Tuesday, January 29, 2013

War On Drugs Hops Species Barrier

Props to the RidicuList for bringing us this new development in the War On Drugs.  The Wichita Police Department's public information officer shows us who's behind an evidence-room dope heist:

No home is safe.

On Gun Policy, Reasoning From The Gut

Many folks discuss access to firearms as an issue for legislative action, but few of these seem to consider solving their concerns in a manner consistent with the Constitution's provisions for changing parts of the Constitution people would like changed (about which more has appeared here before). They're not reasoning from the law, even if they try to reason from crime statistics (though there's some debate as to which side of the controversy has crime statistics on its side). Both sides seem to reason largely from the gut.

In keeping with the tradition of reasoning from the gut, I thought it worth considering the stark comparison of two recent crimes in the news: one that was immediately picked up as a gun-control news event, and one that wasn't. Let's start with the one that wasn't.

No Gun Present – Just Smoking, Murdered Corpse
Melissa Ketunuti's dog walker found her dead body bound and smoldering where it sat inside her Pennsylvania home, bound hand and foot. The police initially reckoned the death a strangling. No motive is known and police have no suspects. The pediatrician, described as "very pleasant, very nice, very friendly and quiet," was often seen on long runs alone or returning home with groceries. "I'm struggling for the logic to why my friend is dead," related a neighbor when interviewed. "I'm sick with this."

Guns weren't an evident factor in causing the death. The reports on the murder also didn't seem to considered guns a factor in the failure either to avert tragedy or to injure and identify the crime's perpetrator. But don't most people just hurt themselves with firearms? Maybe not. Elsewhere in Pennsylvania, an Italian immigrant confronted with an attacker at home was able to drive him off by shooting him twice, which made him easy for police to identify when he sought medical treatment. But that's not actually the second news story I noticed. That one, I just stumbled across while looking for a link to the story I actually saw myself. That one's even more stark.

Terrified Novice With A Revolver Saves Twins
In Georgia, a mother of 9-year-old twins responded to an unexpected knock and furious repeated doorbell-ringing not by opening the door, but by calling her husband. While still on the phone with his wife, the husband called 9-1-1 and requested help be sent immediately to the house. He remained on the phone while the man at the door gave up on the bell, broke it down, and with a crowbar in his hand pursued his wife and children to the crawlspace door behind which they cowered in fear. Advised by her husband to retreat to safety, the woman had taken her children to an upstairs crawlspace where they hid, while her husband both narrated her story to the 9-1-1 operator and reassured his wife that the family's .38 revolver would work in real life exactly as it had at the range less than a month before when she was first introduced to the weapon, and for the first time instructed in its operation. When the mother saw a large man with the crowbar open the door to the crawlspace, she opened fire. Police believe that the same intruder left another home when confronted by its occupant, leaving one to speculate that he may have been emboldened by her reasonably fearful retreat and her preference to seek concealment rather than confrontation while in charge of children.

Five of six shots hit the intruder, and she was out of ammunition. She bluffed that she would shoot again if he got up, and fled while he remained prone. Sheriff Joe Chapman was interviewed and appeared in some web videos whose links elude the author. In those interviews, he opined that the woman's weapon was potentially all that stood between his department looking into a botched home invasion by a known felon, and his department spending resources investigating a triple-homicide with no leads.

Damn Lies and Statistics
While it's common to hear that people should not have guns because they're more likely to be hurt with them than to use them for effective self-defense, research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a paper that suggests otherwise. The authors of the CDC paper estimated that in 1994 firearms were repeatedly relied upon by residents fearing home intruders. In 503,481 reported incidents, an intruder was seen by a resident who retrieved a firearm in response to the intruder; in 497,646 incidents, intruders reportedly became aware of the armed resident and were scared away by the firearm. It would be nice to compare those numbers to home-invasion injuries, but "home invasion" statistics seem to be under attack from detractors who complain about everything from the definition of "home invasion" to the sources of some of the purported numbers. Comparing these numbers to incidents in which individuals were injured in a home invasion is therefore difficult.  But in 1994 firearms deaths totaled fewer than 40,000 – but that's all firearms deaths, including drug-wars on the streets, suicides, and other circumstances having no apparent connection with the practicality of self-help home defense.

People who argue that police should do the protecting for everyone seem to be missing a few key factors in common with most of the nation's homicide – namely, the absence of police on-hand to break up the conflict. The concurrent call to 9-1-1 in Georgia provides anecdotal evidence that intruders can reach residents with a crowbar faster than police can reach one's home. And the Supreme Court has made clear in DeShaney v. Winnebago County Dep't of Soc. Svcs. that police have no duty to rescue citizens from the risks of others, even when they have actual knowledge of the risk and the ability to act. To understand how far that goes, make sure to read the dissenting opinion.

The fact that firearm use for home defense is an order of magnitude more common than all firearms deaths combined strongly suggests that the dangers of being injured with one's own weapon may be vastly oversold in comparison to the apparent protective benefit of access to firearms for home defense.

Interestingly, most individuals don't have access to firearms for self-defense; many firearm owners, despite having ownership of a weapon, lack practical access to a firearm for home defense. Some folks have noticed that unarmed victims are a common element in many mass-killings, and have suggested that arming more people (trained people) might be the answer, and noted that increasing firearm availability to law-abiding citizens seems not to have had an adverse impact on Ohio, despite the increase in awareness of firearms and the increased frequency of firearm-related news stories. But that's the problem: people's hearts are driven by news stories, anecdotes, and fear. Not data. Maybe opposition to firearms is purely philosophical. If so, its most ardent advocates presumably expect us to learn to live as a disarmed population subject to the will of an armed state, because it's morally better than the risks attendant freedom to defend one's family. If so, it's clear based on the reasoning in D.C. v. Heller that we need to formally repeal the Second Amendment.

We can't do otherwise and still pretend to live in a nation governed by the rule of law.

Policy By Press Release
In reaction to news about firearms violence, the public is frequently sold proposals like those to limit access to rifles that look like they might be used by the military. (The definition of "assault rifle" in the Clinton-era ban turned on things like whether the rifle's stock was plastic or not, a factor largely irrelevant to the person on the end with the hole that expels the projectile. And how many people are placed in greater danger when a rifle has a bayonet clip, and can hold a light beneath its barrel?)  While this kind of thing may make for a great press release, what actual effect does it have on homicides? According to the FBI, more people are killed annually with hammers and clubs than with rifles in the United States, something to think about when pooh-poohing the utility of carry-sized firearms as a potential asset for self-defense. In fact, twice as many are killed barehanded than with rifles in a given year. So-called "assault weapon" bans target headlines, not homicides.

The firearms overwhelmingly used in homicide are the exact class – handguns – urged by some Second-Amendment-friendly gun control proponents as the limit of what the Second Amendment should permit civilians.

To get sensible firearms policy, people need data rather than ad campaigns. We've had ad campaigns – including a longstanding meme that gun control is advocated largely by Washington elites who can afford to – and actually do – employ armed guards for their own protection. Whether we should care whether this means they're hypocrites is, of course, completely different than whether we should accept or reject particular policies. To secure good policy, first we need to secure good data.

The press release, we've all seen mastered. And we've had enough of it.

Real Regulation Now: Test It In Your Own Jurisdiction
Guess what Americans can do right now, with little concern about offending the Constitution and no need to lobby Congress, to improve their situation with respect to firearms regulation? Local law. People who advocate restrictions can experiment locally, and show the world the effect of their proposals. Better yet, they can live with the proposals in the states in which they live. Unfortunately, people who love their local law still seem bent on having Congress involve itself with nationwide regulation before the jury is back from deliberation. Why not do some real analysis before demanding others accept our pet proposals?

Cars Kill: Why Not Regulate Them For Real?
In that vein, the author proposes to move the needle on premature death in the United States by introducing meaningful competence testing for persons seeking licenses to operate motor vehicles. More people die in the United States at the hands of incompetent or intoxicated operators of motor vehicles than die from firearms every year. In the late '80s, there was even a period in which the annual deaths from auto fatalities eclipsed the entire death toll of the whole Vietnam war. Keeping people from operating vehicles without demonstrating professional-grade competence would go a long way toward moving them to treat their dangerous vehicles as a privilege rather than a right, and would lead to the assignment of appropriate social value to the license to operate such vehicles safely in a civilized society. Those who can't obtain licenses for large, dangerous vehicles may have to content themselves with public transportation, bicycles, or small vehicles whose operator ratings are easier to obtain. On the upside, think of the thousands of teens and college kids who won't be killed because they were loosed unprepared on a public that can't protect them from themselves.

States might put up big signs on their Interstate highways, warning drivers that major interstate arteries are available to out-of-state bozos who haven't passed a test meeting the state's reciprocity standards. Inside neighborhoods, we could be safe in the certainty that all drivers will have qualifications sufficient to maintain the public safety on the roads. Violators would have their cars (or the remains thereof) auctioned to fund enforcement.

Don't you feel safer already?

Thursday, January 17, 2013

ACAS Back At Bat

Following the Seeking Alpha article on Normalcy Returning to American Capital, the article American Capital: Back In The Business-Building Business outlines ACAS' post-refinancing use of its revolving credit to do deals in December. The article mentions these deals:
 American Capital Commits $212 Million In The One Stop Buyout® Of Cambridge Major Laboratories, Inc.
 American Capital's Portfolio Company Potpourri Group Acquires Cuddledown
 American Capital Invests in The Meadows to Support Add-on Acquisition of Remuda Ranch
 American Capital And Its Affiliates Invest $10.7 Million In Portfolio Company Halt Medical

And it didn't even cite all the deals.  In addition to the multiple deals cited above that closed in December, ACAS also closed this:
 American Capital's Portfolio Company Pan Am International Flight Academy Acquires Airline Career Academy

As a bonus, ACAS exited Lifoam Holdings for an 11% compounded annual return over the life of the investment. Interestingly, there wasn't much of a breakdown on that investment's components. The last quarterly report gave ACAS' Lifoam holdings as having a basis of $45.5 million (of which $30.3m was equity, the rest 14% mezzanine debt) and a fair value of $53.9 million. ACAS' realization – based on the press release – was $60 million. Some of the $71 million initial investment was no doubt sold years ago to managed funds which bought a non-control fractional stake in ACAS' holdings, reducing ACAS' basis in its remaining stake to the reported $45.5 million.

If December is any guide, ACAS is back in business.

Maybe Salon Thinks You've Lost Your Marbles

In accusing the NRA of displaying a shocking new nuttiness in its recent gun control ads, Salon demonstrates it has no concept of the long history behind the NRA's argument. Salon seeks to characterize the NRA's ads (which amount to: he makes sure his kids are protected by guns, but not yours) as an attack on the President's family. So, here's some perspective. Opponents of anti-gun legislation have long cried hypocrisy against government officials whose own families are provided armed security at government expense, but who expect less fortunate individuals to make do without. This is not some wild new evidence of madness, it's an old argument. And, historically, not a particularly controversial one.

The first time this author heard the argument was in the 1980s. It was directed at Ted Kennedy. Kennedy was accused of traveling everywhere with armed guards, all the while preaching that civilians didn't need and shouldn't have guns. Kennedy was further lampooned with bumper stickers proclaiming that "Ted Kennedy's Car Has Killed More People Than My Gun". The latter attack was a lot closer to an attack on Ted Kennedy's character than the first, which was simply an effort to illustrate that the man wasn't willing to accept for himself the rule he preached for others. Obviously, people can have a fair debate over whether Ted Kennedy or some other politician needs a different rule than others, or should have a different rule, but the argument was there decades ago and it's the same argument now.

None of this goes to the heart of whether the argument is good, or whether any of the legislation actually at issue is likely to succeed. This article is about how slimy Salon is to pretend sudden shock at an argument that is decades old (at least) and is not an attack on the President's family but on the President's willingness to spend federal money on armed guards for his own family while (as the NRA might describe it) preaching the disarmament of others.

Salon should be ashamed of itself. There are wonderful arguments to make in the realm of personal security and public policy, but Salon has decided instead to run an attack piece against the NRA for displaying sudden madness when all it has done is to publish once more an argument that has been uncontroversial for decades.

Insinuating that the NRA is somehow connected to alarming emails by some Kansas politician, never previously heard of by this author, is more of the same: it's sly. If there's a nutball in Kansas urging his fellows to join him in praying from Psalms 108:9, he may need his own article. News flash: nutballs sometimes talk about killing the President. The question is, what has this got to do with the NRA's newest repetition of an age-old suggestion that people should find politicians to be hypocrites so as to color the public view on an emotional political issue?

In an argument long wrought with inflamed passions, Salon hasn't offered the cool balm of logic but instead fueled the fires with another Molotov.  Nice going, there.

Maybe Salon thinks its readers are unable to comprehend the game being played on them, and will conclude that the NRA urges the death of the President because someone elected in Kansas forwarded offensive emails while being a registered Republican. Maybe Salon thinks its readers will overlook its sloppy argument. Maybe Salon thinks we've all lost it, so there's no point to constructing sound arguments about political issues. Who knows. But Salon isn't advancing the argument at all.

For the merits of the matter, one might compare and contrast the success of other countries with other seemingly intractable problems, like addiction*. Or violent crime broader than the context of firearms.

*: In looking at the problem of addiction, it's worth looking at socially impactful sequelae such as its associated auto-related fatalities, an area in which we've actually improved since the '80s here in the U.S.  It may be worth asking what it is about auto fatalities that is so different from addiction generally that made it a success.  The fact that the drug dominating auto fatalities (ethanol) remains legal to buy (if you are 21) may offer some insight into the effectiveness of social interventions and the relative success of public health efforts over police efforts in curbing persistent undesirable behavior.

And You Thought Putting Them Behind Bars Was Going To Change Things?

News about the IRS and news about zany crime are good enough alone, but today we offer a two-fer. Lat year, incarcerated felons talked the IRS out of tens of millions of dollars by submitting fraudulent returns claiming "refunds" were owed.

Of course my first thought was, at 8¢ an hour to mop floors and 12¢ an hour to stamp license plates, exactly how much money can the IRS be led to believe these guys are due. It's not like prisons are sending millions in withholdings to the federal government, is it? 

In defense of wardens who might be thought too lax in allowing bogus returns through their mail systems (which wardens are permitted to check), many criminals apparently used outside shills in their scams, and stolen identities.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Apple: Cheaper Phone, Cheaper Shares?

Seeking Alpha carries the latest Jaded Consumer article on Apple and whether cheaper phones mean cheaper shares.  Upshot: media reports that Apple won't lower prices to take share miss the point that Apple will attack more price points to take more profit.  Good links on Apple's current success and the erroneous claims in so many headlines that have hammered shares.


Friday, January 11, 2013

Million Dollar Portfolio: Operated By Fools

The Motley Fool, previously derided here as a shallow and hypocritical source of hard-to-follow stock recommendations, has just published a Million dollar Portfolio recommendation for Aropostale (ARO). The new recommendation follows a "Buy More"  note in June of 2012 (with a "buy around" price of $20) with a recommendation to "Sell your entire stake" instruction while the shares sit south of $13. The day after The Motley Fool's Million Dollar Portfolio recommended increasing one's stake in ARO to 5% of the portfolio, ARO had closed north of $17.

Deriding the Aropostale trade (which was a "buy" because, in short, it copied fashions cheaper than fashions could be developed by firms taking a risk on innovative new looks) follows an earlier effort to lampoon the recommendation of Zipcar, which the Motley Fool suggested exiting following the news that Zipcar would be acquired for $12.25/share – well below the Million Dollar Portfolio's initial purchase at $18.31 in July of 2011, and even below its August 2011 purchase at $12.71.  In June of 2012 the portfolio issued a "Buy More" alert that it was a "buy around $20", though the Portfolio never actually bought any additional shares of ARO after August of 2011.  But back to the word "trade": Motley Fool publications laud Warren Buffett's "forever" holding period and advocate investing rather than trading, but it's amazing how many stocks (other than Berkshire Hathaway, and others I'd found myself before seeing the Fool's subscription services) don't last the three years the Fool says investors should target.

Perhaps because of the embarrassment of trailing the S&P 500 with so many of its picks, the Million Dollar Portfolio stopped reporting the performance of picks in comparison to the S&P 500 last year. At the time of writing, the portfolio as a whole still trails the S&P 500:

Of course, the performance of the portfolio doesn't include either the cost of the MDP subscription or the overhead of the personnel who publish it.  The portfolio doesn't represent The Motley Fool standing next to investors, taking the same risks with real money; it represents an advertising gimmick. Your own results – if you are lucky enough to guess which recommendations the portolio will actually pursue, itself – will be a bit worse because you will incur the subscription overhead. And maybe some Maalox.

The Million Dollar Portfolio isn't only failing in its mission to beat the S&P 500, it is failing in its basic claim to give users notice of its own trades in advance so they share the same investment returns (e.g., it advised buying more of a loser without actually putting the trade on its own transaction log). The service doesn't merely fail to provide what it plans, it is failing even to provide what it promises.  And that's pathetic.

The next time the Million Dollar Portfolio subscription opens to new members, the Jaded Consumer's recommendation is simple: skip it.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013