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Archive for January, 2011

Can Huntsman do it?

Word is leaking out that Jon Hunstman, Jr. is resigning his post as Ambassador to China and will begin exploring a run for the Presidency.  President Obama sent him to China, most observers believe, to avoid just that scenario.  But it apparently has backfired.  Hunstman got two years in probably the most important diplomatic post there is, other than SoS, which he can now add to his resume along with his other foreign policy and domestic experience.

Can Huntsman make it?  He’s a long shot, but then everyone on the GOP side is a long shot.  Here are some reasons why the Obama administration tried to stash him in China:

  • He will have an uphill battle in the primary, but he would make a formidable general election candidate, which is why Axelrod and the boys have been so scared of him.    Obama can only be defeated by someone who can peel off significant numbers of voters in the middle.  Is a Huckabee or a Palin going to do that?  No chance.  They would alienate more than they would attract.   Romney might, but he’s seen as a flip-flopper, disingenuous, and an opportunist.
  • He is a moderate but is actually solidly conservative on many issues.  He has been a solid free trader, fiscal conservative, and advocate of efficient government (under his administration in the Utah Governor’s mansion, Utah developed the reputation as one of the most well-run states).   He is pro life.  He doesn’t have any significant black marks or missteps that are going to galvanize significant opposition from mainline conservatives.  He is moderate on issues like education, the environment and health care–meaning he will appeal to moderates without alienating conservatives.  He has a genuine soft spot for policies that affect kids, which is what has motivated his stances on education and health care.   In a general election, he would have all kinds of Democrats and independents coming forward testifying how he is someone they can work with.
  • In Utah he pushed hard for and implemented a health insurance exchange that everyone around the country is looking to (it hasn’t yet proven itself, but is intriguing).  It is a pro-market approach with no mandates and is widely seen as the free market version of the Massachusetts model (though they share some similarities).
  • He is a skilled businessman and manager who comes from an enormously wealthy family.  The business community would easily rally around Hunstman, probably as much as Romney.  He will have no trouble financing a serious campaign.
  • He can win in New Hampshire.   He supported McCain early and prominently, even though most Republicans in his state were backing Romney.  I always thought this was a shrewd political calculation.  McCain will help him in NH, and he will help himself.
  • Almost no one dislikes him.  He is very handsome, smart and articulate.  He has one of those Boehneresque perma-tans, but his looks natural, like he got it skiing on the slopes, rather than baking in the tanning salon.    He has that same Presidential look straight out of Central Casting that Romney does, without the baggage (believe me, not all Mormon politicians are as good looking as these two).  When he left office to become Ambassador, there was a poll that showed him with 88% approval among Republicans and 96% among Democrats!  Many on the hard right were not fans, but no one would dare say so publicly.  It would be like dissing the Prom King that everyone at school gets along with.  Being the candidate no one dislikes can go a long way in politics, particularly if you have a lot of money.

He has to overcome a low initial name recognition and the sometimes virile anti-Mormon sentiment among the evangelical wing of the party, but I’m sensing that social issues aren’t going to be as important in the primary as economic ones.  The big concern among Republicans is that the Tea Party forces might drive the party to select an unelectable candidate.  That is a non-trivial possibility.

So, if you start hearing more and more about Huntsman, don’t be surprised.  The mainstream media will be looking desparately to find a negative tag line to go with him, but they will have a hard time making it stick.

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A Republican group called the National Republic Trust PAC is withdrawing their previous support from Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown and, instead, pledging to defeat him in in the primary next year.  According to the National Journal, the head of the PAC, Scott Wheeler, gives this justification:

We believe the Democrats’ policies are destroying the country. Why let them take a Republican vote with them? If we’re not going to have at least a symbolic vote against some of this garbage, then let’s make the Democrats take the blame for it. It’s their policies,” Wheeler said in a Friday interview. “I say, no more Republican hostages.”

I’d like to get rid of destructive policies, too, but I can’t stomach Republicans who think that purifying the party is going to be the answer to that.  If one thinks that Democratic policies are the problem, one might rationally think that the way to fight the problem is to, you know, elect fewer Democrats.  But no, apparently “letting Democrats take the blame” is more important than actually fighting against the destruction.   What a grown-up attitude.

Even with the anti-Democratic swing in the country, every Congressperson from Massachusetts is a Democrat.  The GOP had a significant increase in the state House of Representatives: the GOP now controls 34 of 160 seats.  In other words, Scott Brown is a fluke.  Why not count one’s blessing and be thankful that sometimes he votes with the GOP?  No Senator from Massachusetts is EVER going to be a solid vote for conservatives.  EEEEEVER. Pursuing the crazy notion that somehow the GOP would be able to shoot the moon again with another candidate is complete nonsense.

What is even more silly is that apparently Brown’s support of New Start was what pushed Wheeler’s group over the edge.  Are you serious?  Of all the issue one might pick to decide to get all self-righteous about, they pick New Start, a treaty supported by quite a few Republicans and an issue murky enough that no crystal clear ideological opposition exists (except for the ideology of always opposing Democrats on everything, no matter what).

I have an idea.  Perhaps Wheeler and has PAC can just sit this election out and put all their funds into a huge party on election night 2012.  They can invite Christine O’Donnell, and Joe Miller and Sharon Angler and all the other ridiculous GOP candidates of previous years, and they can have a WE ARE MORE PURE THAN YOU bash.  Maybe FoxNews can even cover it.  They can wear white, and everyone can marvel at their purity.  After all, isn’t feeling good about themselves what these people are about?

They are certainly not about winning elections.

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Here is how Reuters describes ObamaCare in its story today about the law being ruled unconstitutional by the District Court:

The healthcare overhaul, a cornerstone of Obama’s presidency, aims to expand health insurance to cover millions of uninsured Americans while also curbing costs.

I’m surprised Reuters didn’t add, “You’d have to be nuts to oppose that.”  But I suppose ObamaCare does aim to do that – just that it is about as likely to happen as getting a free lunch.  This is particularly the case when you don’t add in the cost of the imposition itself – which reminds me of Milton Friedman’s quip (and I paraphrase) that if we didn’t include all of the costs to conscripts of conscription, we’d also have to argue that the Pyramids were a damn cheap government project!

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As one plank in his “winning the future” program, President Obama called recently for more Americans to get college degrees. People with college degrees, the President reminded us, make more money over their lifetimes than people who do not. That is true, but of course by itself it does not mean that the college degree is what made the difference. Perhaps these people would have made more money anyway. Perhaps indeed they would have made yet more money had they not gone to college.  Without more information about what value college adds, we just don’t know.

The new book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses raises serious worries about the value added from a college degree. The authors of the book tracked performance on standardized tests of critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skill of 2,300 college students when they entered college and as they progressed through their college years. The students attended 24 schools, which, though not named as a condition of their participation in the study, are claimed to represent a wide swath of institutions of higher learning in America.

The results? There are many summaries available; see here, for example. But here are a couple of the more arresting numbers. Forty-five percent of students “show no significant improvement” in the measured skills after two years of college education. After four years, “36 percent of students did not demonstrate significant improvement.” That means that about half and about two-thirds, respectively, did show significant improvement, which is the good news; but it would still mean that hundreds of thousands of college students in America today are not receiving measurable benefits in reading, writing, and thinking.

The study has other interesting findings. For example, students who study alone, rather than in groups, show more improvement; students who majored in “traditional arts and science majors,” instead of some of the recently created specialty majors, showed more improvement; and participation in extra-curricular activities had, depending on the nature of the activity, either no effect or a negative one.

This article about the study quotes Phil Hampton, “a UCLA spokesman,” as claiming that his “university offers a rigorous and well-rounded curriculum led by faculty committed to student learning, and pointed to a study that showed high student satisfaction with their experience.” Not very convincing, I’m afraid. It smacks of teachers’ unions’ annual pledge, usually around budget negotiation time, that this year they will really crack down on teachers who are incompetent, pedophiles, etc.

There are lots of ways one might address the problem of so many young men and women wiling away prime productive years engaged in activities of at best only marginal benefit. But creating more federal aid to make it even less costly to the individuals themselves, as the President recommends, is not one of them. In fact, I think we should do precisely the opposite: expose more and more of the actual cost of their college experience (I will not say “education”) to the persons engaging in it themselves. If it is true that a college education confers benefits on its recipients, then they should pay for it. When, as the study cited above suggests, in fact many people who do not benefit from it engage in it anyway, a likely explanation is that they do so because they are induced into it by an artificially lowered cost to them.

If, by contrast, they had to pay for it all themselves—out of their own pockets (minus any scholarships), or with the help of loans received without government subsidy—then, at least, they could make a fair accounting of the potential benefits and costs. Is it really worth it to go to University A for $x per year, when I could go to University B for $x-y per year? Should I spend a fifth (or sixth, etc.) year, when it will cost this much and likely gain me this much?

Because of massive government interposition, from all levels of government and from many directions, it is today almost impossible to take a real reckoning of the costs and benefits involved in going to college. It must also be noted that government distortions like this create special interests who benefit from them. As with various “stimulus” packages and other government “investments,” thousands and thousands of college and university employees benefit from the mere presence of live bodies on their campuses—whether they learn anything or not.

This is not a healthy way to proceed, especially when the federal government and most state governments are facing massive deficits and debt.

Let us instead remind ourselves that a college education is a privilege, not a right, and that shielding recipients from its costs does not eliminate those costs but only forces others to pay them. Eliminating government subsidy of higher education would at a stroke trigger a healthy, and I would also argue proper, investigation into whether what college students are learning is really worth the cost and, by the same token, whether what colleges are teaching is really worth their price.

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Benign Neglect Anyone?

Letting others determine their fates independent of the “stick-their-noses-into-everything” John McCain types is not a bad first cut at policy.  Insert the issue or development – foreign or domestic – that could benefit from a policy of benign neglect here ________________ .

Reader: “Hmmm, what could GC be talking about here, especially given the John McCain reference?”

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A free press…

Isn’t it the job of a free press to take a few minutes and critically assess what politicians feed them?  Perhaps if they do so, they’ll come up with what Mungowitz does about President Obama’s exemplary green energy business Orion Energy Systems.  Mungowitz cites the administration’s own words:

WASHINGTON – In this week’s address, President Obama called Orion Energy Systems in Manitowoc, Wisconsin an example of how America can win the future by being the best place on Earth to do business. Orion was able to open with the help of small business loans and incentives that are creating demand for clean energy technologies. By sparking innovation and spurring new products and technologies, America will unleash the talent and ingenuity of American workers and businesses, which will lead to new, good jobs.

And then Mungowitz points out:

Orion Energy is well on its way to bankruptcy. It produces no products that anyone wants to buy.

Check here for more, including a four-year stock chart for Orion.  If this is how we “win the future,” we are in bigger trouble than I thought!  But has the MSM picked up on this?  I hope I’m wrong and have missed it.  But I didn’t see anything like it in the New York Times’ uncritical coverage of the President’s speech in Wisconsin.

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John Stuart Mill on state education in On Liberty:

“A general state education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly alike one another . . . ” 

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In a recent post, I discussed the Nissan Leaf and other electric vehicles.  However, I didn’t even think about the problem posed by cold weather or being stuck in the snow.  Here is the Washington Post’s Charles Lane with a quote from an honest electric car advocate on this issue:

 A change of ten degrees can sap 50% of a battery’s output. In some situations the chemical reactions will happen so slowly and give so little power that the battery will appear to be dead when in fact if it is warmed up it will go right back to normal output…

This certainly makes the Volt a more attractive option for people in cold weather areas.  But, as Lane notes, having to rely a lot on the gasoline engine kind of defeats the purpose – especially for an expensive and subsidized class of vehicles that is intended to help save the planet.

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U.S. government officials continue to lecture the Egyptian demonstrators on how to go about their business. President Obama:

He said he had told Mr Mubarak to respect the rights of the Egyptian people and refrain from using violence against peaceful protesters – but he said the protesters also had a responsibility to express themselves peacefully.

But why? Mubarak’s regime is a wicked one, propped up by the U.S. taxpayer. Now, it is understandable that government officials on the same side of international rivalries tend to stick up for each other, even if it means standing against their own people. (There is a reason why governments send their own people to die in wars for political goals but officially refuse to countenance assassination under any circumstances.) What is more curious is that Obama, Biden, Gibbs, and the rest are so glib in throwing out the tired line. Aren’t they afraid that Americans paying attention will be outraged that U.S. officials continue to insist that the Egyptian people exercise restraint even as their own casualties mount? Surely many of us of feeling around the world recognize that if the protestors find it prudential or useful at some point to storm the presidential palace and dispense street justice to Mubarak and his minions, there is no conceivable ethical reason for them to shrink from the task. Isn’t it on one of our state flags? Sic semper tyrannis.

EDIT: clarified some of the language.

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Timothy Snyder has a succinct but interesting piece at the New York Review of Books site on the relative butchery of Hitler and Stalin.  Although the specific argument about who was worse in terms of the numbers may have limited normative utility given the sheer amount of killing on both sides, it is a worthy question of historical research.*  More importantly, the numbers on both sides drive home – though this is not new news – just how awful these regimes were.  Furthermore, these types of pieces also remind us – or educate the youth who have only been taught part of the story or have glided over it – of the dangers posed by excessive statism of any variety and the frightening consequences of the plans of the most extreme men “of system” (HT: Adam Smith, TMS, VI.II.41-42). 

I should note that I’m not an expert on the numbers involved and thus can’t speak definitively on whether he gets that part of the history correct.  However, Snyder’s comparisons might be a bit misleading since he is not accounting for atrocities committed by Stalin after World War II.  Moreover, in the Nazism vs. Communism brutality comparison (which Snyder isn’t really making and I don’t find as important as remembering that both forms of government seem to share many of the most important things in common), it is worth recalling that there was a lot of violence against innocent civilians in the pre-Stalinist and post-World War II Soviet periods (as one comment on the article highlights).**   

And two questions:

Doesn’t this all make one feel like Voltaire did after the Lisbon earthquake? 

When is the appropriate time to start teaching your kids or your students about all of the brutal realities of this historical period? 

* An interesting issue is whether the sterile, assembly line nature of Nazi atrocities makes them worse even if the numbers were the same or were higher in the Soviet Union.  Likewise, was Hitler worse given his genocidal aims (though Snyder points out that Stalin also targeted groups based on ethnic or national origin).  Snyder has a noteworthy observation on these issues:  “The special quality of Nazi racism is not diluted by the historical observation that Stalin’s motivations were sometimes national or ethnic. The pool of evil simply grows deeper.”

** I hate everything the Nazis represent.  So please don’t read this point as suggesting any greater dislike of communists than of Nazis.

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The End of Earmarks…yawn

In the past year, there has been great concern among Tea Party activists et al over earmarks. John Boehner prohibited earmarks upon assuming the position of Speaker. In the SOTU, the President boldly promised to veto legislation with earmarks them from the chamber. Looks like there is a bipartisan consensus on the need for fiscal responsibility.

As Chris Frates explains in a piece in today’s Politico:

What insiders understand is that the money that used to be tagged for earmarks isn’t going away. It’s just moving. Instead of lawmakers designating it for hometown projects, government agencies and departments will dole it out through contracts and grants — a shift that some lobbying shops have been anticipating for years

Frates quotes former Senator (and current lobbyist) Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), who explains the significance of the earmark ban:

“It changes completely what gets funded and how it gets funded,” he said. “Eliminating earmarks doesn’t save one penny in appropriations. That money, if it isn’t legislatively appropriated, will go down to the agency, and they will direct where it goes.”

In short, banning earmarks is but another case of symbolic politics, part of a reform tale “full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” Worse: it detracts attention from the long-term entitlement problem, allowing elected officials from both parties to kick the can down the road.

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Apparently the good people of New York were never taught how to cross the street by their nannies, so now government has to do it for them.  This from the NY Times:

In New York, a bill is pending in the legislature’s transportation committee that would ban the use of mobile phones, iPods or other electronic devices while crossing streets — runners and other exercisers included. Legislation pending in Oregon would restrict bicyclists from using mobile phones and music players, and a Virginia bill would keep such riders from using a “hand-held communication device.”

Reasonable people can have different ideas on what the scope of government should be.  But, seriously, do the people who propose this kind of crap even consider the idea that maybe, just maybe, there should be limitations on government?  It is completely Orwellian.

Apparently the old joke needs a new punch line: “the chicken decided not to cross because it was afraid of getting arrested.”

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Eisner on SOTU

From Marc Eisner in the comments to my post on SOTU:

“The SOTU seemed to provide more evidence of the President’s post mid-term pivot. Things that struck me included: tax reform resulting in simplification and reductions in the corporate tax; bureaucratic streamlining, regulatory reform, and a freeze of domestic discretionary spending. These are not the themes one might have expected in the yonder days of hope and change

Of course, no one can truly believe that a freeze of a relatively small slice of the budgetary pie will make more than a minor dent in the long-term deficit (indeed, the president acknowledged as much). There will have to be significant reforms in all the major entitlement programs (and it is doubtful, once again, that such reform will be sufficient if it works within the parameters stated by the President last evening). I am curious how the numbers will work out (e.g., increased spending on education and infrastructure combined with a freeze in domestic discretionary spending).”

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Tyler Cowen today makes this rather “non-libertarian” (HT: Jardinero1 in the comments section of a recent post) argument that is unjustifiable on libertarian grounds and suspect even on utilitarian ethical grounds: “Diverting $1 million from Medicare to a helicopter drop over Haiti is also a good idea.”

Jardinero1 should be rightly concerned about this idea!

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I don’t like SOTU speeches.  Indeed, I wish that Presidents would return to simply delivering a written missive to Congress and be done with all the monarchical pretensions of the event.  As I’ve seen elsewhere, perhaps an e-mail would do the trick.  Therefore, I tend to read the speech the next day rather than watch it.  Furthermore, I just don’t get what stirs people about these falsely “soaring” speeches filled with a combination of absolute hot air and laundry lists of mostly unattainable (thank God!) government programs.  Moreover, as a political scientist, I’m much more interested in revealed preferences than speeches or theatre.  And the politicians all look like absolute boobs … fighting to shake hands with the President as if he were an Emperor or demi-god, applauding so often for so little, racing to spin the news.  Give me instead Questions with the Prime Minister or how about more press conferences?!        

My first reaction: did David Brooks and his pals at the Weekly Standard who yearn for a great national project (to justify a big government conservative agenda) write this thing?  Not really.  They could have written the outline and the (lame) Sputnik analogy – but then it got filled in with lots of boring filler.  And don’t get me started on the personal examples.  Imagine if at Gettysburg Lincoln interrupted the main flow of the text to say, after this beautiful line:  “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have hallowed it, far above our poor power to add or detract,”  “For example, Josiah Hamilton of little Cicero, Indiana [strategically placed to Lincoln's left and pointed to by Lincoln], who lost his leg facing down a charge of Confederate soldiers.  Or Charles Dunlop, of Name Your Swing State, God rest his soul, who faced withering enemy fire and died not three miles from here defending this great nation.”  You get my point.

I liked Megan McArdle’s take on the SOTU, here, where she notes that it reminded her of a CEO trying to sell bad earnings and a failing business model to stockholders.

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A bill to adopt approval voting has been filed in the N.H. House, and one of the co-sponsors is a member of the relevant committee. The bill would establish approval voting for all state offices and presidential primaries. Approval voting is an electoral system for single-winner elections that allows voters to cast not more than one vote for as many candidates as they like and selects the top vote-getter. Steven Brams and other political scientists have endorsed the system as an alternative to plurality rule (or “first-past-the-post”) because a) approval voting is more likely than plurality to select a Condorcet winner when there is one, b) approval voting tends to favor candidates with even temperament and broad ideological appeal, and c) approval voting is more likely than plurality to permit victories by independent and third-party candidates. (However, approval voting is much less likely to ensure representation for political minorities than is a multi-winner, proportional electoral system.) I see approval voting as a good option for inevitably single-winner elections like gubernatorial races and possibly also when it is desirable to keep districts very small and “close to home,” as the massive N.H. House of Representatives does. However, the N.H. Senate has highly artificial districts, and statewide party-list proportional representation seems like a more logical system for that body. Nevertheless, all efforts at bringing electoral reform to the fore of debate are to be welcomed.

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I’m certainly no drug warrior as many of my previous posts on the subject attest.  Moreover, I know we are supposed to be all politically correct and culturally sensitive.  But I would think that we could recognize that the Afghan “tradition” (even “religion”) of drug use – including giving opium to your kids – isn’t exactly consistent with human flourishing.  Nor is the “culture of hashish” in Morocco or of khat in the Horn of Africa.  Therefore, let’s not apologize for them but call them what they are, retrograde cultural practices that should be condemned and hopefully educated away by NGO’s and local educational/public health institutions.  Indeed, I think we can easily lump the British and American excessive drinking cultures in as well as highly problematic features of our Western society (not to mention my earlier rant against male circumcision) – so I’m not being an “Orientalist” and just casting aspersions on “the other.”* 

Of course, I recognize that the Afghan mothers of the recent CNN article I cite above face a tough world in which their children are crying while they try to work to stay alive under harsh conditions.  But this “solution” seems incredibly short-sighted and can’t but help maintain the cycle of poverty in these types of poor places.  Poverty is a complex phenomenon, but culture matters in that equation too.  So if you want to flourish, some cultural practices need to change, even if given a push by those outside the culture (in the form of disapprobation, educational support, and charitable action).**  This type of cultural change is what happened in the United States during the early-1800’s when alcohol consumption went through the roof with lots of negative effects (admittedly this excessive behavior was not as deep-seated a cultural practice as those cited above) .  Temperance movements and educational efforts sprang up and alcohol use sunk dramatically.     

So let’s not be afraid to speak up about practices that seem inconsistent with human flourishing.  It is not a sign of disrespect to do so but a sign of actual care for the well-being of others and the kind of world we inhabit.*** 

* Moderate social drinking, I would argue, is actually consistent with human flourishing – so I would distinguish between this and, say, young adults today who regularly consume to excess or Americans in the early-1800’s drinking  alcohol like it was milk.

** And no, I am not arguing for a return of imperialism.  The push I am talking about is entirely non-coercive. 

*** Though to sound like a three-handed economist, proper disapprobation can quickly turn into shrill scolding and fuddy-duddyism if not appropriately tempered.  The key is reasonable, even scientific, target selection.  Katy Perry’s low-cut outfits on Sesame Street are not going to corrupt our youth and bring down Western civilization.  On the other hand, we should be quick to disapprove of those who drink and drive, celebrate prison rape, or defend FGM.

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Winston Churchill, subject of Nazi vitriol.

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Public Choice Theory

A couple of different blogs recently posted their recommendations for books in the public choice tradition.  See here and here

I agree with Cowen that you can’t go wrong – as long as you are an academic or very sophisticated reader of economics or political science – with Dennis Mueller’s Public Choice III.  His breadth of knowledge on the relevant literature is almost unbelievable.  For most folks, as one commenter noted, you’d probably be well-served watching Yes, Minister or Yes, Prime Minister.  I’d add the film In the Loop to those classics of British television.  As for an accessible book on public choice, I’d look at William Mitchell and Randy Simmons’ Beyond Politics

I’m very friendly to the public choice approach, but there is one thing about Angus’s recommendations that I do not understand.  Why would you recommend a book (Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States) that has been solidly refuted – not merely contested – by a variety of scholars (including Forrest McDonald in his classic Novus Ordo Seclorum)?  Moreover, public choice isn’t the first school of thought – or second or third – that comes to mind when I think of that old revisionist tome.  And am I the only one that thinks the Calculus of Consent is overrated (even though I think quite highly of the work of James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock)?

My guess is that all of my fellow bloggers will have something to say on these issues in the comments.

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G.K. Chesterton on conservatives and progressives: 

“The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.”

This quotation is useful as a warning to so-called moderate Republicans and conservatives who want to essentially do very little to change the course we are on and essentially get us nowhere but the ditch into which we are headed. 

It also reminded me of Megan McArdle’s very unsatisfactory thoughts on budget cutting, here and here.  McArdle the conservative! 

David Henderson forcefully criticizes McArdle; Ilya Somin takes a critical but middle course.

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In The Wire (perhaps the best television program ever), a rogue Baltimore police major essentially legalizes drugs in certain parts of his district.  The result: crime falls, public health agencies start treating drug addicts and offering preventive care/education, the police focus on serious crimes, and the accolades roll in from the public. 

In the real world, drug legalization is about as popular with public officials as vegetables are with 4 year olds!  But a few bold experiments with decriminalization have taken place, including one in Portugal that began in 2001.  What have been the results?  As the Boston Globe explains:

Faced with both a public health crisis and a public relations disaster, Portugal’s elected officials took a bold step. They decided to decriminalize the possession of all illicit drugs — from marijuana to heroin — but continue to impose criminal sanctions on distribution and trafficking. The goal: easing the burden on the nation’s criminal justice system and improving the people’s overall health by treating addiction as an illness, not a crime.

As the sweeping reforms went into effect nine years ago, some in Portugal prepared themselves for the worst. They worried that the country would become a junkie nirvana, that many neighborhoods would soon resemble Casal Ventoso, and that tourists would come to Portugal for one reason only: to get high.

But nearly a decade later, there’s evidence that Portugal’s great drug experiment not only didn’t blow up in its face; it may have actually worked. More addicts are in treatment. Drug use among youths has declined in recent years. Life in Casal Ventoso, Lisbon’s troubled neighborhood, has improved.

As one might expect, not everything has been rosy:

The number of Portuguese aged 15 to 64 who have ever tried illegal drugs has climbed from 7.8 percent in 2001 to 12 percent in 2007.

Despite the down side (assuming that such experimentation is a down side), the Portuguese approach looks like a positive improvement over the current American drug policy regime.  As you might expect, the Cato Institute has been following this case too.  Here is a “White Paper” by Glenn Greenwald on Portugal’s experiment; it contains a lot of interesting data worth examining. 

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Olbermann Out

Given all of the concern in some corners about nasty political rhetoric, I wonder if these folks will celebrate the fact that its level will go down significantly now that Keith Olbermann is out at MSNBC.  Yeah, right!  Of course, since few people watched his show, I doubt the rest of the world will notice very much.  Let’s hope that Olbermann disappears from the political scene – but unfortunately this is very unlikely.  I don’t have a problem with lefty journalism.  I just can’t stand Olbermann’s nastiness, arrogance, and grating cadence, among many other things.

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When “right-wing” radio and talk shows started to get blamed by people on the political left for various things, I decided to spend some time looking into them to see what all the fuss was about. Over the last few years, I have spent some time listening to Rush, Hannity, et al., and I have periodically watched Glenn Beck, O’Reilly, et al.

The short review: There is, as one would expect, quite a range in quality, but the floor is higher than one might expect, and the best of them are actually quite good.

For example, I think that Beck and O’Reilly are much better than most critics give them credit for. No, they aren’t academics; no, they aren’t historians or philosophers or constitutional scholars. But they are making good-faith efforts, it seems to me, to articulate their positions on daily events, and they both take time to listen to, and even speak with, representatives of opposing sides. Yes, they sometimes get things wrong; but a lot of the criticism strikes me as captious—either ideologically driven because they come down on the “wrong” side of issues, or carping because they aren’t perfectly logically consistent or make historical mistakes. (Yes, yes, it’s bad when they do that; but who doesn’t—except, of course, the omniscient internet blogger?)

For my money, the best television news and comment program from a conservative or libertarian perspective is Andrew Napolitano’s “Freedom Watch.” Napolitano is smart, principled, fearless, and unapologetic, yet without being uncharitable or mean. As a former New Jersey Superior Court Judge, Napolitano knows the law, but he is also well versed in American history and economics—and he knows how to craft a persuasive argument.

Second place: The O’Reilly Factor. Bill O’Reilly is surprisingly well informed overall, and he manages to work in some occasional humor. He can be overbearing, though I think he’s gotten better about that over the years; and I fault him for his sometimes overzealous let’s-break-their-heads approach to crime and criminality. Overall, however, I found him far more reasonable than what I expected based on criticisms I have heard from him.

Honorable mention: John Stossel’s show on the Fox Business Channel. Stossel is careful and principled, but I think he’s gotten a bit more dogmatic—even if I often agree with him—now that he has his own show on Fox.

The best radio program: Michael Medved. Second place: Dennis Miller. Honorable mention: Dennis Prager. Rush, Hannity, and Mark Levin aren’t in the same league as them, Medved in particular. Medved is smart, astonishingly well informed, and capable of making sustained, intelligent arguments—with evidence and reasons and everything. Miller is the wittiest person on the radio, I think, and his brand of wit is Shaftesburyesque—it requires you to pay attention. But he doesn’t make the arguments that Medved does.

I have not been able to understand Rush Limbaugh’s popularity. He is sometimes entertaining, and somtimes outrageous; but I find myself thinking ho-hum most of the time. Solid but unexciting. Medved is smarter, Miller is wittier, Levin is more controversial, and Hannity is, well, prettier. I can see why Rush would have been big when he was the only game in town, but he’s not anymore. So why do people—fans and critics alike—pay him so much attention?

I have also spent a lot of time watching Keith Olbermann, Chris Matthews, Rachel Maddow, and a handful of other “left-wing” programs. Perhaps I will offer my opinions on them in the future.

How do you rate the “right-wing” programs? My own judgment, I must say, is that it is nowhere near as full of seething anger, of hate, or of uncivil discourse as it is usually portrayed—and I looked really hard, indeed with hopeful anticipation, for some emotional salaciousness, but, alas, it was very difficult to find. I couldn’t find the racism that others claim to find, I couldn’t find the sexism, and though I found rather tepid reluctance about things like homosexual marraige and repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies, there was hardly the “homophobia” people accuse them of. (Ann Coulter certainly does use inflammatory language, but I found her to be an exception, not the rule. And she doesn’t have her own radio or television show.)

If I am missing something, or looking in the wrong places, please do point me in the right direction. In the meantime, my listening and viewing has led me to believe that the people talking about the “vitriol” produced and the “climate of hate” fomented by talk radio and programs on Fox are either not actually listening to or watching these programs, or are greatly exaggerating for effect. I found most of them entertaining and relatively harmless, often thought-provoking, and sometimes excellent. And their ratings certainly suggest that they resonate with Americans.

So the devils were not all that diabolical. What, then, is the cause of all the fear and loathing directed their way?

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[Editor's Note: This is a guest post from the president of The Fund for American Studies, Roger Ream. TFAS sponsors Pileus.]

Dreyfuss addressing TFAS

 

The Fund for American Studies welcomed actor Richard Dreyfuss to its offices last night. Dreyfuss, whose movie credits are many, including Jaws, Mr. Holland’s Opus, and The Goodbye Girl (for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor), has founded the Dreyfuss Initiative in order to “foster a discussion related to the future of America.” 

His message last night was mostly a good one: the American Idea is unique in human history. The concept of a “democratic republican form of government” had never before been tried and doesn’t exist by chance. Such a form of government is hard work and requires each generation to get a civic education that prepares them for active citizenship.  He added that we risk losing sight of the enlightenment values upon which the American idea is based. Our country is now off-track. He observed that he doesn’t really understand what the Republicans and Democrats stand for any more; too often both both parties choose expediency over principle. 

Dreyfuss made a strong and compelling plea for civic education. But his message went off-track when he let his liberalism seep through, as it regularly did. While admitting to be raised as a red diaper baby (“my mother was a socialist, not a communist, because, she said, the donuts were better”), he claims he doesn’t fit the simplistic label “Hollywood liberal.” That may be true, but his opposition to free trade, criticism of the rich, the bankers, and business generally, and a volley of pointed criticism of George W. Bush (not all of it unfounded; though a bit over the top, such as his charge that Bush eviscerated the concept of separation of church and state), made the claim unconvincing.

I left the meeting persuaded, as I was when I arrived, that the lack of civic education is a serious cause for concern. But I also concluded that as serious a problem for America is the lack of economic literacy. Mr. Dreyfuss was living proof of this. He criticized free trade because there are losers, such as auto workers in Flint, Michigan. He defended unions, even though unions are largely responsible for the lost jobs in the auto and steel industries. He blamed bankers for the housing crisis, with no mention of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, or of the public policy decisions that pressured banks to make loans to people who had no business buying houses.

Especially troubling was his criticism of the concept of caveat emptor: let the buyer bewareDreyfuss is worried that this concept, finally put to rest in the twentieth century according to him, has made a comeback. That is a bad thing, in his mind. I interpret this to be an indication of his support for a nanny state. Consumers shouldn’t be expected to take responsibility for their decisions. We need a government that looks after us. To my way of thinking, that is quite to the contrary of the American idea of free and responsible citizens.

Dreyfuss impressed me as well-read and a thoughtful person. He has a genuine love of America and understands that we are a country based on an idea, not on a common nationality, religion, or racial background. He believes in American Exceptionalism and understands that we are losing it. Preserving the American idea takes work, hard work. He is right about that. So I applaud his efforts to spark a conversation that seeks to define why we are unique and what it is that should bind us together as one people. He has great reverence for ideas and achievements of the American founders. But he left me full of doubt that his understanding of the American idea is anywhere close to mine, or for that matter Jefferson’s and Madison’s.

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President Obama has made a striking 180 degree pivot in the weeks since the 2010 midterm. We all recall the extension of the Bush tax cuts. Many interpreted this as a pragmatic decision given that it was tied to an extension of unemployment benefits. But in recent weeks, several decisions seem to mark a potential shift in orientation:

January 6, 2011: the appointment of William M. Daley, Clinton Secretary of Commerce and executive at JP Morgan Chase as the new Chief of Staff. Daley had been an opponent of some of the central achievements of the first two years of the Obama administration (health care and the new consumer protection agency for financial services).

January 7, 2011: The appointment of Gene Sperling as director of the National Economic Council. Sperling was director of the NEC during Clinton’s second term, where he helped negotiate the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Financial Modernization Act (1999). He subsequently assumed a position Goldman Sachs.

January 18, 2011: President Obama issued an Executive Order mandating (in his words via a WSJ op-ed) “a government-wide review of the rules already on the books to remove outdated regulations that stifle job creation and make our economy less competitive. It’s a review that will help bring order to regulations that have become a patchwork of overlapping rules, the result of tinkering by administrations and legislators of both parties and the influence of special interests in Washington over decades.”

January 20, 2011: The appointment of GE CEO Jeffery Immelt to chair a new Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. Michael O’Brien (The Hill) notes:

The move appears to be another step by Obama to address tensions between his administration and the business community, a relationship that’s been strained during his first two years in office…. Immelt’s appointment can also be seen as an overture, to a degree, to Republicans. The GE CEO has donated thousands to Republican candidates and committees over the years, though he’s helped fund some Democrat campaigns as well.

An administration that began with a green industrial policy to promote recovery (remember the “green shoots” that were supposed to arise during Recovery Summer?) seems to be embracing tax cuts, regulatory review, and Clintonian partnerships with business. Is this the beginning of a significant shift in economic policy or mere symbolic action?

Update:
A few weeks back, I had a posting on the states and bankruptcy. Interesting piece by Mary Williams Walsh in today’s NYT on this very issue.

Policy makers are working behind the scenes to come up with a way to let states declare bankruptcy and get out from under crushing debts, including the pensions they have promised to retired public workers.

Obviously, there will be fierce union opposition to these proposals. Walsh quotes Charles M. Loveless, legislative director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees: “They are readying a massive assault on us…We’re taking this very seriously.” The article suggests (perhaps correctly) that some advocates of state bankruptcy want to use the current financial problems—a product of recession, not the long-term structural deficits—as a means of getting at their long-term liabilities (read: unfunded pension and health care commitments to AFSCME members).

Extended tax cuts, regulatory review, the appointment of business executives and former Clinton “third way” veterans to key economic advisory positions, efforts to scale back on state commitments to unions…the times they are a changing. Of course, only time will tell whether these changes mark a permanent shift in economic policy or a temporary expedient.

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At Volokh, Ilya Somin presents the evidence that people vote for economic freedom with their feet internationally and domestically. Pileus on inter-state migration here.

Update:  Somin has more on this issue here.  And of course, please feel free to examine the original study comparing the states cited by both Eric Crampton and Somin.

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Many may have forgotten that Milton Friedman begins Capitalism and Freedom with a critique of President Kennedy’s inaugural speech.  It is well-worth another look – so dig out your dusty and yellowed copy and read the introduction again.  The key line is this one:

The free man will ask neither what his country can do for him nor what he can do for his country.

Given the context, Friedman clearly (mis)uses the term country as a stand-in for government or state.  Understanding this makes his critique even more powerful, otherwise it would sound a lot closer to Rand than the Friedman who believed in private charity and wouldn’t have a problem with sacrificing for the good of others in the community as long it was voluntary.

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An over-rated blue dog

Nice picture, but all the people who voted for Matheson actually live in the leftist neighborhoods of Salt Lake City

Utah’s Democratic Congress from the 2nd District is Jim Matheson, son of a popular former Democratic Governor and prominent Blue Dog.  He is one of the few Democratic House members from the West (and by “West,” I mean the Real west, not the West Coast, which is actually part of the East).  He voted against Nancy Pelosi for Minority Leader, and he ran political advertisements in the past showing himself with George W. Bush.  You get the picture (not this picture, by the way).

Anyway, Matheson voted against the repeal of Obamacare yesterday.  If his reasons had been that this was just political gamesmanship by the GOP, I might have gone along.  But his stated reasons were (and I’m quoting him from my memory of his NPR interview yesterday, so pardon the mistakes), “We need to get together and preserve the good parts of health care reform.  For instance, I wouldn’t want to take away rights that the people now have, such insurance companies not being able to exclude patients for pre-existing conditions.”

This is offensive on (at least) two grounds.  First, eliminating the pre-existing conditions clauses from insurance coverage is really equivalent to eliminating insurance.  Insurance is when people get together to pool their risks against things that might happen in the future.  Forcing an insurance company to cover people after they already have a condition may or may not be a good idea (it’s not), but, regardless, it isn’t insurance!  Insurance companies should be allowed to sell people insurance.

Second, the ultimate hubris of government is to claim that people have rights because a government says they have rights.  He’s no better than the monarchs of Europe who claimed they ruled by Divine Right and subjects only had rights to the extent that the monarch said they did.

Ugh!

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JFK: Half a Century Later

Today is the 50th anniversary of JFK’s inauguration. One predicts that there will be plenty of speeches commemorating the event. Beneath the myths surrounding Camelot, what if anything was the enduring legacy? Certainly, there was the rediscovery of poverty (thanks to Dwight McDonald’s review of Michael Harrington’s The Other America) that led, under LBJ, to the War on Poverty. There were preliminary steps toward the tax cut of 1964 (hailed by Keynesians and Supply Siders for different reasons). The Peace Corps and the mission to the moon were both initiated under JFK and fired the imaginations of a generation.

On balance, what are the most important legacies of the Kennedy presidency?

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Name That Country!

With South Sudan apparently on the verge of declaring independence, the Economist has asked readers to contribute their suggestions for a new name for the country. While I personally am partial to suggestions appealing to the shared cultural heritage of most of the ethnic groups in the region (“Nilotia”/”Nilotic Republic”), I think it’s most probable that the country simply continues with the name South Sudan. Your thoughts?

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Many pundits interpreted the 2010 midterms as an indictment of business-as-usual. Driven by the populist sentiments of the tea party, the expansion of government, and the bourgeoning national debt, the incoming congressional class was poised to be the agents of change.
At least that was one interpretation

So imagine my shock and horror when I read a piece by Kenneth Vogel entitled “Freshmen Quick to Play Cash Game.” As Vogel explains:

It’s the oldest political survival tactic in the book, and many of the House freshmen are already getting the knack of it: quickly refilling campaign coffers with cash from Washington special interests vilified on the campaign trail — this time by the tea party activists who helped elect many of them.

Since Election Day, first-term members of Congress have held more than 40 events on K Street, Capitol Hill and around town to schmooze and raise money from lobbyists, political action committees and other representatives of Washington interest groups eager to establish relationships with the new class.

All told, PACs have contributed over $444,000 to incoming members in the past three weeks. “After the midterm shake-up, many are anxious to use their PAC cash to curry favor with the congressional newcomers.”

Some freshman will undoubtedly retain fidelity to the promises made on the campaign trail. Senator Rand Paul, for example, has prepared his own budget that calls for $500 billion in cuts (including the elimination of the Department of Education). Even with the full support of Aqua Buddha, one can question whether Paul will be successful given his minority status. Regardless, my guess is that Senator Paul is something of an anomaly.

The GOP’s lack of candor in addressing the unsustainability of our largest entitlement programs (remember the Pledge to America) reflected the simple fact that these programs are quite popular (even among the tea party activists). Equally important, the incentive structure in Congress is quite powerful and, for all the populist fervor exhibited in the past few months, most of the PAC fundraisers occur behind closed doors and so many of the decisions they shape involve the minutia of government programs that rarely attract much attention from a media that is obsessed with chasing shiny objects.

The newly elected GOP majority in the House promised: “this time will be different.” My prediction, after the symbolic vote on health care, the changes will be marginal.

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Interesting post by Jason’s colleague Philip Arena on the politics of Afghanistan (especially on the Right) and what this means for how we think about how democracies work.

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Former Vice President Richard “Dick” Cheney thinks that President Obama is going to be a one term president.  In an interview to air today on NBC’s Today Show, Cheney will apparently cite the following reasons for his prognostication: Obama’s “overall approach to expanding the size of government, expanding the deficit, and giving more and more authority and power to the government over the private sector.”

Well, if that causes electoral defeat, then how did Dick and his partner George W. Bush get a second term!?!  Perhaps such policies only hurt Democrats?! 

If I had to guess (or bet), I’d put my money on Obama winning a second term.  With a Republican House, there will be no new expensive government programs (not because Republicans don’t like them, of course).  That fact – which will provide a more stable business environment – in addition to the normal business cycle turning up will mean that Obama is likely to be blessed with many consecutive quarters of positive economic growth leading up to the election — a key bellweather of incumbent electoral success.  I don’t see any big changes in foreign policy either unless Obama gets stupid and attacks Iran (a la David Broder).  Problems in Afghanistan (and Iraq) would be trouble for a Republican candidate but where are the doves and moderates in his own party and the center going to go?  Moreover, can you imagine Republicans blaming Obama for the foreign policies they’ve supported (the increase in troops in Afghanistan, COIN a la P4, etc) and getting any electoral traction?

Of course, November 2012 is a long way off and a lot could happen.  This is especially the case in foreign affairs given that much is outside of the control of Washington (it may come as a surprise to the uniparty foreign policy crowd in BOS-NY-WASH to hear that this is the case).  Moreover, I might be underrating public anger and memory of ObamaCare.  And maybe ObamaCare and our other domestic budget problems (not to mention spillover problems from budget problems in foreign countries) will dampen the normal uptick we would expect to see coming out of a recession.  If we are looking at a Japanese economy rather than a typical American one, then maybe Obama will be ripe for the picking.  But that also assumes the Republicans pick a competent candidate – something one is best not assuming given Dole in 1996 and McCain in 2008 (not to mention W in 2000). 

So, put your money on Obama to win a second term despite Cheney’s prediction.  But I reserve the right to change my mind as we get closer.  And I think Mitch Daniels would be a formidable candidate should even some of the problems noted above occur.  More on that soon…..

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According to the Baku Turan (located in Azerbaijan) newspaper, an Azeri soldier was killed today in “a shoot-out” with Armenian forces near the border in Tartar District.  That soldier’s name was Mammad Azadaliyev, and importantly, the article notes that he was conscripted. 

Poor Mr. Azadaliyev is both a victim of interstate violence and of domestic state violence.  The former worries me given the tense situation between Armenia and Azerbaijan.  In terms of the latter, I say this because he was forced against his will to join the military – and unfortunately, to involuntarily pay the cost of his life to serve the will of others.  Military service is a noble activity on the parts of officers and enlisted.  But forced service is nothing less than slavery. 

Unfortunately, many in the United States would have us reinstate the draft, forcing people at the barrel of a gun (HT: Mao) to kill and be killed in the service of the state (for good or bad ends).  Let’s hope that conscription never returns, and we should pay due tribute to those in and out of the Nixon administration who ended this monstrosity.  It is terrible to read about dead American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan – but at least they served honorably, as men and women who freely chose to sacrifice for the state they joined.  Mr. Azadaliyev was not able to make such a free choice and died as a result.  Yet another victim of the unjust use of state power.

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Last week an astronomer claimed that the earth’s precession required a reevaluation of the zodiacal chart. His announcement created a firestorm, leading to stories of worry and even panic in all the major news outlets in America. It was initially shocking to see just how many people were discomfitted by this news, to see just how many people apparently believe that their zodiacal sign has some actual bearing on their lives. But then one realizes this should not be so surprising, since we are and remain a superstitious species.

One thing that disqualifies astrology from being a science is precisely its lack of causal regularity. There are no laws of astrological causation, no claims that if this happens, then that will always follow. No astrological claim has any predictive force; they are too vague and unspecific for actual evaluation. And they are unfalsifiable, meaning that it is impossible to tell—again usually because they are so vague—under what conditions they could be false.

So why do people continue to listen to astrologers? Why do they read their (vague, unspecific, unfalsifiable, and therefore unscientific) horoscopes? One would like to think it is for entertainment purposes only, the way one will watch and be entertained by a play, even though one knows the actors are only, well, acting. But the sensation caused by the news of changes in zodiac signs suggests that many people put far more stock in astrology than as mere entertainment. Humans are, after all, seekers after patterns: We see two or three data points, and we leap to fill in the causal gaps, creating a narrative that is comforting and reassuring for its completeness and its integration into what we already know or believe. And once we have discovered—that is to say, invented—a causal pattern, we are loath to give it up. All future data points, consistent or not with the received pattern, we accept, ignore, or twist, as the case may be, so that they seem to comport with our story.

It is not news that humans do this, even if it is dispiriting that, amidst all our education and enlightenment today, we still seem just as susceptible to astrological explanations as the ancient Greeks were.

Consider the recent case of the Arizona shooting. The blood had hardly been spilt before some were inventing their astrological explanation of the event. The stars were aligned just so (there was a “climate of hate“), the moon and the planets were in the proper position (Sarah Palin had done x, the Tea Party had done y), the proper incantations had been sung (the Constitution was read aloud), the proper dolls were pricked (ObamaCare was threatened), and thus the proper demons called forth (and there is more violence in the offing). Given all this, the shooter apparently had almost no choice to do what he did and thus can hardly be held responsible. The stars, the planets, the incanations, made it inevitable.

Of course, it is not impossible that the Arizona shooter did what he did because of Sarah Palin, “eliminationist rhetoric,” and so on. We do not know why he did what he did, so we cannot rule that out. On the other hand, because we do not know why he did what he did, we . . . do not know why he did what he did.

The fact that so many, despite this yawning gap in the causal account, claimed to know why he did it, suggests that astrological thinking remains with us. We do not know whether the shooter in this instance listened to Sarah Palin et al., we do not know whether he sympathized with the Tea Party, and we do not know whether he cared about ObamaCare; even if he did listen to Palin, was a Tea Party sympathizer, and cared about ObamaCare, none of that would yet prove that those were in his mind when he conceived of, planned, and then took his actions; and even if they were in his mind, that still would not yet mean that he was not himself responsible for his actions. An awful lot remains yet to be shown, then, before we could reasonably come to that conclusion.

One commentator pauses to consider the implications of the fact that the pervasive astrological explanation of the Arizona shooter’s action actually contains no causal account. But the pause is only initial, because he claims that “causal responsibility is not the core issue here. Rather, moral responsibility is” (emphasis in the original). His argument is that even if the “vitriol” in our public political discourse had no causal effect in this case, it does not mean we should not be held morally responsible when we say “grossly irresponsible, terribly immoral, unacceptably impermissible” things. Yes, indeed. But actual (not moral) causality is precisely what is at issue here, because people are laying blame for the event at the feet of people and events other than the shooter himself.

Yet another commentator argues that we should not have “physics envy” in our attempt to explain why the shooter did what he did. He responds to the objection that no “direct causation” has been shown between the metaphorically violent rhetoric and the actually violent action by calling this “an impossible standard of proof.” He has a point. Human beings are complex creatures, and it is very difficult—even, perhaps, impossible—to give the exact chain of causality that led to any given action of any given person.

But we must admit that we are a very, very long way away from such an account. All that has been offered so far is a just-so story about what kinds of things might have played a role, what kinds of words and rhetoric might have affected him, in what way such things might have affected him, and so on. But just-so stories are not scientific, because not causal, explanations. They are not even serious attempts at scientific explanations. They are just stories.

The event at issue here is a multiple murder—a gravely serious affair. If it has demonstrated just how apt we are to leap to unsubstantiated narratives fitting our prior expectations, it then also demonstrates how important it is to slow down and make sure we get things right. Let us find who the responsible parties actually are—not who they might be—and let us hold them accountable. We might not need an account of causation that would satisfy the physicist, but a murder conviction requires a higher standard of proof than stories.

Astrological accounts of human behavior, however appealing or entertaining they can be, do not contribute to our understanding of human behavior, but instead to our prejudices about it. We must not allow them to determine our judgments in this or any other important actual case.

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From an interview on The Point:

“the very word ‘manliness’ is under a shadow. But yes, there’s a lot of underground resistance to official feminism, or what I call the gender neutral society.”

Very underground but very much alive.  But will it ever return topside from its hidden depths?  If so, it will emerge from the countryside and flyover country where men are less ashamed of their manly side and more willing to assert it, even if appreciating the need to temper manliness with prudence.

HT: Tyler Cowen

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Updates on outrage

Outrage #1

The President gave a fine and eloquent speech urging civility in our political discourse.  The words were appropriate; the setting, however, was not.

Why not?  We all certainly need to be reminded to be civil as we talk about politics and public affairs.  No side has a monopoly on uncivil behavior.  But what is the message of President Obama’s lecture on civility at a memorial to the Arizona victims?  It is that both sides have shown incivility related somehow to this incident.  So, let’s review what has happened:

1. A crazy psychopath shoots a Congresswoman and a host of other people, killing several.

2. Within a few hours, leftists are at their keyboards blaming this event on Tea Partiers, Obamacare critics and Sarah Palin (by name), essentially accusing them of mass murder  [See my earlier post on this outrage].  Note that there is not a shred of evidence yet suggesting any linkage between right-wing rhetoric and the actions of this pathetic lunatic.

3. Palin and others defend themselves and their friends against these attacks.

Thus, how does a bipartisan appeal to civility make sense in this setting?  It only makes sense if we read into Obama’s words an implicit linkage between uncivil, right-wing rhetoric and the mass murder.  That implicit charge is just further incivility and outrage—not a condemnation of it.

Outrage #2

Very few people people in modern society have a bigger megaphone than a NY Times columnist.  This should cause people of good judgment to use this megaphone cautiously and, yes, civilly.  Krugman continues to use his with unapologetic, narcissistic and recklessness impunity that can be born only of a rarefied arrogance that few could ever comprehend.

[At least Krugman's actions after the Arizona shooting were slammed by his Times colleagues, centrist David Brooks ("vicious charges made by people who claimed to be criticizing viciousness" ) and---more surprising and more effectively---by leftist Charles Blow ("a wrong in the service of righteousness is no less wrong, no less corrosive, no less a menace to the very righteousness it’s meant to support").]

Rather than backing off any of his words, Krugman, as always, just rolls along, spewing forth additional bile and nonsense.  In his latest column, he talks of two moralities.  One morality is the one he subscribes to: “a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net,” as he puts it, though regular readers will easily conclude that what he is talking about is, quite simply, a European-styled, social-democratic welfare state.

Here is what he has to say about the other morality:

“The other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.”

Quite a few libertarians, like some who read and write for Pileus, would probably subscribe to Krugman’s description (with some qualifiers, of course).  The outrageous claim is when he says, “There’s no middle ground between these views.”

The fact, of course, is that there is a vast middle ground between these views, occupied by voters and many of the people (in both parties) who represent them.  They are willing to pay reasonable taxes (though they prefer it when others are taxed), and they  do not want significant curtailing of the welfare state.  Indeed, that is our central policy problem.  People want the benefits of a welfare state without having to pay for them.  Both the Republicans and Democrats know this full well, which is why any kind of significant reforms are highly unlikely.  Both sides are terrified of mending the safety net in any significant way, even as massive indebtedness and overspending are stretching it to the limits around the world.

Krugman’s jaundiced views of the political landscape also neglect the vast frustration people in the middle have with their government.  This frustration takes on many forms and has many causes, but it is pervasive among all those people in the middle ground that Krugman doesn’t see.  The picture below of government workers is making the rounds of the internet.  My guess is that it is more-or-less a hoax, as such things usually are.  But the sentiment expressed reflects the prevailing mood on government, a mood that just got Krugman’s party a good lickin’ in the elections by all those people who don’t exist.

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I wonder…

… if political scientist Ian Lustick would say the same thing about trying to legislate a response to the Tuscon shootings as he did about dealing with terrorism in his book Trapped in the War on Terror:

Trying to eliminate all such vulnerabilities would be as impossible as trying to eliminate all individuals who might have such intentions, and much more expensive as well.  For example, if the odds of dying as a result of a terrorist attack on an airplane, on a bridge, in a tall building, or in a tunnel were judged to be lower than dying as a result of a lightning strike or shark attack, we should be prepared to accept that kind of fact of our collective life rather than spend endless amounts of money and sacrifice even more civil liberties or privacy rights in a frantic attempt to push those odds to absolute zero.

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As Congress prepares to raise the debt ceiling and the recommendations of the U.S. National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform fade from our memories, the credit rating agencies are getting a bit anxious. From today’s WSJ:

Moody’s Investors Service said in a report that the U.S. will need to reverse an upward trajectory in the debt ratios to support its triple-A rating.

“We have become increasingly clear about the fact that if there are not offsetting measures to reverse the deterioration in negative fundamentals in the U.S., the likelihood of a negative outlook over the next two years will increase,” said Sarah Carlson, senior analyst at Moody’s.

Standard & Poor’s Corp. also didn’t rule out changing the outlook for its U.S. sovereign-debt rating because of the recent deterioration of the country’s fiscal situation. The U.S. has a triple-A rating with a stable outlook at both raters.

“The view of markets is that the U.S. will continue to benefit from the exorbitant privilege linked to the U.S. dollar” to fund its deficits, Carol Sirou, head of S&P France, said at a conference in Paris on Thursday. “But that may change. We can’t rule out changing the outlook” on the U.S. sovereign debt rating in the future, she warned. She added the jobless nature of the U.S. recovery was one of the biggest threats to the U.S. economy. “No triple-A rating is forever,” she said.

The problem is not the slow recovery, of course, but the long-term projections:

The most recent official figures show the ratio of federal debt to revenue averaging 397% of gross domestic product in the period to 2020, while the ratio of interest to revenue will rise to 17.6% by 2020, from 8.6% in the last fiscal year. “These figures are “quite high for an Aaa-rated country,” Moody’s said.

This past summer, I had posting on the long-term budgetary imbalances in which I quoted the Congressional Budget Office, which projected:

higher debt could raise the probability of a fiscal crisis in which investors would lose confidence in the government’s willingness to fully honor its obligations, and thus, the government would be forced to pay much more for debt financing. Interest rates might rise only gradually to reflect growing uncertainty about whether government debt would be fully honored, but other countries’ experiences suggest that a loss of investor confidence could occur abruptly instead. If interest rates on government debt spiked, the value of outstanding government debt would fall sharply. That decline in value could precipitate a broader financial crisis by causing large losses for mutual funds, pension funds, insurance companies, banks, and other holders of federal debt.

Katie Martin (WSJ) provides a comparable assessment of what would happed if the US lost its triple-A rating:

Still, what would happen if the ratings agencies took the plunge? No one really knows, but we’d probably see the dollar drop like a stone, as some types of super-conservative investors would be barred by their own rules from investing in U.S. government debt, and many would have to sell their existing holdings. Other currencies around the world would be likely to shoot through the roof.
Long term, the dollar’s role as a safe-haven currency that draws in flows in times of stress would be seriously compromised, overturning the way the market has worked for decades.
What’s more, as pretty much every debt instrument in the world is priced in comparison to U.S. Treasurys and their rating, the debt markets would be sent into a tailspin.

With the credit rating agencies getting jittery and a continued deterioration of our long-term fiscal position, one wonders: How much longer the US will be able to ride on its past reputation? Assuming that elected officials will fail to take the issue of long-term financial sustainability seriously, will the bond markets ultimately force the United States to engage in significant reform?

Will the day of reckoning finally arrive?

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Men Are People Too

I know that for almost any given crime, whateve else is the case, the chances are greater that it was a man who committed it than a woman. And I know that when it comes to violent crimes, the chances are even more tilted toward males. But just as not all Muslims are terrorists, not all men are criminals: And it is wrong in both cases to treat them as if they were.

Allow me to indulge my philosophical training for a moment. Suppose it were true that all terrorists were Muslims; it does not follow from that that all Muslims are terrorists. If it were true that all pedophiles were men, it would not follow that therefore all men are pedophiles. Of course, the antecedents in both cases are false—not all terrorists are Muslim, and not all pedophiles are men—but even if they were true the conclusions still would not follow. There are plenty of Muslims—indeed, most—who are not terrorists, and plenty of men who would not ever in a million years dream of, to whom it would never even occur, to harm or be sexually attracted to a child.

I point this out not only because I am myself a man and because I therefore find the prejudice against men offensive. I point it out also because it is destructive to children. Children need men in their lives, just as much as men need children in theirs. Both boys and girls need positive, constructive relationships with men, and they need to see that it is possible, and indeed mutually beneficial, to have nurturing relationships with men.

Lenore Skenazy wrote yesterday in the WSJ about the absurd assumption it seems people are increasingly making that all men are predators, or at least potential predators, and that children are thus better served by being either completely separated from men or continuously supervised when with them. She believes it is a species of the “worst-first” syndrome of thinking first of the worst, and extremely unlikely, possibility. She argues that this is not being “safe,” it is “Just sick.”

It is also an outrageous slander on half of the human race. As a father I can assure you that I would, and do, view assaults on children as being among the worst crimes that human beings can commit. I view it with disgust, and it raises in me a powerful instinct to punish and retaliate. But that same instinct in me is part of why I am so offended by the blanket prejudice against all men. Like the overwhelming majority of men, I want to protect children, and this prejudice weakens my ability to do so.

I like to play football with my kids. I like to wrestle with them, roughouse with them, race them, and challenge them to games of horse, but I also like to hug them and speak to them about duty, honor, independence, and self-command. I do not claim that no one can do these things except for me; nor do I claim that only men can do these things. But I like to do them; I want to do them; I am good at them. So do, and so are, most men.

So do not judge me or my kind because of the heinous and repellent actions of a tiny minority of us. Give us the freedom to be who we are. Indeed, do more than that: Encourage us to be all we can be, and give us the chance to do so.

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