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July 2010

The way Ann Arbor rolls

"The debate in Ann Arbor, where firefighters are being laid off due to a multimillion dollar budget deficit, is over an $850,000 piece of art.

"That's how much the city has agreed to pay German artist Herbert Dreiseitl for a three-piece water sculpture that would go in front of the new police and courts building right by the City Hall."

Even in properous times, publicly-funded art has little excuse. But when you're laying off firefighters? Sheesh.

If you're in Washington, D.C. before September 6 . . .

. . . you might want to drop by the National Building Museum (401 F. St. N.W.) and see the work of Adam Reed Tucker, Lego builder extraordinaire.

In a sunny gallery on the second floor of the museum, compelling large-scale reproductions of the Empire State Building, the Sears Tower (the Chicago landmark now known as the Willis Tower) and the current highest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, stand next to one another, as if relocated to form an ideal city of overachieving architecture. The Burj Khalifa model, which took 340 hours to build, is 17 1/2 feet high and incorporates 450,300 bricks.

By the way, just so you'll know: "There are approximately 62 Lego bricks per person on Earth . . ."

Too hot? Things could be worse . . .

In 1896, during 10 terribly hot days in New York City--the city's heat index "routinely" surpassed 120 degrees--1300 people died from the heat.

Without air conditioning or even reliable deliveries of ice, tenements became ovenlike death traps. Almost the entire Lower East Side, around 250,000 people, scrambled up to their roofs to sleep. Those who failed to procure a spot on a sweltering roof were forced to sleep on fire escapes, windowsills and stoops. It was not uncommon to hear of people who rolled over in their sleep, falling to their death. One man even drowned after turning over -- his bed was a Hudson River pier at West 37th Street.

But the hellish heat itself was the main killer. City papers began reporting on a shortage of coffins. Overcrowded morgues had to lay bodies on the floor.

"Why I Will Never Be A Keynesian"

Richard Epstein:

Yet that is not how matters sit with the new Keynesians. Posner seeks to find a larger space for public investment in a downturn by declaring that “[an a]mbitious public‐works program can be a confidence builder,” seeking to tap into Keynes’s explanation of how the government can promote the “return of confidence.” But the argument ignores the obvious indignant response that a poorly run government program can destroy confidence and further demoralize businesses who think that higher taxes will snatch away the fruits of their efforts. Only by assuming the eternal and unalterable benevolence of government can one posit that all soft externalities will move in the same direction. Think of the public cynicism about the Alaskan “bridge to nowhere,” or foolish public expenditures that led to the construction of the Murtha‐Johnstown‐Cambria Airport. These projects shatter public confidence.

What is missing from this entire paean to public works and expenditures is any sense of the public‐choice dynamics that make pork barrel politics the order of the day. I am no social historian, but I suspect that public expenditures were also hijacked for partisan advantage in the Great Depression. But by the same token, I think that the size of the heists are far greater in a $787 billion pork barrel package, most of which is directed toward delayed capital expenditures that do not have (if any expenditure has) their supposed stimulus effect. In the end, it seems clear that the best solution is to lower taxes and not to leverage high taxes as an excuse for expanded public spending.

. . .

Continue reading ""Why I Will Never Be A Keynesian"" »

Are room-temperature superconductors close?

The Register, 7/15:

Topflight boffins believe they may be on the track of the fabled room-temperature superconductor, a technology which - if achieved - promises to revolutionise various fields including hover trains, electric power, mighty dimension-portal atom smashers and even supercomputing.

The new science relates to the study of copper-oxide superconductors. A superconductor is a material which carries an electric current without any resistance: naturally, as a result, it is excellent for generating tremendously powerful magnetic fields. These are useful for such purposes as building MRI scanners, mag-lev hover trains and colossal very-fabric-of-spacetime-rending particle punchers such as the famous Large Hadron Collider.

More stuff that ought to stop ASAP

Peter Suderman, associate edtior of Reason, "A legacy of budget trickery: Peter Orszag's sleight of hand":

When fiscal planners make a budget, they have to create what’s known as a “baseline scenario.” It’s an assumption about what the future holds without budgetary changes — in essence, “here’s what will happen if we do nothing.” Budget wonks then measure their proposed changes in comparison to what would have happened if we’d stuck to the baseline.

In the federal budget process, the baseline scenario is typically based on current law. But the Obama administration has argued that it should be able to work from “current policy.” That way, they can stuff all sorts of expensive future changes into the baseline.

Changing the baseline doesn’t generate any actual savings. But it allows the administration to ignore certain policies and only measure the changes that produce favorable results.

So this year, the White House decided to assume the cost of several provisions from its stimulus bill — expansions of the child tax credit, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and Pell Grants — into its baseline. Those policies were all explicitly created to be temporary. But by quietly assuming they’ll continue on, the administration avoids accounting for $216 billion.

Read the whole discouraging piece.