Archive for February, 2013

Who says it’s cloudy?


Christmas Day, 2012, Sundance, Utah

This is the time of year I like to ski a lot. The other morning I got in an hour at the beginning of the day before heading to work (for those of you who do not live 15 minutes from the ski lift, I truly pity you!).  The whether was largely clear and sunny, but at the top of the lift there was a small cloud bank so thick that I had to inch my way down the hill because I had virtually zero visibility.

On other days, I have headed to the ski hill in cloudy, stormy conditions and have found the visibility good and the skiing conditions wonderful, even as heavy snow falls around me.


Same day, same time, same spot

My point is that  one has to actually be on the hill and inside the clouds to know how much they matter.

This morning I heard on NPR the latest in a stream of stories on the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI.  In this story and in many others, there are references by so-called objective journalists about how Benedict is leaving the papacy in a moment when a “dark cloud is hanging over the church,” mostly because of the well-reported scandals involving sexual abuse by priests and the church’s failure to deal appropriately with this abuse. I am getting really sick of hearing about the cloud hanging over the church.

Like most people, I view those scandals with disgust.  Yet I’m hesitant, as an outsider, to say whether the “hanging cloud” metaphor is a good one.  And I find the media’s preoccupation with those scandals as reflecting more on the media than they do upon the church.  What does the largely secular, largely non-Catholic media know about whether faithful Catholics feel that a cloud is hanging over their church?  And, more to the point, what kind of objective evidence can they cite to make such a claim.  In general, what the media refers to as “news analysis” consists mostly of self-important journalists unloading their biases upon us.

There is no doubt that Catholics world-wide have been affected by reports of longstanding sexual abuse of children in some quarters of the catholic priesthood. I am sure that most Catholics feel great sorrow at those events, and a sizable number, to be sure, would like to see more done to punish wrongdoers, to have offending priests removed from their assignments, and to have more accountability from the church hierarchy.  But the inability of the media to cover practically any story on the church without focusing on the abuse scandals as the defining characteristic of the church denies the rich and varied religious lives of millions of Catholics world-wide.  For these people, their faith touches every aspect of their lives and is not defined by the terrible behavior of a few priests.   People like Maureen Dowd, who has long been a self-anointed pope unto herself, do not represent Catholics generally, and certainly not the subset of faithful Catholics who love their church and their pope–those represented by the thousands who flocked to here Benedict’s final papal message and to express their love for him.

So, to those journalists who are covering the church, I have a simple message: talk about clouds you know something about, not ones you can only see from a far-away weather satellite.

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Grasping at Shadows

So it looks as if the sequestration is upon us. The past few weeks have witnessed claims about the catastrophic implications of sequestration and ongoing efforts to assign responsibility (it was the GOP’s idea…unless it wasn’t). It has been quite the circus.

My chief concern: we are so busy grasping at shadows that we are missing the substance.

Examine the two charts below. Both report inflation-adjusted outlays and revenues (expressed in 2005 dollars) from 1940 to 2013 using OMB data (Historical Tables, table 1.3).

The first chart includes the estimated outlays (the blue line) and revenues (the red line) for 2013 without sequestration.

Outlays and Revenues

The second chart includes the estimated outlays and revenues for 2013 with sequestration.

Outlays and Revnues with sequestration

As we approach midterm exams at our fine university, let me offer a simple multiple choice question:

As you examine these charts, what are the most striking features?

  1. The magnitude of the cuts under sequestration
  2. The significant growth in inflation-adjusted federal spending
  3. The growing gap between outlays and revenues

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Via my friend Chris Preble (or as I now warmly refer to him, #82) of the Cato Institute and Pileus guest blogger:

Cato Infographic


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I want to thank Professor Aeon Skoble for joining us for a guest stint here at Pileus.  It was a pleasure to read his contributions, and I trust our readers appreciated his thoughtful posts.

I’d also like to plug Aeon’s recent piece at the Freeman laying out his three deserted island books.  Here they are:

John Tomasi – Free Market Fairness

Thucydides – History of the Peloponnesian War

Martha Nussbaum – Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach

I would have never guessed he would pick these three.  Interesting.  I really ought to read his book Deleting the State: An Argument About Government.

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Carla Gericke, President of the Free State Project, wants to “trigger the move.”  According to the Manchester Union-Leader:

Based on the current recruiting rate, Gericke said, the pledge total would hit 20,000 in 2018, triggering the large-scale move to New Hampshire. Under that scenario, the goal would be to have all pledgers relocate by 2023.

However, Gericke said she does not want to wait until she is 51 years old to trigger the move.

“I want to do it in the next two years,” she said, explaining the only way to accelerate the move is to begin major fundraising efforts and secure sponsors to help raise about $270,000 – a figure she believes could make the move feasible.

“The most valuable thing you can do is move, and you won’t regret it,” she told those in attendance for the opening ceremony of the New Hampshire Liberty Forum on Friday at the Crowne Plaza. ” … We are building the beacon of liberty for the rest of the world to emulate.”

I’m not a member (because I can’t absolutely commit to moving according to the pledge and I take my word very seriously) but I wish the FSP well and hope that more and more people will move to New Hampshire to realize “liberty in our lifetime.”

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The Center for European Studies at the University of Texas, Austin is hosting a symposium entitled, “Secession Redux: Lessons for the EU” tomorrow (Friday). It will be held all day at the LBJ School, Sid Richardson Hall, Room 3.122. It is open to the public. The schedule is here. I will be speaking on “Secessionism in the New Europe” on a panel dedicated to “Current European Challenges.”

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Apropos my “Don’t Go to Grad School” post from a couple of weeks ago, here are some hard data on the employment difficulties of new PhD’s in the hard sciences and humanities.

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Matt Zwolinski of Bleeding Heart Libertarians has written an excellent series of posts on the libertarian justification of property rights. Here‘s the latest.

The first and most important thing to note about both Locke and Nozick’s arguments is that, unlike utilitarian arguments, they are individualistic rather than collectivistic in nature. For the utilitarian, all that matters in justifying an action (or an institution like property rights) is its effect on overall well-being. On the utilitarian view, then, property rights are justified if the overall benefits they produce are greater than the overall harms they produce, regardless of how those benefits and harms are distributed among different individuals.

For Locke and Nozick, on the other hand, property rights are only justified if they benefit (or at least do not harm) each and every individual. Now, this probably seems like an extremely tough argumentative hurdle for the defender of property to clear. Could it really be the case that each and every individual is better off under a system of private property rights than he would have been without one?

The answer is, or can be, yes. Almost everyone today is vastly better off, and freer, because of the system of private property rights. In those rare, possibly pathological cases in which a person is worse off due to the system of property rights, the Lockean justification of property rights provides a rationale for some kind of “re”distribution as a matter of justice, a point that Matt notes at the end but defers to a future essay. In the event, this is one area where I tend to agree with BHL’ers: there should be a basic income of sort to replace the welfare state, which would probably have to be set at a few thousand dollars a year in the present-day United States in order to ensure that literally everyone is better off due to the private property system, despite its coercive nature.

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As we approach midnight February 28 (tick..tick…tick…) and March 1st arrives, the nation appears to be headed toward a cataclysm. There is an ever-growing number of stories informing us how bad things could get.

The sequestration will force a sharp drop in the economy. It will kill the surging stock market. It will delay tax refunds. It will prevent entrepreneurs from starting new small businesses. It will compromise meat inspection. It will hamper airport safety and Homeland Security more generally. It will prevent assistance for Hurricane Sandy victims.  It will disproportionately harm women, and poor women in particular. Mother Jones expands on this claim to note that it will simply “screw the poor” (e.g., by undermining education, Title I finding, rural rental assistance, the processing of Social Security disability claims, unemployment benefits, veterans services, nutritional assistance, special education…you get the idea).

The Washington Post has provided a user-friendly guide to the White House data on how sequestration will effect each state . Of course, the categories have been nicely selected to construct a politically useful alternative universe (i.e., one where government is seemingly restricted to supporting teachers and schools, Head Start, job-search assistance, child care, vaccines for children, preventing violence against women, etc., etc).  Core message: what government does is universally good and necessary. There is no room for cuts.

Things seem quite dire, until one recalls that the $85 billion will not be sucked out of the economy as the clock turns to 12:00:01 on March 1 and, more than likely, there will be some agreement in the waning moments of February or the first few days of March to avoid this self-inflicted sequestration.

But even if there isn’t, one might question whether $85 billion is all that significant when the President’s budget request for 2013 is $3.803 trillion. Subtract that $85 billion, and the budget would fall to $3.745 trillion.  Placing things in historical context, that would be the largest budget since…(insert drum roll here)… 2012.

Placing things in a broader historical context, the budget (in nominal terms) would be over 160 percent of what it was a decade earlier, around 135 percent if we adjust for inflation.

The most striking thing to contemplate: If this is the political firestorm that arises out of a $85 billion reduction in discretionary spending out of a $3.8 trillion budget, imagine what will occur when focus turns—as it must—to the issue of entitlements.

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Zingales on Keynesianism

Ran across this witty quotation below while reading a chapter in Peter Boettke’s Living Economics.  Here is a link for the original source of the quotation, a debate in the Economist between Luigi Zingles and Brad DeLong.  Zingales:

Keynesianism has conquered the hearts and minds of politicians and ordinary people alike because it provides a theoretical justification for irresponsible behaviour. Medical science has established that one or two glasses of wine per day are good for your long-term health, but no doctor would recommend a recovering alcoholic to follow this prescription. Unfortunately, Keynesian economists do exactly this. They tell politicians, who are addicted to spending our money, that government expenditures are good. And they tell consumers, who are affected by severe spending problems, that consuming is good, while saving is bad. In medicine, such behaviour would get you expelled from the medical profession; in economics, it gives you a job in Washington.

Milton Friedman argued that there was no such thing as Austrian economics or Chicago economics, just good economics.  Does Zingales’ argument suggest that good economics don’t really matter – at least in the short to medium term – to policymakers since they are going to choose the arguments that suit their political needs as long as they can get away with it?  If so, does that mean that fellow Chicagoan George Stigler is right that economists have very little real impact on policy or at least that Keynes isn’t fully correct that “even the most practical man of affairs is usually in the thrall of the ideas of some long-dead economist”?  If Zingales is right, Keynes seems to give too much credit to economists (and philosophers in other Keynes statements) since Zingales posits that political needs drive the selection of the economic ideas used in policy wars.  In that situation, it is hard to imagine that in such instances the ideas have a lot of independent effect but rather serve as props that buttress positions that will be argued regardless.

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One of the best things about freedom from government interference is that it allows you to define and pursue (and if you are lucky, fulfill) your life project as you see fit.  Governments that do more than simply protect “the law of equal freedom” impose barriers to that project pursuit and essentially disrespect individual moral dignity.  Instead of respect, they impose the will of the many, the few, or even an individual (“l’etat c’est moi” and modern variants) on other individuals using the coercive power of the state.  So in that case an individual is prevented or hindered from pursuing his/her life project or worse – having to pursue the life project of others against his/her will (see the Pyramids and so many other monuments to the state).

Of course, libertarianism as a political theory doesn’t tell us much at all about the projects one ought to pursue (other than that projects involving coercion are verboten [for more on this, see here and here]).  But it does tell us that living this dream is perfectly acceptable – though not something I’d want in my basement:




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New Data on Old Posts

We here at Pileus have written a fair amount on both the future of higher education (for example, see here, here, here, and here) and ObamaCare.  A few interesting recent pieces dealing with both are worthy of attention:

1.  The number of problems – predictable and otherwise – with ObamaCare continue to mount.  Here we get word that Universal Orlando is going to drop its health insurance coverage for part-time employees.  Other companies are doing so as well.  I’d like to think that the architects of the plan were ignorant rather than evil – but that is hard to sustain.  Instead, it seems like this is a backdoor to more and more dependency on government and ultimately a single-payer system.  I was convinced at the time that ObamaCare passed through the legislature that it was a trojan horse but my more liberal friends thought I was being paranoid.  Then again, they always do (thanks Dick Hofstadter).

And earlier in the week we saw this interesting graphic on French employment that suggests that ObamaCare will also cause employers to avoid hiring that 50th worker.  File it under institutions matter.


2.  We also saw this week that there might be some trouble with MOOCs (HT: KPC).  I guess we don’t need to send Michael Sandel our resumes for low paying “grader” jobs just yet.

Pileus friend Damon Linker has been less pessimistic than some of our bloggers about the future of higher education.  Here he comments on one of Marc’s pieces.  Damon followed our discussion at Pileus with this piece for The Week (though I wish he had given Jason and Marc some quotation/citation love in his article even though he disagrees with them).  A snippet:

In the coming years, high-cost/low-status schools will undoubtedly have a hard time, and some will surely go under. But nowhere close to half of traditional brick-and-mortar colleges will be driven out of business by MOOCs. Elites and aspiring elites at home and abroad will continue to pay a premium for a traditional education (and credential) from American universities. Meanwhile, schools that jump on the digital bandwagon and begin offering second-tier online degrees to those who could otherwise never attend an American college in person will contribute in a potentially revolutionary way to the dissemination of knowledge around the globe. They will also succeed in further enhancing their own status while tapping a potentially massive new revenue stream. (Small fees multiplied by millions add up fast.)

Creative? Absolutely. Destruction? Not so much.

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In response to yesterday’s post, one regular Pileus readers (Shaun ) responded:

All the more reason for news outlets to be strengthening their investigative wings, as oppossed to slashing them.

It is good to see that the media is thinking along the same lines. As Glenn Greenwald (the Guardian) notes, MSNBC has recently hired two new people to shore up its team: Former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs and former White House senior advisor David Axelrod. As Greenwald notes:

Impressively, David Axelrod left the White House and actually managed to find the only place on earth arguably more devoted to Barack Obama. Finally, American citizens will now be able to hear what journalism has for too long so vindictively denied them: a vibrant debate between Gibbs and Axelrod on how great Obama really is.

The same problems can be found at Fox, as many readers will correctly note. Greenwald’s piece clearly recognizes this.

MSNBC is far from aberrational. The overriding attribute defining the relationship of the US media to those in power is servitude

Bottom line for Greenwald:

But whatever one wants to call this, “journalism” is the wrong label. Even ideologically-friendly media outlets which claim that mantle should be devoted to accountability and treating those who wield power adversarially, not flattering the preexisting beliefs of their audience and relentlessly glorifying political leaders. Presidents have actual press secretaries and Party spokespeople for that.

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Asymmetrical Information

Access to information is an important topic. Citizen access to information is critical if norms of democratic accountability are to have any meaning. At the same time, the Bill of Rights and a long series of court decisions limit the capacity of the state to collect information on its citizens without first obtaining a probable cause warrant.

There is a fascinating piece on Politico today by Jim Vandehei and Mike Allen entitled “Obama, the puppet master.” The article focuses on the ways in which the White House has dramatically limited press access to President Obama: “The president has shut down interviews with many of the White House reporters who know the most and ask the toughest questions. Instead, he spends way more time talking directly to voters via friendly shows and media personalities. Why bother with The New York Times beat reporter when Obama can go on ‘The View’?”

Then, of course, there is the creative use of social media and staged events to create the illusion of access:

Obama boasted Thursday during a Google+ Hangout from the White House: “This is the most transparent administration in history.” The people who cover him day to day see it very differently.

… something is different with this White House. Obama’s aides are better at using technology and exploiting the president’s “brand.” They are more disciplined about cracking down on staff that leak, or reporters who write things they don’t like. And they are obsessed with taking advantage of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and every other social media forums, not just for campaigns, but governing.

What should we conclude? Transparency is maximized when those in power tightly control information and use technology to create an alternate universe that reinforces the president’s priorities and excludes any media outlet that may ask uncomfortable questions or challenge the performance record.

While there are efforts to limit the availability of the information necessary to enforce genuine norms of transparency and accountability, there are simultaneously efforts to develop a greater capacity to collect information on citizens via domestic drones, as revealed in several recent articles.

By way of background, the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2012  (section 1074) directed the Secretary of Defense, in consultation with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), to submit a report describing and assessing “the rate of progress in integrating unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system.” It also (section 1097) directed the FAA to “establish a program to integrate unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system at six test ranges.”

Brian Bennett and Joel Rubin (LA Times) report that the Federal Aviation Administration has already issued 1,428 permits to domestic drone operators. Robert Johnson (Business Insider) reports FAA projections that there could be 30,000 drones in US skies by the end of the decade, making the domestic drone market worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Bennett and Rubin describe some concerns that all of this raises for civil libertarians:

 “The technology is evolving faster than the law. Congress and courts haven’t determined whether drone surveillance would violate privacy laws more than manned planes or helicopters, or whether drone operators may be held liable for criminal trespassing, stalking or harassment.”

To get a sense of the state and local debates, see Josh Harkinson, “Can Police Be Trusted with Drones?”  (Mother Jones)  As the surveillance state expands, there is some evidence that state governments are formulating a response. See Allie Bohm (ACLU) “Status of Domestic Drone Legislation in the States” for a list of states legislating on this issue. Whether this amounts to more than an uneven patchwork remains to be seen.

A chief concern is that the federal government will push forward with domestic drone deployment without careful reflection on the implications for civil liberties. Given the first story and the recent White Paper on administration policy,  perhaps the best we can hope for are  some vague assurances (issued via Twitter or in a Google+ Hangout) that we can trust well intentioned officials to consider the implications.

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This piece was originally intended as an op-ed for the Union-Leader. However, they did not pick it up. Therefore, I’m running it here.

Why did Republicans do poorly in the last state elections in New Hampshire? There is no shortage of theories, but what has been lacking is any attempt to test those theories on the evidence.

One of the most popular claims, from both Democrats and parts of the Republican establishment, is that the Republican legislature of 2011-12, particularly the state house under Speaker Bill O’Brien, was overly conservative or libertarian. Here’s what former Republican state chair Fergus Cullen had to say in the Union-Leader right after the election (“Will NH Republicans learn the lessons from Tuesday?,” November 8, 2012): “The drag on the ticket was the motley crew of insular Tea Partiers, Free Staters, birthers, Agenda 21 conspiracy theorists, and borderline anarchists calling themselves Libertarians who dominated the Republican majority in the Legislature, led recklessly by soon-to-be ex-Speaker Bill O’Brien.”

Is that true? If it were, then Republican candidates for state house would have done worse than the Romney-Ryan ticket at the top, as some share of voters decided to punish alleged “extremist” state house candidates while still voting for the moderate-conservative Republican presidential ticket. Did that actually happen?

In a word: no. But don’t take my word for it: look at the final data posted by the Secretary of State. Statewide, Republicans received 1,084,642 votes for state house candidates, 51.3% of the total – a majority! By contrast, Romney-Ryan received only 46.4% of the presidential vote in New Hampshire. Gubernatorial candidate Ovide Lamontagne won only 42.5% of the vote.

These figures might be misleading, however, because New Hampshire has many multimember and floterial districts, so some voters end up casting more votes than others for state house, depending on where they live. A better approach is to focus on single-member, non-floterial house districts, comparing votes for state house and presidential candidates in just those districts.

When we do this, looking only at the 49 house races statewide in which one Democrat and one Republican competed, we find that GOP candidates received, on average, 44.0% of the two-party state house vote in those districts. In those same districts, the GOP presidential ticket received only 42.9% of the two-party presidential vote.

Thus, Republican state house candidates ran slightly ahead of the presidential ticket, in some cases (more…)

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Some Republicans (including former VP Dick Cheney) applaud the Obama administration’s use of drones for targeted killing of US citizens abroad. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), in contrast, is threatening to filibuster John’s Brennan’s confirmation to head the CIA, based on his failure to answer a simple question during last week’s hearings (transcript here, see pages 56-57).

Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR):

I’ve asked you how much evidence the President needs to decide that a particular American can be lawfully killed, and whether the administration believes that the President can use this authority inside the United States. In my judgment, both the Congress and the public needs to understand the answers to these kinds of fundamental questions. What do you think needs to be done to ensure that Members of the public understand more about when the government thinks it’s allowed to kill them, particularly with respect to those two issues — the question of evidence, and the authority to use this power within the United States?

The Response:

I have been a strong proponent of trying to be as open as possible with these programs as far as our explaining what we’re doing. What we need to do is optimize transparency on these issues, but at the same time, optimize secrecy and the protection of our national security. I don’t think that it’s one or the other; it’s trying to optimize both of them. And so, what we need to do is make sure we explain to the American people: what are the thresholds for action; what are the procedures, the practices, the processes, the approvals, the reviews.

The Office of Legal Counsel advice establishes the legal boundaries within which we can operate. It doesn’t mean that we operate at those outer boundaries. And, in fact, I think the American people would be quite pleased to know that we’ve been very disciplined and very judicious, and we only use these authorities and these capabilities as a last resort.

Senator Wyden, unfortunately, failed to force John Brennan to respond to the core question about the domestic use of drones.  Much turns on whether one interprets Brennan’s “response” as a conscious effort to sidestep the issue or simply a failure for no particular reason to answer both parts of the question.

Senator Paul’s interpretation, as reported in the Hill, is clear:

What I want to hear from John Brennan before I let his nomination go forward is that no, a CIA or the Department of Defense cannot kill someone in America without any kind of judicial proceeding. By Brennan not saying no, that he won’t strike Americans in America, he is essentially saying yes, and that is very scary and worrisome to me.

One could argue that Senator Paul’s fears are overblown.  At the same time, if we could turn the clock back to September 10, 2001, my guess is that most would not believe that there would be a time in the near future when we would condone “enhanced interrogation techniques,” indefinite detainment at GITMO, extraordinary rendition, the expansive powers granted in the PATRIOT Act, the use of drones for domestic surveillance or the use of drones for the targeted killing of US citizens abroad.

I don’t believe that anything Mr. Brennan would have said in his hearings would be binding on the federal government going foreword. But this seems like a reasonable question that deserves a response (regardless of whether it would somehow compromise the preferred balance between transparency and national security).

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Over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, there have been some interesting posts recently on moralized and non-moralized conceptions of freedom. Jason Brennan says defining liberty to mean only negative liberty is “linguistic revisionism” without philosophic import. He then makes the case that bleeding-heart libertarianism (or Rawlsianism or various other non-traditionally-libertarian conceptions of property rights) does not necessarily violate the “non-aggression axiom.” Finally, he argues against moralized conceptions of freedom. I agree with the first two posts but not the last one.

It’s true that people use “freedom” to mean different things. Hobbes infamously defined it as the absence of physical constraint. Jason prefers something like “ability to realize one’s ends.” Both of these definitions are non-moralized. As Jason makes clear, positive liberty is not only not good by definition, it is not always good. My freedom to swing my fist into your nose unprovoked does not deserve respect — but it’s still freedom, in this non-moralized sense.

Now, Jason is absolutely right that nothing substantive turns on how we define our terms. He’s also right that simply defining freedom as justice (that which is, in the final analysis, right) abuses ordinary language and is tautological. On the other hand, I will note a tension between the claim that positive liberty is not always good and this claim:

The thing that Marxists and others mean by “positive liberty” is valuable and worth promoting. One of the best arguments for classical liberal institutions is that as a matter of fact they do a good job getting people positive liberty.

But if positive liberty is not only not good-by-definition but is also not good-by-inference, then the mere fact that a system tends to promote positive liberty is not a point in that system’s favor. The fact that system X makes it easy for people to swing their fists into other people’s faces whenever they want, thus helping them achieve their ends, is not a point in favor of the justice of system X. Now, the claim might be that swinging fists into people’s faces hurts the positive liberty of those victims, and I agree — but I don’t agree that we can simply sum up positive liberties across people and truthfully say that everyone ought to try to maximize that sum. That’s a controversial moral claim. Indeed, Matt Zwolinski refutes the view strongly here, and even says, “No serious libertarian intellectuals think about libertarianism in terms of maximizing liberty.” I don’t know how this statement squares with what Jason says he and David Schmidtz are arguing about how we ought to evaluate the regime of negative liberty.

Furthermore, I don’t think we can rule out all moralized conceptions of freedom as tautological. People in ordinary language use freedom in a moralized but non-tautological sense all the time. When someone says, “I can say what I want, it’s a free country,” she’s not saying, “It’s a country where I can realize my ends.” She’s saying something like, “In this country, we are not supposed to be subject to the arbitrary domination of others’ wills.” Freedom as non-domination means a great deal to people, arguably more than the mere ability to realize one’s own ends. The reason slavery is so repugnant is not really that it makes the slave unhappy, but that it enshrines an extreme form of inequality and domination. (I’m making a substantive, controversial moral claim here.)

But freedom as non-domination is also not the whole of justice. Marxists like G.A. Cohen arguably accept non-domination just as much as libertarian anarchists like Murray Rothbard. They just disagree about the proper conception of property rights, which also belongs to the domain of justice. Now, if you are persuaded about the libertarian account of property rights, then a Marxist regime imposed without consent looks like unjust domination, un-freedom. Still, even if we read back into “freedom” claims about justice, freedom-as-non-domination is not tautological: it doesn’t simply define freedom as justice. Yet it is a moralized conception of freedom common in everyday discourse.


Jason Brennan responds by e-mail:

Thanks for posting that. Does this clear up things?

1. I don’t literally mean that positive liberty is always good, but rather that it tends to be good and tends to be worth promoting. Schmidtz and I talk at some length in BHOL about how there’s not clear measure of positive liberty, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make good estimates. If people are living longer, have more options, have more money, have more technology, etc, they will usually have more positive liberty.

2. I prefer to use non-moralized definitions of liberty: Neg lib = absence of obstacles, pos lib = power or capacity. But Schmidtz and I note that in common language, we often mean much more specific ideas when we use the terms “liberty” or “freedom”. If someone says, “X is a free country,” we assume she means they protect a wide range of negative liberties. My raise gave me the freedom to enjoy life, we assume she means positive liberty as capacity/power. And so on.

Schmidtz and I would agree with Matt Z and Nozick that negative rights are side constraints–we shouldn’t have a utilitarianism of rights. But negative and positive liberty are different. Negative liberty first and foremost should be respected, and then promoted. Positive liberty is to be promoted (when it’s good, and if doing so is consistent with our rights).

My response to Jason:

Thanks for the response. It clarifies a great deal. I clearly misread your position on positive freedom. I can’t quarrel with your description of the conceptual landscape below. Substantively, too, we’re not far apart, though I don’t think it’s generally morally impermissible to refrain from promoting the positive liberty of humanity in general (for instance, in order to focus on one’s own life projects).

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A choice not an echo:

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How about this addition to the State of the Union?:

“The unnamed woman in Loganville, Georgia who fought off an intruder with a .38 deserves a vote.”

Here is the SOTU speech.


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Inspired by Marc’s post, I would like to reprint a State of the Union address—really an inauguration speech—that Frédéric Bastiat offers in his 1850 Economic Harmonies:

“You have invested me with the power of authority. I shall use it only in cases where the intervention of force is permissible. But there is only one such case, and that is for the cause of justice. I shall require every man to remain within the limits set by his rights. Every one of you may work in freedom by day and sleep in peace at night. I  take upon myself the safety of your persons and property. That is my mandate; I shall fulfill it; but I accept no other. Let there be no misunderstanding between us. Henceforth you will pay only the slight assessment indispensable for the maintenance of order and the enforcement of justice. But also, please note, each one of you is responsible to himself for his own subsistence and advancement. Turn your eyes toward me no longer. Do not ask me to give you wealth, work, credit, education, religion, morality. Do not forget that the motive power by which you advance is within yourselves; that I myself can act only through the instrumentality of force. All that I have, absolutely all, comes from you; consequently, I cannot grant the slightest advantage to one except at the expense of others. Cultivate your fields, then, manufacture and export your products, conduct your business affairs, make your credit arrangements, give and receive your services freely, educate your children, find them a calling, cultivate the arts, improve your minds, refine your sentiments, strengthen your bonds with one another, establish industrial or charitable associations, unite your efforts for your individual good as well as for the general good; follow your inclinations, fulfill your individual destinies according to your endowments, your values, your foresight. Expect from me only two things: freedom and security, and know that you cannot ask for a third without losing these two.”

[H/T Nikolai Wenzel.]

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Tonight is the State of the Union. There is little evidence that more than a few of any president’s aspirations find an expression in policy. However, on one point I hope this year’s SOTU proves different. According to the NYT:

President Obama plans to announce in his State of Union address on Tuesday night that half of the 66,000 American troops in Afghanistan will be home by this time next year, according to an administration official familiar with the speech.

Of course, this does not speak to what will occur in the long run:

The president, an official said, will make no announcement about how many forces the United States should keep in Afghanistan after 2014 when the security mission is entirely the responsibility of the Afghans. Mr. Obama, he said, has not yet made a decision on that.

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Jonathan Haidt is everywhere these days, giving interviews and TED talks, promoting his working papers in the media, writing for the websites yourmorals.org and civilpolitics.org, and publishing The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Pantheon Books, 2012). A moral psychologist by training, Haidt has successfully cleared the jump to public intellectual, now dispensing didactic advice to Americans about what ails their politics. The Righteous Mind reflects those aspirations, not just summing up his own original research on the psychological foundations of political ideology for a general audience, but also shoehorning in some surprising interpretations of moral philosophy and conjuring out of the whole stew some advice for American politicos (and what could be more important than that?).

Did you know that moral philosophers do not believe in intuition? Did you know that David Hume thought that reason was weak and ineffectual against the tide of passions? Did you know that Bentham and Kant were probably on the autism spectrum, and that that fact explains their moral philosophies? Did you know that Kant was a philosophical rationalist, and that philosophical rationalists think that morality is all about justice and fairness? Philosophical rationalists also think that children learn about morality through experience, just like Lawrence Kohlberg, Haidt’s nemesis in moral psychology — and totally not like Hume.(*)

If you did not know these things, which might especially be the case if you are a moral philosopher, Haidt is here to enlighten you. As he helpfully informs us, he took a couple of philosophy courses as an undergraduate, before he realized that it was all bunkum.

Haidt begins (more…)

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For those of us who live north of New York City, the blizzard was the dominant feature of the past few days (and will likely be the dominant feature for the next week). During the weekend, I had the opportunity to reflect on the blizzard (there is a lot of time to think when you are moving several tons of snow by hand). A few of my reflections follow:

  1. Sometimes a storm is as big as predicted.  Residents of the east coast are used to the high drama that precedes storms of any magnitude: teams of L.L. Bean-clad weather reporters breathlessly reporting on what is to come, lines at gas stations, and a run on bread and milk (note: having grown up in Wisconsin, I think this may be region-specific).  But even if you grow to distrust the forecasters, sometimes they get it right.  We might be better off if Nate Silver turned his skills to forecasting the weather.
  2.  Nothing gives you a sense of your own mortality like shoveling for 5 or 6 hours straight. I often enjoy shoveling after a storm.  I take pride in the rapid restoration of order. After my dear wife posted a picture of me shoveling on Facebook, one of my good friends on our street replied: “Oh, the Germans on the street are washing their clean linen in public again. The Irish meanwhile are praying for the sun to come out and melt the snow for them.” Given the way I felt the day after my shoveling, I am beginning to think the Irish are on to something.
  3. One is easily tempted to shirk one’s responsibilities when shirking is the modal category. As I cut through the four-foot snow banks to clear my sidewalk, I did so with the knowledge (gained through past experience) that most of my neighbors would not bother to do the same. Yes, I take pride in the restoration of order, but there are limits to what one man can do. In this case, the sidewalk began and ended in four-foot walls of snow at my lot line. As hard as I worked, one could not enjoy the fruits of my labor unless one walked up my driveway and was content walking back and forth in front of my house. The knowledge that others will shirk their responsibilities can have a corrosive effect, particularly when the work gets hard.
  4. The state is particularly prominent when least needed. The night before the storm, there was a seemingly endless parade of snowplows driving down my street, lights flashing, sand spraying, overtime accumulating. After the storm, those same snowplows seemed to disappear. By Sunday afternoon, while entire neighborhoods waited for their first post-storm encounter with a snowplow, most business parking lots were already cleared and ready for sweet commerce.
  5. Today’s kids seem to be lacking the entrepreneurial spirit. When I was a teenager, a snowstorm was followed by bands of adolescent boys with shovels looking to make a buck. We would go door to door and make some serious money (or what appeared to be serious money at the time…we charged $10 or $20 for a driveway). Those of us who had other employment (I was a paper boy) had a ready clientele, and there was no difficulty in assembling a team of boys hoping to make some money. This weekend, the streets were eerily silent as the adults waited helplessly for the snow removal specialists to arrive. Unemployment may be high among the young, but apparently not high enough to lead them to search out temporary employment opportunities in the wake of a snow storm.

Final reflection: maybe it is time to get a snow blower.

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Click here for Part 1.

What I think I know about human sexuality is this: it is complex, powerful, beautiful, mysterious, pleasurable, intertwined with a variety of biological, mental, and emotional processes, and deeply imbedded in countless ways into our society and culture.  Two implications (among many) of this characterization are:

  1. Sexuality is a social concern with high ethical relevance
  2. It is virtually impossible to develop simple rules governing sexuality, (even though virtually all societies attempt to govern it in some fashion.)

I’ll get to the second implication in a bit, but let me say at the outset that no set of ethical rules or laws are going to extract sexuality from public life. Nor would it be desirable to do so, since that would be dehumanizing and oppressive, in addition to nonsensical.

The first implication isn’t easy to grapple with, either, though there are a range of issues that do not seem that challenging to me.  Few argue that children should not be protected from sexual contact with adults and from all forms of sexual abuse and exploitation.  And most support the idea that children should be protected from sexually explicit materials (images, videos, etc.), though, sadly, our laws often do little to see that that happens, especially in cyberspace.

Of course children have to go about their lives interacting with each other and with adults and with members of the opposite sex.  Little boys and girls are attracted to each other, and they go through a sexual development process that begins soon after conception.  As a parent, I want my children to develop healthy attitudes about sexuality, to be well-informed, to respect themselves and others in the way they act, speak, and dress, and to establish permanent, monogamous relationships that will bless their lives forever.  Those are big goals.  I would like others to respect those goals, as I respect the goals that they have.

Many commentators (conservative, liberal, feminist, etc.) have decried the increasing sexualization of children in society.  Children are bombarded with sexuality in popular culture to an extent that is often unhealthy.  For example, eating disorders and other psychological problems often arise from girls (and increasingly boys) developing poor body image fueled by media images that are both unrealistic and hyper-sexualized. Many have noted the negative impacts of this on children, and parents of all political stripes try to shield their young children from a popular culture that is increasingly sexualized.  The more this happens, what was once indecent becomes commonplace, and then the margins are pushed again.  Dance and music and art have always had a sexual element because sexuality is an important part of human existence.  But now our culture is dripping with overt and often explicit sexuality.  The margins to push are fewer and fewer, and it is harder and harder for families to find safe space where they can be entertained without being inundated with sexual stimuli and sexual messages.  This is not a good thing.

This culture is particularly damaging in some parts of our society.  I’m thinking particularly of girls in poor, minority communities.  These girls, a few of whom I’ve known well, live in a world with little beauty, with a constant threat of violence, with little ability to hold on to their personal belongs.  Furthermore, it is a world where girls face intense, incessant pressure to be sexually active and to service the sexual urges of boys and men.  The astronomical teen pregnancy rates in those communities are hardly surprising given the pressures these girls face.

Performances like Beyonce’s at the Super Bowl are shameful if for no other reason than the perverse, destructive message she is sending to young African-American girls.  Here we have a talented, beautiful black woman with enormous potential who chooses to drench her performance in overt sexuality.  Why?  Is she saying that is what a black woman should do to make a mark, to achieve success?  What are young girls watching her learning about what it takes to be successful in America?  (Moreover, what message are the boys learning?  Her lips might be saying, “put a ring on it!” but what is her body saying?)  Imagine, in contrast, what the effect might be if she chose a different route, say a performance (with her all-woman band) with more modest clothing, without the sexual gyrations, but still lots of good music and dynamic dancing.  What would girls learn from such a performance?  Beyonce would still be attractive and entertaining, but the message would be entirely different.

So, I don’t find it very controversial that a society would want to carve out safe spaces for children.  But I think we are rapidly losing ground in this regard, as every aspect of our culture becomes more and more sexualized.  We have to realize that children are among us and try to behave accordingly.  Most communities create zones for “adult” entertainment  and TV stations typically broadcast mature content at later hours and have warnings attached to them.  These kind of actions are appropriate. We could, however, do a lot more in terms of creating more safety in the internet without placing undue burdens on adults who are seeking sexually explicit content.  But, more than anything, we need a more robust public ethic geared towards protection of children (in the area of sexuality and many others).

But children should not be our only concern.  Many adults also want safe spaces where they are generally free from unwanted sexual provocation as well (though, as I said, no space with people in it is going to be free from some aspect of sexuality).  The libertarian ethic is that we do what we want as long as our actions don’t harm others.  To apply this in practice requires some agreement on what is meant by “harm” and in some cases our right to a particular actions (some types of speech, for instance) exists even if others are harmed.

There are clearly individual notions of harm that we would not respect.  If someone is bothered by my red car because they are offended for some strange reason by red cars, tough!  I’m still going to drive it.  But I think there are common-sense norms governing sexuality that most people know intuitively (at least until their sense of decency becomes so dulled by sexual overload that they can’t tell the difference).  These norms are, to be sure, culturally dependent and contextually dependent.  A swimsuit is perfectly appropriate on the beach but not in the office staff meeting.  But these contextual dependencies are not an argument against having ethical norms, just that they have to be nuanced and (because of the inherent complexity) will always be contestable at the margins.

Consider my shock machine (from Part 1).  It is relevant here not because it causes some objective measure of physical harm.  The “shock” could be simply an odor that some people find unpleasant.  The point of that example is that, in the public space, people should have the right to move around without being confronted by unexpected nuisances that they would rather avoid.  The “walk around it if you don’t like it” argument is analagous to the “look away if you don’t like it” argument, and both are insufficient.   Clearly, I should set up my shock machine in places where it isn’t a nuisance.

Dress and public comportment are naturally very different from the shock machine in some important ways.  For starters, we all have to go about our daily business, and we need to respect that people have different standards and values.  Both men and women deserve the right to be comfortable in their daily routines.  Yet most people easily recognize when someone is being sexually provocative.  We might not be able to define it very well, but we “know it when we see it.”  The law may allow (indeed, should allow) broad latitude in what is publicly acceptable, but legality does not imply decency or appropriateness.

In the workplace, there is a body of sexual harassment law that protects people from unwanted, unwelcome sexual advances and from sexually-related conduct that creates a hostile work environment.  Harassment can exist even if no physical contact is made and no violence occurs or any kind of threats are made.   I am not going to comment, nor could I, on that whole body of law and what parts of it make sense.  But the ethical norm I am talking about is not conceptually dissimilar to the ethical norms against sexual harassment that under gird that law.  Sexually provocative dress and behavior that is contextually inappropriate are types of harassment. We could even think of them as exhibitionism (affronting people with that which they do not want to see).  People have a moral right to be free from harassment and exhibitionism. I am NOT making a legal claim here based on current law, nor am I proposing laws, but conceptually the comparisons are entirely appropriate.

As a libertarian, I’m highly averse to state regulation of people’s behavior, whether private or public.  That aversion extends to this arena as well.  The state should be very cautious sticking its nose into such matters.  But there will be inevitably some legal norms regarding sexuality.  Somewhere between Taliban-style requirements for women to wear burqas and performing explicit sex acts in the middle of the town square is a line that the law has to draw.  I would draw that legal line in a way that gives individuals a lot of latitude—indeed, far more latitude than I would be comfortable with on a personal or ethical level.  This is not where we want to insert a lot of state power, even if a majority of the community are behind it.  Current law may be entirely sufficient.

But this does not mean libertarians should ignore the ethical concern.  We should stand up for public decency.  We should assert that a legal right to behave in a sexually provocative way in the public sphere that makes some adults uncomfortable and can be harmful to children does not imply a moral right to do so.  What I’m asking for is simply human decency and consideration, a regard for others rather than self-indulgence.

Before our public standards of decency go completely down the tubes, a little more prudishness is definitely in order!  Those who do shameful things ought to feel some shame.  Ultimately, being libertarians means we want to respect private spaces and to act respectfully and carefully of others’ rights in public spaces.  We should be leading on this issue.

[Let me add that even though I sharply disagree with many (all?) of the commentators on Part 1, I appreciate their engagement.  They helped me clarify my thinking.  I probably need a lot more clarification (hey, like I said, it's a complex issue!)  Should people like to comment further, I'm hoping we can go in a different direction from the "Sven wants to empower the modesty police, put women in burqas, and blame women for the illicit thoughts and actions that are really the responsibility of men."  Hopefully Part 2 resolves some of those issues.  Maybe not.]

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I’ve been thinking about my colleague Grover Cleveland’s short post on Beyonce’s wardrobe (or, rather, lack thereof) at the Super Bowl.  He started about by saying, “I don’t think I’m a prude, but…”  Having known the real Grover for many years, I can attest he is very good man, but not much of a prude.

But I am definitely a prude.  At least if the belief that most aspects of sexuality, including sexually provocative dress and appearance, should be kept out of the public sphere at the same time they are protected from interference in the private sphere makes one a prude, then I am a prude.  And proud of it.  And, if you are a libertarian, then you should be a prude, too.

There are many types of libertarians, and I’m not interested today in arguing about who gets to wear what labels, though words and labels are very important.  But almost all libertarians hold to the axiom that people have the right to do what they want to as long as it does not negatively affect other people.  Negotiating rules for appropriate behavior in the public sphere is always hard because people with different values are constantly bumping into each other, either literally, virtually, or metaphorically.  One justification for a state is as a means to enforce regulations on those public behaviors that can negatively affect others.

Some people argue that how one dresses is a personal matter and should not be subject to public regulation.  But this view is, at best, a naïve and inconsiderate self-indulgence.  Imagine you teach in the academy and a student comes to your class dressed in a revealing or otherwise provocative outfit.  She (although the same rules apply to males, let’s stick with the modal case here) may claim she is just being comfortable or expressing her personality or something equally as silly.  But odds are that she is fully aware that such dress provokes deeply ingrained biological and culturally-conditioned responses among almost all the men in the room. Indeed, it is very likely her intent to provoke those responses.  She has probably learned what most women are aware of: being sexually enticing brings them significant power over men.  So, in short, this coed is purposefully using her sexuality to have a significant, uninvited affect on men and to gain power and influence over them.  Can you see where I’m headed?

Now, most college boys in America would respond with some version of “Bring it on, baby!”  But not all of them.  And let’s not forget that the other females in the room may not appreciate the distraction, either. Furthermore, the professor’s academic objectives for the class are likely being undermined as the attention of much of the class is being drawn away from the academic subject under study.  And, as they mature and have families, a non-trivial proportion of those college boys will grow up into men who do not welcome similar provocations in their lives, their places of work, or in their homes.  Some of this may be due to religious or moral values, some may find such dress as demeaning to women, including their wives and daughters, and some may simply view such public enticements as an unwelcome intrusion on marital fidelity.  On a personal note, as an ordinary man I am influenced by the same sexual enticements as others.  But my goal is to celebrate such enticements within the privacy of my marriage, rather than being influenced by others.  We are, indeed, harmed when others force those enticements on us in the public sphere.

The typical response by those who resent exhortations to public modesty is to say, “If you don’t like it, you can just look away.”  Let’s look at this claim.  Suppose I went to the middle of the public square and set up a machine that gave a small shock to everyone who walked within 50 feet of it.  The shock is irritating to many people, but it doesn’t damage anyone’s health, isn’t extremely painful, and, indeed, some people sort of like it.  Would I be able to say, “If you don’t like my shock machine, you can just walk around it?”  Would I really have the right to infringe on the public space in such away?   Do we not have the right to conduct ordinary public acts without being assaulted by unwelcome and unsolicited shocks, especially if we are not given adequate warning that we are about to be shocked or if the shock machine is set up in a place where we would not expect it? Does someone’s supposed right to shock and offend outweigh my rights to use the public space without being assaulted?

The idea that someone has a right to insert herself or himself in the middle of the public square and engage in some sexually provocative behavior is equally as absurd as my shock machine would be.  But that is where we are. The really sad part of Beyonce’s Super Bowl strip show (thank heavens for DVRs and fast-forwarding) was not that it represents a “new low” in public indecency.  The sad part is that it was so commonplace, unsurprising and so widely cheered.  Before the unraveling of public decency wrought by the sexual revolution, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation, since her performance would not have been acceptable in any public venue outside a strip club.  But our social norms have become so degraded that many people do not give it a second thought and even promote it.

Those who champion freedom should also champion the right to be free from sexual provocation in our public spaces.  I’m not arguing that we must all dress in public like characters from Downton Abbey—wait, that would actually be really cool!—but it is a shame that so many libertarians have stood with the amoral left as standards of public decency have eroded to their current state, rather with those whose legitimate rights are being infringed.

My argument thus far has not invoked the rights of children and our obligations to protect them.  That (and more) is coming in Part 2!

* Addendum: I previously used the phrase “sexual assault” in the last paragraph, which I have changed to “sexual provocation.”  What I’m talking about can be thought of as a type of assault (I’m not making a legal argument here), but the term “sexual assault” immediately rings bells in people’s heads that I had no intention of ringing.  Most important, I don’t want to be insensitive to the victims of sexual abuse.

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A new public inquiry into abuses at the Mid Staffordshire National Health Service Trust’s hospital has found a years-long pattern of fatal mistakes and abuses. The report makes for damning reading. From the BBC report:

Years of abuse and neglect at the hospital led to the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of patients.

But inquiry chairman, Robert Francis QC, said the failings went right to the top of the health service.

While it is well-known the trust management ignored patients’ complaints, local GPs and MPs also failed to speak up for them, the inquiry said.

The local primary care trust and regional health authority were too quick to trust the hospital’s management and national regulators were not challenging enough.

Meanwhile, the Royal College of Nursing was highlighted for not doing enough to support its members who were trying to raise concerns.

The Department of Health was also criticised for being too “remote” and embarking on “counterproductive” reorganisations.

The report said the failings created a culture where the patient was not put first.

Specifically, the report cites 1200 “unnecessary deaths” due to poor care, without a single manager having been held responsible. But the United Kingdom keeps health care costs down!

Twitter hashtag “#welovethenhs” is again trending.

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Beyond Sequestration

The next few weeks will undoubtedly witness the old back-and-forth on budget cuts and revenue increases combined with claims that this side won’t bargain and that side won’t bring anything specific to the table.

The CBO’s Budget and Economic Outlook: Fiscal Years 2013 to 2023 suggests that we should not focus on the shiny objects. Assuming that the sequestration occurs (the extended baseline), the news remains bad. After some short-term reductions in deficits, they will once again continue to increase, with publicly held debt reaching 77 percent of GDP by 2023 (a product of  “the pressures of an aging population, rising health care costs, an expansion of federal subsidies for health insurance, and growing interest payments on federal debt”).


The CBO provides discusses the ramifications:

Such high and rising debt would have serious negative consequences: When interest rates rose to more normal levels, federal spending on interest payments would increase substantially. Moreover, because federal borrowing reduces national saving, the capital stock would be smaller and total wages would be lower than they would be if the debt was reduced. In addition, lawmakers would have less flexibility than they might ordinarily to use tax and spending policies to respond to unexpected challenges. Finally, such a large debt would increase the risk of a fiscal crisis, during which investors would lose so much confidence in the government’s ability to manage its budget that the government would be unable to borrow at affordable rates.

The CBO report is relatively brief and worth reading in its entirety.

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Happy trails

I’d like to thank Grover Cleveland again for inviting me to guest-blog this past week (well, baker’s week I guess). Bye folks!

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In his book The Righteous Mind (review coming soon) and in a coauthored paper with Ravi Iyer and others, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt claims that libertarians are essentially amoral(*): they care less about care, fairness, authority, loyalty, and sanctity than conservatives and liberals and care most of all about liberty. (I blogged the latter study here.)

But it turns out that one of the chief surveys on which most of this research rests looks geared toward generating biased outcomes for libertarians specifically. The “Moral Scenarios” survey asks respondents to judge the morality of certain actions, all of which involve the exchange of money. Here is one example:

A professional sports player has played for his hometown team for the past 10 years and has never played anywhere else. Recently, he was offered a lot of money to play for his hometown team’s rival in a different city. Losing their best player to a rival team would upset many people in his hometown. However, he decides to take the offer and play for the rival team.
How morally offensive is this?
Not at all offensive Extremely offensive
How upsetting is this?
Not at all upsetting Extremely upsetting
How angry does this make you feel?
Not at all angry Extremely angry

You can give your reaction on a 1-7 scale.

Now, two things are peculiar about this survey. First, all the questions are about the exchange of money. Other questions are about the morality of a manufacturer’s making a less safe car to save money, auctioning off a place in the liver transplant queue, and so on. Thus, the questions seem almost calculated to elicit defensive responses from libertarians, who more than conservatives and liberals tend to be committed to the justice of market exchange. It’s therefore no surprise that libertarians are less likely to answer that these actions are “morally offensive” than are liberals and conservatives. If the survey consisted of moral dilemmas in which the pursuit of equality (sanctity) had perverse consequences, then liberals (conservatives) would likely be the defensive ones with lower average scores on “moral offensiveness.”

Second, the questions are overwhelmingly tilted toward eliciting an emotional, intuitive response rather than a reflective one. I don’t think of morality as a sliding scale of “offensiveness,” but Haidt does, and he forces his respondents into that philosophical straitjacket. My own response to almost all of these scenarios was “it depends.” There was no option for that, of course. So I chose an answer right in the middle of the scale. It turns out that middling answers on these scenarios puts you well below the typical liberal and conservative responses. Again, since libertarians often tend to elevate reason (possibly excessively) and denigrate emotion as a guide to moral judgment, they are less likely to take extreme positions on these questions. That tendency alone further biases the results toward libertarians’ appearing comparatively amoral.

(*) “Essentially amoral” is my gloss on his findings. He criticizes libertarians as being extreme exemplars of so-called “WEIRD” (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) morality, caring only about rights and not about other moral dimensions.

This post has been updated to add the footnote above.

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The White Paper

The Justice Department White Paper on the targeted killing of US citizens is out, and worth a read. There are no surprises here, for anyone who has followed this sordid affair. Much of the same policy was articulated by AG Holder last year in his speech at Northwestern Law. Holder basically assured his audience that these were not assassinations because assassinations are illegal and we should trust that the deliberations internal to the executive provided more than enough due process (you can read excerpts in this post).

For those who go to the White Paper, the discussion of what constitutes an “imminent” threat (p. 7) seems like something issued by the Ministry of Peace:

“the condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.”

Note, the OED provides the following definition:

“Of an event, etc. (almost always of evil or danger): Impending threateningly, hanging over one’s head; ready to befall or overtake one; close at hand in its incidence; coming on shortly.”

Apparently, the definition can now be presented in a more concise fashion:

“Of an event, etc. (almost always of evil or danger): Impending threateningly, hanging over one’s head; ready to befall or overtake one; close at hand in its incidence; coming on shortly.”

In the present case, if someone has been involved in the past “in activities posing an imminent threat …and there is no evidence suggesting that he has renounced or abandoned such activities,” this fact would “support the conclusion that the member poses an imminent threat.” One wonders what happens if we insert the administration’s definition of imminent threat into this statement of policy.

I could go on, but you can read the paper for yourself. Jacob Sullum has written a decent review of the White Paper at Reason that is also worth a quick read. The final paragraph is a gem:

“The problem is that to accept this position [the argument in the White Paper], you have to put complete trust in the competence, wisdom, and ethics of the president, his underlings, and their successors. You have to believe they are properly defining and inerrantly identifying people who pose an imminent (or quasi-imminent) threat to national security and eliminating that threat through the only feasible means, which involves blowing people up from a distance. If mere mortals deserved that kind of faith, we would not need a Fifth Amendment, or the rest of the Constitution.”

One might also quote James Madison (Federalist 51) who made what would now appear to be an inconvenient point:

” If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”

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One of the regular Pileus bloggers asked me to elaborate on a claim I made briefly in my earlier discussion of BHL. I had said “there is an intra-libertarian debate [that it is useful to have about philosophical justification: is a system of individual rights ultimately justified because it accrues the best results for the poor, or is it justified for some other reason(s), and has the beneficial characteristic of accruing the best results for the poor?” and suggested I thought it was the latter. The idea that the social order can only be justified if it brings about the best results for the worst off, which is a prominent feature of Rawlsian welfare-state liberalism, has been employed as a rationale for classical-liberal non-redistributionist policies. I certanily like the irony that the chief heuristic of redistributionist theory undermines redistributionist institutions. And, as I said in the orginal post, I appreciate the positive outreach effects of noting that free market policies help everyone prosper, especially the poor. But I am hesitant to agree that the Rawslian principle is why we should have free markets. For one thing, I think we should have free markets for the same reason I think we should be free generally. I do not differentiate “civil liberty” and “economic liberty.” The latter is simply the manifestation-in-transactions of the former. Without the freedom to transact, my “freedom to choose” is pretty superficial. Rawls himself argues that we must have a system of equal freedom to choose and believe and think and speak – rights that cannot be trumped by social utility. It is only trading and acquiring rights that he says can be interfered with. But as Nozick demonstrated, you cannot interfere with transactional freedom without simultaneously interfering with freedom of choice. There are not two kinds of liberty, civil and economic, there’s just liberty (although there are of course different contexts in which we talk about liberty). And I think liberty is a necessary component of human flourishing. Humans cannot achieve virtue and happiness by coercion. “Rights” should be understood as a way to secure the possibility of self-directed activity in the social setting. The social order is thus justified if it is one which protects individual rights, and unjustified otherwise. That is the why of classical liberalism. The fact that classical liberalism and free markets help the poor better than redistributive statism is a great thing, both intrinsically and in terms of explaining its virtues to others. But the justification must be something else, something universal. Put it another way: if everyone were wealthy, would individual rights no longer be important? Of course not.

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Have you ever driven a group of teenagers somewhere and wondered why they weren’t talking to each other?  After a brief moment you then realize that they all have a cell phone in their laps, which they are engrossed in.  This is what I call an “elsewhere moment,” an occasion where we discover that those who are with us are not really with us.  They are elsewhere.

Technology brings us both closer together and further apart.  I can quickly get updates on what my “friends” are up to while I am sitting alone in front of my computer or somewhere else by myself.  I can find out what people I knew many years ago are doing and thinking in real time.  Yet, at the same time, I usually don’t know what my kids are thinking about, as I watch their intent faces lit up by the lights of their cell phones.  I worry what this hyper-connected, elsewhere generation will be like.

As someone who scores something like a 110 on the scale for introversion, being able to personally distance myself from and gain control over communication has huge psychological advantages.  Email is a lifesaver in this regard.  With email, I can communicate with people on my own terms, on my own schedule, at my own pace.  I’m not someone who thinks with my mouth open, which is disconcerting to people (such as my lovely, extroverted spouse), who are made nervous or frustrated by my pauses or delayed responses.  A few weeks ago a colleague in psychology asked me in the elevator if I was OK.  He was worried that my glazed over stare might be a seizure.

For me, cell phones are blessing and a curse.  I can communicate easily with my family, as when I just texted my teenage daughter that we wouldn’t be able to go skiing this afternoon (bummer!).  This type of communication is highly effective and efficient.  Yet I enjoy my cell phone the most when I don’t know where it is.  I have always hated phones, and the cell phone just expounds the torture by having the phone actually follow me around.   I like a world where I am accessible but not immediately reachable, except when I want to be (and except by said lovely spouse and family, of course).  Periodically the dean’s office sends instructions that they want faculty cell phone numbers.  Yeah, right, like I’m going to give the dean’s office my cell phone number!

Our elsewhere world makes new, strange things possible.  A couple of years ago I a wrote and published a paper with three scholars from another university.  The strange part is that I have never, to this day, spoken with two of those co-authors, including the leader author (who I think is a woman, but I’m not actually sure).  This is sort of cool, but sort of creepy, too.  Somewhat ironically the study was about the positive effects of marriage on cancer survival—in other words the positive health effects of real, human relationships on our well-being.  People are sharing more private information with more people than ever before, yet many normal aspects of human activity are being sucked into cyberspace with real human connection stripped out.  My kids can spend hours on their cell phones, but they rarely talk on them.

Our new world continually blurs the distinction between public and private.  People are sharing very private things with wide numbers of people, and public events are more and more often experienced privately.  These trends began with telephones, radio, and television, but have now escalated to a new level.  People are about as likely to produce and distribute a photo or video as they are to receive them.  Much good has come from this (like this blog, for instance!), but we have also sullied and cheapened public discourse, as so much of public communication happens in real time, without reflection, editing or consideration.  And, more seriously, we have democratized the production of indecency.  It used to be that those seeking obscene materials had to hunt them down.  Now we have to build barriers to protect ourselves and our families from the onslaught of filth the world is constantly dumping on us.  This comes not only from the commercial slime producers but increasingly from “normal” people over phones and other devices.

Recently, we had the national fixation with Manti Te’o, the Notre Dame football star who was mourning the death of his girlfriend.  Turns out he never had a girlfriend, and it seems quite plausible that he never knew this.  Perhaps he was complicit in all of this to gain publicity, but it seems more likely that he really was duped.  The strange thing is that given the elsewhere world in which we live, it isn’t that hard to believe.  I’ve known kids whose number of Facebook friends numbers over a 1,000.  Certainly, many of these people are casual acquaintances at best, and many times people’s only real connection has been a friend of a friend coming through on social media or through a text.  From what I’ve heard, social media sites, chat rooms, and dating services are filled with people who are much different than they say they are.  Our natural inclinations towards trust are being exploited and manipulated.  People develop strong connections that turn out not to be connections at all.

In an elsewhere world, imaginary girlfriends are not that strange.  Certainly no more strange than prominent Congressmen sexting indecent images of themselves to women they barely know.  People now communicate with others who are both anywhere and nowhere,

My sense is that our technologies will not conquer us.  Our primal human urges for real connections and real relationships will continue, even as the boundaries between the cyber world and the real world continue to blur.  I’m doing my part.  For instance, my smart phone has all kinds of voice recognition capabilities, but I refuse to use them.  I can talk through my cell phone, but actually talking to it makes me very uncomfortable, even dirty.  I won’t do it.

I’m also trying to teach my kids the importance of being here and now, rather than always being elsewhere.  Of course this would be easier if hanging out with real people weren’t such a challenge!

Some problems have been around forever.

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The standard account of regulation focuses on problems of market failure. One form of market failure stems from information scarcity or informational asymmetries. Regulations can deal with this kind of market failure by requiring information disclosure using standard metrics, often in a form that is assessable to relatively unsophisticated actors.  This form of regulation can be quite useful in promoting mutually beneficial exchanges between consenting adults.  Example: the Federal Trade Commission’s Used Car Rule requires dealers to post a buyers guide on used cars that inform the customer of basic information (e.g., is it being sold “as is” or is there a warranty). Presumably, this reduces informational asymmetries and facilitates exchanges.  Regulation by information can also reduce more intrusive expressions of government power. For example, the Securities and Exchange Commission requires firms to disclose their financials so that potential investors can make informed decisions. It does not, however, bar firms with a higher probability of bankruptcy from entering capital markets. Regulations facilitate exchanges and regulation by information does so with minimal state intrusion.

Paul Krugman has a piece today in the NYT (“Friends of Fraud”) decrying the GOP threats to block the confirmation of Richard Cordray as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau created under Dodd-Frank.  Having lost the battle over Dodd-Frank, they want to strip the new bureau of its independence and are using the appointment to leverage the changes in question.  Krugman’s take:

What Republicans are demanding, basically, is that the protection bureau lose its independence. They want its actions subjected to a veto by other, bank-centered financial regulators, ensuring that consumers will once again be neglected, and they also want to take away its guaranteed funding, opening it to interest-group pressure. These changes would make the agency more or less worthless — but that, of course, is the point.

How can the G.O.P. be so determined to make America safe for financial fraud, with the 2008 crisis still so fresh in our memory? In part it’s because Republicans are deep in denial about what actually happened to our financial system and economy. On the right, it’s now complete orthodoxy that do-gooder liberals, especially former Representative Barney Frank, somehow caused the financial disaster by forcing helpless bankers to lend to Those People.

Elizabeth Warren (the policy entrepreneur who fought for a new consumer protection agency) was an expert in bankruptcy (before winning the Senate race) and she documented the large percentage of prime borrowers who were directed into subprime vehicles (I don’t recall the exact figure, but I believe it was around 25 percent). Others signed on to mortgages they didn’t understand, in part, because the terms of the agreement and the consequences were sufficiently obscured by the issuers. The problems of information asymmetry were significant, particularly for the less sophisticated borrower.

A few points of clarification: I think Dodd-Frank was bad legislation for a host of reasons that are beyond the scope of this posting. I do not think that the evil mortgage broker exploiting the hapless rube was the source of the financial crisis. Nor would I agree with Krugman’s portrayal of the crisis. There was so much more going on in this tale of crony capitalism, transfer-seeking, and failed regulation. But there is good evidence that many (not all) borrowers were exploited in ways that cost them dearly. I am at a loss to understand why the regulation of the kinds of mortgage instruments that are sold and the information provided to borrowers is so objectionable, particularly when (as noted above) it can facilitate functioning markets.

Quick question to the skeptics: when is the last time you read the information that was provided before you clicked “accept” and upgraded to the newest version of iTunes or installed the newest fix to whatever problem was discovered in your word processing or spread sheet program? Do you know what you agreed to? Now imagine a relatively unsophisticated borrower signing off on a 20-page document, having concluded that the mortgage broker told them all they needed to know about the agreement.

Bottom line: even those who support market governance can make  a compelling case for regulation, particularly when it involves the provision of information that facilitates voluntary exchanges.

Question: is there a credible argument to be made against the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau?  Note: the claim that all regulation is bad is not a credible argument.

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Super Bowl Lights

How long before someone makes an argument that the Super Bowl power outage shows the need for greater Federal infrastructure spending? ;-)

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Super Bowl Halftime Show

I don’t think I’m a prude, but was Ms. Knowles dressed appropriately for a family event?  Add the ode to her self-described “bootylicious” body, and I’m thinking that she and the NFL could have made some better choices in staging the halftime show.  And I say that as someone who thinks Knowles is both very beautiful and very talented.  This just wasn’t the moment to dress so scantily.

For what it is worth, my children were focused on the music sounding so fake.

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Polisphiliac David Brooks:

Here’s a way to make money off of other people’s misery. Short house prices in Northern Virginia. Starting with sequestration and then continuing over the next several years, the Defense Department is going to be hammered. All the big defense contractors in Northern Virginia are going to be hit. It’s already happening. I don’t know if you were thinking of buying a McMansion in McLean or not, but I’d hold off for five years.

Would any of you bet your hard-earned money that the government is going to shrink enough in the DC area to significantly impact Northern Virginia housing prices?  I’m skeptical to say the least.  Betting on the long-term (budgetary) health of the state is usually – unfortunately – a winner.

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No, I’m not surprised that the government is heavily involved in the football world too (its tentacles touch everything), making some men rich(er) at the expense of us all.  But this is still worth remembering when you watch the game tonight:

Taxpayers have spent at least $471 million on the Superdome since Hurricane Katrina, allowing a state reeling from the nation’s most-expensive natural disaster to keep its pro sports teams and rebuild a part of downtown destroyed by the 2005 storm. Benson, meanwhile, is worth $1.6 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, after acquiring the National Basketball Association’s New Orleans Hornets, a 26-story office tower that houses state agencies and a mall next to the stadium.

As for the game itself, the Boston Globe notes this: “One X factor is how Kaepernick will respond when one of the Ravens drills him. That should happen at some point. He’s a 6-foot-4-inch ostrich running down the field, and somebody like Bernard Pollard is going to lay him out — 15-yard penalty be damned — to set the tone.”

So might it be possible that we could witness a story of sweet redemption tonight?  Namely, should Pollard knock Kaepernick out of the game, that would force the 49ers to rely on much-maligned QB Alex Smith (who didn’t get his job back after returning from a head injury earlier in the season).

My prediction: 49ers win and cover (34-24)

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Doesn’t it figure that President Obama shoots left-handed?!


I’m really just kidding as I also shoot rifles and shotguns lefty (though pistols right-handed) and few serious people would accuse me of being a man of the left.  Moreover, I think the traditional left-right scale is fairly unhelpful (see here).

But I do find the release of this photo by the White House to be pure propaganda and thus offensive to the democratic spirit.

First, does anyone really expect us to believe that this Harvard-trained, elite, Chicago libgressive is a big shooting enthusiast?  Of course, someone with that profile could be.  However, it is very unlikely.  I can count the number of northern academics and elites who regularly shoot guns on my fingers (hello Marc!).  And none of them are Democrats.  Of course, there is the big Vermont anomaly - but I don’t think Barry would agree with the Green Mountain State’s gun control regime (which is basically this: aim well and point your gun downrange- for now).  More importantly, there is little support for any claim that Obama is a shooter.  That is why this Onion piece works as humor.  Heck, the guy couldn’t even pretend to be a decent bowler!

And this is fine. Just because I like to do something and have the right to do it does not mean that others have to agree with my preferences.  Indeed, I’d be perfectly ok with a President who said, “I don’t care for guns and have little interest in using them for any reason.  Indeed, I think owning a gun is a poor use of one’s freedom.  However, I do think that the Constitution secures the individual right to bear arms, and since I have pledged to support and uphold the Constitution, I will work to protect that right even as I disagree with its exercise.”  This is how I think about many rights that individuals enjoy and often (unfortunately) exercise.  Yet, I don’t believe the President really cares what the Constitution says nor that he should let it get in the way of his policy preferences.

Second, it is probably not chance that Obama is shooting a shotgun in the information operations/propaganda photo since this is how the Dems are trying to triangulate the gun control issue – “We don’t want to stop sportsmen from owning and shooting guns.  But true sportsmen don’t need ‘assault weapons.'”  I’d be more convinced of Obama’s credibility on the 2nd Amendment if the WH showed him firing my handgun of choice: the Smith and Wesson M&P 9mm.  But that would hurt the narrative even though the Administration claims it isn’t going after handguns (despite the fact that Marc pointed out earlier that these are the real weapons of choice for those killing others).

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Judge Napolitano, an eloquent advocate of liberty, is in fine form here, in his discussion of the relevance of natural law theory to immigration. I was especially pleased with his observation that politicians are at most fair-weather friends of natural law: “This view of the natural law is sweet to the heart and pleasing to the ear when politicians praise it at patriotic events, but it is also a bane to them when it restrains their exercise of the coercive powers of the government.” This is correct- the idea of natural rights, moral rights that are not created by governments, is (for them) a convenient rhetorical device, to be discarded as soon as they perceive that it would be more popular to frame an issue in terms of “practical solutions,” “being realistic,” or “the compromises necessary in a democracy.” Politicians and pundits both left and right do this: on positions they favor, it’s wrong for the government to interfere with the exercise of natural rights, but when the subject is something they oppose, positivism rules. Judge Napolitano surprised a “conservative” talk show host recently by invoking natural rights as a trump against nativist sentiment. Specifically, he argues that “Our fundamental human rights are not conditioned or even conditionable on the laws or traditions of the place where our mothers were physically located when we were born. They are not attenuated because our mothers were not in the United States at the moment of our births. Stated differently, we all possess natural rights, no more and no less than any others. All humans have the full panoply of freedom of choice in areas of personal behavior protected from governmental interference by the natural law, no matter where they were born. Americans are not possessed of more natural rights than non-Americans….” He goes on to show why the government has no right to interfere with freedom of movement. (It furthermore has no right to prevent you or me from hiring whomever we want or selling/renting land to them.) Politicians and pundits on the right aren’t comfortable with the language of natural rights when it comes to issues like marriage or immigration. Their counterparts on the left aren’t comfortable with such language when it comes to issues like self-defense or trading. The Judge gets it. I wonder how the national discussion of rights would go if he had the audience of Paul Krugman, Rachel Maddow, Pat Buchanan.

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The University System, RIP?

There were a few posts earlier in the week on graduate school, started by Jason Sorens sage advice. I continued the conversation by noting the challenge posed by free online courses.The new issue of The American Interest includes a fascinating piece by Nathan Harden entitled “The End of the University as We Know It.” Harden begins with a fine paragraph that should be enough to draw your attention: (if you find it gated, you might try the link off of NR).

In fifty years, if not much sooner, half of the roughly 4,500 colleges and universities now operating in the United States will have ceased to exist. The technology driving this change is already at work, and nothing can stop it. The future looks like this: Access to college-level education will be free for everyone; the residential college campus will become largely obsolete; tens of thousands of professors will lose their jobs; the bachelor’s degree will become increasingly irrelevant; and ten years from now Harvard will enroll ten million students.

I agree with most of what Harden has to say, although I think he may be wrong in the timeline.  I believe we are looking at changes of this magnitude in twenty to twenty-five years, so buckle up.

For other takes on the article, go to Ricochet.

Overall, the news is good for society. It is quite bad for anyone who would like a life comparable to that enjoyed by tenured academics today. This week, I spent 5 hours and 20 minutes teaching, 2 hours in meetings, and the remainder of the time reading and writing about things I find intrinsically fascinating. Great work if you can get it. Unfortunately for those who dream of a job in the academy, fewer and fewer may be able to get it.

Bottom Line: Listen to Jason Sorens.

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