Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

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):


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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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I’ve listened to NPR in the car a fair bit over the last two weeks.  If I learned my economics from that station, I’d have to conclude that wealth is essentially just something that exists and is expropriated by individuals and countries.  It is a fixed pie that one either has a slice of (or two or three or four in the case of rich people and nations) or not.    Little sense that wealth is created, that liberal institutions and values are better at creating the conditions of wealth-creation than others, and that one’s piece of pie can grow without the slices of others getting smaller.  And perhaps most importantly, it is an article of faith on NPR that state action is required to remedy just about any problem (and consistent with the nirvana fallacy, only rarely is there discussion of the problems of such remedial actions and their agent).  Or perhaps I just happened to not be in the car at the times that other views were shared ( I did catch a short bit of a piece talking about a failed foreign aid project.  Fair and balanced at NPR!).

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Hedging and the Dollar

Leaving aside those of you who have rushed to gold over the last year or five, are any of our readers hedging against the future value of the US dollar by buying foreign currencies (or something else)?  If so, which ones?  Are any of you betting on the US dollar?  Why or why not?

One of the reasons I am asking is that I hear a lot of libertarians worried about future inflation.  But I want to know their revealed preferences (assuming transaction costs are low enough that it is easy enough to reveal one’s concerns through action).

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This article on the boom in companies using solar power is only one of many I’ve seen recently on the declining costs and increased usage of this wonderful sun-based power source.   It even has this nice graphic (see below).  One might even be tempted to conclude that businesses are doing good by doing well.

Solar CapacityBut I’m curious why one rarely hears about the pollution created by the production of solar panels and the environmental costs associated with solar panel disposal/recycling.  We certainly hear a lot about pollution (and disposal costs) caused by carbon-based or nuclear power sources.  Even I think about water pollution when I hear the word fracking since this negative externality has been repeated so often in discussions of this extraction method — and I’m the kind of person excited by what the fracking revolution means for the US and believe that the environmental costs have been overstated.

So, are the negative aspects of solar power discussed so infrequently because they pale in comparison to the alternatives?  Or is it because the solar business and their environmentalist allies want us to ignore the kind of accounting they insist upon for other power sources (even wind energy seems to get more negative publicity)?  Is it because production frequently takes place outside of the US so the costs are less obvious or less salient to Americans?

I’m honestly curious.   And I’d really love it if solar were truly so good that it could be less environmentally harmful and more efficient than other sources of energy.  But I’d like to hear more about the costs (other than the obvious aesthetic ones).  And of course, the government subsidies deserve more mention as well (but this is true of all energy sources, including wood!).

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Interestingly, the latter Google search yields 4.4 million hits, while the former yields just 1.9 million hits, yet the Google search for the latter redirects to that for the former, unless you tell it not to. Apparently, either term is acceptable. I find “brinksmanship” more euphonious, perhaps due to the parallel with “marksmanship.”

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Below is a selection from Abraham Lincoln’s response to Stephen A. Douglas in the first of their famous Lincoln-Douglas debates (this one occurred on August 21, 1858).  Mark LeBar, and other readers, may find it particularly interesting given his prior thoughts on supporting the troops.


And so I think my friend, the Judge, is equally at fault when he charges me at the time when I was in Congress of having opposed our soldiers who were fighting in the Mexican war. The Judge did not make his charge very distinctly but I can tell you what he can prove by referring to the record. You remember I was an old Whig, and whenever the Democratic party tried to get me to vote that the war had been righteously begun by the President, I would not do it. But whenever they asked for any money, or land warrants, or anything to pay the soldiers there, during all that time, I gave the same votes that Judge Douglas did. [Loud applause.] You can think as you please as to whether that was consistent. Such is the truth; and the Judge has the right to make all he can out of it. But when he, by a general charge, conveys the idea that I withheld supplies from the soldiers who were fighting in the Mexican war, or did anything else to hinder the soldiers, he is, to say the least, grossly and altogether mistaken, as a consultation of the records will prove to him.

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The title is from Fergus Cullen’s latest editorial in the New Hampshire Union-Leader. Here’s a taste:

A dilemma for conservatives is that to advance the cause of limited government, some of them have to join government and pass laws. Ironically, the most active state legislators come from the libertarian wing of the Republican Party.

Rep. J.R. Hoell, R-Dunbarton, who was on Ron Paul’s New Hampshire delegate list last year, has filed 21 legislative service requests, or proposals for new laws, more than any other state legislator. Rep. Dan Itse, R-Fremont, a six-term legislator well known for his literal interpretation of the Constitution, is second with 19. Rep. George Lambert, R-Litchfield, another Ron Paul supporter, submitted 17 LSRs, tying him for third with Manchester Rep. Tim O’Flaherty, the most active Democratic bill filer. Privacy watchdog Neal Kurk, R-Weare, is fifth with 13 new bills. Reps. Dan and Carol McGuire, R-Epsom, who are members of the Free State project, combined for 14 proposed bills.

For more, go here.

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At least according to the New York Times, not so well:

Libya has collapsed into the control of a patchwork of militias since the ouster of the Qaddafi government in 2011.


Since the overthrow of Colonel Qaddafi, Tripoli has slid steadily into lawlessness, with no strong central government or police presence. It has become a safe haven for militants seeking to avoid detection elsewhere, and United States government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential information, have acknowledged in recent months that Abu Anas and other wanted terrorists had been seen moving freely around the capital.

I’m shocked, shocked to see the Obama administration’s policies backfire.  This is what happens when the do-gooders and revolutionaries, rather than realists, get to drive.  Keep this in mind since those folks never seem to get too far from the wheel.  And we are the wacko birds?

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Negotiation 101

I find this quote rather revealing: 

“We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.” Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.)

 Perhaps Rep. Stutzman could benefit from the advice of the Stanford Business School. The first pitfall to avoid in negotiation:

1. Poor Planning: Successful negotiators make detailed plans. They know their priorities — and alternatives — should they fail to reach an agreement. You must know your bottom line, your walkaway point. In addition, you need to understand time constraints and know whether this is the only time you will see your opponents in negotiation.

As things stand, one side refuses to negotiate and the other side has no idea what it would want to get out of a negotiation.  This remains a fascinating situation.

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A new study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology suggests that social and political activists may be harming their own causes.  Here is a piece in the Pacific Standard that highlights the study and summarizes its finding thusly:

Why don’t people behave in more environmentally friendly ways? New research presents one uncomfortable answer: They don’t want to be associated with environmentalists.

That’s the conclusion of troubling new research from Canada, which similarly finds support for feminist goals is hampered by a dislike of feminists.

Participants held strongly negative stereotypes about such activists, and those feelings reduced their willingness “to adopt the behaviors that these activities promoted,” reports a research team led by University of Toronto psychologist Nadia Bashir. This surprisingly cruel caricaturing, the researchers conclude, plays “a key role in creating resistance to social change.”

Or as the study itself notes:

Ironically and despite good intentions, therefore, the very individuals who are most actively engaged in promoting social change may inadvertently alienate members of the public and reduce pro-change motivation.

This is probably not that surprising to many libertarians who have seen “civilians” turned off by their fellow libertarians, especially Randians, Free Keeners, and drug legalization advocates, who act in socially inappropriate or off-putting ways.  Repeat after me: public displays of nudity in the town square are not going to make people excited about the ideas espoused by libertarians.  It might be fun to do (political activism as consumption behavior), shock Mom and Dad (political activism as rebellion), or show your purity (political activism as religious signaling).  But it isn’t all that likely to make people want to join your cause – and may help create negative stereotypes that harm it.

And now we have some social science research to support my own position that we have a better chance of winning if we make the case for liberty calmly, rationally, and with a good sense of humor (and intellectual humility).  This will be aided by not dressing like a radical, even donning a tie, and maybe even bringing the non-political wife/husband along* to show you are a relatively “normal” person who has been able to convince at least one other person to freely associate with you!  Being rude, looking scrubby, and libertarian-logic-weed-guns-ban-pineapple-politics-1364612547smelling of pot probably isn’t going to win the day.  And yes, I’m engaging in grossly wrong stereotypes.  But the fact that these exist (and we know they do – just see to the right of this post one among many internet images mocking libertarianism), even if untrue, could mean a lot to the cause of liberty given the findings of this study.

Indeed, I may type up an IRB request soon to try and see if this research works with libertarians.

* Be careful using kids for this purpose unless they are old enough to be consenting adults.  I don’t like to see kids manipulated for the political causes of their parents.  So at least keep the kids from holding signs if you must drape them around you when you campaign for yourself or your cause.  The exception is showing your children on campaign literature since it signals important information about the person running (especially that the person may discount the future less than those without children).

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A Fine Metaphor

This ad is quite amazing (and yes, more than a bit creepy). While it is focused on Obamacare, it seems an apt metaphor for NSA surveillance and so much more.

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A real abstract from an article in a new journal on critical security studies:

We offer a provocation – that we should stop appending ‘Critical’ to ‘Security Studies’.  Critical security as an academically and politically contested terrain is no longer
productive of emancipatory alternatives. In making this claim, we seek to reflect upon the underlying dynamics which drove the boom in critical security studies in
the 1990s and the early 2000s and its pale afterlife in the recent years. To support the argument empirically, the attention is paid to the role of emancipatory agency at the
heart of critical security understandings. As we argue, the current state of ‘critical’ security theorising is no longer informed by the emancipatory impulse of the 1990s
and the critical claims have been much damaged by the retreat of liberal internationalism and rise of non-emancipatory and post-emancipatory approaches. The critics that
remain in the field thus articulate much lower horizons with regard to policy alternatives and conceptualise no clear agency of emancipatory possibilities. Ironically,
‘critical’ security theorists today are more likely to argue against transformative aspirations – rather than in favour of them.

I have a fairly high tolerance level for academic jargon and complex writing.  But this overwhelmed me.  I’d also add that the prevalence of this type of work in Europe helps explain why European political scientists are so often ignored.

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Monday Links

The weekend is over and a new week begins. Here are a few links to fill those empty hours in the office:

For those who continue to dismiss Carter’s leadership in times of crisis, here is a story of one of his successful campaigns against an invading force (complete with body counts).

Obama to visit Ford plant to highlight industry turnaround. Interesting choice, given that Ford refused to participate in the bailout (even if it may have benefitted, according to the Car Czar Steve Rattner)

The resolution on the Affordable Care Act passed by the AFL-CIO is quite critical of Obamacare. The good news for the administration: things could have been far worse absent White House Intervention.

Meanwhile, Harry Reid and Barbara Boxer float draft legislation that would ban senators for receiving government contributions for their health insurance cost if there is “probable cause” they solicited prostitutes. Senator David Vitter is not amused.

Larry Summers withdraws consideration as next Fed Chair. The markets rally. As for the next Fed Chair, Donald Trump and Elizabeth Warren share the same preference.

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Ronald H. Coase, RIP

Ronald Coase has died at the age of 102.  Many scholars in law, economics, and public policy benefited greatly from Coase’s insights. His 1960 paper “The Problem of Social Costs” is one that I have assigned annually in several of my courses and it has always given rise to some lively discussions. There is a nice overview of Coase’s life at the University of Chicago Law School.

By the way, Coase’s last book, How China Became Capitalist (coauthored with a former graduate student) was published when he was 101 years old.

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Congress and Syria

So nice – in one sense* – to be talking about whether Congress should authorize the use of force and to think the outcome actually might matter.  But now that Congress is in the driver’s seat, I encourage you to participate in the democratic process by contacting your representative and letting him/her know your opinion on the subject.**  Here are the phone numbers you’ll need: House and Senate.

* I, of course, wish that there was peace/justice/liberty in the Middle East and there would be no issue at all to discuss.

** Pileus as an entity is not taking a stand on any particular piece of legislation before the US Congress.  Indeed, we might disagree about this particular matter.

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In many ways, Presidents Obama’s speech reflects well on him and his administration. Indeed, I think it was among his best since it wasn’t just about relatively meaningless sentiment but a nice mix of political thought and policy detail.  Plus it is the right thing to do regardless of how we feel about the particular case at hand.  However, I think that he decided to go to Congress largely because he was shamed into doing so by the British example which showed us how a democracy ought to behave when it comes to the decision to go to war.  But (and more) importantly, the result will be one more consistent with the rule of law given that the U.S. Constitution demands that Congress authorize the use of force (whether in terms of a formal declaration of war or otherwise). 

If we wish to remain a government under law and one acting consistent with the enumerated powers of the Constitution, the President cannot simply make this decision on his own.  Indeed, consultation with Congress is not enough to satisfy the law of the land.  (I even consider the War Powers Act – the one that many Republicans and conservatives consider to be too binding on the executive branch – to be unconstitutional because Congress itself cannot surrender to the President an ounce of its enumerated power in this area).  Given this, I found the opening clause of the following statement in the President’s address to be flatly wrong and inconsistent with our Constitution:

Yet, while I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective. 

The second part of the sentence is probably true and thus the President’s decision to ask Congress for approval is quite welcome.  However, it would have been a great moment in the history of our country – and a critical step back to the original Constitutional order – if he had accepted without reservation the necessity of seeking Congressional approval before a President can use force (except in the case of an actual or imminent attack on the United States).   Indeed, it would have gone down as perhaps his greatest act as President; he could have turned the tide on the imperial presidency that candidate Obama derided only a few years ago. 

Nonetheless, those who demanded that the President seek Congressional approval have won this battle and hopefully it will set a precedent through which we can win the war (though the same Constitutional order invites Presidents to violate it given the blunt instruments Congress has to defend its powers against a grasping executive).  So thank you Mr. President. 

Now onto the battle over what Congress should or should not authorize…


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No, this isn’t about Jason’s righteous holy war against feral cats, here and here.* 

But kittens do enter into the best paragraph I’ve read today.  The context for it is the New York City mayoral race.  Apparently the NYC subway was recently shut down for 90 minutes to protect two little kittens that were on the tracks.  The candidates were subsequently asked if they would shut the subway down for this reason - with all of the candidates except one falling overthemselves trying to appeal to cat lovers (and show their kind hearts to the rest of us): “Christine Quinn said she would. Bill Thompson said he would “work” to save the kittens. Anthony Weiner said he wouldn’t just shut down the subway, he’d personally crawl across the third rail to rescue them. John Catsimatidis submitted a few noncommittal lines of poetry.”

This provoked this wonderful paragraph from Slate writer Josh Barro:

It’s a microcosm of this whole campaign, in which the candidates run around making big promises with no apparent acknowledgment of the city’s tight finances, or of the fact that policy choices involve trade-offs, or even of the mayor’s lack of control over certain policy areas, like income taxation, rent control, and anything the MTA does. Yes, the candidates say, I’ll save the kitties, I’ll make the Wall Street fat cats pay for it, and I’ll give you a middle-class tax cut while I do it. Only Lhota gave the correct answer: No, you do not strand thousands of New Yorkers for 90 minutes in a futile effort to herd two cats whose lives we are inexplicably prioritizing over the rats who are run over, or drowned, or exterminated in the subways every day.

Josh Barro for mayor of NYC?!?

* BTW, Jason and I both respect the lives of animals.  I think I can speak for Jason and say that we do not think the concerns of animals should be entirely subjugated to the needs of human beings.  Moreover, I will not take the life of an animal without good cause.  However, this does not mean that animal control is unnecessary or inhumane (especially to protect the lives of other animals, especially birds and reptiles).

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As reported in the Weekly Standard, Nadler announced this today:

The Constitution requires that, barring an attack on the United States or an imminent threat to the U.S., any decision to use military force can only be made by Congress — not by the President.  The decision to go to war — and we should be clear, launching a military strike on another country, justified or not, is an act of war — is reserved by the Constitution to the American people acting through their elected representatives in Congress. 

Since there is no imminent threat to the United States, there is no legal justification for bypassing the Constitutionally-required Congressional authorization. “Consultation” with Congress is not sufficient. The Constitution requires Congressional authorization.

The American people deserve to have this decision debated and made in the open, with all the facts and arguments laid out for public review and debate, followed by a Congressional vote. If the President believes that military action against Syria is necessary, he should immediately call Congress back into session and seek the Constitutionally-required authorization.

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Great piece by John Fund today highlighting a lot of themes we’ve discussed here in relation to the war in Libya and the potential for war in Syria.  This section and the point by Marsh just left me stunned:

Oh my, how liberals have learned to love the imperial presidency they used to so scorn when Richard Nixon or George W. Bush was in office. Last night, I appeared on Lou Dobbs Tonight with Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic consultant whose clients have included the late Ted Kennedy and John Kerry, our current secretary of state. Armed with the latest Democratic talking points, she dismissed any need for Obama to consult with what she dismissed as “a special Congress.”

Marsh is worth quoting at length:

There is a special Congress that we’re dealing with right now that has the lowest popularity rating in history and Republicans who overwhelmingly would oppose taking any action. The president of the United States cannot be handcuffed by the same Republicans that are holding the rest of the country hostage on every other issue. That is wrong.


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This piece from the Economist discusses subjects dear to my heart – the importance of geography and how different cartographic projections can distort our understanding of the world.  And here is a cool map that shows how big Africa really is:


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Time magazine reminds us that President Obama had this to say about the use of military force back in 2007 when he was candidate Obama:

In 2007, Barack Obama was asked when Presidents have the authority to launch a military strike without congressional authorization. He had a precise answer at the ready.

“The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat,” Obama told the Boston Globe.

Joe Biden thought such an action would warrant impeachment.  I guess by Presidents, they meant only Presidents named Bush.  

Wow, I’m shocked that candidate Obama was a lot better than President Obama (just like I was shocked that candidate Bush in 2000 was better than President Bush  – indeed, better than both of them!).  Let’s remember this the next time we fall in love with any particular candidate for President.*
* Though I can imagine Rand Paul backsliding less than most – or at least backsliding more on the conservative things he’ll have to say to win the nomination.  I could live with that scenario for sure!

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I would oppose the use of military force by the U.S. against Syria no matter the process that the administration uses to justify/initiate any act of war.  It simply isn’t in the national interest for the U.S. to get involved in a civil conflict such as this one.  But even if you think it is important for the U.S. to intervene, doesn’t it make sense that President Obama should – at the least – be consulting with Congress and seeking its approval.  There is absolutely no rush to use force.  No one is suggesting that the U.S. is in any imminent danger of being attacked by Syria and thus there are no speed considerations like in actual national defense.  Moreover, nothing I’ve read in the papers suggests that the Syrian opposition is about to collapse (assuming that the U.S. has an interest in keeping the opposition alive).  So what is the rush?  Didn’t the Founders specifically empower Congress in this area so that, among other things, a reasonable discussion of the issue could be had by our representatives (and through the discussion, a wiser policy formed)?

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I happened upon this video clip in the midst of some research on another subject.  Despite the Cold War and the box that was (is) the basic hegemonial worldview of American elites then (and now), it would have been nice if Reagan had chosen the option of unabashedly criticizing both the fundamentalist regime then in place and the Shah’s brutal government.  Here it is (including the cringeworthy “whatever he might have done….” line):

BTW, I don’t know the source that posted the video (so it could be a pro-Iran group) nor am I pleased with how it is cut at the end.  But the video is noteworthy for those interested in Cold War history.  I tried to find another version but the only other one I could find on the web was also cut the same way.  If someone has the whole clip (to see if Reagan did criticize the Shah), please send the link along.

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In the past, there have been a number of Pileus postings on graduate school and the state of higher education (here, here, here, here, here, and here). Today’s installment focuses on President Obama’s new proposal for a  rating system “to evaluate colleges on tuition, the percentage of low-income students, graduation rates and debt of graduates” (Washington Post). The rating system would be reinforced by changes in the allocation of federal financial aid. While the former could be accomplished via executive action, the latter would require statutory changes. The goal is to bend the old cost curve. The ratings and changes in federal funding could create incentives to control costs, which have grown at an obscene rate and forced families and students to incur high levels of debt. It would seem to be a political winner regardless of political party.

The Washington Post article predicts that there will be resistance from higher education institutions and it will be difficult to create a consensus on the core indicators. As the president of the American Council on Education notes: “It is hard for me to imagine there is a … system that we would all nod our heads to and say, ‘Yes.’” Does this matter? The most influential rating system (U.S. News and World Report) uses a number of indicators that many in higher education find odd, to put it mildly. But they are closely watched by university presidents and boards-of-trustees anxious to make the changes that would help elevate their institutions in the annual rankings.

Certainly, more information is better. But as noted in earlier postings on this topic, there is a lot of pressure to contain costs and one of the easiest routes will be to substitute contingent workers (the adjuncts, visitors, and grad students) and MOOCS (massive online open courses) for tenured professors.  Ultimately, all of this could help control the costs of higher education. Society wins.  But it does not bode well for those dreaming of an academic career or at least an academic career in the traditional sense.

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For those like me who think macro-variables are most important to the outcome of national political campaigns, a new book by two political scientists will warm your hearts (even if you wish the election had turned out differently).  The book, by John Sides and Lynn Vavreck, is titled The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election.  Here is a relevant point in a recent LA Times review:

As Vavreck and Sides say, there were no “game changers” in the 2012 campaign but instead a lot of “game samers.” The country began the election season divided between partisan camps and ended it that way. The economy grew slowly but fast enough to make the incumbent the favorite. The rare moments of drama — the videotape of Romney disparaging 47% of the population as “takers,” Obama’s listless performance at the first debate — actually moved relatively few voters and largely canceled each other out.

Of course, this still doesn’t justify the silliness of Republican party insiders and primary voters choosing the godfather of ObamaCare as its standard-bearer (not to mention all of the other big negatives about Romney).  It just tells us any Republican would have had a steep climb and that campaign horse races are less important than the punditocracy make them out to be.

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Eric Crampton has responded to my commentary on New Zealand (as one of two places with better long-term prospects for liberty than the United States) on his blog, Offsetting Behaviour. In essence, he says he has changed New Zealand from a “buy” to a “hold,” citing some recent policy developments of concern. These policy developments are indeed concerning, but my only comment is that most (but not all) of them have to do with chipping away at the edges of freedoms (speech, privacy) that well-informed Americans would consider bedrock-fundamental — but generally not bread-and-butter issues of personal well-being. The symbolism is bad, and the precedent even worse, but the immediate effects for most people are unclear.

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[Cross-posted here.]

Dear Friends, Students, and Colleagues:

I have accepted a new position and will be leaving Yeshiva University. As of September 1, 2013, I will be the executive director of the BB&T Center for the Study of Capitalism at Wake Forest University.

This is a tremendous opportunity for me. The Center is beginning its sixth year of existence, having been funded by continuing support from the BB&T Foundation. The Center’s mission is to encourage the study of capitalism in all its facets, and, more generally, to explore the institutions that enable human flourishing. We want to know how a society of free and responsible persons can live together peacefully, and we want to examine the political, economic, moral, and cultural institutions that encourage prosperity and humanity. 

Wake Forest’s motto is “Pro Humanitate,” which is usually translated as “for humanity.” But the Latin word humanitas is much broader, and deeper, than what the English word “humanity” usually means today. It indicates not only human beings, but humane life. It denotes a distinctly human virtue whereby people treat each other with the respect, dignity, and compassion that humanity requires. In this way, “Pro Humanitate” means something like: “in the service of promoting a fully humane life for all.” That captures perfectly the mission of the Center for the Study of Capitalism. 

I emphasize that the Center’s name is “Center for the Study of Capitalism,” not the “Center for Capitalism.” That is a small but momentous distinction. We are interested in figuring out what these prosperity-enabling institutions are, and promoting them, whatever they are. Our investigations will thus be nonideological and nonpartisan. Capitalism has been a source of tremendous, even unprecedented, prosperity; like all human institutions, however, it is not perfect. We will want to examine it disinterestedly, understanding and exposing both the good and the bad, and then promoting the former and discouraging the latter. In other words, the Center’s work will be not only rigorous but serious. There is too much at stake to take any other stance.

For those of you who know me or my work, you will recognize that these are my own central scholarly and intellectual concerns. So this position is a great fit. 

We also hope to create a true intellectual community comprised of people from various disciplines and perspectives who are united in their commitment to the spirit of the Center’s enterprise. If you are a person who shares our sense of purpose, and might like to associate with us somehow, donate to us, or just keep abreast of our activities, please reach out to me and let me know.

As excited as I am to begin this new chapter of my career, I must also admit to some sadness to be leaving Yeshiva University. Before all else, I will miss my students. As I have had occasion to say to many people in many forums, the students at Yeshiva are outstanding—unlike any others I have encountered elsewhere. Their seriousness of purpose, their intelligence and diligence, and their genuine interest in ideas, all combined with a typically light, even humorous disposition, have made them a delight to work with. Every day I have learned something new from them, and every class I taught they kept me on my toes. 

To my students: It has been my honor and my privilege to work with you, and to make whatever meager contribution I could to your development. You have demanded the very best from me, and I have willingly given it; but you have given me your best in return, which has made everything more than worthwhile. A professor could ask for no more from his students. I thank you for what you have given me.

James R. Otteson

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Population paranoia

I just read an article in the NY Times about Germany’s fight against population decline.  For a professional demographer, the article is old news and a bit funny because of all the countries that are facing this problem (which is the whole developed world and some of the developing world), Germany is sort of the definition of “the least of our problems.”

I participate in meetings of academic demographers quite frequently, and I don’t think I have ever seen any panel on the problems of overpopulation (though I don’t study fertility).  Demographers long ago shifted their focus to the problem of sharp declines in fertility and the associated problems that occur when a population cannot even replace itself.  Some of those problems are economic, but they extend well beyond that.

When reading the article, I was betting, however, that readers who comment on the Times articles would all be upset, since much of the world is still stuck in the 1970s and the pseudo-problem of the population bomb.  Yup.  If you want a good laugh, read those comments, full of warnings about overpopulation, environmental catastrophes, resource depletion (fracking party, anyone!), silly references to the carrying-capacity of the planet, and our finite resources, and you will think  you entered into a time portal taking you back 40 years.

So, dust of your copy of Limits to Growth or the Population Bomb, and grab your disco shoes.  You are in for a good laugh.


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