Archive for the ‘Rants and Raves’ Category

My Twitter feed has been filled with Americans and others expressing outrage about a Saudi court’s sentencing a man to be paralyzed from the waist down. He had stabbed a man in the back, paralyzing him.

I’m not going to defend or oppose the sentence, but I am going to defend a principle here: the violence inherent in the justice system should be obvious rather than hidden.

A couple of years ago, Peter Moskos suggested bringing back flogging as an option for prisoners: a year off your sentence for every stroke of the lash. He wrote eloquently of the horrors of the carceral state. And, so long as judges don’t simply respond by increasing sentence duration, it’s hard to see how the option to choose the lash would make prisoners worse off. As I wrote at the time:

I’m pulled to agree with Moskos. But I worry. I worry that the best evidence seems to suggest that prison deters crime mainly through incapacitation – criminals cannot commit crimes except against other criminals while behind bars. There’s good evidence for deterrent effects through things like California’s three strikes legislation, but incapacitation matters a lot. Longer term crime rates could go down with a switch from prisons to flogging if those committing crimes were better able to maintain a connection to the community and if prisons encourage recidivism. But rates would almost have to increase in the short term: those viewing flogging as much cheaper than a jail term would expect a reduction in the effective expected punishment for a criminal act. I’d hope that Moskos’s prescription would maintain the use of prisons as preventative detention for the really scary crazy dangerous cases.

A decade ago I would have worried that reducing the price of punishment experienced by the state would increase the total amount of punishment. If it’s expensive to keep a prisoner for a year, the state might be reluctant to put marginal offenders in jail. That’s not proven much of a constraint, so I worry rather less about that now.

But I do worry that the mob used to enjoy the spectacle of a public hanging.

When I read about cases like John Horner, (likely) entrapped by the DEA and facing a 25 year mandatory sentence for having sold his leftover prescription pain medicine to another man who had made him believe that he was in desperate pain, I wonder whether it’s the Saudis or the Americans who are really out of line. If you had two young daughters, and were facing 25 years delivered by the American justice system for doing no harm to anyone, wouldn’t you prefer surgical paralysation? I would.

Sometimes I wonder whether the focus on injustices committed abroad are a way of avoiding thinking of the ones at home.

In other news, we now have decent evidence that “tag and release” is more effective in preventing recidivism than incarceration. Here’s the abstract from the newly published paper by Di Tella and Schargrodsky in the Journal of Political Economy:

We study criminal recidivism in Argentina by focusing on the rearrest rates of two groups: individuals released from prison and individuals released from electronic monitoring. Detainees are randomly assigned to judges, and ideological differences across judges translate into large differences in the allocation of electronic monitoring to an otherwise similar population. Using these peculiarities of the Argentine setting, we argue that there is a large, negative causal effect on criminal recidivism of treating individuals with electronic monitoring relative to prison.

Lengthy carceral sentences for drug crimes are arguably behind much American inner-city disfunction. When a reasonable proportion of men of marriageable age are in prison, really bad things start happening to family formation.

Moskos is looking more right all the time.

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

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

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Conservatives and taxpayer groups are ready to fight the $1 trillion farm bill when it comes up for a vote in the new Congress. Agricultural subsidies, price supports, and tariffs in developed countries (the U.S., Japan, and the European Union especially) not only harm consumers at home by hitting them with higher prices, but cause severe poverty abroad by shutting exports from less developed countries (LDCs) out of developed-country markets and by dumping developed-country surpluses on LDC markets at prices below marginal cost. Since the poorest people in the world are farmers in poor countries, and over 15 million people die from hunger and disease each year due to severe poverty, rich-country agricultural subsidies are literally killing poor people on a massive scale.

Here’s just one anecdote from the IFPRI report of how this works:

Harrison Amukoyi’s farm is perched on a hillside in western Kenya. On less than two acres of land, he raises several crops and a dairy cow. To sell milk, Harrison and his neighbors must compete with industrialized countries that dump their subsidized milk on local markets, depressing prices for Kenyan farmers. This unfair contest appears in countless guises throughout the developing world, intensifying conditions of poverty.

And here are some figures from the NCPA analysis on how poor farmers would benefit if cotton subsidies alone were eliminated:

The International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC) estimates that ending U.S. cotton subsidies would raise world prices by 26 percent, or 11 cents per pound. The results for African countries dependent on cotton exports would be substantial:

  • Burkina Faso would gain $28 million in export revenues
  • Benin would gain $33 million in export revenues
  • Mali would gain $43 million in export revenues.

We have seen reductions in severe poverty recently. The world’s biggest reduction in severe poverty has come in China over the last three decades. It’s clear that economic reform is the critical, long-term driver of poverty reductions. But where did China’s poverty reductions start? With growing agricultural productivity. The poorest countries of the world can’t just move straight into manufacturing. They need first to generate some agricultural surplus. Making it possible for poor farmers to sell to rich consumers, or even to their own people, is necessary to making that happen.

Removing rich-country agricultural subsidies could also have political-economy benefits. Many LDCs repress their agricultural markets in favor of the urban sector. Thus, their own governments deserve some share of the blame. The typical tool for this repression is a “marketing board” monopsony. The marketing board buys produce at coercively depressed prices and then tries to export it for a profit, plowing the proceeds back into urban subsidies. Rising world prices for farm goods would increase the profits of these marketing boards, potentially allowing them to raise the prices they pay farmers at home. While some nasty governments might find the new revenue reinforces their power, the new revenues would surely build useful state capacity in just as many places. Furthermore, rising farm incomes should increase the political power of the farm bloc in LDCs, which increases the probability of domestic liberalization.

Ending the rich world’s harmful policies would not eliminate global poverty. However, it would make a significant dent and could set in motion economic and political processes that would have far-reaching effects indeed.

Still, agricultural subsidies and trade barriers survive, amounting to well over $300 billion per year in the rich countries of the OECD, dwarfing the aid sent from rich to poor countries. They survive because of the collective-action problem: poor people have no voice at all in the political systems of the rich world, and rich-world consumers barely have one. Producers organize effectively because of the clear benefits they receive from subsidies, and even ideological opposition from both the left and the right cannot effectively fight them.

The only effective way to counter the greed of the few is with the white-hot moral passion of the many. (more…)

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Free at Last

Yes, I know, the market remains in the tank, jobless numbers are up, and the world economy looks like it is on the brink of recession 2.0.   But a week ago, we could begin smelling freedom in the air. As Grover Norquist and Patrick Gleason explain:

This year Cost of Government Day arrived Aug. 12 — meaning that the average American toiled 224 days to foot the bill for this year’s total cost of government. Of those 224 days, 103 went toward federal spending, and 44 days for state and local spending. The regulatory burden, coming in at $1.8 trillion, took up an additional 77 days of work….before President Barack Obama took office, Cost of Government Day never fell later than July 21.

Of course, the smell of freedom remains distant for residents of the fine state of Connecticut, where I live.

 As for residents of Connecticut, the state with the latest Cost of Government Day for the past two years running, they won’t finish paying their tab until next month – Sept. 10.

Given that when I moved to Connecticut (in 1989) there was no income tax, this is quite a achievement. Those of you who are not living in Connecticut should raise a glass to the principle of self-ownership and one properly braced, consider the annual Cost of Government Day report (available here).

Free at last, free at last…

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1. In the below video, Senator Rand Paul criticizes John Pistole and his TSA for their ham-fisted and invasive pat-downs, especially on children.

Senator Paul makes several good points. What struck me in particular, however, is one part of Mr. Pistole’s response. He said that pat-downs on children and seniors are driven—and, apparently, justified—by bona fide intelligence: he knows of a case in which a child under twelve was used as a suicide bomber, and another in which a 65-year-old couple were suicide bombers as well.

Isn’t this exactly the kind of invidious stereotyping and discrimination that prevents the TSA from targeting Muslim males for enhanced scrutiny? The argument given against targeting Muslim males is that not all Muslim males are terrorists. It does not follow from the fact that some tiny proportion of them is that therefore they are all suspespects, so targeting all of them for enhanced scrutiny is prejudice.

Yet here is a case in which Mr. Pistole apparently thinks that because a single child was allegedly once used as an attempted suicide bomber, therefore all children are equally suspicious and must be subjected to enhanced scrutiny. Moreover, because two seniors allegedly attempted to become suicide bombers, therefore all seniors are equally suspicious and the TSA is justified in patting them down too.

Well, Mr. Pistole, which is it? Is assuming that a trait that belongs to some members of a group therefore belongs to all members of the group morally acceptable, or not?

2. In other TSA news, my nomination for American Hero of the Week: Andrea Fornella Abbott of Clarkesville, Tennessee. According to this report, while traveling through the Memphis airport, Ms. Abbott would not allow the TSA goons to molest—er, enhancedly pat down—her daughter. When she refused, they reminded her that they, not she, will be the ones who will decide what is “inappropriate touching,” thank you very much, and she may now just be quiet and stand over there while they have their way with her daughter.

Apparently Ms. Abbott refused, vociferiously. Upon reconsideration, the TSA agents recognized that she was not under suspicion of any crime, that they had no evidence of criminal behavior on her or her daughter’s part, that in a free society people have a right to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures that shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized, and that it is just plain sick to grope minors anyway, so they relented and let her go on her way.

Uh, no. They arrested her on the charge of “disorderly conduct” and put her in jail. For defending her fundamental liberty, for defending the bodily integrity of her daughter, even in the face of arrest, and for giving the rest of us passive and docile ennablers a reminder of what is at stake and an example to follow, I salute Ms. Abbott.

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Congratulations to the Packers!

I thought yesterday’s Super Bowl game between the Packers and the Steelers was fantastic—thrilling and exciting. I had no particular dog in the fight, since I am not much of a Packers or a Steelers fan; so I was able simply to enjoy the good game.

I say that so that no one misunderstands what I say now: I am glad it’s over. But not for the reason you might suspect. I love American football. I am a fan especially of college football, but I follow professional football as well. I’m even in an NFL fantasy football league (though my son does most of the actual work).

No, what I got sick of was the constant nagging on all the news shows about how to “eat healthy” during the Super Bowl parties. Oh. My. Goodness. Can we please stop with the stay away from this good tasting thing, with the substitute this far-less-appetizing thing instead, with the strategies to avoid overeating, with the guilt trips and the exercise tips and the puritanical don’thavetoomuchfunevernotevenonaspecialoccasion? Please?

It seemed like every time I put on the local news over the last week there was yet another fitness expert or nutrition expert or personal trainer scolding and nagging and wagging fingers. We eat this amount of calories in just this one day, but we only need that amount! Egad! Yes, yes, I got it: we don’t eat enough whole grain nut leafy non-trans low-fat omega vegetatofufruits, and we eat waaaay too much salt sugar fat cream calories.

But can you please just leave me alone already? I’ll tell you what. Since we’re both adults and we’re both capable of making decisions for ourselves, I’ll make you this offer: You let me eat what I want, and I’ll let you eat what you want. Deal? Please? Pretty please with sugar, I mean krill oil, on top?

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Fred Korematsu

The NY Times has a rather nicely written editorial today honoring Fred Korematsu.

As you may recall, Mr. Korematsu was one of citizens interred under FDR’s Executive Order 9066. Initially, he went on the lamb but was ultimately arrested and convicted of violating the internment order. He received 5 years probation and spent the next few years in de facto forced labor at the Central Utah Relocation Center. Mr. Korematsu appealed his conviction all the way to the Supreme Court (Korematsu v. United States). Alas, the Court refused to overturn the conviction (6-3), viewing the internment as justified by the security risk posed by Japanese Americans.

Although the decision deserves a reading, let me simply quote Justice Robert Jackson’s dissent:

A military order, however unconstitutional, is not apt to last longer than the military emergency. Even during that period, a succeeding commander may revoke it all. But once a judicial opinion rationalizes such an order to show that it conforms to the Constitution, or rather rationalizes the Constitution to show that the Constitution sanctions such an order, the Court for all time has validated the principle of racial discrimination in criminal procedure and of transplanting American citizens. The principle then lies about like a loaded weapon, ready for the hand of any authority that can bring forward a plausible claim of an urgent need. Every repetition imbeds that principle more deeply in our law and thinking and expands it to new purposes.

In the early 1980s, Professor Peter Irons (you may have read his fine 1982 book, The New Deal Lawyers) discovered documents revealing that Solicitor General Fahy, who had argued the government’s case in Kormatsu v United States had suppressed the military’s intelligence that concluded that there was, in fact, no security risk. In response, the US District Court vacated the earlier conviction in 1984. Although he would be honored in subsequent years (e.g., he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom), the Supreme Court decision was never overturned.

The New York Times editorial concludes with a few brief paragraphs on Mr. Korematsu’s response to the War on Terror:

In 2004, he submitted a brief to the Supreme Court in support of the right of enemy combatants to challenge their detention in court. The brief used his old case to stress the “extreme nature” of the government’s position. He and his lawyers argued that in the name of national security the government was limiting civil liberties “much more than necessary” and fending off “any judicial scrutiny.”

The court ruled that enemy combatants could challenge their detention in federal court. Still, the president retains power to identify people as enemy combatants and treat them like enemies without much due process. Mr. Korematsu hoped no one would be locked away again for looking like an enemy. But after Sept. 11, 2001, he was not certain that would never happen. He stayed vigilant. All of us should.

I am not a big fan of holidays named after distinguished American citizens. But California’s decision to celebrate Fred Korematsu Day (this past Sunday) seems well justified. Perhaps we should all remember Mr. Korematsu’s struggle and spend a few minutes reading the NYT editorial, the Supreme Court decision (Korematsu v. the United States)and Jackson’s stirring dissent.

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As we approach Christmas and AQ has once again promised a terrorist surprise, it is good to know that Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano–the woman responsible for orchestrating the TSA’s “security theater”–is at the top of her game.  As she noted in an interview:

“We are thousands of people are working 24/7, 364 days a year to keep the American people safe.”

Refreshingly, a DHS spokesperson admitted that the Secretary mis-spoke. Given the events of the past few years, one could imagine Congress issuing a press release to proclaim that the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office had conducted an analysis and determined that there were, in fact,  only 364 days in a year.

Nonetheless, given that the TSA has caught zero terrorist in the past 9 years, one might conclude that taking a day off would  have no effects on results (e.g., 0/365 = 0/364) and might actually be touted as evidence of the administration’s success in eliminating waste, fraud and abuse.

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Wikileaks and Incompetence

George Orwell once noted: “During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” I am not certain that the release of the newest Wikileaks documents is very revolutionary, even if the times meet Orwell’s description. David Rothkopf captures my general reaction in his brief column at Foreign Policy:

“the 250,000 State Department cables contained in the release offer up no single revelation as striking as the overall message they contain: The dark shadowy world of diplomacy and international intrigue is working just about precisely as you suspect it is.”

There are some interesting if not surprising revelations, of course. For example, who would have guessed that Slovenia was promised an audience with President Obama if it accepted a former Gitmo detainee? This seems overly ham-handed and hardly a glide path to closing Gitmo in 6 months 1 year 2 years…never. And HRC seems to be on her way to assembling an impressive database on UN diplomats via her National Humint Collection Directive which, according to der Spiegel, sought out “personal credit card information, frequent flyer customer numbers, as well as e-mail and telephone accounts. In many cases the State Department also requested ‘biometric information,’ ‘passwords’ and ‘personal encryption keys.’ Perhaps HRC’s days as FLOTUS taught her the high costs of working with asymmetrical information.

The most shocking aspect is the leak itself. The government’s secrets were downloaded by a private first class, burned, and smuggled out as a Lady GaGa CD. This evident incapacity to control secret documents should give pause to anyone who still believes the government can be trusted with maintaining the confidentiality of electronically transmitted medical records…or anything else, to be frank.

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Favorite Books of 2010

This was a fine year for books. I am embarrassed to admit that I read little in the way of fiction this year and what I read was quite dated (e.g., Oakley Hall, Warlock). But I have some recommendations under biography and memoirs, economics, and religion.  I am most interested in hearing what you would recommend to me and fellow Pileus readers.

Biography and Memoirs:  I read a lot of biographies this year (on Nash, Keynes, McCarthy, Hamilton, Arthur, Eisenhower, Truman, Hoover, Bush, and Roosevelt). All were fine in their own ways, but the best single work was Jennifer Burns, Goddess of the Market. I am not much of an Ayn Rand fan (in fact, I’m not a fan at all). Burns’ biography succeeded in painting a complex portrait of Rand that made me appreciate her (even if I remain unconvinced about the novelty and virtues of her thought). In the memoir department, I strongly recommend Keith Richards, Life. Having spent most of my life playing guitar (telecaster thinline, in case you are interested) and marveling at the amazing rhythm licks of Keith Richards, this book was one of my favorites. Richards presents a refreshing uncensored window into the Stones, while offering a course in musicology (focusing on the blues) and some extraordinary discussions of the intellectual process that led him to embrace open tunings.  I just finished a second memoir, George W. Bush, Decision Points. While the book carries the heavy hand of a ghostwriter, it succeeds in bringing out the complexities of many of the issues faced during the Bush presidency. Bush is, at times, painfully honest about some of the results of his eight years in office. At other times, he seems oblivious to the damage done by core decisions (e.g., Medicare Modernization, the war in Iraq).

The Financial Crisis and Beyond: Many of the best books came out in 2009 but I only got to them in this calendar year. Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, This Time is Different, provides an impressive tutorial in the history of financial crises and the underlying dynamics. It is a fantastic, if heavy, read. Gary Gorton, Slapped by the Invisible Hand, is well worth the investment. Gorton has written some fascinating papers on the shadow banking system (focusing on the repo market) and they are brought together in this fine volume.Robert Reich’s Aftershock is an interesting read even if you disagree with 80 percent of what Reich writes. Reich seeks to place the collapse within a history of stagnant wages (a product of deindustrialization and the decline of unions) and growing inequality. Whether you agree or disagree with Reich’s larger argument, it is a lively book that is pitched to a generalist audience.

Two other books that require little in the way of specialized knowledge include Nouriel Roubini and Stephen Mihm, Crisis Economics and Ian Bremmer’s The End of the Free Market. Bremmer’s book is particularly interesting. It explores the phenomenon of state capitalism and the difficulties the US faces in competing with these regimes. If anyone is interested in sovereign wealth funds and the industrial policies embraced by state capitalists, this book  is made to order.

If all of these books leave you pessimistic, you can find relief in  Matt Ridley’s new book, The Rational Optimist. While this book was not as compelling as The Origins of Virtue, it was nonetheless a great read. And if you really want relief, turn to P.J.O’Rourke’s new book, Don’t Vote. While not in the same category as Parliament of Whores or Eat the Rich, this is a fantastically enjoyable read.

Religion: I made my first trip to Israel this year and in preparation I explored a number of books from the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research. The authors—Christians and Jews—seek to place the gospels in the context of 1st century A.D. Judaism and understand where Jesus fit in the larger rabbinical tradition.  If this kind of thing interests you, I can recommend David Bivin and Roy Blizzard, Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus, David Biven, New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus, Brad Young, Jesus the Jewish Theologian, and Ron Mosely, Yeshua. I have also been intrigued by the debates inspired by the so-called new atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, etc) and the response of Christians. Most of the work of the new atheists is polemical. However, some rather sophisticated essays on apologetics can be found in Robert Lane Craig and Chad Meister, God is Great, God is Good. If one is troubled by the problem of evil or wishes to explore the Islamic contributions to the cosmological argument, this is a great place to start.

All is all, it was a decent year for books. With the exception of Keith Richard’s memoir and the recent piece by O’Rourke,  you could provide any of these books to those you love without embarrassment (your mother may not be interested in some of the more seedy adventures of the Rolling Stones).

I await suggestions for great books I missed (and, of course, correctives on the poor books I praised).






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I just though Grover might appreciate a riff on his post.

The guy who was recently escorted out of the airport (with a hefty fine, if I recall) had made the simple statement: “Don’t touch my junk.” Maybe it’s just me, but this doesn’t seem to be an overly unreasonable request in an age of full body scans. At what point does Terrorism Theatre run its course?

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1. Imagine your reaction if there had been a string of rapes committed in your community, and the local police tried to assure you by saying, “We are going to randomly question and search every single person we see—men and women, seniors, boys and girls, everyone.” How absurd that would be! Or suppose there were an outbreak of an infectious disease in your community, which it had been determined was carried and transmitted by mosquitoes; but authorities said they were going to randomly trap and check every single insect they could find, regardless of species. Again, how absurd, not to mention wasteful and inefficient, and even dangerous by dissipating their scarce time and resources in pointless ways.  Yet that is exactly how our airport “security” proceeds. Check every single person, old and young, male and female, everyone. How absurd.

2. I cannot figure out why ticket scalping should be illegal. What on earth can be wrong with it? No one is hurt, and the transactions reflect people’s subjective valuations of the tickets. I also think card counting at casinos should be legal. I can see why the casino doesn’t want  you to count cards, but it is not cheating—it’s just playing well. It would be like declaring it illegal to think more than two moves ahead in chess.

3. A while back I predicted that, after the bailout of Greece, other countries in Europe, including Portugal, Ireland, Italy, and Spain, might be next to require bailouts; I suggested that if that happened, Germany, which is strong but also has rising debt, might begin to totter, at which point the entire EU would face a reckoning for its decades of fiscal irresponsibility. I was not the only one to entertain this possibility, but it’s safe to say that most people, including perhaps some of my fellow Pilei, found it a tad too pessimistic. And now look at Ireland. After the—what, fourth? fifth?—bailout, hundreds of billions of dollars toward bad debt, and outright nationalization of one of its five main banks, the whole mess is about to crash. And, the EU now stands “ready to help.” So declared European Commission President José Manuel Barros, whose words, translated, mean of course that he stands ready to invade other people’s and future generations’ wealth to pay for the fiscal irresponsibility of people today. That’s big of him.

Here is a prediction. The amounts Barros is contemplating won’t be enough to save Ireland’s banks, and the spending cuts and austerity measures will prove unable to cover the mounting debt in Ireland—in the same way that similar measures are not working, despite all assurances to the contrary, in Greece. Paying for debt by assuming more debt is always a risky business; but it has gotten all out of hand in Europe and America. So what will the EU do when the good money it has poured toward bad turns out not to have been enough in Greece and Ireland? Germany and France, and thus the EU, and thus the United States, will then face a difficult choice. One shudders to think what will happen then.

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Sven has done an excellent job of predicting the generally accepted wisdom as it will be expressed in the next weeks/months. Let me extend the “narrative” (I hate using the term, but tenure carries certain responsibilities).

Yes, there are the crazy GOP candidates (and yes, even accounting for the media’s selection bias, you got to admit…). But the real story is the influx of foreign money and the way the Right simply outspent the Democrats, under the direction of the omniscient , omnipotent, and omnipresent Karl Rove (Don’t concern yourself that this is a myth—as Politico reports today in a fine piece that suggests the Left has the financial advantage).  Back to the “narrative”…

When GOP candidates win control of the Congress, it will not do so to the extent many suspected (hence a victory for the Democrats). But what victory exists will be a product of big business lucre channeled to the GOP (thank you Citizens United, Puppet master Karl Rove, et al), combined with the racism, jingoism, “christianism,” and general idiocy of the great unwashed (read: midwesterners and southerners).

Now when the Congress fails to pass legislation that could not make it through even under the masterful guidance of Pelosi and Reid, we will hear of Republican obstructionism (“Car is in the ditch, we are working to get it out. The Republicans are drinking cocktails and looking down at us.”)  If only the nation had unified control, things would be better…

But wait, things will improve as concerns over regime uncertainty diminish. Business, convinced that the era of constant experimentation has drawn to a close, will start to invest the trillions of dollars it is currently hording.  Economic growth will ensue.  Or, as it will be reported, “Despite GOP obstructionism, President Obama’s policies have finally met expectations with growth rates that no one would have imagined just a few years ago.”

This interpretation will occur…let’s see…in the months leading up to the 2012 election, as the media is once again equating the GOP with a new generation of crazies (identities TBA) and some holdovers from the past.

Any corrections to this narrative?



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1. Children should do their own homework. I resent the fact that my children’s schoolwork, which they do themselves, is often graded against and compared to that of children whose parents do their work for them. What is the purpose of the charade whereby parents do their kids’ work? It certainly does the kids no favors. Checking to make sure they’ve completed their assignments is one thing, and answering specific questions or quizzing them on their Spanish vocabulary is fine; but actually doing their work is another matter entirely—not to mention cheating!

2. The Aristotelian theory of “natural slavery” is alive and well in many of the elite colleges and universities in America today. I have been giving talks in which I argue that respecting people’s dignity requires giving them the freedom to make choices about their lives but also holding them responsible for the consequences of those decisions—whether good or bad. Inevitably there are audience members who patiently, and rather condescendingly, explain to me all the ways that “poor” and “disadvantaged” people cannot be expected to lead their own lives, or at least not well. They apparently just don’t have the skills, and health care is too complicated, nutrition is too complicated, education is too complicated, retirement is too complicated, banking is too complicated, buying a house is too complicated, and on and on; they are simply not up to the task, it’s explained to me. Luckily for the benighted, however, people making this argument also believe it is their duty to “help” such people, by lobbying for new legislation and regulations, by staffing government offices, by carefully circumscribing the limits within which they are allowed to make choices for themselves—by, in effect, running their lives for them. Thus they see themselves as the “natural masters” to those many “natural slaves.” So much for that “all men are created equal” stuff!

3. The state pension crisis hits home. According to my former student Brooklyn Roberts, the Alabama state teachers’ retirement fund is, like so many other state pensions, on the brink of bankruptcy. Having taught in that system, I had a portion of every paycheck taken out and put into this fund; and since I taught there for ten years, I am fully vested in the system. So I am guaranteed by law to receive a monthly stipend when I retire. I wonder what the chances are that there will be anything to pay me once I retire. I guess we’ll need another bailout . . . .

4. Fifty-one years of graft and patronage was probably enough. The appropriations bill currently pending before the U. S. Senate apparently has a provision in it that the late Senator Byrd’s children and grandchildren would get the balance of the salary that the former Ku Klux Klan Exalted Cyclops was to receive next year. That would come to $27,628.57 for each of his seven children and grandchildren. After naming large portions of the state of West Virginia after himself, and after becoming perhaps the greatest extortionist of the public treasury in the history of the United States, perhaps we can just call it even and let his children and grandchildren shift for themselves.

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Myths of the Fall

I often disagree with Robert Reich, but nonetheless find his arguments quite interesting. From what I gather, his forthcoming book (After Shock) is going to situate the financial collapse and the troubled recovery in a longer record of declining wages (a product of the decline of manufacturing) and growing inequality (a product of these declines and changes in tax policy). I have not read the book, but I have heard Mr. Reich speculate that the decline in the savings rate and the growing levels of indebtedness resulted from the disjunction between expectations of improving levels of consumption and the stagnation of real wages for much of the population. There is likely much to this argument, although the fully developed argument would have to take a host of additional factors into account.

Having heard Mr. Reich on NPR the other evening, I dropped by his blog to see if I could find a written version of his argument. No such luck. However, I came upon his critique of the Republican Pledge in an posting entitled “Republican Economics as Social Darwinism.” Let me quote:

John Boehner, the Republican House leader who will become Speaker if Democrats lose control of the House in the upcoming midterms, recently offered his solution to the current economic crisis: “Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmer, liquidate real estate. It will purge the rottenness out of the system. People will work harder, lead a more moral life.”

Actually, those weren’t Boehner’s words. They were uttered by Herbert Hoover’s treasury secretary, millionaire industrialist Andrew Mellon, after the Great Crash of 1929.

But they might as well have been Boehner’s because Hoover’s and Mellon’s means of purging the rottenness was by doing exactly what Boehner and his colleagues are now calling for: shrink government, cut the federal deficit, reduce the national debt, and balance the budget.

And we all know what happened after 1929, at least until FDR reversed course.

I remain somewhat stunned that the standard issue story of the Great Depression and the Hoover administration continue to find an audience.  It is not as if the data is hard to find. One can go to the OMB’s Historical Tables (Table 1.1 ) and discover the following:

  • 1929: the federal government ran a surplus of $732 million
  • 1930: the federal government ran a surplus of $738 million
  • 1931: the federal government ran a deficit of $462 million
  • 1932: the federal government ran a deficit of $2.7 billion. In dollar terms, this was larger than the deficit in FDR’s first year in office ($2.6 billion)


Reich’s claim: The Hoover administration’s response to depression was “shrink government, cut the federal deficit, reduce the national debt, and balance the budget.”


The OMB’s data: As a percentage of GDP (Table 1.2), the deficit incurred during Hoover’s last year in office was 4 percent of GDP. During the decade of the 1930s,  the federal government would run higher deficits in 1933 (4.5 percent of GDP), 1934 (5.9 percent of GDP), and 1936 (5.5 percent of GDP). But its deficits would be the same as Hoover’s last year in 1935, and smaller in 1937 (2.5 percent GDP), 1938 (.1 percent GDP) and 1939 (3.2 percent GDP).

To compare Hoover’s 1932 spending record to more recent years, a deficit of 4 percent of GDP was greater than the US government incurrent from any time from 1993 through 2008. It ballooned to 9.9 percent of GDP (2009) and is estimated to hit 10.6 percent this year (2010).

The Republican Pledge suggests that we can move to a balanced budget via reductions in discretionary spending and an extension of tax cuts, with no serious discussion of entitlements (another myth worth rejecting).

I wonder if we can have serious discussions of large economic policy questions when we work with inaccurate caricatures of the past. The Left tells a story of Hoover and Mellon, champions of laissez faire, heartlessly shrinking the government in the wake of the depression and Roosevelt riding in on a white horse to save the nation’s economy.  The Right tells a story—equally inaccurate—of Great Society social engineers inflating the size of government until Ronald Reagan rode into town, explained that government was the problem, not the solution, and reduced the size and role of government, unleashing the marvels of the market and the private sector.

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Grover’s post about the 17 potential presidential hopefuls presents former Speaker New Gingrich as a member of the A-team.  Newt has always been a source of entertainment (remember the tyrannosaurus skull he had moved from the Smithsonian to the Speaker’s Office).   Now that he has ratcheted up his interviews and speeches (undoubtedly as a effort to move to the top of the A-team), we are again being graced with his unique observations. A few lines from a recent interview with National Review is attracting a fair amount of attention (e.g., see Sam Stein’s piece in today’s Huffington Post):

“What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]?” Gingrich asks. “That is the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior.”

“This is a person who is fundamentally out of touch with how the world works, who happened to have played a wonderful con, as a result of which he is now president,” Gingrich tells us.

“Keynan anti-colonial behavior?” Ah yes, the Mau Mau, secret societies, blood oaths, violent machete attacks.

All of this led me to reach to my book shelf to get my hands around the 1995 classic Newt Gingrich, To Renew America. Here Newt presented the core argument for the contract with America. Part of his discussion is on the merits of privatizing space exploration. Yes, yes… privatization is good. But Newt’s expansive mind often moves toward dimensions that many of us  would miss. Consider the following quote from page 192:

I believe that space tourism will be a common fact of life during the adulthood of children born this year, that honeymoons in space will be the vogue by 2020. Imagine weightlessness and its effects and you will understand some of the attractions.

Whether Newt’s imagination turns to the Mau Mau uprising (one can see him pondering whether Obama would seek to make Mashujaa Day a national holiday in the United States) or all the interesting sexual positions one could sample without the constraints imposed by gravity, we know two things for certain: his imagination is fertile and his capacity for self-censorship is limited.

Let the political season begin.

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In the past, I have been quite interested in “Operation Drain the Swamp.” A piece by Brody Mullins and John McKinnon in  today’s WSJ suggest that Speaker Pelosi has some additional work to do in the final months of her reign if she is going to bring the operation to a successful conclusion. According to the article, a half-dozen members of Congress are being investigated for the common practice of pocketing government funds provided to cover expenses when traveling overseas. Members receive a per diem that can run as high as $250 per day. However, the costs of travel are often covered by their hosts (foreign governments, ambassadors).

Lawmakers routinely keep the extra funds or spend it on gifts, shopping or to cover their spouses’ travel expenses, according to dozens of current and former lawmakers. …Leftover funds can add up to more than $1,000 a trip for longer visits to expensive regions.

Those currently under investigation include: G.K. Butterfield (D-NC), Joe Wilson (R-SC) Alcee Hastings (D-FL), Solomon Ortiz (D-TX), Robert Aderholt (R-AL), and former Representative Mark Souder (R-IN).

Of course, who can blame our representatives for pocketing a thousand here and a thousand there. It must seem trivial when you are used to throwing around billions of taxpayer dollars. Should any of this  come as a surprise? Read the following:

There is no system for lawmakers to return excess travel funds when they return to the U.S. and investigators may conclude that House rules for the use of per diem are unclear. One lawmaker, Sen. Richard Durbin (D., Ill.), said that he mails a personal check to the U.S. Treasury after each trip. Congress doesn’t keep any record of the amount of per diem that is returned to the government.

Elected officials design the institutions and rules by which they are governed. Anyone familiar with principal-agent problems should not be shocked and horrified by more evidence that individuals design institutions to further their own self-interest. Additional evidence? The WSJ piece ends with a reminder:  “Investigators won’t make the probe public until after the election due to a House rule that bars announcements of ethics investigations in the months before an election.”

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Glenn Beck is an interesting and frustrating character for many libertarians. So often, his arguments appear to unfold in a reasonable fashion and then they turn into a flurry of chalk dust, conspiracy theories, religious imagery and tears.

Many commentators waited breathlessly for Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally at the Lincoln Memorial this past weekend. While they assumed he would turn things into a vitriolic attack on Obama, what they witnessed has been described as something between a tent revival and a meeting of the Promise Keepers. The focus was less on public policy and Obama than on faith, hope, and charity. There is a fine piece on the rally by James Hohmann at Politico. Reason.tv has an interesting clip entitled “What We Saw at the Glenn Beck Rally in D.C.”

Initially, Beck was going to use the rally to launch what he refers to as The Plan, “specific policies, principles and, most importantly, action steps” to launch “a new national movement to restore our great country.”

In the end, Beck decided to postpone the release of the Plan. According to the Politico piece: “Without specifying why, Beck said Saturday that he came to the realization a political approach would be wrong for this occasion. He attributed part of his idea for what to do in lieu of that to a conversation he claimed he had with God.

“It was about four months ago that we were still kind of lost, and we didn’t know what we were going to do when we got here,” Beck said. “And I was down on my knees, and we were in the office. And I said ‘Lord, I think I’m one of your dumber children. Speak slowly!’ And the answer was, ‘You have all the pieces. Just put them together.’ The pieces are faith, hope and charity and looking for those things inside each of us.’”

Obviously, it is too early to critique the plan without release of the Plan.  Perhaps Beck will be content with calling his viewers to embrace spiritual renewal. His recent emphasis on the spiritual virtues (drawn from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians) could suggest that this is all he has in mind. As a Christian, I would have no difficulties in a call for spiritual renewal, although given Beck’s performances, I would also question whether he could deliver them without slipping into discussions of everything from the Bavarian Illuminati to the Bilderberg group.

But one wonders whether Beck has concluded that he is now the instrument of God’s will, preparing to lead his followers to construct the Kingdom of God on earth.  Plans to immanentize the eschaton usually involve a heavy role for the state, so one would expect that whatever is left of Beck’s libertarianism would likely be one of the first victims of the Plan.

One also wonders whether evangelicals, having learned some bitter lessons from their past flirtations with partisan politics, would be repelled or attracted by such an effort. I would guess the latter.

What is Beck up to? Should any of us care?

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Having spent a few painful hours reading through the Coburn-McCain report on the stimulus, I feel compelled to provide a few comments (I strongly suggest that loyal Pileus readers read the report themselves).

Although I have had some profound questions about the pork that was packed into the stimulus package, at least there is finally some evidence that it provided some real stimulus (good for monkeys—who receive cocaine—but bad for those who will inherit the debt).

Yes, one might poke fun at a stimulus program designed to stimulate monkeys with cocaine—the Club of Growth, after all, would have given the monkeys a tax cut. And the researchers at Wake Forest are receiving a mere $144,541, which might not be nearly enough if a comparable research project was planned for the Upper West Side.

Failed attempts at humor? Don’t fret: the stimulus has also provided $712,883 to a Northwestern University researcher for work on artificial intelligence to develop “machine-generated humor.”

But let us return to the monkey business.  There is serious and legitimate research to be done that may have implications for understanding one of the greatest problems of post-Reagan America: inequality. Consider the following program (worth a mere $677,462):

While much is known about how humans respond to inequity and injustice, researchers at Georgia State University are using almost $700,000 in stimulus funds to study why monkeys respond negatively to inequity and unfairness.“ Seven species of primates will be asked to make decisions about whether or not to accept rewards in a series of studies in which their outcomes vary relative to their social partners. The influence of social factors like group membership and individual factors like personality will also be investigated. The results of this research will clarify how decision-making is affected by unequal outcomes.” Previous research by the investigator on this project had found that “Chimpanzees respond with temper tantrums if they do not get what they desire,” and that “Capuchin monkeys and chimpanzees both respond negatively to distributional inequity.”

Having watched all of the Planet of the Apes movies, I could buy the claim that the complexity of monkey social dynamics is often under-appreciated.  But as a policy guy, my mind turns automatically to how this vital research will be used.

My predictions…

First, we will be assured that the crisis of monkey inequality–and don’t doubt for a minute that it constitutes a crisis–was inherited from George Bush and likely stands as an indictment of America’s 30 year experiment with radical deregulation.

Second, we will be scolded into accepting an obligation to overcome our speciesism and do whatever is necessary to remedy the situation. Congress will create a bipartisan commission to hold hearings on the root causes of monkey inequality and the long-term ramifications.

Third, rather than waiting to consider the commission’s report, Congress will move rapidly to produce a 2,000 page bill, including a Simian Economic Bill of Rights (nobody will read it, of course, but the bipartisan CBO will score it as revenue neutral).

Of course, none of this will reduce the unemployment rate.

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Rants and Raves

1. The state government of Massachussets is engaged in a brinksmanship battle over gambling: how many casino resorts to allow, how many slots-only casinos, etc.  Why is this up to the state government? I don’t think there is any compelling state interest here. If the owners of the relevant property, which is apparently properly zoned already, want to build casinos, why shouldn’t that be up to them? And if people want to patronize the casinos—or not—why shouldn’t that be up to those people as well?

2. I recently heard a professor of rhetoric lecturing her students about proper argument form. Her example was: The Arizona immigration law is morally wrong because it was motivated by “bias and bigotry.” I don’t presume to know what was in the hearts and minds of the people who support that law, though they are almost unanimous in denying that bias and bigotry are what motivates them. Putting that aside, I don’t think her example argument works. A law or policy might be morally right or wrong regardless of the motivations of the people who support or believe in it. People might support a good law for either the right or the wrong reasons; similarly, they might support a bad law for either as well. In fact, I would say that people’s motivations should be irrelevant to our judgment of the law: the law is good or bad all on its own—and that’s quite enough to let us judge it, without requiring us to engage in ad hominem speculations.

3. It turns out that Americans have recently been cutting back on their use of health services, apparently because they are worried about rising costs and their effects on their household budgets. Good for them! They are recognizing, as rational agents should, the price signals, relating them to their subjective schedule of values and the relative scarcity of their resources, and adjusting their behavior accordingly. If we let people be exposed to more of the costs of their own health care, similar rational allocations would further take place. Remember a couple years ago, as oil was heading north of $100 per barrel, and there was apocalyptic talk about what would happen? Then, people, as if led by an invisible hand, began spontaneously reducing their consumption. They started giving up their SUVs, buying higher-mileage vehicles, reducing their unnecessary trips. People respond to incentives. That is why markets work, if only we let them.

4. Finally, one of the most depressing and disheartening articles I have read in a long time is the cover article in the July/August issue of The Atlantic, entitled “The End of Men.” The article details just how thoroughly women are coming to dominate life in the United States, in everything from earning the majority of college degrees to dominating most aspects of family life. That’s perfectly fine by me. What I find so distressing about the article is its further claim that men are therefore increasingly irrelevant—as fathers, as breadwinners, as protectors, as moral exemplars, as defenders of honor. Men are accordingly increasingly lapsing into listlessness, immaturity, and lassitude, exactly what one would expect from a group of people who have no real purpose in life. 

Some of the choicer passages from the article:

Fathers, roughouse all you want. But we, gatekeeper moms, are in charge of the rest. We could give you detailed instruction, and you still couldn’t possibly do it as well. [...] The bad news for Dad is that despite the common perception [that he is necessary or at least important to the family], there’s nothing objectively essential about his contribution.

The increasing expectation of male incompetence is, the article alleges, leading to the increasing reality of male incompetence. This is from a female college admissions officer:

Maybe these boys are genetically like canaries in a coal mine, absorbing so many toxins and bad things in the environment that their DNA is shifting. Maybe they’re like those frogs–they’re more vulnerable or something, so they’ve gotten deformed.

That is a particularly offensive claim, I think. Men are “deformed”? The article’s author, Hanna Rosin, adds helpfully:

But again, it’s not all that clear that boys have become more dysfunctional—or have changed in any way. What’s clear is that schools, like the economy, now value the self-control, focus, and verbal aptitude that seem to come more easily to young girls.

Why are men dropping out and, as the article puts it, simply “drifting away’? The answer, I think, is embedded in this line from the article:

The women don’t want them as husbands, and they have no steady income to provide. So what do they have?

What indeed. How have we come to this sorry state? Not all is lost, of course, but growing numbers of pointless and purposeless men is bad for everyone—men, women, and children. As one of those men, and one who believes and wants to believe his life has meaning and purpose, I cannot but greet an article like this with a combination of outrage, offense, and even foreboding about the future.

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Rants and Raves

1. When I drive the speed limit through the residential neighborhoods near where I live in New Jersey, people honk at me and give me the finger.

2. I sympathize with bicyclists who complain that drivers don’t treat them with enough courtesy on the roads. But if bicyclists want to be treated “like cars,” then they should not run red lights and stop signs, turn from the wrong lanes, ride between cars, etc.

3. The other day I was riding in a bus, sitting behind two medical school students fresh from their hospital shift, still in their scrubs. They were rather obnoxiously laughing and making jokes about the patients they had seen that day. Maybe not all your patients have high IQs, and maybe some of them are somewhat superstitious about medicine, but they still deserve more respect than that.

4. A woman on a train I was taking recently was loudly regaling the person next to her—and everyone else in the car—about her sexual exploits. The graphic detail was astonishing; I have never heard someone speak so openly, proudly, and profanely about such intimate details. Other passengers in the car pretended not to hear her, even including some parents with small children. What a sad scene all around.

5. Finally, on a more serious note: Moral outrage is a scarce resource, and it should therefore be preserved and allocated appropriately. The more it is used, the less effective it will be. So, if, for example, you are going to suggest that a person is like a Nazi war criminal, or that a policy is reminiscent of Nazi Germany, remember that what the Nazis did was actually kill people. Lots of them. They did not just dislike people; they did not just inconvenience people; they did not just disrespect people or fail to accord them the regard appropriate to their inherent dignity. They rounded people up and killed them. You dishonor, disrespect, and demean the memories of the victims of the Holocaust when you suggest that anything short of literally mass-killing people is “like” what happened during the Holocaust.

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