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Archive for June, 2012

Mike Munger, Duke political scientist and sometime Libertarian Party of North Carolina gubernatorial candidate, explains his support for single-payer health insurance:

I would prefer personal responsibility, and a competitive market in health care. Modeled after the very successful, constantly cheaper, constantly better quality, service in Lasik surgery and other “elective” surgeries. If someone, anyone, would even consider going in that direction, that would be fine.

Insurance would be for major problems, big surgeries, accidents. You might have an annual deductible of $5k or more. Doctors would advertise prices (yes, PRICES) of standard surgeries.

Does any of that sound familiar? I didn’t think so. Instead, we have something really bad. Single payer would be better than what we have. Single payer is also better than ACA, by the way, which is why I am not happy about the decision yesterday.

What we have is this…

Click through for the rest. I’m not persuaded by the claim that single-payer is better than what we have now, but I think it might be better than what the PPACA sets up. The fact is that in unregulated states (no community rating or guaranteed issue, elimination riders permitted, low mandated benefits), health insurance is pretty cheap for healthy people, and states are increasingly experimenting with allowing nurse practitioners and dental hygienists to practice independently, making less than half of their respective top-level professional equivalents and presumably passing along the savings to us. The problem is that in unregulated states, unhealthy people can’t get coverage. At all. There are tools that insurance companies can use to make coverage reasonably achievable even for the unhealthy, like elimination riders, but there is strong social pressure against their use. As a result, insurance companies would rather deny coverage to a high risk than offer coverage with exclusions. It looks bad to people to do the second. It makes no sense, but it’s a good case study of how social pressure can influence markets just as much as law and policy. And yes, mandated ER care is a problem, but uncompensated ER care is something around $50 billion a year – not a huge enough number to be driving cost inflation. Finally, the employer health insurance deduction probably means that the employed are over-insured, but the fact is that people want low-deductible, expensive, gold-plated health insurance. Some of the rise in health care costs is being driven by the market. People are willing to pay high prices even for a very small marginal benefit in treatment technology. Single-payer would probably drive down costs, at the expense of a small amount of quality – but people put tremendous value on that small amount of quality, and thus the welfare losses would stand to be huge.

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I am working on a book on socialism this summer, and my preparations for it have led me to read quite a bit of interesting material. Here are a few noteworthy titles, in no particular order:

1. How Much is Enough? Money and the Good Life, by Robert and Edward Skidelsky (New York: Other Press, 2012). They press an old—very old—objection to capitalism, namely, that it unleashes and even encourages base motives and unbecoming goals. They claim in particular that capitalism has two kinds of “defects”: the first, the “moral defects,” are that it “relies on the motives of greed and acquisitiveness, which are morally repugnant,” and it allows the “coexistence of great wealth and great poverty,” which “offends our sense of justice.” The second kind are “capitalism’s palpable economic defects,” which are that it “is inherently unstable,” as well as “inefficient, wasteful and painful” (pp. 5-6). “We know,” they assert, “prior to anything scientists or statisticians can tell us, that the unending pursuit of wealth is madness” (8). The book contains some interesting history of both objections to and defenses of capitalism, and it does a good job rehearsing some standard objections; its treatment of the connection between happiness and wealth, for example, is particularly well done. Its treatment of the alleged injustice of capitalism is frustratingly cursory, however—the authors seem to believe it is self-evident that inequality is bad per se, and thus give little further discussion—and they, like many other commentators, are guilty of assuming that their schedule of values is the one everyone should have. Still, if the simple life of yesteryear, with a vision of tranquility and contentment, appeals to you, then this book might as well.

2. What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, by Michael J. Sandel (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012). I had high hopes for this book. Its author is an eminent philosopher at Harvard who has done important and careful work, and the putative topic—namely, that not all aspects of human social life should function like markets—is one to which I was already sympathetic. But this book ultimately disappoints. The level of argument is too often superficial, and the points he makes are often gratuitous. He refers repeatedly, for example, to something he calls “market triumphalism,” which he apparently thinks is what drives most of American politics, economics, and culture. Yet his evidence for this is only anecdotal, and it does not coalesce into a clear notion of exactly what this “market triumphalism” is supposed to be. Criticism of free markets and capitalism have not exactly been absent over the last thirty years (the time frame Sandel mainly discusses), and it is at least arguable that governments at all levels—local, state, and federal—have expanded, not contracted, their reaches during that time. Sandel finds “distasteful” many things that people are willing to pay for (as do I, even if his and my preferences do not exactly coincide), but nothing follows from that—certainly not any particular political policy. He doesn’t like that people pay others to stand in lines for them, for example; well, okay, but so what? He also does not like that people often consider things like tradeoffs and opportunity costs when making decisions; he thinks that means that the market is “crowding out” other motives. But some, like Pete Boettke for example,might argue that that is simply the “economic way of thinking”—and we could use a lot more of it. A more systematic presentation of Sandel’s position, along with a more careful defense of it, could, I think, have made this book much more powerful.

3. The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future, by Joseph E. Stiglitz (New York: Norton, 2012). I have not finished reading this book yet, so I will reserve final judgment until I do. I can say, however, that it is a bit surprising to discover a Nobel Prize-winning economist so thoroughly distrustful of markets and so thoroughly trusting of government regulation. At times it seems that he thinks that if we would just put people like him in charge of “running the economy,” things would go so much more smoothly. One aspect of his argument is a reprise of Charles Murray’s main point in his recent book, Coming Apart, namely that there are growing cultural divides in America that threaten to have serious repercussions in the not-too-distant future. Stiglitz’s contribution to this discussion is to claim that these divides are primarily the result of bad economic policy, as opposed to various other factors like politics, culture, demographics, etc. Stiglitz also treats too lightly the inequality-entails-unfairness claim, seeming to believe that merely pointing out that a set of institutions allows inequality is enough by itself to condemn it. But perhaps Stiglitz deepens the discussion of this point in the latter parts of the book. If so, I will make the proper notice.

There are several other books on my list, including works by Fr. Robert Sirico, Peter Boettke, Alan Kahan, Allan Meltzer, Tyler Beck Goodspeed, and by Nicholas Capaldi and Theodore Roosevelt Malloch. Perhaps I can write mini-reviews of them in future posts.

In the meantime, are there other books or articles I should be reading? I would be most grateful for suggestions.

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Consider the following two policy options:

  • Option A: You are required to buy health insurance.  If you do not, you must pay a penalty of X dollars.
  • Option B: Everyone’s taxes are raised by X dollars.  If you have health insurance, you get a tax rebate of X dollars.

How are these options different? In simple economic terms, they are functionally equivalent.  The only significant difference is that under option A, the non-insured are effectively lawbreakers.  Under option B, they are not.  Being a classified as a lawbreaker may have a range of implications on a person’s later life.

In recent months, many people have gotten all worked up about the mandate aspect of Option A.  But if you are someone who would not be insured otherwise, both options A and B have the effect of either mandating that you pay X dollars to the government or mandating that you buy insurance.  Both policy options are mandates that are, in dollar terms, equivalent (though A has the additional stigma of being a lawbreaker).

I see no reason to get any more worked up by the mandate in option A than the mandate in option B.  And the problem is those with an anti-mandate fetish get diverted from focusing on issues that really matter, such as the fact that ObamaCare is lousy policy for so many other reasons besides the mandate (which actually has some upsides as well).

Now we have Chief Justice saying that, since the two options are functionally equivalent, we might as well call them both taxes.  He understands the equivalence between options but does not seem to understand the larger implications of his decision.  In an attempt to preserve some limited scope for the commerce clause, he has essentially rendered it superfluous.  If everything can be cast as a tax (which a clever economist can always do), and government’s power to tax is unconstrained, then the commerce clause is irrelevant.

Which brings us to the question of real import: what should the government do in terms of changing the provision of health insurance?  That is what the debate should be over, not what type of policy tool the government uses to coerce us to pay for it.

Addendum: Richard Epstein summarizes things nicely (as usual): “Chief Justice Roberts has ignored this fundamental principle: If direct regulation is beyond the scope of the Commerce Clause (as he held), then taxation as an indirect route to the same regulation should be off limits as well (as he failed to hold). This is a baby that should not be split. His attempt to do so undermines his ruling, the court and the Constitution.”

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First, for most Americans the amount due will be far less than the price of insurance, and, by statute, it can never be more. It may often be a reasonable financial decision to make the payment rather than purchase insurance . . .

Indeed, it is estimated that four million people each year will choose to pay the IRS rather than buy insurance. See Congressional Budget Office, supra, at 71. We would expect Congress to be troubled by that prospect if such conduct were unlawful. That Congress apparently regards such extensive failure to comply with the mandate as tolerable suggests that Congress did not think it was creating four million outlaws. It suggests instead that the shared responsibility payment merely imposes a tax citizens may lawfully choose to pay in lieu of buying health insurance.

So the tax is acceptable, in part, because it is trivial.

Imagine, for the sake of argument, you accept the basic position that it is the state’s responsibility to provide universal health care coverage.

The problem: to the extent that the tax is trivial, it will be ineffective. That is, it would be quite rational—as recognized by Roberts—for an individual to pay a small tax and avoid large premiums.  It would be rational, once again, to do this up to the moment when one would require serious medical attention, at which point the ACA limits the amount that can be charged for entry into the system and prohibits discrimination based on pre-existing conditions.

The ACA—by design or by accident—seemed to neglect this issue.

Another point: while one might have little concern over those who make a rational decision not to purchase insurance, one might have a far different response to those who want insurance but simply do not have the wherewithal to purchase it. These were the folks who might have been covered by the expansion of Medicaid. Now that states cannot be punished for refusing to extend Medicaid as required under the ACA, I am assuming many (most) states will not provide additional coverage.

Yes, the Court upheld the ACA. But was it really more than a short-term victory for those who believe that the state has an obligation to provide universal health care coverage?

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The Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act (don’t call it “Obamacare”!) gives me a great sigh of relief. Although I was one of those who thought it well-nigh impossible to be overturned when the lawsuits were initially filed, over the last several months I began to think that there was actually a chance it could happen. I must say I am enormously relieved that the ACA will remain the law of the land.

The primary reason for my relief is that my health care bills are big, and getting bigger. And as I age, I expect they will continue to go up, as I will need various tests, procedures, medications, and so on. These are expensive! And I really believe that I have been having to pay too high a proportion of those costs myself. I do not ask to get sick, so why should I have to shoulder the entire burden of the costs of my illnesses?

The so-called individual mandate is absolutely necessary to the functioning of ACA. Remember, “affordable” is the first word in its name—and affordability could not be accomplished if younger and healthier people were not required to pay for insurance that they would not use. We assume they will consume less in health benefits than they will pay, which means that the remainder will go to pay for people like me who are the reverse—consuming more than we pay for. Without the individual mandate, many of those younger and healthier people would simply have not bought insurance, because they (selfishly) would have seen it as a bad bargain; but that would have meant that there would not be the funds to pay for others’ health care.

Now, however, they will be required to pay, which means I, like millions of others like me, won’t have to pay as much for my own care. That does mean, I concede, that we are effectively using others to serve our own ends. By not allowing those younger and healthier people the chance to give or withhold their voluntary consent, a Kantian might say we are violating their rational autonomy, their moral agency, their ‘personhood’—using them merely as a means to our own ends, thus violating the Categorical Imperative of morality. But that is far too extreme and restrictive a standard. Sometimes social justice requires violating others’ “rational autonomy” just a bit, especially when others benefit so much from it.

Now it is true that among those younger and healthier who will now be paying for my and others’ health care benefits are my own children. And because they are my children, I do worry about the financial burden that is now placed on them to pay the trillions of dollars this will cost (in addition, of course, to the trillions of dollars in national debt we already have that will also be their burden). But they are still young enough that they don’t really notice it at the moment. And, in any case, I have sacrificed a lot for them, so why shouldn’t they sacrifice for me? Plus, they have been irritating me recently anyway, so I’m not exactly inclined to “put the children first,” if you know what I mean. When it comes time for them to pay these bills, let them figure out a way to do it. Maybe they can put it off on their children.

A perhaps surprising benefit of the ACA is that it makes me care much more about my fellow Americans, especially those younger and healthier ones. I may not care about them as so-called rationally autonomous moral agents, but now I do very much care about them as laborers generating the wealth that will fund my health care. They need to keep working, and I am really concerned about their ability, and willingness, to do so. So I will be thinking about them a lot, and I will be most interested to make sure that Secretary Sibelius adopts appropriate measures to ensure that their willingness to keep working hard does not flag.

This, then, is a great day for our social democracy. The nineteenth-century economist Frédéric Bastiat once wrote that under any government, there are only three possibilities: (1) the few plunder the many, (2) everybody plunders everybody, and (3) nobody plunders anybody. Although Bastiat argued for option (3), that was a pretty extreme position. It wasn’t very practical, and it was also extremely limiting as to what the government could do. The ACA is more like option (1), which, for those of us among the “few,” is clearly the best option.

As it happens, just this week my family and I have been struggling with some relatively difficult health care decisions. Cost was one large part of our considerations. Thanks to President Obama and the ACA, however, cost will soon be a much smaller factor in the health care decisions we make. Also, soon we won’t have to worry about difficult decisions like which tests or procedures to have, or which medications to take. Not only will the costs be borne by others, but the hard decisions will be made by others too. I don’t know who those “others” will be, but another underappreciated aspect of the ACA is that it doesn’t matter—I don’t have to know who they are. Just as long as it’s not me!

If you are my age or older, then, I hope you will join me in celebrating this day. If you are younger, I hope you will come to appreciate how important you are to me and those like me. We need you, now more than ever! The ACA will now give you a chance to really do your patriotic and moral duty. Remember, sacrifice is always involved when doing one’s duty. So if you find your patriotism wavering in the future, just keep in mind that you are doing your part to keep America strong!

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Markets fall after ObamaCare ruling?

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Huh?  Orin Kerr at VC notes this about That Man in the Supreme Court’s thinking:

If I am reading the Chief Justice’s opinion correctly, the upshot is that real economic mandates are beyond the power of Congress. Congress can’t force action where there was none. The individual mandate is constitutional because despite the name, it’s not really a mandate. It’s called a mandate, but in practice it’s really just a small tax, and the enforcement mechanism is pretty light. So Congress lacks the power to say that you go to jail if you don’t buy health insurance. But Congress has the power to encourage you to get health insurance by imposing a tax if you don’t, as long as the tax isn’t so coercive that it’s really more than just a tax. (emphasis added)

What happens when you refuse to pay a tax?  Can’t you ultimately be sent to jail?  Is the IRS coming after you really not “so coercive”?

This ruling on the tax smells to high heaven.

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I respect Jonathan a lot but I’m not optimistic at all.  Still, worth reading his “lose battle, win war” piece here.

Sure, democracy is still a bulwark of sorts and politicians may find it harder to pass such things in the future when they will be seen clearly as taxes.  But if the Founders thought that representation was enough to protect liberty, they wouldn’t have gone through so much trouble to carefully enumerate the government’s powers and the limits and checks upon them.  When the taxing power becomes a highway for government unlimited by anything but elections, I think it is “lose a battle here and there, win a battle here and there, lose the war.”

UPDATE: This comment from Jason seems to fit here and follows my thought exactly – and why I’m pessimistic:

I wonder whether there are any limits, though. Could you impose an essentially infinite tax in order to force everyone to comply or go to prison? Are there any such limits to Roberts’ logic? After all, we could just punish crimes the same way: impose a super-high tax on it that no one could pay, then send violators to prison for tax evasion. Mandate, tax – a distinction without a difference, it seems to me.

UPDATE: More Adler here.

LATER UPDATE: As we begin to digest, we see that there are some limits.  As Jason notes below in his update to his post, Roberts did supply a rather odd limit that would seem to make it harder to impose an effective tax.  But will such a limitation stick?  And does it matter that much since Congress can’t impose a million dollar tax to incentivize you to buy a Volt but it can tax you a fair bit to purchase something you don’t want?!  Smell like liberty to you?

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…$1 billion tax on nonpossession of Chevy Volts. Not a mandate!

UPDATE: Roberts’ opinion actually addresses my concern:

First, for most Americans the amount due will be far less than the price of insurance, and, by statute, it can never be more. It may often be a reasonable financial decision to make the payment rather than purchase insurance, unlike the “prohibitory” financial punishment in Drexel Furniture. 259 U. S., at 37. Second, the individual mandate contains no scienter requirement. Third, the payment is collected solely by the IRS through the normal means of taxation—except that the Service is not allowed to use those means most suggestive of a punitive sanction, such as criminal prosecution. See §5000A(g)(2). The reasons the Court in Drexel Furniture held that what was called a “tax” there was a penalty support the conclusion that what is called a “penalty” heremay be viewed as a tax. . . .

The bottom line is that a sufficiently ineffective mandate can count as a tax. Mull that one over.

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Trying to coin a phrase but this is all that comes to mind:  A switch of one that hurt a ton.  Yep, it ain’t my calling.

Great point here on how sweeping this ruling may be (though we’ll need time to digest):

@JonahNRO If Congress can coerce anyone into anything by calling the penalty a “tax.” Then Commerce Clause is unnecessary for big govt.

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Mandate is not a tax according to President Obama, 2009.

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Huh?

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If you really have to get the ObamaCare news as soon as possible, SCOTUSblog is the place to be.  I was glued to it earlier in the week.  Now, after the Washington Post did a story on the site, I worry that its system will crash and I’ll have to wait a few more seconds for AP to post the news ;-)

UPDATE: Here is a helpful reader’s guide to understand the opinion once it comes out in PDF.

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Intrade - an on-line prediction market – has ObamaCare’s individual mandate being ruled unconstitutional at 72.2% (though this is down 3.7% today).

I spent part of the evening getting “motivated” (as they say in the Army) for a pro-liberty outcome tomorrow by watching part of the PBS series “Liberty” with my kids.  So inspiring to see our forefathers defeating the British under Burgoyne at Bennington and Saratoga.  I’ll be honest – we just happened to be at this place in the series, so it wasn’t on purpose that we were thinking about these great turning points in our history. 

Hopefully tomorrow will be another great day in American history for the cause of liberty.  But like Washington (who had to wait for news of the battles like us tonight), I worry that the odds are long and the strongest forces are arrayed against that cause.  However, in these times that try our own souls, maybe tomorrow – like that day at Saratoga – will be a turning point in the fight for freedom.  No matter how it shakes out, we – like the Americans in 1777 – still have a long way to go to rescue our liberties.  I can’t wait for 10 am.

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Harvard economist Ed Glaeser weighs in on federal mandates in general:

Although I am open to having state governments require more health coverage, I fear a federal government with too much power to control individual behavior. The track record of federal interventions in managing markets suggests a strong case for limiting that power.

The question of bestowing appropriate power on the federal government depends not on the health-care issue alone, but on whether you think — on the whole — that the U.S. government does good things when it heavily regulates behavior. The 1942 case that is often cited as a precedent for health care, Wickard v. Filburn, provides the perfect example of why I fear this control….

There are many reasons to leave control over markets, such as health care, to state governments. States have tougher budget constraints, which discipline spending. States can adapt to local tastes, so Massachusetts can have more intervention than Texas. If people don’t like a state’s rules, they can always move elsewhere. Local experiments provide the evidence that can lead to real progress.

I’m not against all health-care mandates, but the history of federal overreach is worrisome, and I’d be happier if the Supreme Court decides that the law limits this ability to manage markets.

I don’t agree with everything in the article, and it’s unclear whether he favors a federal “tax penalty” on the uninsured to replace the “mandate,” or whether this is also something he prefers state governments do, but it’s refreshing to see a clear and sensible articulation for a more thoroughly federalist construction of the Constitution.

(For my part, tomorrow’s decision is ho-hum unless the whole bill is struck down. Community rating, guaranteed issue, rate review (price controls), Medicaid expansion, and the associated tax increases are all a bigger deal for the economy than the individual mandate.)

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Two good WAGs in Forbes on what Roberts will do:  He’ll strike it down (in part); no he won’t, he’ll uphold.

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Policy wonks and pundits are waiting in anticipation for tomorrow’s decision on the Affordable Care Act (I know it was one of the first things that crossed my mind this morning as I prepared for the day).  Although social scientists may not be too good at making predictions, I think most of us could  have long ago written the talking points for both sides of the dispute with great accuracy. But what of the public at large? Will the decision factor into their decisions in November? Will the Democrats and Republicans be able to use tomorrow’s decision effectively as a rallying point? I have my doubts.

The newly released NBC/WSJ poll has several questions on the SCOTUS and the Affordable Care Act.

From what you have heard about Barack Obama’s health care plan that was passed by Congress and signed into law by the President in 2010, do you think his plan is a good idea or a bad idea? If you do not have an opinion either way, please just say so.

  • Good idea: 35%
  • Bad idea: 41%
  • Do not have an opinion: 22%
  • Not sure: 2%

I am not certain how the Obama administration will spin a defeat at the Supreme Court (should it be handed a defeat). The obvious take is to present the Supremes as activist and counter-majoritarian. But in a world where only 35 percent think the Affordable Care Act was a “good idea,” will this spin have much traction outside of the 35 percent, who are likely already strong supporters of a second term?

If the Supreme Court rules that the health care law is unconstitutional meaning that it will not be implemented would you be pleased, disappointed, or would you have mixed feelings about it?

  • Very pleased: 27%
  • Somewhat pleased: 10%
  • Somewhat disappointed: 5%
  • Very disappointed: 17%
  • Mixed feelings: 39%
  • Not sure : 2%

Once again, how do you frame a defeat? 37 percent would be pleased, 22 percent would be disappointed, and those who would be pleased appear far more passionate about the issue. But overall, “mixed feelings” carry the day.

Now, if the Supreme Court rules that the part of the health care law called the individual mandate, that requires everyone to either have or buy health insurance is unconstitutional and will not be implemented, do you think this will help you and your family, hurt you and your family, or not make much difference either way?

  • Help: 18%
  • Hurt: 25%
  • Not make difference: 55%
  • Not sure: 2%

This may be the most interesting result. The vast majority of Americans get their healthcare through employers, Medicare or Medicaid. They are already covered and, as a result, they may feel that they don’t really have a dog in the fight when it comes to the personal mandate.

Bottom line: although those with hard positions will praise or curse the outcome, for most voters, I assume the response will be: Meh!

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Caught this NPR program on higher education in the car on Tuesday: here.  Well worth a listen if you are interested in issues confronting the costs of college.  As many have noted before, full-time faculty aren’t the reason for the increase in the sticker price.  Here is what Kevin Carey of the New America Foundation had to say: 

“[Professors] are not the beneficiaries of large increases in college spending that has gone on,” he says. “In fact, the percentage of all students taught by non-tenure-track professors — adjuncts, teaching assistants — has gone up and up and up.”

Meanwhile, university administrations have grown — meaning colleges are now employing more provosts, deans and assistant deans than ever before.

“I’m sure that most of those people are working hard at real jobs,” he says. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a good idea to increase spending and pass along many of those costs onto students in the form of higher tuition. … And the more the prices go up, the more that these students who are squeezed out of opportunity are middle-income students, low-income students, and the net effect over time is to make our college and university system no longer the engine of economic mobility that it once was.”

See Sven, I’m not critical of everything NPR does – just where/who it gets its money from!

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One of the depressing things about being a classical liberal in today’s world is that everywhere you turn, there a rent-seeker is and a politician to satisfy him/her.  You can’t escape such news – even on the sports page!  Whether it is the recent renewal of the farm bill (and the more massive, perhaps the more unnoticed it goes?!), Laura Bush and her librarians, or so many other examples noted here, it is enough to turn your stomach.  

Many use the common pigs-at-a-trough metaphor to talk about rent-seekers being like animals that noisily trudge up to government in order to feast on the public’s hard-earned money.  However, this isn’t quite accurate: pigs eat the scraps and ultimately provide value to the farmer who pays for all that slop.  Rent-seekers are actually more like fire-ants who slowly devour an animal alive for their sustenance.  Sure, the ants pay a minor cost in time and effort spent getting the meal – but it is the other animal who pays the biggest part of the bill and slowly dies in the process! 

But back to the sports page.  As the article cited above notes, 4,000 people recently rallied in support of new baskeball palace arena in Seattle that will be funded with up to $200 million of public money.  I read it as the story of multimillionaires trying to get over on the public to satisfy their ambition, personal pleasures, and bottom-line with a little help from those who have always loved when the emperor gives them games in the Colisseum paid out of state coffers.  Of course, this is how the fire-ants/rent-seekers are depicted in the fawning media that sees government funding as a win-win deal.  And no matter Hansen’s lofty (stated) goals - and one wonders about the unstated ones – he (and his rich friends) is trying to get the public to fund a personal interest that he happens to share with other basketball fans.  Is this really what government was designed to do?  Can this really be justified in any serious philosophical sense?

It can’t be done by way of economics/utilitarianism because the economic case against public funding of stadia deals is pretty solid.  Here is how one review – among many – put it:

The large and growing peer-reviewed economics literature on the economic impacts of stadiums, arenas, sports franchises, and sport mega-events has consistently found no substantial evidence of increased jobs, incomes, or tax revenues for a community associated with any of these things.

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Elections on the cheap

One thing is certain about the current political campaign: we are going to hear a never-ending stream of media commentators exaggerating the importance of independent political expenditures because of Citizens United.  This will come in a million subtle and not-so-subtle ways, such as the “news” story today in the Times about how the presidential election is “awash” in money.

As I and others have argued before, the media’s incessant beating of this drum is hardly a surprise.  They prefer an election where media’s talking heads get to shape the story.  They don’t like the competition. But as much as the MSM tries to shout down competing voices, most voters have little interest.

Fortunately the Supreme Court today gave notice that they are not inclined to reverse themselves any time soon.  The Constitutional arguments for free and unfettered elections are so compelling that it is dispiriting that even four leftist judges still want to suppress political participation.  But the Constitution long ago ceased having to have that much to do with Constitutional Law, so we should consider ourselves lucky in this case.  At least the Great Decider, Anthony Kennedy, is still on the right side of this issue—for now, anyway.  His opinions are generally pragmatic rather than principled, but at least he usually stands up for First Amendment freedoms.

But speaking of practical politics, how much does the money matter?  In many ways, campaign spending is the dog that wouldn’t bark.  There is a large amount of scholarly literature on this topic but no indication that spending matters that much.  Big spenders win more races, but it is hard to identify the effects of spending from the effects of being a high-quality candidate (the kind who can attract contributions and be able to spend).  In many races. one candidate vastly outspends the other but the outcome is still quite close.  Or we have bad candidates spending a lot but losing badly anyway.  It is hard to imagine that much of this “new money” is going to matter that much, either

And if money is so important, why do we see so little of it?  Yes, I mean little.  This was a question posed a decade ago by Ansolabehere, Figueiredo and Snyder, whose aptly title analysis in the Journal of Economic Perspectives was “Why is there so little money in U.S. Politics?”  Since the stakes are very high, one might think we should see a lot more than we do—even now, in the post-Citizens United world.

To illustrate this last point, I made a table comparing the top 10 super PAC contributors to the top 10 grossing films in North America during 2012.

The Presidency doesn’t even come close.  Even if this Presidential races ends up costing in the billions, it will still be less money than Americans spend at the movie theatres this year.  (Of course some of those entertainment dollars will end up in coffers of Democratic candidates, so there is some overlap between the tables!)

We hear every day how so and so is going to spend 10, 20, 50 million giving to a Super PAC.  Journalists speak in hushed tones about these giant donations, as if the world were being turned upside down.

Big Deal.  One couldn’t make even a bad movie about the Presidency for that kind of chump change, much less determine the outcome of the real Presidency.

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But here are the decisions below in the big cases today.  My first thought was that the states and federalism lose (again).  But need to read the decisions first.

Arizona immigration decision

Montana campaign finance decision

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From John Locke in “A Letter Concerning Toleration” (1689):

For the Political Society is instituted for no other end but only to secure every mans Possession of the things of this life.  The care of each mans Soul, and of the things of Heaven, which neither does belong to the Commonwealth, nor can be subjected to it, is left entirely to every mans self.  Thus the safeguard of mens lives, and of the things that belong unto this life, is the business of the Commonwealth; and the preserving of those things unto their Owners is the Duty of the Magistrate.  And therefore the Magistrate cannot take away these worldly things from this man, or party, and give them to that; nor change Propriety amongst Fellow-Subjects, (no not even by a Law) for a cause that has no relation to the end of Civil Government; I mean, for their Religion; which whether it is true or false, does not prejudice to the worldly concerns of their Fellow-Subjects, which are the things that only belong unto the care of the Commonwealth. 

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Those of us who are members of the American Political Science Association have received a fair number of emails regarding the House of Representatives’ decision this past May  to eliminate National Science Foundation support for political science research. The standard justification for government subsidies for basic research hinges on the existence of positive externalities. Can this defense extend to the social sciences? To political science? Jacqueline Stevens, political scientist from Northwestern, makes a spirited case in the NYT against NSF support, one that will certainly not be well received by many of her colleagues.

As Stevens notes:

It’s an open secret in my discipline: in terms of accurate political predictions (the field’s benchmark for what counts as science), my colleagues have failed spectacularly and wasted colossal amounts of time and money.

Good opening salvo. However, Stevens ultimately objects not to NSF funding per se, but to funding that goes to quantitative research (not a shock, given that she is a theorist) rather than to the kind of political science she approves of. As she concludes:

Government can — and should — assist political scientists, especially those who use history and theory to explain shifting political contexts, challenge our intuitions and help us see beyond daily newspaper headlines. Research aimed at political prediction is doomed to fail. At least if the idea is to predict more accurately than a dart-throwing chimp.

To shield research from disciplinary biases of the moment, the government should finance scholars through a lottery: anyone with a political science Ph.D. and a defensible budget could apply for grants at different financing levels. And of course government needs to finance graduate student studies and thorough demographic, political and economic data collection.

By way of disclosure, I have benefited from NSF funding in the past. But I wonder, is there any real justification for channeling tax revenues into grants for political science scholarship, particularly at a time when we face severe budgetary problems for as long as the eye can see? I can understand the positive externality argument for basic science research–even if I find it less than persuasive–but are there any real positive externalities outside of the physical and biological sciences?

I wait to be convinced.

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Anna Schwartz, R.I.P.

Economist Anna Schwartz, Milton Friedman’s coauthor of the stunning Monetary History of the United States, died yesterday at the age of 96. The New York Times obit is nicely written, describing her as  the “high priestess of monetarism.”

An excerpt (read the entire obit, it is worth it):

During the financial collapse that began in 2008, she was one of the few economists with a firsthand recollection of the Depression. After praising early moves by Mr. Bernanke, she wrote, at age 93, a bitingly critical Op-Ed article for The New York Times in July 2009 opposing the reappointment of the Fed chairman who had been so influenced by her work.

She contended that Mr. Bernanke had erred in producing “extreme ease” in monetary policy and in failing to warn investors that new financial instruments were difficult to price.

Mrs. Schwartz also held that the government had been a bigger contributor to the crisis than had been widely realized. By her measure, the government had oversold the benefits of homeownership, pushing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-backed mortgage finance giants, to lend increasingly to lower-income borrowers and fostering exceptionally low mortgage rates.

Hard to disagree.  Anna Schwartz, R.I.P.

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Libertarians have generally opposed government mandates to participate in commerce on moral, economic, and constitutional grounds. Certainly, a federal government mandate to buy private health insurance contradicts standard libertarian understandings of the right to property and self-determination and the ability of individuals to decide for themselves their need for insurance (and concomitant skepticism of paternalist justifications for government involvement in health insurance), and runs afoul of textualist interpretations of the U.S. Constitution. A state government mandate would not violate the Constitution, but libertarians would nevertheless still tend to oppose it on the moral and economic grounds already cited.

However, there is one type of insurance mandate to which standard libertarian objections fall short. This is not to say, by any means, that all libertarians would support it, merely that opposition would have to find grounding in contingent, disputable facts. The mandate to which I refer is a requirement that (more…)

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Several commentators have weighed in on President Obama’s decision to stop deporting certain immigrants under 30 who were brought illegally to the country when they were under 16. This morning, Andrew Napolitano and Ilya Somin have come down firmly on opposite sides of this issue.

Napolitano:

Along comes the president, and he has decided that he can fix some of our immigration woes by rewriting the laws to his liking. Never mind that the Constitution provides that his job is “to take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” and that “all legislative power” in the federal government has been granted to Congress. He has chosen to bypass Congress and disregard the Constitution. Can he do this?

There is a valid and constitutional argument to be made that the president may refrain from defending and enforcing laws that he believes are palpably and demonstrably unconstitutional. These arguments go back to Thomas Jefferson, who refused to defend or enforce the Alien and Sedition Acts because, by punishing speech, they directly contradicted the First Amendment. Jefferson argued that when a law contradicts the Constitution, the law must give way because the Constitution is the supreme law of the land and all other laws are inferior and must conform to it. This argument is itself now universally accepted jurisprudence — except by President Obama, who recently and inexplicably questioned the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court to invalidate the Affordable Health Care Act on the basis that it is unconstitutional.

Nevertheless, there is no intellectually honest argument to be made that the president can pick and choose which laws to enforce based on his personal preferences. And it is a profound violation of the Constitution for the president to engage in rewriting the laws. That’s what he has done here. He has rewritten federal law. (emphasis original)

Somin:

Some critics, such as John Yoo and Arnold Kling, attack the president’s decision not on the merits, but on the grounds that he lacks legal authority to choose not to enforce the law in this case.

This criticism runs afoul of the reality that the federal government already chooses not to enforce its laws against the vast majority of those who violate them. Current federal criminal law is so expansive that the majority of Americans are probably federal criminals. That includes whole categories of people who get away with violating federal law because the president and the Justice Department believe that going after them isn’t worth the effort, and possibly morally dubious. For example, the feds almost never go after the hundreds of thousands of college students who are guilty of using illegal drugs in their dorms. The last three presidents of the United States – all have reason to be grateful for this restraint.

Yoo contends that there is a difference between using “prosecutorial discretion” to “choose priorities and prosecute cases that are the most important” and “refusing to enforce laws because of disagreements over policy.” I don’t think the distinction holds water. Policy considerations are inevitably among the criteria by which presidents and prosecutors “choose priorities” and decide which cases are “the most important.” One reason why the federal government has not launched a crackdown on illegal drug use in college dorms is precisely because they think it would be bad policy, and probably unjust to boot. That, of course, is very similar to Obama’s decision here.

Finally,Yoo also argues that prosecutorial discretion does not allow the president to refuse to enforce an “entire law,” as opposed to merely doing so in specific cases. But Obama has not in fact refused to enforce the entire relevant law requiring deportation of illegal immigrants. He has simply chosen to do so with respect to people who fit certain specified criteria, that the vast majority of illegal immigrants do not meet. Even if the president did choose to forego enforcement of an entire law, it’s not clear to me that that is outside the scope of prosecutorial discretion. A president who uses his discretion to “choose priorities” could reasonably conclude that enforcement of federal laws A, B, and C is so much more valuable than enforcement of D that no resources should be devoted to the latter if they could possibly be used for the former.

This is a tough one. If you adopt the constitutional text as your guide, Obama’s actions seem clearly illegal. On the other hand, the constitutional text, interpreted literally, may demand something that is impossible: perfect enforcement. What say you, Pileus readers?

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Cato-Koch News

Apparently a settlement has been reached.  I look forward to hearing details and seeing the great people on both sides continue to press the fight for liberty.

BTW, as you can see from this news story, reporters (and academics) still don’t get that libertarians/classical liberals aren’t conservatives.

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Apologies for the recent lack of posting; I had a medical issue that essentially prevented me from using the computer. 

As regular readers know, I was really hoping that Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana would jump into the presidential race this year.  With his talk of the “red menace” of government debts/deficit and of the need for a truce on the culture wars, I thought Daniels was the candidate most likely to satisfy the preferences of liberty-minded voters and the right kind of person for the tasks confronting us ahead. 

Well, looks like he will be president – just not of the United States.  According to multiple reports, the “worst-kept secret in Indiana” is that Daniels will soon be named the next president of Purdue University.  This is great news for Purdue – though I’d love to see Daniels have to resign the position before he even sets foot on campus in order to become Vice President of the US.  But apparently this isn’t in the cards.  Does this also mean that Daniels wouldn’t take the call (that Robert Gates did when he was President of Texas A&M) from a Republican President who needed him in a moment of crisis?  I could see Daniels in a Romney administration.

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The Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act (aka ObamaCare) is due out this month.  Indeed, it could come out any day.  I feel the same sense of anticipation as a kid before Christmas – though this could turn out to be the scary morning parents threaten in which you get coal rather than toys.  But what surprises me most is that we don’t already know the result in an age of massive government leaks (intentional or otherwise), hypermedia, and the high stakes involved in the case.  Why hasn’t a clerk told a law school friend the result of the vote who tells a blogger friend who publishes a story that goes viral that is then tracked down and reported by the MSM?  Or substitute vote with a key argument in the decision. 

Now there was speculation a few months back that someone, perhaps Justice Kagan, leaked the vote to the President.  But the tea leaves were still vague. 

Here is one lawyer who thinks the case will be disappointingly unspectacular - kind of like the Christmas you got a lot of clothes.  Nice, but not what you wanted.  I want the bright red bicycle with an airhorn!

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The Obama administration’s growing reliance on drones in the war on terror has attracted a great deal of attention, as of late.

Things became interesting two weeks ago when the NYT published an article emphasizing the President’s role in approving the secret kill list. As the piece noted, the administration

“in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”

This is a convenient means of undercounting the number of civilian deaths, of course. But the underlying assumption—guilty and condemned to death unless proven innocent—should give us pause. However, the greater concern of Congress was whether the story was based on  leaks to the press that could threaten national security.

Other news regarding the use of drones in counter-terrorism:

  • Bruce Stokes (Der Spiegel) attributes the declining support for Obama and the US to the extensive use of drones.
  • Ibrahim Mothana (NYT) claims that A.Q.A.P. is gaining strength in Yemen in response to the use of drones and the civilian casualties. “Certainly, there may be short-term military gains from killing militant leaders in these strikes, but they are minuscule compared with the long-term damage the drone program is causing. A new generation of leaders is spontaneously emerging in furious retaliation to attacks on their territories and tribes.”

On the domestic front, drones have popped up in a number of stories, some humorous (e.g., the confusion created by one drone in Washington DC, which was spectators thought was a UFO) others…not.

According to Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchieral (Wired): “There are 64 drone bases on American soil. That includes 12 locations housing Predator and Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles, which can be armed.” The story includes a link to a map (from  Public Intelligence) of current and future drone bases.

This week, Rand Paul (the Hill) has “introduced the Preserving Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act, which would require the government to get a warrant before using aerial drones to surveil U.S. citizens.” According to Paul:

 “Like other tools used to collect information in law enforcement, in order to use drones a warrant needs to be issued. Americans going about their everyday lives should not be treated like criminals or terrorists and have their rights infringed upon by military tactics.”

Paul’s concerns are shared by the ACLU, which has a number of interesting pieces on its drone blog. One can only hope that Paul’s commitment to basic civil liberties will not place him in the minority of Senators. Alas, I don’t hold out much hope on this one.  As we have seen in the past, crisis (real or perceived) drive the expansion of state power, and there appears to be a one-way ratchet.

Note: For those interested in the vast variety of drones and robotic devices currently being developed for military and security applications, there was a fascinating piece in the Economist’s Technology Quarterly that I highly recommend.

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1.  Will Wilkinson nicely channels Mill and Kant against the paternalistic soda ban in NYC and its defenders.  I particularly liked this line: “I’m afraid Mr Noah’s casual embrace of ‘baby authoritarianism’ illustrates just how thoroughly the technocratic paternalism of American progressivism extinguished the liberal instincts of the left.”  My only problem with the piece is that the Torquemada reference has a kind of reductio ad Hitlerum quality to it. 

2.  Birmingham, Michigan residents exercised their open-carry rights as part of a protest yesterday against the arrest and harassment of a fellow citizen back in April for open-carrying an M1 rifle on his back.  Although I’m a supporter of gun rights (including open carry) and I’m pretty tired of hearing about police abuse of citizens exercising their individual rights, common sense suggests that you should expect a little extra attention from the police when you walk down the street with a rifle on your back.  The police shouldn’t harass or arrest individuals if they are engaging in peaceful behavior.  And in this case, as in so many others, the police seemed to overreact – something worth protesting.  A lot more common sense on the part of police would go a long way.  However, reasonable non-harassing and non-constant police observation to make sure that a person with a strung rifle walking down the street in a place where this is not the norm is not engaged in a crime seems like the state exercising due care to fulfill its role of maintaining the rights of others against potential threats.  If the police did this (or just talked to him, non-confrontationally and in a Jane Jacobs-style beat cop kind of way), there wouldn’t have been any news or problem and the world would have been a better place.  Lastly, this sentiment, from the Detroit News, sounds about right even though she (and I) may not be well-placed to understand every choice to bear arms openly: “Longtime resident Margaret Betts said while she supports citizens’ legal rights, openly bearing arms in a community generally considered safe seems ‘silly.’  ‘Just because you can doesn’t mean you have to,’ she told the commission.”

3.  Stealing someone’s property is wrong and ought to be illegal.  Taking and using someone’s pictures from a computer hard-drive without permission sounds like theft to me whether there is a statute in place covering those particular things or not.  If those with more expertise in the law than me deem it necessary to write a more explicit law making such actions illegal, fine with me.  But won’t the market quickly take care of problems like this (and deter almost all cases where people might be tempted to do so) even in the absence of law: “Intimate photographs of a prominent Australian Olympian having sex with his wife were stolen by staff at an inner-Sydney computer shop after the star brought his machine in for repair.”

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The NYT has an interesting article on Romney’s embrace of school choice, a move that counters the federalization of education and the kinds of accountability that were reinforced by the Bush administration.

As the Times notes:

 Specifically, Mr. Romney proposed to change federal payments made to schools with large numbers of poor and disabled students into an individual entitlement. Students would take a share of the $25 billion in two federal programs to the school of their choice.

He would also extract the federal government from intervening to turn around the lowest performing schools, which has been a chief focus of the Obama administration. Instead, to drive improvement, Mr. Romney would have schools compete for students in a more market-based approach to quality.

“This is the best motive to reform there will ever be — if you give parents the ability to vote with their feet,” said Tom Luna, Idaho’s superintendent of schools, who is an adviser to Mr. Romney.

School choice makes great sense from the perspective of theory and there is some evidence that it has positive (if small) impacts on student performance and on schools that are subjected to competition.

A number of factors have been responsible for the limited impact of school choice (some of which have been purposefully inserted into state-level legislation precisely for this purpose). They include:

  • Insufficient funding for vouchers (both in aggregate and in the value of an individual voucher), often combined with a prohibition of parents supplementing the voucher with their own money
  • Restrictions on the use of vouchers in parochial schools;
  • Failure to fund efforts to provide potential participants with necessary information;
  • Failure of districts to provide additional services (e.g., transportation) thereby creating massive transaction costs, and
  • An unwillingness of public schools to accept students from outside their districts.

Romney appears to be interested in addressing this final problem. According to the Times: “One of Mr. Romney’s ideas for increasing students’ choices seems to contradict an anti-Washington emphasis: giving poor students the freedom to choose a public school outside their district.” This can’t sit well with advocates of local control.

A key problem with school choice is that it relies on market mechanisms but the key factors necessary to allow a market to function are usually absent, often by design. When you place great restrictions on the use of vouchers, impose both supply and demand constraints, do little to address information scarcity, and create massive transaction costs, you come as close as possible to guaranteeing market failure. Given that most of these factors are beyond the reach of Washington, I doubt if Romney’s embrace of school choice will amount to much.

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My blood boiled this morning when I saw some propaganda for trap-neuter-return programs being shared around Facebook. Trap-neuter-return (TNR) is a method of dealing with feral cat populations by spaying and neutering them and then releasing them back into the wild. Conservation biologists have found that TNR fails to reduce populations of cats. As an alien predator subsidized by humans, free-roaming cats kill between half a billion and a billion birds a year, as well as an untold number of reptiles, amphibians, small mammals, and insects in the United States alone. Furthermore, free-roaming cats spread diseases harmful to humans, including toxoplasmosis, implicated in fetal death, brain cancer, and schizophrenia.

Despite these facts, the TNR industry is well-funded and boasts a national activist army. It’s easy to exploit the emotions of cat lovers to fund the innumerable, frequently torturous deaths of chipmunks, chickadees, and butterflies. What everyone ought to find truly galling, however, is that the taxpayer subsidizes this destruction. Alley Cats, the major national promoter of TNR programs, is a tax-exempt charity with a staff of 30. (They claim that TNR works to reduce feral cat populations over the long term, but the only studies they can cite are a small handful of short-term, single-case studies carried out by veterinarians, not biologists. There is now a large body of peer-reviewed research conducted by biologists finding that TNR does not reduce feral cat populations, especially when compared to the traditional trap-kill method. See links above.) As a 501(c)(3) organization, Alley Cats is eligible to receive tax-deductible donations, which means that the taxpayers of the United States are effectively subsidizing donations to this organization. This is rather as if someone were to form a “charity” dedicated to dumping heavy metals into the water supply or to “solving” Third World “overpopulation” by poisoning wells and stealing bed-nets. So long as you have noble intentions, apparently, the IRS will allow you to obtain charitable status. Charities often have secondary ill effects, as when foreign aid inadvertently promotes corruption or distorts local production, but this is one of the few cases I can think of in which a charity is actually doing first-order harm — and getting recognition and support from the government for it.

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James M. Buchanan in “Natural and Artifactual Man” from Liberty Press’ What Should Economists Do?: 

Man wants liberty to become the man he wants to become. He does so precisely because he does not know what man he will want to become in time…. Man does not want liberty in order to maximize his utility, or that of the society of which he is a part. He wants liberty to become the man he wants to become.

HT: The Freeman 

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One of the critics of the Constitution was a “Maryland Farmer” – likely John Francis Mercer - who worried about the dangers of creating a government that would cut “a figure in history”: 

Whether any form of national government is preferable for the Americans, to a league or confederacy, is a previous question we must first make up our minds upon….

That a national government will add to the dignity and increase the splendor of the United States abroad, can admit of no doubt: it is essentially requisite for both. That it will render government, and officers of government, more dignified at home is equally certain. That these objects are more suited to the manners, if not [the] genius and disposition of our people is, I fear, also true. That it is requisite in order to keep us at peace among ourselves, is doubtful. That it is necessary, to prevent foreigners from dividing us, or interfering in our government, I deny positively; and, after all, I have strong doubts whether all its advantages are not more specious than solid. We are vain, like other nations. We wish to make a noise in the world; and feel hurt that Europeans are not so attentive to America in peace, as they were to America in war. We are also, no doubt, desirous of cutting a figure in history. Should we not reflect, that quiet is happiness? That content and pomp are incompatible? I have either read or heard this truth, which the Americans should never forget: That the silence of historians is the surest record of the happiness of a people. The Swiss have been four hundred years the envy of mankind, and there is yet scarcely an history of their nation. What is history, but a disgusting and painful detail of the butcheries of conquerors, and the woeful calamities of the conquered?

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In an otherwise reasonable column last week comparing Obama and Romney, Frank Bruni wrote the following:

Although race represents a less central dynamic for Obama now than it did in 2008, it’s a factor in his political fortunes nonetheless. It poisons some of his opponents, pumping them full of a toxic zeal beyond the partisan norm. How else to explain their obsession with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright or the lunatic persistence of the birthers…

I guess racism is the only reason people don’t like to hear that “the government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color” or that “Them Jews aren’t going to let [Obama] talk to me” or the infamous “God Damn America!”

Of course the President has denounced these sorts of comments (though it is hard to imagine that Wright’s rhetoric was much different during the many years he was the President’s spiritual leader).  And I wouldn’t recommend that Romney exploit the deranged rhetoric of this looney demagogue, even if it is tempting.  Still, why is it OK to slander those who are angered by Wright’s hateful speech as being racists?  So the only reason that Bruni can imagine for people’s anger is that they have been poisoned by their own racism?  How else, indeed?

Isn’t Bruni saying, essentially, that the salient characteristic of Wright’s character is the color of his sin?  If it turned out that Romney had been friends for years with, say, Davide Duke, would he accuse those who were outraged with being poisoned by their hatred of white people?  Isn’t he saying that when black people say offensive, hateful, outrageous things, to hold them (or those who support or patronize them) accountable isn’t right?  If white people are not allowed to be offended by a black man for what he says and does, isn’t that saying that what people say or do isn’t important, only what they look like?

Bruni is a smart, thoughtful guy, so it is hard to imagine him falling into this sort of trap.  I try to take the Left’s concern for racial issues as genuine and, for the most part, productive. But comments like Bruni’s make me wonder.

And then I turn on MSNBC and see Al Sharpton hosting his TV show.

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I’ve been seeing all kinds of abuse being hurled at Rand Paul for his endorsement of Mitt Romney in this year’s presidential election. He doesn’t deserve any of it. Let’s recapitulate some facts for the benefit of blinkered Ron Paul devotees abusing Rand:

  1. Ron Paul can’t win the GOP nomination. I don’t care what Alex Jones told you. Get over it.
  2. Someone named either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney will win the election. I don’t care who does; I’ll be voting for Gary Johnson. Regardless, Rand’s endorsement won’t make a bit of difference. He did something nice for the people (Republicans) he will have to work with and get to support him for the next several years. It was purely symbolic.
  3. Let’s recall what Rand has done in the Senate:
    1. Singlehandedly killed a terrible amendment to the indefinite-detention provision that would otherwise have passed on a voice vote;
    2. Held up the Iran sanctions bill until an amendment was included to specify that it does not authorize force against Iran (remember how Bush abused that UN resolution to declare war on Iraq illegally?);
    3. Has gone on a crusade to abolish the TSA;
    4. Has won grudging admiration from his colleagues for his ability to use Senate rules and personal relationships to advance his agenda.

The man has our back in the Senate. I don’t agree with him on everything, but he’s a damn sight better than anyone else in that cesspool. I could now go on a rant about how libertarians continue to lose the fight for liberty with a weakness for prioritizing symbolism over substance, but I think I’ve made my point.

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Picture of the Day

I grabbed this from National Review Online.  I don’t know who actually took it.

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Willpower

Given that my pleasure reading time has dwindled to almost nothing (a little bit of time before hitting the rack), it took me a while to finish Roy Baumeister and John Tierney’s excellent new book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.  Now that I’ve done so, I highly recommend it to those looking to understand the science behind self-control and learn some new ways to boost the mental muscle that allows us to resist temptation.      

One of the best things about this book is that it doesn’t read like the kind of typical lame self-help book that some people might take it as (and that would turn off readers like me).  Instead, it is a highly accessible survey of the scientific literature on willpower from which lessons emerge rather than hit us over the head.  For high performers at work or home, you are probably already using some of the techniques discussed.  However, you’ll still enjoy learning about why these things might be working for you.  And these lessons will almost certainly be of use for those whose self-control is lacking. 

Here are some of the neat little terms used in the book (and scientific literature) that may become part of your vocabulary: “ego depletion,” “decision fatigue,” “monkey mind,” “hyperopia,” “self-forgetfulness,” “hyperbolic discounting,” “counterregulatory eating,” and the “Zeignarnik Effect.”  Stay ignorant of them at your own peril!

As for the lessons, here are a few:

1.  Set goals and standards and then consciously monitor them.  The last part is critical.  Also reward yourself for reaching a goal.

2.  Focus on one project at a time.  Multitasking is debilitating.  Set time limits to tasks, especially those that aren’t very important but need to get done.

3.  Feed the beast and sleep enough (because sleep helps recharge after “ego depletion” and glucose helps restore willpower).

4.  Monitor yourself for the symptoms of waning self-control.  Don’t make key decisions when your energy is down.

5.  Precommitments and bright lines help.  One extreme form is the “Nothing Alternative” in which you set aside time to do one and only one thing — and prevent yourself from doing anything else

6.  Because of the Ziegarnik Effect, making specific plans to finish a task you can’t do now will allow your unconscious to relax (thus reducing ego depletion).

7.  Put yourself in position to be successful through self-control.  So avoid things like procrastination.  However, there are some cases in which procrastination is a good thing (for example, with eating temptations).  Telling yourself that you’ll have that dessert later makes it more likely you’ll ultimately deny yourself that temptation.       

My chief criticism of the book is that the conclusion doesn’t wrap the book up and discuss its implications and lessons so much as it repeats what was already said.  This suggests it was written for the business executive who can’t be bothered to read the rest of the book and onlywants the self-help lessons.  I’d have preferred something more value-added for those of us who had the willpower to read the whole thing.

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One keeps hearing that the euro crisis could doom Obama’s chances for reelection. (Because, after all, that’s the reason we should be concerned about the economy: its effects on politics.) I’m not so sure. Voters are hardly well informed, but if the Eurozone goes into deep recession and the U.S. into a mild one, won’t voters discount economic performance a great deal by looking at the cross-national difference? U.S. GDP growth of about 2% (annualized) right now is mediocre, but compared to Eurozone growth of about zero, it looks pretty good. Powell and Whitten (1993) and Whitten and Palmer (1999) find just this in their cross-national analyses of economic voting: the models do better when you assume that voters deduct OECD growth from national growth when assessing incumbents. No one in the U.S. presidential forecasting game seems to talk about these papers.

So here’s the bleg: Has anyone actually tried doing standard-issue presidential forecasting models with a cross-national growth adjustment? If so, what are the results? I’d find it hard to believe that U.S. voters are all that different from European voters in this respect. If no one’s looked at this, it seems to me that we need to put a firm thumb on the scale in favor of Obama when assessing the forecasts being released now.

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