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OpenMarket: July 2008

  • Is the Stimulus Working?

    July 31, 2008 5:43 PM

    The New York Times ominously reports that "G.D.P. Grows at Tepid 1.9% Pace Despite Stimulus"

    A more accurate wording would be "G.D.P. Grows at Tepid 1.9% Pace Due in Part to Stimulus."

    CEI's Wayne Crews shows why the stimulus package was doomed to fail in a recent CEI Issue Analysis, "Still Stimulating Like It's 1999." Worth reading.

  • The Near-Impossibility of Swing Voting (movie spoiler alert)

    July 31, 2008 5:28 PM

    Last night I attended a preview of the new film Swing Vote, which is being released tomorrow. It revolves around one man, Bud Johnson (Kevin Costner), who through a series of odd events winds up getting to re-cast a botched ballot in a tied presidential election in the state whose electoral votes will tip the election to either candidate, New Mexico.

    Such is the scenario often put forth by non-voters -- given its extreme unlikelihood, the chances that your vote will make any difference in an election's outcome are essentially nil. However, I doubt a discussion about the rationality of voting is what inspired the makers of Swing Vote.

    The film moves toward a warm and fuzzy bipartisan ending that is intended to drive home the importance of voting -- and becoming duly informed to do so -- as a "civic duty." Yet the movie's premise is so outlandish that instead of a civics lesson, it rather reinforces the view of voting as irrational, an expenditure of effort toward no discernible effect (under normal circumstances, at least) -- or, in other words, that there is no Bud Johnson.

  • Putting the Farm Bill in Perspective

    July 31, 2008 5:09 PM

    Number of farms in the U.S. -- about 2.1 million.

    Cost of the 2008 farm bill -- $300 billion over five years.

    That's nearly $150,000 per farm, at a time of high food prices.

  • Google Reveals More About Contextual Search

    July 31, 2008 3:31 PM

    Last month, Google slightly improved the relevancy of the ads it displays when you search for something. In addition to taking your last search into account, Google now also factors in your immediately-previous search. Then, a couple of weeks ago, Google released more information about how it improves its search algorithm - notably, by collecting data on searches.

    Today, Google has added a new feature that shows users how their results are customized, based on factors like location, recent searches, and a longer search history. CNET gives the example of a San Francisco user searching for "kiss fm" and finding the KISS-FM in San Francisco, not the KISS-FM in any other city, as her top result.

    This customization is important for search. More relevant results are better results. With search competition increasing, Google needs personal data to keep its algorithm up-to-date. As Google pointed out in its comments to the FTC's proposed behavioral ad rules, personal data of some form will have to be collected and used if the internet is ever going to improve. That means the government will have to stay out.

  • Public Safety: Give Us the D-Block

    July 31, 2008 10:15 AM

    I reported here earlier on public safety agencies holding up spectrum owed to Sprint-Nextel. I also reported on repeated demands for even more spectrum, in spite of public safety agencies already being given an enormous chunk of the spectrum freed up by DTV.

    Yesterday, a group of public safety officials met with FCC Commissioner Michael Copps and demanded even more. The public safety officials want the whole D-Block, the section of spectrum that was to be turned into a public-private venture, but failed to achieve its reserve price at auction due to extreme limitations on its use.

    They should not get it. My colleague, Ryan Radia, has an upcoming On-Point detailing what is wrong with giving public safety agencies so much spectrum. Government agencies have no incentive to use spectrum efficiently, since they can just get more by demanding it. Privitization, however, would result in better public safety outcomes (not to mention opening up space for new technologies like WiMax) because private companies have an incentive to innovate and tailor their systems to the public safety agencies that would lease spectrum from them.

  • States Begin to Regulate Nano

    July 30, 2008 3:50 PM

    So far, nanotech has been left blessingly unregulated by the feds. Nanotech has been responsible for the great advances in computer technology. It offers the possibility of cheap genome sequencing. And it generates new, better materials for everyday uses.

    But now, states and locals are stepping in and beginning to regulate nanomaterials. The main concern is apparently toxicity. But nanomaterials are very safe and scientists are already examining their toxicity. Nothing is terribly unique about nanomaterials; we are already bombarded with objects on the same size scale. Given that no one has ever been harmed by nanomaterials, regulation seems a bit premature.

  • Egads. Physicists Debate Global Warming. Call Al Gore!

    July 30, 2008 1:22 PM

    This can't be.  There apparently are PHYSICISTS who don't believe the world is about to end due to climate change.  They even disagree with the UN's IPCC.  My god!  What further horrors await all true believers in the Goracle's pronouncements??

    Observes Jeffrey Marque, the editor of the Forum on Physics & Society:

  • Bush Signs Blank Check for Costly Mortgage Bailout

    July 30, 2008 11:22 AM

    Bush signed into law an enormously costly mortgage bailout today, turning a deaf ear to financial experts who warned about the bill's dangers and risks, and choosing instead to spend untold billions of dollars (potentially up to $300 billion) to bail out government-backed mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

    "David M. Walker, the former comptroller general of the United States and head of the Government Accountability Office . . . said that Mr. Bush might have been unwise to sign the measure. 'Providing authority to the secretary of the Treasury to extend credit or to buy stock is one that will end up costing the taxpayers tens of billions of dollars.'   Mr. Walker noted that other government interventions in the private market, including a rescue of the Chrysler automobile company had provided an opportunity for taxpayers to profit. But when it comes to the mortgage giants, he said, there is no upside.  'The way this is structured,' he said. 'It's only a matter of how much the taxpayers are going to lose.'"

  • Google, Yahoo, and Federalism

    July 30, 2008 10:57 AM

    In addition to massive federal probes of the deal, the nonexclusive Google-Yahoo ad pact is facing scrutiny from states as well. The California attorney general is being pushed to examine the advertising arrangement.

    Why all this hubbub? As I've argued here before, the Google-Yahoo deal is fairly minor, not a merger, beneficial to consumers, and was initially thought not to even need approval.

    One may particularly wonder why the states are getting involved. If there's ever a fairly clear case for federal preemption, antitrust investigations of international companies would seem to be it. After all, isn't it the federal government's job to regulate interstate commerce?

    While libertarians may in general be in favor of federalism, we should also recognize its limits. One big caveat is that there should be no situations where both the feds and the states are regulating something. Subjecting a voluntary, beneficial agreement to multiple levels of regulation is always worse than subjecting it to only one. Further, there are some issues where multiple regulatory jurisdictions are actually harmful. These are issues in which the most regulatory jurisdiction governs behavior, not the least.

  • Frank bill mandates credit rating agencies to repeat subprime mistakes

    July 30, 2008 8:48 AM

    Due to their failures in the subprime mess, it has long been expected that Congress would take up regulation of the credit rating agencies to attempt to make the ratings stronger.

    But the first rating agency bill to move forward -- the Municipal Bond Fairness Act sponsored by House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass. -- has the almost explicit goal of making the rating weaker for a certain type of security. Scheduled to be marked up in the financial services committee today, the bill would limit the risks agencies can look at in examining municipal bonds. It very purpose, according to a press release from Frank, is to "increase demand for certain municipal bonds and therefore lower borrowing costs for issuers." It would limit municipal bond ratings to long-term default, overlooking issues such as short-term liquidity that turned out to be important overlooked risks for mortgage securities.

    The bill also raises First Amendment issues, according to longtime media attorney Floyd Abrams, who defended the press in landmark free speech cases such as the "Penatagon Papers" case, New York Times Co. v. United States. The credit rating agencies, Abrams argues and courts have apparently upheld, are a form of media so long as they aren't structuring the security they rate.

    The problem during the subprime mess was lack of competition and overreliance on rating agencies. The Securities and Exchange Commission, to its credit, has moved in the direction of recognizing more competitors and lifting requirements that financial instituions rely on the word of rating agencies.


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