Thursday, March 30, 2006

Apparently Someone Noticed I Exist...

It was bound to happen sometime, I guess.

Anyway, Torie Bosch included my March 19th entry on France and the ongoing CPE crisis in a roundup of blog stories. While it's nice to be noticed, it's a bit less nice to be misconstrued.

Here's the relevant excerpt from her post:

Conservative bloggers are mocking the students for what they see as another case of French laziness. At the opposite-of-Francophile Libertyblog, the editor scoffs that the students are "defend[ing] their right to be half-assed workers." On The Inebriated Arsonist, the blogger, a "semi-employed Pennsylvanian Libertarian Republican" is confused about the fuss. He believes that the new laws are necessary. "I don't understand how the CPE could be a barrier to employment. If anything, the CPE will reduce potential liability costs for buying unnecessary labor and encourage employers to risk hiring new workers," he conjectures.

I didn't remember actually mocking the students for laziness, so I read over my entry a few times. At no point did I even use the word "lazy," much less state that the students were a slothful bunch who wouldn't get out of bed if the sheets were on fire. In fact, I even stated outright that the majority of students were peaceful, and that a small minority of idiots were responsible for the mayhem. Not the most mocking of sentiments, I think.

Secondly, I wasn't confused with the French protester's grasp of social policy (I know damn well that the French have quite the cultural attachment to vast protections against unemployment, come hell or high water) so much as I questioned the apparent ignorance of simple economic principles. One of the protesters quoted in the BBC article believed that the CPE would act as a barrier to employment, an assertion that I and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development cannot agree with.

Feel free to quote me all you wish, Ms. Bosch, just strive a little harder for accuracy, please.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

National Buy a Gun Day and the Carnival of Cordite

First off, happy anniversary to the Carnival of Cordite! The new edition is now up and running, with two parts: the first, a retrospective featuring a high point from each of the previous editions, and the second part following the regular format.

Also, let's not forget that April 15th is National Buy a Gun Day! If you're half-broke, like me, at least think about buying some ammunition or donating a small amount to a pro-2nd Amendment group.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Philadelphia and Gun Control

A bill currently before the Pennsylvania House of Representatives proposes limiting all state residents to the purchase of one handgun a month.

The Daily Pennsylvanian, the University of Pennsylvania's "independent" student newspaper, published an online editorial calling for state representatives and senators to back Bill 871. From the Article:

The epidemic of gun violence is reaching epic proportions, and yet Philadelphia is unable to act because the state government has tied its hands. Philadelphia cannot control the flow of handguns on its own streets because cities within Pennsylvania cannot enact stricter gun-control ordinances than those created in the state gun-control laws.

Philadelphia already has strict laws on firearms, and yet the laws are never strict enough.

These current laws allow unlimited purchasing of handguns. This means that "straw purchasers" can legally purchase handguns in bulk and then unlawfully and lucratively transfer the weapons to gun traffickers or other criminals who would not have been able to pass a background check to buy the handgun in the first place or who want to avoid detection. Bulk purchases of guns go unchecked, creating an ample, steady and inexpensive supply of illegal guns for trafficking -- 46 percent of guns used in crime come from these illegal transactions.

First off, buying a handgun with the intent to resell them illegally is, well, illegal, and such criminals should be prosecuted under the full extent of the law. As for believing that a purchase limit would impede the flow of guns to criminals, don't kid yourself.

Under the "One Handgun Per Month" legislation, individuals will only be able to purchase a handgun once every 30 days, providing exception for parties with a need for more guns each month, like gun collectors and law-enforcement agencies. This should ensure that unfair restrictions are not placed on anyone needing multiple guns each month for legitimate reasons.

Strange how the legislation doesn't include "self-defense" as a legitimate reason to buy more than one handgun at a time. Beyond that, the legislation punishes the rest of the state at the whim of Philadelphia politicians.

This legislation does not represent an attack against the right to bear arms. It gives cities in Pennsylvania the ability to control the flow of illegal handguns on its streets, not to deny individuals the right to own a handgun.

The hell it isn't an attack on the right to keep and bear arms. The law will do little to stop gun violence, and only make it more annoying for legitimate citizens to arm themselves.

Paris on the Brink?

It seems all sides are gearing up for today, as students continue to sit out of school and the trade unions are calling for a nationwide general strike. Demonstrations are planned for cities across the country to protest the enactment of the First Employment Contract (CPE, in French) law, which allows employers to hire workers below the age of twenty-six under the terms of a special temporary labor contract, bypassing current restrictions on firings and layoffs.

The police in Paris, after dealing with a whole month of rioting and general insanity last fall and with the memory of the latest labor riots still fresh in their memory, have already called up four thousand policemen to prepare for whatever today's demonstrations might bring (BBC). Considering that troublemakers have already attacked policemen, burned cars and damaged local businesses, the possibility for violence to break out is very, very real. While the majority of protesters and striking workers obviously do not wish to inflict significant damage upon local businesses and attack policemen, even a small miniority of idiots have the potential to wreak havoc.

French university students, meanwhile, have continued their general strike against attending courses and have apparently taken over the grounds of many universities and schools:

The movement has taken the form of huge rallies joined by trade unions, with another day of marches and strikes due on Tuesday.

But students have also taken vigorous, direct action by blockading hundreds of universities and schools across France. It is in these revolutionary microcosms that the uprising is being hatched.

At Jussieu University in Paris - the focus of many past student revolts - insurrectional excitement is palpable.

"We are in our fifth week of blockade," Marie Gombeaud, a 19-year-old biology student, says proudly.

She has put aside laboratory work for the time being, and is mobilising students, administrating an internet forum on the protests and staffing checkpoints around the Jussieu campus.

Ah, such pride. Remember, kids, the point of attending post-secondary schools isn't to learn a trade or expand educational horizons; you go to college in order to protest laws and seize educational institutions and prevent any sort of learning from taking place.

The main entrance is chained and barricaded by a clutter of overturned chairs, rubbish bins and desks. At side entrances, Ms Gombeaud and other students are restricting access to a few chosen activists.

Lelio Stettin, 23, the local leader, currently exerts more authority over the campus than the vice-chancellor, who has so far refrained from calling in the security forces.

Seriously, though, how the hell could university administrators just sit back and let students take control of the campus grounds and let the insurrection continue, unabated, for five whole weeks?! The students most certainly do not own the university grounds, nor do they have the right to choose who is allowed to access the grounds. Lelio Stettin, however, might have his mind on educational priorities:

"So many things need to be done: we have to prepare for another general assembly, leaflets have to be written and printed, we need placards for Tuesday's marches.

"Megaphones, sound systems and vans also have to be arranged. Excuse me, I must take this call."

Well, maybe not.

As I finish this entry, the first wave of workers has begun to walk off the job. Rail service across the country has been affected, as over half the long-distance trains stand idle. Other transport industries have also been hit, as the Paris underground system grinds to a halt and the air traffic controllers take an extended coffee break. Looks like today will be an interesting day.

Previous Posts:
French First Employment Contract and Econ 101
France and the CPE, Continued

Monday, March 20, 2006

The US Debt Grows Again

Surprise, surprise, the national debt will continue to grow, now that President Bush has signed into law a bill raising the debt limit to $9 trillion.

From the article:

The bill means the government can borrow a further $781 billion and stops what would have been a first ever default of Treasury notes.

In addition, it permits the US to pay for the war in Iraq without increasing taxes or making domestic cuts.

Ah, the "put it on credit" approach to fiscal solvency. We can't keep spending like drunken sailors on a one-night shore leave and expect to have a healthy economy. But what do I know, I'm one of the few people I know without any personal debt.

The debt increase, the fourth since Mr Bush came to power, comes as the budget deficit reaches near record levels.

An additional increase in the debt limit next year is likely, the Associated Press news agency said.

Ah, the glory days of a burgeoning debt load are upon us. Both of the major political parties are responsible for this ongoing fiasco, though I'm more inclined to wag my finger at the Republican Party. I voted for candidates who promised to be fiscal conservatives, and instead I get spend-happy Republicans in name only. Thanks, guys, I really appreciate your attempts to screw me and the rest of the country over. It's time to stop building useless bridges and to start limiting spending and pork.

The new chairman of the Federal Reserve System is worried, too:

Mr Bernanke warned persistent deficits need to be curbed, particularly as an ageing population will raise pressure on government spending.

Widening the deficit would put future living standards at risk, he added.

"As a result, I think it would be very desirable to take concrete steps to lower the prospective path of the deficit," he said.

Keep repeating that message, Mr. Bernanke, as loud and as often as possible.

It's not all gloom and doom, however. Tom Abate, writing the in the San Francisco Gate, believes that our current financial position isn't the problem, it's where we'll stand around 2010. From his article:

Nonpartisan budget watchers say the current debt load isn't the problem. They worry about what happens after 2010, when retiring Baby Boomers begin placing demands on Social Security and Medicare.

"It's not where we are. It's the trajectory we're on,'' said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who just stepped down as head of the Congressional Budget Office, the nonpartisan research arm of Congress.

As his last official act, Holtz-Eakin sent Congress six scenarios that look at federal spending and debt through 2050. All six assume that Social Security benefits will be paid as required by current law. The differences lie in how much inflation occurs in Medicare and Medicaid; higher or lower levels of taxation; and whether, or how deeply, Congress curbs spending on defense and other programs.

So, should we get to work on the problem while there's still time?

Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Foreign Law

Justice Ginsberg has recently stated her displeasure with a handful of Congressional proposals designed to limit the ability of the Supreme Court of the United States to consider or cite foreign laws when deciding on cases. From the article:

While emphasizing that the rulings and reasoning of non-U.S. courts are not "controlling authorities," she told the South African audience that foreign law can be a useful source of common standards of fairness. The Supreme Court's citation of them shows "comity and a spirit of humility" toward other countries, she said.

On the Supreme Court, Ginsburg's view is backed, to one degree or another, by Justices John Paul Stevens, Anthony M. Kennedy, Stephen G. Breyer and David H. Souter.

On the other hand, both Alito and Roberts have objected to the use of foreign law to construe the U.S. Constitution, and Scalia has stated on the record that foreign law should only be used when deciding cases involving treaties with foreign nations. Almost sounds like the opposing groups will meet at the school flagpole to settle their differences, eh?

If you're interested in looking further into the debate, try watching the following two videos:

Video 1: Justices Scalia and Breyer speaking to a group of law students at American University. The video is over an hour long, but it's definitely worth watching.

Video 2: Justice Scalia speaking at the American Enterprise Institute. Slightly shorter than an hour long.

And, for the record, I agree with Scalia.

(update: fixed the useless video links, so they should work now)

Sunday, March 19, 2006

France and the CPE, Continued

Unless you've been under a rock the past few days, you may have noticed that the protests over the proposed First Employment Contract (CPE) have graduated into small-scale riots. I watched coverage of the Paris rioters throwing paving stones, bricks and flares at the police lines for at least an hour. I know most of the protesters were peaceful, but suffering a bunch of idiots and professional troublemakers rarely helps a cause.

Back to the CPE. Most of the protesters and interested parties quoted by the BBC continue to advance the opinion that the reforms would somehow create higher unemployment rates, rather than work to reduce joblessness. From this article:

Civil servant Nicole Beauregard, who marched with her teenaged daughter, said: "Young people are less well-armed than we are to defend themselves.

"Getting into the workforce is already hard enough for them, and now they are putting up another obstacle."

I don't understand how the CPE could be a barrier to employment. If anything, the CPE will reduce potential liability costs for buying unnecessary labor and encourage employers to risk hiring new workers. The real obstacles to employment are laws that restrict employers from responding to market forces in a quick and efficient manner.

From this BBC interview, with university student Judith Duportail:

It is wrong to make it easier to hire and to fire people here in France.

I know it is the case in other countries, but there you don't have to wait months and months, perhaps even years, to get another job like you do here. I agree we must be flexible, but not like this."

The restrictions on firing workers is one of the factors contributing to a dearth in new hires. I'm no economic genius, though, so let's consult with the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development:

Why does unemployment remain so high and participation so low?

The unemployment rate is currently 10% and has not been below 8% for twenty years, even at the cyclical peak of the late 1990s. There is room for discussion about the precise quantitative effects of strict employment protection and the minimum wage. But these effects, combined with the uncertainty over the cost of dismissal to the employer, and the fact that the minimum cost of labour exceeds the potential productivity of a number of low skilled workers, appear to be responsible for a large part of the high level of structural unemployment, especially among certain groups, such as youth and the long-term unemployed. These policies are intended to place part of the responsibility for income protection and security of employment on employers. Over the years the response of employers to these increases in labour costs has been to reduce the demand for labour even though reductions over the last decade in social insurance contributions for low paid workers have increased employment prospects for the low skilled. High employers' social insurance contributions have the same effect on the demand for labour at wage levels where these reductions no longer have an impact. On the other hand, the interaction of taxes, social security contributions and social benefits also leads to poor labour market performance by tending to reduce the supply of labour.

I suggest reading the entire article at the OECD, along with the full Economic Survey of France that covers other aspects of the French economy and labor troubles.

In short, the CPE is just one of many sorely-needed reforms necessary for the French economy to prosper.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Of South Park and Scientology

Perhaps you've read about the imbroglio involving the creators of South Park, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, as well as Isaac Hayes, Tom Cruise and the Church of Scientology.

I don't want to delve into the Church of Scientology's system of beliefs, the storyline of the South Park episode in question, or rumors that Tom Cruise used his influence to have the rerun of the Scientology episode pulled. Other bloggers and news outlets have already commented on those points, and I don't have any real experience with Scientology to speak of, beyond knowing a little of L. Ron Hubbard's life history and reading through a few websites dedicated to the religion. Instead, let's quickly examine the larger issue of 1st Amendment protections and attempts to outlaw religious blasphemy.

The troubles across the world stemming from the publishing of cartoons in a Danish newspaper gave momentum to political parties, religious zealots and weak-kneed politicians who seek to impose criminal sanctions on speech deemed to be blasphemous towards a particular faith or generally irreligious in nature. The European Union already has several member states with such laws on the books (the United Kingdom and Italy, for example), and Turkey seeks a Union-wide blasphemy ban. Proponents of the ban argue that restricting blasphemous speech will raise respect for opposing faiths and reduce cultural and religious conflicts.

Far from offering beneficial effects, banning irreligious speech can only harm a society. No person, group or faith may be above reproach, lest they become empowered to freely disobey laws and act with complete impunity. No religion is perfect, and abuses of power and trust must be allowed to see the light of day, rather than hide behind speech restrictions. Without the protections offered by the 1st Amendment, who would speak about the Roman Catholic hierarchy covering up cases of child abuse, who would alert society about abuse in Jehovah's Witness congregations, who would decry using the Koran as justification for honor killings?

Regardless of whether or not the Church of Scientology is indeed guilty of any sort of abuse or criminal act, Matt Stone and Trey Parker had every right to speak about the church's beliefs and drag Scientology into public discussion.

Blasphemy laws the world over should and must be opposed at all costs.

In the interests of blogger transparency, I found the Scientology episode was one of the best from the entire series. I generally like South Park, though Matt and Trey have had their share of misses over the years.

Goodbye, Terrell

For any football fans out there, the Cowboys have announced the signing of Terrell Owens to a $25 million dollar deal. I'm sure the Dallas fans will just love having TO around, after he continually provoked them with endzone celebrations and dancing on the Cowboy star symbol in the middle of the field. Happy Trails, hehe.

What are the Vegas odds on his next blowup, I wonder?

Free Stuff Alert

It seems Microsoft is using the incentive of free pen drives to spread information about their licensing system for Windows. While I don't feel a lot of love for Microsoft, I'm no fan of software piracy, so spend two minutes reminding yourself about software licensing and grab a free pen drive for your troubles.

Oh, and I think I know what's going on my pen drive when it finally arrives.

Friday, March 17, 2006

French First Employment Contract and Econ 101

I'm having a hard time finding sympathy for the protesting French students. Sure, receiving the pink slip is usually an unhappy experience (though the last day of a tedious and backbreaking summer job usually feels like Christmas). Hamstringing employers into retaining unnecessary labor with an eye towards avoiding instant unemployment, however, is a horrible way to respond.

Let's put this in terms of a simple, imaginary small business, shall we?

Meet Jack. Jack, a recent college graduate and ever the budding young businessman, decides to open a donut shop. He owns shop space and has all the necessary equipment and ingredients needed for the tasty treats, and his last step is to hire some workers. Jack is rather new to the business, so he figures he needs three workers besides himself: a cashier to run the register and deal with typical customer issues, a person to mix the ingredients together and someone to cook and glaze the donuts.

Soon enough, Jack’s donut business is booming, doing well enough that he decides to take a chance and extend his business hours. Since his employees are already working a full 40-hour schedule, and Jack is pulling almost double that himself trying to keep everything running smoothly, he knows he will need more workers. So Jack hires three more workers and a manager to take some of the load off of him.

After a few weeks of extended hours, however, Jack notices that customers tend to drop off during the middle of the second shift, at times leaving his employees with little to do. In order to maximize profits, Jack decides to cut one of the workers from the second shift, of course choosing the least productive employee of the bunch.

To me, and to a lot of businessmen out there, Jack’s decision to lay off a worker shows good business sense. Keeping the extra worker around wasn’t worth the amount of labor that worker provided, and thus Jack trimmed the fat.

Now, let us return to reality. French university students and young workers have been protesting the passage of the First Employment Contract (Contrat Premiere Embauche), which allows businesses to hire workers below the age of twenty-six under the terms of a temporary contract, mandating that employers have the right to fire any such worker without prior notice. For normal, non-CPE labor, the law apparently mandates one 1 to 3 months notice before the end of actual employment. (BBC)

The French Government is in a bind. Average unemployment is 9.6%, with unemployment among 18 to 25-year-olds greater than 20%. (BBC) Job growth has also been poor. The Government needs to do something to ease unemployment, but decades of strong labor protection have turned public opinion against sweeping (or, in this case, marginal) changes to the system. The CPE was designed to boost job growth among businesses that require little formal training, jobs that 18 to 26-year-olds tend to inhabit.

Back to Jack. In the story above, Jack was operating under the auspices of at-will employment, meaning he could hire and fire at any time, for any reason. He could add or subtract workers depending on his situation, and could react quickly to market or labor forces. Under the pre-CPE system, however, Jack wouldn’t be able to make those decisions at will. The national labor laws would potentially require Jack to retain the extra employee for months beyond Jack’s decision to fire him, costing Jack profits on buying unnecessary labor, not to mention taxes and other fees imposed by French government. With the potential for problems resulting from unneeded labor, Jack might never have hired the second shift in the first place, deciding that the opportunity costs might not make expansion worth his while.

Much is the same among the businesses in France. Government protections on labor stymied job growth, as many businesses don’t want to be saddled with the costs of employing unnecessary labor. By protesting the CPE the students are working against their own interests, ensuring a sluggish labor market and a continued dearth of jobs for their age set.

Fresh Meat for the Grinder...

Welcome! I'm just screwing around for the moment, so please, don't mind the mess.