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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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George H. Smith, in his new book The System of Liberty, gives us this explanation:

Although all of the proceeding explanations have merit, I have focused in this book on the one offered by Hayek.  In particular, I have discussed how the presumption of liberty, when not accompanied with clear criteria of defeasibility, sometimes became so diluted as to be rendered ineffectual as even a theoretical barrier to the growth of state power.  This was especially true for those liberals who placed more stress on the ‘public good’ or ‘social utility’ than they did on natural rights; and when the Bethamites later excluded natural rights altogether from the liberal lexicon, the game was essentially over.  Without this moral foundation, liberals were reduced to quibbling over what governmental measures did and did not promote the public good, when there were no longer definite standards to decide such matters from a liberal perspective. It is scarcely coincidental that those nineteenth-century liberals, such as Thomas Hodgskin and Herbert Spencer, who protested most vigorously against the incursion of state power were also strong advocates of natural rights.

Of course, one could argue that Hayek was part of the problem….

 

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Half a Century

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the JFK assassination and I am quite happy to leave the obsession with Camelot and conspiracy to the media. The photographs from 1963 seem quite quaint, like they were plucked from another era. I was two years old then, growing up in a world of stay-at-home moms, fathers who wore hats and overcoats, and mandatory church attendance. This world no longer exists, and the photographs and film clips from November 22, 1963 led me to reflect a bit on how much the nation has changed in a brief half-century.

Obviously, the changes have been far more significant than what can be conveyed in a single post.   But here are a few observations of a policy geek backed with statistical indicators that might be of interest.

1. We are a far wealthier nation today than in 1963.

Indicator: Real per capita disposable personal income (2009 dollars):

(more…)

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Reid Nukes GOP

In case you missed it, here’s some libertarian commentary on the Senate filibuster, pro and con:

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FSP Talk at Columbia

For Pileus readers in the New York city area, I will be speaking to the Columbia University Libertarians about the Free State Project at 8 PM tomorrow (Tuesday November 19). The talk will be in Hamilton 401. I’m looking forward to a lively event.

Jason Sorens at Columbia University

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Somewhere in the Pileus archives is a post I wrote about how if the lie you tell is so outrageous, the public gives you a pass.

Example 1: When the party in power in a state says, “Our goal in redistricting is not to increase our partisan advantage but is to _____________.” It doesn’t matter what is in the blank.  Whichever party is in power will pursue partisan advantage. No one expects anything different, but for some reason, we give the politicians a pass. Everyone knows it is a lie, so it is OK.

Example 2: University presidents or ADs from big football conferences like the SEC give some speech about why the reason they oppose a playoff system is because _____________.  More comical explanations are that they are concerned about “disrupting the academic schedules of their student athletes.” As if any football player in the SEC reads anything other than his playbook (OK, a few do, but you get my point). But because the lie is so outrageous, they get away with it.

Perhaps President Obama was thinking the same thing when he said over and over again, “If you like your health insurance plan, you can keep it.  Period.” Not “most of the time,” not if your plan meets the new regulations. But, “Period.”

Of course Obama knew this was an outrageous untruth. He is a very smart man. This untruth is not just an aspect of the ACA that a busy Chief Executive might have missed. A detail left to the bureaucrats. The fact that not everyone gets to keep their plan is the central mechanism that makes the individual insurance market hang together.

This is why the individual mandate to buy insurance is essential for the ACA math to work out and for the insurance industry to stay solvent. Basically, the ACA over-insures and over-charges young, healthy people (especially men) so that it can use their premiums to fund the policies of the older and less healthy. Everyone involved in the design of the plan knew that. There was never a mystery about it.

The “you can keep your plan” lie is sort like saying, “if you don’t want to buy gas for your new car, you don’t have to.”  If a car salesman were to say such a thing, he’d surely get away with it. The customer would laugh and think the salesman has a cute sense of humor.

But millions of people are not laughing now.  They didn’t realize that when the President was saying that, he didn’t mean it literally, for goodness sakes!  He meant, “many people will be made better off by this law, but some of you will be toast; I’m sure y’all are OK with that (wink).”

Turns out, not everyone was in on the joke.

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Morning Links

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The preliminary numbers are in on ACA. As By Amy Goldstein and Sarah Kliff note in the Washington Post :  “Roughly 40,000 Americans have signed up for private insurance through the flawed federal online insurance marketplace since it opened six weeks ago, according to two people with access to the figures.”

This does not include those who have signed up for expanded Medicaid, which has enrolled an additional 440,000. Without additional information, I am assuming that the majority of the 40,000 are those with significant health problems rather than the so-called “invincibles” who must sign up to subsidize their older, sicker counterparts. As Goldstein and Kliff conclude: “Unless enough young, healthy Americans sign up, the cost of coverage is likely to escalate — in turn, discouraging people from getting or keeping coverage.” This gives rise to the “death spiral” that Megan McArdle has been blogging about recently.

Official figures are due any day. However, when they are released, it is unclear how much they will reveal: “One administration official said Monday that the official figure will include people who have paid for a health plan and those who simply picked a plan and put it in their online shopping cart.” This seems more than a bit odd. Imagine if a corporation told stockholders that the revenue figures include (1) real purchases and  (2) the purchases that one might imagine would have–or could have–been made if window shoppers stepped up to the cash register.  Shareholders would be skeptical.  They would sell their stock and exit.

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The Post does it again

Another superb piece from the Washington Post on the ACA (Marc highlighted the last one a couple of days ago).  This one is from the guy who built and ran the RomneyCare exchange in Massachusetts:

A health insurance exchange is more than a Web site. It is an insurance store, and to manage it well requires insurance experience, technical know-how, and savvy marketing and sales tactics. The administration has a few months to put together a management team with these skills, dedicated exclusively to running the world’s largest store for private insurance. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services have talented staff, and Jeffrey Zients, a former budget official who’s been called up to help fix the federal exchange’s online enrollment, may be just the guy to corral wayward technology vendors. But selling insurance is not what policy analysts and turnaround specialists do. I had 45 employees dedicated to operating the Massachusetts Health Connector; California has budgeted more than 300. Who’s minding the federal store?

If the administration fails to convince hundreds of insurers that the federal exchange will do a superb job marketing their products next fall, what then?

Premiums will jump, Democrats will blame “greedy” insurers, regulators will review rates and push for price controls. And Republicans can credibly crow: “We told you so.”

If you are someone who wants to understand the scope of the challenges involved in making the federal exchange work—a really great read!

If you are a Democrat feeling vulnerable about the prospects of the Obama Administration putting the pieces together before November, 2014—not so much.

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There is an ironclad law of redistributive politics at play in the ACA (ObamaCare) fiasco.

This law is that concentrated interests almost always conquer diffuse interests.  Milk producers are a concentrated interest.  Milk consumers are a diffuse interest.  Guess which group is favored by the long history of milk price supports?  Dairy farmers get fat checks.  School teachers and plumbers and accountants pay more for milk.

One corollary to this law is that legislators try to create concentrated benefits and diffuse costs by separating the funding mechanism (taxes on all) from the supply of benefits (a local interest). Perhaps your community benefits from a community center, educational program, or a resurfaced highway.  Those projects almost always fail a simple cost-benefit test because if they made sense for local communities to do, they would just do them.  If they don’t, they seek assistance from their representatives in Congress.

When the costs and benefits of local expenditures are added up nationally, they don’t make sense.  Aggregate costs surpass aggregate benefits.  But because the benefits are concentrated in a local area and the costs are diffuse, legislators logroll (trade votes) and the projects get funded by the federal government. [Earmark reform has curtailed this process in recent years, but I remain highly skeptical that such reforms will be 1) effective and 2) persistent.]

Vulnerable Democrats in Congress are starting to panic because they are seeing the consequences of violating the law of diffuse and concentrated interests.  Those insurance cancellation letters and the higher prices faced by a portion of those shopping on the exchange are a small portion of the population (probably less than one percent), but they are highly concentrated, not to mention vocal.

If you are, for example, a healthy young man running a small start-up business, you are likely to see your rates on the individual market go up considerably, especially if you are successful enough not to qualify for a subsidy.  Under ObamaCare, the transfers from the young to the old increase, as do transfers from men to women and from the healthy to the unhealthy.

We could have a debate on whether those transfers are morally justified or not, but usually politicians are savvy enough not to send voters a bill for the transfers:

You will now pay $4,000 more per year for a policy you like less than your old one so that nice middle-aged lady with knee problems who lives across the Hall in Apartment 5F can get free health insurance. She is very nice, by the way.  She is a librarian and doesn’t make too much.  We are sure you won’t mind.

Even political hacks who aren’t too bright know that you don’t send people individualized bills for benefits going to other people.

Voters don’t like getting bills.  They like to think that other people—rich people who are better off—are paying the bills.  Voters want benefits.  That great line from a LA Times story a couple of weeks ago quotes a young woman who said, “I was all for ObamaCare until I found I was paying for it.”

Smart politicians know this law.  They don’t send bills to voters.  They just send newsletters detailing all the wonderful things they have done for their Districts and how they are trying to fight out of control spending in Washington

When the President brazenly violated the law of diffuse and concentrated interests, he illustrated the hubris so characteristic of everything he does. He thinks the ordinary laws of politics don’t apply to him.  He can strike a handsome pose, give a charismatic speech, and his problems will go away.  Europeans will give him Nobel prizes.  The media will fawn. That is how he has understood the laws of politics up to this point.

He is starting to get a lesson in what the real laws of politics look like.

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Veronique de Rugy, an economist at the Mercatus Center, has nicely created these charts below concerning U.S. Debt-to-GDP.  They visually express a lot of what our co-blogger Marc Eisner has been saying since our inception.  It is hard not to agree with Vero’s conclusion: “The only way we will begin to see an improvement in our global debt comparisons is for policymakers to focus on cutting spending and enacting long-term reforms to major government programs rather than temporary solutions.”  I’d add that we also need pro-growth policies to get us out of this bind.  My only caveat is that I’d like to see a chart with the five richest high population countries for comparison.

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What About Human Ingenuity?

National Geographic has a visually attractive interactive set of maps that shows what would ostensibly happen if all of the world’s ice melted due to global warming.  The problem with this – aside from the alarmism – is that it fails to take into account human ingenuity  in picturing what the world would actually look like.  Do we really think that we’d have to surrender all of those critical population centers without a fight?   We might not be able to efficiently save New Orleans and others places when the seas rise by 216 feet (!).  But would we really be completely at the mercy of nature?  And assuming it won’t happen that quickly, won’t we adapt over time even if the worst occurs?  This is not to say it wouldn’t be easier or cheaper to deal with climate change (assuming it will actually be as bad as many  climatologists think).  Indeed, I think we are ingenious enough that we’ll find ways to prevent the worst and adapt to the remaining problems.

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Time magazine has a short excerpt up on its website from a new book on the 2012 campaign.  This excerpt from that excerpt focuses on the Republican Veepstakes and the vetting of Governor Chris Christie:

The vetters were stunned by the garish controversies lurking in the shadows of his record. There was a 2010 Department of Justice inspector general’s investigation of Christie’s spending patterns in his job prior to the governorship, which criticized him for being “the U.S. attorney who most often exceeded the government [travel expense] rate without adequate justification” and for offering “insufficient, inaccurate, or no justification” for stays at swank hotels like the Four Seasons. There was the fact that Christie worked as a lobbyist on behalf of the Securities Industry Association at a time when Bernie Madoff was a senior SIA official—and sought an exemption from New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act. There was Christie’s decision to steer hefty government contracts to donors and political allies like former Attorney General John Ashcroft, which sparked a congressional hearing. There was a defamation lawsuit brought against Christie arising out of his successful 1994 run to oust an incumbent in a local Garden State race. Then there was Todd Christie, the Governor’s brother, who in 2008 agreed to a settlement of civil charges by the Securities and Exchange Commission in which he acknowledged making “hundreds of trades in which customers had been systematically overcharged.” (Todd also oversaw a family foundation whose activities and purpose raised eyebrows among the vetters.) And all that was on top of a litany of glaring matters that sparked concern on Myers’ team: Christie’s other lobbying clients, his investments overseas, the YouTube clips that helped make him a star but might call into doubt his presidential temperament, and the status of his health.

It isn’t that shocking to see a politician with some skeletons in his closet or allegedly trying to pad the careers/checkbooks of his cronies.  Given that Christie isn’t necessarily the candidate I’d like to see emerge from the impending Republican scrum for 2016, I’m not unhappy to see that he might have some problems from his past that will make his candidacy more difficult.  I also don’t think that voters should overlook such behavior as this only makes it that much easier for the political class to live, shall we say, differently from the rest of us and often at our expense.  So Christie certainly deserves any disapprobation he receives if these claims are true.

All that being said, I’m far more troubled by the legal ways in which the President and Congresspersons are creating ruin in our nation (HT: Smith, A.)  - and often to benefit concentrated interests in their corners at the expense of the many.  So I wish more time was spent by the media vetting the politicians behind laws like the Farm Bill and so many other forms of legal graft in our system.

 

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A magnificent quotation in the LA Times about ObamaCare courtesy of a health care provider in California:

Pam Kehaly, president of Anthem Blue Cross in California, said she received a recent letter from a young woman complaining about a 50% rate hike related to the healthcare law.

“She said, ‘I was all for Obamacare until I found out I was paying for it,’” Kehaly said.

At least one American wakes up to the fact that there are no free lunches!  Unfortunately, I bet she’d still be all for it if someone else were paying. Reminds me of Senator Russell Long‘s aphorism:  ”Don’t tax you, don’t tax me, tax that man behind the tree.”

(HT: Grumpy Economist)

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