What to do with pirates?

Interesting article in Slate by Anne Applebaum about the modern version of walking the plank.

The pirates attacked the merchant ship early on the morning of May 5. The crew members locked themselves in the engine room with a stock of food and water. A naval destroyer came steaming to the rescue and demanded that the pirates give up the ship. When they refused, the destroyer attacked with guns and cannons, and, after a brief firefight, the pirates surrendered.

Had this been a story from a children’s book—the kind with a skull and crossbones on the cover and a foldout treasure map inside—the pirates would then have walked the plank. But it wasn’t a story from a children’s book. This was May 5, 2010. The merchant ship was not a schooner but a Russian tanker, carrying 86,000 tons of crude oil worth $52 million. The pirates were not colorful figures with cutlasses but Somalis led by professionals who knew what this cargo was worth.

As for the Russian destroyer, it was not operating according to an 18th-century code of honor but according to international law, such as it is. Theoretically, the captain was supposed to hand the detainees and the evidence over to regional police. Not wanting to involve himself in legal wrangling, however, he decided to “release” the pirates instead. And thus they were “set free” in a tiny inflatable raft, with no navigation equipment, 350 miles off the coast of Yemen. The raft has since disappeared. In the 21st century, this is how pirates walk the plank.

Is it wrong that this doesn’t bother me?  It’s not exactly due process, but historically, this is how pirates have been dealt with.  Presumably beats some of the other punishments.  I know, that’s not a good reason to be in favor of this, but Applebaum does do a nice job of running down the extreme difficulties in actually punishing pirates in a fair and just manner.

Consumer Win

On the surface, it may seem as the amendment approved by the Senate to limit debit card processing fees is simply interest group politics: win for the retailers who will pay lower fees; loss for the credit card companies, who will have to get by on slightly less outrageous processing fees.  Since, however, retailers have to adjust to this fees by passing the costs onto the consumer, Visa’s loss is your victory.  Pretty much any loss by Visa, in fact, is your victory.  I love my credit cards, but I don’t know of another industry that tries to do more to screw its consumers (and gets away with it).   Kevin Drum’s got a nice take:

So what are banks going to be forced to do in order to make up their lost profits?

Some experts warned that lower profit margins could lead banks to curtail bank card reward programs.

Ouch! No more reward programs. I think I can live with that. But if your life got a whole lot grimmer when you heard this, consider that what it really means is that for the past decade you’ve been paying about 1% extra on every single debit card purchase you’ve made so that banks could then rebate about half that amount back to you in the form of “rewards.” Anyone who thinks that’s a good deal, raise your hands. (No, not you bankers in the back. We already know it’s a good deal for you.)

Still not convinced? Well, Europe mandates fees about one-quarter ours and somehow manages to support a thriving debit card business anyway.

[Not sure how the graphic will come through, but it's at the Times article, if it doesn't]

Just love how everything that might diminish credit card company profits one iota is always deemed a potential disaster for consumers.

Oil spill omnibus

Somehow, I haven’t written anything about the month-0ld oil spill, despite having a number of thoughts on the matter.  Rather than let it die, inspired by this week’s excellent 60 minutes, I’ll put it all here.

1) The 60 Minutes double-segment on the oil spill this past Sunday was amazing.  Watch it, you should.  In all the coverage of the environmental harm and the failures in stopping the spill, I had overlooked the amazing human elements of the story.  The man interviewed by 60 Minutes, jumped 90 feet off the platform into an oily-water Armageddon and lived to tell 60 minutes about it– amazing.   And, you’ll not be surpised to learn the depressing amount of human error that caused this, generally in pursuit of money over human safety.

2) One of the most important concepts I teach in my public policy class is that of externalities– the cost of a policy not borne by those who created the cost and not factored into the direct price for a product.  E.g., far beyond the price of a barrel of oil, we pay in terms of pollution, geo-political instability in the Middle East, oil spills,  etc., for our reliance on oil.  We certainly “pay” for these things, just not when we fill up our car.  Both Ezra Klein and Jon Chait, do a nice job pointing out the role of externalities in our oil policy.  Here’s Ezra:

One other way to think about the cost of oil is to recognize what is and isn’t in the price of oil. So mega-spills like the Deepwater spill or the spills that happen in other countries are not in the price. Global warming — which is to say, carbon — is not in the price. The cost of our military alliance with some petro-states, and military attention to other petro-states, is not in the price. The cost of the pollution is not in the price. All these costs will be paid, but they’re not built into what we pay at the pump. Instead, we’ll pay them through taxes, or medical bills, or global temperature changes.

And here’s Chait:

Put another way, oil carries a number of externalized costs. Most public attention has focused on the cost of emitting carbon into the atmosphere, but the costs of cleaning up the inevitable spills, and the military foreign policy costs of enriching petro-states, which tend to be unfriendly, and having to secure foreign oil supplies are highly significant. If all these costs were paid at the point of sale, people would switch to other energy sources. But the costs of environmental cleanup and foreign policy stress are born mostly by the government, and the costs of carbon emissions are born mostly by future generations. So it’s rational for us to have internal-combustion engines — we can largely free-rise on somebody else’s subsidy.

3) Of course, part of the story has been the sorry regulation and oversight that allowed this to happen.  If ever there was an example of why good government regulation is important, this should be it.  Joe Conason has a nice column in Salon about the tremendous safety of offshore drilling in Norway.  It’s secret?  It’s state-owned (socialism!!).  The key point:

What makes Norway so different from the United States — and much more likely to install the most protective energy technology — is that the Norwegian state can impose public values on oil producers without fighting off lobbyists and crooked politicians, because it owns and controls the resources. Rather than Halliburton-style corporate management controlling the government and blocking environmental improvement, Norway’s system works the other way around. It isn’t perfect, as any Nordic environmentalist will ardently explain, but the results are considerably better than ours.

4) And lastly, over at 538, Nate Silver points out the crazy result of one of the recent opinion polls on the spill.  21% of respondents said that the accident made them more likely to support off-shore drilling.  Obviously, that’s complete nonsense.  Once again, evidence that for opinion polls beyond “who will you vote for” they need to be taken with a shaker’s worth of salt.

Done with Firefox

Firefox has been incredibly glitchy for me for the past several months.  Crashes a lot and often quite slow.  In contrast, I’ve come to really love Chrome.  I actually wish it were just a little less sleek (i.e., toolbar buttons to print, etc.)   Though, in writing that complaint, I did a websearch and came across these very handy tips.  I’ve actually stuck with Firefox almost completely for the reason that it works quite well with wolfblogs and Chrome does not.  Now that I’m done with wolfblogs, I’m done with Firefox.  It’s been a great program for me, but now Chrome is clearly superior.

Most “American” political ad ever?

This ad for the Republican primary for Agriculture Commissioner in Alabama is unintentionally hilarious.   Pulls out pretty much every trope about being manly, patriotic, etc., in a race for agriculture commissioner.  It’s not exactly clear to me how his ideas of getting tough on “thugs and criminals” matters for this position, much less his facility with a shotgun.  Anyway, take a gander.

Welcome to my new blogging home

If you’re here, you’ve quite likely already a regular reader and have followed me over from Wolfblogs.  I have to say, I love the new look here (but WordPress has a lot of cool templates and flexibility, so I’m open to ideas– let me know what you think).  You’ll also notice that the formatting is off on most of the old posts I was able to import (with much frustration and much help from the Wolfblogs support staff), but mostly just in the form of ugly looking block quotes.  I can live with that, as my biggest fear was that all my ramblings for the past 4 years would basically disappear into the aether.   Anyway, I’m here now, enjoy (and comment!)…

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