Archive for April, 2011

Big Hollywood is reporting that MSNBC, CNN, and CNBC have rejected Atlas Shrugged – Part I ads.  According to BH’s discussion with Shrugged producer Harmon Kaslow:

The most interesting development, however, is that in their effort to expand television advertising, MSNBC, CNN and CNBC “have all rejected a 15-second ad for ‘editorial’ reasons [with] no further explanation provided.” 

“This unforeseen censorship effectively puts the brakes on our follow-up marketing efforts where we were trying to reach millions of people unaware of the movie being in theaters now,” Kaslow wrote. “We are continuing with the theatrical release because we have great word of mouth and awareness for the movie increases daily.” 

It is surprising to see networks turn down money.  It is also unfortunate that they are allegedly doing this on political grounds.  However, Kaslow should be a bit more careful with his language. 

When a free press decides not to run an ad, it isn’t censorship – it is editorial or business discretion rather than censorship.  Kaslow and Shrugged have no right to have their ad shown on the property of other people, including their television signals.  Now if the government tried to prevent the ad from running or suppressed the showing of the film, then we are in the realm of censorship, and we would have a reason to be outraged.  But classical liberals should be especially sensitive to claims that private entities are engaging in censorship when they decide to do whatever the heck they want with their own property.

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The image at the left of a younger William conjures up images of his beautiful mother.  The one on the right is the current Prince William.

How far the monarchy has slipped in so little time!  If these people can’t be beautiful, what good are they anyway?  They definitely needed the addition of some commoner blood they got today.  And even though I’ve never been much of a royal watcher, I have to say that with the addition of the lovely Princess Kate, I will probably be more of one in the future!

Given that the little remaining influence for good the House of Windsor has in the modern world will flow from the integrity they are able to exhibit,  I hope William takes the vows he made today before God a lot more seriously than his father did.

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Our Own Royal Courts

I find the lavish official state dinners, White House dinners, inauguration balls, and assorted similar gatherings to be akin to the holding of royal court – especially when the President is the center of attention or even the host.   

Thus I was delighted to see Dana Milbank of the Washington Post criticize the rather court-like White House Correspondents’ Association dinner hosted by the Fourth Branch of government.  This quote doesn’t do the piece justice, so I recommend the entire piece:

The correspondents’ association dinner was a minor annoyance for years, when it was a “nerd prom” for journalists and a few minor celebrities. But, as with so much else in this town, the event has spun out of control. Now, awash in lobbyist and corporate money, it is another display of Washington’s excesses.

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“Those who imagine that a politician would make a better figurehead than a hereditary monarch might perhaps make the acquaintance of more politicians.” – Margaret Thatcher

Ummmm, why would an educated, free people need a figurehead at all, Ms. Thatcher? 

More broadly, I’ll take Thomas Paine over the Tories and monarchists anyday:

We have heard the Rights of Man called a levelling system; but the only system to which the word levelling is truly applicable, is the hereditary monarchical system. It is a system of mental levelling. It indiscriminately admits every species of character to the same authority. Vice and virtue, ignorance and wisdom, in short, every quality, good or bad, is put on the same level. Kings succeed each other, not as rationals, but as animals. It signifies not what their mental or moral characters are. Can we then be surprised at the abject state of the human mind in monarchical countries, when the government itself is formed on such an abject levelling system?—It has no fixed character. To-day it is one thing; to-morrow it is something else. It changes with the temper of every succeeding individual, and is subject to all the varieties of each. It is government through the medium of passions and accidents. It appears under all the various characters of childhood, decrepitude, dotage, a thing at nurse, in leading-strings, or in crutches. It reverses the wholesome order of nature. It occasionally puts children over men, and the conceits of non-age over wisdom and experience.In short, we cannot conceive a more ridiculous figure of government, than hereditary succession, in all its cases, presents [emphasis added]. 

Could it be made a decree in nature, or an edict registered in heaven, and man could know it, that virtue and wisdom should invariably appertain to hereditary succession, the objection to it would be removed; but when we see that nature acts as if she disowned and sported with the hereditary system; that the mental character of successors, in all countries, is below the average of human understanding; that one is a tyrant, another an idiot, a third insane, and some all three together, it is impossible to attach confidence to it, when reason in man has power to act.

HT: Liberty Fund’s wonderful Online Library of Liberty.

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Soros on Hayek

Pileus readers may be interested in George Soros’ new short essay on F.A. Hayek and Karl Popper. Soros lauds Hayek’s “fallibilism” but attacks him for inconsistency in endorsing “market fundamentalism.” According to Soros, Hayek is an “apostle of a brand of economics which… is a formalized and mathematical theory, whose two main pillars are the efficient market hypothesis and the theory of rational expectations.” So Soros fundamentally misunderstands Hayek.

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Royal Wedding

I really hope that Americans have enough sense to skip the royal wedding tomorrow.  Repeat after me, “When in the Course of human events…”  I’m not sure what is worse, the British monarchy or the people (both here and abroad) infected with royal fever.  Unbecoming of the spirit of liberty and democracy, many modern Americans of both major parties are infected with a related disease: President-worship.

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The latest in a brilliant series (here is part one):

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Why Now?

Like Grover, I am pleased that the President has released his birth certificate. The timing does remain a bit odd. I would have advised POTUS to let the birthers run wild for a few more months, forcing GOP candidates to respond to Trump and follow him and the birthers down this rat hole.  The claim that the GOP candidates have no credible plan for the economy (or much else) would have been so much more evident once the birth certificate issue had ripened a bit more.

Was the administration’s timing off? Did the administration hope to suck the attention away from Corsi’s book, Where’s the Birth Certificate (which sailed to the top of Amazon sales weeks before publication)? Was there internal polling suggesting that the issue was becoming a serious concern?

Now that the document is out, it will be interesting to see if the birthers move on to another issue (with three wars, a looming fiscal train wreck, and an anemic economy, this would seem to be a target-rich environment). My guess: many of the birthers have too much invested in this issue to let ugly facts get in the way.

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A new trend among pro-life advocates seeking to curtail elective abortions is requiring the use of modern technologies to dissuade expectant women from killing the life within them.  An example is a new proposal in Michigan that “requires that  doctors perform an ultrasound, offer a description of the ultrasound image, an opportunity to listen to the heartbeat of the embryo or fetus, and a hard copy of the image.”

I’m not sure this is wise policy to adopt without safeguards (for reasons I’ll touch on later), but I like the general idea of putting the reality of abortion, “on screen,” so to speak.  Pro-abortion advocates frequently protest images of, for instance, aborted fetuses as being inflammatory, and they choose to use language which separates the description of the abortive act from its reality.  Instead of a baby or a fetus, we have the “products of conception” or “uterine content,” or some such other deadly euphemism.  However, when watching an ultrasound, when seeing the fetus with all its human parts, when hearing and watching its heartbeat, it becomes much harder to be moved by sophistic arguments about the supposed lack of person-hood of the fetus.

Humanity is easier to dismiss when it doesn’t have fingers and toes.

Mass atrocity is always made possible by orchestrated dehumanization.  Whether we are talking about killing Jews in gas chambers, capturing Africans in their native lands and shipping them to the New World as slaves, or forcing Korean women into prostitution servicing the Japanese army, the first step is to construct a new language in which the full humanity of the victim is denied.  This language is, by and large, the language used by the media and the abortionists.

But, the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, which is why abortionists hate pictures.  The ACLU responded to the Michigan proposal by saying it would subject women to “shame, humiliation, and punishment.”  One would hope so.  I wouldn’t want to force women who have legitimate moral reasons for abortion, such as those suffering from rape and incest or who need an abortion for medical reasons, to undergo this experience.  But these cases do not describe the bulk of terminated pregnancies.  Convenience is still the underlying root cause for the great majority of abortions in America.  Such people are deserving of more shame and humiliation.

Even if one maintains that abortion should fall in the category of immoral but legal, it does not follow that efforts to dissuade women from abortions are not desirable.  As a comparison, I would put adultery in the category of immoral but legal.  And I’d love to have adulterers come under more public shame and condemnation.  I’d love to see men who were thinking about betraying their wives and children persuaded to feel a lot more shame and humiliation about the likely consequences of their irreversible actions.   Perhaps if they could be shown a picture of their children learning about this betrayal it might make them reconsider.  They would be forced to confront the humanity of their victims.

In addition to dehumanization, the other primary tool of deception is to make the issue about something it is not, namely self-ownership or choice.  Just yesterday, I read a caustic journalist’s defense of having “control over her reproductive organs.”  This is like my taking a tiny, newborn infant into my hands and saying whatever happens to the infant is of no moral or legal concern because I have have the right to exercise “control over my hands.” The self-ownership claim just isn’t relevant.  The unborn child is entirely dependent on the mother, but it is no more a part of her body than it is a part of the father or of anyone else, and it is impossible for the unborn child to exercise self-ownership when he’s dead.

When the military puts a rifle in the hands of a young man and trains him to kill people, they don’t spend time showing the humanity of the “enemy.”  The soldier does not see pictures of the enemy holding a child on his knee, being embraced by his mother, or sharing a laugh with friends.   The soldier, if he is to do his duty, has to put those images aside, I think (I’ve never been a soldier, so I’m just conjecturing here).  Abortionists have a similar strategy: put the actual act off screen and cover it with abstractions and misleading rhetoric.

Viewing the unborn child, even as an early fetus, strips away the charade.   Will this cause shame and humiliation?  How terrifying it would be if it didn’t.   But it makes those involved see abortion for what it is, even if for only a moment.

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Get yer hot links here

1.  Haley Barbour’s decision not to enter the 2012 Presidential race may make it more likely that Daniels will run. 

2.  As I hoped, Obama is apparently going to release his birth certificate - and nicely kill off the Trump balloon?  Still wonder why it took so long.

3.  According to the Boston Globe, the Democratic-dominated House in Massachusetts “voted overwhelmingly last night to strip police officers, teachers, and other municipal employees of most of their rights to bargain over health care, saying the change would save millions of dollars for financially strapped cities and towns.  The 111-to-42 vote followed tougher measures to broadly eliminate collective bargaining rights for public employees in Ohio, Wisconsin, and other states. But unlike those efforts, the push in Massachusetts was led by Democrats who have traditionally stood with labor to oppose any reduction in workers’ rights.”

Where are all of the leftist critics (and their over-the-top rhetoric) of Gov. Walker on this one?

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Fellow Pilei James Otteson recently wrote a great op-ed in Forbes on the unintended consequences of the welfare state.  He was too humble to advertise it here, but I have no shame about recommending the work of my esteemed co-bloggers.  Here is a key section:

The welfare state encourages people to ignore, to violate–even to pretend does not exist–the moral principle that it is wrong to live at other people’s expense.  That is a fundamental pillar of an enlightened moral life–indeed what distinguishes a barbaric social order from a civilized one. The fact that most human societies have historically disregarded it, and many still do, does not change the fact that it is morally wrong to live off of the fruits of others’ labor.

So wonderful to see the moral case against the welfare state in print!  I recommend you read the entire piece.  Keep up the great work Jim.

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One reason I support the “virtue” approach to morality is that, attractive as some moral rules are in the abstract, there are almost always cases in which good judgment requires either appropriate interpretation or even suspension of them.

Take the moral rule that one should always be honest. Honesty is clearly a virtue, but it can also be used as a weapon or as a cover for viciousness. I have on many, many occasions heard people say rude, mean, or insensitive things to others, and then defended their behavior by saying something like, “I’m just being honest.” I’m sure you have heard such things too. The fact that one is really thinking something does not by itself justify uttering or making public what one is thinking. Having followed the moral rule does not absolve one from the judgment of having behaved badly.

Thus honesty is a virtue in the way, for example, courage is. We should all strive to be courageous, but, as Aristotle argued, being courageous does not mean fighting every battle. It means, instead, fighting all and only those battles that good judgment—or “right reason”—indicates should be fought. By contrast, fighting every battle leads not only to a captious and truculent (and hence unpleasant) personality, but it also dissipates one’s effectiveness. Once others become aware that one is the sort of person who fights everything, they begin discounting what one says and does. One becomes The Guy Who argues About Everything, and it is all too easy to ignore such a person—even when he is right.

Such a person displays not courage, but rashness. That is just as much a vice as when one fails to fight battles that should be fought; such a person too is not courageous, but cowardly.

Similarly with honesty. The person who always speaks his mind is not honest but callous (cruel, meanspirited, etc.). This person probably also has an inflated sense of self-importance, thinking that speaking his mind is more important than whatever psychological damage he might inflict on others. That is not acting virtuously; it is just as morally blameworthy as the person who does not speak the truth when he should.

The difficulty, of course, is knowing when one should fight a battle or speak the truth. There are no short cuts to this; there is, alas, no finite set of rules that can uniquely determine in advance what one should do. Instead, good judgment is required, and good judgment is a hard-won skill based on experience, practice, comparison of cases, delicacy of perception, and plain good sense (to borrow from Hume’s description of what it takes to have good judgment in artistic matters). 

Perhaps there are some virtues that are simpler, more straightforward, and therefore less requiring of judgment in application. Adam Smith argues that justice is such a virtue, which he contrasts on this criterion with beneficence. Argues Smith:

The rules of justice may be compared to the rules of grammar; the rules of the other virtues, to the rules which critics lay down for the attainment of what is sublime and elegant in composition. The one, are precise, accurate, and indispensable. The other, are loose, vague, and indeterminate, and present us rather with a general idea of the perfection we ought to aim at, than afford us any certain and infallible directions for acquiring it.

He has a point, but judgment will still be required in both kinds of cases. That leads me to believe that judgment is always necessary, which I think indicates that the key to morally proper behavior always lies first and foremost in the possession of good judgment. (Liberty might also be a necessary prerequisite, but that is the subject of a different conversation.)

That brings me back to honesty. Perhaps the proper rule is something like this: No matter how hard it is, when you should be honest, be honest; but do not be honest when you should not be honest, no matter how enticing it might seem. Not as intellectually satisfying, perhaps, as a single, universal rule, but truer to the complex and multifaceted reality of human social life.

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In recent months, we have seen increased attention to the slacker men who aren’t settling down and getting married.   Kay Hymowitz, author of Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys, gives voice to all the young women who wonder “where have all the good men gone?”  In her WSJ article on the topic, she claimed that the explanation for all this “puerile shallowness” is “our cultural uncertainty about the social role of men….with women moving ahead in our advanced economy, husbands and fathers are now optional….”

In focusing on the economic rise of women, Hymowitz gives a demand-side answer to the problem they face.  But there is a supply-side answer that is much more convincing and can be described in terms of changes in simple relative prices, rather than amorphous cultural changes.   Women have more economic options than before, but they still—in overwhelming numbers—want the same things as their mothers wanted.   A very high percentage will eventually marry and eventually have children.  It is just a lot harder because of the supply problems.   Young women have, thankfully, many more options than they once did, but in spite of how much satisfaction they get from careers, friends, and their social lives, their genes are still screaming at them to find a man who will help them procreate and then provide some measure of protection and support for the children to come (I know, I know, not everyone wants that, and I’m oversimplifying things, but bear with me).

To understand the supply side requires a model of supply behavior.   Fortunately, we are dealing with men here, who are simple creatures.  Men also want what men have always wanted:  regular sex.   We don’t  have to delve too far into “cultural uncertainty.”  Simply biology and economics will do the trick just fine.

Men’s demand for marriage or long-term partnership (and hence the supply of these men in the marriage market) has declined precipitously over the past half century because the price of complements have gone way up and the price of substitutes has gone way down.  Thus, holding other factors constant—including the desire of men to have children, income, preferences, and cultural forces—the male demand for sex within a committed relationship, such as marriage, has declined.

Let’s go through these price effects one by one.  First, the price of complements.  For a variety of reasons, much more is required of men in committed relationships than ever before.  I appeared on earth at the tail end of the baby boom in 1964.  That was the heyday of the pre-revolution male.  The economy was strong, a man could earn a good wage without much education, he could watch ball games in a recliner with a TV dinner, and as long as he kept his nails clean, he got to be married to January Jones.  Well, maybe not the last part, but the costs of relationships were much lower.  No one expected him to change diapers, support his wife’s education, go to PTA meetings, or talk about his feelings.   Those days are gone.  I happen to be one who prefers the new regime, and I think investment in a marriage and family are worth the price.  But make no mistake: the price has never been higher.

But changing prices of substitutes has had even more of an impact.   Before the sexual revolution there was certainly premarital sex and plenty of non-commital sex, but nowhere like today.  In short, the girls that boys would want to marry and start a family with often didn’t give it up for free.  They wanted something in return, namely some form of a commitment.  And traditional religious views on sex outside of marriage were the views espoused, by and large, in the public media, making the costs of casual sex higher because it violated longstanding cultural norms.  Certainly, non-marital sex was available, but the price was definitely higher.

Finally, the internet has washed the earth with cheap, explicit pornography.   Porn is certainly not a perfect substitute for sex with real women, but it is, nonetheless, a substitute.  When the price of a substitute—even a lousy substitute—falls through the floor, the quantity demanded for the real thing will also fall.

So, through the lens of the simple market model, the behavior of men isn’t hard to explain.   Changes in relative prices can do the heavy theoretical lifting here.  But the behavior of women is a little more perplexing.  Why, for instance, have women facilitated men’s substitution of casual sex for marriage?  Hymowitz has it backwards.  It isn’t the “rise of women” that has caused the problem (though it has played some role); it is, quite the contrary, the “fall of women,” namely the ever-increasing tendency of women to participate in the hooking-up culture and give men what they want without extracting anything from them in return.   Sure, women enjoy sex just as men do (though they seem to be able to go without it for periods of time much more gracefully than men do, though let’s not delve into any personal anecdotes here).  But, if we believe Hymowitz and a lot of contemporaneous feminists, women are getting the raw end of this deal.  The men they want are simply following the new demand functions created by the sexual revolution, which leaves women to face a reduced supply of potential mates at every given price.

This downward spiral that women have been caught in—the dwindling supply of available men induces women to make themselves even more sexually available than the next women in order to compete, thereby further dampening the supply of potential mates—seems impossible to break out of.  At the heart of the problem is a classic, Olsonian collective action failure.  All women would benefit if, collectively, women were to require more of men they had sex with.  But every woman knows that her behavior, by itself, will not cause market prices to change, so she cheats—and by “cheats” I mean she cheats the female collective.   The problem with this free riding behavior is that everyone faces the same incentives and there is not an effective punishment for cheating.  The result: men get more sex and women can’t find mates.   Such are the fruits of feminism.

Maybe the old (some would say sexist) adage that “good girls don’t” had something going for it after all.

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I wrote a piece earlier wishing this controversy would go away.  I still wish it would.

If the President is an honest to goodness American-born citizen, then birtherism is a needless distraction from the real issues confronting the country and a waste of the opposition’s resources (time, energy, money, political oxygen, etc).  If the President wasn’t a natural born citizen of the US —- and I highly, highly doubt he was not —- then the country will be faced by a Constitutional controversy without which we would be much better off. 

Imagine, on the heels of Clinton’s impeachment and Bush v. Gore, that we were faced with the second Democratic President in a row facing possible expulsion from the Oval Office at the hands of a Republican Congress!?   

Of course, if we ever had any rock solid evidence that Obama is not Constitutionally eligible to be President, maintenance of the rule of law would seem to demand action – and yet be resisted by many as an anti-democratic/anti-Democratic partisan upholding of an archaic law.  We’d be faced with upholding the Constitution against the democratic wishes of the 2008 electorate or shirking the law in the name of democracy and (so-called, not by me) modern understandings of what the requirements of the Presidency should be.  Add partisan interests and the heated debate will further erode confidence in the American system of government and law no matter which side wins on the narrow point.    

For the good of the country, I wish a nice original Hawaii birth certificate would end this controversy once and for all.  I know – as Adam Smith cautioned – that there is a lot of ruin in a country.  However, I’d like to see a bit less ruin in ours!

But shouldn’t judicious statesmen – apparently not Donald Trump who wants to put political and economic advantage over national interest – just put this to bed no matter where the truth lies (especially since the country isn’t going to be automatically any better off or more respectful of liberty under President Biden)?  I’m not saying they should lie if they know or come to know otherwise.  But how about following the lead of Colin Powell, who, when asked in the first Gulf War how many Iraqis had been killed, basically said he wasn’t really interested in knowing or looking to find out (which is not to say this was the right approach in that case).   

So what do you think should happen if the nightmare scenario of the appearance of relatively rock solid proof did arise?  Is there a good way out of such a problem since impeachment/acquittal (as happened last time) would make a mockery of the rule of law and the Constitution in the face of solid proof (and expulsion would have the aforementioned negative consequences)?

Fortunately, I don’t think such proof in that direction will ever be found.  More likely is the status quo or even the eventual demise of anything but fringe birtherism.

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CBS News 3 in Columbus, Georgia reports that the U.S. military will soon be patrolling in that city.  According to the television station: “Starting at 10 o’clock Friday, two senior non-commissioned officers from Fort Benning will be on courtesy patrol.  The soldiers will be wearing armbands that read, ‘Courtesy Patrol.’”

Doesn’t this at least violate the spirit of the Posse Comitatus Act which forbids the military from engaging in normal domestic law enforcement?  Although the patrols won’t actually be making arrests (and would pass legal muster), isn’t their mere presence patrolling in uniform repugnant to the norms of a liberal democracy? 

I urge citizens of Georgia to stand up and insist that these uniformed patrols return to base where they belong.  If you have any decent respect for the American tradition of anti-militarism – on this, see Arthur Ekirch’s book The Civilian and the Military - please voice your concerns to the office of the base commander at Fort Benning and the mayor who has signed off on this:

Office of Fort Benning Commanding General Robert Brown:  (706) 545-2218  

Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson:  (706) 653-4712

What is happening to this country?  And yes, I know this isn’t anything new.  In fact, over 15 years ago, General Charles Dunlap  – in an excellent article in the Wake Forest Law Review - chronicled the growing problem of military influence in America and noted:

Threats to civilian control arise when that ‘area of responsibility’ expands to include problems that should be left to civilian leadership to resolve, such as economic and social problems. 

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Well, actually, it is Daniel Webster on James Polk’s behavior as the Mexican War drew near.  And President Obama didn’t just make military movements to bring on war but actually went to war on his own without Congressional authorization, formal or otherwise.  I can’t imagine Webster being as pusillanimous about defending Congress’ powers as our current Senators and Congressmen/women – but he did go on to vote in favor of war appropriations once the war began. 

“What is the value of this constitutional provision [granting Congress the sole authority to declare war] if the President on his own authority may make such military movements as must bring on war?  If the war power be in Congress, then every thing tending directly ot naturally to bring on war should be referred to the discretion of Congress? [sic]“

The first sentence of this quotation with the editorial addition can be found in Ralph Raico’s (a regular Pileus reader) forward to the Independent Institute’s new reprint of Arthur A. Ekirch’s classic The Civilian and the Military: A History of the American Antimilitarist Tradition.   I added the second sentence of the famous quotation as it appears in the text of the book.  Kudos to the I.I. for keeping Ekirch’s work in print!

It is also worth noting that not all politicians were as interested in supporting President Polk and his plan once the war began.  As Ekirch notes, “Joshua Giddings, a prominent antislavery Whig Congressman from Ohio, denounced the concept that every American must support a war, even if unjust; and he called for the withdrawal of all American troops from Mexico.  In the Senate, Thomas Corwin delivered one of the most famous indictments of the war, questioning the whole philosophy of manifest destiny and the belief that a nation must advance at the expense of its neighbors.”

As the War in Libya (and I refuse to call it anything but what it is) drags on, I wish more of our leaders would question the whole philosophy behind so many of our current interventions and actions around the globe.

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Patients as drones

Let me tag on to Marc’s excellent post on the recent Krugman piece.  Seldom have I read a more internally incoherent argument (and for Krugman, that is saying a lot).

Krugman makes the highly relevant point that “We’re talking only about what will be paid for with taxpayers’ money. And the last time I looked at it, the Declaration of Independence didn’t declare that we had the right to life, liberty, and the all-expenses-paid pursuit of happiness”  (this is a rare, lucid moment for Krugman, where he remembers his roots and sets aside his usual reverence for all conceivable government spending).

I couldn’t agree more.  “One way or another, government spending on health care must be limited.”  This essential point is ignored on both sides of the aisle.   The looming crisis in Medicare cannot be solved without cutting costs, and cutting costs means purchasing less care.  But how?  And who decides?

It is at this point when Krugman’s argument devolves into a strange and antiquated world where where wise doctors give orders and patients follow.  Nowhere does he even suggest that within this world, where the doctor-patient relationship is “almost sacred,” that patients are people whose autonomy and desires should be respected.  He thinks it is appalling to treat them as “consumers,” but isn’t the heart of being a consumer the freedom to choose one’s own path.    This is the world of Marcus Welby, where wise, benevolent doctors give orders to their trusting (but mindless) patients.  Gives me chills.

Yet at the same time these doctors are not to be trusted.   “We can’t maintain a system in which Medicare essentially pays for anything a doctor recommends…And that’s especially true when that blank-check approach is combined with a system that gives doctors and hospitals — who aren’t saints — a strong financial incentive to engage in excessive care.”  So, patient preferences have no role, and doctors are not to be trusted.  Who does get to decide, then?  Well,… (insert drum roll here)…the all-knowing government bureaucrat of course!  In Krugman’s world, government regulation is always the answer.

I’m actually a strong supporter of cost-effectiveness research and of the Independent Payment Advisory Board (or something like it, at least).  When spending out of the public purse, we have to have ways to say no (Three Cheers for Death Panels!).  Somehow in their recent attempts to oppose everything Obama-related, Republicans forgot who they were, and they became endorsers of unlimited Medicare spending (imagine if we ran food support programs the say way: “come to the supermarket and take whatever suits your fancy”).  The  fundamental principle for health care reform should be that everyone needs “skin in the game,” which is just a newfangled metaphor for the old idea that markets need to discipline behavior.   A system where neither patients nor doctors face any consequences for unnecessary, ineffective, or excessively costly care cannot work.

Consumer-driven health care is not just about the benefits of “comparison shopping,” as Krugman claims.  It is about individual responsibility and accountability.  It is about getting what you pay for and paying for what you get.   It is about putting the patient and his/her family—not the doctor, not the insurance company, not the government bureaucrat or legislator—at the center of the medical decision-making process.

So, Paul, the reason we want to refer to patients as consumers is not that complicated.  It is because we all deserve the dignity that being autonomous human beings accords us, and we all should be expected to take responsibility for the consequences that autonomy will bring.

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The Wall Street Journal had an interesting article yesterday by Stanford economist John Taylor (of Taylor Rule fame) looking at three different U.S. budgets as a percentage of GDP over the next decade.  Here is a chart which nicely tells the tale:

My chief quibble with the article is that this sentence is misleading: “And if GDP and employment grow more quickly, as they would if private investment increased as a result of lower government spending and debt, then that 19% to 20% share of GDP could provide much more in the way of public goods.”  Yes, that extra revenue could theoretically provide much more in the way of public goods — but most of what government does is not public goods provision and so that extra spending is probably not very likely to be on public goods.  Moreover, the US government could pay for a heck of a lot of public goods with a lot less spending than 19-20% of GDP. 

As you can guess, I have a big problem with the use of this term outside its narrow economic sense  because to use it more loosely is to do so either in a sloppy fashion that doesn’t tell us much or as a political weapon  swung against those who don’t think certain things are legitimate targets of government action.

Here is a nice short discussion of public goods by Tyler Cowen.  The defining characteristics of public goods are that they are non-excludable and non-rival.  As you might guess, this means there are very, very few public goods or things that are even close.  If only government focused its spending on these things!

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In today’s NYT column, Paul Krugman asks a question that is interesting only because it leads me to a broader question. First Krugman.  He notes that the GOP budget proposal promotes reforms to “make government health care programs more responsive to consumer choice.” Krugman then asks: “How did it become normal, or for that matter even acceptable, to refer to medical patients as ‘consumers’?”

This question struck me not because it is in any way mystifying but because I was at the EPA’s website yesterday and ran across number references to “customers.” One charming document asks “Who Are EPA’s Customers?”The answer includes “the public.”

I could cite more examples (the EPA’s search engine reports 38,700 documents with “customer”). And the EPA is not alone. Even the CIA reports: “The Intelligence Community’s number one priority is to provide its customers with the best possible custom-tailored intelligence whenever and wherever they need it. Our ability to do so depends, in large part, on how well we understand and respond to customers’ needs and on how much our products help them do their jobs.” I didn’t bother to see if water boarding was available at the drive through window.

The shift to a “customer” orientation came in 1993, as the Clinton Administration embarked on its “Reinventing Government” initiatives. As you will recall, President Clinton and Vice President Gore initiated the National Performance Review and sought to bring the best lessons from the private sector to the public sector. As part of this effort, President Clinton issued Executive Order 12862, “Setting Customer Service Standards.”  The EO had some charming directives, including:

Section 1. Customer Service Standards.  In order to carry out the principles of the National Performance Review, the Federal Government must be customer-driven.  The standard of quality for services provided to the public shall be: Customer service equal to the best in business.  For the purposes of this order,”customer” shall mean an individual or entity who is directly served by a department or agency.  “Best in business” shall mean the highest quality of service delivered to customers by private organizations providing a comparable or analogous service.

Are citizens really best understood as customers? If so, what are the ramifications?

This may seem like a trivial point, but there is a significant difference between being a citizen and being a customer. Citizenship, in its classical sense, involves obligations to the community and the need to engage in deliberation. It is infused with honor and virtue and is part of what it means to be truly human (in Aristotle’s words: “To take no part in the running of the community’s affairs is to be either a beast or a god!”). Customers, in contrast, are simply those who purchase a product or service.

When I see polls revealing that the vast majority of Americans do not want any entitlements cut nor do they want to pay higher taxes (of course, they always want the wealthy to pay their “fair share”), it troubles me. As citizens, they should reflect on the incompatibility between current levels of spending and taxation; they should choose honorably to make sacrifices to prevent fiscal imbalances from creating a dire situation for future generations.

But as customers, the logic is altogether different. Customers should demand the most they can get for their money and if services are being provided at a deep discount (e.g., subsidized by future generations of customers), all the better. And if customers seem unreasonable in their demand for products and services, the best one can do is mutter the age old dictum: “The customer is always right.”

Customers love a sale. Customers do not voluntarily request to pay retail. Customers also vote and one can expect that they will vote for those who are willing to extend the sale for two, four, or six more years.

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New York was Hamilton’s great project. So closely divided was the state, that at various moments, he despaired of its coming into the union.

At one point the Antifederalists offered a compromise. They would support a conditional ratification dependent on the passage of certain key amendments, including the all important construction of delegated and reserved powers, or what eventually would become the Tenth Amendment. Hamilton wrote Madison for his opinion of the proposed compromise, and the response was unyielding: New York could “not be received on that plan.” It must be, Madison elaborated, “an adoption in toto, and forever.” Hamilton read the letter aloud to the Convention and it is reputed to have steeled the nerves of the Federalists for resistance. Rather than read, “on condition,” New York’s statement of ratification was amended to say, “in confidence.” The statement ran thus:

“Under these impressions, and declaring that the rights aforesaid cannot be abridged or violated, and that the explanations aforesaid are consistent with the said Constitution, and in confidence that the amendments which shall have been proposed to the said Constitution will receive an early and mature consideration, — We, the said delegates, in the name and in the behalf of the people of the state of New York, do, by these presents, assent to and ratify the said Constitution.” (Emphasis added)

In his America’s Constitution, A Biography (2005) p. 38, Ahkil Reed Amar concludes that this wording cinched the case against conditional ratification based upon powers reserved to the people of the states. Amar’s particular aim was to put any idea of legal secession to rest, but he also went on to implicate other forms of interposition as well.

Not so fast.

Amar stopped his reading at a point altogether too convenient for his thesis. Here is what the rest of the paragraph said:

“In full confidence, nevertheless, that, until a convention shall be called and convened for proposing amendments to the said Constitution, the militia of this state will not be continued in service out of this state for a longer term than six weeks, without the consent of the legislature thereof; that the Congress will not make or alter any regulation in this state, respecting the times, places, and manner, of holding elections for senators or representatives, unless the legislature of this state shall neglect or refuse to make laws or regulations for the purpose, or from any circumstance be incapable of making the same; and that, in those cases, such power will only be exercised until the legislature of this state shall make provision in the premises; that no excise will be imposed on any article of the growth, production, or manufacture of the United States, or any of them, within this state, ardent spirits excepted; and the Congress will not lay direct taxes within this state, but when the moneys arising from the impost and excise shall be insufficient for the public exigencies, nor then, until Congress shall first have made a requisition upon this state to assess, levy, and pay, the amount of such requisition, made agreeably to the census fixed in the said Constitution, in such way and manner as the legislature of this state shall judge best; but that in such case, if the state shall neglect or refuse to pay its proportion, pursuant to such requisition, then the Congress may assess and levy this state’s proportion, together with interest, at the rate of six per centum per annum, from the time at which the same was required to be paid.”

Here the representatives of the people of the state of New York fairly put the new government on notice in no uncertain terms that they reserved certain powers to their own legislature. (more…)

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On May 5, Britain votes in a referendum on a new electoral system called “alternative vote,” also used in Australia (polls show it going down to defeat), but in Scotland and Wales, there are also elections to the devolved parliaments. The Scottish National Party (SNP), which advocates independence for Scotland within the E.U., is heading up a minority administration with about 36% of the seats in the Scottish Parliament.

Now, a new poll shows the SNP opening up a big lead in the upcoming election, with 45% in the constituency vote and 42% on the party-list regional ballot. Since Scotland has a compensatory mixed-member system like Germany’s, the latter percentage is the better guide to the ultimate seat breakdown. If the SNP indeed wins north of 40% of the seats, they may have enough votes to authorize a secession referendum with the support of minor secessionist parties like the Scottish Greens and Scottish Socialists. Whether such a referendum could obtain the requisite 55% of the vote is doubtful, but such a step would be historic nonetheless.

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One overlooked electoral reform to decrease the power of special interests in the U.S. political process would be to expand the size of the U.S. House quite significantly, so that legislators cater to much smaller electorates. (More radically, state partition could also be promoted to expand the size of the Senate.) Accordingly, I thought today’s Daily Chart from the Economist was telling:

Of the world’s 22 most populous countries, the U.S. has the second-most people per national legislator.

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Popular support for gay marriage has been rapidly increasing in the last two years, and several polls now show that support for gay marriage is a plurality or majority position in the American public, according to research by Nate Silver. This shift in public opinion is happening far too rapidly to be due to generational replacement, so it must be the case that many people have changed their minds. What could be the reason for the sudden shift in many Americans’ views? Silver points out that parties and candidates are placing less stress on opposition to gay marriage than they once did, creating a feedback loop in which public opposition to gay marriage further softens. It may also be that once public opinion reaches a tipping point at 50%, opposition rapidly declines because Americans don’t wish to see themselves as being on the losing side of history.

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Public opposes all proposals for cutting the deficit, except raising taxes on those making over $250,000 a year.

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The Tea Party Speaks

Some have seen the Tea Party as a political force that would drive the fiscal responsibility agenda. For any who hold out hope that the Tea Party is serious, these poll results may prove a bit jarring. 70 percent of Tea Party supporters oppose cuts in Medicare and Medicaid.

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At the Economist‘s Democracy in America blog, R.A. makes some good points in favor of skepticism on the question, riffing on Robert Fogel’s research on the economics of the railroad. Excerpt:

Highway construction generated some positive effects and some negative effects. We tend to focus on the positive effects and remark on how constrained the economy might have been without a highway boom. But absent a highway boom something would have been built and markets would have optimised to that something. It’s not clear that the savings from highways are so substantial that the American economy is clearly better off as a result of the system’s construction.

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“The political process will outperform S&P’s expectations … The fact is when the issues are important, history shows that both sides can come together and get things done.”

So says White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, in response to Standard & Poor’s announcement yesterday that it has changed its outlook for US sovereign debt from stable to negative, thereby raising the odds that it will downgrade US debt within the next two years. When someone cites the lessons of history, I usually check my wallet.

While S&P’s warning could provide additional leverage for those who are serious about pursuing fiscal responsibility, one wonders: will the electoral calendar intervene?  There is an interesting debate on this issue at the New York Times.

Perhaps Pileus readers would like to add their contributions here?

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Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk has been one of my favorite authors since I read Snow a few years ago. Snow is an atmospheric novel set in ethnically mixed eastern Turkey (the city of Kars). The novel paints a picture of a “frontier” city’s characters, political and religious intrigues, dilapidated architecture, climate, and topography. While the novel is political, even featuring a comic-opera municipal coup d’état, it is not ideological. Pamuk seemed to put ironic distance between himself and every one of the ideologies running through the city’s overheated atmosphere: Kemalism, Islamism, Kurdish nationalism, even the protagonist’s confused “Westernism.”

Lately I’ve been reading Istanbul, a nonfictional meditation on Pamuk’s home city cum memoir. So far the memoir parts are rather dull, but the analysis of Istanbul’s spirit and history is interesting. It is in this book that Pamuk declares his localist sympathies (5-6):

I’ve never left Istanbul, never left the houses, streets, and neighborhoods of my childhood… [F]ifty years on I find myself back in the Pamuk Apartments, where my first photographs were taken and where my mother first held me in her arms to show me the world… Conrad, Nabokov, Naipaul–these are writers known for having managed to migrate between languages, cultures, countries, continents, even civilizations. Their imaginations were fed by exile, a nourishment drawn not through roots but through rootlessness. My imagination, however, requires that I stay in the same city, on the same street, in the same house, gazing at the same view. Istanbul’s fate is my fate. I am attached to this city because it has made me who I am.

This passage reminds me a great deal of Bill Kauffman’s arguments for local patriotism in Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette, an account of the people and goings-on of Batavia, New York. Dispatches is actually a more entertaining read than Istanbul, and its politico-economic analysis of a city’s decline is more compelling. Of course, there are vast differences between Istanbul and Batavia. Istanbul is home to more than 13 million people and former capital of a great empire. Batavia is a small town of less than 20,000 in upstate New York. Istanbul has been rapidly growing, while Batavia has been static. But both cities have experienced the loss of aesthetic and “spiritual” treasures that define them – Istanbul with its cobblestone streets buried under asphalt and old mansions burnt down and Batavia with its decimated, “urbanly renewed” Main Street. To no small degree both cities are defined by what they’ve lost, and both writers constantly refer to these losses in explaining the present.

There is something to the idea that the cultural diversity prized by cosmopolitans is wholly dependent upon the continued existence of people like Pamuk and Kauffman: people rooted in the local knowledge and customs of one place.

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In a recent post I pointed out that Habermas’s theory of communicative ethics and deliberative democracy fails to recognise a fundamental point highlighted by Hayek – that much of the knowledge central to the process of social communication cannot be put into words. In this post I focus on a related error in the Habermasian mindset. Namely, the claim that market processes are inherently ‘alienating’ and ‘anti-social’.

Writing under the spell of Marx, Habermas claims that far from being a liberating force the extension of markets represents a ‘colonisation of the life world’ by the medium of money. Instead of being regulated by face to face interactions, in a market economy, relations between people are dominated by impersonal economic forces (such as prices) that atomise individuals from their society and which encourage an ethos of self-preservation rather than commitment to the common good. The implication of this critique is that wherever possible we should replace markets with institutional structures that reproduce a sense of face to face interaction and which allow people to transcend self-interest. The assumption here is that the ideal of a deliberative democracy modelled on something akin to the civic republicanism of ancient Greece would facilitate the desired social transformation.

In making these claims, however, Habermas and his minions appear oblivious to the fact that once the scope of the relevant community exceeds the scale of say a small village, it becomes impossible for people to be directly aware of the needs and interests of ‘their society’. If a community is to become more complex and advanced then the inter-relations between its members are far too vast to be surveyed by a deliberative forum that can discern which decisions the common good requires. To suggest that deliberators can somehow overcome this complexity is to be guilty of the ‘synoptic delusion’. As Hayek noted on so many occasions, the value of the market price system is precisely that it facilitates a complex process of coordination between many different individuals and communities who are necessarily ignorant of each others detailed circumstances. Though ‘impersonal’, the fluctuating price signals generated in markets communicate in simplified form the changing availability of goods and opportunities. These signals, while ‘imperfect’, enable people at the micro-scale to adapt their behaviour (by changing jobs, moving house, substituting more for less expensive inputs etc.), without knowing very much about the ‘circumstances of time and place’ affecting the decisions of distant and unknown others.

It cannot be emphasised enough in this context that the case for markets does not depend on assumptions about human greed. Irrespective of whether people are seeking to procure goods for narrowly selfish ends, or whether they are acting on behalf of a charitable or altruistic cause, market prices are necessary to facilitate adjustments to changes in supply and demand, the availability of substitutes and all manner of context specific factors that are too complex to be surveyed by a deliberative forum. Neither can this problem be solved by developments in computer technology. For one thing the use of computers is hardly any less ‘impersonal’ than the market. More important, however, the more computer technology develops the more complex are the range of decisions and the quality of the inputs into market prices that can be generated by each of the decentralised elements that constitute the community. No matter how sophisticated technology becomes the complexity of the social system at the meta-level will continue to be higher than the deliberative capacities of its constituent elements.

Seen through this Hayekian lens the ‘alienating’ market forces that Habermasians and other leftists have long lamented should not be thought of as ‘colonising the life world’. Rather, they should be seen as extending the range of human cooperation far wider than would otherwise be possible. To put the argument differently, the market economy though far from ‘perfect’ is probably the most socialising force in human history. It is somewhat ironic that those who rail most against trade and the supposed alienation that markets bring – the various ‘anti-globalists’ and ‘deep-greens’ who agitate for ‘simplicity’ and ‘self-sufficiency’, would lead us into a form of isolationism that would vastly reduce the scope of human cooperation. What could possibly be more anti-social than that?

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According to the PBS website accompanying its Waco: The Inside Story edition of Frontline:

Have any federal agents been disciplined for wrongdoing in the Waco affair? And were any of the surviving Davidians convicted of federal charges?

Two ATF supervisors, Chuck Sarabyn and Phillip Chojinacki, were fired, although they were later reinstated at a lower rank. No FBI agents have been officially disciplined. Eight of the surviving Branch Davidians were convicted on charges ranging from voluntary manslaughter to weapons violations. Seven got 40-year prison terms, and the eighth got five years. A ninth, Kathy Schroeder, got three years in prison after testifying for the government.

The 18th anniversary of this terrible episode in American history is Tuesday.  Given that the post-1994 Clinton presidency was so much better than the two administrations that followed, we sometimes forget that the early Clinton years had some real down moments (especially the Brady Bill, Waco, and the Clintons’ health care initiatives).

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We were lucky enough to get the opportunity to interview Atlas Shrugged movie producer Harmon Kaslow during the opening weekend of the film.  Here are his responses to some of our questions:  

1.         Who is your favorite Rand character?

Henry Rearden. He’s the focused, hard-working, innovator, visionary entrepreneur … and even though he has an imperfect life, he’s not going to compromise or sell-out.

2.         Are you an Objectivist?

I hold a great respect for objectivists. It takes an incredible commitment to adhere to the core principles of objectivism and I agree with much of what objectivism stands for but, I have a soft spot for loyalty.

3.         What inspired you to produce this film?

The chance to work with John Aglialoro on adapting such an inspiring and influential book was the opportunity of a lifetime and I simply couldn’t resist. I am grateful to Howard Baldwin for introducing John to me and supporting John’s decision to entrust me with this responsibility.  

4.         Taylor Schilling is a pretty controversial pick for Dagny, especially after the Angelina Jolie rumors.  What was it about her that made you think she was the right woman to portray the leading lady of the film?

Taylor is beautiful, smart, independent and courageous … not to mention incredibly talented … she was a natural for Dagny. Wait until you see her. Taylor was the right choice without question.

5.         How much did Part I cost and does Part II depend on the first one breaking even or actually making a profit?  

Although Part 1 cost less than $10M in total production costs, John Aglialoro has much more invested from the prior 18 years.  Proceeding with Parts 2 and 3 is John’s decision, and I can’t imagine John not finishing anything he’s started.

6.         Given that passenger rail is a creature of the state in today’s America, is the railroad in the film going to resonate with today’s free-marketeers?

As prophetic a novel as Atlas is, you have to remember that it was written as fiction – and, by some accounts, science fiction. Atlas is an incredible metaphor that still holds true today and it’s that message that ressonates throughout the film.

7.         Does the script for this adaptation deviate significantly from the novel?

No. The message of the book is, without question, faithfully adapted – which was always our goal. Not every scene in the book is in the film so some very minor changes had to be made during the compression to ensure cohesion. The important thing is that we stayed true to Ayn’s philosophy and words. The message is there is full.

8.         Do you think that capitalism depends on any particular moral foundations in order for it to work well?

Calling something “Capitalism” does not make it Capitalism. What we see most people referring to today as “capitalism” is not really Capitalism but a perversion of the system. Wealth through fraud and dishonesty is not Capitalism. Capitalism at its core requires the very simple idea of man being able to freely exchange value-for-value. Adherence to honor and integrity is the absolute requisite. If you’ve got that at your foundation, you’re ready for real Capitalism.

9.         What is the strongest argument against the notion that the rich should pay higher taxes given their greater ability to pay?  

The issue for me is accountability. Self-reliance and the acceptance of personal responsibility are the true keys to happiness. No man, or group of men, has the right to take from one man by force and give to another. The ability to fail must be as real as the opportunity to succeed. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” is not the path to happiness – it’s a suicide pact.

10.       I think one could argue that Rand’s villains are better drawn than her heroes.  Do you agree?

Personally, I find all of Rand’s characters to be rich and full of real human depth. It’s one of those things that makes Ayn’s writing so appealing to so many. You miss the characters after you finish the book.

11.       And who is your favorite antagonist in Rand’s works?

Mouch … he’s the ultimate fraud … don’t believe anything he says or does.

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Happy Birthday Pileus!

With only 45 minutes left in the day, I wanted to thank my fellow bloggers, our readers, and the Fund for American Studies for making Pileus’ first year such a pleasure!  I have high hopes that year 2 will be even better!

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President Obama recently complained about the technological backwardness of the White House.  According to news reports, he said:

“The Oval Office, I always thought I was going to have really cool phones and stuff.  I’m like, c’mon guys, I’m the president of the United States.  Where’s the fancy buttons and stuff and the big screen comes up? It doesn’t happen.” 

Brian Williams of NBC News added that this “extends to the president’s aircraft.  The truth is Jetblue had live tv on its planes before air force one did.”

Score: Market 1, Government 0. 

This is hardly surprising.  But I wonder why such realities don’t cause the President and others with excessive faith in the government to stop and consider how much better the market is compared to government in providing what we want or need in area after area (which is not to say there isn’t a role for government in some realms).  In particular, would you want Obama’s technology provider to also provide health care or groceries??  More sharply, would you rather have the government (and its contractors) provide the skills and technology to do an appendectomy and eye surgery or market participants like doctors and medical industries (with the government tort system in the background of course)?

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What criterion should we use to evaluate political theories and the institutions they advocate? In my book Robust Political Economy, I argue that it is the criterion of ‘robustness’. Institutions that meet this criterion are those best placed to cope with fundamental constraints that arise from the human condition. The most important constraints are those of limited rationality (the Hayekian ‘knowledge problem’) and the recognition that human beings respond, at least to a limited degree, to incentives. Judged against these constraints all human institutions are likely to ‘fail’, but some institutions may be better placed than others to withstand the stresses and strains wrought by the human condition.

In my first post for Pileus back in December 2010, I developed this argument to show how the problem of ‘systemic failure’ in markets though real, is often less pronounced than the problem of ‘systemic failure’ in politics and government regulation: click here My book extends this analysis to other examples of ‘market failure’ theorising in contemporary economics, but also applies the same framework to critique moral/ethical objections to classical liberalism derived from communitarian and egalitarian political theory. I claim that both economic and moral critics of classical liberalism lack a robust account of how their favoured institutions can cope with the ‘knowledge problem’ and the ‘incentive problem’ better than the classical liberal alternative. I then apply the core arguments in the context of debates on the welfare state, international development, and environmental protection.

The subject matter of the book reflects contemporary currents in political economy/philosophy which are attempting to define the character of political ‘idealism’. There has been an excellent discussion recently of ‘ideal’ versus ‘non-ideal’ political theory over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians. I see ‘Robust Political Economy’ not so much as a ‘non-ideal’ theory, but as setting out a framework that focuses on the constraints that must be recognised by a ‘realistic idealism’. I hope you like it, even if you disagree with it.

The video link above provides a short extract from my speech at the US launch of the book held at the Cato Institute last month, which covers my critique of market failure economics and Stiglitz in particular.For the full speech which also includes my critique of communitarian and egalitarian theory, see here .

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Mission Creeping

In an op-ed in tomorrow’s New York Times and IHT,  The Three Emperor’s League President Obama, President Sarkoky, and Prime Minister Cameron call for Qaddafi’s departure and for the international community to nation-build in Libya.  Here are three snippets:

Our duty and our mandate under U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 is to protect civilians, and we are doing that. It is not to remove Qaddafi by force. But it is impossible to imagine a future for Libya with Qaddafi in power.

However, so long as Qaddafi is in power, NATO must maintain its operations so that civilians remain protected and the pressure on the regime builds.

Qaddafi must go and go for good. At that point, the United Nations and its members should help the Libyan people as they rebuild where Qaddafi has destroyed — to repair homes and hospitals, to restore basic utilities, and to assist Libyans as they develop the institutions to underpin a prosperous and open society.

I’ve been opposed to this war since the beginning, especially since mission creep was entirely predictable.  Let’s ask again: how is regime change and nation-building in the national interest of the United States?  And don’t give me the bogus argument that our reputation and prestige are now on the line.  This goes well-beyond the dubious enough notion of enforcing a no fly zone to protect “civilians” targeted by the internationally recognized government of Libya.

In foreign policy, official Washington is neo-conservative to the core – left, right, and center.  The sound you are hearing is Washington, Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, Grover Cleveland, the members of the Anti-Imperalist League, George Kennan, and every dead realist in the history of the Republic spinning even faster in their graves (some of these started spinning in about 1898).

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The week began with the IMF’s judgment that the US lacks a “credible strategy” to stabilize its debt. As noted in the Financial Times (4/12/2011):

In an unusually stern rebuke to its largest shareholder, the IMF said the US was the only advanced economy to be increasing its underlying budget deficit in 2011, at a time when its economy was growing fast enough to reduce borrowing.

In its twice-yearly Fiscal Monitor, the IMF added that on its current plans the US would join Japan as the only country with rising public debt in 2016, creating a risk for the global economy.

The IMF (and the FT) seems overly skeptical when considering the seriousness with which Washington views the issue of long-term fiscal responsibility. It was only last week that Congressman Paul Ryan released his Path to Prosperity, charting a course to fiscal stability that included no real cuts in defense spending and tax cuts (all of which might work if, as assumed, unemployment falls to historic lows).

Perhaps I am being too hard on the FT piece. It cited two pieces of good news: the continuing resolution to cut $38.5 billion in spending from the year’s budget and the President’s yet-to-be-delivered plans “to rein in America’s long-term deficits, which are driven by popular programmes like Medicare, Medicaid, and social security.”

Of course, as we have subsequently learned, the $38.5 billion in cuts was largely an exercise in misdirection.  The cuts will amount to $352 million. As reported by Tim Fernholz, National Journal, this constitutes “less than one-one hundredth of what both Republicans or Democrats have claimed.”

The astonishing result, according to CBO, is the result of several factors: increases in spending included in the deal, especially at the Defense Department; decisions to draw over half of the savings from recissions, cuts to reserve funds, and mandatory-spending programs; and writing off cuts from funding that might never have been spent.

Thankfully, the President was able to take the long-view in his Wednesday address, essentially quashing major reforms to key entitlements and relying instead on defense cuts and tax increases, along with a procedural fix. As recounted in the Washington Post, the President proposed

a “debt fail-safe trigger” that would cut spending across the board if lawmakers did not approve policies that would set the debt on a downward path by 2014. The trigger should spare Social Security, Medicare and programs for the poor, Obama said, and should raise taxes by cutting dozens of tax breaks that benefit people and corporations.

The details on spending cuts are supposed to be developed via “talks, to be led by Vice President Biden” which “would begin in early May, after lawmakers return from a two-week Easter break.” The Vice President signaled his commitment to this important new duty by sleeping through the President’s speech.

As Vice President Biden awoke from his slumber, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker John Boehner rejected the call for higher taxes. Any such proposals, in Boehner’s words, are “a non-starter.”

So, beyond the courageous efforts to slash $352 million in spending cuts, we can assume that any broadly acceptable reforms will (1) take entitlement reform off the table; (2) take tax increases off the table; and (3) depend on some yet-to-be defined “debt fail-safe trigger” and the negotiating skills of the Vice President.

And the IMF says that the US lacks credibility?

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China, the benevolent decision-maker of Thomas Friedman’s dreams, has continued to make bold and decisive moves to further the public good.  This time, according to the New York Times, the government has all but banned the depiction of time travel on television shows.  According to the paper of record, “The guidelines discouraging this type of show said that some ‘casually make up myths, have monstrous and weird plots, use absurd tactics, and even promote feudalism, superstition, fatalism and reincarnation.’” 

Although this type of “guideline” might have prevented some of the worst Star Trek plots from surfacing, you gotta wonder what the Orwellian Chinese State Administration for Radio, Film & Television was thinking on this one.  It is hard to imagine that such plots and storylines would actually threaten the health of the Nation, Party, and the State even if you thought such things should actually matter.  File this one under excessive paranoia and paternalism. 

Next you are going to tell me that the regime is going to ban swallows!

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A Reminder

Time to start growing your playoff beard.  And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, start tuning into the NHL hockey playoffs and see spectacular intensity on a nightly basis – and lots of beards.  And check out (pronounced “ooot” this time of year) this old post  on political beards.

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Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels is a very popular presidential choice among the adult section of the Republican Party who realize that the “red menace” of government debt and deficit spending is a serious threat to the republic’s economic and social future (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen even called the debt “the greatest threat to our national security”).  But will Daniels run? 

As I’ve noted before (and Steven Moore of the Wall Street Journal  also made this point last Thursday at a meeting of the Federalist Society in Washington), it is going to be tough to defeat Obama in 2012 given what is happening in the economy (among other things).  So maybe Governor Daniels will stay out and move onto the next challenge when his term runs out in January 2013. 

However, the Indianapolis Star reported today that Daniels – in a meeting with the paper’s editorial board - “sounds like” he is going to seek the nomination.  The Star noted that “His answers made clear what we already knew — that he is giving the question deep thought — and underscored how intently he has worked through the issues that would face him and the messages on which he would base a campaign.”   It appears that Daniels will make a decision soon; he told the paper that “he would make a final decision on whether to run for president soon after the state legislature wraps up its 2011 session, presumably later this month.”

I hope he gets into the race – and believe he will do so.  Four things in particular make this the right time for Daniels: 

1.  This is a great chance for a budget guru with a record of fiscal conservatism to capture the nomination.  The budget and healthcare are going to be THE issues like never before and an able technocrat like Daniels offers a nice counter to both Romney and Obama given their less-than-shining track records in these areas.  Plus his “red menace” message is pitch-perfect for the kind of race the Republicans are going to have to run to win (especially since the Republicans’ similar insanity in the defense and foreign policy realm make that an area in which they will be unwilling to beat up on Obama).   Moreover, the cultural conservatives are going to present a much smaller hurdle for Daniels in the primary than they might normally be.  

2.  Daniels is no spring chicken and so won’t be as likely as other potential nominees to pass up this race for 2016.

3.  I’m as convinced as anyone could be so far out that 2016 is going to be Chris Christie’s election to lose if Obama wins reelection.  So given this along with Daniels’ age, 2012 is the governor’s only real window of opportunity.

4.  Daniels is well-positioned to capture Rust Belt states that are sure to be critical in the battle for Electoral College votes.  

Daniels is about as good a candidate (on the merits) for libertarians as we are likely to see this cycle.  His call for a “truce” on social issues/the culture war was heartening.  And his list of 5 best books suggests a serious and thoughtful advocate of dynamic markets who recognizes the danger of rent-seeking interest groups (though I think Capitalism and Freedom is a far better book than Free to Choose).

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Wasn’t it just five minutes ago that Democrats and Republicans alike were hailing their budget resolution from last week as “historic” and “unprecedented” in its cuts? Even the usually understated WSJ called it, as I pointed out only moments ago, “The Tea Party’s First Victory.”

I guess that was then. Today the WSJ reports that even that widely reported figure of $38 billion in hotly negotiated cuts was “hokum,” the real figure being closer to $20 billion. The Journal also reports that this revelation might mean that House Speaker Boehner is in danger of losing yet more backbencher support from those yahoos of media lore

Well, I for one am shocked, shocked that instead of cutting the budget by the whole one-and-a-half percent ($61 billion) the Republicans initially demanded, and instead of the one whole percent ($38 billion) they claimed to end up with, they in fact cut the budget by only about one-half of one percent.

Budget crisis? What budget crisis?

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