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

Congratulations to Kim Kardashian

From the World Economic Forum:

Kim Kardashian is an unlikely champion of statistics, but a tweet from the reality TV star in January 2017 contained a startling figure that has been named International Statistic of the Year.

She shared a table showing a range of violent or unexpected ways people meet their deaths annually in the United States. Kardashian’s aim was to highlight how many more Americans are killed by fellow citizens with guns, than by terrorists.

Terrorism, UK Today, France Yesterday

From a story in Daily Mail:

Terror suspects including jihadis returning from fighting in Syria are to be offered taxpayer-funded homes, counselling and help finding jobs to stop them carrying out attacks in Britain.

The top-secret Government strategy, codenamed Operation Constrain, could even allow fanatics to jump to the top of council house waiting lists.

Official documents seen by The Mail on Sunday reveal that up to 20,000 extremists previously investigated by MI5 will be targeted with what critics last night described as ‘bribes’ aimed at turning them away from extremism.

The highly contentious nationwide programme is due to start next year, with police and cash-strapped councils hoping the Home Office will pay for it out of its £900 million counter-terrorism budget.

The article goes on:

The move comes amid growing concern at the huge number of radical Islamists living in Britain who the security services are unable to track effectively.

Fanatics who had been under surveillance by MI5 in the past were among the perpetrators of the two terror attacks in London and one in Manchester this year that left 35 people dead.

The intelligence agencies fear as many as 20,000 former ‘subjects of interest’ – people who had been monitored but later dropped off the radar – could be plotting fresh atrocities. It is this group that will be targeted by the new scheme.

A bit more:

A fierce debate has also raged about how to deal with the estimated 360 battle-hardened jihadis who have returned to Britain after fighting with Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and the ones who may come back now after the fall of the so-called caliphate.

Bear in mind an awful lot of these battle-hardened jihadis ended up that way because they were attracted by the propaganda about how they were going to get to treat the, well, call them infidels.  If the Daily Mail story is anything close to true, I imagine “bang for the buck” is going to be an element in a very bad pun for the British taxpayer.

Now here is an article about France in Deutsche Welle  (Deutsche Welle is Germany’s equivalent to the BBC International Service or Voice of America) from a few weeks ago:

France is about to pass a new anti-terror law as it eases its way out of the state of emergency. But civil rights campaigners say it will put citizens under general suspicion. Lisa Louis reports from Paris.

The state of emergency was declared in the immediate aftermath of the November 2015 terror attacks, in which 130 people were killed. France has since been hit by various other attacks and martial law has been renewed several times. It will now expire in early November, just like President Emmanuel Macron had promised during his election campaign.

But first, parts of it will be enshrined in general law.
“The terror threat level is still very high and we can’t just lift emergency rule without adapting our law accordingly,” said MP Yaël Braun-Pivet from the government party La Republique en Marche (LREM). She heads the National Assembly’s Law Commission that has drawn up the new anti-terror legislation.

To summarize… measures that in the past were so extraordinary they were meant to deal with insurrection and other threats to the nation are going to become everyday law under a President who just half a year ago campaigned as the Great Left Hope.  I am not an attorney, but effectively, it seems to me to be the equivalent of the US having and lifting martial law, though not before taking some of the provisions of martial law and moving them into our civil and criminal codes.

French authorities also make a case that sometimes there is an overlap between those who commit petty crimes and those who commit terrorist acts.

I think most people would prefer to live in a world with less terrorism (and less petty crime) on the one hand, and fewer police powers on the other hand.  But scaling back the cops isn’t going to prevent the next terrorist attack, much less the one after that.  So there is a trade-off.

Obviously, working backward, none of this would have happened without an assortment of terrorist attacks, some spectacular and some mundane. If you had the ability to tweak one thing in the past, what is the smallest change in French history that would have prevented France from having all these terrorist attacks?  Are there any lessons in this for Britain?  What about for the US?


Update, 5:11 AM PST, 10/31/2017…  a couple of minor grammatical corrections were made.

Terrorism and Immigration Policy

From a story in The Globe and Mail

The 22-year-old Mr. Abedi was identified Tuesday by Manchester police as the suspected bomber. British media reported that he was born in Manchester to parents who fled the violent repression of Moammar Gadhafi’s Libya.

Little else is known about Mr. Abedi – British authorities have been tight-lipped about the investigation and only released Mr. Abedi’s name after it was leaked by U.S. officials – but his profile as the child of Muslim immigrants is similar to that of other recent Islamic State and al-Qaeda devotees who have brought terror to the cities of Europe.

Second-generation immigrants born in France to parents who had immigrated from Algeria carried out the Charlie Hebdo massacre in the centre of Paris in 2015. The Belgian-born children of Moroccan immigrants masterminded the shooting and bomb attacks on the Bataclan nightclub and Stade de France later the same year. All five perpetrators of last year’s bombings of the Brussels airport and subway had a similar profile.

“If the story of radicalization and Islamism in Europe is about anything, it’s about second-generation immigrants, children of immigrants who feel culturally dislocated … a sense of dislocation related to being brought up in Western culture and finding something doesn’t quite fit,” said Shashank Joshi, a senior fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies.

Of course, it isn’t just Europe. Think Omar Mateen, Syed Farook, Nidal Hasan, Nadir Soofi, and add to them any number of individuals raised in the US who made their way to fight for ISIS or Al Shabaab.

One would think that the children of immigrants would be particularly unlikely to want to cause to harm to their country. Their parents, after all, got lucky when they were able to come here. That is something they should know and a message they should pass on to their children. (Those feelings are something to which I can attest; on my father’s side, I am a second generation immigrant.)

But that decency and gratitude is clearly more than some people will show to their compatriots. And that is becoming more and more of a problem, particularly now that the terrorists have become vile enough to directly target children.

(Before you decide this is something we brought on ourselves by provoking people through our behavior abroad, bear in mind two things. The first is that pacifist countries like Sweden get the same treatment we do. The second is that Osama bin Laden told us a decade and a half ago that one of his goals was the “liberation” of al Andalus.)

Of course, none of this is to say that we don’t have atrocities committed by people who aren’t 2nd-gen-immigrants.  We do, and too many at that. No decision made at the INS in the last few decades would have saved Americans from Dylan Roof or John Allen Muhammad. On the other hand, without the signature by an immigration officer a generation ago, Omar Mateen’s 49 victims would still be alive.

Now, we have the population we have. The next Mateen is already in the US, and the next Abedi is already in Europe, and they will kill more of us, and more of our children. But there is another Mateen and another Abedi that are a little farther out. They haven’t been born yet, and their parents are currently somewhere far away. For the sake of our descendants we had better figure out how to recognize not just those evil enough to perpetrate callous acts of violence, but also those who don’t have the decency to teach their children not to be evil themselves. And we damn well better make sure we don’t let them into the country.

Chechnya and 2004

Reader Matthew McOsker sends a note pointing us to 2004 and reading for context:

Who are the Boston Marathon terrorists? Some early reports state the men are Chechen. So where does Chechnya fit into global terrorism? I found the following piece that gives a nice summary:

” On September 1, 2004, a group of Chechen terrorists took hostage and two days later murdered at least 335 schoolchildren and parents in Beslan, a town in the Russian republic of North Ossetia. The atrocity focused world attention on Chechnya. The Russian government used the event to reiterate its arguments that Chechen terrorists and foreign jihadists supporting them have ideological, financial, and operational ties with Islamist terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda.[1] Although President Vladimir Putin and top Russian security officials provided evidence of links between Chechen fighters and Al-Qaeda, European politicians and mainstream Western journalists focused instead upon the Russian army’s brutality and dismissed Putin’s claims as an attempt to gain sympathy in the West and deflect criticism of Russia’s handling of a nationalist insurgency. ”

Can you imagine Pakistan as…?

Just listen to this and while you do, knowing this was recorded in a studio in Pakistan, by Pakistani’s try to jive that with “they hate us because…” and all that comment suggests.    Dave Brubeck’s Take Five

Here is the video about the orchestra. They actually work with Abbey Road Studio. 1500 concerts, 17 albums from the Pakistan studio.  They talk about the great jazz artist traveling the world “to physically promote American culture”.  

Being that jazz, the true American art form,  is part of their culture, are we not bombing a part of our self?  Is such a performance not a testament to the benefit of cultural exchange via the arts to ours and the worlds economy?   Now, think of Bush and Cheney and try to jive the image with this performance.  Even jazz couldn’t do it.

I put this one in my favorites folder at youtube.  Hat tip on this performance to Real Economics.

Shockwave Rider: it’s Now, Don’t Tell the Terrorists

by Bruce Webb

I no longer try to follow Science-Fiction, but from 1964 to 1977 which is to say from the time I was seven until I turned twenty and joined the Navy I read pretty much everything and had built up a pretty massive library. Among them was a book called The_Shockwave_Rider by John Brunner. The wiki article explains the basic premise as follows

The title derives from the futurological work by Alvin Toffler. Future Shock. The hero is a survivor in a hypothetical world of quickly changing identities, fashions and lifestyles, where individuals are still controlled and oppressed by a powerful and secretive state apparatus. His highly developed computer skills enable him to use any public telephone to punch in a new identity, thus reinventing himself, within hours. As a fugitive, he must do this regularly in order to escape capture. The title is also a metaphor for survival in an uncertain world.

The novel, originally published in 1975, at a time when the Internet was still mostly a DARPA research project and the home computer was just a dream, was way ahead of its time both in terms of the technology represented and the genre, one that is now I guess known as cyber-punk (I told you I was out of touch). Well a couple of things combined today to make me realize that not only have we reached the world of Shockwave Rider, we have made it as banal as a trip to 7/11 and Safeway. Because in a world where the government is tracking just about everything, it has never been more easy to go off the info grid while paradoxically staying fully wired at all times. Good news for people who value privacy, which unfortunately include Mafia Dons, Mexican Drug Cartels, and international Terrorists. Some discussion below the fold.

First thing to realize is that none of this is secret to the bad guys, even public information tells us that these groups are pretty technologically sophisticated. Why is why the event that prompted the post is so misguided. Apparently Senator Schumer has introduced a bill that would require anyone buying a disposible pre-paid cell phone to show ID, This news, brought to me by John Cole at Baloon Juice spurred a long comment which the Intertubes just swallowed a few seconds ago (kind of ironic in context). Well this proposal tied into some things I have been thinking about in relation to my own life situation to add up to the question “Can anyone ride the Shockwave and remain undetected while still moving through ordinary society and all without engaging in criminal acts?” Well to a surprising degree you can.

Let’s start. Let’s assume you have enough existing ID to obtain a certified copy of your own birth certificate, as it happens I actually have the original of that as well as my original SS card, and some time back used them to secure a valid Passport which added to a valid Washington State Driver’s license. All perfectly legitimate, and all you need to do is to keep on the right side of the DMV and the IRS,

Now beyond your passport and driver’s license what are the essentials for living in American society legitimately but invisibly. Well first and foremost you need a mailing address, and ideally one that will accept packages for you. Well even small towns have some equivalent of Mailbox Express, and the IRS and your bank will accept that as a legitimate address. My mailbox place also offers secured storage, and with legitimate ID will link that to their own premises for invoicing. Having a mailing address and legit ID allows you to open a banking account which now universally come with a Debit Card which doubles as a Credit Card. But of course you can’t use that card in truly anonymous fashion. So what is next?

Well you establish an online presence, which in turn requires computer access. Now there are ways to do this anonymously via Internet cafes and the like but for true invisibility you have an option, buy a WiFi capable device, for me that is an iPad, paying cash, then find a truly anonymous public WiFi spot. Which these days is likely to be a MacDonalds or a public building. Now you are in business because you don’t have to supply proof of anything to set up multiple free accounts under Google, Yahoo, and the upgrade MS HotMail, each of which give you legitimate e-mail addresses and access to a variety of services including free online storage and with Google a free incoming phone number with auto voice mail. This in turn allows you to register for free content from across the web, none of which can be readily traced to you, after all if you paid cash or equivalent for you WiFI device and don’t register it with the manufacturer, all anyone can do is gather your device number (if that) and your current location.

Okay but not everything on the web is free and there will be times you want to engage in e-commerce. Well this is where riding the Shockwave has been reduced to the truly banal, all you need to do is go to the Gift Card section of your local Safeway where you will find a nice assortment of pre-paid and reloadable Gift Cards from each of the major credit card companies, none of which (at least to date) require you to show any ID and while online registration (in case of loss or theft) is possible it is not mandatory. Now this is a huge development whose implications have not I think been grasped. A few years ago I would have said it is near impossible to function at a reasonable level without credit, in particular travel was almost impossible, without a credit card equivalent with a reasonable line you couldn’t rent a car or often get hotel reservations, or in some cases even hotel check-in. Well these days you can buy your own credit in pretty much whatever amounts you need, and all without giving the credit card companies any room to screw you over by changing terms and rates or arbitrarily cutting your line. If you work it right and pay attention to grace periods you can have a wallet full of credit and store cards none of which tie back to your credit score or indeed even to your identity.

Put all the pieces together and you can live a life that is perfectly legitimate but for all practical purposes invisible, with online banking you can even cut your physical connection to the mailbox that remains your legal anchor point for your passport, drivers license, and for the tax authorities, and for those you can have a third party pick up official communications or simply have them forwarded.

This is not theoretical for me, sometime in the next six months I will be relocating, perhaps even taking a job that will have me in constant travel for the next few years, and one consideration was how I could be on the move all the time while still maintaining near 24/7 availability on the web while simultaneously free of the tyranny of the credit card companies and rating agencies. Five years ago I would have told you this was difficult and trending towards impossible, for example insurance companies were increasingly using credit scores to set your car insurance rates or even to deny you coverage at all, and there were indications that health insurers were moving in the same direction, while between your credit card company and your internet provider your entire life could be reconstructed via a combination of your purchases off and on line combined with your web surfing. Well not so now, a combination of a store bought pre-paid credit card, a Google account plus perhaps two or three other online e-mail accounts, and a WiFi browsing device and you too can be a Shockwave Rider, and all without the “highly developed computer skills” of the book’s hero.

This is not to say that there are not some tradeoff’s. Without current credit history and a good score you won’t be able to finance a house, then again for millions of people burned by the housing bubble and all too many having their equity and their credit disappear during foreclosure, this may be more a feature than a bug of riding the Shockwave. Similarly you might have serious problems financing a new car or getting it insured, which might get you thinking whether your really need a car to start with. Equally not having a good credit history is likely to block you from employment in the financial sector and perhaps from working for other Fortune 500 companies, not something that concerns me much either, and I suspect it would give a little heartburn to the FBI doing a background check for a security clearance, equally not high on my priority list. All in all I think I’ll give the Ride at least an approximation of a try, after all I’ll always be reachable on-line, just like I never left.

Trade-Offs and Revealed Preferences, Republican Leadership edition

Even more than Digby on CalPERS, the one piece everyone should read today is Charlie Stross on International Travel. Since this is an economics blog, let’s pull a key section:

Here’s the rub: security is a state of mind, not a procedure. Procedures can’t cope with attackers, because they’re inflexible. If you search passengers for guns, someone will carry a knife. If you search for knives, someone will sew themselves a set of underwear full of PETN. And so on. To deal with a threat — say, someone who wants to attack your air travel infrastructure — you must look for the attacker, not their tools, because they can change their tools at will to exploit weaknesses in your procedure for identifying tools.

JFK is wide open to terrorists intent on causing mass casualties….

Schiphol — Amsterdam airport — gets the security screening right, or at least less wrong than JFK and most other airports. Rather than having a hideous bottleneck between check-in and the departure area, security screening is carried out at each depature gate, with a separate metal detector and X-ray belt; no huge crowds form in unsecured areas. On US-bound flights, someone who clearly isn’t a minimum-wage drone checks ID documents and asks a couple of questions that seem to me to the aimed at flushing out anyone who is disturbed or tense — a crude form of profiling.[italics his; boldfacing mine]

South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint preferred to let the TSA remain leaderless for the past year in fear of unionization of the workers. As he explained to CNN:

Or, as quoted by Mark “neither Ernest nor earnest” Hemingway the Washington Examiner, in a piece oh-so-sensibly entitled Napolitano wants to unionize TSA employees despite safety concerns:

The administration is intent in on unionizing and submitting our airport security to union bosses [and] collective bargaining, and this is at a time, as Senator Lieberman says, we’ve got to use our imagination we’ve got to be constantly flexible. We have to out think the terrorists. When we formed the airport security system we realize we could not use collective bargaining and unionization because of that need to be flexible. Yet that appears to be the top priority of the administration.

But DeMint was much clearer on the Senate floor, and speaking to Fox:

It makes absolutely no sense to submit the security of our airports and the passengers here in this country to collective bargaining with unions.

Which, of course, is why police and fire departments are all non-union as well.

The people you attract to any job—by your deliberate practices, not “unintended consequence”—are those who cannot get a job that they know to be more stable, pays better, has better benefits, or provide a more friendly work atmosphere. By your policies and procedures, you reveal the type of worker you prefer. This is as true of the TSA as it is of Goldman Sachs.

In the case of the TSA, though, the combination produces the natural hire as the people who couldn’t get a job at Applebee’s, The Olive Garden, or Ruby Tuesday’s.

As Paul Kedrosky recently noted, it’s more “security theater” than security. So when DeMint compares the TSA to the FBI, he’s neglecting that the average staring salary at the FBI eight years ago was over $43,000—with an increase of at least $10,000 upon completion of training. This is $20,000-$30,000 a year more than the $12/hour my neighbor made when he started with the TSA. (He quit quickly, finding restaurant work more profitable.)

If you want security, you pay for people who know how to do security. If you want theater, you depend on Jim DeMint to ensure that the TSA remains leaderless, and then have no right to be surprised when a British novelist points out that your security isn’t secure. Even when he says:

Suppose I wanted to attack the US air travel infrastructure….I can kill lots of passengers! All I need to do is to buy a maximum-size carry on bag (US dimensions: 7″ x 13″ x 20″) and build the biggest, heaviest bomb into it that I can wheel behind me….

All I would have to do then is buy a ticket…and go queue. Then, when I get to the middle of the crowd, detonate the device. (For added horrors: have an accomplice with a similar device hang back, to detonate their bomb amidst the fleeing survivors.)

[S]ecurity checkpoints are a target, too, because they slow down travellers and cause crowds to form, and another term for “crowd” is “convenient target”. And because the attacker has not been separated from their weapon at the point when they reach such a target, it’s the logical weak point for causing maximum damage.


In the news over the past couple of days, I have heard the concealed explosives of the Undiebomber described as “weapons of mass destruction.”

To me, this didn’t sound quite right — in fact, it sounded like a naming convention the Bush administration might have used.

To check whether this was just me, I first stopped in at Wikipedia, where I found:

A weapon of mass destruction (WMD) is a weapon that can kill large numbers of humans and/or cause great damage to man-made structures (e.g. buildings), natural structures (e.g. mountains), or the biosphere in general. The scope and application of the term has evolved and been disputed, often signifying more politically than technically. Coined in reference to aerial bombing with chemical explosives, it has come to distinguish large-scale weaponry of other technologies, such as chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear. This differentiates the term from more technnical ones such as chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons (CRBN).

Now, knocking down an airplane with an explosive is a major act of destruction, but does it qualify as deployment of a WMD? I wouldn’t think so.

Taking down four planes, two enormous buildings and part of a third building is a huge act of destruction, but there aren’t any WMDs involved there either, unless you count the two towers themselves, the dust from which has yielded distinctly WMD-like effects.

So who then made the decision to call the PETN, as destructive as it undoubtedly is, a WMD, and up the terrorism ante from failed airplane bomber to a wielder of thunderbolts?

I found a December 25th CNN article comparing Richard Reid (another plane bomb failure, eight years ago) to Abdulmutallab, and using the term WMD. Checking further using Google News, I found this graph:

It looks like my intuition is right and the WMD usage was indeed a Bush hangover, though the term itself originated years previous to the run-up to the Iraq war.

Perhaps the media should be more careful, since WMDs are generally held to be biological, chemical or nuclear weapons, not common items like PETN, used in small caliber ammunition, land mines and shells, and as the explosive core of detonation cord.

A better phrase might be “weapon.” Or, for extreme cases, “big weapon.”

The suspected terrorist went to a federal pen?

by: Divorced one like Bush

So, we can’t bring the Gitmo crowd here because they are dangerous and would create an inviting situation for further terrorism, but we can take the suspected Northwest Airline man to a federal pen just outside of Detroit? A suspected terrorist, in a federal pen?

What?  Does the government really think that we don’t need the auto industry now so – so what if Detroit get’s all blown up? How could they do this to Detroit, risking all our money after helping GM and Chrysler?

Hope everyone remembers this when the super patriots come screaming again about how dangerous it is to close Gitmo and bring them to a federal pen.   At this point in the game, one is suppose to call Bull S#$t.

In the eye of the beholder

Came across a couple of videos. This first one is an issue of perspective on the thought of what is terroism or what is a terroist act.

This second one is just plain funny (at least to me). It spoofs on the Annie Oakley comment by Senator Obama.

On the economy side of things using my GFP (gross flower production), things were not as good as last year. What started off as a year with a bang, is now looking to be equal to last years numbers. We were up 21% end of March. End of April we were up 4.7%. As of Mother’s Day, 2.6% on the year. Interestingly, looking at credit card use for the holiday months Valentines was up 23%, Easter was up 13% and now Mother’s Day is down 27%. This is the shift I saw starting last August. But, cash sales are up for May 33%. They were up for January and February, but cash sales were down both March and April.