Tuesday, July 30, 2013

"The Biggest Government Bond Bubble in History" [UPDATED]

 So Andrew Haldane, a top official at the Bank of England, declared in June of his own institution, as quoted in "The Near-Zero Interest Rate Trap", an opinion piece in today's WSJ,  written by Robert I. McKinnon, a professor at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.  Professor McKinnon writes that the bubble is not limited to the Bank of England:

The Federal Reserve, the Bank of England, the Bank of Japan, and European Central Bank all have used quantitative easing to force down their long-term interest rates. The result is that major industrial economies have all dramatically increased the market value of government and other long-term bonds held by their banks and other financial institutions. Now each central bank fears long-term rates rising to normal levels, because their nation's commercial banks would suffer big capital losses—in short, they would "de-capitalize."
With less capital, we would have banks reducing lending even further, and there we go again: staring at deflation.  Meanwhile, the stock market struggles upward, because investors and savers, rejecting those bonds already, have nowhere else to go.  What are the investors and savers to do, then, bury their cash in the back yard, buy gold?  The market rules, and it will finally make its will effective, whether the politico-bankers are in Washington, D.C. or some other first-world capital.

As to the stock-market, which had a "Great July" this year, one has to view its return in a 15 or 20 year perspective and, then, discount its rise by the inflation that has occurred during that period.  Furthermore, with respect to a tax-paying investor, one has to further reduce those returns by the income tax that the taxpayer must pay on that investor's returns.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

China Fouls Its Farm Lands

Estimates from state-affiliated researchers say that anywhere between 8% and 20% of China's arable land, some 25 to 60 million acres, may now be contaminated with heavy metals. A loss of even 5% could be disastrous, taking China below the "red line" of 296 million acres of arable land that are currently needed, according to the government, to feed the country's 1.35 billion people.

Rural China's toxic turn is largely a consequence of two trends, say environmental researchers: the expansion of polluting industries into remote areas a safe distance from population centers, and heavy use of chemical fertilizers to meet the country's mounting food needs. Both changes have been driven by the rapid pace of urbanization in a country that in 2012, for the first time in its long history, had more people living in cities than outside of them.

-from a story in today's Weekend Edition of the WSJ, entitled "China's Bad Earth".

Among other things, the rice harvest is becoming increasingly toxic and in decline.

Not enough little girls and younger women, the air fouled by pollution, resulting in shorter life-expectancies, and now this. What is to become of China? Believe me, that bell will toll for us.

Lower Suicide Rates for Coffee Drinkers

These results from three large cohorts [of American adults] support an association between caffeine consumption and lower risk of suicide.
-The conclusion from a study published in the World Journal of Biological Psychiatry.

A cup of coffee certainly lifts my spirits. Drinking coffee raises Dr. McDougall's eyebrows, however.  The plant-strong people don't like it either.

I have a list of spirit-lifting, physical activities.  Coffee drinking is up there, but certainly not at the top.

It would be helpful to know who funded the linked-to study.

Friday, July 26, 2013

A High Calling

[God] has "told [us] what is good" (Micah 6:8), in the Bible, in the person of his Son, and in the gift of conscience.  He has given us faculties to discern the divine order in the world.  Law is thus not merely a means of social control to be manipulated by those in power to achieve their ends.  Making, interpreting, and executing law consistent with divine ordering is a high calling, not a power-grab or arbitrary assertion.

-from "Evangelicals and Catholics Together on Law: The Lord of Heaven and Earth - a Joint Statement by Evangelical and Catholic Legal Scholars", just published and accessible to read through the Journal of Christian Thought, the Summer 2013 issue, and the Journal of Catholic Social Thought.

This part of the joint statement (and the whole of it) I find to be profoundly encouraging and moving.  Practicing law can become so wearisome and such an invitation to cynicism.  In the hands of Christians at least, the process is potentially transformed.  While we Christian lawyers are liable to lose sight of our calling, non-lawyer Christians seem to fail utterly to see it. 

The faith community has generally lost the idea of vocation except as it applies to religious-workers.  How many times did I hear, growing up a Southern Baptist, that this person or that is giving himself to "full-time Christian service", as he marches off to seminary or the mission field.  No minister I ever heard of ever recognized a young person going off to law school that way! 

At best, the church communities tend to view the lawyers among them as leadership resources for the congregation or denomination and sources of financial support, and, at worst, as Christians who are caught in terrible tension between the dark demands of the law and their Christian faith.  The question I have been asked over the years, when the subject of being a Christian lawyer comes up, is a variation of the theme "How can you be a lawyer and a Christian."  The answer is that God calls Christians into the profession, and he will not call us into something in which he will not also be absolutely involved.

(Speaking of vocation, I would suggest that the next project for a joint statement is Evangelicals and Catholics Together on Business: The Lord of the Marketplace.)

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Shirley Jones on the Diane Rhem Show Today

Wow, what a woman, Shirley Jones, a fixture at our house when the kids were growing up, when the main VHS cassette we had was "The Music Man".  "Oklahoma!" was the first screened musical I can remember seeing, and a wide-screen one at that at a Miami top of the line theater.  It even had an intermission.  Mom and I went.  (We were real movie-pals.) I had never seen Shirley Jones before in anything, and I found her simply amazing.

She has a new book out, entitled Shirley Jones: a Memoir, and Diane Rhem interviewed her today on NPR.  That interview is worth a visit.

UPDATE:  I downloaded the book via Kindle and have read the first third or so of it.  I think the interview will do for most people.  The author startles with details of her sexual history (and in the interview, one is forewarned of it).  The story, simply written, provides a window into the entertainment world and that world is as troubled as we bourgeoisie believe it to be.  Miss Jones was an extraordinarily gifted young-woman, in the right place and at the right time.  She appears not really to have been prepared for the fantastic world she entered.  (A Universalist religious upbringing.  No reading of the Great Books or equivalent life-apprentice experience, apparently.)  Approaching 80 years of age, however, she can write purple (and wear it) if she chooses.  She chooses.

And of course I'll finish the book.

SECOND UPDATE:  Finished the book.  It is an entertainment.  Ms. Jones is an entertainer.  The book, easy to read, has substance to it, however, as there clearly is substance to Ms. Jones herself.  Why did she remain devoted to her first husband for so long?  I think the fundamental answer is her devotion to her children, although she writes of him in indearing terms consistently, perhaps too consistently.  Dealing with him was obviously a terribly difficult situation for all of them.  She got their children, his son, and herself through it all with a sort of iron will, independence, and remarkable gifts.   

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Ol' Dan Tucker died with Plantar Faciitis

Ol' Dan Tucker (or "Old Dan Tucker") is an old song I learned with a number of others as a very little boy.  I had a record player that was in a little suit case with a handle.  I could lay it down flat, open the top, plug in the cord, set a record on the turntable, turn it on, and place the needle at the edge of the 78 rpm disk. I remember a particular record - it was yellow - that had Oh Susannah, Ol' Dan Tucker, some nursery rhyme songs.  I played it all the time.

But I could never figure out the lyric that reports that Ol' Dan Tucker "died with a toothache in his heel."  Your teeth are in your head, I carefully reasoned.  How can you have a tooth ache in your foot?  I laughed.  Somebody was making a joke.

Somebody was telling the truth.

I hurt my right foot, specifically my right heel, at CrossFit a couple of months ago.  I ignored the pain, and the pain only got worse.  I finally limped to a podiatrist.  His diagnosis, after an x-ray and an MRI (I do what I can to support the medical profession these days), was plantar faciitis.  I had this problem once before, but the pain was centered at my arch.  This pain is in my heel.  Like a sharp nail is buried in it, point up.

And its killing me.  I probably won't die, but I finally understand what happened to Ol' Dan Tucker, poor guy.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Ali Ahmed: the 12-Year-Old Boy who Put Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood to Shame

Artificial Sweeteners, Diabetes, Obesity, Heart Disease, and Stroke

On NPR's Science Friday yesterday, Ira Flatow interviewed Susan Swithers, Professor, Behavioral Neuroscience,  Purdue University, (PhD from Duke), and author of an "opinion paper" published in the journal Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolism with the following thesis:  artificial sweeteners may change your brain's sweetness pleasure centers and cause "metabolic derangements."  (The abstract of the paper, entitled "Artificial sweeteners produce the counterintuitive effect of inducing metabolic derangements" is here and the full text is here.)

Here are excerpts from the NPR interview, the full text of which and the audio as well are at the link in the first line of this post:

FLATOW: I'm very interested in what goes on in the brain, and reading your opinion paper and from scientific studies we have done in the past on this, it seems like your brain and your body sort of get confused about what's happening when they taste artificial sweeteners.

SWITHERS: Exactly. That's what we think is the big problem. So if we think about a world there are no artificial sweeteners, when we taste something sweet, it's often a sugar, and that means when the sweet taste hits our mouth, our bodies, our brains, based on this experience can learn to anticipate that calories and sugar are going to show up. And as a result, we'll start to produce changes, physiological changes, like the release of hormones and the activation of our metabolism so that we can deal with the arrival of those calories in that sugar. And we think that's kind of a learning process, and that helps us not only regulate how much we eat but also to keep our blood sugar in a more healthy range.

And now if you introduce an artificial sweetener, what you do is you get this very strong sweet taste in your mouth, but you don't get the consequences that normally ought to show up. No calories show up. No sugar shows up. And so your body will then adjust to that new reality by saying wait a minute, I've tasted something sweet. I have no idea what's going to happen. I'm not going to release those hormones, or I'm not going to release as many of those hormones. And that's what we really think the confusion comes from.

*   *   *

[W]hat [the confusion is] doing is making it so that when people taste something sweet that does deliver sugar and calories, they don't have as strong an ability to deal with that. So they drink a regular soda or they eat a piece of fruit, anything that taste sweet and does provide the sugar and calories, and their bodies can't anticipate that those are going to show up. And if these physiological processes normally help us regulate things like food intake, then that's where you run into the problem. We eat a chocolate cake. We don't know what's going to happen. And so we end up with these negative outcomes.

*   *   *

[O]ne of the things that might be happening is that some of these same hormones that are released in response to sugar that help us regulate food intake are also implicated in helping regulate not only blood sugar but having cardio-protective effects. And one of the things we tried to do in this paper was to sort of use converging approaches, so looking not only at large epidemiological studies in people but use more basic research where we can get more directly at mechanisms.

And those studies, for example, have suggested that there's a hormone named GLP-1 that is thought to play a role not only in helping regulate blood sugar [ed.: think diabetes] but also in satiety [ed.: think obesity] and also to have cardio-protective effects. So if it turns out that these artificial sweeteners blunt the release of a hormone like GLP-1, then over the long term we're going to be losing out on those sort of protective effects.

The entire entire interview (which is very short) is well worth reading (or hearing).

Professor Swithers has done earlier work that indicates a link between artificial sweeteners and weight-gain.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Phil Gramm on Tax Reform

In today's WSJ.

A wonderful dream, but still a dream.

The getting there would require a revolution.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Dan Lopez, a "Young Invicible", is not Stupid

Dan Lopez rarely gets sick and hasn’t been to a doctor in 10 years, so buying health insurance feels like a waste of money.

Even after the federal health overhaul takes full effect next year, the 24-year-old said he will probably decide to pay the $100 penalty for those who skirt the law’s requirement that all Americans purchase coverage.

“I don’t feel I should pay for something I don’t use,” said the Milwaukee resident, who makes about $48,000 a year working two part-time jobs.

Because he makes too much to qualify for government subsidies, Lopez would pay a premium of about $3,000 a year if he chose to buy health insurance.

“I shouldn’t be penalized for having good health,” he said.

Persuading young, healthy adults such as Lopez to buy insurance under the Affordable Care Act is becoming a major concern for insurance companies as they scramble to comply with the law, which prohibits them from denying coverage because of pre-existing conditions and limits what they can charge to older policy holders.

Experts warn a lot of these so-called “young invincibles” could opt to pay the fine instead of spending hundreds or thousands of dollars each year on insurance premiums. If enough young adults avoid the new insurance marketplace, it could throw off the entire equilibrium of the Affordable Care Act. Insurers are betting on the business of that group to offset the higher costs they will incur for older, sicker beneficiaries.

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/07/05/3486990/health-insurers-fear-young-people.html#storylink=cpy

Study: China's Policy on Air Polution Cuts Life Expectancy by 5.5 Years

“Evidence on the impact of sustained exposure to air pollution on life expectancy from China’s Huai River policy”

This paper's findings suggest that an arbitrary Chinese policy that greatly increases total suspended particulates (TSPs) air pollution is causing the 500 million residents of Northern China to lose more than 2.5 billion life years of life expectancy. The quasi-experimental empirical approach is based on China’s Huai River policy, which provided free winter heating via the provision of coal for boilers in cities north of the Huai River but denied heat to the south. Using a regression discontinuity design based on distance from the Huai River, we find that ambient concentrations of TSPs are about 184 μg/m3 [95% confidence interval (CI): 61, 307] or 55% higher in the north. Further, the results indicate that life expectancies are about 5.5 y (95% CI: 0.8, 10.2) lower in the north owing to an increased incidence of cardiorespiratory mortality. More generally, the analysis suggests that long-term exposure to an additional 100 μg/m3 of TSPs is associated with a reduction in life expectancy at birth of about 3.0 y (95% CI: 0.4, 5.6).

-the Abstract of a study paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, July 8, 2013.