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Archive for July, 2012

Today would have been Milton Friedman’s 100th birthday.  Those of us who favor a free society certainly miss his voice in the current debates.  He was one of the most articulate defenders of free markets and limited government.  He hasn’t yet been replaced and the cause of freedom has suffered for it.

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Ross Douhat quotes Michelle Obama saying,

Our faith journey isn’t just about showing up on Sunday.  It’s about what we do Monday through Saturday as well … Jesus didn’t limit his ministry to the four walls of the church. He was out there fighting injustice and speaking truth to power every single day.

Apparently Michelle’s “faith journey” has little to do with actually studying the life of Jesus.  When, exactly, did Jesus either go about fighting injustice or speaking truth to power?

Remember, about the only remotely political thing Jesus said was “Render to Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17).

As far as speaking truth unto power, when Jesus finally was brought before the authorities shortly before his crucifixion, his main comment was….nothing.

And the closest he got to “fighting” anything was when he tossed the moneychangers out of the temple, angry that his Father’s house was being defiled.

Jesus spent his time teaching and healing, often in small, private settings.  His tendency to hang out with the bottom rungs of society such as lepers or publicans sent a powerful message, as did his interactions with women.  But does this constitute “fighting injustice?”  Only in the sense that he tried to change hearts through his example and his words.  To say that he was about attacking existing power structures or explicitly encouraging others to do so is a huge interpretive stretch.  He mocked the hypocrisy of the local elites, but he did nothing to challenge their power.

Liberation theology and other variants of religious social liberalism have many followers.  I wouldn’t want to question their devotion or commitment.  Their desire to create a better world for the poor and downtrodden is admirable.  But alleviating poverty and suffering through the coercive power of the state is certainly not something Jesus taught.  In fact, his appreciation for worldly notions of injustice was not what people wanted to hear.  His message to those who were treated unjustly was to turn the other cheek and to love—not to demand fair treatment.

Jesus spoke a lot about righteousness and what it truly means to keep God’s commandments (not usually things that the left wants to talk about, I might add), but fighting injustice was not very high on his list of priorities, at least according to the scriptures.  What he did want was to turn people’s hearts unto God.  “And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27).  Its very hard to pull out a “let’s storm the barricades” message out of those words or anything else he said or did.  Perhaps one who truly becomes a disciple of Christ becomes committed to fighting injustice, but the scriptures are largely silent on any political method for doing so, and Jesus seemed singularly uninterested in anything having to do with worldly power or injustice.  Sorry, Michelle.

The Obamas come from the “community organizing” tradition, which is essentially about rallying political power to take money from one group and give it to another.  Fine.  Let’s just leave Jesus out of it.

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Noonan on the Darkness

The always insightful Peggy Noonan had some interesting observations this week.  If you have a WSJ subscription, read her whole column.  Here are some interesting paragraphs:

Did “The Dark Knight Rises” cause the Aurora shootings? No, of course not. One movie doesn’t have that kind of power, and we don’t even know if the shooter had seen it. But a million violent movies have the cumulative power to desensitize and destabilize, to make things worse, and that’s what we’ve been seeing the past quarter century or so, the million movies. Each ups the ante in terms of carnage.

Carl Cannon, in a thoughtful, deeply researched series on RealClearPolitics, this week gave a measured, tempered look at our entertainment culture and its role in the Aurora shootings: “A hundred studies have demonstrated conclusively that viewing violence on the screen increases aggression in those who watch it, particularly children.” Ignoring the problem hasn’t made it go away. He quoted Jenny McCartney of London’s Daily Telegraph, after she had seen 2008′s “The Dark Knight”: “The greatest surprise of all—even for me, after eight years working as a film critic—has been the sustained level of intensely sadistic brutality throughout the film.”

Mr. Cannon noted the different ways Hollywood executives have attempted to  rationalize and defend what they produce. At first they claimed TV and movies had  no impact on the actions of viewers. Then why, they were asked, have  commercials, and why have characters who don’t smoke? Next filmmakers claimed violent movies not only don’t increase violence, they probably decrease it by letting  audiences vicariously blow off steam. “Legions of social scientists lined up to test”  the catharsis theory, says Mr. Cannon. They discovered the opposite: “Violent  programming desensitized young people to violence, made them more likely to hit  other children, and often engendered copy-cat behavior.”

Some of the sadness and frustration following Aurora has to do with the fact that no one thinks anyone can, or will, do anything to make our culture better. The film industry isn’t going to change, the genie is long out of the bottle. The genie has a cabana at the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The movie market is increasingly international, and a major component is teenage boys and young men who want to see things explode, who want to see violence and sex. Political pressure has never worked. Politicians have been burned, and people who’ve started organizations have been spoofed and spurned as Puritans. When Tipper Gore came forward in 1985, as a responsible citizen protesting obscene rap lyrics, her senator husband felt he had to apologize to Democratic fund-raisers. If some dumb Republican congressman had a hearing to grill some filmmakers, it would look like the McCarthy hearings. There would be speeches about artistic freedom, and someone would have clever words about how Shakespeare, too, used violence. “Have you ever seen ‘Coriolanus?’”

A particularly devilish injustice is that many of the wealthy men and women of the filmmaking industry go to great lengths to protect their own children from the products they make. They’re able to have responsible nannies and tutors and private coaches and private lessons. They keep the kids busy. They don’t want them watching that garbage.

Artistic freedom is a crucially important part of any free society, so I’m not looking for any kind of clampdown by government on Hollywood.  But at the same time a free society can be threatened by cultural decay.  How to preserve the cultural strength that a free society needs to survive while at the same time maintaining robust freedom of expression is not an easy problem—even for libertarians.

After all, we don’t have Batman to rescue us.

I’ll have more to say later.

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Caught in his rhetoric

Since the “You didn’t build that” comment a few days ago by the President, the mainstream media has developed a new truism, namely that Romney is taking the President’s words out of context.

That is true, in the narrow sense of the phrase, in that any brief quote is always out of context.   But that is only dishonest rhetoric if the quote has a different meaning by itself than it does within the context.  As many have pointed out, Obama’s message isn’t any more comforting in context than out of context.

What Obama and his defenders have been doing is what really constitutes dishonest rhetoric.  James Taranto makes an excellent point today:

The basic substantive problem with….[Obama's] argument is that it blurs the distinction between an uncontroversial proposition (government is necessary) and a highly disputed one (government of its current size and scope is necessary and may even be insufficient). The ability to blur such distinction is a useful skill for a politician; the best way to accomplish something controversial is to persuade people you’re doing something uncontroversial.

The President and media are trying to pin on Romney the charge that he doesn’t think government is necessary, which is a ridiculous claim and one far more dishonest than Romney’s using the quote out of context.

Obama’s defenders want people not to focus on the thrust and primary motivation of Obama’s claim: those who have built small businesses should be paying even more in taxes and be subject to more regulations (the ACA being chief among them) than they currently are.

In short, the Obama strategy is to try to convince people that just because some government is necessary that we need more government than the (already outrageous) amount we already have.  And they want to paint their opponent as one who doesn’t recognize the value of government.

This type of logical fallacy probably has some official latin name.  For now, let’s just use a simple word: nonsense.

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Rationalizing madness is a fool’s errand.  There is no master narrative, no psychological Rosetta stone that can explain the madness of a James Holmes.  Maybe one day experts will put a label on his madness, but that is just to call it something else, not to explain it.

As the image of Holmes at his first court appearance hit the internet, my first reaction–and I bet lots of others thought the same thing–was that he looks like a villain in a Batman movie.  Wipe that dazed look off his face, and who wouldn’t believe that he was playing, in his mind, a sinister character in a Batman film?  I expect that his appearance was designed to give just that impression and that the timing of his onslaught at the opening of The Dark Knight Rises was very much a part of his sick plan.

I’ve never been a believer that media and art cause (by themselves, at least) violent urges.  But I think they do shape how those urges play out.  Naturally, the social and cultural environment influence the manner in which the violence takes place.  Gunning down innocents by a crazed madman in a theater seems, to me, culturally consistent.  We are appalled at the act, yet if the same scene took place on the screen instead of in the seats, we would simply call it entertainment.  And the more atrocious, the more tickets would be sold.

I doubt I will see the new Dark Knight.  The last one was disgusting enough.  I do not have a problem when filmmakers undertake a study of dark subject matter, including examining characters with violent mental illness.  The world has a lot of darkness and film, as well as other arts, can cast light into that darkness, or at least help us see it and know it.  Many stories, from the serious to the whimsical, center on a battle between good and evil.  Nothing new here.  But what Dark Knight did was revel in darkness.  It celebrated it.  That Batman is a hero set out to fight against evil is of little consequence against this backdrop.

The Dark Knight was well-crafted in every detail, including the masterful and disturbing performance of Heath Ledger.  But to what end?  Ultimately, people (especially testosterone-charged young men) flock to movies like this not for an escape to another world where good conquers evil, but to revel in that evil.  Most American boys are spending the better part of their free time immersed in the darkness and violence of video games.  They go to movies that stimulate those same pleasure centers.  The Aurora tragedy was sickening, but who can really find it surprising?

The most disturbing part of the Dark Knight franchise (and the countless similar movies that pursue the same ends, just less artfully) is not that the films induce violent urges, though perhaps they may.  Instead, what we should all fear is that they cause so much pleasure.

The night is dark, indeed.

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Some people are boycotting the food chain Chick-fil-A in its attempt to come to Boston because Chick-fil-A has given money to organizations opposing gay marriage and its ownership has publicly affirmed its support for “the biblical definition of the family unit.”

In a story about Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s position on this topic, the Boston Herald reports: “‘Chick-fil-A doesn’t belong in Boston. You can’t have a business in the city of Boston that discriminates against a population. We’re an open city, we’re a city that’s at the forefront of inclusion,’ Menino told the Herald yesterday.”

I must be missing something, since it sure looks to me as if Mayor Menino is contradicting himself in those comments. Boston is “an open city,” “at the forefront of inclusion,” and will not tolerate discrimination—and yet at the same time will not be open to, include, or tolerate Chick-fil-A? 

Completely aside from the issue of gay marriage itself, is it not self-contradictory to claim, on the one hand, that one is inclusive and nondiscriminatory, and yet, on the other hand, that one is excluding organizations with views different from one’s own? It would seem that Chick-fil-A is attempting to exercise exactly the same freedom to associate (or dissociate) that Mayor Menino is claiming on his own behalf: Both of them wish not to associate with people with whom they disagree. The only difference is that Chick-fil-A is not claiming to be open, inclusive, and tolerant, while Mayor Menino—seemingly inconsistently—is. 

Or am I missing something?

 

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French philosopher Benjamin Constant on liberty in his enlightening “On The Liberty of the Ancients Compared to That of the Moderns” (1819):

First ask yourselves, Gentlemen, what an Englishman, a French-man, and a citizen of the United States of America understand today by the word ‘liberty’.  For each of them it is the right to be subjected only to the laws, and to be neither arrested, detained, put to death or maltreated in any way by the arbitrary will of one or more individuals.  It is the right of everyone to express their opinion, choose a profession and practice it, to dispose of property, and even to abuse it; to come and go without permission, and without having to account for their motives or undertakings.  It is everyone’s right to associate with other individuals, either to discuss their interests, or to profess the religion which they and their associates prefer, or even simply to occupy their days or hours in a way which is most compatible with their inclinations or whims.

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Ten years ago there was a little story during the SLC Olympics that most Americans are not familiar with.  There was a traffic jam of sorts, and Mitt jumped in to fix it.  Problem was, the local law enforcement didn’t appreciate his help.  Fixit-Mitt taking on a traffic jam is no surprise, but apparently he got ticked off and dropped the F-Bomb a couple of times.  To this day, he strongly disputes that he used such language.

I tend to believe him, though part of me wishes we’d see more of Ticked-off-Mitt.  The New Republic did a profile last November talking about “the peculiar anger” of Mitt.  It didn’t generate much buzz, probably because most people had the reaction, “Yeah, he’s a real firecracker, that Mitt.”  We’ve seen him get testy in debates, but usually it is in the way the teacher’s pet whines about kids cutting in front of him in the lunch line.

Romney has, as we all know, an “authenticity problem.”  Part of it comes from taking temporally inconsistent policy positions (aka, flip-flopping), but I think most of it is personal and visceral, the way people react to his demeanor, the pitch and texture of his voice, the smile that looks like it was painted on his rugged, handsome face as the finishing touch by a make-up artist.  He is always trying to please, to make people like him, to tell people what they want to hear.  Of course that is the nature of electioneering. The trick in politics is to craft a finely-tuned, polished message that pushes as many positive buttons as possible and, at the same time, seems genuine and heart-felt.  What people see with Mitt is the craft, which makes him seem, well, crafty.

But to me, Mitt’s supposed inauthenticity can be interpreted as a deeply genuine, deeply held aspect of who he is as person.  An inauthentic politician is one who pretends to be one thing, say a good family man, while behaving in quite another way when out of the public eye [insert favorite sex scandal here.]  That is not Romney (nor is it Obama, for that matter).  Romney’s attempt to please, to iron out wrinkles, or to give ground is not a façade covering a bitter, nasty ambition.  It is his ambition.  He is a fixer, a problem solver, a negotiator, a worker, a pragmatist.  He is confident and driven, but he is not an ideologue or a visionary.

Romney spent two and a half years in France, trying to get people to accept his exceedingly chaste, teetotaling Mormon religion.  This is sort of like trying to get cats to stop licking their fur.  Essentially, being an LDS missionary involves being nice all the time.  Missionaries focus on the message and the people they encounter.  This is a 24/7 effort and a period of extraordinary selflessness in an extraordinarily self-centered world.  It can also be liberating and joyful to lose oneself in the cause of bringing souls to Christ, rather than building one’s ego.  It teaches patience and perseverance.  After getting abused, ignored, ridiculed, disappointed, and endlessly fatigued, most of life’s social interactions seem to be pretty small potatoes.  This is why former missionaries often do well in sales and business. They are polite, honest, diligent and almost always nice—sort of the Del Carnegie super-achievers—and they are accustomed to mountains of failure punctuated only occasionally by sweet success.

Romney also spent many of his adult years as a lay ecclesiastical leader, while at the same time time getting degrees in business and law from Harvard and raising a large family.  The Mormon church has no paid clergy or staff, except at the highest levels.  Local leaders spend an enormous amount of time organizing meetings and activities, counseling with people, and running a congregation with the help of volunteers.  It is a second full-time job with no pay.  There is an element of big-fish-in-a-small-pond social status in it, but that is swamped by the enormous amount of time and work.  The Bishop (pastor) is the guy in charge, but he is also the guy who has to take everyone’s crap.  And believe me, people have an enormous amount of crap.  Being a pastor (in most denominations, I imagine) is about persuading, cajoling, encouraging, listening, waiting, praying, worrying.  As LDS scripture reads, leaders in the church are supposed to lead “by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned.”

That is a tall order.  But I find the degree to which local leaders accomplish this to be truly remarkable.  Romney went on to be a Stake President in the church (which is roughly equivalent to the Bishop of a Catholic diocese), where he oversaw  a number of Boston-area congregations.  This involves more of the same: trying to lift people’s burdens, ministering to their needs and, again, dealing with all their crap.  A typical stake president is a successful professional (my current one is an orthopedic surgeon) who volunteers countless hours to church administration and ministry.  If you were to meet one, you would likely find him an accomplished person, a dedicated family man, and one who might strike you as overly-nice or friendly to a fault.  Someone a lot like Mitt Romney, in fact.

But my message is that the niceness is almost always genuine.  It is authentic.  It has been groomed and refined through years of personal, intimate interactions with people from all walks of life.  These include many happy, pleasant, inspiring interactions but also many efforts to help people who are burdened by sin, who are struggling financially, who are spiritually unsettled, who are pathetic in myriad ways.  The goal is treat all of these people the same way, with the same warm heart and good will.

In the brutal world of presidential politics, nice usually comes in last.  The Romney campaign knows this and has been as negative and brutal as anyone else.  And he will take his licks, too.  He will be hated and reviled—sometimes for his politics, but often just for who he is and what he stands for.  I was struck by some of the bitter, negative commentary that surrounded the Romney Clan’s recent family vacation in New Hampshire. They played in the water and had competitions that involved sawing logs and hammering nails.  Including his kids, in-laws, and grandkids, there are 30 Romneys in total.  They take syrupy sweet pictures like this one:

Do the people, in this photo have vices and problems? Undoubtedly.  Do their matching outfits and smiles make them fake and inauthentic?  To many in the media, an authentic family outing is one undertaken by that other famous Massachusetts family.  It wouldn’t be a Kennedy gathering, after all, if someone didn’t end up inebriated, raped or dead.  For the Bill Mahers and Lawrence O’Donnells of the world, that is authenticity.  It is what they get.  To the extent they even understand what is truly nice or good or wholesome, they hate it.

Yes, Romney is always putting on his best face, trying to please, trying to mollify, trying to convince.  In a sense, this is a mask because it (usually) covers that he undoubtedly feels anger, contempt, malice, and other negative emotions. But it is a mask that is indelibly part of who he is.  It is genuine.  It is authentic.

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One of my favorite all-time books is Samuel Smiles’s 1859 Self-Help. It is an inspiring essay on what amazing things people can accomplish if they apply some very simple virtues, like perseverance, energy, and self-discipline. It includes numerous real-life stories from giants in medicine, politics, philosophy, mathematics, science, business, economics, fine arts, and many other areas of human life. If you haven’t read it, you should. And read it with your kids too.

To whet your appetite, here is the closing paragraph for the first chapter, entitled “Self-Help—National and Individual”:

In fine, human character is moulded by a thousand subtle influences; by example and precept; by life and literature; by friends and neighbours; by the world we live in as well as by the spirits of our forefathers, whose legacy of good words and deeds we inherit. But great, unquestionably, though these influences are acknowledged to be, it is nevertheless equally clear that men must necessarily be the active agents of their own well-being and well-doing; and that, however much the wise and the good may owe to others, they themselves must in the very nature of things be their own best helpers.

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One of the arguments Michael Sandel makes in his new book What Money Can’t Buy is that what he calls “market values,” which include “the logic of buying and selling” (6 and passim), can, once introduced, crowd out other values. A striking example he offers is what happened at some child-care centers in Israel.

Apparently some parents were late picking up their kids. Pleading with them did not help, and it was costing the child-care centers money because they had to keep staff on to watch children while waiting for tardy parents. So the centers decided to adopt a new policy: if you’re late, we’re going to fine you. Sandel: “What do you suppose happened? Late pickups actually increased” (64). He explains:

Introducing the monetary payment changed the norms. Before, parents who came late felt guilty; they were imposing an inconvenience on the teachers. Now parents considered a late pickup as a service for which they were willing to pay. They treated the fine as if it were a fee. Rather than imposing on the teacher, they were simply paying him or her to work longer. (64-5)

Sandel gives other examples of similar transformations in social dynamics from fines to fees, including speeding tickets with progressive rates depending on speed, fines in China for having too many children, pollution permits and fines, carbon offsets, rhino hunting in Kenya, shooting walruses in Canada, and paying kids to read books or get good grades (chap. 2). His argument is that when things are put up for sale, “market values” come to dominate where often times “moral values” should dominate instead. As he puts it, “markets crowd out morals.”

He has a point. For example, he claims that one objection to adult consensual prostitution is based not on whether the consent was in fact voluntary, but rather on the “grounds that it is degrading to women, whether or not they are forced into it”; it moreover “promotes bad attitudes toward sex” (112). I would argue that if prostitution degrades women, it also degrades men: I see no asymmetry there.

On the other hand, what follows from the claim? After all, lots and lots of aspects of human behavior are affected differently when they are put in the context of a cash transaction rather than something else—but sometimes that is perfectly appropriate. The parents are, after all, paying the child care centers for a service, aren’t they? The john is paying the prostitute for a service, right? Sandel gives us no clear reason why in some places that is appropriate and in some places not, other than to say that sometimes “we need to ask what [moral] norms should govern” the social dynamics in question (112). Well, of course. But Sandel does not tell us what those norms are or when they are appropriate, and thus no clear reason why we should worry about markets crowding out other considerations.

Consider these questions:

1. Does sex before marriage crowd out the right kind of love in the relationship?

2. Does buying one’s food crowd out the right kind of pleasure and joy in eating that accrues when one makes one’s own food?

3. Does drinking coffee or 5-Hour Energy or taking cocaine crowd out the true or authentic performance you would otherwise have given?

Is it impossible to “go back” once you start down these roads, as Sandel claims about money in other areas?

The upshot of Sandel’s argument seems to be that we should prohibit the introduction of “market values” where they do not properly belong, on the grounds that allowing them in “degrades,” “corrupts,” or does not properly respect the sanctity involved. If so, does that mean we should prohibit other things too, like those listed above, on similar grounds? Where would this stop, exactly, and how could we ensure that the list of prohibited kinds of cash transactions are not merely a list of Sandel’s (or someone else’s) personal preferences?

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In the last budget, the New Hampshire state legislature cut state university funding by nearly half, as part of an effort to deal with a large budget gap opened up by unrealistic revenue forecasts issued by the previous legislature. Today, the NH Union-Leader reports an all-time best in fundraising success for the state university system:

Gifts and pledges in fiscal 2012, which ended June 30, were up more than 77 percent from last year, to a total of $22.5 million.

The goal was $20 million.

The total raised is second only to the final year of the last capital campaign in 2002, according to a release from the foundation.

The president of the university obliquely seems to acknowledge the role of budget cuts in the fundraising success:

“As we continue to plan for a comprehensive campaign, this represents a vote of confidence in UNH from more than 19,000 alumni and friends,” UNH President Mark W. Huddleston said.

Huddleston also is serving as the interim president of the UNH Foundation.

“Private support, especially in light of a historic cut in public funding from the New Hampshire Legislature, is crucial for student scholarship support and faculty development,” he said.

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Recommended read

Great article today by John Kass at the Chicago Tribune on Obama’s dissing small business owners.

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A colleague of mine pointed me to this anti-Romney ad, adding that he thought it was “effective” because of its focus on one compelling story. Have a watch:

I did not find it effective. It does focus on one story, and it does make it sound like this person was made worse off by Romney. But capitalism is about creative destruction—and you cannot have creation without destruction. The computer I am writing on now (and that my colleague wrote on to send me that link), for example, came into being in part by destroying the manual typewriter manufacturing sector. How many plaintive stories were there about displaced manual typewriter workers? How many people lost jobs when their companies went out of business because of the success of the phone on which I first viewed the ad? Similar stories could be told about countless other cases.

That is not to say that the person (the people) whose story is told in this ad did not suffer displacement, disappointment, anxiety, or frustration. But they are much, much better off overall for living in a place where capitalism’s creative destruction is allowed to continue. What car does he drive? What medical care does he receive? What medicines does he take? How is his home heated and cooled? How fast is his home internet connection, and how many channels does he have on his high-definition television? Do we suppose he, or we, would be able to enjoy such things if we did not allow capitalism’s creative destruction?

As Bastiat pointed out in the nineteenth century (and Adam Smith pointed out in the eighteenth century), production of wealth is not only about the “seen,” but also about the “unseen.” So we see that this man and his co-workers lose their jobs. But what is done with the wealth that is thereby saved, and put to other uses? If Romney and Bain Capital made a profit in this transaction, what did they do with that money? Put it in a coffee can and bury it in the backyard? Carry it around in great big fanny packs? No, they reinvested it elsewhere, in places where it was put to better use, where it was more highly valued.

We could create a lot of jobs by outlawing farm machinery. Just think of how many people would have to be employed by farms, doing with their hands what far fewer people can do today with machines. If you think that would be a good idea, then you are not taking a full view of the situation. You are focusing only on the seen, the jobs people will have working on the farms; you are not considering the unseen, all the things those people would have been doing if they did not now have to work with their hands—all the productive labor in which they would otherwise have engaged, all the wealthy they would otherwise have created.

We should not discount the pain and suffering of people who lose their jobs. It is real, and those of us who can help them, should. But condemning the system that has given rise to the greatest increase in prosperity in human history because it involves displacements and disappointments would be like condemning modern medicine because many treatments hurt.

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What’s Wrong Here?

New York University sent out the following message to all of its faculty and staff this morning:

Due to today’s forecast of very hot weather, New York City and Con Edison have issued another request to users throughout the city to reduce electrical consumption.  These efforts help reduce the chance of brown-outs, black-outs, and damage from over-heating to the city’s electrical system.

In response, beginning around midday today the University will take steps to reduce non-critical electrical loads, including shutting off some non-essential lighting, turning off some redundant elevator banks, and re-setting some thermostats to slightly higher temperatures to reduce air conditioning related power consumption.

Individual members of the NYU community can also make important contributions to this effort by shutting off lights, appliances, and personal computers when not in use.

As you may know, many of our buildings around Washington Square get their power from NYU’s co-generation plant.  Nonetheless, maximum conservation is still important:  our system is connected to Con Ed’s grid, and by conserving power, we are able to contribute more to the grid, or – if demand gets very high — draw less power from the grid during peak periods of electrical demand.

This is not the first time NYU has sent out similar messages. It seems like such a strange thing. Why would a company caution people to use less of its product? My phone company doesn’t ever send me a message telling me that a lot of people will be making calls today so perhaps I should only call or text when absolutely necessary. Imagine your television provider telling you on Superbowl Sunday that, well, a whole lot of people will be watching today, which might lead to some overloads, so please don’t turn your TV on unless you absolutely must. How absurd. Can you imagine the outrage?

And yet, every single summer, we’re all shocked, shocked to find out that it gets hot, and the electricity companies plead with us not to use too much. The mayor issues similar pleas. Major organizations, like NYU, issue similar pleas. But why shouldn’t I be able to run my air conditioning 24/7 and keep my house like an ice box if I want to, as long as I pay for it?

Isn’t there something wrong with this picture?

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Classical Liberalism and the Austrian School is the latest collection of essays from Ralph Raico, published by the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Ralph was kind enough to send me a print copy.

The introductory, eponymous essay concerns the relationship between Austrianism as an economic methodology and classical liberalism as a political program or ideology. Raico disputes Mises’ contention that Austrian methodology (methodological individualism) is clearly separate from the normative claims of classical liberalism (2-3). Raico builds a persuasive case that Austrianism as traditionally understood is indeed naturally related to classical liberalism; however, I would argue that this implication is not entirely to the credit of traditional Austrianism.

First, let us take methodological individualism. Modern neoclassical economics is as thoroughly methodologically individualist as Austrianism ever was. But note that both neoclassical and Austrian economists depart from methodological individualism when convenient to do so, for instance when deploying the firm as a rational actor. The firm is a collective entity. Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State, and Utopia has a brilliant insight into when methodological individualism “might go wrong” (22):

If there is a filter that filters out (destroys) all non-P Q’s, then the explanation of why all Q’s are P’s (fit the pattern P) will refer to this filter. For each particular Q, there may be an explanation for why it is P, how it came to be P, what maintains it as P. But the explanation of why all Q’s are P will not be the conjunction of these individual explanations, even though these are all the Q’s there are, for that is part of what is to be explained… The methodological individualist position requires that there be no basic (unreduced) social filtering processes.

The filtering process for the firm is profit maximization. We can know that firms try to maximize profit even if we do not have a good explanation for why each individual firm tries to maximize profit, or why individuals have chosen so to organize themselves. The answers to the latter question were developed by Coase and Williamson, by the way (Chicagoites, not Austrians, though fully taken on board by contemporary Austrians).

Second, (more…)

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Even though I disagree with much of its interpretation, I admire Jonathan Gruber’s pre-PPACA research on health insurance markets. He’s one of the most forthright and clear-headed advocates of government takeover of health insurance that I know. However, his recent defense of the law in The New Republic indulges some pretty blatant economic fallacies:

But what few realize is that, by expanding insurance coverage, the law will also increase economic activity. These newly insured individuals will demand more medical care than when they were uninsured. And while it takes many years to train a family physician or nurse practitioner, it doesn’t take much time to train the assistants and technicians (and related support staff) who can fill much of this need. In many cases, these are precisely the sort of medium-skill jobs that our economy desperately needs—and that the health care sector has already been providing, even during the recession.

Gruber surely knows better than to attribute economic growth over the long term to “demand.” All increase in wealth ultimately comes from growth in productivity and exchange, not “demand.” Whether increasing demand for health care will increase aggregate demand and short-run return to equilibrium — as opposed to redistributing spending from other sectors — is another question, but Gruber doesn’t even attempt to answer it. And the amount of jobs in the economy is a function of cyclical and structural factors. Redistributing jobs from other parts of the economy to health care does not mean more wealth or a higher standard of living for Americans. These are basic, 101-level errors.

When attacking critics of the PPACA, Gruber switches to supply-side arguments. Thus:

There is now a large body of literature examining the impact of tax changes on the highest income taxpayers. This literature finds that those taxpayers will avoid some of those taxes by re-categorizing their incomes in ways that minimize taxes. But there is no evidence that they will actually work less hard, invest less, or do anything which reduces their “real contribution” to the economy.

All of a sudden the fiscal contractionary effect of the tax increase doesn’t matter. Can we just call it even on the demand-side claims – as the PPACA will probably neither increase nor decrease the deficit very significantly – and focus on the supply side? The real justification for the PPACA, if there is one, is that it makes health insurance markets more efficient. There’s simply no denying that it imposes some distortions on the rest of the economy to achieve this goal, and Gruber himself seems to acknowledge this toward the end, although he insists the cost will be small.

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Thomas E. Ricks has an Op-Ed in the NYT calling for a return to the draft. Building on Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s recent statements calling for a reinstatement of conscription, Ricks provides a three tiered system. In essence, those who were drafted would have one of three options: (1) support services in the military for 18 months, without deployment; (2) national service in a non-military capacity for a somewhat longer period of time, or (3) the ability for libertarians to “opt out.” The final option is worth a quote:

And libertarians who object to a draft could opt out. Those who declined to help Uncle Sam would in return pledge to ask nothing from him — no Medicare, no subsidized college loans and no mortgage guarantees. Those who want minimal government can have it.

Assuming that libertarians would not be required to pay the taxes to support anything above minimal government, this option would be quite attractive.  Indeed, one only wishes that this option could be available in the absence of Ricks’ plan to reinstate involuntary servitude.

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Frank Meyer – the fusionist journalist who wrote for National Review in its prime years – making a point about economists that I’ve often argued.  From his essay, “The Locus of Virtue” (which can be found in this collection):

Economics is closest to an exact science of all the disciplines that study men and society.  It is at the same time the farthest removed from philosophical competence, from the capacity to establish value.  Economics can neither establish nor confute the validity of a moral system or a political system.  What it can do is to demonstrate what the results of alternate courses of economic action will be.  The choice between these sets of results (and therefore between the economic systems which lead to them) is beyond the prerogatives of economics.  It is a moral and political choice.

So the next time you read Krugman or Cowen or any other distinguished economist, remember this point.  It doesn’t mean that they can’t offer compelling moral or philosophical arguments.  Moreover, what economists can do is mighty enough.  But it does mean that they don’t speak as economists when they do so and they don’t have any special competence when they speak on moral, philosophical, and political issues. 

Perhaps we should start referring to these individuals not as “Economist Tyler Cowen” or “Economist Paul Krugman” but with such more useful and accurate terms as “Utilitarian” or “Progressive” or “Libertarian” or any other more helpful word when they are discussing things outside their domain of expertise.

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There is an interesting piece by John Bresnahan (Politico) on Countrywide Financial’s VIP Program, which provided loans to members of Congress, staffers, and executive branch officials who were responsible for shaping regulatory legislation.

More than a half a dozen current and former lawmakers, including Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), obtained mortgages through the Countrywide VIP program, in some cases saving thousands of dollars, according to the Issa report, set for release Thursday….

Other lawmakers who received Countrwide VIP loans include former Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Calif.) and former Rep. Tom Campbell (R-Calif.). Dodd, who chaired the Senate Banking Committee, was identified as a Countrywide VIP going back to 1999, and he even referred an aide to a former GOP senator to the same program, Issa’s probe found.

No real surprises here for anyone acquainted with public choice, but the piece is nonetheless worth a read, particularly for those interested in how Countrywide worked with the GSEs to shape (and derail) reform legislation that might have limited the magnitude of the collapse and the subsequent contagion.

Thankfully, many of the recipients of Countrywide’s munificence were involved in framing Dodd-Frank.

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A common libertarian and conservative response to questions about how beneficiaries of government programs will carry on after the removal of their subsidies is that charity should take care of them. This answer is often overly glib, even when combined with the observation that a lower burden of taxation might foster more giving (charity is already tax-deductible after all). Charity will always be insufficient to meet basic human needs, and in the absence of government programs, some people will fall through the cracks. (In the presence of government programs, some people will fall through the cracks.)

This aspect of charity is a feature, not a bug. Charity suffers from the same problem that government welfare programs do: the Samaritan’s Dilemma, as economists call it. The more you help those in need, the more need there will be, because people’s behaviors will change as they come to expect assistance. To the extent that libertarians and conservatives oppose welfare programs because of “dependency” issues, they must also oppose charity for the same reason. Of course, charity is superior to government programs in at least two respects: lower administrative expenditures and, more importantly, greater respect for the moral autonomy of the donor. To the extent that we can reduce extreme human deprivation, many of us will think it worthwhile to do so even if it somewhat reduces the productive efforts of those less deprived, whether through charity or through government assistance. Nevertheless, it is possible for charity to be excessive.

To see the point, consider the argument I made that libertarianism does not preclude mandatory health insurance for children. (more…)

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Eating contests are pretty fun.  I remember doing quite well in a raw oyster eating competition as a kid.  But competitive eating as a sport turns a fun pastime into something that I’m pretty sure isn’t consistent with human flourishing.  Nonetheless, you are free to choose your own stomach ache!  And let’s face it, it isn’t exactly a public health problem when a relatively small number of folks race to consume mass quantities of some delicious delight like a hot dog or macaroni and cheese.  Nature has a way of reminding those of us with the stomachs of mortals that this is a bad idea.

But nanny journalists – no doubt cheered on by the Michelle Obama-types* – can’t help turn a simple report on the 97th Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest into a chance to lecture us on the dangers of eating.  Here from the  ESPN report of Joey Chestnut’s magnificent 6th straight victory:

For some, it’s a painful reminder of excess — especially as the U.S. battles a growing obesity problem. The American Medical Association opposes competitive eating, saying it’s harmful to the human body. But the competitive eaters are quite trim. Chestnut is more than 6 feet tall and a muscly 210 pounds, and Thomas, who is 5-foot-5, weighed in at barely 100 pounds.

Hot dogs, though, aren’t the healthiest of choices. In addition to beef, they include salt and various food additives. Chestnut’s total dog count was equal to more than 20,000 calories. This year, the animal rights group Mercy For Animals staged a protest against eating meat, with signs that read “Choose Vegetarian.”

It isn’t that I’m against social pressure or the use of disapprobation.  I’m no Mill who saw coercion in such things.  But can’t a simple story on who won the contest be just that rather than something politicized?  ESPN can’t help itself from doing this kind of stuff – and without any market demand at all I’d guess.  I would love to see a serious competitor in the national sports news business emerge.

*Apologies to Sven for criticizing someone with such a nice family who probably stays up late at night thinking of ways to improve my life (as she sees it) regardless of whether her approach infringes on my liberty.

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The picture above is from one of the many fires burning in my state of Utah and throughout the West.  This one is personal because it is just a few short miles from a treasured family cabin, with little to stop it but hope and prayer.  Information on these fires is hard to come by, especially this one, since it is in a remote location high in the mountains of central Utah.  This fire was the force that finally induced me to join Twitter, where I can follow the random updates and photos that concerned people are posting.  Information from official sources is spotty and infrequent.

There is such a feeling of helplessness watching these large fires.  We appreciate the brave men and women who face danger and exhaustion fighting these fires, but, in the age of the iPad, this image of men and pickaxes seems strangely anachronistic.  There are bulldozers and planes and helicopters dropping what seem like teacups full of water occasionally, but in the end we have little to do but hope the winds will shift or that temperature cool down.

In the Mountain West we get our water primarily from snowfall.  Rains in the summer are mostly just temporary moments of refreshment.  When it rains, we wonder if God is blessing us or taunting us for choosing to live where spring grasses dry up by July (this year, by June) and the land becomes a tinderbox, waiting for the next lightening strike (the apparent cause of the above fire) or, more often, to stupid human behavior involving fireworks, cars, guns, vandalism or any number of other things that can causes the dry earth to explode.

Many small communities are cancelling their fireworks shows this 4th.  There is already enough smoke and fire in the air.  The fire pictured below started yesterday in heavily populated Utah County, where I live.  Our relatives have been evacuated.  Meanwhile, the Freedom Festival is in full swing, tying up the roads with traffic and noxious fumes.  Later tonight we have Scotty McCreery (of American Idol fame) and the Beach Boys performing at the stadium.  Hopefully Wilson, Love and the other old boys realize that all the respirators in the state are needed for people suffering from smoke inhalation.  They will have to breathe on their own power tonight.   A couple of years ago at the “Stadium of Fire,” one of the visiting artists was actually blasted with a live rocket while sitting in the stadium.  Hopefully, the folks in charge (led by Osmonds and other local dignitaries) have improved their aim.  In the neighborhoods above the stadium there is a $1,000 fine for lighting fireworks.  They wouldn’t want to pay that.

After many winters of heavy snowfall and heavy spring rains, this last winter was a dry one.  Droughts  usually go in 6-7 year cycles.  It is time for another period of drought, unfortunately.  During droughts we watch nervously as the reservoirs drain and the springs dry up, and we pray for more snow.  Many people here learn their climate science from Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, so they don’t worry about such things.  But I fear the next extended drought is going to be much worse than the last one and the one after that even worse.  I don’t like the prospect of seven years of crappy skiing, but that would be just the tip of the iceberg (not that there would be any icebergs, of course).  With its scenic wonders, tremendous recreation and safe, pleasant communities, Utah is a highly desirable place to vacation and live.  Now it is burning up.  Forbes magazine recently identified the city of Provo as the #1 spot for business in the nation.  How will that change when we run out of water, when our beautiful vistas are blackened, and when ash falls from the sky more often than rain?

Our Republican governor is trying to figure out how much authority he has to do things like ban target shooting and fireworks, which has started several of the fires.  During the past decades, Utah actually weakened its fireworks restrictions under pressure from the business that like to sell fireworks.  Yesterday the local paper ran a story from the gun lobby about how they are not responsible for fires.

The normal fire season would just be starting around now, but everyone is already tense and exhausted.  Resources are stretched thin.  Even if the state can cough up more money, fire engines, helicopters, trained personnel and other things don’t just materialize out of thin air.  If you want a business tip, get out in front on equipment and technologies that can be used to fight wildfires.  Your market is guaranteed!

But that market and the whole wretched enterprise of preventing and fighting fires is largely a mess.  There are various market failures, federalism issues, and a host of land use and water use issues that don’t lend themselves easily to market or government solutions.  One sad example: my sister’s brother-in-law was killed a few years ago piloting a plane much like the one above.  He was a great guy that I enjoyed spending time with in years past, and he left behind a wife and four children.  Compounding the tragedy was that he worked for private contractor that was poorly insured, and the compensation his family received was barely enough to cover the funeral costs, if that.  Deaths and injuries to those fighting fires is likely to only increase in coming years.

The picture above is of my house taken in my favorite season: winter!  How I wish we could fast-forward to December.  I hope the snows keep coming.  Faintly in the background you can see the mountainside on which I live.  The only neighbors I have behind me are lots of deer, rabbits and rattlesnakes (which, by the way, are showing up all over the neighborhood this year: apparently the ground is too dry, even for them).  The hillside behind me is so dry, angry words could start it on fire.

So, from every mountainside (including mine), let freedom ring!

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According to the BBC, a new French law makes it “compulsory for drivers to carry a breathalyser kit in their vehicles or risk an on-the-spot fine.”  This new mandate, of course, is designed for safety.  I mean, what else could it be for?  An MSN article on the new law dutifully reports this aspect: “About 4,000 people each year are killed in traffic accidents in France, and many are alcohol-related. The government hopes the new law saves at least 500 lives annually.”  End of story, right?  No.

The MSN article that first caught my attention only mentions the new law and the safety angle.  After reading it, my first thought was that there must be an organized interest behind the law that stands to make a ton of money.  Fortunately, the MSNBC article provides a link to the BBC story.  And there, we see “the rest of the story” (as Paul Harvey used to say):

Tens of millions of the kits are going to have to be supplied, but right now there is a shortage, which is one reason for the four-month grace period, our correspondent says.  He adds that the new rule is proving a bonanza for manufacturers, of which there are only two in France. Meanwhile, drivers’ groups opposing the measure say it has been foisted on France by clever industry lobbying.

I have no doubt that there were some well-intentioned people hoping and arguing for such a policy change.  And drunk-driving is a scourge on the driving public.  But I bet that the clinching argument was made by lobbyists representing the manufacturers.  Once again, we see Baptists and Bootleggers working together to increase the scope of the state to satisfy their self-interest.

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I’m sorry, but what does Michael Boskin’s WSJ op-ed entitled “Obama and ‘The Wealth of Nations’” have to do with Adam Smith? The first sentence of the op-ed is “President Obama should put Adam Smith’s ‘The Wealth of Nations’ at the top of his summer reading list.” Perhaps he should—but then again, lots of people should, including, one might even suggest, Michael Boskin.

Boskin quotes the famous line from The Wealth of Nations in which Smith says “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest” (bk. 1, chap. 2, para. 2). But there are two problems with Boskin’s use of this passage. First, he misquotes it. I have rendered it correctly here, but Boskin forgets a comma and inserts the word “can” between “we” and “expect.” Not a major blunder, perhaps, but if that is the only line one quotes from the book that ostensibly forms the background for your entire op-ed argument, you should get it right.

Second, and much more important, that line from Smith does not make the point Boskin apparently wants it to. Boskin wishes to criticize President Obama for holding, in Boskin’s words, “that the profit motive is somehow ignoble.” Boskin counters that “every student learns in introductory economics class that the pursuit of profits is essential to a successful economy, allocating resources to the use consumers value most.” (That might be taught in every micro course, but I am not so sure every student learns it; but that is by the by.) Note, however, that both Obama’s and Boskin’s positions, as stated, might be true: they do not contradict one another. Let me explain.

Smith’s claim about how we “address ourselves” to potential partners in market or commercial transactions—namely, “not to their humanity but to their self-love” (ibid.)—would seem to be a descriptive, not a prescriptive, statement. In other words, it describes what people actually do in such situations, leaving the question of whether they should or should not behave that way out of the discussion. Smith is here describing the way markets work, on the assumption—correct then, as it is now—that most people do not know how they work. Now Smith will indeed go on to argue that individuals acting in their own self-interest tend to engage in behaviors and transactions that benefit not only themselves (their intention) but also other people in the society as well (not part of their intention). This gives us a reason, Smith believes, to wish to encourage such transactions. This is Smith’s famous “invisible hand” argument (Wealth of Nations, bk. 4, chap. 2, para. 9).

Hence Smith does develop a prescriptive argument in The Wealth of Nations, but the gains from trade, which he thinks are both real and underappreciated, are nevertheless not decisive. Smith acknowledges other matters that he thinks we should also consider as we evaluate commercial society. Smith worried about the deleterious effects that extreme division of labor might have on the minds and psyches of the laboring class (WN, bk. 5, chap. 1, art. 2, paras. 50 and 61), and he proposed some small measures—like partially subsidized primary schooling for all (ibid., para. 55)—to address them. He also worried about the effects that business–government “partnerships” would have: he thought they would almost inevitably benefit the protected and privileged businesses at the expense of both other businesses and the public generally, so he opposed such partnerships (WN, bk 1, chap. 10, part 2, para. 27 and passim). And he worried about the poor. Indeed, almost all of the policy recommendations Smith comes to make could arguably be seen as motivated by his concern for raising the status of the least among us (here is but one example).

Now, concern for the poor, support for education, and opposition to monopoly privileges for favored businesses are hardly the exclusive provenance of the political left, as some contemporary scholars claim, but neither are they the exclusive provenance of the right. They arise instead from an understanding of how markets work and a genuine desire for people to have the chance, as Smith puts it, to better their conditions. Hence a person who wants to present Smith’s argument the way Smith intended it has to spend time defending him against people on the left, as well as on the right.

But Boskin, who is on the right, offers no discussion of any of this. Instead he wishes merely to criticize President Obama and at the same time make his own policy prescriptions, but from under the protective mantle of Adam Smith. I pass no judgment here on whether Boskin’s policy recommendations are good or bad. But they are a long way from the general claims Smith makes. If Boskin wants to suggest that Smith would endorse them, he has a lot more work to do. But why bother? Why not merely state them as his own recommendations, and argue for them on the merits?

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So close but so far from actually carrying the day, Justice Scalia, Justice Kennedy, Justice Thomas, and Justice Alito on ObamaCare (see the dissent starting on page 127 of the PDF):

What is absolutely clear, affirmed by the text of the 1789 Constitution, by the Tenth Amendment ratified in 1791, and by innumerable cases of ours in the 220 years since, is that there are structural limits upon federal power—upon what it can prescribe with respect to private conduct, and upon what it can impose upon the sovereign States. Whatever may be the conceptual limits upon the Commerce Clause and upon the power to tax and spend, they cannot be such as will enable the Federal Government to regulate all private conduct and to compel the States to function as administrators of federal programs.

That clear principle carries the day here. The striking case of Wickard v. Filburn, 317 U. S. 111 (1942), which held that the economic activity of growing wheat, even for one’s own consumption, affected commerce sufficiently that it could be regulated, always has been regarded as the ne plus ultra of expansive Commerce Clause jurisprudence. To go beyond that, and to say the failure to grow wheat (which is not an economic activity, or any activity at all) nonetheless affects commerce and therefore can be federally regulated, is to make mere breathing in and out the basis for federal prescription and to extend federal power to virtually all human activity.

As for the constitutional power to tax and spend for the general welfare: The Court has long since expanded that beyond (what Madison thought it meant) taxing and spending for those aspects of the general welfare that were within the Federal Government’s enumerated powers, see United States v. Butler, 297 U. S. 1, 65–66 (1936).Thus, we now have sizable federal Departments devoted to subjects not mentioned among Congress’ enumerated powers, and only marginally related to commerce: the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The principal practical obstacle that prevents Congress from using the tax-and-spend power to assume all the general-welfare responsibilities traditionally exercised by the States is the sheer impossibility of managing a Federal Government large enough to administer such a system. That obstacle can be overcome by granting funds to the States, allowing them to administer the program. That is fair and constitutional enough when the States freely agree to have their powers employed and their employees enlisted in the federal scheme. But it is a blatant violation of the constitutional structure when the States have no choice.

The Act before us here exceeds federal power both in mandating the purchase of health insurance and in denying nonconsenting States all Medicaid funding. These parts of the Act are central to its design and operation, and all the Act’s other provisions would not have been enacted without them. In our view it must follow that the entire statute is inoperative.

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