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Archive for October, 2011

Boo, humbug!

Many Christian have traditionally celebrated Nov. 1 as All Saints Day, and the preceding evening is sometimes referred to on the Christian calendar, therefore, as “All Hallows Eve.”  All Hallows Eve morphed over time (I don’t know the history) into Hall-o-ween, which in the United States is a much bigger deal than All Saints Day is anywhere else.  Some notable Christian holidays (Easter, Christmas) actually have pagan roots.  Halloween is the only observed holiday I know of that has become a thoroughly pagen holiday with Christian roots.

Maybe this particularly unholy history of the misnamed “holiday” lies at the root of my increasing displeasure (and sometime disgust) with Halloween. though I’m not one of those anti-witchcraft people who don’t let me kids read Harry Potter.   My religion does not mark the traditional Christian calendar (other than Christmas and Easter), so I’m not one to pay much attention.  However, when I lived in Finland there did seem to be a lot of religious holidays used by the overwhelmingly secular society as a means of getting the day off from work—one of the effects of having a state church.   Indeed, there used to be so many holy days, that some economic historians have noted that the reduction in religious observance of these holy days generated observable increases in annual economic output in Europe.

I liked Halloween as kid, but it was much less of a big deal then.  And since my mother is European, she never did relate to it.  This resulted in my not getting a lot of parental support or encouragement for the stressful enterprise of figuring out a costume.   What I hate most is the pressure or obligation to dress up.  If it suits others, fine.  Just get off my back if my costume for every event is the same: lame college professor.

I wish I had carved this pumpkin

And just because you may see Halloween as the perfect venue to show off your fun, creative side, don’t expect me to.  I prefer to express creativity that doesn’t involve sticking my hands in slimy pumpkins or, basically, any public activity that involves making clothing appear interesting.

If Halloween were about being clever, I would just enjoy people’s cleverness and be done with it.  But this whole scary, haunted, frightening part of the day is annoying.  I have been genuinely afraid before.  It is an emotion that sane people want to avoid.  And the pseudo-fear that comes from a haunted house or a scary movie seems just, well, pointless.  Reality is interesting.  Artificial horror is boring.   Having a young child go missing: scary.  Wearing an ugly mask with eyeballs hanging out: dumb.

Over recent decades Halloween has become, like other holidays, more and more commercialized.  We could point to Michael Jackson’s Thriller or the Pirates of the Carribean movie series as further adding to this trend.  Along with the commercialization, the holiday has gotten longer, pricier, and skankier.  It doesn’t seem to satisfy Paul’s admonition to pursue that which is  true, honest, just, pure, lovely, of good report, virtuous, or praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8).  And it has become much more in my face.  I don’t want it in my face, especially all the candy I have to eat but definitely don’t need.

Of course the little kids can look pretty cute in costume, and as a parent it is always enjoyable to see kids having a good time (though I’ve dealt with more whining, tired, sick, don’t-want-to-walk-home-in -the-cold kids than I care to remember).   I can’t help but feel, though, that the kids are being exploited a little bit to show off the creativity of parents (usually moms).  On the other hand, what do they care?  Stuff some candy in their faces, and they’re good.  Frankly, since kids are such an economic drag on the family, they actually deserve to be exploited.

I like having the cute kids (as well as the ugly ones) in the neighborhood come to my door and for my kids to visit the other homes around us.  It is a fairly low-cost way to strengthen community ties, to get to know each other a bit more.   Scrooge, therefore, wouldn’t like it.  Though,  since it is still mostly a non-governmental enterprise that doesn’t seem to be associated with higher taxes (at least for now), maybe he would?

But I still say, “Humbug!”

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“A common commitment to refrain from special favors serves the same economic function as a common commitment to refrain from stealing.”

Sounds like a fellow Pilei to me!

This provocative quotation from his piece on Reaganomics came in a close second:

“The Reagan economic program led to a substantial improvement in economic conditions, but there was no ‘Reagan revolution.’”

Source

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BBC News Magazine:

Mass panic and hysteria swept the United States on the eve of Halloween in 1938, when an all-too-realistic radio dramatisation of The War of the Worlds sent untold thousands of people into the streets or heading for the hills.

The radio show was so terrifying in its accounts of invading Martians wielding deadly heat-rays that it is remembered like no other radio programme.

The reality:

Most newspapers printed dispatches sent by wire services such as the Associated Press, which extrapolated widespread fear from small numbers of scattered, anecdotal accounts.

Newspapers, moreover, reported no deaths or serious injuries related to The War of the Worlds broadcast: had panic and hysteria seized America that night, the mayhem surely would have caused many deaths and injuries.

For newspapers, the so-called “panic broadcast” brought newspapers an exceptional opportunity to censure radio, a still-new medium that was becoming a serious competitor in providing news and advertising.

The myth of mass panics seems to underlie a lot of bad policy-making. Remember the overreaction to Katrina? So it’s pretty unsurprising that the oft-told tale of mass panic during Orson Welles’ broadcast turns out to be completely false. People are more resilient than paternalists give them credit for.

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George Will opens up on Romney.  Will conservatives go for a choice or an echo?  A small part of his WaPost article worth reading in full:

Romney, supposedly the Republican most electable next November, is a recidivist reviser of his principles who is not only becoming less electable; he might damage GOP chances of capturing the Senate. Republican successes down the ticket will depend on the energies of the Tea Party and other conservatives, who will be deflated by a nominee whose blurry profile in caution communicates only calculated trimming.

The problem is that there are few great options for conservatives and libertarian Republicans to flock towards in opposition to Romney.  I wonder why these types of voters don’t give Huntsman a more serious look.*  It is still hard to imagine that the Republicans have basically chosen to go with Romney, Perry, or Cain.  These men are really the three best options on the Republican team!?!  Talk about a failure to build a deeper bench from 2008 forward!  So would one of the alternatives in the race, if nominated, be more like Rand Paul or Sharron Angle?

I repeat, say it ain’t so Mitch…

* Pileus does not endorse any candidate.  I’m just arguing that those with authentic conservative and libertarian views would probably find much to like about Huntsman.

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You can’t work in higher education without seeing all manner of craziness and inefficiency.  Thus it isn’t hard to be at least somewhat sympathetic to education reformers, incremental and radical.  That being said, I was waiting for a gag line at the bottom of this piece from the Pope Center about how to save money on education.

Now to be fair to the author, she admits that “extreme reductions are possible, but they may be far in the future.”  So she isn’t exactly all that optimistic either about radical savings.  But I’m not sure we should even take seriously too-good-to-be true ideas like Rick Perry’s plan for a four-year education that costs $10,000 total (tuition and state/university support combined).  Can we really imagine (without making huge leaps of faith about a future world quite different from the one we live in) a rigorous four-year undergraduate degree with intense instruction in the liberal arts and sciences costing that little?

Higher education costs are much higher than necessary, but even the on-line only Western Governors University costs $6,000 a year just for tuition – and that is for the cheapest program in a “university” with serious downsides.  Likewise, the ultra-small colleges also touted by the Pope folks are going to cost roughly $10,000 a year.  And let’s not take this as a serious alternative to a proper formal education: “UnCollege, which calls itself ‘a social movement changing the notion that going to college is the only path to success,’ lists dozens of free or cheap learning options for those who want education without a degree.”

I think it is much more honest to say that it might not be worth it for some to go to college rather than selling the notion that there are supercheap alternatives out there or on the horizon that aren’t just, well, cheap.  And let’s not forget that many might not be suited to the enterprise.  There is no such thing as a great, cheap lunch.

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Note to Rangers Fans

What you are feeling now is kind of how it felt to be a Red Sox fan in 1986 after Game 7.  Of course, you’d have an even better sense if you had to previously endure selling Babe Ruth and watching the Yankees win about a hundred World Series*, 1946, 1967, 1975 (catcher interference!), 1978 (Bucky **** Dent), and lots of bad years and close calls in-between those moments of excruciating fan pain.

Nonetheless, you get my point – and I feel for you.  It will get better.  Even Sox fans got to eventually see them break the Curse.  Makes me almost want to root for the Rangers until they win the World Series.

* Slight exaggeration there.

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Sticks and stones

Here is one difference between out-of-control Tea Partiers and out-of-control Occupiers.   The Tea Partiers throw (according to reports lacking some credibility)  racial epithets at politicans.  The Occupiers throw rocks and bottles at police (seen on film).

There is a certain irony inherent in protests from a group who, when it comes right down to it, want an even more coercive and redistributive government.  Even more ironic is their vilifying the public face of the government, namely the police trying to keep the peace (and protect the rights of those people who don’t think they have the right to occupy public or private property).  Here in America we do things differently: the pro-government people attack the police, the anti-government people respect them.  Weird.

But the troubling part of the story is not really that some yahoo throws racial epithets or rocks.  The troubling part is that the main stream media think the former is more serious than the latter.

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The Divider vs. the Thinker

Peggy Noonan is always a pleasure to read. She has a provocative essay (“The Divider vs. the Thinker”) in today’s WSJ (ungated).

Ms. Noonan presents a compelling account of the current state of affairs, concerned with the “sense now that the glue that held us together for more than two centuries has thinned and cracked with age,” giving rise to a host of bitter conflicts. She turns to the position the tactical president has struck, seeking to exploit the divisions:

Where is the president in all this? He doesn’t seem to be as worried about his country’s continuance as his own. He’s out campaigning and talking of our problems, but he seems oddly oblivious to or detached from America’s deeper fears. And so he feels free to exploit divisions. It’s all the rich versus the rest, and there are a lot more of the latter.

The President—the “Divider” is contrasted with a “Thinker,” Paul Ryan (R-WI), who “is doing something unique in national politics. He thinks. He studies. He reads. Then he comes forward to speak, calmly and at some length, about what he believes to be true. He defines a problem and offers solutions, often providing the intellectual and philosophical rationale behind them.”

Ms. Noonan concludes with some excerpts from a speech that Congressman Ryan gave at the Heritage Foundation. I quote it, in part, because it comes quite close to precisely what I believe (a little confirmation bias never hurts at the end of a long week) and I hope it will entice you to read the Noonan piece in its entirety.

“Why have we extended an endless supply of taxpayer credit to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, instead of demanding that their government guarantee be wound down and their taxpayer subsidies ended?” Why are tax dollars being wasted on bankrupt, politically connected solar energy firms like Solyndra? “Why is Washington wasting your money on entrenched agribusiness?”

Rather than raise taxes on individuals, we should “lower the amount of government spending the wealthy now receive.” The “true sources of inequity in this country,” he continued, are policies “that enriches the powerful, and empty promises that betray the powerless.” The real class warfare that threatens us is “a class of bureaucrats and connected crony capitalists trying to rise above the rest of us, call the shots, rig the rules, and preserve their place atop society.”

If more Republicans thought—and spoke—like this, the party would flourish. People would be less fearful for the future. And Mr. Obama wouldn’t be seeing his numbers go up.

For those who are interested in reading Ryan’s  full remarks, a transcript can be found here.

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Backwards through Time

For some reason, I typically read news magazines backwards.  I’m not one, usually, to defend mainstream rags, but there is still something nice about sitting down with a magazine and perusing it from begging to end—or in my case from end to beginning (while on the exercise bike).  Here is a recent passage through Time.

Outrageous: Former (thankfully!) Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens said, regarding the Citizens United case, “If followed out to its logical conclusion, that would have provided First Amendement protection to the Watergate burglers.”  Really? Allowing people to spend their money on mass communication with the public (otherwise known as Freedom of the Press) is comparable to protecting burglers?  Just because both might be politically motivated?  Stevens should join with retired Justice O’Connor to form a book group where they can read all the good stuff they were too busy to read when working.  The could start with, say, the US Constitution.

Hilarious.  In my view, Joel Stein’s “Awesome Column” is, by itself, worth the subscription to Time.  He usually isn’t all that political, but he can be insightful in addition to being the funniest guy in the commentary business. A couple of snippets:

So I guess it is up to me to point out that all this anger about income inequality is misplaced because, unlike any other time in history, these days the 1% don’t live that differently than the middle class.  Never before has $10 wine tased so much like $1,000 bottles…A $15,000 car breaks down as rarely as one that costs $250,000 and has far more cupholders.  The middle class and the rich watch the same stuff on TV and in movie theaters, have equal access to Wikipedia and pay the same college graduates to do nothing but make us complicated coffee drinks.  It is so difficult for the 1% to live differently that they have to collect art.  Collecting art is so boring, there aren’t any reality shows about it…

…I do not believe that the worldwide recession was caused by financial derivatives created by the 1% who tricked the 99%.  I blieve it was created by the great wide middle class who took out loans to live out the techno-bling dream we deified in rap songs and reality TV.  Credit-card debt went up 75% from 1997 to 2007.  We’re now a nation of really poor people with a lot of frequent-flier miles.

Troubling.  An informative article discusses how the number of girls who are starting puberty at early ages—8,7, even 6–continues to increase.  This is a complex, multi-causal, poorly-understood phenomenon [self-promoting advertisement: I'm guest editing a special issue of Economics and Human Biology focused on obesity and the family; watch for it next year].  But it is pretty clear that childhood obesity (or the factors leading to obesity) plays some role.  Adiposity kick-starts puberty for girls but, I didn’t realize, delays it for boys.  Early puberty can have serious physiological and psychological problems that can be permanent.  Michelle Obama has made childhood obesity her signature cause.  Some people like to criticize her for this effort (really, for having the last name Obama). I’d just like to say the following to those critics: Shut Up!

Pathetic:  An article on student debt talks about how so many young college grads (especially those without jobs) are having a hard time meeting their debt payments.  The OWS crowd’s drive to forgive student debts is probably a motivation for this article right now.  The article highlights, among others, a Lyndsey P., who racked up $169,934 in debt studying documentary film-making at NYU.  Now, the world economy can support approximately 6 documentary film makers.  The others need an independent source of income, which no one–not her guidance counselors, her parents, or especially the faculty of NYU— apparently bothered to tell young Lyndsey.  My guess is that a sizable share of the OWS movement is made up of unemployed graduates of the NYU film school.

[And, in case you're wondering, I'd rather save my money so my own kids can study the arts rather than paying off Lyndsey's debt.]

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University of Kentucky professor Rob Farley has a fine piece over at WPR on what Libya tells us about the ongoing air power debate.  For the uninitiated, the argument centers on the issue of whether air power can achieve decisive coercive effects largely on its own.  I’ve been teaching this debate recently so Rob’s piece comes at a great time for me.  Rob’s basic point is essentially what I’ve been telling my classes for a long time (based largely on works by scholars such as Robert Pape and more recent critics of the strategic bombing crowd).  Indeed, the voices seem to be singing awfully familiar tunes to those of us who had to live through the post-Kosovo AAR.  Aside from the obvious institutional interests and dream-like appeal to liberal interventionists that keep it alive, it is hard to believe that air power enthusiasm has serious legs.  Great to see Rob holding his position with aplomb.

Here is a nice paragraph from Rob’s piece:

In fact, the Libya campaign supplies only very tenuous and measured support for the idea that airpower has become decisive in modern warfare. The focus on tactical rather than strategic targets represents a profound retreat from the principles that guided the employment of airpower as recently as Operation Iraqi Freedom. Historically, the U.S. Air Force, like the air forces of many other countries’ militaries, has resented “tactical” tasks such as hunting and killing enemy tanks and supply vehicles or bombing entrenched enemy positions. Direct attacks on fielded enemy forces can hurt, but they also require great skill and lack the “multiplier effect” supposedly accrued by attacks against “strategic” targets such as communications networks and command nodes. Tactical campaigns also tie air assets to the whims of ground commanders, in this case a combination of French and British special forces and Libyan rebels. In the minds of many pilots, a tactical campaign turns an air force into an exceedingly expensive artillery branch. While there is no doubt that such a campaign can have an effect, most advocates find it a waste of airpower’s potential. 

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William Niskanen, RIP

William A. Niskanen, economist, public intellectual, and chairman emeritus of the Cato Institute, passed on yesterday after a remarkably successful career. As a member of Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers (1981-85, acting chair, 1985), he is often cited as one of the central forces behind Reaganomics.

Despite his close association with Reaganomics, Niskanen was nonetheless able to provide a sober assessment of the notable achievements and failures of the administration. You can read his book length account in Reaganomics (1988) or a rather brief entry on the Reagan record in the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. There is also a wonderful podcast (Reagan at 100) at Cato for those who have never heard Niskanen speak.

Of course, many are more familiar with Niskanen’s scholarly contributions. In Bureaucracy and Representative Government (1971), he introduced us to the budget-maximizing bureaucrat, something that became a mainstay in public choice theory and principal-agent accounts of regulation. While those of us who study political-bureaucratic relations understand the limits of the construct, it remains a useful heuristic when introducing students in institutional rational choice.

William A. Niskanen (1933-2011), RIP

Cato announcement here.

Reason obituary here.

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Cowboy foreign policy

Last week in NRO, Jonah Goldberg nicely encapsulated the Obama Administration’s recent decision to help root out and destroy the LRA in central Africa.

President Obama notified Congress that he’s sending about 100 combat-equipped troops to advise African forces on how best to kill or capture (but hopefully kill) one of the truly hideous villains breathing today, Joseph Kony, and destroy his militia cult, the Lord’s Resistance Army….

Under Pres. George W. Bush, critics might have called this sort of thing an instance of “cowboy foreign policy.” I never understood why the term was an insult. Cowboys do good when they can and where they can. They may not go looking for trouble, but they don’t hide from it either. Yes, in movies and books, cowboys usually only shoot when somebody else has shot at them first. But every now and then a villain comes along who is so vile, so repugnant, so contrary to decency that the cowboy does what he has to do on the grounds that some men just need killing.

Joseph Kony strikes me as such a man.

Though dismissing the Administration national security arguments for this intervention as probably overblown, Goldberg is right that Obama was “absolutely right to do it.”  I can hear already the “but it is not in our national interest” drivel, so save your pixels.  The bottom line is that I’m only interested in the “national interest” to the extent that it supports the interest of humanity.  And the sister argument about respecting national sovereignty (which I care more about, but not that much more)  is even more ridiculous in this case.  Kony isn’t anyone’s sovereign ruler.  He is just a thug and a monster.

Charging in on a white horse with guns blazing is not always the wisest course of action.  Indeed, it may be the case that it is usually, even if there seems to be compelling humanitarian reasons, not the wisest course of action.  Military interventions can undermine larger foreign policy interests of the U.S. and, in some cases, the welfare of interests of the people they are designed to assist.  But such arguments are not trump cards to play to avoid moral responsibility for the brutal rape, torture, and murder of thousands of innocents.  It is in our national interest to do what we can, where we can, if we can.

Any decent cowboy knows that.  Unfortunately, the rabid isolationists do not.

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Setting Records

The new CBS/New York Time polls should come as no surprise, even if they are setting new records (additional discussion here):

In a poll released Tuesday, just nine percent of Americans said they approve of the job lawmakers on Capitol Hill are doing. The all-time low is down 2 points from an 11 percent approval rating just a month ago, and is the first single digit level since the question was first asked in 1977.

And then there is another record:

According to the poll, which was conducted between October 19-24, Americans also have less trust than ever in the government’s ability to make the right decisions: Just one in ten Americans currently say they trust the government to do what is right all or most of the time – down from 23 percent who said the same just a year ago.

Perhaps it is time, once again, to consider placing “None of the Above” on the 2012 ballot.

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Regardless of what one thinks of presidential candidate Herman Cain, his team certainly knows how to get buzz out of internet ads.  The smoking ad is a bit odd - but gets people talking.  Here is his newest, He Carried Yellow Flowers:

Curious what our readers think of Mr. Cain.  Will he manage to stay competitive or is he just the typical quirky candidate who fades when folks get serious after the holidays?  New Hampshire loves to vote against the “Establishment” candidates (see 1996 and 2000, for recent examples).  So normally I’d think Cain would have a shot there.  But Romney has a pretty sizable polling advantage in the Granite State.

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Political Research Quaterly – a quantitative political science journal – has two new articles out that readers of Pileus might find noteworthy.  One involves the impact of Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin on the 2008 election.  Specifically, it looks at “how feeling toward Palin exerted an independent effect on vote choice.”  The second examines the impact of foreign military intervention on human rights in friendly, neutral, and hostile target states.

In the Palin piece, Jonathan Knuckey of the University of Central Florida finds that Palin had a relatively large effect on vote choice compared to other vice presidential candidates.  Here is the abstract:

Using data from the American National Election Studies, this article addresses whether the Sarah Palin affected vote choice in 2008. Findings indicate not only that evaluations of Palin were a strong predictor of vote choice—even when controlling for confounding variables—but also that Palin’s effect on vote choice was the largest of any vice presidential candidate in elections examined dating back to 1980. Theoretically, the article offers support for the proposition that a running mate is an important short-term force affecting voting behavior. Substantively, the article suggests that Palin may have contributed to a loss of support among “swing voters.”

This quotation from the piece provides a bit more granularity in terms of the findings:

Given that voters were anything but ambivalent in their feelings toward Palin, a case could be made that Palin both helped and hindered the Republican ticket in 2008. She helped John McCain because she likely shored up his support among the GOP base. But Palin was a lightning rod for Democrats too, who were exceptionally cold in their evaluations. More damaging, perhaps, was that Palin may have eroded support for McCain among critical “swing voters” suchas Independents and moderates.

In the article on intervention, Dursun Peksen of East Carolina University finds that foreign military intevention actually has negative impacts on human rights in target states.  Here is the abstract:

This article examines the effect of foreign armed intervention on human rights conditions in target countries. It is argued that military intervention contributes to the rise of state repression by enhancing the state’s coercive power and encouraging more repressive behavior, especially when it is supportive or neutral toward the target government. Results from bivariate probit models estimated on time-series cross-section data show that supportive and neutral interventions increase the likelihood of extrajudicial killing, disappearance, political imprisonment, and torture. Hostile interventions increase only the probability of political imprisonment. The involvement of an intergovernmental organization or a liberal democracy as an intervener is unlikely to make any major difference in the suggested negative impact of intervention.

Although this is just one study, it should certainly provoke some caution amongst those (liberal interventionists, neoconservatives) who think that military intervention is just the right cure for the disease of “failed” or “bad” states.  The author nicely captures the policy relevance of his work:

The most significant policy implication of the empirical evidence presented previously is that policymakers should take into account the possible negative human rights effect of interventions in weighing the costs and benefits of their decision to intervene. As military intervention becomes a counterproductive policy tool instigating more human rights abuses, the target state will likely experience more violence, humanitarian disasters, and other instabilities given the inherent link between the respect for human rights and the maintenance of peace and security. The negative human rights effect of intervention might also directlyhurt the interests of intervener states and their regional allies due to the possible regional implications of human rights abuses, causing more interstate or civil wars and undermining transnational human rights movements. Accordingly, for a thorough and more accurate assessment of the efficacy of military operations for both intervener and target countries, it is imperative to consider the possible inadvertent human right impacts of intervention even when the use of force accomplishes its initial policy objective(s).

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So says my friend Scott Beaulier, an economist at Troy University:

Immigrants — both legal and illegal — are a force for good. They create jobs, they enrich culture and they make our state a more interesting and dynamic one in which to live. Alabama’s immigration law is a pathetic, backward attempt to play politics and protect Alabamians from the bogeyman of immigration.

Amen.

But reading the comments to the article is enough to make one depressed about one’s fellow Americans – or at least Alabamians.

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Now that the US is going to exit Iraq—finally—perhaps we can take the time to reconsider the war in Afghanistan. With rockets being fired at US troops from Pakistan, I am sure that this weekend’s moment of clarity from President Karzai has raised a few concerns:

“God forbid, if any war took place between Pakistan and the United States, we will stand by Pakistan,” Karzai said an interview broadcast Saturday on Pakistan’s Geo television network. “If Pakistan is attacked and if the people of Pakistan needed Afghanistan’s help, Afghanistan will be there with you.”

Thankfully, Karzai claims that the media has misinterpreted this statement. As the LA Times  reports:

A spokesman for Karzai, Siamak Herawi, said the president had not intended any slight to the Western governments that have spent billions of dollars shoring up the Afghan administration during the 10-year war that has claimed the lives of at least 1,817 American troops.

Thanks for clearing that up. No slight intended, no slight received….One can only wonder how much more treasure and blood we will need to spill in Afghanistan before we declare “mission accomplished” and return home.

 

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Ralf Bader is one of the brightest young lights in the classical liberal world and the discipline of philosophy.  For a relatively new assistant professor at NYU, Bader has already written a lot.  See the research tab here for some of his recent works.  Bader has also penned a concise and readable introduction to Robert Nozick’s thought that also manages to have substantive depth.  I recommend it highly.

In the Nozick book, Bader discusses a rights-based approach to libertarianism and concisely captures its virtue:

In short, adopting a rights-based approach allows us to give a more plausible, more appealing and more robust argument in favor of libertarianism that is not contingent on empirical facts and that cannot easily be avoided by invoking other values.

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Ed Thompson, RIP

Ed Thompson, younger, Libertarian brother of police-state Republican Tommy Thompson and all-around good guy from all reports, has died of cancer. From the article:

Ed Thompson had no interest in politics until police raided the club, Mr. Ed’s Tee Pee, in 1997 for allegedly operating illegal video machines.

He took hits during his gubernatorial bid for running for the state’s highest office without more experience, but he captured 10 percent of the vote in the best third-party showing in Wisconsin in nearly 60 years.

Oddly, the article never mentions that he ran as a Libertarian.

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ABC News has done a carefully researched investigative report on the Department of Energy’s billions of dollars in awards to electric car programs that remain years away from profitability. They lead with a headline intended to appeal to the economic nationalism of the mass public — “Car Company Gets Loan, Builds Cars in Finland” — but in my judgment the worst part of the loans is that they simply don’t make good business sense. And in several instances, they are surrounded with the stink of cronyism.

Fisker is more than a year behind rolling out its $97,000 luxury vehicle bankrolled in part with DOE money. While more are promised soon, just 40 of its Karma cars (below) have been manufactured and only two delivered to customers’ driveways, including one to movie star Leonardo DiCaprio. Tesla’s SEC filings reveal the start-up has lost money every quarter. And while its federal funding is intended to help it mass produce a new $57,400 Model S sedan, the company has no experience in a project so vast.

No surprise there.

Yet an audit this year by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, criticized the Energy Department for not keeping close enough tabs on its fleet of auto loans — including those to Fisker and Tesla — to ensure they meet benchmarks. The funding was issued under the $25 billion Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing loan program, one piece of a giant umbrella of DOE loans and loan guarantees going out the door. “DOE cannot be assured that the projects are on track to deliver the vehicles as agreed,” said the GAO report examining the department’s ATVM program. “It also means that U.S. taxpayers do not know whether they are getting what they paid for through the loans.”

Or there.

The announcement that the plant would re-open followed a heavy lobbying push by Delaware politicians from wesley mouch & co.both parties, who cited the news as a sign of industry’s turnaround. In September 2009, Republican Rep. Mike Castle wrote directly to Energy Secretary Steven Chu, saying the Fisker proposal had “great merit,” and urging Chu to give the company “careful consideration” for the loan.

I’m sure Castle was just wasting his breath, and that the DoE made its decision purely on merit.

Both companies have political heavyweights behind them. One of Fisker’s biggest financial supporters, records show, is the California venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. The firm financially supports numerous green-tech firms, records show.

Kleiner Perkins partner John Doerr, a California billionaire who made a fortune investing in Google, hosted President Obama at a February dinner for high-tech executives at his secluded estate south of San Francisco. Doerr and Kleiner Perkins executives have contributed more than $1 million to federal political causes and campaigns over the last two decades, primarily supporting Democrats. Doerr serves on Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.

I’m sure it’s just a coincidence.

Former Vice President Al Gore is another Kleiner Perkins senior partner.

That too.

Tesla brings political pull, as well. A former Tesla board member, Steve Westly, is an Obama bundler who raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the president in 2008 and for his 2012 re-election campaign. His Westly Group was also a financial supporter of Tesla Motors until Tesla went public in 2010, and Westly continues to back the company.

What do three coincidences make? A super-coincidence?

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This week saw a violent confrontation between Gypsies/travellers and the police as the former were evicted from an illegal camp site at Dale Farm, Essex, UK. There is no doubt in my mind that the decision to evict the Gypsies from the site was the correct one under the terms of British law and land use planning law in particular. There is, however, equally no doubt in my mind that UK law in this regard is oppressive and provides a prime illustration of what happens when private property rights are over-ridden in the name of third party ‘community interests’.

As I understand it, the Dale Farm residents bought the property from whence they were evicted, but they acted illegally in erecting a campsite which had not been granted planning permission. As noted in previous posts on this site development rights in the UK are nationalised – if you own a piece of land you have no right to develop it as such – merely a right to request permission to do so from a local government planning authority which purports to represent ‘the community’. As a consequence, all land use decisions are fundamentally politicised and this typically results in the triumph of local ‘nimbyism’.

The Dale farm residents and other gypsies are unfortunate victims of this nimbyism. Though they were wrong to break the law in erecting an illegal site, the reason that they did so was that it is so difficult for them to legitimately build sites anywhere in the country – even on land that they themselves own. Whenever they apply for permission this is typically refused owing to the hordes of local nimby’s pressuring the local authorities and indeed the national government to keep out what are seen as ‘undesirable residents’.

The plight of the gypsies in this case illustrates very clearly, how in the absence of strong private property rights there is frequently a ‘tyranny of the majority’. Without strong protection of property unpopular minorities wishing to live ‘alternative life styles’ will always be subject to arbitrary interventions supposedly in the name of the ‘common good’. While the majority has every right to pursue its own values and standards of acceptable conduct it should do so through voluntary exchange – buying up property in order to maintain its particular standards within that domain. It should not, however, be able to prevent minorities from engaging in similar exchanges with willing partners so that they may live out their own notion of a good life.

The irony of the Dale Farm case is that many of the leftist and ‘anarchist’ ‘protesters’ who turned up outside the gates of the camp to protect the Gypsies advocate the abolition of private property and the institution of a system in which all decisions are made on the basis of majority rule. Stronger private property rights and the denationalisation of land use control in the UK would provide far better protection for minorities such as the Gypsies – for at root they are the victims of an unrestricted social democracy of which the ‘anarchists’ so approve.

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Another tyrant falls

Many libertarians opposed US involvement in the international effort to oust Gaddafi from power in Libya.  I was not one of that group, though I can see reasons for and against such interventions.

But in any case, we at Pileus ought to at least celebrate the downfall of brutal tyrants, wherever they may be.

So, I say, Good Riddance!

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  • He wants to tax too-big-to-fail banks. My preferred policy would be to enact a credible ban on congressional or Federal Reserve concessionary loans or grants to financial institutions, repeal deposit insurance, repeal most financial regulations, permit solvent banks to suspend payments to depositors, and let a new, free-wheeling marketplace sort things out. But since that’s not going to happen in my lifetime, this proposal is better than nothing.
  • He has refused to sign former NH governor Meldrim Thomson’s son Tom Thomson’s “Pledge to the American People” (Union Leader source now unavailable online). Among some good things, the Pledge also requires the candidate to commit to “total energy independence within eight years,” a fabulously unachievable goal. Unfortunately, Ron Paul signed it. Gary Johnson also refused. Perry, Romney, Santorum, and Bachmann have also signed it.

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The President has been providing moral support for the OWS protesters during his recent appearances.  How genuine is this support? One might take a clue from the Watergate era’s deep throat and “follow the money.” Thanks to a piece in today’s WaPo, this is not a difficult task. As Dan Eggen and T.W. Farnam report:

Obama has brought in more money from employees of banks, hedge funds and other financial service companies than all of the GOP candidates combined, according to a Washington Post analysis of contribution data….

Obama has raised a total of $15.6 million from employees in the industry, according to the Post analysis. Nearly $12 million of that went to the DNC, the analysis shows.

There are multiple ways of interpreting this. It could be the case that the financial community is simply hedging; even if they would prefer a Republican president, they will put some money down on the incumbent to ensure ongoing access.  But it may also be the case that they are relatively pleased with the return on their investments thus far. After all, things might have been far worse for the industry than Dodd-Frank. Yes, new regulatory legislation was passed, but without the kind of restrictions that Paul Volcker had demanded. Yes, there were verbal assaults on levels of compensation, but in the end, there were no restrictions and nothing more than a plea for voluntary restraint. Yes, there was a new financial consumer product safety unit created, but it was buried in the Fed–an agency that represents the industry–and Elizabeth Warren was thrown under the bus.

There has been a massive disjunction between the President’s rhetoric, on the one hand, and his public policies and fundraising activities on the other As one banking exec who raises funds for Obama noted in the piece, reports of dissatisfaction “are exaggerated and overblown.”  As for the rhetoric: “it probably helps from a political perspective if he’s not seen as a Wall Street guy.”

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Can anyone name this unlikely supporter of Obama’s newest military adventure (against the LRA in central Africa)?  He’s a fairly prominent Republican politician, but not one you’d probably think would support such a move.  Here is what he said:

About a year ago Congress authorized action against the Lord’s Resistance Army. President Obama signed that legislation. To my understanding this is the worst terrorist group on the planet over the last few decades. They have been responsible for tens of thousands of deaths. Rapes. They are incredibly bad actors. They are a finite group. This really does in my opinion qualify as what you could lable [sic] as a humanitarian effort or the United States stepping in to stop a genocide. Congress authorized it, the president said yes, and I would’ve as president.

It’s go in, get the job done period, and get out.

I was opposed to what we’re doing in Libya and remain opposed to that. I know that ostensibly was about preventing genocide, but I get the sense we’ve injected ourselves in a civil war in Libya. It’s a country. It’s a government. Lord’s Resistance Army isn’t representative of a government or any government. The only example I can think of for me where this kind of action is warranted is this very action. That isn’t to say that Darfur would not be in the same category, but I am not well versed in that.

One could ask why this politician isn’t calling for even more of a U.S. commitment and broader ROE’s if he really feels/thinks this way.*  If you think something is genocide, don’t you have to do more than send a 100 troops who aren’t authorized to actively engage the enemy (except in self-defense)?

Here is something a little more sensible, from Cato’s Gene Healy:

The LRA is surely a horrible bunch, but, equally surely, they’re no threat to American national security. The president’s decision — in the midst of two ongoing wars — to involve U.S. soldiers in another fight where America has no possible stake, suggests a disturbingly incontinent approach to military intervention.

HT: Reason

* As for those ROE’s, here is what the President noted “although the U.S. forces are combat-equipped, they will only be providing information, advice, and assistance to partner nation forces, and they will not themselves engage LRA forces unless necessary for self-defense.”

UPDATE:  Gary Johnson.  Say it ain’t so!

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…and not a drop to drink.  Of common sense, that is.

Last night in the GOP debate, Romney and Gingrich argued about who was supported the insurance mandate first.  From the transcript, it sounds like Mitt beat Newt (two rather unusual names, incidentally).

I have to confess, though I’m sure to get lots of hate mail, that of all the things that make me ticked off about Big Government, the individual mandate in ObamaCare is not that high on the list.  ObamaCare will be a disaster for many reasons, mostly because real cost controls are only a fantasy component of the Act, because people have little skin in the game that might help contain costs, and because insurance companies are essentially turned from insurers into charitable organizations that are obligated to provide coverage for whoever knocks at their door.

Indeed, the mandate is one of the few parts of the ACA that make any sense and they keep the rest of the monstrosity hanging together, sort of.  If anything, the mandates don’t have enough bite, because the consequences for ignoring them are not high enough.

People are opposed to the mandate on Constitutional grounds, arguing that the government forcing us to buy something is a major new erosion of our already fragile economic liberties.  Randy Bennett refers to it as “commandeering the people,” according to a column by John Fund today of the Wall Street Journal.  This sounds like a fairly sensible libertarian argument, but I’m wondering if it is really just a distinction without a difference.  The mandate says, “Thou shalt buy health insurance (or get slapped on the hand).”  Even if the fines were more substantial, it doesn’t change the fact that the government mandates us to buy things all the time:

  • Thou shalt invest in poorly thought out wind power companies
  • Thou shalt fund ridiculous research that will benefit no one other than professors at research universities (some of my research, for instance)
  • Thou shalt purchase access to National Parks thou wilt never visit.

The list goes on and on.  Every purchase the government makes is a mandate.  I’m being forced to buy a massive number of things I don’t want and prohibited from buying things I do, like decent light bulbs or shower heads strong enough to rinse the soap off my body (forgive me for enticing you with that image).

When someone forces me to pay for something I don’t want, I call that a mandate.  Brother, I see mandates everywhere!

And I haven’t even got to the mandates from states and local governments: If I had a dog, I’d have to buy her a license (and it is my wife, not the government, that won’t let me have a dog!); I have to pay to educate everyone’s kids (fortunately I have enough of my own to get a good return on that expense); my community is forcing me to pay for a new Rec Center (which I will likely use and enjoy but make sure people know that I was forced to pay for it).  Given that local governments specialize in petty tyranny, there is no end in sight.

At least the mandate in the ACA is something that almost all people actually want to buy.  And the feds are giving a very large subsidy to do so.  So what is the problem?   (Ignore for the moment that someone has to actually pay for the subsidies and the fact that paying for other people’s health insurance is far more invasive than being forced to pay for my own insurance.)

Of course I’m not arguing that all these government mandates are a good idea.  The appropriate role of how many mandated expenses should be asked of citizens is a question we should always be asking.  My answer is simple: not too many and only for damn good reasons.

What I’m worried about is that next year the Court will strip out the mandate and leave the rest of the monstrosity in place.  The mandate was the grand bargain in which the insurance companies agreed to insure people regardless of risk and cease, therefore, to be insurance companies.  Without the mandate, the ACA ceases to be a major disaster and becomes a freakin’ major disaster.

When will people learn to complain about the right things?

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I’m frequently asked by people interested in classical liberalism to recommend books within or on that tradition.  I often suggest they start with basic introductions like David Boaz’s Libertarianism: A Reader and Libertarianism: A Primer.  If they seem ready for something more meaty, I might suggest Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom, Frank Meyer’s In Defense of Freedom, or even Albert Jay Nock’s The State of the Union.  Here are some other ideas, including Jason’s suggestions in the comments of Murray Rothbard’s For a New Liberty and Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is Harsh Mistress.

My guess is that The Fund for American Studies’ President Roger Ream gets asked this or a similar question quite often as well since he’s recently compiled a useful list of “Books, Documents, Speeches & Films to Read or See.”  Its range is a bit broader than classical liberalism but well worth a look here.

And here is Roger and others discussing “conservative” books on C-SPAN just recently:

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There are some fascinating poll results today from  USA Today/Gallup.

When asked whom they blame more for the poor economy, 64% of Americans name the federal government and 30% say big financial institutions.

One should not be surprised that the anointed disagree with the great unwashed:

On whom to blame for the economy, only one educational group — people with some post-graduate schooling — were more likely to blame Wall Street instead of Washington. All others — college grads, people with some college, people who never went to college — pointed more at Washington.

So, one might ask, why don’t people mobilize on Washington instead of New York?   Assuming they went to Pennsylvania Avenue, what would they demand? Obvious answer: the rich should pay their “fair share.”  Interestingly, the poll reveals something that fails to make the evening news:

Asked what the wealthiest 1% of Americans — the ones excoriated by Occupy Wall Street —should pay in taxes as a percentage of their income, more than a quarter of people — 28% — have no opinion. Another 21% say the richest should pay 10% or less, and only 18% say they should pay more than 30%.

The results of this poll seem to paint a far more complicated picture than is reported on the evening news—no great surprise.

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Do We Need Publishers?

There is a fascinating piece in today’s NYT on Amazon’s movement into publishing. Money quote:

Amazon will publish 122 books this fall in an array of genres, in both physical and e-book form. It is a striking acceleration of the retailer’s fledging publishing program that will place Amazon squarely in competition with the New York houses that are also its most prominent suppliers.

According to one editor quoted in the piece: “Publishers are terrified and don’t know what to do.”  And perhaps they should be. In words of one Amazon exec: “The only really necessary people in the publishing process now are the writer and reader,” he said. “Everyone who stands between those two has both risk and opportunity.”

There is something wonderful about bypassing the publishing houses, particularly if it dramatically reduces the time between the completion of work and its delivery. For those of us who have published books, the lag time (often a year or more) is frustrating. Moreover, I read many of my books on Kindle or the iPad, and I am constantly struck by the high prices charged for e-books. The marginal cost of each additional book must be close to zero and there is no secondary market, unlike hard copies. Presumably, cutting the publishing houses out of the game could dramatically reduce costs for readers thereby expanding the market and/or increase the royalties for authors.

At the same time, I worry a bit about quality. Most of our academic journals have rejection rates between 90 and 98 percent. The limited space for articles forces editors to be rather ruthless. The same might be said of traditional publishing houses. At least in academic markets, the editor can add a limited number of books to a given series per year. Some (many?) bad books and articles slip through, but I imagine that the number would escalate dramatically in a world free of the traditional gatekeepers.

Is the elimination of the old-style publishing houses inevitable? On balance, will it be a positive occurrence?

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Sorry to be late with this week’s quotation…

Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels has a new book out titled Keeping the Republic: Saving America by Trusting Americans.  Books by sitting politicians are almost always terrible and not worth the pulping cost.  However, I’m eager to read this one since it isn’t about Daniels and doesn’t try to justify his policies in office – plus Daniels is far more thoughtful and well-read than most politicians.  Instead, Keeping the Republic is a philippic about our country’s current plight and an argument for how to save the republic from its many self-inflicted wounds.

Here is Daniels portraying ObamaCare as a Trojan horse (my words, not his) – something I’ve long suspected:

Even a confirmed skeptic of conspiracy theories could survey all of this [evidence from ObamaCare's short history] and wonder if maybe all the chaos that Obamacare will bring was not fully foreseen and planned by its authors.  Unrepealed, Obamacare will unleash a headlong slide of more and more people into direct government-run health care, followed by millions more as smaller insurers are drive from the marketplace and the whole system turns into a highly-regulated utility, virtually indistinguishable from the single-payer system the proponents plainly wanted in the first place.

Skimming through the book only leads to more sadness that Daniels isn’t running for President.

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Phil Izzo had a rather dispiriting piece in yesterday’s WSJ.  It reports the results of the WSJ survey of 50 economists. The key passage:

Americans’ incomes have dropped since 2000 and they aren’t expected to make up the lost ground before 2021, according to economists in the latest Wall Street Journal forecasting survey.

From 2000 to 2010, median income in the U.S. declined 7% after adjusting for inflation, according to Census data. That marks the worst 10-year performance in records going back to 1967. On average, the economists expect inflation-adjusted incomes to rise over the next decade, but the 5% projected gain isn’t enough to reach prerecession levels.

This comes as no surprise to students of economics and political economy. Indeed, I would argue that the above forecast might prove overly optimistic, given the broader demographic changes in the US and OECD, the problems of unfunded liabilities, the amount of deleveraging that is required, the instability in international financial markets, and the growing power of emerging economies.

But even if we stick with the assumption that there will be no gains in inflation-adjusted median incomes for the period 2000-2021, the ramifications could be significant.

On the policy side, it would be far easier to find a path to long-term fiscal sustainability in an economy that generates growing revenues and declining demand for income support.

On the political and cultural side, the implications could be equally important. For most of US history—and most certainly, for the postwar period—there was a broadly held expectation of growing incomes and an improved quality of life. To be certain, this expectation was dashed for much of the population, as inflation adjusted wages began to stagnate in the 1970s. But what happens when this expectation is thoroughly discredited and the vast majority of the population comes to believe that tomorrow will be no better than today—and perhaps a good deal worse?

  • Will individuals assign a higher discount rate to the future?
  • Will they stop investing in human capital?
  • Will the decline in fertility rates accelerate?
  • Will politics simply degenerate into a redistributive battle over a shrinking pie?

Or am I being overly pessimistic?

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As the 12-member, bipartisan, deficit-cutting super committee spins its wheels in search of $1.2 trillion in deficit reductions, there is a growing sense of skepticism over whether it will reach its goal. The stakes are high. As the Washington Post notes:

failure to produce a measure would trigger painful across-the-board cuts to the Pentagon budget and a big slice of domestic programs. Programs like Social Security, food stamps and the Medicaid health care program for the poor and disabled would be exempt from the automatic cuts, but farm subsidies could bear cuts and even politically popular Medicare could too, though any cuts would be limited to 2 percent of the Medicare budget. The idea behind this so-called sequester was to force the two sides to come together because the alternative is too painful.

Fortunately, nothing focuses the mind like the hangman’s noose, and so we should expect the GOP’s reluctance to raise taxes and the Democrat’s steadfast refusal to cut entitlements to dissipate as the deadline approaches.

Indeed, there is already evidence of bipartisanship is search of a serious solution.  As Anna Palmer (Politico) reports, the solution involves the legalization of online betting.

Conservative firebrand Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) and New England liberal Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) are talking up members of the powerful deficit-slashing committee, arguing that virtual betting could boost tax revenue and even create jobs.

And the pair isn’t alone in its support of the industry. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) tried to slip legalizing language into a must-pass tax package last year. And even supercommittee member Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who has opposed the idea, appears to be softening. …

“Several of us are trying to get it into the supercommittee,” Frank told POLITICO. “It would create $40 billion [in revenue] over 10 years.”

There are some interesting dimensions to this story. For example,  in what appears to be a classic case of mud farming, Kyl and Reid have been pressuring the Justice Department to pursue illegal internet gambling while collecting donations from the industry as they promote legalization. And they are not alone in extracting support from the industry.    According to Palmer, Frank and Barton have both received campaign contributions from Full Tilt Poker, a company that has been accused by the Justice Department of running “a $440 million Ponzi scheme” (the Justice Department has already charged Full Tilt and others with bank fraud, money laundering, and illegal gambling). As one might expect, Rep. Frank “has put the $18,500 he received from Full Tilt and others related to the company in trust either to reimburse people who lost money or to donate to a cause related to online gambling.” Other congressional recipients of Full Tilt money are doing similar things (for those who are interested, the Boston Globe’s coverage can be found here).

There is, unsurprisingly, a lot of money to account for. As the Las Vegas Review-Journal notes: “Executives of FullTilt and the Poker Players Alliance PAC spent more than $500,000 in federal political contributions since supportive lawmakers began efforts four years ago to legalize online gambling, according to federal records.”

Undoubtedly, this is little more than a sad little sideshow in the larger circus of government. But there is something rather ironic when, in the face of concerns over the implosion of entitlement trust funds that seem to be remarkably Pozi-like in their funding mechanisms, the best we can do is draw on a stream of revenues from online gambling. It seems equally ironic that Rep. Frank who minimized the risks of a collapsing housing bubble and proclaimed “I want to roll the dice a little bit more in this situation towards subsidized housing” once again turns to the tables for a solution.

Deficit Reduction—You  Can’t Win If You Don’t Play.

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It is easy, all too easy, to make sport at the expense of the Wall Street “occupiers.” They are overeducated, whiney, and spoiled, they have no coherent plans, objections, or complaints, and on top of everything they are coarse, ill-mannered, and uncouth. Welcome to many college campuses across the country.

But two recent articles make me think there might yet be a silver lining here. Jenna Ashley Robinson argues that a large part of the anger and frustration the occupiers feel is a result of their having been sold a bill of goods: everyone from the President to their high school guidance counselor has insisted that a college education is an absolute necessity not only to leading a morally acceptable life but also to a well-paying job. Naively believing this fairytale, thousands and thousands of students have incurred debts and spent a lot of time getting a college degree—and now here they are, without having mastered any real or marketable skills, with few and limited job prospects, and with a lot of attitude.

Rutgers sociologist Jackson Toby argues that a similar pattern might help explain why so many young people—including many college graduates—have been willing to risk their lives in the recent Arab uprisings. They too were told how important it was to get a college degree, at almost any cost and no matter what else they wanted to do in life. Now here they are as well: educated, many years older, and without jobs or prospects.

Return now to the Wall Street protesters. Perhaps one thing they might help precipitate is the looming bursting of the “education bubble,” which so many have discussed and predicted (see particularly this article in The Economist). This is much to be hoped for. Higher education has been overpromising and underdelivering, and at increasingly absurd prices, for some time now.

And students have indeed been sold a bill of goods. Consider:

It is false and offensive to suggest that one cannot lead a good, noble, and honorable life without a college degree. It is moreover false and foolish to believe that a college degree is an absolute good, worth having at almost any price. It is unfortunately true that for most colleges and universities and for most students no real educational value is obtained, in skills or knowledge; indeed, in many cases, the training in bad moral and intellectual habits, combined with the unrealistic belief in having achieved skill or knowledge, might actually constitute a value substracted. Finally, it is lamentably true that for a great number of students who attend college, the cost in money, time, and opportunity forsaken, is simply not worth it.

I have had several conversations recently with recent graduates of top universities in the New York area who have no job, no concrete idea what their education prepared them to do, and, in most cases, debt. For some of them, their parents paid the entire bill, so the student, thankfully, has no debt, but the parents’ sacrifice was enormous. Was it worth it? Perhaps. But there are a lot of people for whom it is obvious—painfully obvious—that it is not worth it, and they are figuring that out.

It might be too late for the Wall Street protesters to do anything about it in their own cases, since many of them have apparently already gone to college and gone into debt. But perhaps their frustrations, however incoherent and unfocused they might otherwise be, will help convey the message to younger people and to their parents that the time might finally have come to do a cost/benefit analysis before going, or sending one’s children, to college. That realization is a long time coming. I suspect many colleges and universities will not like the results of such calculations, but everyone else will be better for it.

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The latest issue of Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization is dedicated to James Buchanan’s work. Some of the most provocative pieces here include Kliemt on Buchanan as Kantian, Leeson on why clubs have self-enforcing constitutions and governments do not, and Voigt on how to test hypotheses drawn from constitutional economics. Especially recommended for those interested in the overlap between Austrian economics and public choice.

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On Education

Bryan Caplan continues his argument against, well …, education (at least as we traditionally think if it):

Unless I misunderstand her, Ravitch draws a radically different conclusion.  To her, a dynamic economy somehow argues for a traditional academic education focused on literature, history, science, and foreign languages.  What a non sequitur.  Yes, it’s hard to figure out which occupation students will have in the future.  How is that a reason to prepare students for occupations they almost certainly won’t have?  The economy is changing in countless ways, but it would be amazing if literature or history saw major job growth.  It’s easier to imagine job growth in science and (living) foreign languages.  But is the labor market really likely to reward the degree of scientific or linguistic competence the typical student can realistically attain?  A B+ in high school science or foreign language* doesn’t open occupational doors for you today, and probably won’t in the future, either.

I think Bryan is too strong here.  It isn’t that obtaining a traditional education in which one studies history or literature or even the sciences will directly get you a job in one of those fields.  It is that a certain course of liberal arts education develops the way you think and the way you can conceive of the world such that one is well-prepared for a host of different jobs.  And that includes doing more than just taking a wide-variety of classes.  It means immersing oneself in the study of a particular discipline at the same time as you surround that intensive study with some connected breadth.  Indeed, with a rapidly changing economy, that type of education will be even more valuable given that it rewards a critical and flexible mind rather than one that sees the world through a specifically trained lens.

And no, I don’t outright reject the signaling model of education.  Indeed, the right model of the value of education would include many factors besides what one studies.  And I accept the possibility I think this way to avoid cognitive dissonance!

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  1. Jordan Rappaport, “Moving to Nice Weather,” Regional Science and Urban Economics. U.S. residents have been moving en masse to places with nice weather. Well known is the migration towards places with warm winters, which is often attributed to the introduction of air conditioning. But people have also been moving to places with cooler, less-humid summers, which is the opposite of what is expected from the introduction of air conditioning. Nor can the movement to nice weather be primarily explained by shifting industrial composition or by migration of the elderly. Instead, a large portion of weather-related movement appears to be driven by an increased valuation of nice weather as a consumption amenity, probably due to broad-based rising per capita income.
  2. Nathan J. Ashby, “Freedom and International Migration,” Southern Economic Journal. Economic freedom attracts immigrants.
  3. Duggan, Hjalmarsson, & Jacob, “The Short Term and Localized Effect of Gun Shows: Evidence from California and Texas,” Review of Economics and Statistics. We examine the effect of more than 3,400 gun shows using data from Gun and Knife Show Calendar and vital statistics data from California and Texas. Considering the one month following each show and a surrounding area ranging from 80 to 2,000 square miles, we find no evidence that gun shows increase either gun homicides or suicides. The similarity of our estimates for California and Texas suggests that the much tighter California gun show regulations do not substantially reduce the number of firearms-related deaths in that state. Using incident-level crime data for Houston, Texas, we also find no evidence of an effect on other crime categories.

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One Upper, One Downer

1.  Good for you Slovakia.  Just say no to sovereign welfare!

2.  Depressing to think that the President for the next four years is probably going to be the current occupant or Mitt Romney.  If the latter, let’s just hope the political wind blows in the right direction.  Yes, he’ll be an upgrade on Obama but will he set back the freedom agenda?  I keep whispering to myself, “Remember the Court, Remember the Court” (which includes a huge assumption, right Mr. Souter?!).

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Iranian Plot

Breaking news on an Iranian plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. in Washington and to attack foreign embassies on American soil and elsewhere.  Here are some key readings:

1.  The Wall Street Journal on the alleged plot – Informative but a little strong for a first cut and with a gratuitous shot at Republican realists (whom the Journal claims are isolationists).

Note to Journal: Even though there are hardly any – if any – real isolationists in the Republican Party or the US government, you should note that isolationism as commonly understood does not rule out the use of force or a muscular foreign policy when the national interest dictates.  It simply means a grand strategy that disdains permanent peacetime alliances, favors the minimal use of force necessary to secure the national interest narrowly defined, and a general norm of non-intervention except in exceptional cases.

2.  A U.S. response under consideration

3.  U.S-Saudi and Saudi-Iranian relations discussed in light of the plot.

My quick late-night but not so thoughtful or well-informed take:

The hawk in me seems to think this, if true, would be a pretty egregious assault on our sovereignty/interests deserving of an assertive – even muscular - response.  But how centrally directed was the plot within Iran?  Of course, no evidence of central direction does not mean it was not informed by the Iranian regime given it would want plausible deniability.  But I wonder how much of this is the administration and neocons at the WSJ pushing a story that we don’t have all the details on yet???  But who knows.

Looking forward to reading more about this tomorrow and hearing analysis from foreign policy experts like Chris Preble at Cato who generally have a healthy dose of skepticism in their work (hence the blog, The Skeptics).  But it looks pretty bad right now.

UPDATE, 12:32 Eastern Time: Folks around the internet are asking the kind of things that made me wonder from the beginning if we hadn’t heard the whole story yet — like, why would Iran want to do such a thing given the serious downsides?  And, are they really that dumb?

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Left-Right Alliance?

A not insubstantial amount of money, time, and intellectual effort was spent in the 70′s by libertarians hoping to achieve a meaningful libertarian-liberal alliance.  It wasn’t exactly what Frank Meyer meant when he talked about fusionism.   And it wasn’t as successful either.  The most recent wave of this hope – liberaltarianism – has foundered as well.  These dashed hopes aren’t all that surprising given that even real honest to goodness conservatives (as well as “American conservatives” who are really old school freedom-loving liberals in many ways) are far more amenable than progressives/modern liberals to the values that animate libertarians.  Obama and his supporters have probably helped many libertarians recognize this.  Good for libertarianism, bad for the country!

But these systematic failures shouldn’t prevent American conservatives and libertarians from crossing the ideological divide when possible and making tactical alliances on particular issues.  Opposition to occupational licensing is one such area; leftists like Matt Yglesias have been willing to challenge such regimes and free market enthusiasts should help him push on this front.  Ditto on corporate welfare such as stadium projects.  As we saw recently on Lawyers, Guns, and Money, libgressives (who ordinarily might support public works or “stimulus” projects, especially if they benefit big labor) can be found who occasionally recognize rent seeking corporatist moves for what they are: raids on our collective pockets with negative outcomes for the public at large.  So kudos to Scott Lemieux over there.  Maybe we can find more convergence in the future and let’s keep hammering away together on issues we can agree upon.

For more on how these projects are such a bad deal, see David Boaz here.  Unfortunately, the problem is bigger than major league parks and professional stadia in big cities.

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Given all of the hubbub about Occupy Wall Street and our reaction here to it, I thought it worth posting a few points from our Comments section:

Sven Wilson:

So, the point of my post was that the American Dream has shifted, in many respects, from one of “I can accomplish my goals if I work hard” to one where “If America were just, I should be willing to indulge myself in whatever lifestyle I want”

Sven again:

What the protestors on Wall St. seem clueless about is that one of the main reasons that they have the means and the opportunity to be there is because of the American Corporation.  Indeed, capitalism is far and away the greatest anti-poverty, pro-human rights and development system ever created.  And the apex of that system is the American Corporation.

I’d like to slap around the greedy bankers who contributed significantly to the financial crisis as much as anyone, but this movement seems to be taking on a similar flavor to the usual anti-capitalist, anti-growth nonsense that the idle left usually cooks up.

Sven yet again (he’s very quotable!):

There is a key difference between meaningful self-fulfillment and self-indulgence. And no one is entitled to have others finance their dreams.

Commenter “Chris”:

Restricting the private sector from earning profits while simultaneously pushing for record expansion of government is a sure-fire way to depression.  How this is lost on so many Americans, I’ll never understand … but I blame it on a severe lack of critical thinking in our country.

Commenter “Brendan”:

Libertarians especially should look at this time as an opportunity to educate people and to empathize with the frustration of these protestors. The unifying cause of these guys is that they hate the futility of the situation they are in, and a lot of it has to deal with their own ignorance of economic realities. The last thing a libertarian should do is have a cheap laugh and poke fun — this attitude will only encourage those who empathize and offer the deluded alternative of socialism and regression. Economic hopelessness led to extremism mid-twentieth century Europe. You can already see the trend taking effect in federal politics here.

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