Quotulatiousness

October 13, 2014

Statistical sleight-of-hand on the dangers of texting while driving

Filed under: Health, Media, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:15

Philip N. Cohen casts a skeptical eye at the frequently cited statistic on the dangers of texting, especially to teenage drivers. It’s another “epidemic” of bad statistics and panic-mongering headlines:

Recently, [author and journalist Matt] Richtel tweeted a link to this old news article that claims texting causes more fatal accidents for teenagers than alcohol. The article says some researcher estimates “more than 3,000 annual teen deaths from texting,” but there is no reference to a study or any source for the data used to make the estimate. As I previously noted, that’s not plausible.

In fact, 2,823 teens teens died in motor vehicle accidents in 2012 (only 2,228 of whom were vehicle occupants). So, my math gets me 7.7 teens per day dying in motor vehicle accidents, regardless of the cause. I’m no Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist, but I reckon that makes this giant factoid on Richtel’s website wrong, which doesn’t bode well for the book.

In fact, I suspect the 11-per-day meme comes from Mother Jones (or whoever someone there got it from) doing the math wrong on that Newsday number of 3,000 per year and calling it “nearly a dozen” (3,000 is 8.2 per day). And if you Google around looking for this 11-per-day statistic, you find sites like textinganddrivingsafety.com, which, like Richtel does in his website video, attributes the statistic to the “Institute for Highway Safety.” I think they mean the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which is the source I used for the 2,823 number above. (The fact that he gets the name wrong suggests he got the statistic second-hand.) IIHS has an extensive page of facts on distracted driving, which doesn’t have any fact like this (they actually express skepticism about inflated claims of cell phone effects).

[...]

I generally oppose scare-mongering manipulations of data that take advantage of common ignorance. The people selling mobile-phone panic don’t dwell on the fact that the roads are getting safer and safer, and just let you go on assuming they’re getting more and more dangerous. I reviewed all that here, showing the increase in mobile phone subscriptions relative to the decline in traffic accidents, injuries, and deaths.

That doesn’t mean texting and driving isn’t dangerous. I’m sure it is. Cell phone bans may be a good idea, although the evidence that they save lives is mixed. But the overall situation is surely more complicated than the TEXTING-WHILE-DRIVING EPIDEMIC suggests. The whole story doesn’t seem right — how can phones be so dangerous, and growing more and more pervasive, while accidents and injuries fall? At the very least, a powerful part of the explanation is being left out. (I wonder if phones displace other distractions, like eating and putting on make-up; or if some people drive more cautiously while they’re using their phones, to compensate for their distraction; or if distracted phone users were simply the worst drivers already.)

October 5, 2014

Jeremy Clarkson riles up Argentinian car fans

Filed under: Americas, Britain, Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:02

For a change, it isn’t anything he said:

Top Gear‘s crew has had to abandon their cars at the roadside and flee Argentina after being pelted with stones. The incident happened after it emerged they were using a vehicle with a number plate that apparently refers to the Falklands War.

A Porsche with the registration number H982 FKL, which some people suggested could refer to the Falklands conflict of 1982, was among those abandoned. BBC bosses have said the number plate was merely a coincidence and was not chosen deliberately, but it led to protests in Argentina, including a demonstration by a group of war veterans who protested outside the hotel used by the show team.

[...]

The executive producer of Top Gear, Andy Wilman, said: “Top Gear production purchased three cars for a forthcoming programme; to suggest that this car was either chosen for its number plate, or that an alternative number plate was substituted for the original, is completely untrue.”

Even if Wilman is dissembling about the license plate … just how flipping sensitive do you have to be to object to a sort-of abbreviation, in a foreign language, in the characters on a license plate? Who would ordinarily notice or care what the license plate may or may not hint at, unless someone is busy trying to stir up trouble? That said, Top Gear thrives on controversy, so it’s quite possible that they hoped they’d draw some attention, but probably not to the extent of being forced out of the country.

Update: Clarkson is now accusing the Argentine government of setting a trap for the Top Gear film crew.

The presenter was said to have infuriated locals by driving through South America in a Porsche with the numberplate H982 FKL, seen as a goading reference to the 1982 Falklands conflict.

However, Clarkson said the plate was “not the issue” — he claimed it was an unfortunate coincidence and that he removed it two days into the trip — and blamed the state government for orchestrating an ambush by mobs armed with pickaxe handles, paving stones and bricks.

“There is no question in my mind that we walked into a trap,” Clarkson said.

“We were English (apart from one Aussie camera guy and a Scottish doctor” and that was a good enough reason for the state government to send 29 people into a night filled with rage and flying bricks.”

He claimed the crew were “plainly herded into an ambush” and said: “Make no mistake, lives were at stake.”

[...]

The team were confronted at their hotel by a group claiming to be war veterans.

“Richard Hammond, James May and I bravely hid under the beds in a researcher’s room while protesters went through the hotel looking for us,” Clarkson said.

They then fled by plane to Buenos Aires — having “rounded up the girls” on the team — leaving the rest of their crew behind.

The crew were forced to make a gruelling six-hour trek to the Chilean border, abandoning the Porsche and their camera equipment at the side of the road.

September 28, 2014

This is why you rarely see “Made in India” on manufactured goods

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Economics, India — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:13

At The Diplomat, Mohamed Zeeshan talks about India’s self-imposed disadvantages in manufacturing both for domestic and export consumption:

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s maiden Independence Day speech was laced with inspiring rhetoric. But of the many things he said, the one slogan that inevitably caught public attention was this: “Come, make in India!” With those words, Modi was trying to make the case for turning India into the world’s next great manufacturing hub. Understandably, the Indian populace was thrilled.

India is one of the world’s ten largest economies (and is third largest on a purchasing power parity basis), with a total annual output of nearly $2 trillion. As much as 57 percent of this output is produced by a service sector that employs just 28 percent of the population, largely concentrated in urban parts of the country. That is no surprise, because most Indians lack the skills and education to join the more knowledge-intensive service sector. What they need is what successful developing nations all over the world have had ever since the Industrial Revolution: a robust and productive manufacturing sector.

Yet India’s manufacturing sector contributes just 16 percent to the total GDP pie (China’s, by contrast, accounts for almost half of its total economic output). Victor Mallet, writing in the McKinsey book Reimagining India, recently offered an anecdote that was illuminating. “One of India’s largest carmakers recently boasted that it was selling more vehicles than ever and that it was hiring an extra eight hundred workers for its factory,” he wrote, “But the plant employing those workers belongs to the Jaguar Land Rover subsidiary of Tata Motors and is in the English Midlands, not in job-hungry India.”

Mallet goes on to make a point that has been made frequently by Indian economists: The world doesn’t want to “make in India,” because it is simply too painful. There’s bureaucratic red tape, a difficult land acquisition act, troublesome environmental legislation, a shortage of electricity, and a lack of water resources. The only thing India doesn’t seem to lack is labor, but that merely adds to the problem. As Mallet points out in the same essay, aptly titled “Demographic dividend – or disaster?”, “India’s population grew by 181 million in the decade to 2011 – and (despite falling fertility rates) a rise of nearly 50% in the total number of inhabitants is unavoidable.” But the number of jobs being added to feed that population is inadequate.

However, the labor dividend is still important. India doesn’t need to reduce the number of hands on deck. It needs to weed out the challenges that stop them from being productive.

September 20, 2014

CBC warning to Canadians travelling in the United States

Filed under: Cancon, Law, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 12:11

I’ve seen this CBC link mentioned several times by US commentators:

American shakedown: Police won’t charge you, but they’ll grab your money
U.S. police are operating a co-ordinated scheme to seize as much of the public’s cash as they can

On its official website, the Canadian government informs its citizens that “there is no limit to the amount of money that you may legally take into or out of the United States.” Nonetheless, it adds, banking in the U.S. can be difficult for non-residents, so Canadians shouldn’t carry large amounts of cash.

That last bit is excellent advice, but for an entirely different reason than the one Ottawa cites.

There’s a shakedown going on in the U.S., and the perps are in uniform.

Across America, law enforcement officers — from federal agents to state troopers right down to sheriffs in one-street backwaters — are operating a vast, co-ordinated scheme to grab as much of the public’s cash as they can; “hand over fist,” to use the words of one police trainer.

September 17, 2014

Creating jobs, good. Creating subsidized jobs, not so good.

Filed under: Economics, Government — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:33

Gregg Easterbrook on the difference between ordinary jobs and government subsidized job creation:

Elon Musk Recharges His Bank Account: Tesla’s agreement with Nevada to build a battery factory is expected to create about 6,000 jobs in exchange for $1.25 billion in tax favors. That’s about $208,000 per job. More jobs are always good. But typical Nevada residents with a median household income of $54,000 per year will be taxed to create very expensive jobs for others. Volkswagen is expanding its manufacturing in Tennessee, which is good. But the state has agreed to about $300 million in subsidies for the expansion, which will create about 2,000 jobs — that’s $150,000 per new job, much of the money coming from Tennessee residents who can only dream of autoworkers’ wages. The median household income in Tennessee is $44,140, about a third of the tax subsidies per new Volkswagen job. The Tesla handout was approved by the Democratic state legislature of Nevada; Tennessee’s Republican-controlled state government approved the Volkswagen corporate welfare deal.

At least it’s a bargain compared to federally subsidized solar jobs. A Nevada solar project — state that is home to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, President Barack Obama’s closest ally on Capitol Hill — cost $10.8 million in subsidies per job created. Local public interest groups noticed the extreme subsidy while the national media did not.

This cheeky website monitors giveaways state by state.

August 14, 2014

Ubersplaining

Filed under: Business, Humour — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:46

James Lileks on the mindbending phenomenon that is Uber being supported (and even loved) by evil right-wingnuts:

Many people on the right have embraced Uber, the company that lets you call a ride from your smartphone instead of standing on the corner with your hand up looking like a statue of Lenin leading the proletariat to the Future, or maybe to that tapas place downtown. This confuses people who regard conservatives as dumb apes who poke Shiny New Things with a stick and screech in alarm. How can they support Uber? It’s a Cool Thing, and they’re all middle-aged dorks in polyester plaid shorts and black socks with sandals who like to “get down” to bands that sing about pickup trucks, or they’re pale evil men who wear three-piece suits to bed and drift off to sleep fantasizing that they’re slapping the birth-control pills out of the hands of poor women. Uber is good, Uber is an app, for heaven’s sake — how can these cretins possibly be on its side? It’s like finding that all the kale in the country is fertilized by Koch products.

[...]

As for Uber itself, well, let’s take a look at the wonderful world of cars-for-hire. When I lived in D.C. in the 90s, I took a lot of cabs. Now and then you’d get a spotless ride with a courteous older driver who knew every street and alley. When I say “now and then” it was in the sense of “now and then, there’s a presidential election.”

For the most part, the cabs had seats that felt like the thin battered beds of a hot-sheet motel and a sweat-and-barf perma-funk that made you roll down the windows in January. The fare wasn’t set by distance or time, but by zones, which encouraged the drivers to drive fast. While this made for speedy trips, and the not-unpleasant sensation of feeling your cheeks ripple with G-forces as he shot down the Dupont Circle tunnel like someone testing a rocket car on the Salt Flats of Utah, the occasional moments of weightlessness when you hit a bump reminded you that you were doing 50 mph in a car whose shock absorbers didn’t, and whose brakes probably wouldn’t.

When I moved back to Minneapolis I had no occasion to take the cab, except for trips back from the airport. The cars weren’t exactly new; when you looked at the fleet idling in the bays, it made you think, “this is what Havana would look like if Castro took over in 1982.”

August 8, 2014

Revisiting the economic brain-fart that was “Cash for Clunkers”

Filed under: Economics, Government, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:44

If you listen to big government fans, you’ll often hear how much better it is for the economy for the government to spend money — much better than letting the taxpayers spend that money themselves — because the government is able to get a much higher “multiple” for every dollar that it spends. The “Cash for Clunkers” story may support that theory, but only if you reverse the sign: the program may have been more economically helpful to the auto makers and the taxpayers if they’d just piled up a few billion bank notes and set them on fire. The program ran for two months, and the government doled out $3 billion in subsidies to new car buyers (their old cars were destroyed). The new car owners benefitted, although it seems to merely have brought forward intended new car purchases in most cases, and the auto makers seemed to benefit by moving out a lot of unsold inventory.

However, a new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper shows that the program actually ended up costing the auto makers between $2.6 and $4 billion. Coyote Blog quotes the WSJ‘s summary:

The irony is that the goals were to help Detroit through the recession by subsidizing sales and to please the green lobby by putting more fuel-efficient cars on the road. By pulling forward purchases that consumers would make later anyway, the Obama Administration also hoped to add to GDP. Christina Romer, then chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, called Cash for Clunkers “very nearly the best possible countercyclical fiscal policy in an economy suffering from temporarily low aggregate demand.”

The A&M economists had the elegant idea of comparing the buying behavior of Texas drivers who owned cars that barely qualified for cash (those that got 18 miles per gallon of gas or less) and those that barely did not (19 mph). Using state DMV sales records, this counterfactual allowed them to isolate the effects of the Cash for Clunkers incentives and show what would have happened without the program.

The two groups were equally likely to purchase a new vehicle over the nine month period that started with Cash for Clunkers, so the subsidy did not create any extra auto business. But in order to meet the fuel efficiency mandate, consumers who got the subsidy were induced to purchase smaller vehicle models with less horsepower that cost on average $2,500 to $3,000 less than those bought by their ineligible peers. The clunkers bought more Corollas, and everybody else more Chevys.

Extrapolated nationally, auto revenues may have plunged by more than what the government spent. And any environmental benefits cannot be justified under the federal social cost of carbon estimate of $33 a ton. Prior research from 2009 and 2013 has shown that the program cost between $237 and $288 a carbon ton.

By taking all those used cars off the road and destroying them, the program also created a nasty price spike in the used car market (which hurt the poor almost exclusively). As P.J. O’Rourke said:

… cash for clunkers was just sinful. You’re taking a bunch of perfectly good vehicles, inexpensive vehicles that could be used by people without much in the way of material means, and crushing them. If someone took a valuable resource — something that could really be useful to people — and destroyed it, they’d be in jail if they were private citizens.

Steve Chapman probably put it best back in 2009, “Cash for Clunkers has been a thrilling moment for advocates of expanded government, who say it proves what we can accomplish when our leaders put their minds to it. They are absolutely right. The program proves the federal government is unsurpassed at two things: dispersing money and destroying things.”

August 7, 2014

Streetcars – trying to use 19th century technology for 21st century problems

Filed under: Economics, Railways, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:13

In addition to my already admitted train fetish, I’m also a low-key fan of the streetcar. Some of that, I’m sure, is that a streetcar is really just a one-car passenger train on a short journey with frequent stops. But I recognize that streetcars and trams are not a realistic solution to urban transit needs today … unlike far too many city and regional transportation planners. The Economist has a short explainer this week, backup up this argument:

Streetcars — otherwise known as trolleys or trams — had their golden age around 100 years ago, carrying urban workers to nascent suburbs around Europe and America. But commuters had little love for these rickety, crowded electric trains, and by 1910 many were abandoning them for the convenience of cars or buses. Streetcars have been making a comeback, however, with new lines rumbling to life in at least 16 American cities, and dozens more in the works. Tucson, Arizona, inaugurated its new streetcar service in late July, and streetcar operators in Washington, DC, begin training this week—the city’s much-delayed service is expected to start later this year. But for all their nostalgic charm, streetcars are also increasingly controversial: a number of cities, such as San Antonio, Texas, are now rethinking their plans, complaining of high costs and limited public support. Critics grumble that streetcars gobble up scarce transit funds for a slow, silly service used mainly by tourists.

[...]

Streetcars are also incredibly expensive to build and maintain, with huge up-front capital costs in laying down rails and buying cars. Tucson’s project ultimately cost nearly $200m and opened years late, in part because the city needed to clear utilities from under the tracks, install overhead electrical connections and repave much of the four-mile route. A 3.6-mile line in Cincinnati, Ohio, now under construction is expected to cost at least $133m. Federal grants have gone some way to help pay for these projects, but cash spent on streetcars displaces spending on other, more cost-effective forms of public transport like buses, which offer cheaper and more-efficient service but are considerably less sexy. The capital cost per mile of a streetcar is between $30m and $75m, while a rapid bus service costs anywhere between $3m and $30m, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

All this investment might make some sense if streetcars offered an efficient way to move people around. But here, too, the evidence is flimsy. Riders — and especially tourists — may find streetcars less intimidating than buses, but these vehicles tend to offer slow journeys across walkable distances. European tramlines tend to be fairly long and isolated from other traffic, which ensures a swifter journey. But in America streetcars travel shorter distances along rails that mix with other traffic, so streetcars invariably inch along. And while these tracks may be reassuring to developers, they make it impossible to navigate busy streets: buses can ride around obstacles but trams must stay put and wait. Indeed, their slow speeds and frequent stops mean they often add to congestion. This may not bother tourists keen on a novelty ride, but it is no solution to America’s public transport problems.

If you want to include light or heavy rail in your city’s public transit network, it has to be either grade-separated from cars and pedestrians or it needs to be buried underground or raised in the air: mixing streetcars with cars and trucks — even if you manage to rebrand them with a more modern-sounding moniker — worsens traffic, creates unhappy interactions between the rail and non-rail vehicles, costs vast amounts of money, and rarely draws enough passenger traffic to come close to breaking even. I’m no fan of buses, but in almost every case, the economic case for buses is far more sound than the case for streetcars.

June 19, 2014

QotD: You (probably) drive on the wrong side of the road

Filed under: History, Humour, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:29

The heart is (or to be exact, appears to be) on the left side of the body. In the more primitive form of warfare some form of shield is therefore used to protect the left side, leaving the offensive weapon to be held in the right hand. The normal offensive weapon was the sword, worn in a scabbard or sheath. If the sword was to be wielded in the right hand, the scabbard would have to be worn on the left side. With a scabbard worn on the left, it became physically impossible to mount a horse on the off side unless intending to face the tail — which was not the normal practice. But if you mount on the near side, you will want to have your horse on the left of the road, so that you are clear of the traffic while mounting. It therefore becomes natural and proper to keep to the left, the contrary practice (as adopted in some backward countries) being totally opposed to all the deepest historical instincts. Free of arbitrary traffic rules the normal human being swings to the left.

C. Northcote Parkinson, “Personality Screen, Or The Cocktail Formula”, Parkinson’s Law (and other studies in administration), 1957.

June 18, 2014

The liability concern in the future of driverless cars

Filed under: Law, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:04

Tim Worstall asks when it would be appropriate for your driverless car to kill you:

Owen Barder points out a quite delightful problem that we’re all going to have to come up with some collective answer to over the driverless cars coming from Google and others. Just when is it going to be acceptable that the car kills you, the driver, or someone else? This is a difficult public policy question and I’m really not sure who the right people to be trying to solve it are. We could, I guess, given that it is a public policy question, turn it over to the political process. It is, after all, there to decide on such questions for us. But given the power of the tort bar over that process I’m not sure that we’d actually like the answer we got. For it would most likely mean that we never do get driverless cars, at least not in the US.

The basic background here is that driverless cars are likely to be hugely safer than the current human directed versions. For most accidents come about as a result of driver error. So, we expect the number of accidents to fall considerably as the technology rolls out. This is great, we want this to happen. However, we’re not going to end up with a world of no car accidents. Which leaves us with the problem of how do we program the cars to work when there is unavoidably going to be an accident?

[...]

So we actually end up with two problems here. The first being the one that Barder has outlined, which is that there’s an ethical question to be answered over how the programming decisions are made. Seriously, under what circumstances should a driverless car, made by Google or anyone else, be allowed to kill you or anyone else? The basic Trolly Problem is easy enough, kill fewer people by preference. But when one is necessary which one? And then a second problem which is that the people who have done the coding are going to have to take legal liability for that decision they’ve made. And given the ferocity of the plaintiff’s bar at times I’m not sure that anyone will really be willing to make that decision and thus adopt that potential liability.

Clearly, this needs to be sorted out at the political level. Laws need to be made clarifying the situation. And hands up everyone who thinks that the current political gridlock is going to manage that in a timely manner?

Quite.

May 24, 2014

The technological democratization of law enforcement and the rise of “Little Brother”

Filed under: Liberty, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:44

If you care about your privacy, you’re equally worried about the intrusive surveillance state and the unconstrained snooping of corporations. You may now need to worry about your snoopy neighbours also getting in on the act, as Declan McCullagh explains on Google+. This is a response to someone on a private mailing list for Silicon Valley folks, who said that he had no issue with automated collection of license plate data:

Tomorrow one of your PV [Portola Valley] neighbors will set up a computer-connected camera on private property and aimed at the street. It records all those “plates exposed” going by and, by doing optical character recognition with free software such as ANPR MX (C# code, BSD-licensed), it records every time a car goes by. The DMV will happily provide drivers’ names based on the license plate*; there’s even a process for “bulk quantities” of data.** That information doesn’t include a home address, but that’s easy to come by through other searches.

Then the neighbor launches PVPeopleTracker.com. It updates in real time showing whenever someone is at home, and marks their house in bright red if they’re gone on an extended trip. If there are odd patterns of movement compared to a baseline — perhaps suspicious late-night outings — those can be flagged as well. Any visitor to PVPeopleTracker.com can sign up for handy free email alerts reporting at what time their targeted house becomes vacant each weekday morning. Other network-linked cameras in PV can supplement the PVPeopleTracker.com database, so that everyone driving in town will have their movements monitored, archived, and publicly visible at all times.

With more than one network-linked camera separated by a known distance by roads with known speed limits, it would be simple to calculate speeding violations and send automated alerts, with MP4 videos attached as evidence, to the sheriff and CHP. PVPeopleTracker.com can also be cross-referenced against databases showing, say, marijuana convictions; if your movement profile matches a known drug trafficker, law enforcement can be alerted. (Sorry about those false positives!)

May 5, 2014

The Constitution-free zone near the US border

Filed under: Law, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:48

A recent decision by a federal appeal court expands the already very broad opportunities for police and border agents to stop and search travellers near the US border:

A federal appeals court just ruled that the police have a legal right to stop, search and arrest you for innocent behavior including driving with your hands at the ten-and-two position on the steering wheel at 7:45 p.m., taking a scenic route and having acne.

To the Tenth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, these factors added up to fit the profile of a person smuggling undocumented immigrants and drugs. The court said, “Although the factors, in isolation, may be consistent with innocent travel … taken together they may amount to reasonable suspicion.”

In other words, the police can now stop you for no reason at all. Law enforcement just needs to add a sinister context to your behavior, and off you go to jail. The court endorsed this expansion of aggressive police behavior in USA v. Cindy Lee Westhoven, No. 13-2065.

[...]

Incredibly the court found that this scenario created a reasonable suspicion for an “investigative stop.” By inserting a context that would make every driver guilty, the court upheld this belligerent law enforcement:

The officer said he spotted the car because “her arms were ‘straight and locked out’ at a ‘ten-and-two position on the steering wheel,’ — as everyone is taught in driver’s ed in high school. He was also suspicious because the road was used primarily by locals in New Mexico, and Westhoven had Arizona plates. She had acne scarring, “indicating to him she might be a methamphetamine user.” He also thought the shopping was better in Tucson than Douglas, so this was also “suspicious.”

“The dark tinted windows on Ms. Westhoven’s truck raised Agent Semmerling’s suspicion that she might be concealing something or someone in the back of her truck,” the court added.

The time happened to be between a 6-to-8 p.m. border patrol shift change, and the cop inferred that Westhoven was a smuggler trying to exploit that two-hour window. Westhoven was nervous, taking long pauses and shaking — which apparently signaled criminality.

The final nail for Westhoven was that she had two cell phones visible in the car. The cop said this was a common practice for drug smugglers. It is also common for people who have a business phone and a personal phone.

April 22, 2014

QotD: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Filed under: Humour, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 12:13

The sporting editors had also given me $300 in cash, most of which was already spent on extremely dangerous drugs. The trunk of the car looked like a mobile police narcotics lab. We had two bags of grass, 75 pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers … and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.

All this had been rounded up the night before, in a frenzy of high-speed driving all over Los Angeles County – from Topanga to Watts, we picked up everything we could get our hands on. Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.

The only thing that really worried me was the ether. There is nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than a man in the depths of an ether binge. And I knew we’d get into that rotten stuff pretty soon. Probably at the next gas station. We had sampled almost everything else, and now – yes, it was time for a long snort of ether. And then do the next 100 miles in a horrible, slobbering sort of spastic stupor. The only way to keep alert on ether is to do up a lot of amyls – not all at once, but steadily, just enough to maintain the focus at 90 miles an hour through Barstow.

Hunter S. Thompson, “Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas”, Rolling Stone, 1971-11-11

April 2, 2014

Comparing scandals – Toyota’s phantom acceleration and GM’s ignition switches

Filed under: Business, Government, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:10

David Harsanyi offers this comparison and says it’s another reason governments shouldn’t own businesses:

In February 2010, the Obama Administration’s Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told America, without a shred of evidence, that Toyota automobiles were dangerous to drive. LaHood offered the remarks in front of the House Appropriations subcommittee that was investigating reports of unintended-acceleration crashes. “My advice is, if anybody owns one of these vehicles, stop driving it,” he said, sending the company’s stock into a nosedive.

Even at the time, LaHood’s comments were reckless at best. Assailing the competition reeks of political opportunism and cronyism. It also illustrates one of the unavoidable predicaments of the state owning a corporation in a competitive marketplace. And when we put LaHood’s comment into perspective today, it’s actually a lot worse. Not only did the Obama administration have the power and ideological motive to damage the largely non-unionized competition, it was busy propping up a company that was causing preventable deaths.

[...]

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s acting chief David Friedman testified that GM never told them that faulty switches were at the root of the airbag problem. Fine. Before plowing billions of tax dollars into saving the United Automobile Workers, did the Car Czar or any other Obama officials take extra care to review DOT records to insure that taxpayers would not be funding the preventable deaths of American citizens? Would DOT or Holder exhibit the same zealousness for safety when it came to GM as they did when it came to Toyota? In the midst of the bailout debate and subsequent “turnaround,” news of a coverup and major recall would have been a political disaster.

So it’s difficult to understand why this isn’t a huge scandal. If every obtuse utterance by an obscure Republican congressman gets the media juices flowing, surely the possibility of this kind of negligence is worth a look. Can anyone with access to the administration ask some of these questions? Because if you take credit for “saving” a company (actually, an “industry,” as no one would ever driven again if Obama hadn’t saved the day) you also get credit for “saving” the real-life unscrupulous version of the company. “I placed my bet on American workers,” Obama told union workers in 2012. “And I’d make that same bet again any day of the week. And now, three years later that bet is paying off.” Betting $80 billion of someone else’s money to prop up sympathetic labor unions isn’t exactly fraught with political risk. Unless it turns out that your administration was less concerned about the safety defects of the company you owned than the company you disliked. That would be corruption.

March 12, 2014

The unheard-of withdrawal of a corporate welfare request

Filed under: Business, Cancon, Government, Politics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:28

A strange thing happened in Ontario last week:

A major corporation, Chrysler, withdrew its request for federal and provincial subsidies for a multibillion-dollar revamp of its assembly plants in Windsor and Brampton. Decrying the fact that its request had become a “political football,” Chrysler said it would fund “out of its own resources whatever capital requirements the Canadian operations require.” How about that! A capitalist firm acting like a capitalist firm.

The reason this is so strange is, of course, that capitalist firms haven’t behaved this way in a long time. Instead, they impress upon governments the importance of what they’re doing in terms of jobs, innovation, economic growth, research and development and then not so subtly threaten to take their investments elsewhere if the governments don’t come across with generous financial assistance. It’s a genteel and widely accepted form of extortion, but extortion is what it is and it seems Ontario PC Leader Tim Hudak’s having called it that is what Chrysler is referring to in saying the issue has now become a political football. If that’s true, then good for Hudak. He’s already saved the province a couple of hundred million dollars even before becoming premier.

Chrysler’s decision is also strange in light of the tough-guy lecture its Canadian-raised CEO, Sergio Marchionne, gave our governments just a few weeks ago at the opening of an auto show in Toronto. Canada is “like a guppy playing in shark-infested waters,” he said. The car business “is not a game for the faint-hearted. It takes resolve, and it takes cash.”

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