicians at the time thought that it would achieve such a result.

Indeed, this ODNI simply became yet another entity among others, at least 17 others in fact, over which it theoretically has power, but which in fact it does not.  I cannot even name all 17 of those entities, although I know that some of the more important ones are barely known to the US public, such as the NRO and the NGIA (and no, kids, not going to tell you all what they are what they do.  If you do not know, tough). There was never any way it was going to be on top of or direct or do anything useful at all with respect to any of these 17 entities, some of which also should probably go. But none of them as much as what has now become not only a useless entity but an odious one.

That it is not only useless but potentially dangerous has now become clear as Donald Trump has installed as the Director who justifies the existence of this entity, which is his “Office” after all, John Ratcliffe, five-year far-right Congressman from Texas with zero intelligence experience, but a record of supporting the most ridiculous conspiracy theories advocated by Donald Trump.  He promised not to be partisan in his new position, but almost everything he has done since his appointment suggests that he was lying when he made that promise.

Two items suggesting this include his affirmation that the New York Post story about a laptop supposedly belonging to Hunter Biden with various scandalous emails on it was not a product of Russian intelligence activity, even as over 40 former US intel officers publicly declared that it seriously looked like that was exactly the case, with this being pretty likely given that the person who provided the emails to the NY Post, Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, was reported many months ago to have been seriously involved with at least one known Russian intel agent.

An Irony About Interest Rates And Income Distribution

An Irony About Interest Rates And Income Distribution

 It has long been a truism of economics that high-interest rates were favored by wealthy capitalist lenders against poor borrowers, with such a view lying behind the populist demands of the late 19th century.  We are used to applauding Keynes’s forecast of the “euthanasia of the rentiers.” But now that such a situation is upon us of increasingly likely very low-interest rates for a long time ahead, this euthanasia does not seem so much like something poorer people should be all that happy about.

Increasingly it looks like the largest effect of prolonged very low-interest rates is a booming stock and real estate market.  The latter may help the middle class, but those gaining from the former are much more heavily concentrated among the wealthy, even though somehow Donald Trump thinks that nearly every American is totally focused on their 401ks and that really is what matters in the economy.  After all, we all know that it was the potential negative impact on the stock market that had Trump worrying about public “panic” back in early February when he told Woodward that he was not going to publicize how serious the coronavirus is.  Ironically he would probably be in much better electoral shape now if he had done so back then, with the economy probably doing better than it is, although I have no idea what the stock market would be doing. But Trump still has not figured all that out.

The Period Of Short Term Memory

The Period Of Short Term Memory

 The election is two weeks from today.  When I took an intro psych course over half a century ago, I was taught in it that two weeks is the period of short term memory, the period in which we remember events with special salience.  I do not know if this is still the official view of the profession, but it has since then made sense to me: I seem to be able, even now, to remember what happened day by day for the previous two weeks.  Things before then are “in the past,” although certainly some are salient and on my mind. But those that happened in the past two weeks are just that much more on my mind.

With this in mind even four years ago when people asked me to forecast the election outcome I would drag this up and say “anything can happen in the last two weeks that can change it,” and four years ago it happened with the James Comey public reopening of an email investigation into Hillary Clinton 11 days before the election.  Even though about two days before he announced nothing was found, the damage was done.  This year we all remember this, and while he is further ahead in national polls than she was at this point then, Joe  Biden is not much further ahead, and even behind in some, than she was in those crucial battleground states that will determine the outcome. So it remains fully possible that something unexpected can happen that will give Trump the victory.

Stealing Signs

Stealing Signs, Econospeak, October 13, 2020

I know this is a widespread and basically trivial matter, but since I had posted earlier about all of the BLM signs on my block (including at our house) accompanied more recently by signs related to the various political races (we have a Senate race, as well as House, and city council here) on the block, where we had some apparently hostile drivebys some while ago.

So last night somebody came and stole all the signs off our block that were not clearly for a GOP candidate in some race, with all the BLM signs going, including ours. I really do not like the idea of somebody coming on my property and stealing something, even if it is just a political sign. Oh well.

Barkley Rosser

In Michigan, similar happens. To add to the issue of signs gone missing is the counties typically have an ordinance which specifies how far back from the “center of a nearby road” the sign must be. This is to prevent obstructed views for drivers.

Most recently, a township building inspector attempted to remove signs which were 7 meters from the road’s center rather than the 10 meters required. In the removal, the worker sliced his fingers on razor blades taped to the bottom of the signs. I am not sure how they eyeball the sign distance from the road’s center as determining the center is not that precise. At times it seems to be overkill on the county’s part. And then there is the problem of the razor blades. The police did talk to the property owner who claimed the signs were stolen and then returned. So, he said.

run75441

Why Does MbS Want Hillary Clinton’s Emails?

Why Does MbS Want Hillary Clinton’s Emails?

 In yesterday’s Washington Post David Ignatius reports in a column about serious efforts by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) to get the infamous emails of Hillary Clinton publicized, something that President Trump also wants and SecState Pompeo has been promising while complaining about problems getting them out.  My guess is there is nothing in them not already known, but MbS has really been pushing on this.  Aside from trying to help his pal, Trump, what is up with this?

Ignatius speculates that this is tied to a new effort to assert his dictatorial total power in Saudi Arabia by MbS, in particular against the man he removed and replaced as Crown Prince in a coup that was encouraged by the Trump administration. That man is Mohammed bin Nayef (MbN), who was much admired and respected by the US intelligence establishment due to his cooperation in combatting various international terrorist groups.  His father, Mohammed bin Abdulaziz, a full Sudeiri Seven brother of MbS’s father, King Salman, was Minister of the Interior for a long time, and MbN served in that position, as well as being named Crown Prince by the previous king, Abdullah.

MbS had him arrested in his own palace by MbS’s personal military, with him having access to plenty as Minister of Defense when he pulled this off in 2017.  MbN was kept from having medicines he needed and forced to abdicate.  He has remained under house arrest since.

In The Face Of Total Turbulence, Go Totally Conventional For The Nobel Prize

In The Face Of Total Turbulence, Go Totally Conventional For The Nobel Prize

 I have noted in various places that I could not make a forecast this year on the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel because of all the turbulence on so many fronts going on.  So it occurred to me that the committee might avoid political controversy by going technical, although I thought it more likely they would give it for something in econometrics. But this year’s award was clearly in the works after Jean Tirole and Alvin Roth got theirs.  The real question for this one was which of the “Gang of Four,” David Kreps, Paul Milgrom, John Roberts, and Robert B. Wilson, who co-authored the super important game theory paper on reputation effects, allowing for cooperation over time in prisoner’s dilemma and other games, would get it.

In the end, it was Milgrom and his major professor Wilson, leaving Kreps and Roberts in the dust. It is given for their work on helping set up the FCC spectrum auctions, something practical for these theoreticians to do.  Milgrom is the giant of this group, with over 100,000 google scholar citations and a long list of other major accomplishments, such as the no-trade theorem, and things even in macro and economic history.  But Wilson has substantially fewer google scholar citations than either Kreps or Roberts.  They both have about 50,000 while Wilson is just over half that, despite being older than any of these others.  So it was Wilson’s work with Milgrom on the spectrum auction that got him to join Milgrom for the trip to Stockholm.

This is a non-controversial, almost boring, and certainly apolitical award, the committee playing it safe in this tumultuous year.

Barkley Rosser

When did Israel Become “America’s Best Ally”?

When did Israel Become “America’s Best Ally”?

 In the recent US Vice Presidential debate, the current US VP, Mike Pence dropped a throwaway line that until nobody has noticed until now. He labeled Israel as America’s “best ally,” or a term meaning the same thing.

I think that from at least 1917 the “best ally” of the US was either Canada or the UK. Under Trump, both of those alliances were downgraded, although they were loyal to us for all that time.

So now we have the supposedly new “best ally” (might be slightly different wording, but it means this), Israel.

Now I am much more for Israel than many on the left and elsewhere. I have long supported the two-state solution set in Oslo in 1992 or thereabouts. But the current admin throws that into a trash can.

On June 8, 1967, Israel sank the USS Liberty, killing 34 American citizens, wounding 171.

Sorry, Israel may be an “ally” of the USA, but this throwaway line that somehow it is US.s “best” or “top” or “leading ally” is just a joke.

For the record, if the current POTUS is not reelected, this fantasy will be undone and we shall return to our long-established relationships.  Sorry any fantasists who think otherwise, but Canada is a closer ally of the US than Israel.

Barkley Rosser

A Beady-Eyed Religious Fanatic For The Supreme Court

A Beady-Eyed Religious Fanatic For The Supreme Court

 Others may not see what I see when I look at a full-face photo of Amy Conet Barrett, but I see someone who looks like a fanatic to me, although that may be me reading in what I have heard of her views on things, she being Trump’s nominee for the SCOTUS, with GOPsters in the Senate hypocritically ready to put her in there in time to help Trump steal the election.

I know we are not supposed to pick on people for their religious views, but she does belong to a weird cult, the Praise for People group, which is not strictly Catholic as many have claimed, but did come out of the Catholic Charismatic movement in 1971 with most of its members Catholic.  It accepts such things as speaking in tongues, which is not something generally accepted by most Catholics, generally, something practices by extreme Protestant sects. It also is sexist, with women forbidden from holding leadership positions and with each member having to follow the lead of a “Head.

Those defending Barrett claim she is “very intelligent.”  I am sure she is, but that does not keep her from being a fanatic.  She clerked for the late Justice Scalia, and conservatives want someone like him, but her views are more extreme than his.

Of course, she has criticized Roe v. Wade as well as the ACA, with a case on that being heard on Nov. 10 by the SCOTUS.  Clearly, this is the issue Dems need to run hardest on in trying to oppose her, which will be hard given that even Sen. Murkowski of AK is thinking of supporting her.

The “Trump Effect” On Happiness

The “Trump Effect” On Happiness

 In a column in yesterday’s Washington Post, Dana Milbank has written on “Trump has made our lives worse. Here’s the proof.”  He labels this apparent outcome of the “Trump Effect.”

Since 1972 the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago has annually studied the nation’s mood. They survey people to find out how they identify their level of happiness. As of this summer, an all-time record low of 14% declared themselves “very happy.” This compares with 29% saying that at the lowest point after the 2008 financial crisis. OTOH, fully 36% declared themselves to be “satisfied” with their financial situation and a record low expressed dissatisfaction, the survey taken at a time when expanded unemployment benefits were still in effect.  But Milbank declared that this amounted to a disjuncture between peoples’ economic conditions and declared happiness, with this contradicting, or at least failing to support, a longstanding finding from happiness surveys in the past.

This may be an overstated conclusion. Milbank did not report on it, but studies over the years have found that higher-income people tend to declare themselves to be happier than lower-income people. This may still hold.  In the US this finding has been part of the famous “Easterlin Paradox,” that higher-income people report higher levels of life satisfaction (or happiness) at any given point in time while over time as national income rises, happiness levels do not rise. Indeed, another data source with a longer time horizon on this found US national happiness to have gradually declined since 1957. It must be noted that this finding of declining national happiness as national income rises does not show up in al nations, although it has been observed in several others besides the US, leading to much controversy and debate. Richard Easterlin himself (still alive well into his 90s) has emphasized the impact of distribution of income and perceived economic security, with peoples’ happiness depending on how they compare themselves with others.  So even though income rose rapidly, the ending of old age pensions and rising income inequality led happiness levels in China to decline from around 1990 to around 2004, although they have increased again since as pensions were extended to rural areas.