Tag Archives: Alex Tabarrok

Staring At Shoes In Regards To The Wall Street Journal Article

Heather Horn at The Atlantic with the round-up

Robert Barro at The Wall Street Journal:

The unemployment-insurance program involves a balance between compassion—providing for persons temporarily without work—and efficiency. The loss in efficiency results partly because the program subsidizes unemployment, causing insufficient job-search, job-acceptance and levels of employment. A further inefficiency concerns the distortions from the increases in taxes required to pay for the program.

In a recession, it is more likely that individual unemployment reflects weak economic conditions, rather than individual decisions to choose leisure over work. Therefore, it is reasonable during a recession to adopt a more generous unemployment-insurance program. In the past, this change entailed extensions to perhaps 39 weeks of eligibility from 26 weeks, though sometimes a bit more and typically conditioned on the employment situation in a person’s state of residence. However, we have never experienced anything close to the blanket extension of eligibility to nearly two years. We have shifted toward a welfare program that resembles those in many Western European countries.

The administration has argued that the more generous unemployment-insurance program could not have had much impact on the unemployment rate because the recession is so severe that jobs are unavailable for many people. This perspective is odd on its face because, even at the worst of the downturn, the U.S. labor market featured a tremendous amount of turnover in the form of large numbers of persons hired and separated every month.

For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that, near the worst of the recession in March 2009, 3.9 million people were hired and 4.7 million were separated from jobs. This net loss of 800,000 jobs in one month indicates a very weak economy—but nevertheless one in which 3.9 million people were hired. A program that reduced incentives for people to search for and accept jobs could surely matter a lot here.

Moreover, although the peak unemployment rate (thus far) of 10.1% in October 2009 is very disturbing, the rate was even higher in the 1982 recession (10.8% in November-December 1982). Thus, there is no reason to think that the United States is in a new world in which incentives provided by more generous unemployment-insurance programs do not matter much for unemployment.

Another reason to be skeptical about the administration’s stance is that generous unemployment-insurance programs have been found to raise unemployment in many Western European countries in which unemployment rates have been far higher than the current U.S. rate. In Europe, the influence has worked particularly through increases in long-term unemployment. So the key question is what happened to long-term unemployment in the United States during the current recession?

To begin with a historical perspective, in the 1982 recession the peak unemployment rate of 10.8% in November-December 1982 corresponded to a mean duration of unemployment of 17.6 weeks and a share of long-term unemployment (those unemployed more than 26 weeks) of 20.4%. Long-term unemployment peaked later, in July 1983, when the unemployment rate had fallen to 9.4%. At that point, the mean duration of unemployment reached 21.2 weeks and the share of long-term unemployment was 24.5%. These numbers are the highest observed in the post-World War II period until recently. Thus, we can think of previous recessions (including those in 2001, 1990-91 and before 1982) as featuring a mean duration of unemployment of less than 21 weeks and a share of long-term unemployment of less than 25%.

These numbers provide a stark contrast with joblessness today. The peak unemployment rate of 10.1% in October 2009 corresponded to a mean duration of unemployment of 27.2 weeks and a share of long-term unemployment of 36%. The duration of unemployment peaked (thus far) at 35.2 weeks in June 2010, when the share of long-term unemployment in the total reached a remarkable 46.2%. These numbers are way above the ceilings of 21 weeks and 25% share applicable to previous post-World War II recessions. The dramatic expansion of unemployment-insurance eligibility to 99 weeks is almost surely the culprit.

To get a rough quantitative estimate of the implications for the unemployment rate, suppose that the expansion of unemployment-insurance coverage to 99 weeks had not occurred and—I assume—the share of long-term unemployment had equaled the peak value of 24.5% observed in July 1983. Then, if the number of unemployed 26 weeks or less in June 2010 had still equaled the observed value of 7.9 million, the total number of unemployed would have been 10.4 million rather than 14.6 million. If the labor force still equaled the observed value (153.7 million), the unemployment rate would have been 6.8% rather than 9.5%.

Karl Smith at Modeled Behavior:

Based on Cable News and a notable NYT column one might think that economists are perpetually at one another’s throats. This is far from the truth. The hierarchical nature of the economics profession lends an ecclesiastical air to many of our interactions. Brilliant figures are treated with enormous reverence.

To wit, when an eminent figure like Robert Barro says something that strikes most of as inane the most common reaction is shoe staring

[…]

For better or worse the blogosphere has changed that. Economists of all stripes will descend upon Barro over the next 36 hours. If he replies, which I suspect he will not, this will be an interesting moment.

Scott Grannis at Seeking Alpha:

Robert Barro has a good article in yesterday’s WSJ, titled “The Folly of Subsidizing Unemployment.” In it, he argues reasonably that “the expansion of unemployment-insurance eligibility to as much as 99 weeks from the standard 26 weeks” has made the economy less efficient “because the program subsidizes unemployment, causing insufficient job-search, job-acceptance and levels of employment.” My chart above helps illustrate the numbers he uses in his article, making it clear that we have never before seen such a large number of people receiving unemployment compensation. The 1981-82 recession saw a higher unemployment rate than we have seen in the recent recession, but one-third fewer people were subsidized for not working. This undoubtedly helps explain why this recovery has proceeded at a very disappointing pace.

Robert Reich:

I have the questionable distinction of appearing on Larry Kudlow’s CNBC program several times a week, arguing with people whose positions under normal circumstances would get no serious attention, and defending policies I would have thought so clearly and obviously defensible they should need no justification. But we are living through strange times. The economy is so bad that the social fabric is coming undone, and what used to be merely weird economic theories have become debatable public policies.

Tonight it was Harvard Professor Robert Barro, who opined in today’s Wall Street Journal that America’s high rate of long-term unemployment is the consequence rather than the cause of today’s extended unemployment insurance benefits.

In theory, Barro is correct. If people who lose their jobs receive generous unemployment benefits they might stay unemployed longer than if they got nothing. But that’s hardly a reason to jettison unemployment benefits or turn our backs on millions of Americans who through no fault of their own remain jobless in the worst economy since the Great Depression.

Yet moral hazard lurks in every conservative brain. It’s also true that if we got rid of lifeguards and let more swimmers drown, fewer people would venture into the water. And if we got rid of fire departments and more houses burnt to the ground, fewer people would use stoves. A civil society is not based on the principle of tough love.

In point of fact, most states provide unemployment benefits that are only a fraction of the wages and benefits people lost when their jobs disappeared. Indeed, fewer than 40 percent of the unemployed in most states are even eligible for benefits, because states require applicants have been in full-time jobs for at least three to five years. This often rules out a majority of those who are jobless – because they’ve moved from job to job, or have held a number of part-time jobs.

So it’s hard to make the case that many of the unemployed have chosen to remain jobless and collect unemployment benefits rather than work.

Anyone who bothered to step into the real world would see the absurdity of Barro’s position. Right now, there are roughly five applicants for every job opening in America. If the job requires relatively few skills, hundreds of applicants line up for it. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says 15 percent of people without college degrees are jobless today; that’s not counting large numbers too discouraged even to look for work.

Barro argues the rate of unemployment in this Great Jobs Recession is comparable to what it was in the 1981-82 recession, but the rate of long-term unemployed then was nowhere as high as it is now. He concludes this is because unemployment benefits didn’t last nearly as long in 1981 and 82 as it they do now.

He fails to see – or disclose – that the 81-82 recession was far more benign than this one, and over far sooner. It was caused by Paul Volcker and the Fed yanking up interest rates to break the back of inflation – and overshooting. When they pulled interest rates down again, the economy shot back to life.

Alex Tabarrok:

It’s not clear to me why we should assume that the share of long-term unemployment in this recession should equal that in 1983.

Barro also argues:

We have shifted toward a welfare program that resembles those in many Western European countries.

In contrast Josh Barro, son of Robert, in How much do UI Extensions Matter for Unemployment, concluded that 0.4% was probably on the high side:

Two Fed studies suggest that [extensions of UI] may have contributed 0.4 to 1.7 percentage points to current unemployment. But a closer look at this research makes me skeptical that the effects have been so large.

…The incentive effects of UI extension must also be weighed against the stimulative effects of paying UI benefits. For some reason it’s become almost taboo to note this on the Right, but UI recipients tend to be highly inclined to spend funds they receive immediately, meaning that more UI payments are likely to increase aggregate demand. UI extension also helps to avoid events like foreclosure, eviction and bankruptcy, which in addition to being personal disasters are also destructive of economic value.

As a result, I am inclined to favor further extension of UI benefits while the job market remains so weak. I am not concerned that this leads us down a slippery slope to permanent, indefinite unemployment benefits (which historically have been one of the drivers of high structural employment in continental Europe) as the United States has gone through many cycles of extending unemployment benefits in recession and then paring them back when the economy improves, under both Republican and Democratic leadership.

I call this one on both counts for Josh.

Arnold Kling:

He claims that the unemployment rate would be much lower now if Congress had not passed any extensions of unemployment benefits. I have not gone through his analysis, but I suspect that I, like Alex Tabarrok, would not find it persuasive. Nonetheless, I think there is a case to be made for allowing people to continue to collect unemployment benefits after they find a new job, until their benefits are scheduled to expire. We can argue about how generous the unemployment benefits should be overall, but for any level of benefits it is possible to reduce the disincentive to find work.

Mark Thoma:

Calling Barro’s claim questionable, as in the title, was probably too generous.

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Timmy, The Bloggers And The Background, Which Is Apparently A Portrait Of Robert Rubin

Alex Tabarrok:

Yesterday, Tyler, myself and a handful of other economics bloggers had a chance to discuss the economy with Treasury Secretary Geithner and other treasury officials. Here are a few random notes.

There was deep skepticism about the financial industry and about reform from some of the bloggers. More let’s say “radical” approaches such as Treasury taking an equity stake in underwater homes or giving everyone a guaranteed income were brought up. I was surprised to find myself on the side of the more conservative Treasury officials who cogently argued that such reforms were neither politically viable nor likely to work.  Treasury gave a good argument that reform had been deep and meaningful.

A few good lines from a senior treasury official as I recall the gist:

  • “Markets believe we can borrow. The public doesn’t. We need both to move forward on the fiscal front.”
  • “Businesses are investing in a way that shows more confidence than they are talking.” (graph here, see the last year or so AT)

There was a recognition that the Fed could do “dramatic” things but a sense that the theory here was uncertain and untested.

The best question of the day came from Tyler. The discussion was on the financial reform bill and how it changed the incentives of players in the financial industry by creating more risk for them. Tyler interrupted with “What I really want to know is how your incentives have been changed! What is to say that next time the decision will not be made to again bailout the bondholders?”

Felix Salmon:

Treasury’s blogger meeting on Monday has been covered by quite a lot of the participants — see Lounsbury, Tabarrok, and Smith.

On Wednesday, there was another meeting, this time with professional, salaried bloggers, with a decidedly center-left bias. (Tim Fernholz, Mike Allen, Derek Thompson, Shahien Nasiripour, Nick Baumann, Ezra Klein, me. Matt Yglesias was literally left out in the rain, unable to get past Treasury security.)

I half understand why Treasury makes the distinction between the two types of bloggers, but Ezra and I both felt a little jealous that we had to compete with Mike Allen asking about politics when we could have listened to a detailed and wonky discussion between Steve Waldman and Tim Geithner on the subject of bailout incentives.

The discussion was all held on deep background, so I can’t quote anybody. I can tell you that Geithner looked healthier than the past couple of times I’ve seen him: I daresay he’s actually getting some sleep these days, which has got to be a good thing. I also learned a fair amount about how Treasury views the world.

The big picture, at least as I grokked it, is that although the recovery started off stronger than Treasury had hoped, the broad economy is still in a pretty weak position. The Fed is doing its part to try to keep a certain amount of momentum going, but fiscal policy is harder, because it needs the cooperation of Congress. And it’s far from clear what kind of fiscal legislation can be passed at this point.

On housing, the main message from the big conference on Fannie and Freddie is that there’s a broad-based consensus, Rick Santelli rants notwithstanding, that large-scale government participation in the housing market is necessary to prevent further house-price declines. And yes, Treasury would very much like to make sure that house prices don’t fall any more than they have already. There’s no Bush-style policy of trying to maximize homeownership, or anything like that, and indeed Treasury now seems pretty resigned to the fact that its much-vaunted loan-modification program is going to have only a pretty marginal effect, doing more to delay foreclosures than to prevent them. But the very powerful government guarantee on Frannie’s bonds is here to stay, you won’t be surprised to hear. And even delaying foreclosures can be a good thing if it helps to give the broader economy a bit of time to recover.

Naked Capitalism:

Readers may wonder why I haven’t written about my visit on Monday to the Treasury, but truth be told, I headed out afterward with Mike Konczal and Steve Waldman to get a drink, and we all looked at each other quizzically. I said something along the lines of “I’m not certain there is anything to write about,” and they nodded in agreement. I had less than a half page of notes.

That isn’t to say we didn’t spend nearly 2 1/2 hours in a high-ceilinged conference room, and that we didn’t engage with Treasury officials, including Timothy Geithner, in what looked like conversation. But the assumptions of both sides re process as well as substance were so far apart that it often felt like we were talking past each other.

One part of the dynamic was the home court advantage the Treasury enjoys. This is their drill, their offices, they no doubt used their spiel on others and have it pretty well debugged, and more important, they play well off each other (they give the impression of having good rapport with each other; there was some banter on their side). So they have message discipline and stay unified and still manage to look relaxed and informal. By contrast, we seven bloggers (the others were Tyler Cowen, Alex Tabarrok, Phil Davis, and John Lounsbury) were on hold in the very large corridor till the conference room cleared up, which meant we didn’t even have the chance to ask each other, “And what do you want to ask about?” Our interests were likely to be (and were) somewhat divergent, but it would have been nice to know to what degree.

Despite our heterogeniety, we all took a skeptical posture towards the Treasury team. One has to think they anticipate that, which then begs the question of what they expect to accomplish with these meetings. We aren’t journalists, so the access card does not work; the infrequency and format of these sessions means they don’t build personal rapport (and there are good reasons why not; from our end, it costs time and money to go to DC; from their end, we aren’t important enough to warrant more frequent contact).

So they may have other motivations, but a safe assumption is that they regard this as marketing, and a famous cliche is “50% of what I spend on advertising is wasted, I just don’t know which 50%.” We probably look like part of the wasted 50%, but they can’t be certain, and the costs to them of having this sort of meeting are low, so they might as well keep the experiment going.

Mike Allen at Politico:

ADMINISTRATION MINDMELD: The virtue of action on Social Security is that it demonstrates the ability to begin to affect the long-run deficits. Social Security isn’t the biggest contributor to the problem – that’s still health-care costs. But ti could help a little bit, buy time, and strengthens the odds of a political consensus behind other spending cuts or tax increases. Most importantly, it would establish more CREDIBILITY with the MARKETS. The mood of the world at the moment (slightly excessive, from the administration’s point of view) is that if you don’t do anything with spending cuts, it doesn’t get you credibility.

Tim Fernholz at Tapped on Allen:

Sure makes it seem like the administration wants to cut Social Security, doesn’t it? By chance, I was at the same deep-background briefing where Allen had his “mindmeld,” and I have to say, I don’t think he’s got it right. After reviewing my notes and a recording of the conversation, here’s my take. (The rules for this conversation were no direct quotes and no identifying the senior administration official in question.)

Allen references a part of the conversation that concerned the Deficit Commission and what the official might know about its agenda. The official believed that the largest consensus was forming around an undefined plan to support the long-term solvency of Social Security and was discussing why that hypothetical plan might help bolster political will for other deficit-reduction ideas. The official would note that Social Security is already solvent for decades.

The most important omission from Allen’s item is that the official concluded the conversation by noting that Social Security is not a generous benefit compared to other public pensions around the world and that cutting benefits, even years in advance, would be difficult to justify. More symbolically, Allen doesn’t mention that the official cited Paul Krugman when talking about Social Security’s contributions to the deficit. Finally, the reason the administration official was interested in credibility before the markets is so the government could borrow more money for temporary fiscal stimulus.

Brad DeLong

Matthew Yglesias on Allen:

Brad DeLong glosses this as part of why “Friends Don’t Let Friends Read Politico.” And certainly it is a case study in why you can’t go run and panic after reading a thinly sourced item in a traffic-hungry publication. But part of the issue here, it seems to me, is that DC officialdom ought to realize that its obsession with off the recordy-ness has some serious downsides. Treasury did two meetings this week, one that was with professional blogger types and one that was more with professional economists who also blog, and most of the attendees seem to have come away quite impressed. If that’s the case, wouldn’t people able to listen to a recording of the full session likely also be impressed? And wouldn’t it be easier to clear up misconceptions that Allen’s writeup may have created?

Structural shifts in the media industry away from the “three TV networks and a bunch of local newspaper monopolies” model have shifted the balance of power away from journalists and toward flacks. Consequently, if people want to hold off the record briefings with “senior officials” plenty of writers are going to show up. But merely because people can get away with that kind of thing doesn’t necessarily make it a good idea.

Ezra Klein:

There’s been some meta-discussion over a recent meeting between reporters, bloggers, pundits and Treasury officials. The meeting existed under the worst of all media rules: Background.

On-the-record is, well, on the record. Somebody tells me something and I tell you. Off-the-record is just the opposite: Somebody tells me something and I can’t tell you that I was told this. I can be informed by it, but no one knows how I got the information. The disadvantages of this are obvious. But the advantage is a much more honest and free-flowing conversation.

Background has neither the transparency of being on-the-record or the freedom of being off-the-record. It means I can tell you that someone told me this (“a senior Treasury official”). I really don’t understand why people use it.

But use it they do, and all the time. My favorite background offer from this administration came in an e-mail the night before HealthCare.gov launched. It was a lot of standard information on the new site that I could attribute to an “administration official” if I so chose. Why they wanted anonymity to say things like “HealthCare.gov is a new, easy to use website that helps consumers take control of their health care and make the choices that are right for them by putting the power of information at their fingertips,” I’ll never know. Was Gibbs seriously going to chew someone out for going on-the-record with that?

Mike Konczal at Rortybomb:

On Monday I took part in a blogger meeting with several members of the Treasury Department. Alex Tabarrok has a writeup, as does Yves Smith and John Lounsbury has an extensive one as well.

First off, here’s a picture of me with Robert Rubin’s portrait:

Second, have you ever seen Miracle on 34th Street? Remember at the end when that guy legally is Santa Claus because he has all that mail delivered to him? I felt a little like that seeing “Mike Konczal, Rortybomb” on paper that had Treasury’s seal:

Heh.

It was a pretty casual meet and greet. There weren’t any presentations, nothing to be sold on. We went to questions immediately. Geithner is very smart and personable, and it was very useful to chat with Treasury officials on background over the strengths and weaknesses of the financial reform bill.

[…]

HAMP

– They are sticking by HAMP. The narrative seemed to change from helping homeowners to spacing out the foreclosures. I asked them to repeat it, because the idea that billions of taxpayer dollars are being spent to smooth out foreclosures for banks struck me as new narrative – it’s explicitly extend-and-pretend, and also fairly cynical.

– There was talk about how fiscal policy can’t move through Congress. I asked them about only 0.5% of HAMP being spent and how that could be used without Congress’ permission. Before I suggested that the remainder of the $50bn be divided into two funds, the Digging Holes Across States (DHAS) fund and the Filling Holes Across States (FHAS) fund, two far more socially productive means of spending the HAMP money than what is currently being done with it, I was told that the entire $50bn is expected to be spent by the time the program is over. I didn’t believe it; we will see.

– Overall, there seemed to be a sense of “we are done here” from the meeting. Maybe it was the fact that it is August, the informal manner of the meeting and a news cycle is driven by insane things, but there was a sense with the financial reform bill passed, deadlock in Congress and a Federal Reserve tip-toeing around its mandate things were going to slow down and options are more or less removed from the table. Which is a very scary thought with the economy the way it is.

Atrios:

Really fucking unbelievable. As I think I said to Mike at Netroots Nation, if HAMP is actually a program designed to boost the housing market and funnel money several billion more dollars to banks, it’s also a really fucking horrible and stupid and inefficient way to do that even without the “screwing people over” part.

Shahien Nasiripour at Huffington Post

EARLIER: Meet The Financial Bloggers, Timmy

Timmy Meets With Even More Bloggers

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Read This Post With The Theme Song Of “Cops” Playing In Your Head

Wendy McElroy at Gizmodo:

In response to a flood of Facebook and YouTube videos that depict police abuse, a new trend in law enforcement is gaining popularity. In at least three states, it is now illegal to record any on-duty police officer.

Even if the encounter involves you and may be necessary to your defense, and even if the recording is on a public street where no expectation of privacy exists.

The legal justification for arresting the “shooter” rests on existing wiretapping or eavesdropping laws, with statutes against obstructing law enforcement sometimes cited. Illinois, Massachusetts, and Maryland are among the 12 states in which all parties must consent for a recording to be legal unless, as with TV news crews, it is obvious to all that recording is underway. Since the police do not consent, the camera-wielder can be arrested. Most all-party-consent states also include an exception for recording in public places where “no expectation of privacy exists” (Illinois does not) but in practice this exception is not being recognized.

Massachusetts attorney June Jensen represented Simon Glik who was arrested for such a recording. She explained, “[T]he statute has been misconstrued by Boston police. You could go to the Boston Common and snap pictures and record if you want.” Legal scholar and professor Jonathan Turley agrees, “The police are basing this claim on a ridiculous reading of the two-party consent surveillance law – requiring all parties to consent to being taped. I have written in the area of surveillance law and can say that this is utter nonsense.”

The courts, however, disagree. A few weeks ago, an Illinois judge rejected a motion to dismiss an eavesdropping charge against Christopher Drew, who recorded his own arrest for selling one-dollar artwork on the streets of Chicago. Although the misdemeanor charges of not having a peddler’s license and peddling in a prohibited area were dropped, Drew is being prosecuted for illegal recording, a Class I felony punishable by 4 to 15 years in prison.

In 2001, when Michael Hyde was arrested for criminally violating the state’s electronic surveillance law – aka recording a police encounter – the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld his conviction 4-2. In dissent, Chief Justice Margaret Marshall stated, “Citizens have a particularly important role to play when the official conduct at issue is that of the police. Their role cannot be performed if citizens must fear criminal reprisals….” (Note: In some states it is the audio alone that makes the recording illegal.)

The selection of “shooters” targeted for prosecution do, indeed, suggest a pattern of either reprisal or an attempt to intimidate.

Radley Balko at Reason:

In a column last month I wrote about Anthony Graber, a Maryland man who was arrested for posting a video of a traffic stop to YouTube. Graber was pulled over on his motorcycle by Maryland State Trooper Joseph David Ulher. Uhler drew his gun during the stop. Graber was wearing a camera on his helmet. Graber thought Uhler’s actions were excessive, so he posted the video to the Internet. Days later, police raided the home of Graber’s parents. Graber was arrested, booked, and jailed. He was charged with violating Maryland’s wiretapping statute. In an interview he gave to blogger Carlos Miller shortly after, Graber said, “The judge who released me looked at the paperwork and said she didn’t see where I violated the wiretapping law.”

In my previous column, I interpreted that to mean the judge had dropped the charge. Apparently that isn’t the case. Graber is due in court next week. He faces up to five years in prison. State’s Attorney Joseph Cassilly has also charged Graber with “Possession of an Interception Device.” That “device” would be Graber’s otherwise-perfectly-legal video camera.

Graber’s case is starting to spur some local and national media discussion of the state’s wiretapping law. As I mentioned in my column last month, his arrest came at about the same time the Jack McKenna case broke nationally. McKenna, a student at the University of Maryland, was given an unprovoked beating by police during student celebrations after a basketball game last February. McKenna would probably still be facing criminal charges and the cops who beat him would likely still be on the beat were it not for several cell phone videos that captured his beating. According to Cassily’s interpretation of the law, if any of those cell phones were close enough to record audio of the beating, the people who shot the videos are felons.

Now we have another video of an arrest during the Preakness Stakes in which a Baltimore police officer can be heard telling the camera-holder, “Do me a favor and turn that off. It’s illegal to record anybody’s voice or anything else in the state of Maryland.”

That simply isn’t true, and it’s outrageous that Maryland law enforcement keeps perpetuating this myth. Perhaps that officer was merely misinformed. But Maryland police spokesmen and prosecutors are giving the impression that the state’s wiretapping law is ambiguous about recording on-duty police officers. It really isn’t. They’ve just chosen to interpret it that way, logic and common sense be damned.

Maryland is an all-parties-consent state, which means you have to get permission from all parties to a conversation before you can record it. But unlike Illinois and Massachusetts, Maryland’s law does include a privacy provision. That is, if the non-consenting party does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy with respect to the conversation that has been recorded, there is no violation of the law. State and federal courts across the country have determined that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in public spaces. This is why someone can snap your photo in public without your consent.

[…]

No one expects what they say to a cop during a traffic stop to be private. But when you combine that with how some Maryland cops and prosecutors are interpreting the law, such as in Graber’s case, you get a perverse result: When a cop pulls you over or detains you for questioning, he—the public servant with the badge and the gun—retains a right to privacy for the entire encounter. You don’t.

This does not sound like a serious interpretation of the law. But it’s apparently the interpretation among Maryland law enforcement officials. A cynic might conclude that law enforcement officials in Maryland are reacting to the McKenna embarrassment by threatening and cracking down on anyone who videotapes on-duty cops, and they’ll interpret the law in whatever way allows them to do so. At least until a court tells them otherwise.

Whatever their motivation, their legal justification is dubious. The McKenna case is a strong argument in favor of more citizen monitoring of on-duty police. The police not only beat the kid, they then lied about it in police reports. The security camera footage of McKenna’s beating, which is controlled by University of Maryland Campus POlice, mysteriously disappeared. The officer in charge of the camera system is married to one of the officers involved in the beating. Does anyone really think the charges against McKenna would have been dropped—and the officers who beat him suspended—if it weren’t for the cell phone videos?

There are strong constitutional arguments in favor of a basic right to record on-duty police officers. But the prosecution of Anthony Graber is also wrong by any reasonable interpretation of state law, and by any sane concept of good public policy. This is the state that’s home to the notorious Prince George’s County Police Department, for God’s sake—the department that spent five years under federal oversight because of the repeated use of excessive force among its officers.

Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler should put an end to this faux ambiguity and declare that Marylanders who record on-duty cops are breaking no laws, much less committing felonies. He should also make it clear that so long as they don’t physically interfere with an arrest or police action, they also are at no risk of having their recording equipment confiscated or destroyed.

If he doesn’t, the state legislature should do it for him.

Alex Tabarrok

Tom Bell:

Did that video violate the privacy of the three officers, clad in riot gear and swinging batons, who surrounded and beat the unarmed McKenna? No. Neither did the video that Graber shot of the Maryland trooper strutting towards him with a drawn handgun. Courts have already explained that wrongs under the Maryland Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act require a showing that someone’s reasonable expectation of privacy has suffered violation (see Fearnow v. C & P Tel. Co., 104 Md. App. 1, 655 A.2d 1 (1995), rev’d on other grounds, 342 Md. 363, 676 A.2d 65 (1996)), and no officer can have a reasonable expectation of privacy while on a public street, performing public duties.

The Maryland ACLU has stepped forward to help defend Graber, and with any luck will soon educate local prosecutors about the proper scope of the Maryland Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act. In the meantime, and in other jurisdictions where police threaten to deploy privacy laws against whistle-blowers, we citizens would do well to remind public servants that we can and will record their on-the-job performance. I’ve worked up a couple of notices to help.

This bumper sticker should help to put police on notice that you may record them during traffic stops, thus negating any claim to a reasonable expectation of privacy:

Traffic stops may be monitored . . . bumpersticker

Make sure that you place it where video taken from the officer’s vehicle will record it! That proof might end up helping your case if, like Graber, you want to publicize police abuse.

To make doubly sure that you give adequate notice to an officer who subjects you to a traffic stop, you might also want to carry this handy magnetic sign:

Traffic stops maybe monitored . . . magnet

Once you have been pulled over, just roll down your window and slap the sign outside your door, where a police officer cannot fail to see it.

Click on either image to buy a copy for yourself or a friend. All proceeds will go to aid the defense of Anthony Graber. Perhaps his case would have turned out differently if he had had that bumper sticker on his helmet, or that magnetic sign on his gas tank. (I thank Prof. Orin Kerr for inspiring the wording of these notices, though he of course bears no blame for my legal hijinks.)

Robin Hanson:

And this is all about the official rules. I’m pretty sure that unofficially, police have ways of punishing you for trying to record them, even if you are legally allowed to do so. Consider also:

An obvious enabler of police corruption is the fact that internal affairs units, tasked with exposing corruption, usually report to the same police chief that would be embarrassed by such exposure, and who may also be corrupt. An obvious solution is to make internal affairs more independent, e.g., reporting directly to a city council or even a governor.

This isn’t some temporary lack of adaptation to a new tech; the obvious solution has been possible, and ignored, for a long long time.  Now ask yourself honestly, in near mode, what you think will usually happen in ten years to someone who tries to visibly record their interaction with police.

Reihan Salam:

Via Alex Tabarrok, Gizmodo has a fascinating feature on how law enforcement officials are responding to the growing number of citizens who are using digital cameras to record police officers in the line of duty. So far, at least three states have banned recording on-duty police officers. This strikes me as an alarming and counterproductive trend. The vast majority of police officers behave responsibly and within the bounds of the law. But inevitably there are police officers who abuse their power, and the advent of cheap digital cameras gives citizens a valuable self-defense tool.

I could be missing something here. It’s possible that ubiquitous surveillance of this kind could undermine good order, perhaps by enforcing an excessively rigid and rule-bound approach to policing. My suspicion is that this danger is outweighed by the danger of pervasiveabuse that sows distrust between the police and the policed, a divide that is a particularly vexing problem in high-crime urban neighborhoods.

UPDATE: Glenn Reynolds at Popular Mechanics

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And On The Fourth Day, Venter Said, Let There Be A Press Release

J. Craig Venter Institute:

Researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI), a not-for-profit genomic research organization, published results today describing the successful construction of the first self-replicating, synthetic bacterial cell. The team synthesized the 1.08 million base pair chromosome of a modified Mycoplasma mycoides genome. The synthetic cell is called Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 and is the proof of principle that genomes can be designed in the computer, chemically made in the laboratory and transplanted into a recipient cell to produce a new self-replicating cell controlled only by the synthetic genome.

This research will be published by Daniel Gibson et al in the May 20th edition of Science Express and will appear in an upcoming print issue of Science.

“For nearly 15 years Ham Smith, Clyde Hutchison and the rest of our team have been working toward this publication today–the successful completion of our work to construct a bacterial cell that is fully controlled by a synthetic genome,” said J. Craig Venter, Ph.D., founder and president, JCVI and senior author on the paper. “We have been consumed by this research, but we have also been equally focused on addressing the societal implications of what we believe will be one of the most powerful technologies and industrial drivers for societal good. We look forward to continued review and dialogue about the important applications of this work to ensure that it is used for the benefit of all.”

According to Dr. Smith, “With this first synthetic bacterial cell and the new tools and technologies we developed to successfully complete this project, we now have the means to dissect the genetic instruction set of a bacterial cell to see and understand how it really works.”

Eliza Strickland at Discover:

In another step forward in the quest to create artificial life in a test tube, a team of genetic engineers led by Craig Venter has built a synthetic genome and proved that it can power up when placed inside an existing cell.

Dr. Venter calls the result a “synthetic cell” and is presenting the research as a landmark achievement that will open the way to creating useful microbes from scratch to make products like vaccines and biofuels. At a press conference Thursday, Dr. Venter described the converted cell as “the first self-replicating species we’ve had on the planet whose parent is a computer.” [The New York Times]

The technical achievement is worth crowing about. The researchers built on Venter’s trick from last year, in which he took the genome from one bacterium, transferred it the hollowed-out shell of a different bacterial species, and watched as the new cell “booted up” successfully. In this new step, the researchers built a genome from scratch, copying the genetic code from a bacterium that infects goats and introducing just a few changes as a “watermark”; then they transferred that synthetic genome to a cell. As the researchers report in Science, the cell functioned and replicated, creating more copies of the slightly altered goat-infecting bacterium–now nicknamed Synthia.

But the reactions to Venter’s accomplishment have been mixed–while some celebratory headlines trumpeted the creation of artificial life, many scientists said the reaction was overblown, and took issue with Venter’s claim of having created a truly synthetic cell. Here, we round up a selection of responses from all corners of the science world.

Bioethicist Arthur Caplan finds the philosophical ramifications of the work fascinating:

“Their achievement undermines a fundamental belief about the nature of life that is likely to prove as momentous to our view of ourselves and our place in the Universe as the discoveries of Galileo, Copernicus, Darwin and Einstein.” [Nature News]

But many experts say that since Venter copied a pre-existing genome, he didn’t really create a new life form.

“To my mind Craig has somewhat overplayed the importance of this,” said David Baltimore, a leading geneticist at Caltech. Dr. Baltimore described the result as “a technical tour de force” but not breakthrough science, but just a matter of scale…. “He has not created life, only mimicked it,” Dr. Baltimore said [The New York Times].

In addition, many experts note that the experimenters got a big boost by placing the synthetic genome in a preexisting cell, which was naturally inclined to make sense of the transplanted DNA and to turn genes on and off. Thus, they say, it’s not accurate to label the experiment’s product a true “synthetic cell.”

Peter Griffin at Science Blogs

Carl Zimmer at Discover Magazine:

Anyway–this news just hit the wires thanks to an embargo break, so I don’t have time to go into more detail. Joe Palca at NPR has posted his article on the subject. For background, please check out these stories I’ve written about this general area of research:

Tinker, Tailor: Can Venter Stitch Together A Genome From Scratch?

The Meaning of Life

The Six Most Important Experiments In The World

Artificial Life? Old News.

The High-Tech Search For A Cleaner Biofuel Alternative

On the Origin of Tomorrow

My Bloggingheads interview with Venter

Sean at Discover Magazine:

Who knows exactly what this means as yet — but it’s important! You can argue if you like about whether it’s really “artificial life” — that argument has already started, and already seems boring. There are also speculations about designing microorganisms to help us solve problems like global warming or (let’s say) massive oil spills. Not completely crazy speculations, either. But there’s a long way to go before anything like that is coming off a biological assembly line. And eventually we’ll be going much further than that, beyond designer microorganisms into much weirder terrain. This isn’t a culmination, it’s just a start.

Alex Tabarrok:

Two years ago I wrote that Craig Venter was one step closer to becoming a god.  Today it appears he has done it.

Megan McArdle:

In an earlier post on Lidar, someone said that I shouldn’t call it “miraculous”.  But it’s hard to think of another word for synthesizing life.

Rod Dreher:

Haters! Luddites! What could it hurt?

I ask sarcastically, but if scientists can make a simple organism with entirely synthesized DNA, why could they not in theory create a human being whose entire self will have been designed by a scientist? What would that say about human dignity? Do you really trust humankind not to use that power to create races of masters and slaves? I don’t. The abolition of man, indeed.

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For The Benefit Of Mr. Morlan

James Joyner already rounded this up.

Adam Ozimek at Modeled Behavior:

There has been a lot of very thoughtful discussion lately about the obesity epidemic facing this country. All I have to add to this insightful and informed conversation is a comment on and picture of a turn-of-the-century sideshow freak

[…]

This is Chauncy Morlan, and around 100 years ago his obesity was so shocking that people would pay money to see him as he toured the country as a circus “fat man”. I find the unremarkableness of his size to be a telling sign of how we’ve pushed the limits of obesity in the past 100 years. Imagine, if you will, what society would look like if 100 years from now if what passed as spectacularly obese today would not even turn heads at the mall.

Alex Tabarrok:

Here, courtesy of Adam Ozimek at Modeled Behavior, is a picture of Chauncy Morlan (1869-1906) who, because of his “freakish” weight, people once paid good money to see as he toured Europe and America with the Barnum & Bailey circus.  Although a tinge of freakishness still attaches to shows like The Biggest Loser the dominant theme is a feeling of camaraderie and the hope that if the contestants can lose weight then so can anyone with similar problem and goals.

What would the circus goers of 1890 have thought if they were told that in the America of 2010 Chauncy Morlan would be unremarkable?

Andrew Sullivan

John Aravosis at AmericaBlog:

Today he’d be fat, but he wouldn’t be that rare.

Strabo:

In the early 1900’s, he made a career of being fat. He was a circus performer that people paid money to gawk at – on the very edge of the weight sensibilities of the time. Go on, click the link. That man made money from being that obese. I don’t need to comment on this. The comments of that site say all I need to.

James Joyner:

Alex wonders, “What would the circus goers of 1890 have thought if they were told that in the America of 2010 Chauncy Morlan would be unremarkable?”

Cellania quips, “People paid money to look at him, because he was so unusually obese. A hundred years later, you can walk into any buffet restaurant and see a dozen people bigger than Morlan.”

Admittedly, Morlan doesn’t look fat enough in that picture that I’d pay to see him.   But, in actuality, Morlan was 512 pounds at age 18 and was reputedly well over 600 pounds later in life.  That’s hardly “unremarkable” even now.

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Teacher Superstar, That Is What You Are

Alex Tabarrok:

I have argued that universities will move to a superstar market for teachers in which the very best teachers use on-line instruction and TAs to teach thousands of students at many different universities.  The full online model is not here yet but I see an increasing amount of evidence for the superstar model of teaching.  At GMU some of our best teachers are being recruited by other universities with very attractive offers and some of our most highly placed students have earned their positions through excellence in teaching rather than through the more traditional route of research.

I do not think GMU is unique in this regard–my anecdotal evidence is that the market for professors is rewarding great teachers with higher wages and higher placements than in earlier years.

The online aspect, which enhances the market for superstars, is also growing.

[…]

But how long can we expect the inability to measure to protect academia when there are big profits to be made?  Robin Hanson would argue that most of what is going on is signaling, i.e. that prestige is what is being bought and sold and not prestige as a proxy for some other measure of quality.  No doubt there is some truth to that but there are plenty of fields, dentistry, engineering, computer science where measurable quality matters as well.

It’s true that the university equilibrium has lasted a long time but that doesn’t mean it can’t break down very quickly.

Bryan Caplan:

I  don’t rule out marginal changes, but Alex is being paranoid.  What makes me so sure?  Simple: If he were right, then videotape would have put college professors out of business thirty years ago! It’s been technologically feasible for all students to learn from superstar teachers for decades.  A little has happened at the margin.  But not much.  (And if you think online instruction is much closer than VHS to a real classroom experience because faculty-student interaction is important, remember how often professors lecture to classes of hundreds of students, only a tiny handful of whom participate).

[…]

Alex doesn’t consider what I’ll call the Weirdo/Loser problem.  Suppose you’re an employer, and you’re trying to decide who to interview.  What do you think when you see that a seemingly capable candidate “went” to the University of Phoenix?  Maybe you’ll still give him a chance.  If you need someone good, however, you’ll almost certainly ask yourself, “If he’s really so good, why didn’t he just go to a regular university?  What’s his problem?  Is he weird, lazy, or what?”  Then you’ll throw his resume in the trash.

When Alex started worrying about the competition of online instruction, I asked him: “How would you react if your son told you he wanted to ‘go’ to the University of Phoenix?”   Unless my memory fails me, Alex didn’t deny that he’d strongly discourage him.  Why?  Because Alex knew that his son would be closing a lot of doors for himself.  I’m confident that most parents of kids who can get into traditional colleges would have the same reaction.  As long as they do, traditional colleges will not just survive, but thrive, because college attendance will remain a powerful signal that you’re not a weirdo or a loser.

Arnold Kling:

One way to quickly improve any university would be to eliminate the bottom 25 percent of teachers and replace them with online instruction from outside the university. Maybe online instructors cannot compete with high-quality in-person professors, but they can certainly replace the worst.

James Joyner:

The road to prestige in social science has long been publishing articles in very specialized journals — which generally requires long reviews of the literature, pedantic outlining of methodology, and the use of statistical modeling — and selection for large grants.  Alex Tabarrok points to some evidence that “great teaching” is now being heavily rewarded in some circles, too, which is a surprising and welcome trend.

But public intellectuals and popularizers are simply not highly regarded by the academy.  Almost by definition, their work isn’t cutting edge or “serious.”   The most cutting insult is to call a political scientist’s work “journalism.”  The fact that, as I infamously pointed out in a grad seminar years ago, that people actually read journalism is seen as a bug, not a feature.

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Paying The Cost To Be The Boss

Stephen Lebaton in NYT:

Responding to the furor over executive pay at companies bailed out with taxpayer money, the Obama administration will order the firms that received the most aid to slash compensation to their highest-paid employees, an official involved in the decision said on Wednesday.

The plan, for the 25 top earners at seven companies that received exceptional help, will on average cut total compensation this year by about 50 percent. The companies are Citigroup, Bank of America, American International Group, General Motors, Chrysler and the financing arms of the two automakers.

Some executives, like the top traders at A.I.G., will face tight limits on their pay. In addition, the top-paid employees at all the affected companies will face new limits on their perks.

The plan will also change the form of the pay to align the personal interests of the executives with the longer-term financial health of the companies. For instance, the cash portion of the executives’ salaries will be slashed on average by 90 percent, and the rest will be replaced by stock that cannot be sold for years.

Naked Capitalism:

The point is that the collection of these scalps will do nothing to comp levels ex these firms. The companies that also enjoy implicit government guarantees are free to do the “heads I win, tails you lose” game of privatized gains and socialized losses. And Ken Lewis is the poster child of why these measures are completely meaningless. He sacrificed his 2009 pay, but will still collect $125 million when he departs Bank of America.

If the government is going to backstop the industry (and this isn’t an “if” anymore), it needs to limit those firm’s activities to what is socially valuable and regulate them heavily to contain risk taking. As we have said, reining in executive pay (and note there is no will to do that anyhow) is not an effective approach. Those employees who don’t like that are free to decamp and raise money in ways that do not involve the regulated firms in any way, shape, or form, save perhaps counterparty exposures on very safe, highly liquid instruments.

Alex Tabarrok:

There is no way this will work as advertised.  If the administration actually follows through, most of these executives will quit and get higher paying jobs elsewhere.  Executives not directly affected by the pay cuts will also quit when they see their prospects for future salary gains have been cut.  Chaos will be created at these firms as top people leave in droves.  Will the administration then order people back to work?

Felix Salmon:

Are you feeling outraged? Well, remember that $200,000 a year makes you rich. (Yes, really.) But these guys are effectively civil servants now, and they deserve to be paid as such. And if they have any fiscal responsibility at all, they will have saved up a huge amount of their past compensation to tide them through this fallow period.

What this means is that the people who used to be the 25 best-paid employees are now going to be far down the list, with underlings making much more than they do. That’s OK too. There’s no particular reason why senior executives should always be the best-paid employees in any organization. Quite the opposite, in fact.

John Hinderaker at Powerline:

We are living through dark times. The administration’s demagoguery will have far-reaching consequences. Presumably most of the executives affected by the cuts will leave their companies, while adequate replacements can hardly be hired at the rates the federal government is offering. And it isn’t clear what ripple effects the government’s high-handed decree will have. At Citibank or Bank of America, for example, will there be hundreds of employees paid more than the former top 25? Or will the pay cuts work their way down the chain? Any way you look at it, this decree will make it harder for the affected companies to regain profitability, the ostensible point of the TARP program.

Kevin Drum:

There’s certainly some justice in this.  But I’d prefer something less punitive and more useful: a limit on the total bonus pool at these banks.  The point isn’t just that executives who imploded their companies don’t deserve huge paydays — though there’s a lot to be said for that — it’s that financial companies in trouble should be using their retained earnings to build up their capital base, not to pay their staffs outlandish salaries.  Today’s action is nicely symbolic, but insisting on a more wide-ranging cultural change that helps the entire system recover would be even better.

James Pethokoukis

If I made of list of factors contributing to the recession and financial crisis, Wall Street pay would come in around 6th, after 1) easy monetary policy; 2) TBTF; 3) US housing policy; 4) global savings glut/China labor shock; 5) Wall Street group think.  Yet pay is where so much energy is being directed at this issue thanks to its populist appeal. America hates TARP so Washington needs to make amends by hammering execs at TARP recipients.

John Carney at Clusterstock

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