Archive for January, 2013

Over at Kids Prefer Cheese, Angus posts an interesting chart that shows a dramatic increase in Chinese coal consumption since 2000:

277xNxchinas-soaring-coal-consumption-poses-climate-challenge_1_jpg_pagespeed_ic_xddsn5yNvwAngus then proceeds to suggest – accurately – that this is big environmental problem that can’t be solved by one of the most commonly discussed panaceas for climate change .  As he argues, “One thing is for sure: a rich world carbon tax is not going to do much, if
anything at all, for the environment. Unlike acid rain, carbon dioxide emission is a global externality, not a local one.”

Now to be fair to Angus, this is a post focused on climate change.  But I’d like to compliment his post by highlighting that this chart also has a good news side (that I’m sure he understands but just isn’t focusing on here).  Namely, all that coal consumption is happening for a reason: Chinese economic activity has shot up and thus China needs a heck of a lot more energy to power that expansion.  This is, of course, great news for the people of China and the world.  Sure, it has the downside of creating more environmental problems for all of us.  But it is a sign of a massive increase in the well-being of hundreds of millions of people.  So two cheers for China’s coal use.

Now, like Angus, I hope that we can figure out a way to help power all of that economic activity with cleaner sources of energy (without squelching growth, ours or theirs).

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Several of my progressive Facebook friends posted about Gabrielle Giffords’ testimony before Congress about gun legislation, editorializing that we/they should pay close attention because of her personal experience as a victim of violence. Now, I understand why some criminal courts allow victim-impact statements: before deciding what sort of punishment should be meted out, it’s relevant to see how the crime has had an impact on the victim. But Congress isn’t in the business of punishing particular offenders – its function is to create legislation for the good of the country. (Yes, I’m rolling my eyes too, but let’s stipulate this arguendo.) So the relevance of victim-impact statements in this context is…what? This strikes me as legislating the ad misericordiam fallacy, using raw emotion as a substitute for rational analysis. But what’s especially irritating is that the last big example of this was when the other party was in power, and the party in power always has a predictably selective memory. After 9/11, emotions were pretty raw. A lot more pain and suffering that day than after any of the recent mass shootings. What was the result? A decade-long war in Afghanistan. Rampant abuse of executive power. Indefinite detention without trial. Lost privacy rights. The TSA. Kill lists. Mass shootings are to the left what terrorist attacks are to the right: emotional outcry by the public leading to grandstanding by whichever party is in power, and increased erosion of liberty. This is what happens when you legislate based on raw emotions, and disregard both the Constitution and the very idea of rational analysis. Let’s not keep making the same mistake.

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I’m sure this is George W. Bush’s fault:


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It’s not all-politics-all-the-time. Today in my “Happiness and the Meaning of Life” class I showed them an episode of Clifford the Big Red Dog. In “Dog for a Day,” Emily Elizabeth’s friend Charlie complains about having to do chores. He notices Clifford playing with his friends Cleo and T-Bone, and it occurs to him that dogs don’t have to do chores, but in fact do nothing besides play and sleep and eat. He wishes he were a dog. That night, he dreams he is a dog. At first, he is delighted! He doesn’t have to do chores! He goes to play with Clifford. At first it’s fun, but Charlie realizes quickly that he can no longer ride his bike, play soccer, talk to his dad or to his friends – even school. In short, he misses all the constitutive elements of a human life. Clifford notes that they get to roll in the sand and dig for bones and chase their tails, but Charlie finds this not entirely satisfying. He realizes, as Aristotle noted long ago, that human happiness is distinct from the happiness of other animals. Each type of thing has a different nature, and so flourishes in a different way. To be sure, the human good is itself pluralistic: Charlie and Emily Elizabeth may have distinctly different modes of flourishing. But the human good is generically different from the canine good. Clifford doesn’t quite get why Charlie isn’t satisfied with dog-pleasures. But Charlie gets it very quickly: despite the necessity of doing homework and chores, the human life consists of all sorts of pleasures that dogs do not appreciate. When Charlie wakes up from his dream, he is happy to discover he is still a person, and runs to find his dad so he can help with chores. His dad is surprised at this turn of events and comments “you don’t seem yourself.” Charlie replies “no Dad: I am myself!” Lesson learned.

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I got into an argument with a structural engineer the other day. I was saying that it would be really cool if the Navy had something like the Helicarrier used by SHIELD in the Avengers movie. He was trying to say that it “wouldn’t work” for some kind of technical reasons, like there’s no known power source that could make something that big hover and also be on the thing, and that even if we had one, the blast from the turbines would be so powerful that it would destroy any buildings it happened to fly over. But I replied that this was just his opinion. In my opinion, it would be terrific, and these “technical” objections really shouldn’t override how awesome it would be to have a Helicarrier. He kept insisting that, unlike me, he had spent years studying physics and electromagnetism, and that therefore his “opinion” as to what was or wasn’t technically feasible was better justified than mine, and that my aesthetic preferences really didn’t amount to much in the absence of good reasons. I replied that he doesn’t have perfect knowledge, so my opinion should count just as much, and I reiterated how great it would be: it would greatly enhance naval effectiveness and air superiority, plus it would super-cool so we should just do it and make it work. Who’s to say we couldn’t possibly make it work? He kept going back to the theme that I’m not really qualified to say what would work, whereas he actually was an expert on these things. He said he realized it sounded arrogant when he put it that way, which he didn’t intend, but that he did actually have a PhD from Cal Tech, and that he was only bringing it up to help motivate the point that I didn’t have a rational basis for arguing with him about this.

The above anecdote is fictional, of course, yet it’s analogous to the kinds of arguments economists and political philosophers often find themselves in. The word “rights” can’t just mean whatever you want it to mean, and not every conception of rights will be coherent. In a democratic society, everyone is entitled to have their voice heard, but it’s a mistake to infer from this that everything is up for grabs, that Locke and Marx (or Keynes and Hayek) are “just different opinions.”

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Noon Links

  • Cats kill 1.4-3.7 billion birds and 6.9-20.7 mammals in the U.S. alone every year, according to a study by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, which makes them “the top threat to US wildlife.” The number of free-ranging cats in the U.S. has increased about 200% since 1970. My previous post on cats and conservation here.
  • Bible Quiz – a new documentary about high school Bible Quizzers in the U.S. It was surreal to see this link come up on BBC News. I participated in the same Bible Quiz program featured in the film. It was an intense experience. We went to National Finals four years; the highest we ever finished was third. Although my views on various theological and religious issues have changed since those days, I look back on them fondly.

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I appreciate Jason’s post. I have been giving the same advice to my students for some time (although few listen, alas). I can usually draw on whatever search we are conducting and give them a sense of the numbers. This year, for example, we had a tenure track search.

  • Number of applicants: 188
  • Number of applicants invited to interview on campus: 4

Off this pool, my guess is that the same 20-30 PhDs will compete for all the decent tenure track jobs. A few applicants will get multiple interviews and offers. But most will never get anything but a form letter thanking them for their interest.  The odds are the worst if you are coming from anything but a top 20 program and are not a member of an historically underrepresented group (and no, this category does not include Christians, Mormons, libertarians, natural law theorists, etc., etc.).

But the issues go well beyond the abysmal market that current exists. There have been down markets before and “lost generations” of academics. But there have been good markets as well (even though, under the best of circumstances, I would guess that most PhDs will never get placed).

The other day, one of my colleagues asked: “How long do you think tenure will exist?  Do you think we are the last generation?” Interesting questions. The current model may not be sustainable in the long-run, and there are so many incentives to hire adjuncts instead of tenure track faculty. I am quite dubious of the merits of tenure, by the way, even if I am quite happy to have tenure and an endowed chair that supplies me with a decent research budget.

But the real disruption is on the way. As I noted to my colleague, so many universities are now providing courses free on the internet (In the past year, I’ve watched a course on game theory from Yale, a course on political theory from Oxford, and a number of assorted lectures from a variety of universities. All were excellent. All were free and available on my iPad). As soon as some enterprising organization decides to allow students to take whatever courses they want online, administer exams, and credential students, the prevailing model of higher education will find itself under a significant assault. Certainly, there will always be wealthy parents who want their children to attend a “name brand” university or elite liberal arts college largely as a means of signaling their social status to their peers (those university stickers really dress up that old Volvo). But I am dubious that these institutions will still see the merit of tenure, and even if they do, there will be far fewer positions available to the stunning number of PhDs who are on the market.

A few days after my conversation, I followed a link from Marginal Revolution and discovered that the new model is being rolled out. Under the University of Wisconsin’s “Flexible Option,” students will be able to “complete their education independently through online courses, which have grown in popularity through efforts by companies such as Coursera, edX and Udacity.” You can read the full story here (WSJ).

Bottom Line: follow Jason’s advice.

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John Samples at the Cato Institute defends the filibuster:

Allowing majority rule to always trump minority interests would undercut the intent and structure of the Constitution, with its many protections of minorities from the tyranny of majorities.

As political scientist Gregory Koger has noted, the filibuster has been used to force Senate majorities to consider minority amendments. A majority has every reason to prevent such amendments; they often force senators in the majority to cast tough votes on controversial issues. By forcing amendments, however, the filibuster enhances accountability while expanding the scope of the debate.

While the House is organized along partisan lines, the Senate is much more individualist, partly because of the filibuster. Getting rid of the filibuster would increase the power of party leaders. Will senators represent their states better if they are more at the mercy of party leaders? In a polarized age, do we really need more partisanship in the Senate?

The current threat of filibusters requires the majority party to move toward the center, satisfying more voters. In a polarized time, the filibuster tends to make Senate actions more representative of the nation as a whole.

John is right that the filibuster makes the Senate a more consensual body and drags what the Senate passes toward the national median. He’s also right that the U.S. system of government is one of separation of powers and a large number of veto players, and the filibuster merely sharpens that feature of the system.

But all political institutions pose tradeoffs. In my last post on the topic, I noted that the filibuster has important harmful consequences for the federal judiciary and tax code. What John celebrates as the individualist character of the Senate also opens the door wider to parochial pork and lobbyist influence. If one Senator demands a “side payment” (in the form of favorable legislation) in exchange for allowing legislation to proceed smoothly, (s)he can often get it. That’s how the federal tax code became so byzantine. It’s how the “Cornhusker kickback” and “Louisiana purchase” originally got into Obamacare. Furthermore, stronger party leadership in the Senate would help clarify responsibility for policy. As it stands now, voters usually don’t know whom to blame for unpopular policies, and politicians are usually able to obfuscate responsibility because the filibuster complicates the voting record in the Senate (voting for the rule can often be more important than voting against final passage).

Note as well that when the House and Senate are controlled by different parties, as has often been the case, there is the same incentive for cross-party collaboration that John praises as part of the filibuster. The U.S. system already has many safeguards for minorities. Precisely for that reason, I see the filibuster as unnecessary. Since all institutions have tradeoffs, institutions that are “in a sort of middle” (with apologies to Edmund Burke) are usually more robust than those at either extreme of the majoritarian-consensus continuum.

Extreme status-quo bias might be justified if the status quo were rosy. But in the U.S., it’s not. Look at the economic freedom rankings. The U.S. is now #18 in the world, far behind countries like New Zealand, Canada, Australia, and even the United Kingdom — all English-speaking countries with parliamentary systems and few veto players. The countries with systems most like the U.S. system of separation of powers — Latin American countries like Brazil and Mexico — are well behind (Brazil is #105, Mexico is #91). The status quo in the U.S. is not very good, and we should tweak the system in favor of letting through more change.

Finally, I’d like to elaborate the bureaucracy problem more fully and illustrate its relevance to today. With the filibuster, it is difficult for legislators to constrain bureaucratic excesses, so long as 40 Senators are willing to protect the agency. Right now, the EPA is planning to regulate greenhouse gases as pollutants without explicit statutory authority. In many other instances, the EPA has overreached recently, even drawing a unanimous rebuke from the Supreme Court. But no matter how out-of-control the EPA gets, and no matter what the partisan composition of the Senate is, it will be very difficult for Congress to pass any legislation reining them in. Even if Republicans take the majority, they will be unable to prevent the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases with command-and-control mandates. A better alternative to command-and-control mandates would be a carbon tax or “clean” cap-and-trade (without the industry and consumer giveaways from the 2009 Waxman-Markey bill). But conservative Republicans will block that with all their might, no matter what the EPA does. And without that as an alternative, Democrats won’t go along with a reining in of the EPA. So instead we’re left with a Pareto-inferior outcome that no one really wants.

Now, given time, effort, and a modicum of good will, legislators can find ways around the filibuster and could probably even resolve the EPA issue mentioned above. But the filibuster increases the bargaining costs of reaching deals. In that way spatial models of legislation are imperfect. Pareto-improving deals don’t always happen when transaction costs are high enough. Look at the fiscal cliff. Look at the sequester. No one is happy with the way those are turning out. A robust political system needs safeguards for minorities, yes, but it also needs to keep bargaining costs manageable.

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Don’t Go to Grad School

It’s that time of year again: sending in the last of the grad-school reference letters. Over time, my answers to students who request grad school reference letters, particularly for PhD programs, have become more and more emphatic: don’t do it. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, or how good your grades have been.

The job market for political science PhD’s is abysmal. It has long been pretty poor, though nowhere near as bad as that for historians and philosophers. But following the 2008 recession, the market has simply collapsed. At this point, there is such a backlog of underplaced and unemployed political science PhD’s that even a strong economic recovery, with its concomitant benefits for state budgets, can never clear it. Speaking from personal experience, you now need to have a better record (in an “annual average productivity” sense) to get an entry-level assistant professor job in political science at a directional state college than to get tenure at a Carnegie Very High Research institution.

If you get a political science PhD, you should be aware that you are buying a lottery ticket. If your number manages to come up — but it probably won’t — you can get a tenure-track job — eventually. Otherwise, you should see your five, six, or seven years of postgraduate education as a consumption good, and prepare your resume for entry-level private industry jobs. Then, if you’re one of the few lucky ones to get a tenure-track job, you might not get tenure. That used to mean that you dropped down to a lower-ranked institution and started over. Now it means that you have to change careers.

It’s not just PhD programs that aren’t worth it any more. Law school applications have plummeted. Full-time MBA’s in the United States are of doubtful value at best, especially when opportunity cost is considered. Even medical degrees are now a huge financial risk.

Instead of going to graduate school, students would be better advised to do more with their undergraduate degrees. The value of studying (more…)

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First of all, I would like to thank Grover Cleveland for inviting me to guest-blog this week. I’m also grateful for the opportunity to write the words “I would like to thank Grover Cleveland,” which I would not have predicted I’d ever have reason to do. I thought I would start with some reflections, and will follow up with longer posts. It will be interesting to participate in a blog again: I used to blog at Liberty and Power, but a couple years ago they switched to a platform that garbled comments threads and occasionally ate my posts, and the site was overrun with pop-up ads. But around the same time I was souring on L&P (the platform, not the co-bloggers), I was starting to use Facebook more for sharing and commenting on links pertaining to political philosophy and current events. But that’s not exactly the same thing, since FB threads are a limited group, whereas blogs are open to the public. So, for the week at least, I’m back. By the way, for those of you who were wondering, my first name is pronounced as if it were the more-conventional “Ian.”

I expect I’ll be engaging in some discussion of gun laws, women in combat, immigration, capitalism and the economy. I will likely talk about rights – both constitutional rights and natural rights – and where I see the place of individual liberty. I’ve put a lot of energy into thinking about rights – what they are, what philosophical justifications might ground them, what their role in the social order is. This means I get to argue not only with people who reject the libertarian/classical-liberal project, but also with people who embrace it for different reasons than I do. I am not a political junkie or policy wonk. I used to be: I was the guy who went to the bookstore to buy the Tower Commission report after watching hours of televised coverage of the Iran-Contra hearings. I watched Face the Nation, Meet the Press, and This Week as if it were my religion. But my interest is in applying the philosophical questions of justification and first principles to what’s going on. That’s not to say that I’m unconcerned with the law: I think it matters whether a proposed law is unconstitutional, but I’ll also question whether it’s right. Pet peeve: double-standards and hypocrisy, whether from left or right. So: open borders or closed? Gun bans or gun ownership? Women in combat? TSA, love or hate? Rights or social justice as a criterion for classical-liberalism? Why rights at all? Deleting the state? Stay tuned.

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According to an article in space.com – the self-proclaimed “world’s No. 1 source for news of astronomy, skywatching, space exploration, commercial spaceflight and related technologies,” the International Space Station has been a big freaking waste/colossal money pit  yielded little return on the U.S. government’s investment.  The cost?  According to this article (from late 2010): “NASA estimates the station has cost U.S. taxpayers $50 billion since 1994 — and overall, its price tag has been pegged at $100 billion by all member nations.”  I’ve also seen higher estimates.  The benefits?  Few – and with high opportunity cost:

Gregory Petsko, a biochemist at Brandeis University, said the only basic science justification he has ever heard for the station is that protein molecules form superior crystals in the microgravity of space than they do on Earth. Researchers crystallize proteins in order to determine their precise three-dimensional structures, which help biologists understand the functions of those proteins.

The best-case scenario, in terms of return on investment, would be if a space-grown crystal were used to design a blockbuster pharmaceutical drug that worked by precisely targeting one of those proteins, he said.

“I haven’t seen any really important structures yet that absolutely required the space station for crystal growth, and there are a heck of a lot of structures out there,” Petsko told SPACE.com.

Even if the station did lead to important new crystal structures, the cost per structure would be astronomical, Petkso said. “If we assume that two percent of the cost of the space station has gone into this kind of science, that’s a billion dollars with little or nothing to show for it so far.”

For that amount of money, he said, NASA could have funded the work of 1,000 scientists on Earth for five years.

“Do you honestly think that this would have produced fewer important scientific findings than have come out of the space station?” Petsko said.

Not news to those of us highly skeptical of the value of NASA and, particularly, of NASA’s manned space efforts.  But here is NASA’s defense of the benefits of the ISS if you want to see what it is doing from another perspective (underwhelming for the price if you ask me).

If you’d like to literally see your tax dollars at work with your naked eye, sign up for NASA’s “spot the station” service here.  And at least we get beautiful pictures like this one - just at a really high cost!:

Mt Vesuvius


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Sanford Levinson’s “The Embarrassing Second Amendment” is a classic law review article that almost certainly helped lay a brick in the road to the critical District of Columbia, et al v. Heller (2008) gun rights decision that held (among other things) that:

The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.

Way back in 1989, Levinson wrote this interesting sentence in that Yale Law Review article that should make gun control enthusiasts basing their claims on a consequentialist logic take pause:

If one does accept the plausibility of any of the arguments on behalf of a strong reading of the Second Amendment, but, nevertheless, rejects them in the name of social prudence and the present-day consequences produced by finicky adherence to earlier understandings, why do we not apply such consequentialist criteria to each and every part of the Bill of Rights?

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Conservatives and liberals are both mad over the Senate’s mundane filibuster compromise. Liberals wanted the filibuster abolished or severely pared back, and conservatives didn’t want any reforms at all. Of course, the sides are exactly flipped from 2005, when it was Senate Republicans who threatened the “constitutional option.” Both sides are afflicted with short-termist thinking.

Abolishing the filibuster is the long-term desirable thing to do. Gaping holes in the federal judiciary and the arcane monstrosity that is the federal tax code owe their existence to the filibuster and the immense status-quo bias in the U.S. Congress. Sure, bad things would get through if the filibuster were abolished. Obamacare was only enacted because Dems briefly held a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. But the country is now facing severe problems across the board, from taxation to debt to health care to virtually unsupervised regulatory agencies. We need radical, comprehensive policy surgery, not more insanely complex, achingly tentative, compromise procedures that allow the infections in the national political economy to fester further. Abolish the filibuster and, while we’re at it, the presidential veto (amend the Constitution).

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The 2013 New Hampshire Liberty Forum will be happening in a month. If you want to see about 500 libertarian types overflow the second-largest conference center in the state of New Hampshire, you’ll want to be there. I’m impressed with the speaker lineup this year, which reaches beyond traditional libertarian circles:

  • Tom Woods is a keynote speaker. Popular LVMI-associated historian, bestselling author.
  • Declan McCullagh – now chief political correspondent for CNET, long associated with Wired
  • Jeffrey Albert Tucker – publisher of Laissez Faire Books
  • Thaddeus Russell – history prof & author
  • Steve Cooksey – that paleo guy in NC who was fined by the dietitian licensing board for advocating the paleo diet
  • ESSAM – that NYC artist who punked the NYPD with his anti-drone artwork
  • Julie Borowski – TokenLibertarianGirl
  • Mike Yashko from FEE
  • Aaron Day from the Atlas Society
  • Lots of Bitcoin folks

I would be particularly interested to hear Jody Underwood, a Free Stater who chairs the school board in Croydon, NH. Last year she talked about their efforts to implement school choice at the town level.

Sadly, I won’t be there this year, too busy. (I will be going to the Porcupine Freedom Festival in summer, however.) Here’s the link for more information and registration.

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That’s the subtitle of a new working paper from Peterson, Pandya, and Leblang. Here’s the abstract:

Skills are often occupation-specific, a fact missing from existing research on the political economy of immigration. Although analyses of survey data suggest broad support for skilled migration occupational licensing regulations persist as formidable barriers to skilled migrants’ labor market entry. Regulations ostensibly serve the public interest by certifying competence but are simultaneously rent-preserving entry barriers. We analyze both the sources of US states’ licensure requirements for international medical graduates (IMGs), and the effect of these regulations on migrant physicians’ choice of US state in which to work over the period 1973-2010. Analysis of original data shows that states with self-financing state medical licensing boards, which can more easily be captured by incumbent physicians, have more stringent IMG licensure requirements. Additionally, we find that states that require IMGs to complete longer periods of supervised training receive fewer migrants. Our empirical results are robust to controls for states’ physician labor market. This research identifies an overlooked dimension of international economic integration: implicit barriers to the cross-national mobility of human capital, and the public policy implications of such barriers.

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Politics without Romance

The work of James M. Buchanan, who died two weeks ago, provided a host of important insights into political economy and politics. For those who are unacquainted with the work of Buchanan, there is a brief overview/introduction in the current issue of the Economist. The opening paragraph may whet your interest:

A LIST of things that Americans judge more favourably than Congress, according to Public Policy Polling, a survey firm, includes colonoscopies, root canals, lice and France. America seems to have stumbled from economic crisis to political paralysis. That would have come as little surprise to James Buchanan, a Nobel prize-winning economist and the architect of “public-choice theory”, who died on January 9th, aged 93.

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The Inaugural

There was little that I found surprising in President Obama’s second inaugural address (if you didn’t watch it or have a chance to read it, you can find it here). He clearly articulated—however vaguely—a center left agenda, much as one might have predicted.  Unless the Democrats capture the House in the 2014 midterms, I don’t see a set of circumstances that would result in major progress on any of the big-ticket items.

My biggest concerns came in the President’s discussion of entitlements.  The relevant passages:

We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity.  We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.  But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.  (Applause.)  For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn.

We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few.  We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm.  The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us.  (Applause.)  They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.  (Applause.)

As I have noted in many past postings, the challenges posed by our entitlements is nothing short of daunting. The dates for the insolvency of the various trust funds have been moved up in recent years (with the disability trust fund slated for insolvency by 2016, the last year of President Obama’s second term). The passages above reinforce my existing concerns that there will be little if any progress on entitlement reform in the next few years. The President’s rejection of a tradeoff between “caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future” ignores an important fact. The status quo guarantees that the “generation that will build the future” will also have to bear an enormous tax burden to cover the costs of the baby boomers’ pensions and health care. These costs and the costs of servicing the debt will squeeze out much of the discretionary spending for the very programs that the President finds so attractive.

Of course, the President may believe that the trust funds could be made solvent if only the rich paid their fair share. If this is the case, the President’s claim that we need to “revamp our tax code” may be shorthand for significant increases in marginal rates.

More likely, the President believes (like his predecessor) that entitlement reform is best left to a future administration that will have no choice but to face the tradeoffs that he rejected in his inaugural address.

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Today, Barack Obama took the oath of office with his left hand on two bibles—one belonging to Abraham Lincoln, the other to Martin Luther King, Jr.

That image evokes the progress our nation has made in breaking the shackles of slavery and prejudice that have long constrained us from reaching the promise of our founding, what Lincoln, at Gettysburg, referred to as “the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Of course even as we mark the 2nd inaugural of an African-American president, we pay relatively little attention to the thousands of young black men who are killing each other each year on American streets and the millions more Americans who live in constant fear that their street, their home, their child could be the next target.

Though nation-wider murder rates have been on a gradual decline for some time, Chicago is in the midst of a gang war.  There were 506 homicides in the Second City last year (and thousands of shootings), mostly young black and brown men and boys killing each other.  Much of the shooting was gang-related, according to police, though some of the victims were innocent bystanders, including children.

Lee Habeeb wrote this past week on the “war against black men,” with a focus on Chicago.  As he says, “In Chicago, its Newtown every month.”  Habeeb claims that the real reason the daily murders in Chicago receive so little media attention is that the national media are uncomfortable with the root cause of much of the senseless gun violence in America: fatherlessness.  He notes that his hometown of Oxford, Miss. is flush with guns but rarely any murders: “…my town has lots of guns, but lots of fathers, too.”

I think Habeeb makes an important point, though the issue is certainly bigger and more complex than that.  A very large chunk of crime, both among blacks and whites, is due to young men behaving badly.  Social unrest of a variety of types—across cultures—results from young men and boys who lack supervision and constraints on their behavior.  Responsible fathers are an important source of such constraints in any community. Sadly, however, in some inner-city neighborhoods, virtually no one is raised by a father and mother who are married and living together.  In these neighborhoods, marriage is not merely threatened, it is completely dead.  And where marriage is dead, responsible, engaged fatherhood is very hard to come by.

Although it still is not fashionable (and, indeed, risky) to talk about the role that culture plays in these pathological communities (I’ve heard scholars shouted down as racists for arguing that we should be combating the urban street culture in minority communities, as if that were even a contestable goal), there aren’t many serious scholars anymore who don’t recognize the breakdown of the family as a cause of cultural decay.  The data are too overwhelming to claim otherwise.  Yes, economic forces, discrimination, underperforming schools and other factors are also part of the “culture of pathology” that Moynihan warned about a half-century ago, but it is impossible to ignore the crisis of family breakdown that was the central component of that pathology.

As we celebrate this weekend those who have broken down barriers in extending civil rights and opportunities more broadly, we should also remember that some barriers perform valuable social functions, particularly the social norms that constrain behavior, especially among young men.  We have torn down many of those barriers as well.  King rose to prominence in an age where there was still a broad cultural consensus about what constituted appropriate behavior. In the late 1950s, the media, churches, schools, and popular culture were still largely on the same page.  This included the vital area of sexual mores, including the simple and (then) relatively uncontroversial idea that communities are maintained by a certain social order: first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes sex, then comes children.  Individuals have always violated this order (particularly the sex after marriage part) with some frequency, but until the great moral unraveling that was the sixties and seventies, they faced some degree of social disapproval for doing so.  That social order and the disapproval for irresponsibility were essential components of the glue that held norms on marriage and fatherhood in place.

The sexual revolution knocked down those mores with a vengeance.  Some celebrate the increase in personal freedoms, especially for women.  But now we are stuck in a world where many men see little gain from pursuing responsible behavior towards women and children.  Why should they, in a world where unconstrained sexual urges are tolerated and even celebrated and where they face few if any costs for satisfying their sexual desires in any way they please?  Of course this isn’t something unique to any racial group.  But the consequences of knocking down those barriers have been particularly devastating in poor and minority communities. We see its consequences in the death of marriage; we see it in communities bereft of fathers; we see it in young people lying dead on the streets of Chicago.

The left wants to celebrate how Rev. King fought for civil liberties.  I do, too.  But they don’t want to celebrate the strong religious beliefs that animated his passions.  King himself was no paragon of marital fidelity, but I don’t think he ever would have embraced the moral decline that followed in the decades since he was killed.  He said:

It is also midnight within the moral order. At midnight colours lose their distinctiveness and become a sullen shade of grey. Moral principles have lost their distinctiveness. For modern man, absolute right and wrong are a matter of what the majority is doing. Right and wrong are relative to likes and dislikes and the customs of a particular community. We have unconsciously applied Einstein’s theory of relativity, which properly described the physical universe, to the moral and ethical realm.

I’ve known and loved people in some of those tough Chicago neighborhoods.  I’ve seen their goodness and their efforts, but I have also seen the pain in their lives and the sickness and ugliness in their neighborhoods.  We had a young friend in our home many times several years ago.  Like so many of his peers, he was being raised primarily by his mother and grandmother, with no father around.  He was gunned down one day near his house in Englewood.  For me, what I’m talking about is not just academic.  It is personal.

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The Second Term Begins

Today is the inauguration and the beginning of President Obama’s second term in office.

Ralph Nader, for one, isn’t impressed with inaugurations. As he noted Sunday:

“Tomorrow I’ll watch another rendition of political bulls—- by the newly reelected president, full of promises that he intends to break just like he did in 2009.”

Nader might be a bit harsh in his evaluation. I doubt that President Obama assumed office in 2009 with the intention to break his promises. More likely, he issued his promises to build a coalition and did so before he fully understood the intrinsic complexities of the issues and the limitations of the office.  In the end, there are distinct limits to what a president can achieve given our system of separate institutions sharing powers.  Certainly, President Obama seems to have had distinct difficulties with Congress, even when there was unified Democratic control (e.g., health care, Dodd-Frank, climate change). Whether this was a product of his inexperience or his management style is the subject of ongoing debate. Certainly, things have only become more difficult in the post-2010 period with the GOP in charge of the House. The sluggishness of the recovery (in part a product of public policy and regime uncertainty) has imposed its own set of constraints.

This weekend, Ed O’Keefe provided his assessment of the past four years (WaPo), comparing the campaign promises of 2008 with the performance record. His assessment:

  1. Afghanistan: partially achieved
  2. Iraq: achieved
  3. Climate change: incomplete
  4. Health care overhaul: partially achieved
  5. Guantanamo Bay: failed
  6. The economy: failed
  7. Transparency/government openness: partially achieved
  8. Making government “cool again”: incomplete
  9. United States’ standing in the world: partially achieved
  10. Financial overhaul: partially achieved
  11. Breaking the partisan logjam: failed
  12. Supreme Court appointments: achieved

I would issue a somewhat harsher evaluation of Afghanistan, climate change, transparency and the financial overhaul.  Beyond these items, I would make more of the expansive use of drones and the carnage it has created for civilian populations (apparently, we mourn only the innocent children killed within our own borders).

Looking to the future, my guess is that some of the promises of the past will be recycled. Others (gun control, immigration) will rise to the top. The constraints imposed by our fiscal problems and the economy will continue to impose limits, both in terms of new spending programs and their crowding out other items on the policy agenda.  All in all, I can’t imagine that there will be much of a legacy emerging out of the next four years.

Do any Pileus readers want to issue their own assessment of the past four years?

Any predictions of what the next four years will hold?

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Economist and Harvard Professor Greg Mankiw isn’t the only one who is thinking about working less in an era of higher marginal taxes.  So are golfers like Phil Mickelson according to a recent story:

“Well, it’s been an interesting off-season, and I’m going to have to make some drastic changes,” said Mickelson, who lives with his wife and three children in Rancho Santa Fe, near San Diego. “And I’m not going to jump the gun and do it right away, but I will be making some drastic changes.”

When asked whether the “drastic changes” meant moving from California to another state or perhaps even country, Mickelson would say only that he was not sure.

“If you add up all the federal and you look at the disability and the unemployment and the Social Security and the state, my tax rate is 62, 63 percent,” Mickelson said. “I’ve got to make some decisions on what I am going to do.” [SNIP]

The subject of Steve Stricker’s decision to play fewer tournaments came up, and Mickelson’s answer was a precursor to his statements here Sunday.

“I think that we’re all going to have our own kind of way of handling things, handling time in our career, our family, handling what’s gone on the last couple of months politically,” Mickelson said. “I think we’re all going to have to find things that work for us. And it’s not surprising at all. It makes perfect sense for a number of reasons, not just the ones that he gave about spending more time at home. I totally get it.”

This is bad news not just for Mickelson, his sponsors, and the PGA, but also for those less-wealthy people who really enjoy seeing golf played at a high level (I’m not one of those people, but many are).  If true, it does bear out Mankiw’s earlier economic reasoning and confirms for the googolplexth time (love the word, Jason!) that people respond to incentives.

Here is what Mankiw controversially (and a bit self-indulgently) argued in the New York Times in 2010:

Now you might not care if I supply less of my services to the marketplace — although, because you are reading this article, you are one of my customers. But I bet there are some high-income taxpayers whose services you enjoy.

Maybe you are looking forward to a particular actor’s next movie or a particular novelist’s next book. Perhaps you wish that your favorite singer would have a concert near where you live. Or, someday, you may need treatment from a highly trained surgeon, or your child may need braces from the local orthodontist. Like me, these individuals respond to incentives. (Indeed, some studies report that high-income taxpayers are particularly responsive to taxes.) As they face higher tax rates, their services will be in shorter supply.

Reasonable people can disagree about whether and how much the government should redistribute income. And, to be sure, the looming budget deficits require hard choices about spending and taxes. But don’t let anyone fool you into thinking that when the government taxes the rich, only the rich bear the burden.

Of course, I’d rather see Lefty (and Mankiw) join the Free State Project and move to a low tax state like New Hampshire rather than play less golf.  But if there is one thing NH doesn’t have that California does is weather conducive to playing a lot of golf!  Plus his family and his life is in California, so exit is not as robust an option.  Still, it is sad that the government consistently forces people to make trade-offs that make us generally worse off.

Live free or produce less wealth!

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The U.S. Supreme Court in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008):

Some have made the argument, bordering on the frivolous, that only those arms in existence in the 18th century are protected by the Second Amendment. We do not interpret constitutional rights that way. Just as the First Amendment protects modern forms of communications, e.g.. Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, 521 U.S. 844 (1997), and the Fourth Amendment applies to modern forms of search, e.g., Kyllo v. United States, 533 U.S. 27,35–36 (2001), the Second Amendment extends, prima facie, to all instruments that constitute bearable arms, even those that were not in existence at the time of the founding.

And yet the Court also said this in the same decision:

We therefore read Miller to say only that the Second Amendment does not protect those weapons not typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes, such as short-barreled shotguns.  That accords with the historical understanding of the scope of the right, see Part III, infra.   

But doesn’t this, as the Court suggests later in the opinion, limit “the degree of fit between the prefatory clause and the protected right”?  And more importantly, isn’t the right to bear arms about something broader than merely being prepared for militia service and able to perform self-defense defined as protection of the home and self from other citizens?

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“Imagine that a Wall Street billionaire is passing a bag lady on the street. She begs for a dollar. Should the billionaire give it to her? It’s just plain obvious that the bag lady would benefit more from the dollar than the billionaire. The donation would detract from his happiness less than it would add to hers. Therefore, interpersonal comparisons of utility are possible, and these comparisons ground our eleemosynary duties.”

So runs a familiar thought experiment beloved of utilitarians and consequentialists about property (like Rawlsians). Indeed, to deny that interpersonal comparisons of utility are ever possible seems willfully obtuse. Moreover, to deny that there are any eleemosynary duties is heartless and wrong. What I wish to challenge here is the idea that interpersonal comparisons of utility ground those duties.

Just as the original scenario resorts to the intuition pump, I shall do the same. This scenario is likewise intended to illustrate clear differences in utility across persons.

Imagine that you have been fairly well-off. Two formerly well-off friends of yours have, however, fallen on hard times. They have lost their jobs and run through their savings. They have sold their houses, moved into cramped, run-down apartments, and are generally living a hand-to-mouth existence in which they lack some of the “primary goods” needed for a decent life, such as the ability to save for the future. One friend bewails his condition constantly; he is clearly deeply unhappy due to his financial circumstances (but not suicidal). The other friend seems to accept his lot with relative cheerfulness; while he regards his financial circumstances, which are just as bad as those of the other friend, as a serious difficulty, he maintains an optimistic view on life and on the whole is not terribly unhappy.

Which of these friends is more deserving of your support, or are they equally deserving? For the utilitarian, the answer is clear: the unhappier friend deserves more financial assistance, as financial assistance will do more to raise his spirits. But is that the right answer? Intuitively, it is not. Intuitively, the second friend deserves as much support as the first, and we might even be more favorably disposed to aid the second friend — while we pity the first, we admire the resilience of the second and want to see that character trait rewarded.

Is there any principle beside the principle of utility that our intuition would support? I suggest (more…)

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Regulating the Wrong Things?

As the debates over regulating guns continue to gain speed in the wake of the mass shooting in Connecticut, attention has turned (as one might expect given the circumstances) to assault weapons. One problem is the difficulty on defining one’s terms. As Erica Goode explains in an enlightening piece in the NYT (“Even Defining ‘Assault Rifles’ is Complicated”).

There is general agreement that an assault rifle is a semi-automatic with a detachable magazine (for those who have not spent much time around firearms, semi-automatics fire one bullet per pull of the trigger. This distinguishes them from automatics or “machine guns,” which are illegal). But there is any number of semi-automatics with these features that would not fall into the category in question. Thus, we move to additional features:

Those could include features like a pistol grip, designed to allow a weapon to be fired from the hip; a collapsible or folding stock, which allows the weapon to be shortened and perhaps concealed; a flash suppressor, which keeps the gun’s user from being blinded by muzzle flashes; a muzzle brake, which helps decrease recoil; and a threaded barrel, which can accept a silencer or a suppressor. Bayonet lugs or grenade launchers are also sometimes included.

Of course, none of this addresses the action or the caliber of the cartridge, and thus does not speak to the killing capacity of the rifle. This small fact did not seem to bother the authors of the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act of 1994, which defined an “assault weapon” as a semi-automatic rifle with a detachable magazine that had two or more of the above listed features.  As critics might note, this was regulation by cosmetics.

Last weekend, I attended my first gun show outside of Milwaukee (largely as an anthropological experience). There were several tables selling kits that would allow one to add some of the features described above. Many rifle owners like to customize their guns. I can’t imagine that anyone who bought an rifle without the features listed above would have any difficulty adding the desired components in his or her basement.  I would suspect that even if by some miracle Congress reinstated the 1994 legislation, it would not constitute much of a barrier to those who want to customize their firearms.

At the same time, I can’t believe that new regulations would have much of an impact on the murder rate given the simple fact that most firearm-related homicides are committed with handguns.

The FBI Uniform Crime Reports inform us that in 2011, there were 12,664 murders in the United States. Of this sum, 6,220 were committed with handguns and another 323 with rifles. By way of comparison, 1,694 were committed with knives, 496 with blunt objects, and 728 with “personal weapons” (a category that includes hands, fists, and feet). In case you are interested, 2011 was not anomalous. I took the FBI data from the past decade and produced the following graph:

Handguns v Rifles

Should there be stricter regulation of handguns? This is a difficult question to answer with precision for two reasons. First, the FBI (to my knowledge) does not report data on what percentage of the handgun-related murders were committed by individuals who had acquired their weapons legally. Second, the regulations vary dramatically by state. In Connecticut, one has to attend a handgun training course, get fingerprinted, and go through a rigorous background check before one can purchase a handgun (certain categories of individuals—felons, those who have been hospitalized for mental illnesses, are under restraining orders, or were received a less-than-honorable discharge from the armed forces—are automatically excluded). In other states, the regulations are far less demanding.

Bottom line: while the current debates have been animated by “assault weapons,” the empirical evidence suggests that rifles (regardless of their cosmetics) are not the core problem.  Of course, a cynic might suggest that this fact only increases the likelihood of a new assault weapon ban.

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This is one of my favorite Pileus pieces and its seems like a good time to put it back up on the blog in full:

A Word of Thanks to Four Black Men and A Gun

July 15, 2010 by Marcus Cole

As an American, I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to many, many people who have risked and given their lives to defend our liberty. But as I reflect on the recent Supreme Court decision in McDonald v. City of Chicago, I thought I should take a moment to mention four Americans who have made a relatively uncelebrated contribution to the freedom I cherish and enjoy. I owe a special debt to four black men, and one gun.

The most important of these men, to me, was my father. When I was a boy, he and my mother moved our family of six from the Terrace Village public housing projects in Pittsburgh’s Hill District to a predominantly white neighborhood. While many of our neighbors welcomed us, we were not welcomed by all. I recall a brick through the front window, and other incidents. But burned into my memory is the Sunday evening when my father was beaten with a tire iron on the street in front of our home, and in front of us, his four little children. Those three young white men were never caught.

When my father, with his surgically reconstructed eye socket and jaw, was released from the hospital, he did something he never once considered when we lived in the projects. He bought a gun.

Every evening after that, before going to bed, I and my siblings would go out onto the front porch to say goodnight to my father as he sat in his chair, shotgun across his lap, with its black barrel glistening under the porch light. I never once felt unsafe. I never once had trouble sleeping. My sense of security did not come from the Pittsburgh Police, or from the law. My sense of security came from my father, and his gun.

There were no more incidents, at least not any that I can recall, after my father exercised his Second Amendment right. It was his contribution to “non-violence” in our neighborhood.

Just like the millions of children of our nation’s police officers, we were instructed to never touch my father’s gun. And like those millions of children, we did not touch it. My father believed that it was his first responsibility to protect his family, and that it was reasonable for him to avail himself of a firearm to do so. But so many black men before him have been denied this basic right, and it is important to thank the other black men who have made important contributions in preserving it.

Foremost among these, in my mind, is Frederick Douglass. The self-educated runaway slave turned abolitionist newspaper editor and orator, Douglass was alarmed at the unaddressed violence unleashed on black people in the wake of the Civil War. As Douglass pointed out in his autobiography, black Americans could not count on the government to protect them; they had to defend themselves against the rash of lynchings committed by the Ku Klux Klan and even state and local authorities. Citizenship, according to Douglass, rested upon three boxes: “the ballot box, the jury box, and the cartridge box.”

As Tim Sandefur of the Pacific Legal Foundation recently pointed out, Douglass was wise to realize that black Americans needed to rely on themselves for their own safety and security. Douglass argued that the post-Civil War Amendments, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth, were written to protect the freed slaves from a backlash by the Southern states. The 14th Amendment’s Privileges or Immunities Clause says that: “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” Douglass urged the federal government to enforce the Constitution as written, to secure for black Americans, indeed for all Americans, the “privileges or immunities” of full citizenship.

Douglass’s plea fell on deaf ears. In 1873, the Fourteenth Amendment’s “privileges or immunities” clause was gutted in The Slaughterhouse Cases, where the Supreme Court upheld the State of Louisiana’s decision to close down butchers competing with a politically-well-connected private monopoly. The Court ruled that this clause only protected rights of national scope, such as the right to access foreign embassies or the right to protection while traveling the high seas. This was, as Georgetown Law Professor Randy Barnett recently noted, “a preposterous interpretation — these were hardly the rights congressional Republicans in the aftermath of the Civil War were most concerned to protect in the wake of the terrible abuses of free blacks and white unionists by Southern states.”

Nevertheless, the “privileges or immunities” clause was dead. Moribund, as the constitutional law scholars like to put it. It has been dead for one hundred and thirty two years.

But the “privileges or immunities” clause is still there in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, still in the actual document. A handful of scholars have kept up the fight to get these words noticed again. These scholars are not ones you will have heard of, especially if you have a law degree from a top law school. Most of these scholars toil away in think tanks, since the doors of many law schools have been shut to them. In fact, if you have attended a top law school, your first reaction is likely to have been, “don’t you mean ‘privileges and immunities’ clause?” While you may have been exposed to the “privileges and immunities” clause of Article IV, your con law professor is unlikely to have mentioned the “privileges or immunities” clause of the 14th Amendment.

This reaction is understandable, because constitutional law scholarship in most law schools has become a closed, insular conversation among both liberal and conservative law professors who have, in their own ways, become completely at ease with the sweeping scope of government power in a world devoid of the “privileges or immunities” clause. Liberals dislike the “privileges or immunities” clause for fear that it might legitimate the kinds of unenumerated rights they hold in contempt, like the rights to property and freedom of contract. It is not a coincidence that these are precisely the rights that the Reconstruction Congress sought to protect with the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Likewise, conservatives, including the plurality in McDonald, are uncomfortable with the “privileges or immunities” clause because it legitimates unenumerated rights, like the right to privacy recognized in Griswold v. Connecticut and Roe v. Wade. Justice Alito demonstrated his discomfort with economic liberty too, when he asked in oral argument whether the “privileges or immunities” clause included the right to contract, clearly hoping that the answer was “no.”

The top constitutional law scholars were completely caught off guard when a third black man, Justice Clarence Thomas, reinvigorated the “privileges or immunities” of citizenship in McDonald v. City of Chicago two weeks ago. In McDonald, the court struck down a Chicago ordinance banning handguns. Justice Thomas had been reading the scholarship on the “privileges or immunities” clause over the last several decades. He read it and understood it. And while this scholarship did not matter in the opinion of many of our nation’s top constitutional law professors, it did matter in an opinion that, itself, matters a lot.

In his concurrence to the four other justices in the 5-4 majority, Justice Thomas refused to stretch the 14th amendment’s “due process” clause to guard the right to bear arms. Instead, he bravely read the constitution the way it was written, with little regard for how his opinion would be attacked from both the left and the right. His opinion acknowledged that the right to bear arms was clearly one contemplated by the framers of the “privileges or immunities” clause. Justice Thomas stood with Fredrick Douglass, and stood up for a black man trying to protect himself and his family in a city where the police admittedly cannot.

Otis McDonald is that black man, the fourth to whom I owe so much. As I attempt to raise my two sons to be strong, confident and secure Christian men, I am grateful that this 76-year-old grandfather fought for my right to protect them from those who might try to do them harm.

I purchased a gun several years ago, when I became concerned for the safety of my young family after receiving a verbal racial assault in our 21st century Northern California neighborhood. Perhaps I am the only Stanford Law professor who owns guns, including the one that once graced my father’s lap on that porch forty years ago. As an American, I am grateful for that gun. I am also grateful for the four black men who have made it possible for my sons to sleep at night, secure in the knowledge that I, and it, will do what is necessary to protect them.

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James Otteson in the comments on Jason’s recent post on libertarianism and libertinism:

Is it possible to be a “libertarian conservative”? Even a “conservative anarchist”? Whatever the answer to those questions is, it seems to me that this entire blog is premised on the idea that one can endorse a roughly libertarian political position, while, at the same time, upholding a conception of a virtuous life—understood, at least in part, as entailing limits on one’s own liberty—as what one should strive to achieve.

Indeed, it is premised on that idea.  And unfortunately, too many libertarian elites – as we’ve noted here many times before – seem to think libertarianism implies a theory of the whole (or at least a broader theory) rather than just a political theory with thin – but critical – ethical content. 

Well said, my friend.

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Nothing to Work For

Richard Vedder has an op-ed in the WSJ today discussing the costs to American productivity that having fewer people working is having. The cost is substantial: According to Vedder, whereas from the 17th century through the 20th American wealth averaged a robust 3.5% annual growth, during the first twelve years of the 21st century it has averaged only 1.8%. 

Vedder lists several causes for the slowdown, including primarily increasing government benefits. More and more people are availing themselves of payments from the government for food, for being unemployed, for disabilities, for going to college. All of these things either lure people out of the workforce or subsidize them for staying out of it. That means fewer people engaging in productive labor, which means slowing wealth production. 

There are any number of thresholds a civilization might cross before it reaches the point of no return, but if the European experience for the last several decades is an indicator, having nothing to work for is a big one. And that is what these programs amount to: a slow but inexorable removal of all the reasons one might have to work. 

Imagine you were an average young person in America today, coming out of, let’s say, high school. What do you see before you? A lot of pointlessness. Consider: So far in your short life you have enjoyed an enormously, indeed historically unprecedentedly, high standard of living. You have hours and hours per day of leisure time (that includes many of the hours you spend “studying” in school). What did you do to earn or deserve this? Nothing—you showed up. And if you ask for anything, you’ll probably get it. 

Consider also that the dominant theme in American politics recently has been that there is something wrong or suspicious about earning money. If the rich need to pay their fair share, it means that either they haven’t done so already or they need to make reparations for something they did that was wrong. And many young people think that one becomes rich not by producing benefits or services that improve other people’s lives but by cheating somehow. So rich people don’t deserve what they have. (Of course, our system of quasi-capitalism, which increasingly rewards people on political rather than on economic grounds, increasingly gives reason for such suspicions.)

And consider further that all the material comforts for which people in previous times would have had to work are now increasingly provided for one without any effort on one’s own part—food, shelter, education, and health care chief among them. 

So: The game is rigged, you can’t keep most of what you earn, you can get paid for doing nothing, and many of the creature comforts of contemporary life are available to you whether you work for them or not. 

William Graham Sumner’s famous 1883 essay “The Forgotten Man” claims that when politicians and reformers decide they need to help some downtrodden or underprivileged segment of the population, they inevitably do so by taking money from the honest, hardworking, pays-his-debts person who otherwise just wants to make a better life for himself and his family. This “forgotten man” often ends up being punished for his “bourgeois virtues.”

But another theme in Sumner’s essay is that as the programs to help the downtrodden expand, the more likely it is that this forgotten man—on whom these programs depend—will start to feel like a sucker. He will feel exploited, taken advantage of by an unholy alliance of do-gooders and free riders. 

I think many young people today see their futures in America the way Sumner’s forgotten man would after some crucial thresholds have been passed. What point is there, really, in working hard? Working hard is, after all, hard. Is there really a reward in it that matters to me—that appeals to me viscerally? If we add into this person’s vision of the future the doomsday scenarios about our national debt, and how it is all going to come crashing down like a fiscal house of cards sometime soon anyway, what, really, would be the point?

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In case you haven’t heard, libertarians on the ‘Net have been having another one of those more-heating-than-enlightening internecine debates, this one sparked by a video by Julie Borowski on why there aren’t more libertarian women. Sarah Skwire and Steve Horwitz responded on Bleeding Heart Libertarians, accusing Ms. Borowski of “slut shaming” and generally denigrating women by assailing the consumerism and sex obsessions of certain women’s magazines. Tom Woods slapped back in defense of the original video, and Cathy Reisenwitz made a video response celebrating “sex, butts, and orgasms” as part and parcel of libertarianism (HT: Spatial Orientation).

When will libertarians learn that “libertinism” (do whatever you want so long as you don’t hurt anyone else, whether shooting up heroin or engaging in casual sex) is not in any way logically implied by “libertarianism,” a political theory of robust individual rights and a limited state? Supporting adults’ right to engage in casual, recreational, voluntary sex has precisely nothing to do with judging that behavior to be wise or even morally justified. Libertinism implies sexual libertarianism, but the converse is false.

In addition, castigating supporters of traditional sexual mores as “slut shamers” (whatever that means) seems no more likely to win converts to libertarianism than was Ms. Borowski’s generalization that women are captives to popular culture.

Libertarians, just like everyone else, can and should debate the ethics and prudential value of sexual relationships of various kinds — and for what it’s worth, my views are probably more liberal than Ms. Borowski’s on those questions — but they must not denigrate those who disagree as themselves morally suspect.

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Pileus is pleased to announce that Prof. Aeon J. Skoble will be guest blogging here January 28 through February 1.  I’m looking forward to hearing his thoughts on a range of subjects, including classical liberalism, ethics, and popular culture.  Here is a brief bio:     

Skoble with this book Deleting the StateAeon J. Skoble is Professor of Philosophy and Chairman of the Philosophy Department at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts.  He is the co-editor of Political Philosophy: Essential Selections (Prentice-Hall, 1999) and Reality, Reason, and Rights (Lexington Books, 2011), the editor of Reading Rasmussen and Den Uyl: Critical Essays on Norms of Liberty (Lexington Books, 2008), and the author of Deleting the State: An Argument about Government (Open Court, 2008) as well as many essays on moral and political philosophy for both scholarly and popular journals.  His main research includes theories of rights, the nature and justification of authority, and virtue ethics.  In addition, he writes widely on the intersection of philosophy and popular culture, including such subjects as Seinfeld, The Lord of the Rings, superheroes, film noir, Hitchcock, Scorsese, science fiction, westerns, and baseball, and is co-editor of Woody Allen and Philosophy (Open Court 2004), The Philosophy of TV Noir (University Press of Kentucky 2008), and the best-selling The Simpsons and Philosophy (Open Court, 2000).

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Timing Your AR-15 Purchase

Like many law-abiding gun owners who might want to purchase an AR-15 or some other firearm that looks like an “assault weapon” to Diane Feinstein, I thought for a moment after Sandy Hook about legally buying this weapon while I still had a chance:


I had meant to purchase one in the summer of 2011 but didn’t get around to it (especially after I added a Thompson to the family gun rack).  I certainly regret my failure.

But is it now a good time to buy one?

Much depends on what you think Washington will do following the terrible events at Sandy Hook.  A heck of a lot of people with my gun and policy preferences worry that Washington is about to ban such weapons (or at least the 30 round mags) or don’t want to take the chance it might.  This is borne out by what happened in December according to a recent story by CNBC:

December set a record for the criminal background checks performed before many gun purchases, a strong indication of a big increase in sales, according to an analysis of federal data by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a gun industry trade group. Adjusting the federal data to try to weed out background checks that were unrelated to firearms sales, the group reported that 2.2 million background checks were performed last month, an increase of 58.6 percent over the same period in 2011. Some gun dealers said in interviews that they had never seen such demand.

Anecdotal reports elsewhere support this story.

However, I think these nervous folks – many of whom are probably paying top dollar – are probably overreacting.  Limits on magazines may be coming.  But I think that it is quite unlikely that a so-called assault weapons ban is going to make it through Congress.  A recent article in Slate suggests people on the other side of the gun control debate agree with me, noting: “Based on conversations with administration officials and gun control activists, few think that an assault weapons ban is possible, though the president will push for one.”

If my guess and those interviewed for the Slate report are right, no need to rush the sale unless you can’t sleep at night thinking there is a chance you won’t ever have the legal ability to buy one of these weapons.  And I’m putting my figurative money where my mouth is, committing (ceteris paribus) to wait until at least the summer to make my AR-15 purchase.  I’ll kick myself if I can’t get a 30 round mag for it, but I’m willing to bet on the power of the gun lobby and the fear it evokes on the Hill (especially since gun rights advocates are more likely to base their vote on the issue than opponents).  Moreover, Obama and Congress have a few (trillion) other problems coming up soon that will push Sandy Hook off the front page.  Plus stories like this are going to compete for the dominant narrative despite the MSM giving comparatively little attention to these incidents (something noted on Fox today):

Donnie and Melinda Herman own two guns for protection at home, but until two weeks ago, she had never fired a gun. Her husband told sheriff’s department investigator’s that he took her shooting so that she’d be familiar with the family’s guns if she ever had to use one.

Now, clutching the .38 revolver, Melinda Herman was in the middle of a heart-pounding crisis inside her own home.

She had already locked multiple doors before she and her children took refuge in an adjacent-room attic — the kind with a small door that you have to bend down to go through.

The intruder had used the crowbar to break through the front door and then two other doors upstairs, and she could hear him coming closer and closer.

On the phone, Donnie Herman calmly instructed his wife about the use of the weapon she had practiced on.

“Remember everything I showed you. Everything I taught you,” he told her, and he reassured her that help was on the way.

Then it happened.

“She shot him. She’s shooting him. She’s shooting him. She’s shooting him. She’s shooting him. … Shoot him again! Shoot him!” Donnie Herman said as the 911 dispatcher listened.

He then lost phone contact with his wife and children. His anguish and the pain of not knowing what had happened may be etched in his mind for eternity. But they were safe.

He learned later that his wife fired all six shots, and hit the intruder with all but one bullet.

Not realizing she was out of ammunition, she ordered the man to stay on the floor as he bled. She then fled the house with her children.

Walton County Sheriff Joe Chapman — whose office responded to the shooting at the Hermans’ home — said he believes the mother and her two children were in a life-and-death situation and she had no choice but to exercise her constitutional right to self-defense.

“Had it not turned out the way that it did, I would possibly be working a triple homicide, not having a clue as to who it is we’re looking for,” he told CNN.

Despite being shot five times, the suspect, identified as Paul Ali Slater, still managed to get back into his SUV, but he drove off the road and crashed a short distance away.

He remains hospitalized. Due to privacy laws, the hospital cannot divulge any information on his condition.

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An interesting new poll from Public Policy Polling shows strong support for marijuana reform in New Hampshire:

For legalization (taxing and regulating marijuana like alcohol, with licensed stores): 53%. Opposed: 37%.
For decriminalization (replacing criminal penalties for possession of less than an ounce with a fine): 62%. Opposed: 27%.
For medical marijuana (allowing seriously or terminally ill patients to use marijuana if their doctors recommend it): 68%. Opposed: 26%.

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In Canada, provincial parties are totally organizationally independent of federal parties and may not even have the same names. Thus, the British Columbia Liberal Party has generally been right-of-center, and British Columbia Liberals tend to vote Conservative at the federal level. Quebec Liberals have generally been more Quebec-nationalist/decentralist than the federal Liberals. Most provinces have parties named “Progressive Conservative,” even though there is no longer any federal Progressive Conservative Party. And so on.

Of course, it doesn’t work that way in the U.S. State (and even local) elections feature Republican and Democratic candidates, except in Nebraska, where state legislative elections are nonpartisan. As a result, state election results are driven by national trends. Surprisingly, political scientists had not formalized this insight until recently. Here is a paper from Steven Rogers:

State legislative elections are not referendums on state legislators’ own performance but are instead dominated by national politics. Presidential evaluations and the national economy matter much more for state legislators’ elections than state-level economic conditions,  state policy outcomes, or voters’ assessments of the legislature. Previous analyses of  state legislative elections fail to consider which party controls the state legislature and whether voters know this information. When accounting for these factors, I discover that even when the legislature performs well, misinformed voters mistakenly reward the minority party. Thus, while state legislatures wield considerable policy-making power, elections are ineffective in holding state legislative parties accountable for their own performance and lawmaking.

Tyler Cowen calls this “the problem with federalism.” But it isn’t a problem with federalism as such. It’s a problem with U.S. federalism. In Canada, you can’t send a message to the federal government by voting against the incumbent federal party at the provincial level. (In fact, provincial elections are not held on the same days as federal elections.) Changing the perverse accountability dynamic of U.S. state legislatures may require something as simple as changing the names of state parties.

State parties may even have an incentive to do this. For instance, the Republican Party in New Hampshire could change its name to something like “New Hampshire Conservative Party” or “New Hampshire Party.” By doing so, it could help to insulate itself from the partisan swings at the national level that are beyond its control.

In the last election, New Hampshire Republicans lost majorities in the state house and the executive council. The reason for this was the (more…)

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James Buchanan, R.I.P.

I just got word that the Nobel Prize-winning economist James Buchanan has passed away.  The intellectual world has lost a lion and an owl.

Here is a brief bio.

Buchanan’s works laying out the foundations of Public Choice Theory (the Virginia School of Political Economy) are obviously seminal.  However, my favorite Buchanan pieces include the oft-cited (here on Pileus) “Afraid to be Free”  (that Marc only mentioned just this morning in the comments to his post on drugs), “Classical Liberalism and the Perfectability of Man,” and “Federalism as an Ideal Political Order and an Objective for Constitutional Reform.” 


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Let’s start with the good: the Obama administration is considering removing all US troops from Afghanistan at the end of 2014 (rather than leaving a force of 6,000-15,000 behind).  As coverage in WaPo notes, this option “defies the Pentagon’s view that thousands of troops may be needed to contain al-Qaida and to strengthen Afghan forces.” If the Senate confirms Chuck Hagel as Defense Secretary, I would assume there would be an additional voice for complete withdrawal.

And now the bad: As of Tuesday, there have been six drone strikes so far this year. Total death toll: 35 and counting. As Spencer Ackerman (Wired) notes:

Obama has provided the CIA with authority to kill not only suspected militants, but unknown individuals it believes follow a pattern of militant activity, in what it terms “signature strikes.” The drone program has killed an undisclosed number of civilians. A recent study conducted by Center for Civilians in Conflict and Columbia Law School’s human-rights branch explored how they’ve torn the broader social fabric in tribal Pakistan, creating paranoia that neighbors are informing on each other and traumatizing those who live under the buzz of Predator and Reaper engines. Those traumas are raising alarm bells from some of the U.S.’ most experienced counterterrorists.

And the ugly: a crony capitalist may rise up against its political patron. AIG is contemplating joining a lawsuit against the US government. Now that it has repaid the $182 billion it owed, it may want to make a claim on some $22 billion in profits that were generated in the interim. As the NYT reports:

At issue is the possibility that [the] insurer may join a lawsuit filed by its former chief executive, Maurice R. Greenberg, claiming that the 2008 bailout shortchanged investors and violated their Fifth Amendment rights.

The alternative to the bailout would have been liquidation. A.I.G. embraced the bailout on the terms offered in 2008. It seems a bit odd to cry foul at this point in the game, particularly given that the collapse that A.I.G. helped create reduced the median net worth of American families by nearly 40 percent (from $126,400 in 2007 to $77,300 in 2010), according to the Fed.

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From Grantland:

. . . someone asked Saban a simple question: Why? In other words, why keep doing this, and why keep striving, and why not pull a Spurrier and slip off to the golf course on some August afternoon during a two-a-days and delegate to one’s coaching staff? Like, why so uptight, man? And Saban sort of stared down the questioner for a second, and then he said this: “Why do you do what you do? Are you driven to be the best at what you do?”

And as Saban’s eyes bored into the deepest recesses of the reporter’s conscience, he replied, “Yes, sir.”

From there, Saban wound into a story that centered on an old Martin Luther King sermon about a shoeshine man who took pride in his work, and he said something about being the best street sweeper you could be, and I think we got a little glimpse of why Saban is one of the best living-room recruiters who ever blew through the South.

(Unless we find out at some point as we have with so many college coaches that he’s been cheating on the rules…)

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That’s the title of a new book from America’s Cato Institute, Canada’s Fraser Institute, and Germany’s Liberales Institut, which aims to create an index of personal freedom around the world. This is a welcome addition to the Fraser Institute’s Index of Economic Freedom, and I dare suspect that William Ruger’s and my personal and economic freedom index of the American states, published by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, might have something to do with inspiring it. I haven’t read the new study yet but look forward to doing so.

HT: Pete Jaworski

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I find this to be an interesting and frustrating topic. Let me take a somewhat different approach to it, one that I use when I engage the issue in a policy class I teach.

I begin with two assumptions.

  1. There is a universal desire for intoxication among human beings. This is clearly exhibited by the demand for intoxicants both cross nationally and over time.
  2. There is a justification for regulating access to intoxicants. Even “smoke em if you got em” libertarians do not condone distribution of intoxicants to minors (even if they might quibble over the precise age that prohibition should end).

From this point, I believe that one can make a strong case that regulations should be designed to channel the universal desire for intoxication toward those intoxicants that are the least harmful (and thus carry fewer negative externalities). One might imagine that this could be accomplished via taxation. This would be good news for those who enjoy  psilocybin mushrooms or marijuana; bad news for those who smoke cigarettes or crystal meth. One might assume that such a regime—rather than a blanket prohibition of anything other than alcohol and tobacco—would create incentives for those seeking intoxication to replace a more toxic drug with a less toxic drug.

As a generalization, I am far more comfortable with laws that focus on the activities one does while intoxicated rather than criminalizing the mere fact that one gets intoxicated or is in the possession of intoxicants.

For example, while I would not criminalize the possession or use of intoxicants, I would have no problem with a zero-tolerance policy on driving while intoxicated (or engaging in other activities that require sobriety) backed with significant criminal penalties.

One can also imagine that the market would come to play a significant role. Some private insurers already have risk-based schemes in place (for example, life insurance is more expensive for cigarette smokers—and yes, they will take a urine sample—than for non-smokers). Given that this is a private and voluntary transaction between adults, I have no problem with setting rates based on risk. One can imagine that if we had drug regulations that focused on the toxicity of intoxicants, insurers would follow suit.  Certainly, employers, landlords, car rental agencies…you name it…could adopt comparable schemes.  They are free to control their property and those wishing to engage in voluntary transactions with these firms are free to walk away from any arrangement they find overly invasive.

There are other unresolved questions. If we moved toward a harm-based regime for drug regulation, would the government or some third party need to assume a role in regulating or certifying the purity of the drugs in question? There is a strong case for this.

Let me give a brief anecdote. A few years ago, the price of cocaine had fallen dramatically. While demand was relatively stable, there was an oversupply (more evidence of our successful war on drugs). Dealers who could no longer make a profit selling cocaine, moved into heroin. Unfortunately, they did not have sufficient experience in cutting the heroin so there was both wild variability in the purity of the heroin and the stuff that was being used to cut it.  As one might predict, the end result was a spike in deaths due to overdoses in Connecticut and other states in the New York area. I knew one of the victims quite well.  Regulation of purity would have prevented such an occurrence. If we are intent on reducing harm, then regulation of drug purity would appear to be a necessity.

While I still mourn the death of the young man who died from a heroin overdose, I also mourn the deaths of several friends who died from consumption of legal intoxicants (for example, three of my friends have died of lung cancer in the past few years, aged 51, 60 and 64). There is strong statistical evidence that the legal intoxicants they consumed impose a far greater cost on society than many of the alternatives that are criminalized.

Bottom line: A harm-based regime that channeled the universal desire for intoxication into less toxic alternatives won’t solve all the problems. But it seems like a reason-based approach that would be a massive improvement over our pyrrhic war on drugs.

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Here are the essay questions from the final exam I gave in “Introduction to Political Philosophy” last semester. How would you answer these questions?

Rights to Property
Answer one of these questions.
1. What is John Rawls’ “difference principle,” and how does he defend it?
What are its implications for the welfare state? Is the argument persuasive?
Why or why not?
2. Robert Nozick criticizes “patterned” principles of justice in holdings, like
Rawls’, on the grounds that they authorize unjust redistribution of wealth.
Why do patterned principles authorize redistribution? Why is redistribu-
tion unjust? Are those arguments persuasive? Why or why not?

Evaluating Moral Arguments
Answer one of these questions.
1. Evaluate the soundness of the following argument. “1. It is morally imper-
missible to take away anyone’s life, health, liberty, or possessions without
her clear consent. 2. Governments take away people’s possessions (taxa-
tion) and liberty (imprisonment) in certain circumstances. 3. Therefore,
governments must obtain the clear consent of every person they govern.
4. Virtually no government on earth has obtained the clear consent of ev-
eryone they govern. 5. Therefore, virtually all governments systematically
violate the rights of their subjects.”

2. Evaluate the soundness of the following argument. “1. It is morally
impermissible to allow someone to die when one could save that person
without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance. 2. The
consumption of luxury goods is not of comparable moral significance to
human life. 3. Therefore, if one can save another person’s life merely
by transferring money that one would otherwise have used to purchase
luxury goods, one is morally bound to do so (i.e., it would be morally
impermissible not to). 4. Today, people in the rich world have surplus
money that they spend on luxuries, money that we know could save lives in
the poor world. 5. Therefore, people in the rich world are morally bound
to transfer money that would otherwise be spent on luxuries to people in
the poor world who would otherwise die.”

Notably, only one person who answered 3.2.1 thought the argument was sound, and only a small number of students who answered 3.2.2 thought this argument was sound. Both arguments are valid.

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Our Enemy, Jason Sorens

Again with apologies to Nock, but the Cynthia Chase tempest has now yielded this awesome phrase: “Sorens-ian intentions of political domination.”  Yes, I repeat: “Sorens-ian intentions of political domination.”

The Fosters Daily Democrat, a Dover, New Hampshire paper, editorialized today in defense of Chase and against the Free State Project.  In the process, it singled out our fellow blogger Jason with some serious scorn.  Indeed, it presents Jason as a kind of evil subversive force.  Here is an overwrought portion of an overwrought editorial:

Do we have problems? Sure. Has the Legislature gone overboard at times — both to the left and to right? Absolutely. But that is democracy. Unfortunately, the Free State Movement came to New Hampshire with the stated intent of taking over our way of life — a way of life the vast majority of us believe is pretty darn good.

And even though Sorens made his intentions clear from the get-go, the Free State Movement has gone about its work in a surreptitious manner.

Free Staters are more libertarian then they are conservative or Republican. Yet, their chosen road to Concord and legislative chambers has been through the Republican Party, not the existing Libertarian movement. This allowed Free Staters to often run for office without have to clearly state their Sorens-ian intentions of political domination. It also wrongly has brought brand-named conservatives to their defense.

Heavens forbid that a group of people – many of whom have lived in the state longer than Cynthia Chase – might want to exercise their vote (“that is democracy,” isn’t it?) to better protect the freedoms that the state license plate cries out as being so valuable it is better to die for them than to surrender.  And isn’t it terrible that many of these people do so through the vehicle of a Republican Party that is in great need of new blood and greater enthusiasm for the liberties held dear by the oldest patriots of the Granite State.

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Two Economists vs. the Drug War

This piece doesn’t really contain anything all that new for those of us who have followed the debate on the drug war, but it is nice to see two prominent economists (Gary Becker and Kevin Murphy) making the case against it in a big paper of record such as the Wall Street Journal.  Here is a snippet, but I recommend the whole piece:

The direct monetary cost to American taxpayers of the war on drugs includes spending on police, the court personnel used to try drug users and traffickers, and the guards and other resources spent on imprisoning and punishing those convicted of drug offenses. Total current spending is estimated at over $40 billion a year.

The more interesting debate is (or should be) over the question of whether recreational drug use of one sort or another is immoral.  Since I drink alcohol socially in a limited fashion, my revealed preferences suggest I’m not opposed to some recreational use of drugs.  Moreover, I utilize caffeine as a performance enhancing drug — meaning, I have enjoyed drinking soda the way others use coffee.  But I’ve never used an illegal drug in my life and have abstained for much more than legal and prudential considerations.  I’d like to have something deeper to say on this at some point but am still thinking through some facets of the issue.  A starting point is that I generally don’t see drug use as consistent with human flourishing, especially in terms of the exercise and maintenance of the most important human faculty: reason.

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Cynthia Chase Update

Here is an update on the reaction to New Hampshire Representative Cynthia Chase’s comments about restricting freedoms to drive Free Staters out of New Hampshire, highlighted by Grover Cleveland below.

New Hampshire blogger Steve MacDonald:

Can you imagine any person in elected office saying something like this and not being run out of office by their own party leadership? The person speaking is talking about using the legislature’s police powers to intentionally drive people away from New Hampshire or out of New Hampshire. They are literally suggesting we use the legislature to restrict peoples freedom, on purpose.

Would it matter more or less if the speaker was talking about restricting the freedom of homosexuals? How about blacks or other minorities? What if they wanted to run off immigrants? How about scaring off the mentally ill or handicapped, or senior citizens? Honestly, does it matter?

Rush Limbaugh on his national program:

There’s a movement that has been orchestrated throughout the country to convince conservatives to move to New Hampshire and to make inroads politically and to try to wrest control of the state, in a democratic fashion. That’s why this state legislator, Cynthia Chase, is all upset. I’ve told you in the past that liberals consider us the biggest threat that they face — a bigger threat than Al-Qaeda, a bigger threat than any terrorist group, a bigger threat than any other nation. We conservatives are the biggest threat they face, and Ms. Chase here is making this abundantly clear.

Well, Limbaugh is taking some liberties with the truth there. The FSP is of course more of a libertarian movement than a conservative one, although I’m sure there are some Free Staters who would happily adopt a “conservative” label, just as there are some who think of themselves as being more left-libertarian.

And now it turns out Representative Chase moved to New Hampshire from Rhode Island in 2006.

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