Thursday, April 28, 2005

If you find this blog nearly unreadable, there's now scientific (or at least scientific-sounding) support for your opinion. You can obtain it here.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Personally, I had neither any interest nor any opinion regarding the recent process that resulted in the selection of a new Pope. Nevertheless, I have to admit that when I heard the choice, I did have an emotional reaction, of sorts, albeit a rather crassly parochial one: Cardinal Ratzinger's elevation, I immediately thought, is obviously "good for the Jews".

Just about any other candidate, elected Pope at this particular moment, would have plenty of reasons to make no end of trouble for Jews: a perceived need to appease virulently anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment in Muslim countries, in the name of protecting vulnerable Catholic communities there; desire to participate in Third World international politics--which, these days, teems with anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism--in order to properly represent the huge population of Third World Catholics; or simple recognition of the many eternally sore points of theological and political friction between Catholics and Jews. However, Ratzinger has one very compelling reason not to make trouble: a desire to avoid seeming to the world to be a product of his unattractive past.

Of course, that doesn't mean that he's likely to be much of a help to the world's Jews. But then, not too many sensible Jews ever look to a pope for help. And it's no small comfort that this one--unlike so many of his predecessors--might actually try to refrain from doing much harm.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

"Bankruptcy reform" is a lot like tax rates--it's an opportunity for plenty of partisan ranting on behalf of bedrock principles, but it's really about marginal adjustments and practical outcomes, not hard-and-fast absolutes.

On the right, Todd Zywicki argues (and argues and argues and argues....) that the new bankruptcy reform bill will help reduce bankruptcy fraud and abuse, thus lowering interest rates for honest borrowers and protecting individual, small-scale and non-profit creditors from bankruptcy-abusers. On the left, Paul Krugman and Mark Kleiman essentially follow the "cui bono?" path, and conclude that the bankruptcy reform bill is all a plot by consumer creditors to increase their profits by winning the right to squeeze their helpless, impoverished debtors even harder than before. What's missing from both of these arguments is a clear picture of what bankruptcy is for, and why one might want to tighten or loosen its rules.

Bankruptcy is simply a standardization of the act of defaulting on debts. When a debtor defaults on a debt, then the creditor can go to court to recover as much as possible of the debt from the debtor's remaining assets. When there are multiple creditors, though, deciding whose repayment gets which priority up to what amount becomes quite complicated. Bankruptcy is a way of resolving this complexity--in effect, the debtor's current assets are divided up among the creditors according to certain rules, and the debtor's debts are thereby ruled discharged.

Of course, the devil's in the details. When can a debtor declare bankruptcy? Which of the debtor's assets are the creditors then allowed to divvy up? Which debts and obligations are thereby discharged? The answers to these questions can be more debtor-friendly--say, giving the debtor maximum flexibility in choosing when and how often to declare bankruptcy, requiring that only certain specific assets be seized, and specifying that all obligations are thereby fully discharged. Or they can be more creditor-friendly--say, severely limiting the debtor's option to declare bankruptcy, requiring that all present and future assets be prospectively seized, and only allowing a few debts to be thereby discharged. Where the laws stand on these questions thus determines a balance between debtors' and creditors' interests, which can be shifted in either direction at any time, for political or economic reasons. The latest "bankruptcy reform" bill, for instance, would shift the balance slightly further towards the creditors' interests in certain ways.

The bill is a response to a recent significant rise in the rate of bankruptcies. The bill's supporters argue that "abuse" of the law is increasing, as bankruptcy becomes less of a cultural stigma, and that the resulting hesitancy on the part of lenders may reduce the availability of credit to "honest" borrowers. The bill's opponents respond that the rise in bankruptcy is a result of increased "sub-prime" lending--that is, lending to borrowers who were higher bankruptcy risks in the first place--and that creditors are simply trying to avoid having to pay the price for their reckless lending practices.

Rather than attempt to assign blame for the rise in bankruptcies, it would be worthwhile to ask whether they're a problem in the first place. In fact, the rise in bankruptcies is a result of increased lending to risky borrowers--but the lenders weren't simply being foolish or reckless. Rather, their behavior is a perfectly sensible response to the financial revolution of the '80s and '90s--the same one that helped trigger today's housing and mortgage boom.

In the last couple of decades, it has become legally and technically possible to "repackage" debt more flexibly than ever before. For example, mortgages were once issued by individual institutions, who stood to lose substantial amounts of money if more of their mortgages defaulted than they had expected--say, as a result of a local economic downturn. Today, however, mortgages can be "bundled" into "mortgage-backed securities"--bonds whose value is based on the combined future mortgage payments of many different borrowers. These bonds can then be sold off to multiple investors, spreading the risk of any one institution's mortgage portfolio over perhaps hundreds or thousands of institutions. As a result, any individual institution's risk is greatly reduced.

Of course, since financial institutions are in the business of fielding controlled amounts of risk in exchange for the chance of a profit, their response has been not to reduce the risk of their portfolios, but rather to seek higher profits by jacking their risk back up to its previous level. The obvious way to do this is to lend to higher-risk borrowers, at higher interest rates, and then reduce their exposure to its previous level using the repackaging trick.

Something very similar has happened in the consumer lending business. Those "sub-prime" lenders--credit card companies that sign up hordes of questionable credit risks--are engaged in exactly the same game as the mortgage issuers: they repackage their cusomers' future credit card payments as bonds, then sell them off to multiple buyers, spreading out the risk to the point where any one buyer's exposure is bearable even at high default rates--that is, at high bankruptcy rates. And since these higher-risk loans also carry higher returns--poor credit risks are always charged higher interest rates--these bearable-risk, high-return bonds are good business for everyone. That's why those millions of "pre-approved" credit card applications keep flowing through the mail, even as the bankruptcy rate increases.

Under these circumstances, the argument for bankruptcy reform--that it's necessary to stem the rising tide of bankruptcies to keep credit within reach of higher-risk customers--is clearly nonsense. The increased availability of credit to less credit-worthy customers is driving the increase in bankruptcies, not being threatened by it. It's true that making bankruptcy more difficult and onerous for debtors would make credit even easier for high-risk borrowers to obtain. (So would the return of debtors' prison, for that matter: lenders would be confident of the willingness of even high-risk debtors to do everything possible in order to repay their debts and stay out of jail.) But the increase in the bankruptcy rate, far from being a harbinger of decreased credit availability, is actually a symptom of increased credit availability. Credit availability may or may not be at the "ideal" level today, but if you think we need more of it, then you should already be happy with the direction it's been going.

The day bankruptcy rates drop, on the other hand--because creditors are too afraid to lend to all but the least risky borrowers--we might want to consider tightening bankruptcy laws, in order to boost lenders' confidence that they'll be repaid. That day may yet come--say, after some future economic downturn triggers a sharp rise in bankruptcies, panicking creditors into tightening their credit standards. (Indeed, I suspect a greater-than-expected jump in interest rates could well create such an outcome very soon.)

However, that day is certainly not today. Creditors are hardly spooked by the current rising tide of bankruptcies--on the contrary, they fully expected it, have factored it carefully into their calculations, and are loving every minute of it.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Volokh co-conspirators Orin Kerr and Jim Lindgren have come out in favor of a proposal to limit the terms of US Supreme Court justices to 18 years. Co-conspirator Randy Barnett is also somewhat sympathetic.

My response: why not 4-year terms for Supreme Court justices, commencing at each presidential inauguration? To paraphrase Shaw, we've determined what they are--now it's just the duration we're bargaining over.

The justifications for 18-year terms--that they might make the Supreme Court more "modest" and responsive to public opinion, and presidents less inclined to appoint young, inexperienced justices, in the hope of influencing the Court for 50 years--effectively concede the point that the justices' role has long ceased to be anything even resembling neutral, dispassionate application of the Constitution and federal statutes. It is apparently now widely acknowledged that candidates are nominated by politicians for the sole purpose of enshrining particular political viewpoints--even constituencies' interests--in Constitutional and statute interpretation. Given, then, that the justices' role is a de facto political one, what's the argument for not making them every bit as accountable as any other political actor?

Of course, once they're political actors, it's hard to see what benefits they provide that aren't already covered by the other democratically accountable branches of government. Then again, perhaps if they had simply stuck to being judges in the first place, and hadn't succumbed to the temptation to abuse their powers for nakedly political ends, then they might not seem so utterly superfluous now.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Just for fun, here are some music trivia questions:

1. What song, written in 1968 by film composer Piero Umiliani for a soft-core documentary on sex in Sweden, went on to become a worldwide hit, recorded by numerous artists--including the Muppets?

(You can learn the answer using this search query. Or you can listen to a sample of the original recording here.)

2. What 1970 soft pop hit by Roger Nichols and Paul Williams was originally written for a television commercial for the Crocker Bank?

(You can learn the answer using this search query.)

3. What well-known "folk song" was actually written in 1940 for the musical "Esterke", by the legendary New York Yiddish theater composer Shalom Secunda (who also wrote the Andrews Sisters' hit "Bei Mir Bist Du Shein"), with lyrics by Aaron Zeitlin that allegorically mock the doomed Jews of Europe for failing to escape to America?

(You can learn the answer using this search query.)

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

For some inexplicable reason, lots of bloggers seem to have been moved to comment on David Brooks' recent, unimpressive New York Times column on the difference in divisiveness levels between the left and right. I'll grant that Brooks' column is correct in one respect: today's right is somewhat more fractious than the left--although decreasingly so, as the former gets more comfortable with its electoral dominance and corresponding political power. Brooks' characterization of that fractiousness, however, is completely wrong. Brooks believes that conservatives are politically more successful because "they enjoy big debates about public philosophy", whereas liberals don't.

This is ridiculous. Intellectuals enjoy big debates about public philosophy. There are intellectuals on both the left and the right, and neither group has helped its side's cause very much in the political arena. Winning politics isn't a matter of crafting a brilliantly coherent philosophy, but rather of crafting a marginally coherent coalition that's larger than the opponent's.

And that's where conservative fractiousness has helped. Conservatives, having been the minority side for something like half a century, eventually got hungry enough to incorporate many small factions who didn't necessarily agree with each other on much at all, except that they didn't like the ruling liberal coalition. One by one, as they attempted to peel groups of voters away from the left/Democrats/liberals, they engaged in spirited haggling over how much weight to grant the new group's agenda. This process continues, with the hot debates in conservative circles--immigration, federalism, fiscal discipline--centering on how much to offer relatively recently, tentatively recruited groups--Hispanics, libertarians, middle-class moderates--at the expense of the base--nativists, social conservatives, businesses.

Meanwhile, the left, as a recently-dominant faction now reduced to a minority, is too busy trying to contain the damage to think about such outreach moves. There's little disagreement among liberals because they're simply trying to protect the gains made by their core constituents during their years in power--gains that have long been a matter of internal consensus for them, and were until recently matters of national consensus as well. In their current state, they have no time, energy or inclination for jettisoning any of these consensus positions in return for some outside group's support. In effect, they've become a true "conservative" party--dedicated to preventing, as much as possible, a rollback of their cherished achievements.

This posture, although natural and understandable, is also a mistake. The sooner the left can think in terms of building a coalition out of disaffected anti-conservatives, rather than defending one consisting of embittered liberals, the sooner they will contend seriously for power against the right. That requires preparedness to give up some battles--even over traditional bedrock principles--as lost, if they're no longer politically viable. That's what conservatives did some time ago with their blanket opposition to government entitlements and racial equality, for example--and look at where they are now.

Of course, liberals will wake up, later if not sooner--the same process that (re-)created the modern conservative movement will ultimately recreate liberalism as well. But any liberal who's serious about challenging today's conservative political dominance had better hope--and act--for the awakening to begin soon.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Mark Kleiman points to a New York Times article about moves at DARPA, the Pentagon's research funding agency, to cut funding to long-term, academic research in computer science, in favor of shorter-term industrial development projects. A number of prominent computer scientists are quoted in the article, sounding quite incensed at DARPA's supposed shortsightedness in failing to renew and expand their usual grants. Buried towards the end, however, is this telling tidbit:
Still, a number of top scientists argue that the Pentagon's shift in priorities could not have come at a worse time. Most American companies have largely ended basic research and have begun to outsource product research and development extensively even as investments in Asia and Europe are rising quickly.
Now, those of us who were involved in computer science research back in the boom years of the '90's, when industry was spending like crazy on it, might scratch our heads a bit at this claim. You see, I'm trying to recall if any of these same professors back then used to chide DARPA for funding so much CS research, and reassure them that the government's money could best be spent elsewhere, since industry was easily taking up the slack in the CS area.

I clearly recall some academics arguing that industry's massive funding of CS research required a matching injection of government funds. I seem to remember the occasional claim that government funding had to keep pace with industry, to avoid private corporations "capturing" the expected massively lucrative fruits of basic CS research by claiming intellectual property rights on them. Maybe somebody might have argued that the surge in industrial funding of CS research was a sign that the research area had a lot of potential, and was hence deserving of government largesse. Or that it proved the economic importance of research to the hi-tech industry, which therefore needed still more government funding of research to help it stave off competition from other countries.

But I somehow can't seem to recall a single one of the professors quoted in the article arguing back then that government funding is most needed when industry isn't bothering to supply much funding of its own, and therefore that the abundance of industrial funding at the time was a sign that government research funds were less urgent, and could safely be cut back without harming the field or the economy.

Then again, perhaps it's just my poor memory.