“It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future,” says a proverb often attributed to Yogi Berra. Imagine the world of freedom, or lack of it. Who could foresee the technologies that make our lives so rewarding and convenient? The same technologies have us all under the government’s giant microscope. Thankfully, the brave have turned the microscope around.
In the months since Edward Snowden revealed the nature and extent of the spying that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been perpetrating upon Americans and foreigners, some of the NSA's most troublesome behavior has not been a part of the public debate.
The problem for NSA apologist is that when guys like Snowden disclose that the government conducts comprehensive surveillance in ways that would have made 1984’s O’Brien drool, it puts the entire progressive agenda in jeopardy.
The east coast and parts of the southern U.S. were to varying degrees paralyzed by blizzards a few weeks ago. The snow as expected rendered the roads treacherous, and in anticipation of slick streets, shoppers flocked to the grocery stores in advance.The rush into grocery stores, and its aftermath, offers worthwhile lessons in economics.First up, […]
The financial world is plodding along like a drunken sailor avoiding debt collectors by keeping no cash in his wallet. It’s not the kind of calm that’s going to last or end well. But the storm will have to wait until after the Olympics.What a game! We’ve never watched ice hockey closely before. But watching […]
In times of war and national emergency, it’s sometimes necessary to sacrifice civil liberties to secure vital gains in public safety. In those cases, we may have to accept a loss of privacy or freedom rather than invite mass slaughter of Americans.The National Security Agency’s domestic phone records collection is not one of those.Never have […]
Last year was quite the year for Bitcoin. We’ve seen exponential growth in Bitcoin’s exchange rate and extensive coverage in the media. Another phenomenon we have witnessed is the proliferation of alternative cryptocurrencies, five of which we’ve provided below.What all of these cryptocurrencies have in common is that they rely on a decentralized network to […]
Image: ShutterstockBitInstant CEO Charlie Shrem, along with alleged co-conspirator Robert Faiella, was arrested by federal authorities last week for allegedly laundering more than $1 million worth of Bitcoins. This is a tiny amount compared to the largest drug-and-terrorism money laundering case ever. Yet when British bank HSBC was found guilty in 2012 of laundering billions, […]
The exercise had an awesome name, inspired by the movies: “Quantum Dawn 2.”On July 18, scads of U.S. banks, stock exchanges and government agencies took part in a digital fire drill — a practice run in the event all of Wall Street came under massive cyberattack.This isn’t the first time banks have come under an […]
The faces of the Detroit bankruptcy are the thousands of pensioners whose promised benefits are suddenly part of the restructure negotiation. When Motown filed for Chapter 9 last July, the city had $11.5 billion in unsecured liabilities. The vast majority of this was pension and health care benefits owed to retired city employees.The images of […]
The New York Times published an interminable article on health care recently. Plenty of facts — how scrupulous are these journalists! — but the article displayed absolutely no comprehension of the basics of cause and effect. I was left wondering about the whole point.The article details how the health care system rewards specialists to an […]
We’ve pointed out in the past that President Obama’s views on the surveillance state shifted completely from when he was Senator to when he was President. As Senator, he supported a bunch of reforms that are very much like the ones his panel have suggested — and which he’s about to ignore. The NY Times […]
Bitcoins are largely considered digital currency (or “crypto currency”) so you’d expect it to be treated like currency on a retail web site. But the Internal Revenue Service might not think so.
The great inventors/businessmen of the First Industrial Revolution, such as James Watt and Matthew Boulton of steam-engine fame, were not just smart but privileged. Most were either born into the ruling class or lucky enough to be apprenticed to one of the elite. For most of history since then, entrepreneurship has meant either setting up […]
Both research and production look poised for a revolution as 3-D printing applies its high-tech charms to the business of creating chemical compounds and turns the production of medicine into a DIY project.
“Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.”When Capt. Jean-Luc Picard wants a steaming beverage in his ready room aboard the starship Enterprise, he just utters those words. The ship’s “replicator” then assembles the necessary atoms — including those for the cup — and produces it, ready for the drinking. Picard thinks nothing of it — it’s hardly more […]
The market has selected different things as money throughout history. Some of these items have served as money in isolated places for specific periods of time — for instance, cigarettes in prisoner-of-war camps. Cigarettes continue to be a currency in prisons if allowed, but if not, according to Wikipedia, “postage stamps have become a more […]
[Ed. Note: This article originally published on Jan. 24, 2013]Stocks up. Gold down. Bitcoin… waaay up.The S&P 500 busted through the 1,500 mark this morning. Stocks haven’t been this expensive since 2007… right before they got a whole lot cheaper… for a whole lot longer. Gold, meanwhile, dipped a tad. This, despite central bankers of […]
Before the housing market collapsed and the government pumped billions into the economy to save it, there was a programmer named Satoshi Nakamoto. And without much fanfare, he created an idea that’s in the process of changing the world. His idea was Bitcoin.Some background information is in order before I go any further.Think back to […]
Americans are still trying to get a handle on the full extent of the government’s domestic spying activities, including the recent revelation that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been collecting and storing the email address books of ordinary Americans using online messaging services. Many users of such services are looking to tech executives for […]
The online Internet exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act are up and running.OK, they’re up. Uhh, OK, some of them are sort of up.It has been almost a week since last Tuesday’s initial launch, and there have been more than a few problems.Website crashes, excessive response times and other problems have plagued the exchanges. […]
A growing consensus of IT experts, outside and inside the government, have figured out a principal reason why the website for Obamacare’s federally sponsored insurance exchange is crashing. Healthcare.gov forces you to create an account and enter detailed personal information before you can start shopping.This, in turn, creates a massive traffic bottleneck, as the government […]
As much as I love technology, part of me hates being so dependent on a live wall plug wherever I go. You find yourself trapped in some setting without accessible wall plugs and your phone is dying. You charge from you laptop, but that is dying too. You take recourse to your tablet, but that […]
U.S. and British intelligence agencies have successfully cracked much of the online encryption relied upon by hundreds of millions of people to protect the privacy of their personal data, online transactions and emails, according to top-secret documents revealed by former contractor Edward Snowden.The files show that the National Security Agency and its UK counterpart GCHQ […]
Today, like most days, I fired up my computer.I read freely available information on the latest developments in technology that would, in the not too distant past, have required a drive to a library to flip through journals too numerous for me to afford. I read the latest national and global news without having to […]
On a Sunday afternoon swim, a 6-year-old boy was bugging me in a sweet sort of way. He rode up and down the handrail on the stairs in the shallow end of the pool where I was trying to sit in peace. He was laughing and talking, but I couldn’t understand a word through the […]
I’ve just completed a heavy schedule of talks at the Agora Financial Investment Symposium in Vancouver. All my talks centered on information economics, Web startups, and the productivity of the Internet and its meaning. As usual, I learned as much from the attendees as (I hope) they learned from my talks. The research I did […]
Corn prices are officially through the roof, spiking to record highs. It’s been headed this way through six years of crazy volatility. Now the spike is undeniable. At the same time, crop yields are lower they have been since 1995.
Everyone blames the drought, as if the market can’t normally handle a supply change. The real problem is that the corn market is fundamentally misshaped by government interventions that have made a mess of this and many more markets. The distortions are never contained, but spread and spread.
The implications are quite radical, especially given the food price riots around the world the last time this happened.
It is probably going to hit the U.S. this time. Internationally, some writers are raising the specter of a price-driven famine in parts of the world.
“Corn is the single most important commodity for retail food,” Richard Volpe, an economist for the USDA told the Los Angeles Times. “Corn is either directly or indirectly in about three-quarters of all food consumers buy.”
Fine, then, answer me this, Mr. Government Economist Man: Why is 40% of the corn crop being burned up in our gas tanks? The answer is a Soviet-like, fascist-like, stupid-like government mandate. It is actually relatively new. It came about in 2005 and 2007. It mixes nearly all the gas we can buy with a sticky product now in rather short supply.
Of all the government regulations I’ve looked at in detail over the last 10 years, the ethanol mandate is, by far, the worst. There are no grounds on which it is defensible. None!
Of course, you might just think that it is great to vastly subsidize Illinois farmland and corn growers and ethanol makers, at the expense of everyone else in the planet and for zero savings in energy. In that case, we should agree to disagree.
I don’t recall much debate in 2005 and 2007 when these draconian, civilization-attacking laws were imposed in the name of the environment and security. If a debate took place, it sure blew right past me. Organizations like the Institute for Energy Research and newsletters like The Daily Reckoning were trying to draw people’s attention to what was taking place, but most people figured this was just some wonky and forgettable concern.
Kate Incontrera spoke the truth in the The Daily Reckoning, July 16, 2007: “One of the obvious side effects of the ethanol craze is that the price of corn has risen 73% in the past year — but that isn’t the only food whose price is on the rise… And because animal feed with corn in it is more expensive, that cost trickles down to chicken, beef, eggs, cheese and — making soda-chugging Americans cringe — high fructose corn syrup.”
Also, from 2006, Greg Guenthner predicted everything that was coming down the road. It is worth your time to have a look at this report, just to demonstrate that some people had their eyes on the trends that matter.
The more you look at this, the more you see that this is halfway to the realization of the freakiest dream of the Rousseauian left: the abolition of the internal-combustion engine as we know it. It is a sledgehammer to the whole idea of market-provided energy. And paradoxically, it represents the worst of crony capitalism: an outright subsidy to agribusiness.
Looking this up and examining the history, it appears that government has been trying to put corn in our gas tanks for decades, even back to the 1960s. There were tax breaks, subsidies, lofty national goals, smiley stickers for executives who publicly backed this nonsense, but none of it took. Finally, our masters brought out the brass knuckles and everyone shaped up, culminating in a coercive mandate imposed six years ago.
Now we are stuck with this de facto mandate that we have to put corn in our gas tanks, all based on the kooky idea that fossil fuels are just too primitive, that we have to mix our gas with a movie-theater treat to make it truly clean and efficient.
But clean and efficient are two things that ethanol is not. The reason your edger and weed whacker don’t fire up in the spring months is most likely due to the presence of corn in the tiny gas tanks. The fuel mixture does not stay stable over time and tends to gum up engines. This is why the store shelves are filled with gas-tank additives of all sorts that did not used to exist. The whole point is to correct for the mess that ethanol makes.
Of course, there is a huge industry out there dedicated to debunking the idea that there is anything the matter with ethanol. But here’s the problem: People who make the pro-ethanol argument are either 1) the same people who think we ought to turn our toilets into composting pits or 2) speaking for industries highly dependent on the many forms of ethanol subsidies, so they have every incentive to deny the obvious for as long as possible.
But ask people who depend on a stable and reliable fuel for their livelihoods, and sometimes their lives. Talk to any boaters. You don’t have to know any. Head over to any boaters’ forums and see what they say. They go out of their way to find the few gas stations that actually sell ethanol-free gasoline, mainly because they can’t afford to take risks that come with bad gas and bad engines. They find stations that sell no ethanol gas, like those listed at pure-gas.org.
Another fact: Though people have thought for centuries that corn is a decent fuel, it took the mandates to force it into cars. Why? Because consumers knew better. Manufacturers knew better. The petroleum industry knew better. Government and the corn industry had a different idea and gave it to us all good and hard.
Nor is it efficient. As even Paul Krugman admits, “Even on optimistic estimates, producing a gallon of ethanol from corn uses most of the energy the gallon contains.” We also have to add the huge expenditure associated with fuel additives, engine fixes, lawn mower replacements and the vast frustration that comes with the regulatory wrecking of the internal-combustion engine.
Now let’s look at what’s happened to crops since 2005. The percentage of crops devoted to corn have gone from 24% in 1999 to 30% today. Meanwhile, the crops devoted to soybeans, hay and wheat have all gone down, thereby increasing feed costs for ranchers and consumers. Again, this is not the market talking. This is not what any actual market players are pushing. This all results from government mandates.
Meanwhile, the price index of Illinois farmland has tripled in the same period. Even though every price signal would otherwise indicate to farmers to plant less corn, they plant more. And even though land values all over the U.S. went into a major bust in 2008 and following, Illinois farmland goes up and up. This is a result of government intervention, building artificiality into the system and creating unpredictable distortions.
It almost seems hard to believe. It’s a scandal that government has degraded home appliances, indoor plumbing, paint, cosmetics, gas cans and so much else. Yet the ethanol nonsense might be the worst of all, because it represents a fundamental attack on the technology and literal fuel of modernity itself. As you look back at it, it’s been going on a very long time, from the initial ban on lead fuels, and now look where we are.
In the name of efficiency and “clean fuels,” the government is shutting down the technology essential to life as we know it. And the spillover effects are everywhere, affecting nearly everything we eat. As usual, all these regulations are premised on the supposition that conditions will never change and that the state can take the existing world and pound it into its preferred shape. But the existing world as the state knows it is always a world of the past. Introduce one change and the whole model blows up.
That is what is happening with ethanol right now. The mandate is causing vast distortions and crazy costs for everything and everything. The scandal is how little we know or care. Maybe famine will make the difference?