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I know of quite a few people who harbor rather dark conspiratorial theories of how government works. There is this sense that the government possesses some malevolent genius and the technical expertise to execute the most complex strategies with speed and accuracy. Yet, I always respond: “show me the evidence.” There is ample evidence of sloppy, buffoonish, and ham-handed behavior and unintended consequences, often cloaked in arrogance and obscured by the opacity of thousand-page statutes. Of course, this shouldn’t give anyone too much cause for relief. A bully with an IQ of 80 is still worrisome. And government can still cause a lot of damage through its inattentive and sloppy actions. There is a reason why a common response to mediocrity is: “close enough for government work.”

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I predicted Oklahoma would win its case against federal exchange subsidies. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals has now ruled against the government on this issue. For more on this breaking news story, check out Jonathan Adler at Volokh.

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Ron Fournier (National Journal) has a brief but depressing piece on the state of contemporary politics, arguing that “We Don’t Suck as Much!” is the only message either party can deploy as we enter the midterms. The money quote:

This is no way to run a country. When both parties in a two-party system measure themselves not by promises kept and problems solved but by the Pyrrhic victories awarded to least-lousy combatants, you get what we’ve got in this country: Record-low trust in government, a broken political system, and a deeply disillusioned public. These may be the sad legacies of both Boehner and Obama.

All of this reminds me of the French presidential contest of 2002, where one of the slogans was “VOTEZ escroc pas fascho”—“vote for the crook, not the fascist.”

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This topic is way beyond the official remit of this blog, but what the heck, I’m hoping we’ll get some interesting comments on it.

I’ve been trying to grasp the distinction between atheism and agnosticism for some time, and I’ve come to the conclusion stated in the title of this post. My reasoning follows.

Define atheism as “the view that spiritual or supernatural entities, such as God, probably do not exist.” Define agnosticism as “the view that it is not possible to know with certainty whether spiritual or supernatural entities, such as God, exist or not.” Finally, define theism as “the view that at least one spiritual or supernatural entity, such as God, probably does exist.” (The excluded category is the view that a supernatural entity, such as God, is equally likely to exist and not to exist. I’m not sure what to call this view.)

So what is the difference between atheism and agnosticism? I do not believe that any atheist would reject agnosticism as defined here. Is there any atheist who would say with 100% certainty that God does not exist? If so, please comment with a citation. I’m not aware of one.

The more controversial statement is that most theists are agnostics. Certainly, some theists would claim that they know with 100% certainty that God exists. But I wonder if they would maintain that view if they thought about it for a moment. The only way that we can be 100% certain about any proposition’s truth is that the proposition is necessarily true or necessarily false. If God is said to exist necessarily, that means that it is logically impossible for God not to exist, that God exists in all possible worlds. We cannot be 100% certain about the existence of any object of human experience, because it is always possible, however unlikely, that our experience is mistaken. But logical necessities are true by definition, i.e., features of human grammar, not entities, not objects of human experience. However, theists believe that God is an object of human experience, an entity, not a feature of human grammar. Therefore, God cannot be a logical necessity (this is the reason why the ontological argument doesn’t work). It is therefore possible, indeed plausible, that most theists realize that they can never be 100% certain of God’s existence, and therefore that they accept agnosticism. Now, some theists will probably reject the premise that human experience is fallible. They may assert that some type of human experience, such as faith, is infallible and can therefore generate 100% certainty. This claim, of course, is impossible either to prove or to refute. So I cannot claim that all theists would, on reflection, accept agnosticism as defined here, but I think that most would.

So “agnosticism” doesn’t seem to be a very useful category, if it can encompass atheists and theists. Is there another definition of the term that would be more useful? According to Wikipedia, here are some other definitions of agnosticism:

“Agnosticism is not a creed but a method, the essence of which lies in the vigorous application of a single principle… Positively the principle may be expressed as in matters of intellect, do not pretend conclusions are certain that are not demonstrated or demonstrable.” -Thomas Henry Huxley

Well, again, who would disagree with that, besides hardcore fideists?

Agnostic atheists are atheistic because they do not have belief in the existence of any deity, and agnostic because they do not claim to know that a deity does not exist.”

Again, I know of no atheist who would not be agnostic by this definition.

Agnostic theism – The view of those who do not claim to know of the existence of any deity, but still believe in such an existence.”

Again, how many theists would really disagree with this, if “know” means “know with 100% certainty”?

Ignosticism - The view that a coherent definition of a deity must be put forward before the question of the existence of a deity can be meaningfully discussed. If the chosen definition is not coherent, the ignostic holds the noncognitivist view that the existence of a deity is meaningless or empirically untestable.[19] A.J. Ayer, Theodore Drange, and other philosophers see both atheism and agnosticism as incompatible with ignosticism on the grounds that atheism and agnosticism accept ‘a deity exists’ as a meaningful proposition which can be argued for or against.”

If these guys are professional philosophers, this must be a total bastardization of their claims. The claim that “at least one entity not bound by natural laws exists” is obviously not logically impossible. It’s not self-contradictory. There may be some definitions of deities that are self-contradictory, like “a deity is a square triangle,” but to show that meaningless claims about meaningless entities are necessarily false is not to prove that no supernatural entity in the aforementioned sense exists.

Strong agnosticism – The view that the question of the existence or nonexistence of a deity or deities, and the nature of ultimate reality is unknowable by reason of our natural inability to verify any experience with anything but another subjective experience. A strong agnostic would say, ‘I cannot know whether a deity exists or not, and neither can you.’”

Again, if “know” means “know with certainty,” who would disagree with this? We’re all (almost all) strong agnostics about everything.

Weak agnosticism – The view that the existence or nonexistence of any deities is currently unknown but is not necessarily unknowable; therefore, one will withhold judgment until/if any evidence is available. A weak agnostic would say, ‘I don’t know whether any deities exist or not, but maybe one day, when there is evidence, we can find something out.’”

If “know” means “know with 100% certainty,” then this claim seems obviously wrong. I’ll never be able to know with 100% certainty whether any other human beings exist; what evidence could possibly make me 100% certain that a supernatural entity exists?

But maybe “know” in some of these definitions simply means “be able to assign some probability value whatsoever to the proposition that.” But since supernatural entities are potential objects of human experience, we should be able to assign some probability to their existence, even if we believe we have no experience of them whatsoever. We can at least venture a guess with a very wide confidence interval. Then as more evidence comes in, we can improve the quality of our guess. The strong version of this form of agnosticism doesn’t seem to make sense either, because it does not seem possible for anyone to know with 100% certainty that there will never be any evidence either for or against the existence of supernatural entities.

In the end, I don’t understand how agnosticism isn’t either obviously true and therefore uninteresting or almost incoherent. I should like to abolish the term from philosophy of religion altogether.

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There has been no shortage of corporate enemies in the past few years. There appears to be an ongoing search for firms that can be targeted as representing all that is vile, evil and oppressive. There are some good companies out there, to be certain. For example, Ross Douthat (New York Times) describes one company that has been celebrated for its humane practices. The company

was hailed last year by the left-wing policy website Demos “for thumbing its nose at the conventional wisdom that success in the retail industry” requires paying “bargain-basement wages.” A retail chain with nearly 600 stores and 13,000 workers, this business sets its lowest full-time wage at $15 an hour, and raised wages steadily through the stagnant postrecession years. (Its do-gooder policies also include donating 10 percent of its profits to charity and giving all employees Sunday off.) And the chain is thriving commercially — offering, as Demos put it, a clear example of how “doing good for workers can also mean doing good for business.”

Of course, he is describing Hobby Lobby (“the Christian-owned craft store that’s currently playing the role of liberalism’s public enemy No. 1”). While Hobby Lobby appears to have taken the role of good corporate citizen seriously, one should not expect the empirical record to matter much.

One might argue that Hobby Lobby can’t assume the position of “liberalism’s public enemy No.1″ because it is already taken by the Koch brothers. Kenneth Vogel (Politico) has an interesting piece on the behind-the-scenes calculations involving the ongoing attacks by the Senate majority leader.  While Senator Reid’s wild claims (presented in 22 floor speeches since January) are described by staffers as Reid “getting out ahead of his skis,” Vogel describes

a highly unusual election-year campaign against a couple of relatively unknown private citizens whom Reid and his Democrats are seeking to make into caricatures of a Republican Party that, on issue after issue, caters to the very rich at the expense of everyone else.

For those who do not have Senator Reid’s expansive knowledge of Charles and David Koch, Politico has an interesting quiz that provides some useful and odd background information.

 

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I returned Sunday from the Porcupine Freedom Festival, and here’s a selection of PorcFest stories that have come out so far (I will continue updating this post over the next days and weeks – I know New York Times Magazine, Concord Monitor, and The Economist will have stories as well):

  • Union-Leader on the “DIY” theme
  • Yahoo.com: brief story on Bleish-Bush family
  • “Guns, Weed, and Bitcoin: Among the Freestaters” from Free Beacon – a fairly well-rounded piece, but mixes some ironic commentary in with the reporting and focuses on the outre
  • “Inside the Libertarian Version of Burning Man” – from the Washington Post, focuses very one-sidedly on the outre – yes, there was one guy in a loincloth, and apparently another guy had an extreme mushroom trip with no long-lasting ill effects, but what about the 200 kids and their families, the new technologies on display, the great speakers including overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne, etc., etc.? And gotta love “majority white male.” I would guess only a very narrow majority of attendees fit both categories. Basically meant to make smug proggies feel superior to scary libertarians.
  • Update: The Economist story now out – short but largely fair, despite the silly headline, & well-written (“I’m an incrementalist,” explains Jason Sorens, the subdued intellectual who dreamed up the Free State Project while he was getting his PhD from Yale. Now a lecturer at Dartmouth College in Hanover, he is eager to use New Hampshire to test libertarian theories about enlightened self-interest and reciprocal altruism, small government and large networks of voluntary institutions. “We don’t have all the answers,” he says, “but it’s worth the experiment.”)
  • Update #2: Two Concord Monitor stories

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Various

In Search of a Name

The US Patent Office has ruled that the Washington Redskins name is “disparaging to Native Americans” and the federal trademark for the name must be canceled.

If the ruling is not overturned on appeal, I would assume that this would lead to more Redskins swag on the market rather than less, at least in the short run. But ultimately, if the Redskins lose the right to market gear with their own logo, this will create powerful incentives for Dan Snyder (and other NFL owners who profit from revenue sharing) to change names.

I could imagine a few possibilities for a new name (the Washington Rent Seekers, the Washington Overlords) but I am sure there are better ones out there (suggestions?)

 

The Surveillance State

Thanks to the Snowden revelations, we have learned much about the comprehensive data collection and storage programs run by the NSA. At the same time, one might suspect that the technological savvy of the federal government is not quite as great as one might fear. Yes, the IRS loses email records (when convenient). But even more striking, the FBI’s Intelligence Research Support Unit has developed the extremely useful glossary of internet slang. Why go to  http://www.urbandictionary.com/ when you can spend taxpayer money? As the document (available here) notes: “This list has about 2800 entries you should find useful in your work or for keeping up with your children and/or grandchildren”). Caitlin Dewey (Washington Post) has a fun piece about the glossary, that was obtained through a FOIA request. Some of the selections, like IAWTCSM (“I agree with this comment so much) have been used rarely, in this case, 20 times in the history of Twitter. Others like NIFOC (“naked in front of computer”) may be used rarely (1,065 tweets) but might nonetheless be useful if you are investigating some members of Congress. Speaking of Congress, there is TLDR (“too long, didn’t read”) that might be most commonly used in connection with the legislative process (e.g., “ACA…TLDR”).

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Video of last week’s panel discussion of “Expanding Opportunity in Oklahoma,” sponsored by the Charles Koch Institute and the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, is now up.

Things got rather feisty among the three Oklahomans (two progressives and a conservative). I tried to play peacemaker on occasion.

P.S. I did not get any Koch money for participating in this panel, for those who are wondering.

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Twenty-Five Years

It is hard to believe that it has been 25 years since Tiananmen Square Massacre.

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The picture of an unidentified man standing before the tanks has become something of a symbol of the individual versus the state.

Much has changed in China over the past quarter century, particularly with respect to economic growth, per capita GDP, and life expectancies. Yet, the fact remains that most Chinese may never hear of what happened in Tiananmen Square. As the anniversary approached, access to various Google services was blocked (along with a variety of other internet services).

There is some coverage of the anniversary at Reason and the New York Times. The Washington Post has a piece on what has become of some of the key players in the protests. I often wonder what happened to the man who is pictured above (known only as “Tank Man”). Was he one of the victims of the massacre? Was he detained an executed? Is he languishing in a prison? Perhaps he escaped detention and has lived a quiet life. While the identity of “Tank Man” remains unknown, Lily Kuo provides some background and some speculation.

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Waiting for Paul

Has anyone noticed that Paul Krugman has been strangely silent on the scandal at the VA, in which there seems to be a massive fraud in the failure to accurately report the real time that veterans have to wait for needed health care.

Perhaps this has something to do with this column, in which he said:

The system in question is our very own Veterans Health Administration, whose success story is one of the best-kept secrets in the American policy debate.

And…

For the lesson of the V.H.A.’s success story — that a government agency can deliver better care at lower cost than the private sector — runs completely counter to the pro-privatization, anti-government conventional wisdom that dominates today’s Washington.

And…

Cries of ”socialized medicine” didn’t, in the end, succeed in blocking the creation of Medicare. And farsighted thinkers are already suggesting that the Veterans Health Administration, not President Bush’s unrealistic vision of a system in which people go ”comparative shopping” for medical care the way they do when buying tile (his example, not mine), represents the true future of American health care.

Paul, I’m sure, has been holed up in his office trying desperately to show how the scandal is the result of right-wing extremists who are blindly ignorant to the facts and bludgeon reality with their ignorant, ideological hammers at every opportunity.

Of course that is the basic argument of every Krugman column, whether the “scandal” at issue is climate science, banking reform, austerity policies in Europe, income inequality, etc. etc.  He cycles through his pet lists of topics, but the argument is the same–cut and pasted from one article to the next.  Even if you think that the other Times columnists are whacky, too, at least the others come up with different whack from time to time and don’t expect to get paid for writing the same column every day.

So, Paul, we’re waiting.  Should be a doozy.

 

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The European Elections

There’s been a lot of commentary in the press about last weekend’s elections to the European Parliament. Most noted has been the rise of euroskeptic and far right parties in several countries. The far left also made advances, with a Marxist party coming first in Greece and a surprisingly strong performance from a new far left party in Spain. Yet we should also keep some things in perspective:

  • As the image to the right shows, the far right and far left combined will have just over 10% of the seats in the European parliament. Other euroskeptical parties will add another 8-9% to that total. The center-left and center-right blocs are the largest, as ever.
  • European Parliament

  • The European Parliament has little power to roll back European integration in any case. The irony of the United Kingdom Independence Party’s success in European elections in Britain is that they can do very little to withdraw Britain from the EU from their seats in Brussels. Until euroskeptic parties start forming national governments, we aren’t going to see any countries seriously reconsidering European Union membership.
  • There is not a positive correlation between the level of unemployment and the percentage of the vote for the far right. Some of the high-unemployment countries, like Greece and Spain, had very strong performances from the far left, but it still seems that national economic performance did not drive far-right voting. Still, the Eurozone crisis has damaged the legitimacy of EU institutions and markets more generally. Economic decline, even when caused by government or central bank mismanagement, always seems to undermine public support for free enterprise and international openness.
  • Even in the UK, public opinion on European integration already seems to have turned the corner. In no EU member state does a majority favor withdrawal.

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Quite a few libertarians have yet to sign up for the Free State Project. Why not? One reason is that libertarians take their commitments seriously and are therefore reluctant to enter into them lightly. Yet I argue that the FSP’s Statement of Intent isn’t a commitment or a promise of any kind. It’s just a statement of what you think you will be able to do. So leave your inhibitions behind, and sign up now to help us “trigger the move” next year! Check out the whole post on freestateproject.org.

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Links

Happy Earth Day (unless you are a Republican in Congress, then it is Happy Tuesday)

The courts may force the most transparent administration in history to become transparent. How is that possible?

Beauty and the Beast (of inequality). Can we infer that libertarians think they are more attractive? Regardless of levels of attractiveness, it may be the case that many were introduced to libertarianism as fans of the band Rush

Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, is number one on Amazon (my latest book is number 2,554,705, alas). I am certain this is good for Piketty. But one wonders if this means that Capital is destined to become one of those books that almost everyone owns but few have read. Although Clive Crook is not overly impressed with Capital (despite the “erotic intensity” it has aroused), he notes that “the rapturous reception proves that the book, one way or another, meets a need.” I am not certain precisely what that need is, other than to signal to the like-minded that you are concerned about inequality.

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Montreal talk

Tomorrow (Friday) at 5 PM, I will be at McGill University in Montreal to give a talk on “The Ethics and Economics of Secession.” All are welcome. Here are additional details:

Jason Sorens PhD, the founder of the Free State Project will be in Montreal for a guest lecture at McGill.

The event is an initiative of the Youth for Liberty (Jeunes pour la Liberté) group, the local chapter of Students for Liberty.

The event is co-sponsored by McGill’s Research Group in Constitutional Studies (RGCS).

The topic for this guest lecture will be:
“The Ethics and Economics of Secession”

Address
McGill University: Ferrier Building
840 Dr Penfield Avenue
Montréal, QC H3A 1A4

Room
Ferrier 456

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Time Sink

The Sunlight Foundation has released a wonderful program (Capitol Words) that allows one to chart the number of times that members of the House and Senate have used specific words on the floor. You can chart the number of occurrences by party (try “debt” and see that both parties are concerned about the debt, albeit only when the president is from the other party). You can also compare different words (try “Koch” and “Benghazi” for example). I only wish that one could save the charts. H/t  Shane Goldmacher.

 

 

 

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Too Early?

Charlie Cook (National Journal) has some initial thoughts on the 2016 GOP candidate (his “Republican Bracket”). I always find Cook interesting. One particularly odd observation:

“Sometimes after losing two consecutive presidential contests, parties become more pragmatic and move toward the center. Other times, they double down on ideology. Logic would argue for a GOP move toward a center-right nominee for 2016.”

Question to contemplate: How can one move from McCain and Romney to the center right?

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Charles Koch’s response to the recent anti-Koch efforts on the part of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.  Jonathan Chait is unimpressed (and I am unsurprised).

The White House’s control of the visual record of the Obama presidency—a great frustration for the AP and the press corps more generally—has its limits (in this case, David Ortiz and Samsung).

Public opinion continues to shift in important ways on drug policy (Pew Research), supporting legalization and treatment over incarceration. Meanwhile, national policy continues to lag.

Now that the numbers are in on Obamacare, many advocates are declaring victory. As E.J. Dionne notes: “The fact that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) hit its original goal this week of signing up more than 7 million people through its insurance exchanges ought to be a moment of truth — literally as well as figuratively. It ought to give everyone, particularly members of the news media, pause over how reckless the opponents of change have been in making instant judgments and outlandish charges.”

I think Greg Sargent has it right when he cautions about making instant judgments based on these numbers: “The significance of the seven million number has always been overstated, in both policy and political terms. It doesn’t tell us much about the law’s long term prospects, which will turn on the demographic mix and on how the marketplaces function in individual states. Similarly, it would not have meant much for the law long term if it had fallen short of seven million.

A review of Errol Morris’s new documentary on Donald Rumsfeld “The Unknown Known.” A good sentence: “While it is unlikely that Mr. Rumsfeld would describe himself as a postmodernist, he does seem to be invested in the obscurity of truth and the indeterminacy of meaning, and to believe that what we know is constructed by language rather than reflected in it.”

Morris’s recent series in the New York Times was quite interesting. Has anyone seen the documentary yet?

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  1. Vera Kichanova, Russian libertarian (and anti-Putin) activist, says Putin will only benefit from a “new Cold War.”
  2. A new peace agreement for the Mindanao region of the Philippines has been officially signed. Here are the key provisions, with detailed explanations.

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Morning Links

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Rand Paul traveled to Berkeley to give a speech yesterday, where he received a standing applause ( likely becoming the first person to get this reception at CPAC and at Berkeley)

As Carla Marinucci (SFGate) notes:

Cheered by a youthful audience in one of the country’s most liberal enclaves, Sen. Rand Paul – one of the Republican Party’s leading contenders for the White House in 2016 – delivered a scathing rebuke to the U.S. intelligence community Wednesday, calling it “drunk with power.”

And

Paul’s Berkeley appearance dramatized his ability to fire up under-30 voters, the same group that helped put Barack Obama in the White House. Paul, however, delivers a far different libertarian message that government – particularly the agencies that scoop up millions of Americans’ phone-call and e-mail metadata – needs to be restrained.

Paul has worked hard to draw national attention to the growing panoptic power of the surveillance state. One wonders whether this will give him significant appeal to younger voters who live much of their lives through social media, texts, and cell phones. Robert Reich, who attended Paul’s speech, seems doubtful: if Paul “wants to get the youth vote, he has to change his position on abortion and gay marriage.” Perhaps. Paul believes that gay marriage should be left to the states (a position that is no different than Obama’s before Biden forced his hand). As for abortion, I wonder how salient the issue is for the under-30 crowd who will look at their cell phones when they think of what a right to privacy should entail.

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Quote of the Weekend

From Meet the Press (March 16):

GREGORY: You know, when we deal with Vladimir Putin, this issue of hypocrisy comes up. And the United Nations spoke of this this week. The United Nations pointedly criticized the U.S.’ human rights record over drone strikes, NSA surveillance, the death penalty. Does it make it hard to deal with the likes of Putin and Lavrov when you’ve got the U.N. criticizing the U.S. that way?

SEN. DURBIN: Listen, there are plenty imperfections in every government of every nation. But look at what we have here. Putin– this is the– I think the single most serious act of aggression since the Cold War.

GREGORY: Mm-Hm.

Quick Question: are there any post-Cold War acts of aggression that might be ranked ahead of  the Russians in Crimea?  Apparently David Gregory and Senator Durbin can’t think of any…or perhaps I misinterpret Mr. Gregory’s “Mm-Hm.”

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What Does FL-13 Mean?

The special election in the FL-13 U.S. House district has apparently been won by Republican David Jolly.  Here is what Sean Trende of Real Clear Politics had to say about this race before voting ended:

My sense is that the Democratic candidate, former state chief financial officer and 2010 gubernatorial nominee Alex Sink, will probably win.

Back in mid-January, I was corresponding with a left-of-center analyst about a St. Petersburg Times poll, and I commented that “53-47 Sink is about what I’d predict.” That’s about where I am right now, though I think a narrower Sink win is likely, maybe in the three-to-four point range.

We’ll discuss this more in bullet point No. 3, but this is a district that has gradually trended Democratic over the past few decades, where Democrats have an unusually strong (though still somewhat flawed) candidate, and where Republicans have a candidate who is average at best. In a swing district, that seems to be a recipe for a Democratic win.

[snip]

…this seat is politically marginal, voting near the national margin in two straight elections.  Democrats fielded a reasonably strong candidate in Sink, who had won statewide office, had very nearly won the governorship in a terrible Democratic year (albeit against a damaged opponent), and who carried this district twice in her statewide bids.  This is a profile more commonly found among Senate candidates than House candidates.

Republicans fielded a first-time candidate, David Jolly, who had served as a lobbyist and who faced a competitive primary — indeed a primary that split Young’s family. While Politico’s “airing of grievances” piece should be taken with a grain of salt — jilted/nervous consultants turn on campaigns with regularity — it does serve as a nice compendium for the public mistakes by Team Jolly.

If we must say something, it is this:  If Sink wins, we will know that a strong Democrat without a voting record, who is running in an open swing district, can defeat a middling Republican candidate.  To be honest, that’s actually a somewhat important data point for Democrats…

So, given the logic of Trende’s analysis, is the actual result a significant canary in the coal mine message for Dems?  Maybe.  One thing to note is that the full results in FL-13 look worse for Dems than what might be observed from the two party result alone since the Libertarian candidate received nearly 5% of the vote according to RCP – and Sink wasn’t exactly an obvious second choice for those LP voters:

“With almost 100 percent of the vote counted, Jolly had 48.5 percent of the vote to Sink’s 46.7 percent. Libertarian Lucas Overby had 4.8 percent.”

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George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley testified before the House Judiciary Committee this week, addressing the nonenforcement of the laws. In Turley’s words: “We are in the midst of a constitutional crisis with sweeping implications for our system of government. There has been a massive gravitational shift of authority to the Executive Branch that threatens the stability and functionality of our tripartite system.” This testimony (available here) addressed potential corrective measures. His testimony of December 3, 2013 (available here) lays out the core argument (all subsequent quotes are from the December transcript).  Nonenforcement, Turley argues, “effectively reduce[s] the legislative process to a series of options for presidential selection ranging from negation to full enforcement.”  The broader ramifications:

The current claims of executive power will outlast this president and members must consider the implications of the precedent that they are now creating through inaction and silence…. Despite the fact that I once voted for President Obama, personal admiration is no substitute for the constitutional principles at stake in this controversy. When a president claims the inherent power of both legislation and enforcement, he becomes a virtual government unto himself. He is not simply posing a danger to the constitutional system; he becomes the very danger that the Constitution was designed to avoid.

As Turley concludes (after quoting from Madison’s Federalist 51): “For decades…Congress has allowed its core authority to drain into a fourth branch of federal agencies with increasing insularity and independence. It has left Congress intact but inconsequential in some disputes. If this trend continues unabated, Congress will be left like some Maginot Line on the constitutional landscape – a sad relic of a once tripartite system of equal branches.”

Both of these transcripts are worth reading, particularly if one is concerned about the expansion of presidential powers that we have witnessed in the past few administrations.

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Our rulers, I mean. The story inspiring today’s rant is the revelation that the NSA and the UK’s GCHQ have collected millions of webcam images from ordinary Internet users, including their most private conversations.

They have no respect for our privacy, our rights, or our dignity as human beings. To agents of the state, we are just cows: good for nothing but milking, that is, mulcting.

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From the Peter Peterson Foundation:

0053_defense-comparison-full

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Assorted Links

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I was just taking in a few minutes of the Olympics when I saw a new Walmart ad touting its pledge to purchase $250 billion of American-made products (or perhaps more accurately, its  “pledging [of] $250 billion to products purchased from American factories”).  Roll the tape and see for yourself:

It is a bit odd to see Walmart pitching this “Made in the USA” message while blaring a song (“Working Man”) by the non-American band Rush!*  It really made me chuckle to see Walmart undercut its mercantilist-esque theme by choosing the best product for what it is trying to accomplish – just like most of us – and that product is made by non-Americans!

Of course, I generally don’t care where my products (or music) come from as long as they meet my needs (price, quality, etc).  Just like Walmart with its music selection, the wise consumer choooses products no matter where they come from and just says yes to free markets without any mercantilist-induced guilt.**  Isn’t it enough for Walmart to tell us that it is awesome at providing quality goods at low cost?  That is the Walmart I want to shop at (and do).  Moreover, I don’t think Walmart really cares from whence its products come – it is just trying to play to nationalist sentiment during a nationalist event like the Olympics.  But I’m not buying that product, even when produced with the help of the great power trio from Canada, Rush.

* Ok, technically Canadians and all other peoples of the Americas are American.  But we all know that Canadians hate to be confused with Americans to their south (hence the ever-present Canadian flag on their backpacks when they travel abroad).  Moreover, the term American is commonly understood to mean citizens of the USA - or put another way, members of American society (that community that resides roughly between Canada and Mexico).  So my critique is reasonable – especially since Walmart is making the “Made in the USA” argument, not the made in NAFTA argument!

** People should be allowed to choose inferior or pricier products due to nationalist/protectionist sentiments.  But that doesn’t necessarily make such choices good ones from a narrowly economic perspective.  And even if you care about American “competitiveness,” such loyalty to American-made products can, in the long run, undercut American businesses.  We’ll all be better off choosing free trade (and read that with the sound of the Rush song “Free Will” in your head).

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N.H. Liberty Forum

In nine days, the New Hampshire Liberty Forum begins. This should be by far the biggest and glossiest yet (seriously, check out the website). Speakers include feminist author Naomi Wolf, antifeminist author Karen Straughan (there will be a panel), Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne, NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, civil liberties lawyer Jesselyn Radack, creator of the Liberator 3D-printed gun Cody Wilson, FEE fellow Jeffrey Tucker, journalist Ben Swann, How Money Walks author Travis Brown, libertarian author and muckraker Jim Bovard, and many more. Ignite@LFI’ll be speaking on Thursday the 20th at 1 PM, giving the opening welcome, and at 8 PM, giving one of a series of five-minute “Ignite” talks. The conference talks place at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Nashua, NH. I believe the hotel is sold out, but the conference isn’t quite yet.

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Today is the 40th anniversary of Roe v Wade. Reason held an interesting panel in 2013 (participants: Katherine Mangu-Ward, Ronald Bailey and Mollie Hemingway, with Nick Gillespie moderating) highlighting some of the core areas of debate among libertarians.

The question of abortion has continued to spark disagreements  involving core questions of when personhood (and thus rights begin), whether a woman’s property rights in her body trump the fetal right to life (if so, abortion is evicting a fetus or, in Murray Rothbard’s terms, ejecting an unwanted “parasite”) and the applicability of the non-aggression principle.

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Here’s the latest from the new legislative session, via friends in the legislature…

The New Hampshire House just authoritatively slapped down a bill that would authorize automated license plate readers for police, 250-97. The bill had been reported out of the fairly reliably police-statist Criminal Justice committee with an “ought to pass” recommendation. Just nine Republicans voted in favor of the bill, which goes to show that in NH, civil libertarianism can be just as much a game for elephants as it is for donks. New Hampshire remains the only state in the country to forbid automated license plate readers.

The NH House will also be voting on full cannabis legalization today (watch this space for updates). Unfortunately, Democratic governor Maggie Hassan has promised to veto the bill or any other bill relaxing marijuana penalties in any way.

The NH Supreme Court will shortly hear the appeal of the scholarship tax credit case. The trial court struck down tax credit-funded scholarships for attendance at private religious schools, leaving intact the program for nonreligious private schools. Governor Hassan has weighed in with a brief urging the Supreme Court to uphold the trial court ruling, and has also said she would sign a full repeal of the program.

In other news, some New Hampshire voters are promoting a new constitutional amendment to establish a parliamentary system and abolish the office of governor.

(OK, that last one hasn’t happened yet. But give it time.)

Update: It was a rollercoaster afternoon in the New Hampshire House. The House first voted to adopt the Criminal Justice committee’s “inexpedient to legislate” recommendation on the marijuana legalization bill by a razor-thin margin, 170-168. House rules allow reconsideration of “inexpedient to legislate” and “ought to pass” motions. A motion to reconsider narrowly passed, and two legislators switched votes on the subsequent re-vote on the committee recommendation, resurrecting the bill. After further debate, the House accepted an amendment to the bill and then narrowly passed an “ought to pass” motion, 170-162. A motion to reconsider then failed overwhelmingly. Before going to the Senate, the bill will go to the Ways and Means committee for consideration of its revenue aspects. But it’s official: the New Hampshire House is the first legislative chamber in the United States to approve full marijuana legalization.

Update #2: All 11 Free State Project participants in the N.H. House voted for the bill, providing the margin of victory.

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  • Would South Sudan have been better off with international trusteeship than independence? My reaction: 1) the South Sudan civil war is likely to kill far fewer than the original civil war by which they gained independence (2 million), so independence may be better than that alternative; 2) autonomy without independence would have been a nonstarter because the central government reneged on autonomy in 1983 (recall that over 99% of South Sudanese voted for independence in 2011); 3) international trusteeship could work for a short period of time if freely chosen by the people of South Sudan, but it hasn’t worked so well where it has lasted indefinitely (Bosnia, Kosovo). Those of us who supported South Sudanese independence did so knowing that there would likely be a civil war after independence.
  • Rand Paul vs. the National Security Hawks – interventionists are struggling to find their candidate. My guess: for those for whom Christie is too moderate, it is likely to be someone with little-known foreign policy views, like a Scott Walker.
  • A Paretian cetacean solution

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Two cheers for today’s Green Wednesday in Colorado – not an environmental holiday but the day that a free highly-regulated market for marijuana comes into being.  Here is the New York Times on the historic day:

While smoking pot has been legal in Colorado for the past year, so-called Green Wednesday represents another historic milestone for the decades-old legalization movement: the unveiling of the nation’s first legal pot industry.

“It could be crazy. Or it could be crickets out there. Who knows? No one’s ever done this before,” said Robin Hackett, manager of BotanaCare in Northglenn, a suburb of Denver, who planned to have a DJ to greet shoppers.

Preparation for the retail market started more than a year ago, soon after Colorado voters in 2012 approved the legal pot industry. Washington state has its own version, which is scheduled to open in mid-2014.

Pot advocates, who had long pushed legalization as an alternative to the lengthy and costly global drug war, had argued it would generate revenue for state coffers and save money in locking up drug offenders.

Still, setting up regulations, taxation and oversight for a drug that’s never been regulated before took some time.

Colorado set up an elaborate plant-tracking system to try to keep the drug away from the black market, and regulators set up packaging, labeling and testing requirements, along with potency limits for edible pot.

The U.S. Justice Department outlined an eight-point slate of priorities for pot regulation, requiring states to keep the drug away from minors, criminal cartels, federal property and other states in order to avoid a federal crackdown. Pot is still illegal under federal law.

I give this occurrence two cheers for a number of reasons, all unconnected with the product itself given that I generally disapprove (only morally, not politically) of anything beyond very moderate use of a small class of recreational (marijuana* and alcohol, for example) and performance enhancing (caffeine, for example) drugs .

First – and quite importantly, this is another dagger in the Federal government’s drug war.  I think there is no need at a classical liberal blog to recount all of the ways in which that effort has harmed individual liberty for everyone.  If you need more convincing of this, see Radley Balko’s excellent new book Rise of the Warrior Cop.  Colorado’s (and Washington and likely soon lots of others) effort will make it a lot harder for the Federal government to sustain a big part of its fight.  No, the Feds and the whole drug war complex (and the rent-seekers within it) will not go down easily.  Indeed, the fight for real drug legalization is only in the 2nd or 3 inning.

Second, this case shows that federalism is still alive (though not robust!) and a real weapon to be wielded against centralization and the creeping (sprinting?) power of the federal government.  Since it is so hard to get positive change in Washington for anything that doesn’t increase state power and a Constitutional Convention isn’t happening anytime soon (and I’m not sure even that would be a good thing given how it would go down and the precedent it could set), states are one place where one can fight and win under the right circumstances.  It isn’t a panacea for all of the problems we face - especially given that states present the danger of what Clint Bolick once called “Grassroots Tyranny.”  But states offer a countervailing power to the Federal government and liberty often thrives in the cracks and crevices that are created from different institutions slamming into each other on a regular basis.  Sometimes one of these is even a real bulwark against the encroachment by the other (and it can go both ways as we saw during the Civil Rights Era when the security of the individual liberty of African-Americans required the Feds to confront certain states).

Only two cheers, though, since the non-political side of this (the actual ability of more people to buy pot and get high) isn’t necessarily in the direction I would have people freely go.  I have a hard time thinking that regular or high usage of pot is consistent with individual flourishing.  But I also have a hard time getting too upset about casual/irregular mind-altering substance use, else I’d be a hypocrite for consuming alcohol on a limited and irregular basis.  Here is what I wrote in 2012 on the subject:

While I don’t think marijuana use is the best thing one could do with one’s freedom, I am glad to see two states legalize it for recreational purposes.  People should be free to engage in non-virtuous acts that don’t violate the equal rights of others (and the immorality of moderate use of marijuana is debatable at best).  More importantly, I am excited about the possibility of a political clash between states and the federal government on this issue.  And in this case, the tide of history is on the side of these states and individual freedom.  The (soft) drug war has no legs even though there are a lot of battles ahead.  Federalism might not either – but at least this gives some hope to those of us who would like to see it resuscitated.

Lastly, note that conservative Republicans aren’t the only possibly threats to legalization (especially given what we’ve seen in the War on Smoking Tobacco).  From the Times:

This movement in public policy basically conflicts with the essence of bringing greater mental health and public health,” said Patrick Kennedy, a former Rhode Island congressman and chairman of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which opposes legalization.

* I’ve never used marijuana, legally or otherwise.

UPDATE: I just remembered my other reason for only two cheers.  I hate to see something that people should be fully free to do be taxed and regulated so heavily.  I’d prefer to see an absolutely free market in the marijuana trade. 

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At the end of last year, I made six predictions for 2013. How did they turn out?

1. Bashar al-Assad will no longer be in power in Syria at the end of 2013. However, the civil war will continue.

Half right. The civil war has continued, but shortly after I wrote this, the tide of conflict turned against the rebels, and Assad seems assured of retaining power for some time.

2. U.S. troops will not be sent to Mali.

Correct, although the situation in Mali remains unstable.

3. The PPACA will suffer another flesh wound when Oklahoma wins its case against the federal exchange subsidies.

No-decision. The case has yet to be decided on the merits at any level, though legal commentators are taking it seriously. I still think Oklahoma will win.

4. The sequester will not occur.

Half right. The sequester did occur for one fiscal year: FY 2013. For FY 2014 and 2015 it was reversed.

5. Scott Brown will win back a seat in the U.S. Senate in a special election.

Wrong. He decided not to run. However, he may yet run for Senate from New Hampshire in 2014.

6. An assault weapons ban will not pass the House.

Correct. In retrospect this was an easy call, but shortly after Sandy Hook it looked as if anything might happen.

Looks like 3 out of 5 — not so great, but not enough sample size to say whether I’m doing any better than random chance. Here are some predictions for 2014:

  1. Oklahoma will win its case (carry over from last year).
  2. U.S. real GDP growth will top 3% in 2014.
  3. Obama’s net approval rating will be higher on election day 2014 than it is now (-11.3).
  4. Republicans will pick up a few seats in both the House and Senate, but not quite enough to take back the Senate.
  5. Dems will retain control of the executive council and the governorship in New Hampshire, but the GOP will retain the Senate and take back the House.
  6. The Scottish independence referendum will fail by about 10 percentage points.
  7. Catalonia will hold an informal “public consultation” with multiple options, in which “independence” will win a plurality and not a majority. Without a strong mandate for any particular alternative, political wrangling will continue indefinitely.
  8. There will be no successful deal to roll back agricultural trade barriers in the Doha Round

Update: What I mean by the Catalan plebiscite’s not yielding a majority to independence is that a majority of all those voting will either vote against independence or abstain on the second question. For another example of how this can happen in a two-question referendum, see my analysis of the Puerto Rico statehood vote. The Catalan “referendum” is much better worded but could still yield no majority.

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Some must-reads to start your week:

1.  Theodore Dalrymple (aka Anthony Daniels) has an absolutely superb takedown of the new DSM-5 in City Journal.  “Responsibilitarians” (HT: Sorens) will find themselves using his arguments frequently in the current age in which practically everything wrong with us is a “disorder” that undermines our agency – though doing so won’t make you the life of the party.  Here is a nice snippet:

The DSM is ultimately an instrument for weakening human resilience, self-reliance, fortitude, and resolve. It turns human beings into mechanisms, deprives their conduct of meaning, and makes them prey to entrepreneurs of human misery.

2.  In this season of grading, one professor argues that we should get rid of the term paper.  I’m not getting rid of mine yet.  But similar to what this prof calls for as a replacement for the term paper, I did ask one class of students who performed poorly on their papers to come talk to me at length about the book which was the subject of their assignment.  I was not impressed with their knowledge of the text.

3.  AP argues that George P. isn’t a typical Bush.

 

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Channeling Thomas Ricks

If you’ve read Thomas Rick’s book The Generals, maybe you too could imagine him saying something like this in the wake of Army firing its football coach after 5 years of poor results (and 5 of the 12 straight defeats to Navy):

Lose football games: get fired.  Lose in war: no problem, business as usual.  What a country.

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Flyer Graffito

Seen in my office building:

delta my wages please

Guess they do need tutoring.

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Two recent stories from academia will shock and appall:

1.  James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal discusses “justice” for the accused on campus.  In particular, he tells the story of one Auburn student who hardly received a fair hearing from the university on the road to being expelled.  He received little due process for “committing” crimes that government courts ultimately cleared him of for insufficient evidence and lack of an accuser.  (I doubt he would have been handled this way if he played football….)

This piece is definitely worth reading in full.  Victims of crimes on campus no doubt should have the support of the university and proper access to the justice system to try those accused of a crime and to punish them as appropriate if found guilty.  However, universities are ill-suited to develop a proper justice system that respects the rights of the accused and the accuser.  Taranto nicely shows this to be the case and how Auburn really botched this one.

2.  This piece in CNN is example number the googolplexth (HT: JS) on grade inflation in higher education.  But there is one remarkable story in it that surprises even someone like me who has spent most of his adult life in higher ed:

In the mid-1970s, when I was a dean at Boston University, there were rumors that a certain professor was indiscriminately awarding a final grade of A to all his students. That was unusual back then when most professors graded on the bell curve and only a handful of the best students received an A. Some actually failed and most received grades of B or C.

But in the case of this particular professor everybody got an A. As a test, I surreptitiously enrolled a fictitious student into the roster of his next class. This “nobody” never came to class, never wrote a term paper and never took an exam. At the end of the semester the mysterious student received an A.

That led to a discussion with the professor. In a tone of righteous indignation he claimed I had overstepped my bounds to play such a trick on him. With righteous indignation I claimed that he had underperformed as a professor by acting in a reckless manner, grading his students with careless abandonment. Steam came out of both our ears. I believed his actions were a mark of failure in academic responsibility.

Unfortunately, this former dean doesn’t tell us what, if any, consequences followed for this irresponsible professor.

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Nelson Mandela has died. There will be an endless stream of articles and blog entries on Mandela in the next several days.  Most will praise Mandela and much of the praise is well deserved. But as the National Journal notes, while many will be “eulogizing him for possessing a saintly character and serving as an inspiration for people worldwide,” much of the praise is coming “from the same groups and individuals who previously had harsh words for the man who had spent 27 years as a political prisoner and went on to lead post-apartheid South Africa.” Case in point: George W. Bush released the following statement:

“President Mandela was one of the great forces for freedom and equality of our time.  He bore his burdens with dignity and grace, and our world is better off because of his example.  This good man will be missed, but his contributions will live on forever.  Laura and I send our heartfelt sympathy to President Mandela’s family and to the citizens of the nation he loved.” (more…)

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From the New York Times on one of the workers who will participate in the fast food workers’ one day strike:

Simon Rojas, who earns $8.07 an hour working at a McDonald’s in South Central Los Angeles, said he would join Thursday’s one-day strike.

“It’s very difficult to live off $8.07 an hour,” said Mr. Rojas, 23, noting that he is often assigned just 20 or 25 hours of work a week. “I have to live with my parents. I would like to be able to afford a car and an apartment.”

Mr. Rojas said he had studied for a pharmacy technician’s certificate, but he had been unable to save the $100 needed to apply for a license.

On Aug. 29, fast-food strikes took place in more than 50 cities. This week’s expanded protests will be joined by numerous community, faith and student groups, including USAction and United Students against Sweatshops.

If the license is really the problem in his attempt to move up the economic ladder, perhaps we should do away with state licensing rather than have one government intervention help solve a problem created by another?

On the other hand, if that license really is his barrier to a higher paying job and a better life, shouldn’t an entrepreneurial young man be able to come up with a hundred bucks despite that low wage?  I certainly don’t want to pick on someone in such a difficult economic spot, especially given my respect for those who work tough jobs for low pay.  So perhaps we need more microfinance here in America to help young people like Mr. Rojas?  I bet there are people who would loan him $100 if he was a good bet to really improve his life (and provide greater value for others) as he thinks he could by getting that certificate.

But I’d really like to get rid of the state licensing regime first and rely on businesses to confirm whether their technicians are properly trained and are not security risks.  And by the way, at least according to this website, that licensing fee is a very small part of the cost of getting licensed in the state of California.  Check out all of the requirements placed on these people by the state: here.

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Three years ago, I wrote about the problem of retail stores being open for business on Thanksgiving.  It is posted in full below.  As one might expect, Sears continues to open on Thanksgiving and has been joined by many other businesses trying to profit from those who can’t resist getting a jump on so-called Black Friday.  Fortunately, many Americans agree that this is probably a bad idea.

A Huffington Post poll found that “62 percent of Americans think businesses should close on Thanksgiving so workers can have the day off.”  I also found this finding heartening: “few personally plan to go shopping on Thanksgiving Day, according to the new poll — only 7 percent said that they would be shopping that day, while 80 percent said they would not. The rest weren’t sure.”

[Not sure what to make of this other result: According to the study, "only 27 percent said that they think stores should feel free to stay open if there is demand for it."  It isn't clear what this means given the likely poor wording of the original poll question -- What does it mean "to feel free to stay open"?  Does that imply blue laws?  Or that they shouldn't feel free because of public disapproval?]

As I explain below, I think businesses should be legally free to open on Thanksgiving.  And yet we should not only avoid shopping on those days but give those businesses and Turkey day shoppers our disapprobation.  Blue laws are not the answer.  Too many Americans want to politicize their tastes and moral views as it is.  Let’s not forget that there are other modes of social change available to us!

So in that spirit, I want to personally give a thumbs-down to the following businesses open most of the day tomorrow (and I’m going to try to find alternatives to them when I do shop, which won’t be difficult):

K-Mart

Old Navy

Dollar General

Many other businesses will also open tomorrow but just later in the afternoon or evening.  I fear they’ll creep into the earlier hours eventually….unless we vote with our feet and stay out of the marketplace when they do.

And kudos to the following businesses for staying closed:

Chick-fil-A

The Kittery Trading Post (whose vice president, Fox Keim, said that he was staying closed due to the store’s “core values”)

BJ’s Wholesale Club

And to many others remaining closed for the holiday.

———————–

Good Reason to Avoid Sears on Thanksgiving

November 12, 2010 by Grover Cleveland

Sears is apparently going to be open on Thanksgiving for the first time in its long 85 year history of operating retail stores.  Other similar retail stores have been open on Thanksgiving for some time, including K-Mart.

I’m glad that Sears has the legal right to be open on Thanksgiving or any other day it chooses – which hasn’t always been the case in many places given the existence of “Blue Laws.”

However, I think a good argument can be made that we should avoid such stores on certain days and even express some disapprobation for those who make the choice to shop on particular holidays.  When we frequent stores on holidays, we provide an incentive for stores to remain open on those days in the future.  What that means is that many employees will have to work while preferring to be home celebrating the holiday with their families (or being incentivized to prefer work over family by the time and a half or double time pay they might receive).  I’m sure many stores essentially poll their workers to see who wants to work on holidays and who does not (and I accept that everyone may not have my – I think common – preference to spend time with family and observe certain meaningful rituals), therefore, it may not be as bad in practice as it might be in theory.  However, normalizing days like Thanksgiving will tend to undermine the ability of people to say no as these days become, like Sunday, just another date on the calendar during which King Commerce will rule.

We shouldn’t confuse more choices with a better world despite what the “choicatarian” wing of the libertarian movement thinks.  Some options are best left, like the nasty Thanksgiving cranberry in a can, on the side of the plate and uneaten.  Of course, I’m generally not opposed to greater choices and usually think those who get upset at cereal aisles full of options are pretty silly.  But let’s not assume that “markets in everything” automatically translates into human flourishing and that satisfying all individual preferences should be celebrated even if it should be legal to do so.

Given its policy of not being open on Sundays to give employees time for “family, worship, fellowship or rest,” it is unsurprising that Chick-fil-a will not be open on Thanksgiving.  Glad to see that I can’t satisfy any desire for a chicken sandwich after a long game of football with my kids…since this might mean others won’t be able to play football with theirs.  But I’ll certainly continue to frequent Chick-fil-a on those other days, especially given its proper appreciation of the non-economic needs and preferences of its employees.

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