Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Ignoring Character Flaws

While on vacation in Hawaii, President Obama said some nice things about Michael Vick's return to the NFL. He cast is as an example of convict-makes-good. There was never any question about Vick's abilities as a football player. What is in question are his qualities as a human being. Remember, he went to jail for dog-fighting. His hobby was watching dogs kill each other and he personally killed under performers. Vick claims to have reformed and has even asked to be allowed to own a dog as part of his recovery. If he has actually learned to form an attachment to dogs then this would be far more worthy of mention than his abilities on the football field.

There is a human tendency to overlook flaws in our heroes. The more we agree with someone the more willing we are to overlook their flaws. President Obama fell victim to this tendency.

Another, more important example is Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and the charges against him. Several celebrities starting with Michael Moore contributed to Assange's bail. They insist that Assange did nothing wrong and that the charges against him are political.

A lot of misinformation was tossed around about the charges, even before they were filed. Basically Assange had sex with two women. Both of them made it very clear that they only consented to sex if he wore a condom. The first woman's complaint was that he eventually put one on but she was convinced that it was torn. Presumably Assange knew if it was or not but he did not let her examine it.

The second woman's complaint is stronger. Again, she insisted on a condom. After sex, the two of them fell asleep. Assange woke up first and decided to have a second go at her without a condom. This would be murky under US law although many colleges would count it as rape. It is better-defined under Swedish law where it took place and is a crime there.

Wikileaks provokes emotional responses. Supporters of the leaks are willing to forgive the leakers almost anything. Glenn Greenwald of Salon has been attacking Wired for revealing details about the actual leaker.

These emotions lead to double-standards. President Obama may slip and say that there are 57 states but the general press does not cover it. Sarah Palin slips and says North Korea instead of South Korea during a live radio show and it is reported for weeks, even though she corrected herself later in the show. The difference - the media admires Obama and hates Palin.

Going back further, many Democrats held that Clarence Thomas was unfit to be a Supreme Court justice because one woman complained that he used crude language around her amounting to sexual harassment. When women came forward and said that Bill Clinton had used his authority as governor to coerce sex from them, there was a stunning silence from these same Democrats. The head of the NOW even offered to give him oral sex because he kept abortion legal.

The point of this is that laws and mores have to apply evenly to everyone. We cannot have exceptions for heroes. The President should not be applauding Vick and Moore should not judge Assange's sexual behavior based on his political actions.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


The DREAM Act failed the lame duck Congress but it will be back. For those who were not paying attention, the DREAM Act is being pitched as a way for the children of illegal aliens to become citizens by getting a college degree or joining the military. It is described as an act of fairness for children who were brought here without their consent by their parents. Some descriptions of this group make it seem as though they are the smartest kids in America.

Ok, that's the spin. What is really going on?

Foremost, this is an act of pandering by Democrats to the Hispanic voters. The hope is that they will be able to capture the Hispanic vote the same way they did the black vote, eventually leading to a permanent Democratic majority. Citizenship is a serious matter and should not be used in cynical vote mongering.

Not surprisingly, the DREAM Act is not exactly what it is being presented as. (note - I'm working from the summary in Wikipedia and a separate site here.) The act would grant permanent residency and a path to citizenship to people who meet some basic requirements - either serving two years in the military or completing two years of college.

Before I go any further, I would like to clarify that I think that allowing illegal immigrants to earn citizenship through military service is a great idea. As long as their English is good enough for them to communicate effectively they should be allowed into the military. I would, however, prefer a 3-4 year hitch since training in the modern army takes so much time. A two-year hitch does not give enough time for proper training and deployment.

My main complaints are with the college part of the act. Most of the PR talks about minors gaining citizenship but the act would cover anyone between 12 and 35 (Wikipedia says 30). The act gives them six years to complete two years of college so the upper limit would apply to people aged 42. If the act is supposed to help minors then limit to minors with a cut-off of either 18 or 21 for enrollment. Age 21 is consistent with the provision that people applying have to have entered before the age of 16 and have resided here five years (16 + 5 = 21).

Allowing six years to complete two years of college is also too generous. I'd like to see them complete a four-year degree in that time. Someone who takes six years to finish two years of college is not serious about getting a degree. Remember, the education requirement is an alternative to military service and this is being billed as a way of retaining the best and brightest of the illegals. Anything less is nothing but a back door amnesty (what a surprise!).

Something else that I don't like about this act is the financing. Applicants under the DREAM Act cannot qualify for Pell Grants but can get federally-funded student loans. The act would also allow states to grant subsidized resident rates for state schools instead of the higher out-of-state rates.

If it is toughened up the DREAM Act might be useful but the most recent version was more of an effort to pander for votes than a real proposal to provide an educated American workforce.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Civil War

The 150th anniversary of the Civil War has begun. In some ways, the war is being fought all over again. The latest shot is a column by E. J. Dionne Jr. Dionne's main point is that the war was about slavery instead of states rights and that no one should argue the point.

In the interests of history, I am going to argue the point. I will start out by agreeing that slavery was a root issue. The fight over slavery was a major defining point of 19th century politics up to that point. The Republican party was created mainly around anti-slavery. The only disagreement within the party was how to do it. Many demanded that Congress simply declare slaves freed. Others, including Lincoln, wanted to stop slavery from being allowed in new territories and states with the goal of isolating the slave states and slowly forcing them to give up their slaves. The southern states were well aware of this and succeeded.

The succession did not start the war. Lincoln forced the issue by insisting that the US Government retained ownership and control of forts, even ones in the heart of the South. He provoked South Carolina by resupplying Fort Sumter which controlled access to Charleston, the South's most important port. South Carolina responded by shelling and eventually taking the fort. Lincoln used this to declare the South in a state of rebellion and got authorization to pacify them.

But, while slavery was the root cause, it was not what the armies were fighting for. We know that from recruiting posters and other period records. Soldiers from the North did not sign on to free negroes. They wanted to punish the rebels. Similarly, most southerners did not own slaves. They were fighting against what they saw as northern aggression.

By reducing the war to nothing but a fight over slavery, Dionne and others are also trying to divide it into a simple conflict between good and bad. This has subtle political implications for today.

Keep in mind that the word "state" usually means the government. When the United States was founded it was meant to be a collection of small countries, united for their own defense, much like the European Union is now. That is why we call if the "federal government". In the wake of the Civil War the North felt that the states had been allowed too much authority. This is when federal law started taking president over state law.

Now, many people feel that the federal government has taken too much authority and are calling for a reversal.

That is why Dionne and others are simplifying the Civil War. If the war was a fight between good and evil and the evil side invoked "states' rights" then any modern person who uses those words must be evil and "states' rights" is nothing more than code words for reestablishing slavery. Similarly, any commemoration of the war must be a racist celebration of slavery.

In essence, how we remember the Civil War has become a new battleground in the fight over expanding federal authority. Ironically, the Party of Lincoln is now trying to stop a trend that he began and the party that was willing to accommodate slavery is now invoking the fight against it.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas - War or not?

So, is there actually a war on Christmas or are people who celebrate Christmas simply tone deaf to the new realities of a multicultural America? One way of telling is to look at how generic terms like "happy holidays" are used. Are they really used in an effort to include multiple faiths or are people really trying to suppress any mention of Christmas?

One telling indicator is that there are some items that are exclusive to Christmas. The decorated evergreen is the prime example. It is part of Christmas but it is not part of Christianity. It is not part of Christian faith. It's origins are obscure and may be pagan. So why do governments and businesses refer to them as "holiday trees" or "winter holiday trees"? Who are they fooling?

No one according to Chase Banks. They forbid putting up evergreen trees in their branches no matter what it is called. They still allow the poinsettia which is another plant that is exclusive to Christmas which shows that they are simply confused. Maybe it is because the poinsettia doesn't have "Christ" or "Christmas" in the name?

This works the other way, also. Are any items associated with other December holidays given a generic name? Does anyone sell a "holiday candle holder" instead of a menorah?

There is also the date. Hanukkah moves around. This year it came in early December so there is no way that you can wish someone a happy holiday in late December and include the Jews. The Winter Solstice was December 21 so the same problem applies as of the 22nd. That only leaves Christmas and Kwanzaa. My wife recently saw a sign saying that a business would be closed December 23 and 24 for the Winter Holiday". There is only one holiday that this could apply to so why not say it?

Kwanzaa deserves a special mention. It was invented in 1966 as a holiday that blacks could claim as their own. As this article points out, very few blacks celebrate it. Because of its associations with black nationalism it is pretty much limited to black nationalists.

The real giveaway came from NPR personality Nina Tottenburg who said, "And I was at – forgive the expression – a Christmas party at the Department of Justice". So people from NPR feel the need to apologize in advance if they use the word "Christmas" in any form.

If this isn't a war on Christmas then what is it?

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. 

UPDATE: Nina Tottenburg now says that she has not problem with saying Christmas and that her comments were meant as a dig at the DOJ's "Holiday Party" and that they are the ones who refused to use the word "Christmas".

Monday, December 20, 2010

Politifact and the Leak of the Year

PolitiFact, the non-partisan political fact-checking site, has named the Lie of the Year - that Obamacare was a government takeover of health care.

Wow! They admit that the phrase was used more times than they could count so they have just called nearly every conservative including the new Speaker of the House liars. Given PolitiFact's claim to be neutral, they must have a really good case for this, right? Well, not so much. In fact, their whole case rides on semantics and preconceived ideas of what constitutes a government takeover.

Their case is:

"Government takeover" conjures a European approach where the government owns the hospitals and the doctors are public employees. But the law Congress passed, parts of which have already gone into effect, relies largely on the free market:

Employers will continue to provide health insurance to the majority of Americans through private insurance companies.

• Contrary to the claim, more people will get private health coverage. The law sets up "exchanges" where private insurers will compete to provide coverage to people who don't have it.

• The government will not seize control of hospitals or nationalize doctors.

• The law does not include the public option, a government-run insurance plan that would have competed with private insurers.

• The law gives tax credits to people who have difficulty affording insurance, so they can buy their coverage from private providers on the exchange. But here too, the approach relies on a free market with regulations, not socialized medicine.

The biggest issue here goes unremarked. Obamacare was not health care reform. It was health care insurance reform. It essentially transformed medical insurance from a regulated business into a utility. Granted, Republicans did not make this distinction but neither did the Democrats. Did Obamacare amount to a government takeover of medical insurance? PolitiFact never even considers this.
What they do give is a straw man definition of a government takeover. What they describe is not the approach that most European countries have used. Even in the UK hospitals are government-owned but doctors are still in private practice and able to accept patients who pay for their services (in exchange for preferred treatment). Their description comes closer to Cuba than Europe. Similarly, did anyone making the claim takeover claim ever imply that it would cover everything as PolitiFact claims?

Other points that PolitiFact missed:
  • It includes an expansion of the government-run Medicare and Medicaid systems.
  • The insurance exchanges may consist of private insurers but the exchanges only exist because of government mandate.
  • The law includes incentives to make it less desirable for employers to offer insurance.
  • According the to CBO Obamacare represents an unprecedented expansion of government power by requiring the population of purchase something as a condition of citizenship.
PolitiFact gives this poll result as evidence of the lie's effectiveness:
By March of this year, when Obama signed the bill into law, 53 percent of respondents in a Bloomberg poll said they agreed that "the current proposal to overhaul health care amounts to a government takeover."
Since all of the details of the plan had been played out in public for months, my take on this is that the general population is using a different standard for government takeover than PolitiFact uses.

PolitiFact did not offer a single contrary opinion. Instead they quoted the editor of the left-of-center-and-proud-of-it site Slate.

To completely jump the shark, they went on to interview former DNC chair Howard Dean about the meaning of their finding.

Naming this the lie of the year will hurt PolitiFact in several ways. The fact that they consider their argument to be iron-clad shows that they are in a political echo-chamber without a dissenting opinion to keep them intellectually honest. Most conservatives really believe that Obamacare represents a government takeover (at least one of medical insurance). Their reaction will not be to apologize for misleading the nation. Instead they will attack PolitiFact's piece, just as I am right now. The long-term damage will be that conservatives will be able to dismiss PolitiFact as being another liberal attack site like Media Matters. Any negative finding from PolitiFact can be waved off as partisan.

This cannot be dismissed as an isolated incident, either. Last year's Lie of the Year was Sarah Palin's prediction of death panels. What she meant was that government health care would lead to panels making life or death decisions based on cost/benefit. The UK already has these. They are ironically named NICE.

A runner-up for this year's award was the claim that Obama's trip to India cost $200 million per day. This figure came from an Indian news service was was quoted by Michele Bachman. PolitiFact attributed it to her because she repeated it directly instead of verifying it first. Hey, Politifact, you guys are in the news. Are you saying that repeating what you tell us counts as lying? The original story gave a number of specifics in how the trip could cost so much. These included sending several navy ships to patrol the area and building a temporary tunnel for the President's car to use. I never saw any of these invesitgated not did the White House ever give a rough figure for what the real costs were. They simply denied that it was $200 million.

Politifact's record on Social Security and global warming is similarly poor. They already know the "truth" so on these issues they quote a single favored authority and rate contrary claims as false.

This does not mean that PolitiFact is totally partisan. On most of their rulings they actually give the person quoted a chance to document the claim. They usually present both sides then rank the claim. If you bother to read the whole piece then you can make your own decision. That said, the final rating on a six-point scale ranging from true to pants-on-fire is a judgment call and often comes down harder on the conservative.

Friday, December 17, 2010

No Labels?

I'm suspicious of any "centrist" movement that is promoted on the Huffington Post. This was true for Jon Stewart's Return to Sanity Rally and it is also true for the new "No Labels" movement. This wariness was enforced by an E, J. Dionne column. Dionne is no centrist. He is a proud liberal. So why is he promoting a movement that claims to be apolitical? The obvious answer is that it is not what it claims to be.

The No Labels group was founded by some Democratic consultants. Most of the people they have attracted have also been left-of-center. The few Republicans associated with them were all defeated in the primaries for being RINOs (Republican in Name Only).

Dionne comforts us that the country has already moved to the right:

The basic difficulty arises from a false equivalence they make between our current "left" and our current "right." The truth is that the American right is much farther from anything that can fairly be described as "the center" than is the left.

Indeed, there is no far left to speak of anymore. Even among socialists - I'm talking about real ones - almost all now acknowledge the benefits of markets, no longer propose state ownership of the means of production, and accept the inevitability of inequalities in wealth and income. What they oppose is the rise of extreme inequalities that are antithetical to both a healthy democracy and a healthy market economy.

I'm glad to know that the socialists have finally given up but I'd like to know when they had this epiphany? Just a couple of years ago they wanted President Obama to nationalize the banks.

In the meantime, large parts of the right have moved to positions that Ronald Reagan didn't dare take, or abandoned in the name of realism: voucherizing Medicare, partially privatizing Social Security, insisting that the New Deal represented an unconstitutional power grab, and eviscerating inheritance taxes and progressive income taxes.

All of these ideas have been floating around Libertarian circles since I first learned about them, back during the Reagan administration. True, Reagan didn't try any of them. By the same token, a large percentage of the Left really, really wanted British-style socialized medicine but settled for what they could accomplish. They are still complaining about it. Does that move the country back to the left?

At its heart the message of the No Labels people is, "Stop your partisan bickering and admit that we are right!" That isn't a new message, just a rebranded one.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What's Wrong With Education

The US scores poorly against other countries in multiple subjects. One response has been to call for more school funding. I have a better idea - let's fire all of the teachers and replace them with people who will actually teach their subjects.

Here is an example of what I am talking about. An english teacher wrote to the Columbus Dispatch in response to a suggestion that teachers should be evaluated according to how their students do in standardized tests.

I will not teach my students the 21st-century skills of working collaboratively, using technology wisely or communicating effectively (except in the short-answer or five-paragraph-essay formats). I will not teach them how to be problem-solvers, how to be innovative or how to work well in a culturally diverse environment. I will not encourage creativity or original thought. My students and I will not discuss how literature connects with and reflects on our lives.

I will teach them the important skill of how to take a test. In class we will scrutinize multiple-choice tests, reading random passages out of context with no relevance to their lives. I will teach them how to bubble in correctly and how to erase completely. They will learn the difference between a No. 2 and a No. 3 pencil.

I will get to school at 7:15 a.m. and leave promptly at 2:45 p.m. I will take nothing home with me. I will stop caring whether my students have enough to eat (except on testing days, of course), whether they are able to sleep between the gunshots or their parents' screams, whether they are depressed or whether they have time or a place to do their homework. I won't ask why they are crying or where those new cuts came from. I will care only about how well they can take a test.

This is part of a common complaint by teachers about "teaching to the test". It is also symptomatic of the teaching profession as a whole. They don't teach their subject any longer. Instead of teaching high school English, this teacher is teaching "problem solving", "using technology wisely", and "working well in a culturally diverse environment".

I suspect that most parents, when they see that their child is taking English, expects that the class will consist of reading an analyzing English literature or will teach proper grammar and word usage. Instead he has gone off on his own.

Schools are redundant. The same basic skills are taught at different levels. If a single high school teacher goes off the tracks and teaches his own curriculum instead of the one in his job description then his students will still have a working set of skills. But what happens when a lot of teachers stop teaching their subjects? Test scores decline against other countries where the teachers still teach what they are supposed to.

That is why standardized tests are so important. We need to see if the teachers are actually imparting any knowledge in relevant subjects. Teachers take this as an affront because it gives them less control over what they can teach. Tough. If they had been teaching their subjects in the first place then this would never have come up.

There are other harmful theories in modern education. Many teachers insist that their job is not to impart knowledge. Instead they feel that their job is to instill a desire for knowledge in their students. This sounds nice but to date no one has found the magic formula to do this. The worst example of this sort of mushy thinking was a math course called "Mathland" which was used briefly in California in the mid-1990s. No actual math was involved. Students were judged on how much effort and reasoning they put into problem solving. Someone who got the right answer would get a lower score than someone who put more effort into getting a wrong answer.

In contrast to this feel-good philosophy, studies have shown that the only way to teach math is the old fashioned way - memorizing tables and doing drills. It works but it is boring and modern teachers hate to make the kids work so hard (to say nothing of having to score all of those worksheets) so few schools do this any longer. They don't even teach long multiplication or long division any longer. Instead they teach the students to use estimates and to depend on calculators.

Then there is the cult of self-esteem. Educators don't want to make the kids feel bad by letting them know that some students are smarter than others. It used to be a joke that the kids at Lake Woebegone were all above average. Now it is the grade curve. How else can you explain students graduating with grade point average of 4.5 on a four point scale? Or a class having multiple valedictorians?

So, we need to purge the schools of anyone who has ever taken a class in education and start over again with teachers who actually teach.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Assange and JFK

Supporters of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks insist that they are preventing government abuses and providing transparency. If so, I wonder how they feel about this real-life example, the Cuban Missile Crisis?

During the Fall of 1962, US intelligence discovered that the USSR was arming communist Cuba with nuclear missiles capable of striking most of the US. JFK demanded that they be removed and blockaded Cuba. The USSR demanded that we lift the blockade and refused to remove their missiles as long as we have missiles in Turkey that could reach the USSR.

Things heated up. The US began planning on bombing the missiles. Castro and Che were all for obliterating New York City. We came closer to a nuclear war than any other time in history.

Then things were settled. The agreement was that the USSR would remove its missiles. In exchange we would lift the embargo on Cuba and promise that we would never invade it. We also agreed to remove our missiles from Turkey but this was kept a strict secret. JFK had campaigned on a platform of military strength. It would have killed him politically if it was known that he backed down from the USSR so this was a deep secret. JFK insisted that if this got out, the deal was off and we were back to the brink of nuclear war. In accordance, it was kept a secret until the fall of the USSR and the release of its archives.

40 years later we have WikiLeaks and it founder, Julian Assange who does not see why any government should be allowed to keep secrets. Right now he only hopes that his leaks will cause the US to withdraw from Afghanistan and Iraq but what if he had been around in 1962 and had access to JFK's secret deal. Would he still believe that government secrets are bad or would he release the information even if it meant restarting a nuclear confrontation?

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Obama, the Democrats, and the Tax Cut Compromise

President Obama's compromise with the Republicans should have been a huge win for the President. He got a re-imposition of the estate tax, extension of unemployment benefits, and a moderate stimulus. True the Bush tax cuts were extended for everyone but only for two years and the estate tax is less than it would have been without the deal. The deal also clears the way for the rest of the Democrats' lame duck agenda (the Dream Act, DADT, STARTetc.) This is the sort of compromise that you expect from a "post-partisan president". You would think that the Congressional Democrats would be celebrating. Instead they are revolting. The story has gone from a triumph for the President to a battle. What happened? This probably relates to the President's disinterest in political compromise and his delegation of control. His previous anti-rich rhetoric didn't help either.

From the first, Obama undercut himself. In the press conference announcing the deal he started talking about negotiating with hostage-takers. He was pissy. It was obvious that Obama personally hated having to compromise with the Republicans. I'm guessing that he delegated the negotiations and only accepted the deal because his economic team told him that his presidency depended on supporting it. Since then the message from the White House has been mixed. The President himself appears to be conflicted but his economic team insist that the compromise is the only thing standing between us and a double-dip recession.

The reaction from the Congressional Democrats is illuminating. Many of them have indicated that they would rather see taxed rise for the entire country than see the "rich" keep the Bush cuts. After two years of complaining that the Republicans will not compromise, they have revealed their own reluctance to compromise. For the record, they did not compromise with the Republicans over health care. They compromised with their own moderates and shut out the Republicans.

The Democrats have only themselves to blame for their dilemma. More specifically, they should blame Nancy Pelosi. President Obama delegated most of his legislative agenda to her. She was the one who delivered health care after Obama seemed to give up in November, 2009. She was also the one who decided that the most controversial elements of the Democratic agenda would be put off until a lame duck session. This gave the Republicans the extra bargaining power they needed to force the compromise. The Democrats stuffed months of work into a few weeks. They do not have time for a significant fight. The Republicans used that to threaten to hold up everything.

So, why did Pelosi put off so much until a lame duck session? Dishonesty. She knew that many of these issues will hurt the Democrats. Don't Ask/Don't Tell (DADT) has been controversial since 1993. The Dream Act is a form of amnesty for illegal aliens.

The tax cuts are the most contentious issue and the one that the left believes most strongly in. Pundits have been calling for Obama to fight hard to raise taxes on the rich. Obama has been pledging to do this since he was a candidate. Pelosi would have had little trouble getting this through Congress a few months ago. Why didn't she?

This was probably a cold-hearted political calculation. The Democrats like to call the Republicans the "party of the rich" but for the last several years people making more than $200,000 have contributed a great deal more to the Democrats than to the Republicans. Many of these people voted for Obama and were shocked to be demonized by him. With a tough election, the last thing the Democrats needed was to alienate this group further and cut off a source of campaign contributions. A lame duck session is as far from an election as is possible and Pelosi probably hoped that by 2012 rich donors would have forgotten and/or forgiven being singled out for a tax hike.

The whole lame duck session is inexcusable. No new emergency happened to make this so urgent and the current Congress lost its mandate in the November election. Everything under consideration could either have been taken up months ago or could wait until Congress's next session. The only reason that so much business is being conducted is that Pelosi wanted the cover of a lame duck session for legislation that would hurt her party. They are more interested in pushing an agenda than in representing the electorate.

That means that they cannot start fighting with the Republicans over principle. The sacrificed those months ago.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Doubling up on Doublethink

I barely finished pointing out the doublethink exhibited by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman before he compounded it in a new column.

Krugman spent the last two years saying that we need to ignore the deficit and spend money like the country did in World War II. He said this a lot. Admittedly he was talking about the government doing the spending instead of allowing individuals to do their own spending but even Krugman admits that there is some stimulus value to tax cuts. More on that later. In the meantime, here is Krugman's new line:

We're talking about almost $4 trillion in lost revenue just over the next decade; over the next 75 years, the revenue loss would be more than three times the entire projected Social Security shortfall. So giving in to Republican demands would mean risking a major fiscal crisis — a crisis that could be resolved only by making savage cuts in federal spending.

And we're not talking about government programs nobody cares about: the only way to cut spending enough to pay for the Bush tax cuts in the long run would be to dismantle large parts of Social Security and Medicare.

In the past Krugman has suggested spending much more that $4 trillion. As recently as September 5 he tossed the figure $30 trillion around when talking about WWII spending that he wants us to emulate. So, we can afford to spend $30 trillion but $4 trillion (actually $3.7 trillion rounded up) will ruin the country. I guess that you have to win a Nobel prize to understand that sort of logic, It somehow escapes me.

The other bit of doublethink come here:

A few months ago, the Congressional Budget Office released a report on the impact of various tax options. A two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts, it estimated, would lower the unemployment rate next year by between 0.1 and 0.3 percentage points compared with what it would be if the tax cuts were allowed to expire; the effect would be about twice as large in 2012. Those are significant numbers, but not huge — certainly not enough to justify the apocalyptic rhetoric one often hears about what will happen if the tax cuts are allowed to end on schedule.

So, he admits that the tax cuts will have some stimulus effect although his discounts it as minor. This is the same guy who, only last week, insisted that freezing the pay on federal workers would hurt the economy.

A couple of final points. One is that you cannot directly compare the cost of not raising taxes with the cost of actual spending. Once money is spent it is spent but tax rates change regularly. President Obama's deficit reduction panel recommended a total overhaul of the tax code, flattening the tax rates and eliminating most deductions. Also, raising the tax rate does not increase revenue in a direct proportion. If you double the tax rate the tax revenues will be less than double because of people sheltering their earnings.

Krugman's real complaint is not the cost of extending the tax cuts. There was no question that the cuts would be extended for most people accounting for $3 trillion. Krugman has not condemned this. He suddenly got anti-deficit religion because the Republicans won the tax argument. Krugman does not want President Obama to compromise with the Republicans. He wants continual war with them. This would ruin the Obama administration since Republicans control the House and have enough votes to block the Senate. Krugman would prefer the pyrrhic victory of seeing all of the Bush tax cuts expire than see Obama and the Republicans reach a compromise.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Liberal Doublethink

The novel 1984 introduced the term "doublethink" which means to believe two contradictory things at once. The last few days have been full of liberal doublethink.

The two hottest issues of the day are President Obama's pay freeze on federal workers and extending the Bush tax cuts for everyone or letting them expire for a portion of the population.

The arguments against the federal pay freeze as given by Paul Krugman are:

The actual savings, about $5 billion over two years, are chump change given the scale of the deficit.

Anyway, slashing federal spending at a time when the economy is depressed is exactly the wrong thing to do.

You know the old expression - a billion here, a billion there and pretty soon we're talking real money.

So, according to Krugman, any cut in federal spending is bad - exactly the wrong thing to do. But hold on a minute. He also wants to raise taxes on the wealthy. If keeping federal workers from getting $2.5 billion in the next year will hurt the economy then what will it do to the economy if we take $70 billion a year from the group that accounts for nearly half of all consumer spending?

Do you see the paradox? Obviously Krugman does not? How do we explain this paradox? Apparently only federal spending stimulates the economy and salaries count as federal spending but only for federal employees.

One wonders about federal employees who make more that $200,000 per year? According to Krugman, they need to keep getting increases in order to keep the economy going but they also need to have their taxes raised because they are wealthy and make too much money.

There are other issues but these are seldom discussed. For the federal workers, there is the fairness issue. A huge number of the population is unemployed or underemployed. Another huge portion has had to cope with pay freezes of actual cuts for the last couple of years. At the same time, the government was giving pay increases to its employees with borrowed money. This shows an arrogance towards the average worker.

An argument against extending the Bush tax cuts for a portion of the population is that it will raise the deficit by $700 billion over the next ten years. Seldom mentioned is that the Bush tax cuts as a whole will cost $3.7 billion over the same period. Liberals concentrate on the $.7 trillion and ignore the $3 trillion.

Are conservatives engaging in their own doublethink? Not really. They are least explain their apparent contradictions.

First, the pay freeze was President Obama's idea. conservatives may applaud it but it was never high on their list of priorities. That only leaves balancing tax breaks against cutting the deficit. There is no major contradiction here, either. Since the days of President Reagan, conservatives have been for lower taxes in order to improve the general prosperity and for cutting the federal deficit by cutting government. Liberals are asking them to abandon their quest for smaller government in order to cut the deficit.

Also, the numbers are not a hard as they sound. People avoid paying taxed. Raise their taxes and the put more effort into avoiding taxes. Back when the highest tax rate was above 70%, no one actually paid this percentage. They put their money into tax shelters. These cost money but the high tax rate made it worth the effort. The liberals want to bring back those days.

Taxes are also  drag on the economy. The government does not spend money, it reallocates it. In takes money that might have been used to buy a new car or invest in a new business and uses it in other ways. One hopes that it is at least spent wisely but often it ens up in earmarks and pork barrel projects. Krugman and company only look at the good that federal spending does without considering the good that private spending can also do.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

The Constitution and the States

There is enthusiasm for a new constitutional amendment that would allow the states to nullify a federal law if two thirds of the states voted in favor of nullification. The reaction of Washington Post columnist, Dana Milbank is typical.

The amendment is an obvious reaction to Obamacare which passed with a small, partisan majority. As the Congressional Budget Office pointed out, Obamacare represents a major expansion of government power. Never before has the government required the purchase of a product as a requirement of citizenship. The fact that such an expansion happened without any Republican votes should be a warning to both sides about partisan overreach.

If Milbank was honest, he would have mentioned Obamacare in his column. He did not. Instead he mentioned racism and slavery. Repeatedly. Milbank presents the amendment as a move by the South to restore slavery.

"This repeal amendment gives states a weapon, a tool, an arrow in their quiver," he told a group of state legislators assembled at the Hyatt in downtown Washington. Of course, states have fired similar arrows before, and it led to a Civil War and Jim Crow - but Bishop wasn't going to get into that.


Then there's the unfortunate echo of nullification -- the right asserted by states to ignore federal laws they found objectionable - and the "states' rights" argument that was used to justify slavery and segregation.

He is also offended by the idea that just any states should have so much power.

The mechanics of the amendment are also a bit odd. It would allow the repeal of any federal law - from civil rights to health care - if two-thirds of the states say so. But that could mean that the 33 smallest states, which have 33 percent of the population, have the power to overrule the 17 largest states, which have 67 percent of the population.

He must be deeply troubled by the US Senate which also allows a majority of the smaller states to overrule the larger ones. This quickly becomes a numbers game. 25% of the population resides in just three states (California, Texas, and New York). Add in Florida and Illinois and you have a third of the population in 1/10th of the states. How much power does Milbank want to give to those three states?

Milbank also sees a paradox in politicians who value original intent but want to amend the Constitution.

Republicans gained control of the House last month on a promise to "restore the Constitution." So it is no small irony that one of their first orders of business is an attempt to rewrite the Constitution.


Several amendments? Would it be easier if they just got some red pens and walked over to the National Archives to do the job?

Let's be clear about how Conservatives want the Constitution to be treated. It was never intended to the the end world on any subject. That is why in includes the process for amending it (which, by the way, also allows smaller states with a minority of the population to override the larger states). Conservatives feel that the Constitution should be accepted as it is. If it needs updating then go ahead and amend it. That fits right in with the writers' original intent.

Instead, for the last several decades, Liberals have insisted that the Constitution should be treated as a "living document" and constantly re-interpreted for the modern world. The 2nd Amendment debate is an example of this. It is true that the Framers had no concept of automatic weaponry when they said that the right to bare arms shall not be abridged but they wrote what they wrote. If you disagree then get an amendment passed. Liberals prefer to short-circuit this process by finding a sympathetic judge or simply ignoring the Constitution.

Another factor in the debate is the way that the relationship between the federal government and the states has changed. Originally the states were assumed to have authority over most things. Congress's authority in the Constitution is actually pretty limited. After the Civil War, the North decided that the states could not be trusted so the federal government was given power over the states. This led to a huge growth in the size and scope of the federal government, eventually leading to Obamacare.

In its entire history, the US government has never before asserted the authority to compel its citizenry to do something. All previous laws were either prohibitions (you will not do this) or conditional (if you do this then you must do it this way). If this stands then eventually the Conservatives will use it in a way that the Liberals do not approve of. Liberals should remember this and support the amendment.

Also keep in mind that getting 2/3s of the states to agree on anything is tough. Look at how few times the Constitution has been amended. If 2/3s vote a particular way then it means widespread dissatisfaction.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Net Neutrality

For many, mainly on the left, net neutrality is an ideological battle akin to free speech. It is the struggle to keep the mega-corporation from strangling the little guy. In practice, it is a replay of the Tragedy of the Commons.

The Tragedy of the Commons is based on the old idea of the commons - land that is held in common by everyone in a village and available to everyone for grazing their sheep. In this example, the commons can only support 100 sheep but there is more demand. Each time a villager adds an extra sheep to the commons he hurts the entire herd a little but profits by an entire sheep. Driven by relentless logic, the villagers keep adding sheep to an overtaxed commons. In this simplistic model, the villagers are unable to cooperate to limit the size of the herd and thus doomed to keep adding sheep until the entire flock starved.

Net neutrality works a lot like this.

Take Netflix and their new web-only version. That sucks up bandwidth. If too many customers start subscribing to Netflix then customers are going to start complaining and demanding action. But they will not be complaining to Netflix. They will be complaining to their internet provider, expecting the provider to increase bandwidth. That's why one of the providers, Comcast, wants Netflix to pay for the bandwidth they are using.

It gets more complicated, though. Comcast has its own streaming movie business that is competing with Netflix.

So, is this an example of Comcast trying to throttle competition? Not really. If Comcast's streaming business eats up so much bandwidth that customers complain then it is Comcast's problem. They will have to pay for the upgrade but the costs will be offset by the profit they made by streaming the movies in the first place. If Netflix causes the same problem then Comcast still has to pay but this time they don't get any of the profits. Netflix is freeloading. It's as simple as that.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Stop Being Afraid of Obama

It is time to back away from the fear of President Obama. He is not going to transform the US into a socialist dictatorship. Mind you, there was plenty of reason to be worried about Obama in 2008 and early 2009. He used Fascist and Communist symbolism during his campaign. He talked about reviving the "Progressive Traditions" and it turned out that the Progressives of the early 20th century were on a first name basis with the Socialists and Fascists. He even appointed some communist-sympathizers. The county went wild over a photograph of the president-elect in a swim-suit in Hawaii. Celebrities pledged themselves to Obama. New York Times columnists, among others, openly called on Obama to suspend the Constitution, Congress, and the Supreme Court for a year or two and to just "fix things". Early in his administration, Obama announced to the heads of the largest banks that he "owned them". He did own GM and Chrysler after the government became the largest stockholder. He was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize days after taking office and awarded it during his first year based on his potential. With super-majorities in both houses of Congress, the Republicans had become inconsequential and were likely to become a regional minority party that only appealed to the shrinking older, white middle-class.

Now, less than two years later, it is obvious that Obama is not going to subject the United States to a grand transformation. He lost his super-majority in the Senate and his majority in the House. Most of the states are now controlled by Republicans. A majority of the country has rejected his signature accomplishments of the stimulus and health care reform. He has tried several proposals overseas and has nothing to show for them. He couldn't even get the Olympics for Chicago. What happened?

It is easy to blame the economy for Obama's fall but that lets him off too easy. Reagan's first mid-term election came during a similar economic downturn (unemployment and inflation were higher) but his Congressional losses were nowhere as deep. FDR managed to stay in office and keep his majority for 12 years during the Great Depression. If voters automatically turned out the party in office during economic hardship then Washington should have had a revolving door.

No, Obama's problems come from within. He sees himself as the ultimate authority on everything. He has been quoted as telling someone who interviewed for a White House position:

"I think that I'm a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I'll tell you right now that I'm gonna think I'm a better political director than my political director."
This is backed up by a quote from Obama's long-time advisor and friend, Vallerie Javertt:

I think Barack knew that he had God-given talents that were extraordinary. He knows exactly how smart he is. ... He knows how perceptive he is. He knows what a good reader of people he is. And he knows that he has the ability —the extraordinary, uncanny ability — to take a thousand different perspectives, digest them and make sense out of them, and I think that he has never really been challenged intellectually. ... So what I sensed in him was not just a restless spirit but somebody with such extraordinary talents that had to be really taxed in order for him to be happy. ... He's been bored to death his whole life. He's just too talented to do what ordinary people do.

From this, Obama's problems can be distilled down to two traits - he is sure that he knows more than anyone around him but he is easily bored. We can see evidence of this in how he has governed.

He misread his mandate and his own role in his election. More people voted for Hillary Clinton than Barrack Obama in the primaries. Obama won because he did better in caucuses than Hillary did and because he husbanded his resources better. The same is true for the general election. He spent most of the Summer with a lead that was so slim it was within the margin of error. The Republican convention and Sarah Palin's nomination for Vice-President put McCain ahead until the financial meltdown. Obama was the first Democrat to win more than 50% of the vote since 1976 and won a higher percentage than any Democrat since 1964. The fact that those Democrats were Jimmy Carter and Lyndon Johnson shows how little the percentages mean.

Obama is wildly popular overseas and he expected his rock star status to carry over to foreign leaders. Instead, many of them are dismissive of his policies. They are important leaders in their own right and resent him putting himself on a higher level. The Olympic committee should be the most important people involved in selecting a site but Obama's visit meant that they could not even cross the lobby of their hotel.

Obama made enemies. In his State of the Union speech, he told the Supreme Court to their faces that they had reached the wrong conclusion then made a misstatement about the effects. He made it easy for the Republicans to vote against him. Early on he lectured them saying "Elections have consequences" and "I won". He also suggested that Rush Limbaugh led the party.

All presidents eventually reach the conclusion that the White House Press Corps is an enemy. The Obama administration seems to have decided this on day two of the administration.

From the beginning it was obvious that Obama disliked Washington. His advisers tried the same trick that school-teachers use - field trips. He typically leaves DC at least once per week.

Obama's policies have long puzzled observers. His financial policy favors Wall Street. His foreign and security policies are refinements of George W. Bush's. He never outlined what he wanted from a health reform bill. After taking over the automotive companies and banks, he let them go again.

All of this points to a President who goes beyond delegation. He outsources jobs that he has no interest in. The economy bores him so he outsourced it to Geithner and Ellison, his economic team. He hates dealing with legislation so he allowed Nancy Pelosi to take the lead in writing his signature legislation and pushing it through Congress. He turned the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq over to the generals as much as he was able to politically.

So instead of a strong leader using a cult of personality to transform America we have a distracted leader who is easily bored and willing to turn over major policy decisions to others. He has gone from Man of the Year to Underachiever of the Decade.

In Defense of Libertarianism - Part 2

I've been deconstructing this unsigned rant which claims to prove that Libertarianism is wrong. See part 1 here.

Markets are a central part of Libertarianism but the author does not understand them. The Libertarian view is that markets arise when someone wants and someone else is willing to supply it for a price that the first person is willing to pay. Libertarians often talk about the "invisible hand." While this term may have meant religion in the 18th century, modern Libertarians use it to describe the collective human wisdom that goes into creating a market. When you consider every piece that is needed to supply a market then you begin to understand that they are highly complex with many subtleties that go beyond the power of government to control.

One example is Apple Computers. Apple has very tight control over how its products are made in China. It not only employs the workers, it feeds and houses them in a dormitory complex. Despite this level of control, they do not really know where their raw materials come from. When asked if the materials are "conflict free", Apple CEO Steve Jobs could only say that the suppliers' contracts said that the materials were supposed to be but he has no way of knowing for sure. A different, and darker, example is the drug trade. The US government is the most powerful in the world but it is unable to stop the flow of illegal drugs into its cities. This market operates completely underground with millions spent annually to stop it but it still reaches every city in the country. No one planed it and it has to change around as drug routes are blocked. No one involved knows every piece but it works. This is the invisible hand in action (and the reason that many Libertarians feel that drugs might as well be legalized).

On a different level there are EBay, the artist site Etcy, and Amazon's partners. Between these there are tens of thousands of people selling unusual or unique items. Libertarians love these type of markets the the author ignores them completely.

Libertarians believe that government interference in markets causes problems. Prices are distorted. Corruption flourishes. Sometimes these interferences can be tragic. The world produces enough surplus food to eliminate famine but corrupt governments stop food shipments either for money or for political purposes. 

The author of the piece does not see the whole of this. He only sees bits and pieces and he hates those.

So, back to the article taking it up at "effects".

The author hates having to depend on groups of people to make the "right" decision.
Free markets are not simply collective, but do have a centring effect.
This quote from Eric Raymond (original now offline) sums up the libertarian attitude:

As for whether open-source is 'techno-libertarian' -- well, I invite you to note that there is no coercion in it anywhere. It's a pure example of voluntary cooperation in a free market. The fact that open-source development leads to mostly cooperative rather than mostly competitive behavior is consistent; market economies are the most marvelous cooperative engines ever.

That is why markets are wrong: they produce social and technological uniformity. They 'centre' society. However, for some libertarians, that is exactly what makes them right.
I bet that he is still upset because VHS beat out Betamax. Of course, free markets often produce multiple choices. You can buy a PC or an Apple computer (or even Linux). There are multiple car makers and multiple classes of cars and trucks. But that is not enough for him. There might be a multitude of choices but they are not the "right" choice.

He sees Libertarians as being imperialistic because they want a Libertarian world. Nearly every economic theory holds that it would make the world better off. Libertarianism is no different here. The difference is that Libertarians expect to win naturally instead of through force. The fall of the Soviet Union and the opening of most other communist countries proves their point.

What's the conclusion to this? The author wants an outside authority (the state) to establish moral authority and have the power to redistribute wealth and land in order to promote fairness. To his, government's anti-Libertarian goals should be:

  1. to restrict tradition and heritage, to limit transgenerational culture and transgenerational community - especially if they inhibit innovation
  2. to restrict 'national values', that is the imposition of an ethnic or nation-specific morality
  3. to permit the individual to secede from the nation state, the primary transgenerational community
  4. to limit market forces, and their effects
  5. to permit the individual to secede from the free market
In other words, he wants nothing less than the authority to commit cultural genocide and to set wages and prices. This not only puts him in opposition with Libertarians, it also puts him against the Constitution of the United States and various UN universal rights.

He sees government as a force for good that can purify humanity. The flaw in this is that there is no way to be sure that the people at the top will have pure motives. Once you give that much power to a small group you have also given them the power to order enrich themselves at the expense of the rest of the world. Both Libertarians and the Founders of the United States realized the old adage about power corrupting. In their view, limiting the power of government also limits the potential harm that government officials can do.

Friday, November 26, 2010

In Defense of Libertarianism

I recently ran across this rant against Libertarianism. The author warns us ahead of time that there is no use arguing with him about Libertarianism. He says:

The values of libertarianism can not be rationally grounded. It is a system of belief, a 'worldview'. If you are a libertarian, then there is no point in reading any further. There is no attempt here to convert you: your belief is simply rejected. The rejection is comprehensive, meaning that all the starting points of libertarian argument (premises) are also rejected. There is no shared ground from which to conduct an argument.
I agree with him that there is no shared ground but he is wrong about the rational grounding. Many, possibly most, of his arguments are emotional rather than rational. He mistakes his own passion for reason.

This is not meant to be an attempt at a debate. I'm just doing this for fun. The author, (The article is unsigned but the URL contains the name Paul Treanor. Since I do not kow if he wrote or simply posted this article, I will simply refer to "the author") is not interested in debating nor is he willing to commit himself to an economic system that he thinks is better. We have to infer that from his complaints about Libertarianism. Accordingly, I will point out some of his more laughable mistakes and try to tease out what system he thinks is superior.

The author does not define Libertarianism. Instead he lists a series of principles which he says are affirmed by most Libertarians. This gives him the opportunity to phrase Libertarian principles on his terms. Most of them are correct even if the context he gives them makes them seem undesirable. I do take issue with one of them.

world of emergence
Libertarians attach great value to the outcome of process: it defines the ideal libertarian world. The liberal tradition generally is hostile to utopias, seeing them as attempts to enforce an ideology. Liberals share this aversion with some postmodernists, who see a direct line from European utopian thought to Auschwitz. However, libertarians are an exception to this pattern of hostility. They often have a utopian political style, not hesitating to describe their 'ideal society' (at least, a version set in the USA). This society is usually seen as the result of libertarian process, not the process itself. For example, the libertarian utopia is not simply 'less government', it is what emerges after 25 years of less government. It is not relevant to say that libertarians have 'got their predictions wrong', and that something else would happen. The point is, that libertarianism does have an ideal world, which it intends to substitute for other possible worlds. Inherently, it must then defend this world's existence. And if the absolute free-market had totally unexpected effects (such as a Bolshevik world government), then most libertarians would interfere with its workings, to reinstate their intended ideal world. In other words the libertarian utopia is not a prediction of the effects of libertarian politics, it is a stand-alone utopian vision. It is defined as emergent (or in similar terms), and perhaps it is emergent, but the relevant fact is that libertarianism generally operates under the equivalence "the emergent = the good". By being 'emergent' it is for libertarians a world more perfect, than any ideal city of the European Renaissance. And therefore, it "must" come to existence, and it "must" exclude other existence. Libertarianism can not be understood without understanding this preference, and its emotional depth.
Since when do liberals reject utopias? Liberals and Progressives are all about trying to create a utopia. That is where the Progressives get their name - because they are making "progress" to a better world. This is a coercive progress. In contrast, Libertarians see governmental attempts at changing the world to be a cause of most world problems so their idea of a utopia involves minimal government. The part about free-market leading to a Bolshevik world government is a red herring since such governments have always formed in response to abusive governments (i.e. Czarist Russia).

I also disagree with his take on Libertarians and Collectivism. He has this totally backwards. In a free market, individuals make distinct decisions. Collectively, these choices influence the markets. In a collective state, a few people at the top make all of the decisions in the name of the people. The two have the same relationship as a democracy and a dictatorship yet the author sees them as equivalent.

His final point, expansionism, has a strange passage:
Libertarians believe that to impose freedom is not an imposition. For them, anything which can legitimately be described as 'freedom', may legitimately be imposed. The Libertarian FAQ, for instance, says "America's free press is envied by freedom-starved people everywhere": implicitly, to allow any other press would be a denial of freedom. In this logic, imposition of a political ideology is a generous response to the suffering of others, who are 'starved' of it.
I'm not sure that you can "impose freedom." The author seems to be arguing that a government-controlled press is a good thing or, at least, a valid choice. This is echoed later when he gives his views of the role of government.

After sort-of defining Libertarianism, the author goes on to describe "the claims and self-image of Libertarianism". This is where the author's own values start to come out.

Under non-coercion:
Some US employers require their employees to smile at all customers, or lose their job. I call that coercion: libertarians call it freedom of contract. There is no point in further discussion of these issues: they are examples of irreconcilable value conflicts.
This is one of several "gotcha" moments where the author mixes terms and meanings in an effort to find value paradoxes. Not all employers require their employees to smile. Unless a worker is coerced into taking a job, the work rules cannot be considered a coercion.

After complaining that Libertarianism is coercive, he then turns around in the next point and says this:
Libertarians claim to value the moral autonomy of the individual. However, in the free market which they advocate, there is no connection between individual action and social outcome. A one-person boycott of meat will not stop the slaughter of animals. In reality, the individual is powerless in the face of the market - and without some decision-making power there is no real moral autonomy.
So, under moral autonomy, he complains that Libertarianism is not coercive. He is correct that Libertarianism will not force people to be vegetarians but it will not force them to be carnivores, either.

Under "political freedom" he equates Libertarianists and Anarchists. Libertarians want a limited government within prescribed limits. These include national defense, enforcement of laws, and a court system to enforce contract law. The exact extent of the ideal legal system is a matter in debate but all Libertarians include violent crime.

The Libertarian Party of the United States, for instance, seeks to impose a libertarian system on the United States. It is an imposition, and can not be anything else. Unless they are prepared to accept the division of the country, they will have to deal with millions of anti-libertarians, who reject the regime entirely. They might call the riot police the Liberty Police, they might call the prisons Liberty Camps, but it's still not 'political freedom'.
In all seriousness, when was the last time people rioted because they wanted more intrusive government? The closest thing that I can think of are the demonstrations against government cutbacks and the anti-free trade street theater that accompanies G-20 meetings. Some of these have turned violent but nothing like the author suggests.

I'm going to backtrack a bit. Under "Instrumental Claims", the author refers to "bad trucks" as described in an earlier section.
As Friedman says, "The capitalist truck was built under a system of institutions in which people who build bad trucks are likely to lose money". So in the end, no more 'bad trucks' will be built, and Friedman sees nothing wrong with that. For him, and many other libertarians, it is self-evident that certain things are 'bad': they deserve no existence, and society should be designed to punish them out of existence.
This is nothing radical. It is market economics. Any free market system will produce these results. "Bad" means a product that cannot be sold for a profit in sufficient quantities. That this can happen causes great anguish to the author. During the mid-2000s, Chrysler brought out a number of expensive, 4WD vehicles that were poorly made (according to Consumer Reports) and had poor mileage. No one bought them and they were all dropped. These would qualify as "bad" cars. Should the government have insisted that Chrysler keep making them when they were bailed out? Of course not but the author classifies this as a soviet-style shop.

The subject of coercion vexes him, also. He sees everything as coercion:
May fish legitimately be coerced into nets? Is it coercion to demolish a building?
He quotes the Libertarian Party as saying:
We hold that all individuals have the right to exercise sole dominion over their own lives, and have the right to live in whatever manner they choose, so long as they do not forcibly interfere with the equal right of others to live in whatever manner they choose.
From this quote, it is fair to assume that the Libertarian definition of coercion involves force. The author rejects this. To him, any interference constitutes coercion, especially markets. He also sees markets as potentially evil. He gives this example:
A simple example: two islands exchange crops, to reach a minimum healthy diet. Soil conditions mean that a full range of crops can not be grown: without the exchange the inhabitants of both islands will die. Then an external trader arrives, and sells the necessary crops to one of the islands. The trader sells honestly at fair prices: both parties (trader and one island) are satisfied with the deal. Nevertheless, the inter-island exchange ends. On the other island, the population dies of malnutrition. Obviously, they never contracted to this, yet some libertarians would claim that they are in some sense more free.
This is a simplistic and contrived example. The market-based reality would be very different. Let's define the islands as A and B and the trader as C. A and B have been producing equivalent crops and each needs both crops. Then Trader C appears with a surplus of the crop from Island A. He is willing to sell it for a lower price than A. Island B gets a price break but that leaves Island A with both a surplus of their own crop and a market for Island B's crop. This is great news for Island B and terrible for A.

So, do the people on Island A quietly starve to death? Of course not. They would cut their price to undercut Trader C. They would still be left with a surplus crop and high prices for B's crop but they might be able to sell those through Trader C and establish a new equilibrium. If there were no new markets then things would get depressing. Probably a number of islanders would leave A and either go to Island B or where ever Trader C got his supplies. That would reduce the supply of Island A's crop and the demand for Island B's crop. Prices would stabilize. It might not be pleasant but it would not the the disaster the author envisions. One wonders how the author thinks that things should happen? Would Island D step in and force an embargo on Trader C (causing a black market)? No economic system is going to look good in this contrived case.

This is turning into a long post so I will break here and add a second post on the rest of this rant.

More on the subject here.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The TSA and the Public

For all the hubbub about the new security measures, here's what you will actually face - most people still go through the venerable metal detectors. The new "naked scanners" are slower and there is a limited number. When one is open then the next person in line is directed through it. You only get the new pat-down if you refuse the naked scanner or if TSA has a reason to suspect you, even though you have gone through the scanner or the metal detector. That's when you get the full-body grope. There are several medical procedures that will cause the pat-down. These can include joint replacements, mastectomies, a colostomy or urostomy bag, or even a large scar.

The new procedures are a reaction to last Christmas's underwear bomber. They are not meant to actually catch terrorists. They are meant to make the public feel safer and to introduce enough certainty that future terrorists will not repeat tactics that the previously used to successfully smuggle a bomb past security.

Does that make you feel better about grandmother-groping?

The reason that the government reacted this way is the unspoken assumption that TSA has to treat everyone as a potential terrorist. If you buy an airline ticket then you are automatically under a presumption of guilty and have to prove yourself innocent. And, you have to re-prove your innocence every time you fly.

The obvious alternative to this would be to profile the passengers. The problem is that profiling is forbidden. Rather than take the chance that an innocent person who fits a profile might be checked, we check everyone, knowing that 99.999% will be innocent.

I can see taking basic precautions meaning the metal detectors and procedures used prior to 9/11. That's because there were several skyjackings in the early 1970s and these precautions put a stop to them. But terrorism is a different prospect. Blowing up yourself along with an airplane full of people is not something that most people will do. They need extra motivation.

Currently, the only group that provides that motivation is Islam and, even then, it is limited to a small sub-set of Islam. The Underwear bomber is a classic example. He had recently traveled to countries known to host radical groups. Plus, his father had written to the State Department saying that his son was a danger. Even without the warning from his father, there were enough red flags in his behavior to have triggered extra measures. On the other end of the spectrum, the Millennium Bomber was caught in 1999 because he acted suspicious.

The thing to remember about profiling is that innocent people are going to be embarrassed either way but in the absence of profiling, an extra level of insult is added. The process stops being about safety and more about continuing the process. 

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Battle for Christmas - 2010

First a bit of background - municipal Christmas displays used to be common and elaborate. During the 1980s, a number of lawsuits were filed by anti-Christian groups (seriously, has the ACLU ever filed an anti-Jewish lawsuit) demanding that Christmas displays be removed as an unacceptable endorsement of religion. At the same time, fringe groups like the KKK sued for access to put up their own religious symbol (a cross covered with KKK slogans). Civic leaders retreated and regrouped. During the 1990s, Christmas displays were replaced with non-specific "Winter holiday" displays featuring images like candles, trains, teddy bears, and the "holiday tree".

For some reason, private retailers followed this example. During the early 2000s more businesses than not sold "holiday gifts" and "family trees". This offended many people including religious groups who saw it as suppression of their religion. It also offended secular types like me who saw this as hypocrisy - these stores are pushing us to buy Christmas presents from them even while refusing to acknowledge the name of the holiday. This is especially bad form for the Christmas tree department since no other holiday is celebrated by putting up a tree.

This even spread to public speech to the point that friends were afraid to wish each other a "Merry Christmas", going for the "Happy Holidays" instead.

So, after a few years of public backlash, where do we stand? Christmas is back. Most stores now include the word in their advertising and, presumably, are allowing employees to use "Christmas" when talking to customers.

The American Family Association has a list of Naughty or Nice chains graded on their use of "Christmas". Radio Shack stands out since they advertise a lot on TV. On the other hand, they are now "The Shack". If they can't say their own name, maybe it is expecting too much for them to say "Christmas". Maybe they could compromise and wish people a happy "C-Day". CVS always devotes a couple of isles to decorations and wrapping paper so they qualify as major hypocrites.

So, Christmas is back. Now let's work on Thanksgiving. This year, the term "Black Friday" has taken over. This is Black Friday week. Retailers were hoping to make this Black Friday month. I expect someone to refer to Thanksgiving as "the day before Black Friday" or "the start of Black Friday weekend".

I'm a traditionalist. When I was growing up, my mother drilled into me that Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving were gauche. I can understand why stores are pushing the season - they have a financial state in it. I don't have any sympathy for individuals who have their tree up before Thanksgiving. I can understand stringing the outdoor lights while it is warm but you don't have to plug them in.

It looks like Christmas has become socially acceptable again. Now lets push to get some respect for Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Missing Bush

The newest liberal to suddenly discover that George W. Bush was actually a moderate is Washington Post columnist, E. J. Dionne Jr. He begins:

Will the Tea Party sell out for a mess of pottage in the form of a ban on earmarks?

That's one possibility. But another is that this embrace of a purely symbolic approach to deficit reduction is a sign that the Tea Party's central goals may lie elsewhere - in an effort to push the Republican Party away from those aspects of George W. Bush's legacy that tried to steer the conservative movement in a new direction. The real point may be to get the GOP to say goodbye to the idea of a compassionate conservatism and to Bush's peculiar but real brand of multiculturalism.

Dionne then goes on to compare Bush's multiculturalism and tolerance of Islam with the Tea Party.

It is notable, Gerstle adds, that at "a time in which the United States was at war and Europe was exploding with tension and violence over Islam, Bush played a positive role in keeping interethnic and interracial relations in the United States relatively calm."

Christopher Caldwell, a columnist for the Financial Times, was one of the first political writers to pick up on the significance of Gerstle's essay. Caldwell, an American conservative, used it to critique Bush's multicultural and compassion agenda and to explain the Tea Party's rise. Intriguingly, he suggests that "many of the Tea Party's gripes about President Barack Obama can also be laid at the door of Mr. Bush."

I will not disagree with this last statement - that many of Obama's excesses began in the Bush administration. I do argue with his assertion here and in a linked document that the Tea Party:

Finally (and related to these findings): while there is considerable overlap between the Tea Party movement and religious conservatism, there is evidence that the Tea Party may represent not so much a more libertarian alternative to the Christian Right as an embodiment of a more critical or even hostile attitude toward multiculturalism, immigration and the idea of compassionate conservatism put forward by former President George W. Bush.

Dionne is building a straw man here. He depicts a Tea Party that does not resemble the actual protesters then asks, "Why can't you be more like that nice George Bush?"

 It is ironic that during the eight years of the Bush administration, no one in the left would admit that Bush has many admirable traits. Only not that he is out of office will they admit that he wasn't so bad.

Another irony, and one that they will not admit, is that Obama has failed to match Bush on promoting tolerance and understanding. In the two years since Bush left office, anti-Muslim sentiment has grown and is now worse than immediately after 9/11. This has nothing to do with people protesting the size of government. It happened because of a vacuum in the White House. When Dionne talks about multicultural understanding under Bush, he is indirectly pointing out the lack of it from President Obama.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Can Obama Pull a Clinton?

After his party's 1994 loss, Bill Clinton adopted a course of "triangulation." He became more moderate, actually supporting some Republican ideas and taking credit for them. He presented himself between the most radical elements of the left and the right. It worked. He went from having to argue that the presidency was still relevant to winning reelection by a good margin (although still failing to capture 50% of the vote). Barack Obama took a worse drubbing in 2010 with Republicans winning back the house and more state governments than they have held since the 1920s. Will President Obama follow Clinton's example? Is it even possible for him to?

Short answer - no to both questions. Here's why.

Obama is not temperamentally suited to triangulate. Near the end of his presidency, Clinton admitted that he was a "C" level president with a shot at rising to a "B". Obama came to office planning on being an "A" level president. The only question that he had not decided was if he would be an FDR-style trasformational president or a Reagan-style one. A president who triangulates does not go down in history as an "A" level president. Beyond that, Clinton's first priority was always himself. He was quick to abandon health care when it looked like it might hurt him and he accepted a number of compromises. Obama only compromises on his own terms and presses on regardless of the cost.

The Republicans will not let him. In 1995, the Republicans took control of Congress for the first time in 40 years. They had an agenda that they wanted to pass - ideas that had been pent up for years. They were more interested in pushing their long-term agenda than in picking fights with the President. In 2011 the Republicans will only have been out of power for 4 years, 2 of them with Obama in the White House. Their agenda mainly consists of rolling back everything that Obama did in the last two years. There is not much room for compromise there.

Obama's base will not let him. The far-left Progressives never forgave Clinton for turning his back on them. This is why Hillary Clinton is not president today. She tried to run to the left of her husband but they didn't believe her. They chose Obama over her. They are already upset that Obama did not force single-payer on the country. If Obama moves to the center they will challenge him in 2012.

Congress is different. In 1995, Republicans controlled both houses. In 2011, the Republicans will control the House and Democrats will control the Senate. Anything that makes it through both houses will have to have some bipartisan appeal. That crowds out the space that Obama needs all to himself in order to triangulate.

This could work the other way if Obama was willing. He would have to take a more active position in regard to Congress. So far he has tended to be hands-off, leaving Pelosi and Reid to do the heavy lifting. If he was willing to take a moderate position he might be able to find enough votes in both houses to pass legislation. This leads back to the original problem of Obama's temperament.

In the end, Obama's desire to be an "A" level president and to preserve his achievements from his first two years will probably drag him down. He may be reelected if the economy suddenly improves but he will never rise beyond a "C" level president who did not live up to expectations.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Oklahoma and Sharia

What if someone died without a will and his sons went to the court and said, "We want the estate divided according to our religion which says that we get twice what our sisters get." I suspect that the Left would be outraged. Unless you specified that the family was Muslim. Then, apparently, it would be ok. The same is true for divorce. The Left has been arguing for women's rights during a divorce for decades but Sharia puts the wife at a huge disadvantage.

So why is the Left so outraged at a constitutional amendment that forbids the courts from considering foreign law or Sharia? It appears that they put the feeling of Muslims above the rights of women.

A little background is needed to understand where this amendment came from. Sharia has not been referenced in any legal cases in the US but a separate legal system has been set up in Canada based on Sharia. It is limited to civil cases and participation in this is supposed to be voluntary by all parties but the fact that any woman would agree to this shows that they are pressured by their family and others to go against their best interests. There has been talk of setting up a similar structure in Great Britain. Many European cities with large Muslim populations have unofficial Sharia courts.

As for international law, the Supreme Court has cited this at least once in deciding a case. The problem with citing international law or, more accurately, citing laws from other countries, is that it is easy to pick and choose which countries you are going to cite from in order to justify a ruling. It also circumvents the legislature, allowing the courts too much power. For some reason, this part of the amendment has been ignored in the debate but it is important since it puts the part about Sharia into context. The amendment simply makes it clear that influences that have no business in American courts should not be considered. Some have described it as a solution in search of a problem. A lot of laws are like that. If there is no problem then it will never be an issue.

Nether of these principles is in keeping with the American spirit or Constitution. In fact, the First Amendment should make this unneeded. Should is the operative word here. Sharia has already been cited in one case in New Jersey. In 2008 a judge found a man not-guilty of raping his wife and refused to grant a restraining order. His reason? The court found that, because of his religion, he believed that the husband thought that his wife had to grant his desire for sex whenever he desired it.

Enter CAIR (the Council of American-Islamic Relations). They have made a number of outrageous claims. They got a temporary injunction against the amendment on the claim that it would outlaw an Islamic will or ban the wearing of a headscarf. As long as there is a will, the law does not care if you gave your sons a disproportionate share of your estate because of your religion or because your daughter spilled gravy on you at Thanksgiving nor does it say anything about individual choices like the headscarf.

The issue is highly polarized with the Left supporting CAIR and the Right supporting Oklahoma. Michael Gerson of the Washington Post dismisses the amendment as faith-baiting. This is a rather typical reaction and in keeping with the Left's blind spot towards Islam is general. This is not really surprising. I could write a book on the Left's blind spots to human rights abuses. Instead I will close with a variation of my original question - how would the Left have reacted if a man was found not-guilty of raping his wife because of his Christian beliefs? Would they be rallying behind the husband or the wife?

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Obama Administration and Inflation

Classical economic theory says that when an economy heats up, employment is up. Demand is also up which creates shortages of raw materials and labor. This leads to price increases and feeds into a cycle that causes inflation.

When the economy is in a downturn then unemployment is up and demand is down. Retailers try to hold onto customers by keeping prices level. This reduces inflation.

At some point, some economists looked at the relationship between inflation and unemployment and decided that they directly influenced each other. For some reason, the underlying economic health was ignored. As a result, they came up with a theory that unemployment could be fought by increasing inflation. Keep in mind that prosperity might fuel inflation but inflation does not fuel prosperity.

The nation found this out in the late 1970s under the Carter administration. Inflation was a problem during the entire 1970s but by the end of the decade it was out of control. Carter's people had tried to fight a recession by causing inflation. On top of that the economy had to absorb the shock of an Arab oil embargo and a jump in gas prices. The result was such a mess that they had to invent a new word for it: stagflation - a stagnant economy with high inflation. The way out was a very painful double-dip recession, one that was comparable to the current Great Recession.

We are at a different place now. Inflation has been low for a decade. The last two years it was rated at zero. Inflation was probably too low for too long, especially interest rates. The Fed kept rates low as an economic stimulus which led to a bubble fed by loans at record low rates. The bubble burst when the fed raised rates a small amount in order to try to offset the inflationary pressures of rising prices for oil and metals caused by growth in China. Too many people with mortgages had taken out variable rate loans with the expectation of ever-lowering rates. They could not afford even a moderate increase in interest rates.

Normally the Fed could try to stimulate the economy by lowering rates. It did that but this failed for several reasons. The rate were already so low that there was little additional stimulus possible. The way that lowering rates works is that it leads to lower mortgage rates which are supposed to encourage a new round of real estate transaction. The housing market was already saturated with houses being sold at a loss so there was no stimulus effect.

The Fed's newest move is something called "quantitative easing." It will buy up some long-term treasury bonds which is supposed to lower the interest rate for long-term bonds and may encourage some expansion. It will also reduce the value of the dollar overseas in the hope that a weak dollar will make exports cheaper and more attractive while making imports more expensive.

There is a very real danger that this will start a new round of inflation and lead to a modern version of stagflation. We are no longer the manufacturing giant that we used to be. A lot of our consumer goods come from China (even American good like the IPhone and IPad). A weak dollar means that either Apple will lose some of its profit margin or they will have to raise the price. Apple has such a fat profit margin built-in that they can probably absorb it but most other companies will be at a disadvantage.

To make matters worse, a weak dollar means that the cost of raw materials will go up on good manufactured here. This will be on top of a rise caused by a resurgent China.

Prices for other things will go up because of government policies, either in the form of tax hikes or mandates (like replacing cheap incandescent light bulbs with expensive CFLs made-in in China).

Prices in general are staying even but some items have jumped - things like cotton and wheat. The perception of inflation is enough to trigger a new round. That's the last thing that the economy needs.

No one under the age of 50 really understands how pernicious inflation is. It cuts away at everyone's income. Unemployment is a hardship for those without a job but inflation males the entire nation poorer. It feeds into a cycle of wage and price hikes in which no one is ever ahead long enough to get ahead.

The Obama has been courting inflation since its first couple of months. The fact that inflation has not started up, yet, has more to do with how far the economy fell than anything else.

Between, a modest recovery, action from the Fed, and pressure from overseas, the long-expected inflation may start up fast in the near future.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Senate Earmarks

According to news reports, the Republican Senators are split about making earmarks against party rules. The argument against the rule is that earmarks only amount to $17 billion - less than one half of one percent of the total budget and that cutting earmarks will not save any "real" money.

Are you guys out of your minds? Just four years ago the Democrats took over both houses of Congress partly because of voter disgust over earmarks and spending. You guys are only back because the Democrats failed to deliver. Just two weeks ago you pledged that you had learned your lesson and that you were a new, fiscally responsible party.

There are multiple problems with earmarks. The biggest one is that you already abused them and cannot be trusted with them. You set records for earmarks. Yes, the Democrats increased spending and failed to eliminate earmarks but they at least used them less.

Earmarks are the epitome of what disgusts voters about Congress. They are synonymous with political "bacon" and pork barrel spending. They are how you guys reward contributors and lobbyists.

Your arguments in favor are misleading. Yes, they are only a small part of the total budget but most of the budget is made up of entitlements. If we only look at the part that you actually control then earmarks grow to 2% of the budget. This is still a small amount but it is enough to make a difference. Heck, the argument over the Bush tax cuts is only over 5%.

Also, the words "only" and $17 billion should never leave anyone's lips.

Right now the Republicans are on probation. You say that you reformed but now you have to follow through. The Tea Party took you at your word but it does not trust you. If you go back to big-spending then you will see a third party in 2012. Keep in mind that, even after all of the dirt thrown about the Tea Party being radical and racists, a larger portion of the voting public has a good opinion of it than either the Democrats or the Republicans. If you want to stay in power then you are going to have to live up to your promises.