Archive for October, 2010

I’m enjoying a fine Saturday day on campus working in my university’s library and in my office.  I feel delightfully out of touch with the political goings-on, including the Rally to Restore Sanity which seems like theatre/political art designed to promote a particular political vision that is by no means non-ideological or even non-partisan.  

Given what has gone on in Congress over the last two years decade, I hope November 2nd is the real rally to restore sanity as friends of fiscal sanity help elect some serious deficit hawks, defeat incumbents like Harry Reid, and provoke great fear among those who survive.  And if the Republicans blow it again this time, I hope that these latter-day Mugwumps (yes, I know, the parallel is not exact) out there will then vote against the GOP with the same fervor with which they now excoriate the Democrats!

UPDATE:  Yup, the folks at the rally certainly sounded post-partisan and moderate: http://reason.com/blog/2010/10/30/what-we-saw-at-the-rally-to-re (of course, the social scientist in me insists that I note the selection bias here, nonetheless….).

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Defending the absurd

I’ve written before about children’s right to be protected, but the issue of protection from lawsuits had never crossed my mind before.  This changed when I saw that a judge has ruled that a 4-year-old who struck an old woman with her bike can, indeed, be sued.  If she had been 3, she couldn’t be held negligent, but at 4 she clearly understands the consequences of her risk-taking behavior.  Yeah, right.

I’m sure that a variety of lawyers (including the judge and the ones in this case), can come up with legalistic reasons for why this was the right decision.  “Legalistic” is a euphamism for nonsense.

Human institutions being what they are, the rule of law sometimes means that we get legal outcomes that are nonsensical and unfair when applied to particular individual cases.  That is unavoidable.  The judge apparently felt he couldn’t make new law in this case.  I’m generally a fan of judges being conservative about making new law (especially trial judges).  Not being a lawyer and not having full knowledge of the case, I don’t know how I would rule.  I’m glad I’m not the judge, who now has to take a lot of flack for the obvious absurdity of the outcome.

This reminds me of another 4-year-old done an even greater injustice.  Several years ago when I lived in Chicago, there was a prominent case where the Illinois Supreme Court literally ripped a 4-year-old boy out of the arms loving parents, the only parents he had ever known, in favor of an adoptive father who seemed kind of creepy and devoid of the true paternal instincts that would have prevented him from doing this type of abuse to a child (obviously, Solomon was not a judge in this case).  The court, which was divided on the issue, claimed that they didn’t have the ability, under law, to weigh the interests of the child in this case.  I wonder how “Baby Richard” is doing these days.  I think he might have been moved out of the country.  But, regardless, it was still state-sanctioned abuse.

These are cases that are very frustrating for those who want justice for children and who want, at the same time, to preserve the rule of law.  What I really wish is that we had more proactive effort to modify ridiculous legal standards before they chew up people’s lives.  I know the gears of justice grind slowly, but you’d think that since quite a few lawyers and legal experts knew about this standard in the law, that they would have taken it upon themselves to advocate for more nuanced, reasonable standards to be enacted, perhaps by statute.

I guess that since they can’t bill for those hours, the absurdity persists.

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I am a policy guy, so my expertise in electoral politics (i.e., “the talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity,”  to quote Publius) is quite limited. But I will put my Sharon Angle “man pants on” and challenge my fellow Pilieus bloggers to do the same. Here are my predictions:

The Senate: the GOP will end up with a slim minority of 49 seats

Of those that are currently toss ups, the GOP will take Illinois (Kirk), Colorado (Buck), Angle (Nevada) and Pennsylvania (Toomey).

  • All this could change if the Democrats are successful in throwing Meek under the bus in hopes of preventing Rubio from being elected (the horror! A young charismatic Latino conservative!)
  • Alternatively, if the wave is as big as some predict hope, the GOP could take Washington and West Virginia, thereby claiming a slim majority (BTW, if this happens, there are two words that will never be used together by the media when discussing the actions of the minority: Democratic obstructionism).
  • The wave will be a Tsunami if Fiorina beats Boxer in California
  • Abandon ye all hope if O’Donnell throws a spell on the Delaware electorate

The House: Obviously going GOP. My best guess is that the GOP will pick up 64 to give it a 242 to 193 margin.

Like I said earlier, I am a policy guy. My prediction: even if the GOP wins a majority in both chambers, all of the populist, small government rhetoric will dissipate quickly. No one can look back to the last GOP majority and harbor any hope of responsible governance, balanced budgets, transparency, etc. If the GOP does what the GOP has done in the recent past, the 2012 elections will likely flip things once again.

So I am throwing it down. Grover, Sven, James, Jason and Marcus…time to pull on the “man pants” and put some numbers down.

Reader predictions are most welcomed!


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An interesting story, if true, on Scalia introducing Kagan to the sport of skeet shooting.

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More hunger

If you have young readers in your house, there is a good chance you’ve already seen Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy.  These books are about a 16-year-old girl’s struggle to survive and protect her loved one’s against a savage totalitarian state.  The prose is easily accessible to youth, though I wouldn’t encourage most pre-teens to read it because it is quite brutal, and the themes are more mature than, for instance, what one finds in Harry Potter.

My wife and I like to keep up on what our kids (and other kids) are reading, so I read more youth fiction than I would otherwise.  This trilogy is surprisingly gloomy for youth fiction, but my kids can’t put it down.  The storytelling is excellent and the prose engaging.  I was hooked within a few pages.  The initial surprise is that the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, is a girl, since the hunting story the book opens with suggests a boy.  And the books are one of those rare feats that are appealing to boys and girls.   Katniss is a lovely, compelling mix of action hero, tomboy and traditional femininity.  Girls love her and boys are in love with her, though they wouldn’t admit it (the young actress who gets to play her in the planned movie series will become the next Kristen Stewart, who wouldn’t be a bad choice if she were younger).  Over the course of the series, Katniss is very emotionally volatile and, frankly, somewhat exhausting for the reader.  But, then, what teenage girl isn’t emotionally exhausting?

Anyway, I’m bringing this up on Pileus because of the trilogy’s strong political themes.  The books are depressing in the way that 1984 is depressing.  Collins does an excellent job in portraying the horrors of a totalitarian state: the complete control of information flows, the arbitrary brutality, the abject poverty of people exploited for the benefit of a small elite, and, most of all, the sense of utter hopelessness felt by ordinary people living under such a regime.

My family usually likes to watch the Olympics on TV.  But in 2008 I encouraged a boycott.  I couldn’t in good conscience watch an Olympic games hosted by the police state of China.  True, the Olympics are about nations putting aside their political differences and coming together in friendly competition.  But they are also about the celebration of the human spirit.  Given the Chinese regime’s success at squashing the human spirit, I couldn’t stomach any Olympic coverage from Beijing.

I bring this up because the Hunger Games gives parents a good platform to talk with kids about totalitarianism and state oppression more generally.  I could say to my kids, “This is why we boycotted the Olympics, because the Chinese government is like the government in Hunger Games” (which, without giving away too much, centers on the government pitting children against each other in a battle-to-the-death struggle used to entertain the Capitol elite).

China isn’t, of course, totalitarian to the extent the regime is in the books, but the kids are able to get what I’m saying.  I pointed out to them that a Chinese democracy advocate who is in prison just won the Nobel Peace Prize, but that most people in China don’t know anything about him or about the prize because of the way China censors its media and internet (and the way that Western corporations help them do so).

For some reason, I’m thinking kids in China aren’t reading Hunger Games.



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Obama the Philosopher-King?

If President Obama is a philosopher, then is this one more strike against Plato?  Is this fan fiction or an argument we should take seriously?

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Save NPR!

I know.  I know.  NPR is a bastion of welfare-state liberalism.  True enough.  I hate the politics of most NPR contributors, staff, and editors as much as anyone.

Still, I love NPR.  What’s more I think conservatives and libertarians should fight to save NPR.   If you made a list of the dumbest things done by smart people, NPR’s recent firing of Juan Williams has to certainly be near the top of the list.  Wrong on the merits.  Wrong on the strategy.  (Or maybe NPR has a weird management strategy where the really dumb people get left with the important decisions like the rapid firing of Williams before taking the time to rub two of their brain cells to figure out how ridiculous this is–you know the people who do the pledge drive and the only thing they can think of to say is the phone number over and over.  Those people.)

Here is why conservatives and libertarians should preserve NPR and not listen to all the rabble that talk about killing it: It is really the only good place to hear conservative and libertarian positions on the radio.  The print media and the web are full of lots of thoughtful people.  But radio?  It is almost entirely a wasteland, which is sad because radio is really the only media form that allows one to multi-task and do other things, like have a life (as opposed to blog reading, for example!)

Sure, they don’t give the Right equal time; they are condescending; they are godless; they are snobs and elitists; they can barely keep their biases and left-wing politics hidden beneath the facade.  I don’t care.  They make damn good radio.  In fact, the only radio really worth listening to.

Leftists talk about how they don’t have a good option to all the conservative talk radio, which they try to suppress through government action by advocating outrageous policies like the Fairness Doctrine.    Give me a break.  The left has NPR and the whole network media enterprise on their side.  The real issue is that conservatives don’t have a good option to NPR.  My local affiliate recently did an hour long conversation with David Boaz.  It was thoughtful and balanced and featured a prominent libertarian intellectual.  When has Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh done a thoughtful hour of programming on….well…anything?  Seriously, crying on air with a flag rippling in the background doesn’t make what you are saying meaningful, or even patriotic for that matter.

Most of what comes over NPR airwaves isn’t that political.  It is just interesting and engaging (most of the time).  And they at least do a passable job at trying to bring in varying opinions, even if it is obvious they don’t respect them.   Almost all the intelligent commentary I have heard over the airwaves over the years has come from NPR.  I still recall an NPR reporter in Chicago trying to take on the brilliant, libertarian legal scholar Richard Epstein.  Even though that was a hilarious mismatch, can you imagine Limbaugh having an intelligent conversation with Epstein–well he might, as long as he let Epstein do all the talking (which he wouldn’t do, because the main problem with these conservative radio jocks is that they love to hear their own silly voices).

The right still hasn’t recovered from the loss of it’s intellectual godfather,  Bill Buckley.  As long as NPR continues to talk with people on the right and the left and give them their say, I say let them flourish.  If they were forced to go private, they would probably become much more liberal and less intelligent.  Do we really need more Olbermans?

Jonah Goldberg argues that even though he doesn’t think they deserve public funding, the Republicans would be stupid to try to take this on as an issue because it would backfire and only give Democrats ammunition in the culture war.  I would add that federal funding for NPR is a pittance.  There are so many more worthwhile targets for libertarian disgust than NPR.  Find one and shoot at it instead!

[I would also add that my spouse, who is a fairly conservative, stay-at-home mom, listens to NPR frequently and, as a result, knows a huge amount of interesting stuff.  I get great external benefits from this, since I don't get to listen all that much myself, but I get to talk with her.  You should all be so lucky!]

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Sven has done an excellent job of predicting the generally accepted wisdom as it will be expressed in the next weeks/months. Let me extend the “narrative” (I hate using the term, but tenure carries certain responsibilities).

Yes, there are the crazy GOP candidates (and yes, even accounting for the media’s selection bias, you got to admit…). But the real story is the influx of foreign money and the way the Right simply outspent the Democrats, under the direction of the omniscient , omnipotent, and omnipresent Karl Rove (Don’t concern yourself that this is a myth—as Politico reports today in a fine piece that suggests the Left has the financial advantage).  Back to the “narrative”…

When GOP candidates win control of the Congress, it will not do so to the extent many suspected (hence a victory for the Democrats). But what victory exists will be a product of big business lucre channeled to the GOP (thank you Citizens United, Puppet master Karl Rove, et al), combined with the racism, jingoism, “christianism,” and general idiocy of the great unwashed (read: midwesterners and southerners).

Now when the Congress fails to pass legislation that could not make it through even under the masterful guidance of Pelosi and Reid, we will hear of Republican obstructionism (“Car is in the ditch, we are working to get it out. The Republicans are drinking cocktails and looking down at us.”)  If only the nation had unified control, things would be better…

But wait, things will improve as concerns over regime uncertainty diminish. Business, convinced that the era of constant experimentation has drawn to a close, will start to invest the trillions of dollars it is currently hording.  Economic growth will ensue.  Or, as it will be reported, “Despite GOP obstructionism, President Obama’s policies have finally met expectations with growth rates that no one would have imagined just a few years ago.”

This interpretation will occur…let’s see…in the months leading up to the 2012 election, as the media is once again equating the GOP with a new generation of crazies (identities TBA) and some holdovers from the past.

Any corrections to this narrative?



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The expectations game

Most media stories in recent weeks have been about the upcoming gains Republicans are supposed to make in Congress next week.  One might conclude from these stories that Republicans are winning in the expectations game.  I think they are losing it.

The expectations game is important, it seems to me, for two reasons.  First expectations might influence turnout.  I say “might” because I don’t think it is obvious that they will.  In all the polls Republicans are more excited about the elections than Democrats.  But being overconfident might push voters away from the polls if they think that the outcome is a foregone conclusion.  I don’t study turnout, but I don’t think the whole psychology of turnout is well understood.  We should learn something from exit polls whether the excitement effect has worked for Republicans or not.

Second, and most important, I think the expectations game can influence governance.  Media-generated hype about Republican landslides will quickly turn into stories about how Democrats did better than expected if the Republican gains being written about now don’t materialize.  Democratic politicians are likely to believe these stories.  They will believe that they weathered the storm, that their strategies were effective in changing the hearts of voters.  This will lead to less change in Democratic strategies, particularly at the White House, than we would get if Republicans truly do enjoy a landslide.

[As an aside, David Brooks had an unusually partisan piece in the NY Times, the kind he does periodically to try to maintain credibility among the Right.  He noted that Democrats love stories about people like Christine O'Donnell and Carl Paladino - "feeble-minded wackos" who have little chance of winning, rather than the numerous Republican candidates who probably will defeat Democratic incumbents.  I don't know if Democrats are any more self-deluded than Republicans, but it is certainly true that we hear many more stories about ridiculous Republicans than about serious ones.  O'Donnell, who has to run ads saying she is not a witch, certainly gets more stories, for instance, than the wretched Barabara Boxer, who actually is one.]

Anyway, I think the Republicans are going to lose the expectations game.  I think Democratic pundits are already writing stories in their heads about Democrats exceeding expectations.  I can hear Paul Begala already practicing his election night sound bites on CNN:  “Despite Anti-Incumbent Sentiments, Democrats Make a Rebound in the Midterm Elections.”  Oh Brother.

You heard it here first.

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So, I thought it was conservatives and Republicans who internalized German philosopher Carl Schmitt and his concept of the political?*

President Obama: “And if Latinos sit out the election instead of saying, we’re gonna punish our enemies and we’re gonna reward our friends who stand with us on issues that are important to us, if they don’t see that kind of upsurge in voting in this election, then I think it’s gonna be harder — and that’s why I think it’s so important that people focus on voting on November 2.” (emphasis added).


*BTW, I think Wolfe’s argument here is pretty lame.

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My oldest child started kindergarten this year, and my wife and I have already had numerous occasions to question the sanity of our decision to use a public school.  I think my issues with the local public school are worthy of comment because they are probably commonly faced by fellow Americans rather than particular to my case.  Here are some recent developments that have been a source of much consternation in the Cleveland household.  I invite readers to share their own similar stories. 

1.  Political Activism on my Kid’s Chest - My child was provided with a bright red ribbon and told to wear it last week in honor of Red Ribbon Week.  According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, Red Ribbon Week is “the nation’s oldest and largest drug prevention program in the nation reaching millions of Americans during the last week of October every year. By wearing red ribbons and participating in community anti-drug events, young people pledge to live a drug-free life and pay tribute to DEA Special Agent Enriqué “Kiki” Camarena.”

I am not and have never been a user of illegal drugs.  Indeed, I’m pretty square having never even sampled marijuana.  Moreover, I think most drug use is inconsistent with a flourishing life (that includes alcohol if used frequently and to excess).  And I do not have a problem with schools teaching about the dangers of drug use as part of a health education curriculum. 

However, I find it unnecessary to expose 5-year-olds to the issue and think certain subjects are best saved for older children (in the case of drugs, maybe not as late as junior high school but certainly not kindergarten) or left up to parental discretion.  More importantly, I do not think public schools should get involved in what is a contentious political issue today.  America is divided about whether certain drugs should be legal for adult consumption (most think alcohol should be legal, many think pot should be legal, and still others think there are good grounds to end drug prohibition altogether).  Drug policy is on the ballot across the country.  Red Ribbon Week and other anti-drug campaigns are not merely about the health and moral ramifications of drug use but promote a heavy political agenda in a very blunt, propagandistic fashion.  This makes it pretty creepy to see children running around with red ribbons on their chest at the behest of their teachers.  And while I am sorry that the DEA agent honored with the red ribbon died doing his job, the job he performed is one that would be eliminated if my policy preferences prevailed.      

2.  Political Activism in my Kid’s Backpack - There is an interest group promoting the construction of a large recreational facility in my (small) town.  As recently as two months ago, this group was seeking public funds – some remaining parks and open spaces bond money – to get their project off the ground (they don’t even have land yet).  Support for the project is not universal in town, and this is clearly a political issue.  So along comes a letter from the president of the Parent Teacher Organization (PTO), right in every student’s backpack, extolling the virtues of this proposed facility.  Attached to the letter was a push poll trying to assess whether students’ families would use this wondrous facility if it were constructed!  Now, I’m not going to comment on the merits of the proposed facility, but the PTO has no business wading into political activism through my child’s backpack.  I could hardly be more offended if a candidate for local office had inserted “Vote for me!” flyers into the kids’ take-home folders.  Not only does this kind of advocacy potentially jeopardize the PTO’s nonprofit status, since such organizations are subject to restrictions or forbidden from engaging in political activities, it also makes my child a “handbill mule.”  As I noted earlier, I am deeply troubled by the way in which politics creeps into every nook and cranny of our world, leaving little space for us to breathe the fresh air of private life.  This would include temporal space, namely childhood.

3.  Intrusive Administration - A letter to parents announced that audio and video recording equipment had been installed in all school buildings and would be used to randomly record student behavior in common areas.  Not only does such recording violate my child’s privacy, regardless of its purpose, but then the letter goes on to state that recordings will also be used to initiate disciplinary action against students “caught on tape.”  Now, I’m no expert on parenting literature, but what I have read leads me to question whether this will have any efficacy as a disciplinary tactic.  According to many childrearing references, the consequences for a child’s misbehavior must be imposed immediately in order for those consequences to have the desired effect.  It’s simple learning theory.  What use will this discipline have, after the principal has had a chance to review recordings, aside from creating confusion and resentment in the child?  Besides, isn’t this what hall monitors are for?  Perhaps the school district doesn’t have the staff to properly police the hallways, but again, I’m having trouble believing there’s rampant misconduct being committed in the halls of the primary school.  This is yet another instance where district-wide initiatives should not have been applied to 5- and 6-year-olds, and, in a broader sense, another erosion of our freedom by habituating people to constant monitoring by authorities.    

4.  Intrusive Fundraising - Just last weekend, the PTO held their major fundraiser for the year – a carnival with games, food, and raffles, etc.  On Monday (the next school day following the carnival), my child brought home (1) an order form for the winter fundraiser, sales for which are to start immediately, and (2) a request that all students’ families dine at a particular eating establishment in town on a particular day because a portion of that day’s profits will be donated to the school.  Now I ask you, is this a never-ending parade of fundraising events, or is this my kid’s education?  (Have I bashed on the PTO sufficiently yet?). 

That being said, I do support parents paying for their children’s own schooling and so any relief for the taxpayer is welcome.  However, my problem is that this seems yet one more distraction from the actual purpose of school: education.  Moreover, this is not the most efficient means for raising funds (assuming that the events aren’t more about the side benefits – parental socializing – than the purported purpose).  I’d rather just get a bill since parents, not the community at large, have the primary duty to provide an education for their children.  But such a bill would erode the notion undergirding public schools that the costs of education should be socialized, either formally through the tax system or informally through these community fundraisers.  Again, send me a bill.

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In this second part of a series of posts on American exceptionalism, I consider the common claim by the American right that the American state is particularly small relative to those of other advanced democracies, and that this fact helps to constitute a desirable “American exceptionalism,” featuring higher economic growth and more respect for individual liberty.

There is no doubt that the American state appears to be small in international comparisons, particularly when GDP is used in the denominator. Thus, public and mandatory private social spending (spending on old age, disability, unemployment, health, housing, active labor market policies, and similar programs) as a percentage of GDP was 16.3% in 2005, the last year for which data are available from the OECD. (This figure includes all levels of government.) By comparison, the figures for Sweden, the UK, and France were 29.8%, 22.1%, and 29.5%, respectively. The only rich democracies close to the U.S. were Canada (16.5%), Ireland (16.7%), and Slovakia (16.8%). The first point to make about these statistics is that they overstate the differences between the U.S. and apparently more freely-spending countries, because the latter group of countries, as a rule, also tends to tax social benefits at much higher rates than does the U.S.

However, a broader measure of government impact on the economy also seems to support the American exceptionalism thesis. (more…)

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109 Year Old Lightbulb

This is cool.  There is a lightbulb in Livermore, California that is 109 years old and has been in use for almost the entire time (only off when it has been moved between buildings).  I wish most of the things I bought today had a life span 1/10th of that of this bulb (assuming it would not raise the cost substantially).  I wonder what this bulb originally cost, inflation adjusted. 

Meanwhile, we will soon be unable to freely purchase most of the old style incandescent lightbulbs from a consenting seller.  Congress (and President Bush the Second), in all its wisdom, has essentially made such private acts between consenting adults illegal due to the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.  Here is an op-ed against such regulation from a different David Henderson than the one most libertarians know and love.  Stock up now if you don’t like new light sources such as CFLs.

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QE2 is in the news – no, not the monarch of Britain, but the second round of “quantitative easing” apparently being contemplated by the Fed. So here’s a roundup of enlightened chatter on the topic… So far monetary policy has not been as aggressive as it might seem if we looked only at nominal interest rates, Beckworth and Ruger argue, because inflation expectations are low. They argue for more monetary stimulus. Hugh makes the case that QE2 in one country can’t work, because it would threaten economic recoveries in Germany, Japan, and elsewhere. Those countries can’t undertake their own QE programs without risking inflation, he says (I’m not convinced on this point). R.A. at The Economist nevertheless sees recovery in the U.S. as particularly critical to reversing the protectionist tide.

From my vantage point, the threat of currency wars is overstated. The US and EU complained about the renminbi before the recession, and China has been grudgingly, gradually reforming it. Moreover, the economic advantages of depreciation (and disadvantages of appreciation) are easy to overstate. What matters is real, not nominal depreciation. If inflation expectations rise concomitantly (which is precisely the point of QE), the knock-on benefit to the trade balance doesn’t obtain. These considerations seem to allay some of the concern that might otherwise surround more aggressive monetary stimulus in the U.S.

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Interesting, but not sure I agree with focusing on total employment.

HT: Mankiw.

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Weekend Reading Suggestions

1.  Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute has a new policy paper that makes the case for the pending Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with South Korea.  Bottom line up front: “Although the accord is not perfect, it would substantially increase access to the South Korean market. Both the Republic of Korea and the United States would benefit from increased exports, economic growth, and job creation.”

2.  I had hoped to have a full review of Damon Linker’s new book by now, but other projects have intruded.  One is certainly forthcoming.  In the meantime, read his piece in the Washington Post that argues for a religious test for political candidates.

Update:  Add a third, Charles Murray’s op-ed from Sunday on the New Elite.   Key section: 

There so many quintessentially American things that few members of the New Elite have experienced. They probably haven’t ever attended a meeting of a Kiwanis Club or Rotary Club, or lived for at least a year in a small town (college doesn’t count) or in an urban neighborhood in which most of their neighbors did not have college degrees (gentrifying neighborhoods don’t count). They are unlikely to have spent at least a year with a family income less than twice the poverty line (graduate school doesn’t count) or to have a close friend who is an evangelical Christian. They are unlikely to have even visited a factory floor, let alone worked on one.

Taken individually, members of the New Elite are isolated from mainstream America as a result of lifestyle choices that are nobody’s business but their own. But add them all up, and they mean that the New Elite lives in a world that doesn’t intersect with mainstream America in many important ways. When the tea party says the New Elite doesn’t get America, there is some truth in the accusation.

Interesting, but what is the real danger of these out of touch Americans?  Enter Arnold Kling, who nails it (with Hayek’s voice in the background, whispering “fatal conceit”) even though there is less disagreement between the two than Kling suggests:

I am going to disagree with the thrust of Murray’s article, which is that the problem of the elite is that they are out of touch with much of America. I think instead that the problem is that those in the elite who go into politics believe that they know more than they really do. In my view, we are in a “cycle of failure,” in which policies fail, political leaders respond by usurping more power (“we need to strengthen regulation”), failures get worse, more power gets usurped, etc.

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After a tough week of work, many of us wonder: “What did I miss?” Here are few videos to review the week’s events and allow a mindless transition into the weekend. Anything I missed?

On the Social Front

  • Todd Seavey proves (much to Helen Rittelmeyer’s dismay) that old love dies hard during a C-Span panel on Jonah Goldberg’s new collection, Proud to be Right.

On the Professional Front

  • A good corrective for those of us who once contemplated law school (Marcus Cole might want to assign this to his first year students).

And now on to the Political Front

Have a Wonderful Weekend






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Should We Go to the Moon Again?

The Moon may have more water on it than we thought, according to several new studies based on analysis of a recent NASA experiment.  This leads the Wall Street Journal to speculate that the finding “may bolster the case for a manned base on the lunar surface.”

So, should we boldly go where some men have already gone?

No, no, no.

The water finding sounds like a classic case of over hyping an interesting but not game changing discovery.  Because even given this news, the moon is still very, very dry.  Indeed, another recent study of the moon “indicate[s] that the moon contains just one–ten-thousandth to one–hundred-thousandth the water that the Earth’s interior does.”   

But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the moon has a decent amount of water in a particular spot to make it possible to set up a lunar base.  This still doesn’t answer the question of to what end and at what cost (and what benefit) we would want to do so.  Of course, when I say we, I really should say the U.S. taxpayer since money for such a project would no doubt have to come from the public sphere.  And the cost would be quite large (easily over $100 billion) and certainly a luxury item we should not be purchasing in this economic environment (or any, to be honest, given that the only legitimate rationale for state-sponsored space exploration would be its ability to directly contribute to national defense or other public goods [like the environment] in a manner in which the benefits clearly exceeded its costs [and this excludes some baloney, non-quantifiable national prestige rationale]).  

As might be expected, the Cato Institute has some sensible words on the subject of NASA: here, here, and here.   If you don’t want to believe these guys, see what Martin Rees, professor of cosmology and astrophysics at Cambridge University, has said about manned space flight: “The moon landings were an important impetus to technology but you have to ask the question, what is the case for sending people back into space?  I think that the practical case gets weaker and weaker with every advance in robotics and miniaturisation. It’s hard to see any particular reason or purpose in going back to the moon or indeed sending people into space at all.” 

Fortunately, President Obama has been eminently sensible on the moon, having already scrapped the moon landing project that had been in the works for some time.  Indeed, the announcement of this decision provided what might be my favorite – and most refreshing – quotation from our 44th President: “Now, I understand that some believe that we should attempt a return to the surface of the Moon first, as previously planned.  But I just have to say pretty bluntly here:  We’ve been there before.”  I just wish he had scrapped most of the NASA missions, turned over what could be justified on national defense/public goods grounds to the Department of Defense and other agencies, and sold whatever was left over to private industry.  Now that would be change I could believe in!

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In these days of youthful experimentation with witchcraft (thank you Ms. O’Donnell),  “homosexual brainwashing” (thank you Mr. Paladino), and flirtations with  the pagan god named “Aqua Buddha” (thank you Mr. Paul), it is refreshing to know that, once again, Jimmy Carter was ahead of the curve.  As Patrick Gavin notes in a piece entitled “Carter’s Weird Science,” former President Carter’s new book reveals that he was “enthralled by and impressed with the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of parapsychology in intelligence gathering.”

Carter’s 1979 diary entry:

“CIA briefing on unhappiness of King Hussein of Jordan [about agreements between Israel and Egypt], Idi Amin’s government about to fall, and that a plane had crashed in Zambia. An American parapsychologist had been able to pinpoint the site of the crash. We’ve had several reports of this parapsychology working; one discovered the map coordinates of a site and accurately described a camouflaged missile test site. Both we and the Soviets use these parapsychologists on occasion to help us with sensitive intelligence matters, and the results are unbelievable.”

His current day reflections:

“The proven results of these exchanges between our intelligence services and parapsychologists raise some of the most intriguing and unanswerable questions of my presidency,” Carter notes in “Diary.” “They defy logic, but the facts are undeniable.”

This is quite a claim given the large number of “intriguing and unanswerable questions” of the Carter presidency.

One can only imagine the phalanx of parapsychologists Carter assigned to trying to discover the coordinates of a successful economic policy mix or tracking the movements of those pesky killer rabbits.

Carter: the gift that keeps on giving



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David Boaz at Cato discusses the fact that the Tea Party phenomenon—and it is a phenomenon—continues to “freak out” commentators on the Left. He writes (preserving his links and italics):

With a few rare exceptions like [Jonathan] Rauch and John Judis, non-conservative intellectuals are just freaked out by a mass movement against big government. Jill Lepore, Sean Wilentz, E. J. Dionne, Frank Rich — they just can’t imagine that real middle-class Americans could honestly oppose President Obama’s tax-and-spend agenda and march in the streets against it — just like, you know, they did against the war and stuff. It’s got to be racism, billionaires, extreme libertarianism, extreme authoritarianism, the John Birch Society, something. And so they tell the president that the Tea Party is reminiscent of “the Know-Nothings and Father Coughlin.” Why oh why can’t we have better historians?

As I have had occasion to remark in the past, I don’t think that the Tea Party’s motivations are all that mysterious. Vast and expanding government debt to finance vast and expanding government intrusion into people’s lives: that is pretty much it. So I share Boaz’s bemusement at commentators’ professed inability to comprehend.

One thing I think Boaz might be missing, however, is the possibility that these commentators, or at least some of them, might perfectly well understand what motivates the Tea Partiers—which is precisely why they accuse them instead of uncontrolled and irrational anger, racism, inhumanity toward others, and assorted other moral vices.

Expanding spending and centralized control are necessary parts of and deeply integrated into their political worldviews. They are willing to engage opposition on this or that policy, on this or that spending level increase; but a generalized opposition to debt and control is something that questions their premises, and so something they are far less willing to entertain. Premises are also far more difficult to justify, especially to skeptics. Much easier, then, to demonize one’s opposition by suggesting their views have roots in despicable motives.

Perhaps some of the commentators to whom Boaz links are genuinely flummoxed by the Tea Party phenomenon. But I think it is more likely that they are surprised by its strength and durability, have recognized the size of its threat to what they hold dear, and thus have decided to discredit it as best they can.

Time will tell whether the whether their strategy will work. Indeed, we should know in roughly fourteen days, give or take.

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Buying Votes

To channel Captain Renault in Casablanca, I’m shocked, shocked that politicians would behave like this:

Democrats are making a pre-election pitch to give Social Security recipients a one-time payment of $250, part of a larger effort to convince senior voters that their party, and not Republicans, will best look out for the 58 million people who get the government retirement and disability benefits.

Still, it is disgusting and seems to have little of the veneer of most political vote-buying schemes! 

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What will happen if California legalizes marijuana, if Proposition 19 passes as expected? The Economist runs the numbers on legalization’s effects on Mexican drug cartels’ bottom lines.

Regardless of how the proposition turns out, Americans’ changing views on the appropriate legal status of the drug are to be welcomed. Let us hope that politicians are paying attention.

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On target for once?

Paul Krugman is so seldom on target that he deserves a special shout out when he is.  I liked his column today bashing the Chinese government.  But then I always like bashing the Chinese government.

Frankly, I hadn’t heard of the issue with “rare earths.”  Given that Paul doesn’t always tell both sides of the story (the understatement of the year!), I’m wondering what more there is to the story.  And given that I’m trained to be very skeptical of national security arguments against free trade, I’m skeptical of his story here.  But at first glance, it sounds convincing.  Anyone care to take it down?

And I’m also wondering about dealing with the Chinese as they grow ever more powerful on the world stage.  They might end up being scarier than the old Soviet Union.  There’s a happy thought.

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Clear thinking

A lot of people are writing and blogging about the President’s recent analysis of the electorate.  Reminiscent of his “clinging to guns and religion” comments, he now says people can’t “think clearly” (meaning they can’t think like him), because the are “scared.”  At least he didn’t say that fear is causing people to be racist, though it wouldn’t be a stretch to read that into his words, given what many on the left have been claiming for a long time.

I’m not one to sing praises of the wisdom of the electorate.  A skilled communicator really can persuade most of the people most of the time of most any crazy idea, and information cascades and other things lead to broad and widespread misperceptions in the public.  Thus, a republican form of government is a good idea, in general.

But one has to wonder about the clarity of the President’s thinking.    He squeeked out his party’s nomination from Hillary Clinton (a candidate with negatives so high that sensible Democrats were terrified of putting her up in the general election), and then he ran against a aged candidate whose party had an extremely unpopular president mired down in war and a rapidly disintigrating economy.  Given this prime setup, he won slightly less than 53% of the popular vote.

It always amazes me how very smart people fail to understand simple numbers.  Even though his electoral margin was comfortable by recent standards, does 53% constitute a broad mandate, especially considering that he had such a downhill battle fighting the beleagured Republicans? We might call this mandate illusion. Most of the voters in America are in the middle, and most of them are fairly fickle and can swing either way in an election.  The media love to paint a picture of what a given election means and to jump to outrageous and unfounded conclusions about why a candidate won, pretending that the themes the candidate campaigned on are the real reasons he won the election.

The candidates should be smarter.  They should realize that 53% is 53%, not 63% or 73%.  Bill Clinton only got in the low 40s in his first election, yet assumed a broad mandate.  He was schooled by the Republican takeover in 1994 and, being a quick study, learned his lesson and became, essentially, one of the most successful Republican presidents of the century, instituting long-held Republican goals such as welfare reform, NAFTA, and a balanced budget.

So what can we make of Obama’s first two years on the job.  Two hypotheses:

1. He didn’t  have mandate illusion, but realizes that with a strong majority in Congress, he has a couple of years to stuff through as much of the MoveOn. org agenda as possible before the public wisens up. Hopefully, the economy will be in a strong recovery, if not by 2010, then at least by 2012.

2. He really believes that all those fickle moderates and independents are really leftist idealogues if they could just be properly educated.  They just need a wise communicator to explain to them how a massive increase in the size and scope of the federal government is really what they want.   Smart people have this tendency to believe those who don’t agree with them are just confused.

I think it is likely that many of Obama’s advisors and allies are in the first camp.  It is not often that either party gets 60 votes in the Senate.  This was a once in a lifetime opportunity to cram through as much of the leftist agenda as possible.  This is somewhat naked power grab, but at least it is rational.

But Obama really seems to be in the second camp.  He compromised where he had to, but that was political expediency.  I think he really does think the public would be with him if they weren’t so scared and confused.

Thus we have a smart President, with sincere, honest motives, but who remains strangely deluded about the electorate he is charged with serving.

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There is an interesting piece by Josh Gerstein (on Politico) regarding the Obama administration’s difficulties with DADT. According to Gerstein:

Obama’s current predicament is a result of a collision between a go-slow White House strategy that deferred to Pentagon and military leaders on the pace of repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the progress of a stuttering federal lawsuit that a small group of gay Republicans filed more than six years ago.

The Obama White House, led in large part by Clinton veteran Rahm Emanuel, sought to avoid a showdown with the military over the issue. Particularly as Obama, a relative neophyte on national security, faced critical decisions on Iran and Afghanistan, he didn’t want the process derailed by the culturally freighted gays-in-the-military fight.

“The part of this that was smart was that they figured the only way to get this done was to get the Pentagon’s buy-in. That is informed by the Clinton experience,” Socarides said. “You cannot outsmart the Pentagon on this kind of thing.”

Of course, now the courts have forced the administration’s hand and it will be interesting to see how much our first African American president is willing to invest in maintaining a set of discriminatory practices that he has explicitly rejected.

I have no sympathy for the administration on this one.  Candidate Obama struck an unambiguous position on DADT on the campaign trail (and in my mind, the correct one). And although legislative action appears necessary to end DADT, the president could have issued an executive order ending separations on the basis of sexual orientation. It should have been done on day one of his administration.

What seems ironic to me, is that the “go slow White House strategy” with its focus on consultation, investigation, and consensus building might have been quite appropriate for major initiatives including health care and financial reform. In the first case, there was little interest in building a coalition that would have been sufficiently strong to guarantee the long-term success of the policy. In the second case, there was little interest in waiting for the U.S. Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission to complete its work and submit its report (as required by Congress) on 15 December 2010. Both of these critical issues are highly complex, requiring one to make sense of a complicated labyrinth of existing policies, institutions and dynamics. In the end, both were driven by the political calendar with complete disregard for the need to get things right.

On the far simpler issue of ending discrimination, the administration has endless patience.



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The United States is often criticized for its supposedly high level of inequality.  But a recent story this past week on the massive number of job barriers (licenses and other regulations) that protect professionals in Greece from any meaningful competition caused me to reflect on a different kind of inequality.  The Greek government is trying to dismantle these barriers as a means of improving the overall economy.  The professionals are not keen on giving up these barriers for obvious reasons.  It is the kind of story that shouldn’t be surprising to anyone familiar with public choice theory, but one that still shocks and angers anyone committed to economic freedom.

Equality of opportunity means more than having access to education and more than having a social safety net.   It also means freedom from barriers that are established to protect the privileges of politically influential groups.  The negative effects of these barriers on the economy as a whole can be significant, but the effects on individuals should not be ignored either.

We have politically induced barriers in the U.S. as well.  But, I think, by and large no other country rewards effort as we do.  We are not anywhere near a pure meritocracy (nor should we be, I would argue), but we still do reward effort, and risk-taking and entrepreneurship to a much larger extent than our European friends.  This is one of the secrets of our economic success and will be in the future.  But it is also speaks well for our level of economic and social justice, which in the end is about far more than the distribution of income.

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A democratic victory

I’ve been ridiculing for a few months now the notion that there is an “anti-incumbent” mood among the electorate.  An anti-incumbent movement would entail a lot of Democrats and Republicans going down in flames.  Consider these data from the good folks at Real Clear Politics.  There are 3 Republicans in the House who are in districts that are currently “leaning” Democrat, and 1 who is in a toss-up.  In contrast, there are 5 Dems in seats that are “likely” to go Republican, 31 in seats that are leaning Republican and 35 Democrats in toss-up races.   If we think of all these seats as “at risk,” then there are 71 at risk Democrats and 4 at risk Republicans.  Other analyses show even greater advantages for Republicans.

So how is this anti-incumbent?  I don’t think this is a permanent shift in underlying ideologies or a new found love of Republicans.  But anti-incumbent?  Give me a break.  If I were a drinking man, I’d get together some buddies and have a new drinking game where every time a MSM journalist or Democratic operative says “anti-incumbent,” we take a shot.  This would not only leave us completely soused, but allow us to do so by mocking the talking heads on CNN at the same time.

My long-term prognosis is that if Republicans eventually build a governing majority, they will return to their big-spending, pork-barreling, interest-group-pandering, government-loving ways ways that characterized their behavior in the past and that the pendelum will swing leftward again.

But for the next little while (barring a dramatic turnaround in the next two weeks), I will celebrate the coming democratic victory, though without any drinking games.  Note the small “d.”  I’ve always believed (and taught) that the advantages of incumbency are so huge that incumbents have little to fear from the voters.  It is nice to see that the foundational check on government power in our Republic still has some bite.

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Typo of the year award

James Taranto at WSJ.com has a link today to what is certainly one of the funniest typo’s you will ever see:

“This blog post originally stated that one in three black men who have sex with me is HIV positive. In fact, the statistic applies to black men who have sex with men.”–correction, TBD.com, Oct. 8


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The Learning Curve

There is an excellent piece by Peter Baker on President Obama for this Sunday’s NYT Magazine (advance copy here).   This tasty excerpt should be enough to whet your appetite:

While proud of his record, Obama has already begun thinking about what went wrong — and what he needs to do to change course for the next two years. He has spent what one aide called “a lot of time talking about Obama 2.0” with his new interim chief of staff, Pete Rouse, and his deputy chief of staff, Jim Messina. During our hour together, Obama told me he had no regrets about the broad direction of his presidency. But he did identify what he called “tactical lessons.” He let himself look too much like “the same old tax-and-spend liberal Democrat.” He realized too late that “there’s no such thing as shovel-ready projects” when it comes to public works. Perhaps he should not have proposed tax breaks as part of his stimulus and instead “let the Republicans insist on the tax cuts” so it could be seen as a bipartisan compromise.

This piece is best read in combination with the fine interview in the new Rolling Stone magazine, mentioned a few days ago.


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A new USA Today/Gallup poll asks people about their views on the size of government today and the ideal size of government. They categorize respondents into five, roughly equal groups: “keep it small” (favors small government in economic and moral matters), “morality first” (favors small government in economic matters but big government on moral questions), “the mushy middle” (self-explanatory), “Obama liberals” (big government on economic issues, small on moral ones), and “the bigger the better” (self-explanatory). Right now, 58% of Americans see the federal government as too big. The mushy middle leans toward thinking the government is too big, which creates that majority for smaller government. I’m always skeptical of attempts to divine the “will of the people,” heedless of Arrow problems, but to the extent that the majority of Americans have a firm view on the size of government today, they think it is too big. Hence the approaching Republican wave, as many voters see a Republican Congress as the best way to restore equilibrium.

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The past few days have brought several expressions of the Dem’s new strategy: focus on the GOP as a party that takes special interest money (including funds from foreigners) and moves to the right as puppet masters Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie pull on the strings. David Axelrod’s case is a subtle one and the logic is compelling, as revealed on Sunday’s Face the Nation (as revisited in  Mike Allen’s piece in today’s Politico.)

But when asked by Bob Schieffer, host of CBS’s “Face the Nation,” for proof that the foreign funds were “anything other than peanuts,” Axerod said: “Do you have any evidence that it’s NOT, Bob? The fact is that the Chamber [of Commerce] has asserted that, but they won’t release any information about where their campaign money is coming from.”

“Is that the best you can do?” Schieffer asked in response.

President Obama has made the same assertions. As reported by the Washington Post:

President Obama, speaking at a rally in Philadelphia, said “the American people deserve to know who is trying to sway their elections” and raised the possibility that foreigners could be funding his opponents.

“You don’t know,” Obama said at the rally for Senate candidate Joe Sestak and other Democrats. “It could be the oil industry. It could even be foreign-owned corporations. You don’t know because they don’t have to disclose.”

In an odd moment of candor, the New York Times actually questioned the empirical foundations of the claims, and noted:

But a closer examination shows that there is little evidence that what the chamber does in collecting overseas dues is improper or even unusual, according to both liberal and conservative election-law lawyers and campaign finance documents.

Similarly, the Post stated:

Legal experts from both parties say the prohibition against foreign funding in U.S. elections is clear, and noted that Democrats have turned up no hard evidence that the chamber is violating that ban.

It says quite a bit about the administration’s evaluation of its own considerable legislative achievements that it has embraced this strategy. Health care (“a big “f’ing deal,” as Mr. Biden correctly observed) and financial reforms should provide strong empirical support for the claim that the Democrats have delivered on some of their largest promises. Why not make the case aggressively?

Moreover, with all the low-hanging fruit that the GOP has provided the Democrats (e.g., Christine O’Donnell’s “I’m not a witch” ad, Rich Lott’s Nazi reenactments, Paladino’s comments regarding gay “brainwashing,” and virtually everything coming out of Newt’s mouth), stories about fundraising seem like rather thin gruel.



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Tensions are rising in Sudan ahead of January’s scheduled vote in South Sudan over independence. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has accused members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, the primary political party in the South, of violating the terms of the peace deal, and Sudan’s government is dragging its feet on referendum preparations. Moreover, al-Bashir is now explicitly warning of war over disputed border regions. This warning is particularly disturbing since the disputed regions are holding their own “popular consultations,” in which they are virtually certain to vote to join the South. The last civil war between North and South Sudan lasted 22 years and took the lives of more than 2 million people.

While I am not certain that the U.S. government has legitimate interests in this conflict, it is worth pointing out that the U.S. has limited its own options by maintaining economic sanctions against Sudan over the Darfur war crimes issue. There is little left that the U.S. can do to deter al-Bashir from all-out war, except to threaten some kind of military intervention. That’s precisely what Nicholas Kristof advocates, predicting genocide otherwise. But how credible would such a threat be, given the U.S. military’s current overstretch?

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Quick Hitters

1.  Sven was remiss in not mentioning another sound Nobel decision this year: selecting Mario Vargas Llosa for the prize in literature.  According to Michael Moses of Duke University, Llosa “is one of the greatest novelist of the last half-century and a leading champion of liberty.” 

I’m hoping to find time over Christmas break to remedy a serious deficiency in my education by reading The War of the End of the World. 

2.   Greg Mankiw has an indulgent? informative article in the New York Times on how taxes affect the decision of high earners like himself to work more or not.

However, it does surprise me that an economist would fail to mention inflation in his accounting, especially since inflation is essentially a disguised tax imposed by the government via monetary policy.  As Milton Friedman noted long ago in Free to Choose, it is “the worst of the hidden taxes.”

3.  Funny campaign punch line from future Congressman Tim Scott.  “I was flunking out of high school. I failed geography, civics, Spanish and English. When you fail Spanish and English, you are not bilingual, you are bi-ignorant.”

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Kudos to the Nobel committee for giving the Peace Prize to jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.  Frankly, I’d never heard of this guy until this week, but it seems like a worthy choice.  The biggest testament to the virtue of this prize is that very few people in China will hear about it, given that Liu’s name is blocked in Chinese internet searches.  I don’t know if sticking it to the Butchers of Beijing is always good foreign policy, but it always makes me happy.

And certainly anyone sitting in a Chinese jail cell is more worthy of this than the foolish choice the Norwegians made last year.

Well done!

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Franklin D. Roosevelt: 

“The lessons of history … show conclusively that continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.”

It isn’t often that I cite “That Man in the White House” favorably, but this is a nice quotation worth remembering today (courtesy of Pat Buchanan).

Unfortunately, Buchanan fails to tell us that this quotation from the 1935 State of the Union Address came in the context of FDR making the case for dubious government jobs programs – another source of dependency that no more creates real wealth than public relief creates long-term food security:

There are, however, an additional three and one-half million employable people who are on relief. With them the problem is different and the responsibility is different. This group was the victim of a Nation-wide depression caused by conditions which were not local but national. The Federal Government is the only governmental agency with sufficient power and credit to meet this situation. We have assumed this task, and we shall not shrink from it in the future. It is a duty dictated by every intelligent consideration of national policy to ask you to make it possible for the United States to give employment to all of these three-and-a-half million people now on relief, pending their absorption in a rising tide of private employment.

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Our internet host (WordPress.com) had this image on the login page that caught my eye.  It is from Venezuala, and the accompanying blog entry describes (how accurately, I don’t know), the Venezuelan obsession with beauty pageant culture.

What I see is the hyper-sexualization of children, something that gets under my skin like little else.   It is nearly child pornography.  Children pretend at being grown-up all the time, but the adult orchestration of sexual behavior is another matter entirely (even worse is that these girls are probably being watched over carefully by their mothers).   We could find similar images in America as well.  Many so called “dance” troops that young girls participate in and perform in at basketball games or parades, are similarly sexualized.  Why any parent would want their young daughter shaking her booty like a Laker Girl is beyond me.   To think that it is “fun” or “cute” is, frankly, abusive to children.   Recently we have the case of a major American retailer selling thong underwear to pre-teen girls as young as 7 years old.

I am bewildered at many things, but perhaps none more than how anyone–conservative, Marxist, feminist, libertarian, atheist, what have you — can think that the increasing sexualization of young children is a good thing.  If this is what Western liberal values leads to, it is not hard to see why many around the world are turned off by liberalism.  I came across this picture right after reading Damon Linker’s eloquent and disturbing post in TNR (which I hope to respond to later) on our liberal, “centerless” society.  Truly if this kind of image isn’t offensive to most people, we are not only centerless, but completely decadent and without hope.

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Are we all Keynesians now?

Robert Kuttner has an interesting piece today reviewing the results of a Tuesday conference in Washington DC on fiscal policy featuring Martin Feldstein,  Paul Krugman and Jan Hatzius, (chief economist, Goldman Sachs). For those who have followed Krugman, his comments were predictable. He has long been making the argument for a large stimulus and was quite skeptical from the beginning that the Obama stimulus would be sufficient. What is quite striking, in contrast, was the consensus exhibited at the conference. As summarized by Kuttner:

Krugman, asked when the economy would return to full employment, replied, “Basically never” — unless we get a huge stimulus comparable to the most recent “recovery to full employment” from a global financial crisis “known as World War II.”

No surprise there. But Feldstein quickly agreed. According to the former Reagan adviser, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 spending tried to fill a “GDP gap” of about $1 trillion a year with about $800 billion spread over at least three years. “So we never got liftoff. We never got a recovery,” Feldstein said.

“The various temporary measures that we had,” Feldstein added, “the Cash for Clunkers, the first-time homebuyers [credit] — they’re finished.”

Feldstein joined Krugman in calling for more stimulus, including a far more aggressive program of mortgage relief to offset the drag of nearly one in three homeowners having a mortgage worth more than the value of the house. That, warned Feldstein, deepens the slump.

By way of background, Martin Feldstein was president of the NBER for three decades and the head of Reagan’s CEA from 1982 to 84. He has a long record as a deficit hawk and an advocate of Social Security privatization.  One would not expect to find him largely in agreement with Krugman on the depth of the current economic slump and the need for a more vigorous Keynesian response.

What should we make of Feldstein’s comments? Is there a growing consensus among economists who are, in Kuttner’s words “worried about the prospect of a 1930s-style indefinite and self-deepening slump”? Are we witnessing, in the words of Robert Skidelsky, “the return of the master” (i.e., Keynes)?


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Out of every political and economic crisis comes a new conventional wisdom that proves to be damaging for years or decades to come.  From the Great Depression people wrongly learned the lesson that the New Deal programs were necessary to bring back the economy, for instance.

Possibly the most dangerous CW coming out of the recent financial crisis is that the bank bailouts of 2008 weren’t necessary.  As with any large scale effort, there were a lot of individual bailouts that were probably wrongheaded.  Indeed, in the midst of any war, it is hard to make the right choices on every battlefront.  This is certainly true of the government’s response to the financial crisis of 2008.  I believe strongly, for instance, that GM should have worked through its problems in bankruptcy (like other poorly run companies), rather than having Obama step in, force a sweetheart deal for unions down the throats of share holders, and put a lot of money at risk that could have been used elsewhere—such as in taxpayers pockets.

I’m willing to forgive the Feds these excesses, however, because of the magnitude of the crisis.  The critical moment in those scary Fall days was when Lehman Brothers went under and no one stepped in to rescue them.  Writing in Newsweek recently, Fareed Zakaria reminds us what happened:

Consider the facts. After the fall of Lehman, credit froze in the U.S. economy. Banks stopped lending to anyone, even Fortune 500 companies with gold-plated credit. People couldn’t get consumer and car loans at any price, businesses couldn’t get short-term loans to meet payroll. Private-sector borrowing—the lifeblood of modern economies—fell from 15 percent of GDP in late 2007 to minus 1 percent of GDP in late 2008.

The effects on the broader economy were immediate. GDP shrank by 6 percent in one quarter. Some 1.7 million people lost their jobs, the biggest drop in employment in 65 years, which was then exceeded in the next quarter when 2.1 million jobs evaporated. The net worth of American households decreased by $5 trillion, falling at the unprecedented rate of 30 percent a year. The worldwide numbers did not look much better. The contraction in global trade in late 2008 and early 2009 was worse than in 1929 and 1930. In other words, we were surely headed for something that looked like a Great Depression.

During a few scary hours one day that Fall, there was even what seemed to be a run on money market funds.  Without a quick and massive injection of capital into the money market that day, the bottom might have truly fallen out entirely from the world economy.  The other rescue efforts were less intense, but also necessary.

Now we have politicians running away from TARP—one of the rare moments in Washington when politicians got together in a time of crisis and actually did something necessary.  The crisis was a multi-causal event, but it was and is clear that there had developed massive systemic risk in the mortgage market that had taken in numerous large and important institutions.  I’m a believer that markets should be allowed to correct themselves, but I’m not under any fantasy that those corrections are quick and painless.   People need to suffer market discipline, to face the consequences of the risks they decided to take, but a desire to punish the wrongdoers is sometimes less important than the need to stop the bleeding.  Sometimes kids who do stupid things need to be punished; sometimes they need to be rushed to the hospital.  In the Fall of 2008, the financial sector needed hospitalization.

Without TARP and the massive increase in the monetary base engineered by the Federal Reserve (the latter being the most important), the recession would have possibly been vastly worse than it already has been.  We don’t know that for sure, but to assume otherwise would have been a completely unacceptable gamble.  As it turns out, the TARP funds will be mostly paid off (I heard an estimate yesterday that the net cost to taxpayers will end up being around $30 billion).

Designing the appropriate policies to minimize the types of risks that caused the crisis from occurring again is really tricky, I think—beyond my pay grade, as the President would say.  But I think the incentive problems (big institutions being careless because they except to be bailed out) are a risk we can live with.  The greater risk is that people’s anger about bailouts will teach politicians exactly the wrong lesson: that they shouldn’t act in the face of crisis.  That, in the long run, may be the greatest tragedy of the financial crisis.

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For the American right, the United States is exceptional for its political commitment to freedom. For the American left, the U.S. is exceptional as an outlier of injustice and inequality relative to other advanced democracies. In a four-part series, I will investigate these claims of American exceptionalism and argue that both have some element of truth but are largely overstated.

In this post I take on the American right. Does the U.S. really stand out as a beacon of individual freedom in the world? We have to distinguish between America’s “core political tradition” and the present-day reality. The Declaration of Independence is a masterful statement of classical liberal principles and citizens’ inalienable right to resist arbitrary power. I also agree with Frederick Douglass’ claim that the U.S. Constitution is overall “a glorious liberty document,” especially when compared with virtually every other constitution in the world. (The problem is that Congress and the courts have colluded to amend the Constitution unconstitutionally over the past 70-odd years.) There is certainly an anti-authoritarian streak in the American political consciousness that dates back to Roger Williams, if not to the libertarian self-governance of most Native tribes. In some sense, that American political spirit has never been more worthy of admiration than it is today, scrubbed clean of the fatal scum of slavery, religious persecution, and Manifest Destiny.

The problem is that hardly anyone believes it anymore, not even the conservatives who pay it lip service. (more…)

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Like fellow bloggers Sven Wilson and Jason Sorens, I too am concerned about the issue of whether/when the state should intervene to protect children in cases where parents can not or will not do so themselves.  Liberal theory is not all that clear as a guide to how to handle persons who cannot give full consent – and many famous libertarians have essentially ignored the whole issue of kids (see Rand).  We certainly could use more thinking about this critical realm.  

But we shouldn’t forget that the government is as likely to be as foolish in this regard as in others.  A case in point comes from Massachusetts where the state, in an effort to protect children and increase parental understanding of the risks of concussions to kids playing sports, has somehow managed to draft legislation that applies to high school band members and not cheerleaders!  This means that over 7,400 cheerleaders in the state will not be subject to the new regulations but over 13,000 band members will have to take a physical and document their past head injuries while their parents will be forced to take a course on concussions.  Who knew band was so dangerous?!  As you might guess, implementation has also been a “big headache” and is likely to be quite expensive for local communities. 

Despite the law’s flaws, there is a lot to like about this attempt to protect children from themselves and coaches/parents who might overly discount the future for present gains or some sense that tough guys play through the pain (and disorientation).  The law, at least part of it, is set to take effect on November 29.

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