Saturday, January 28, 2006

Justifying Earmarks

The Washington Times:
"Some members have proposed a ban on earmarks, but top Republican leaders such as House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois have defended the practice.
'Who knows best where to put a bridge or a highway or a red light in their district,' he said in a radio interview with Michael Reagan this week. 'We need to change how we do earmarks, we need to do it in the light of day and not the last minute type of situation, but I think we can do some reform on that and still serve what's in the best interest of the American people.'
In a column yesterday in Roll Call, a newspaper covering Capitol Hill, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis, California Republican, said giving up earmarks would end the congressional power of the purse.
He has proposed putting a cap on the number of earmarks allowed per member, and requiring that the requester submit a letter that would be printed in the Congressional Record.
But earmark opponents like Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, said capping the total number of earmarks would just mean lawmakers ask for bigger-ticket items.
The Congressional Research Service said earmarks have grown from 4,126 in 1994, the year before Republicans gained control of Congress, to 15,268 in 2005. "
Wow, what an interesting criterion? Who knows best, eh? I would not want to answer this question by saying that I expect a member of Congress knows best where to spend money back home. Actually, I think the best answer to the question is to let the taxpayers keep their money to begin with. I think I know best how to spend my money? How about you? Perhaps if the members of Congress want to spend their own money on the earmarks, then I could go along with the practice. As it is, I think earmarks are a substantial abuse of Congressional power.

Political Preferences of Economists

Todd Zywicki posts on observations on the political stripes of economists:
"The latest issue of Econ Journal Watch is out and I wanted to call readers' attention to a couple of articles in particular.

William McEachern of the University of Connecticut has an article presenting evidence on the campaign contributions of 'American Economic Association Members, Committee Members, Officers, Editors, Referees, Authors, and Acknowledgees.' Subject to obvious caveats about the nature of the data set, McEachern finds that in the AEA generally the Democratic to Republican contribution ratio is 5.1 to 1 and that on average contributions to Democrats were approximately 20 percent larger than to Republicans. He also finds that about 10% of the editors of the American Economic Review contributed to candidates (9 out of 84 Americans), and of those, all of them contributed to Democrats. McEachern similarly studies the editors, referees, etc., of the Journal of Economic Literature, and Journal of Economic Perspectives. He concludes by asking whether it is possible that the ideological orientations of editors and referees have the potential for influencing their opinions as to the quality and relevance of various articles.

Dan Klein follows-up with an an essay on the possible implications of McEachern's research (and that of others) for the professional practice of economics. Klein makes the provocative argument that the editorial leadership of the AER's various journals may be reflected in the pattern of articles published there. These journals are among the most prestigious in the profession, so there is some import from this. Klein suggests that the ideological predispositions of the editors is reflected in the type of articles that are accepted and published (his argument that McEachern's data reflects itself in the articles published is largely anecdotal). Put crudely here (and with more nuance there), Klein suggests that 'liberal' economists who serve as editors of the AER are less likely to publish articles that are critical of interventionist economic policies."
I don't know if this specific concern with respect to editors makes sense or not. I do wonder if concern about the wider political preferences of economists would be worth considering.

It seems to me that many economists are not very careful these days to keep their positive analyses separated from their normative analyses. The old principle that economists as economists would not recommend the value judgments used to choose alternative policies, but instead would merely develop the implications of different value judgments, seems to have fallen by the wayside. Many times I've read an economist writing about the efficiency implications of public policy as though their analysis is positive in character, and not normative.

Now consider something Arnold Kling writes about a new book by his fellow blogger Brian Caplan:
"For Caplan, the 'wisdom of crowds' only applies in market settings, where people have the incentive to make rational choices. When it comes to voting, we have majority fools.

Conventional wisdom says that democratic choices are good ones. Caplan, correctly in my view, says otherwise.

Conventional wisdom says that when there are market imperfections, government should step in, implicitly assuming that government is carried out by welfare-maximizing omniscient technocrats. Caplan, correctly in my view, suggests that we should worry about government, because ultimately it is driven by irrational voters."
The idea I note here is that there is an implicit assumption that "government is carried out by welfare-maximizing omniscient technocrats." I can't prove my intution here, but I think many economists seem to harbor this assumption in their normative analyses of the economic efficiency of markets and of public policies. If we also assume that the Democrat political party tends to view government is this way, then perhaps one could justify at least a little concern in the observation that a majority of economists seem to be of the Democrat political persuasion. Of course, there should be less, or little concern, to the extent that economists write about public policy with very explicit statements about their normative views and value judgments.


"So what can be done, apart from denying Congress the money in the first place by keeping taxes low? Representative Jeff Flake of Arizona and Senators Tom Coburn and John McCain have one good idea, which is to bring more transparency to earmarking. They would require that every earmark be specifically included in the text of the legislation Congress is voting on. We'd also like to see a requirement that every earmark list its main Congressional sponsor and its purpose (other than to re-elect the Member)."
Are you kidding, right now earmarks aren't even required to be written into the text of the bill being voted on? So, as it stands now, a member of Congress can pick out a project and or a recipient to get our tax dollars, and he or she isn't identified and doesn't even have to have the earmark written down to have it voted on.

Why isn't this the big Washington political scandal?

Friday, January 27, 2006

Congestion & Colorado

Gary Lindstrom member of the Colorado House and candidate for governor:
"'The worst thing we can do is widen the highway,' he said. 'We need to keep the congestion so people will be interested in the transit.'"
This seems like a pretty interesting policy position to take. Would it be fair to say this position amounts to the following: "I know people don't like to drive in congestion. But, I don't think our public policy should be to expand capacity and reduce congestion. Instead I think we should wait while congestion tightens travel on this highway even more, and then maybe we can get enough support to build transit, something the people really don't want to use."

Of course, the congestion problem is not easily solved by expanding the highway's capacity either. After all, if there is no single-use price for using the highway, the quantity of use demanded for the highway is going to be very large.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Senate Competence and Confirmations:

Todd Zywicki:
"Put otherwise, I think it is an open question as to whether the Framers would have entrusted the advice and consent power to the Senate in the same manner had they known that eventually Senators would be elected directly by the people in partisan elections, and as a result, the nature and tenor of the confirmation process would deviate so dramatically from what was originally anticipated."

I think this is a very interesting question to ponder.


The recent Abramoff scandal has increased awareness of corruption in politics. Perhaps the lessons to be learned from this most recent scandal are not quite what they appear to be based upon most of the discussion. Consider a recent commentary by John Fund :
"In the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal, It seems everyone has discovered the excesses of pork-barrel spending. Voters may now be disgusted enough to make the political costs to a member seeking pork greater than the benefits.

Mr. Abramoff was a master at deploying his lobbying shop to get his clients earmarks, or spending projects that members of Congress directly request for a specific use or beneficiary. While some earmarks are worthy items that simply didn't make a bureaucrat's priority list, many others are howlers such as Alaska's infamous "bridge to nowhere." Abuses can easily happen, since the number and dollar value of earmarks have quadrupled in the last decade. Many of the 15,000-plus earmarks Congress passed last year were quietly slipped into last-minute conference reports. Members thus had no opportunity to debate, amend or question them. That's how the federal transportation bill finances a $3.5 million horse trail in Virginia and a $50 million indoor rainforest in Iowa."
It's kind of hard for me to imagine that our Constitution is consistent with the practice of earmarks. It is certainly true that the Constitution grants Congress the power to tax and spend on programs consistent with the enumerated powers of Congress. But this is a power of Congress and not a power granted to each individual member of Congress. Earmarks allow Congressman X or Senator Y to say that project Z back home, which is the brain child of Mr. K (a friend? neighbor? contributor?), will get money from taxpayers all across the country.

Many seem worried about money in politics "buying influence." Perhaps with earmarks, money can buy a more direct and certain return than just influence, eh? Maybe there would be less corruption in Washington if Congress was significantly constrained in its ability to respond to rent seeking. There was a time in the history of constitutional jurisprudence that the Supreme Court rendered opinions that often constrained such rent seeking. I suspect corruption will always be a part of politics, but perhaps the only effective way of reducing the impact of corruption is to constrain rent seeking in government. If the returns to spending money in politics are reduced, shouldn't we see less effort to buy politicians?

While I have you thinking about the constitution. Notice the 2 illustrations of earmarks in Fund's commentary. One of the earmarks funds a horse trail in Virginia and the other funds a rain forest in Iowa. I'm hard pressed to find an enumerated power in Article I, Section 8 that gives Congress the constitutional power to fund such activities. Can you explain to me why we should think the Constitution gives Congress the power to fund such activities to begin with?

Monday, January 23, 2006

Deja Vu All Over Again

"Conservationists' 'Bogeyman'
Congressman Pombo Pushes
Environmental Conservatism
January 21, 2006; Page A4

WASHINGTON -- Last year, Congressman Richard Pombo and his staff considered selling off 15 national parks, monuments, preserves and historical sites, along with naming rights for visitors' centers and hiking trails, to corporate bidders."

OH MY. I just realized I'm so old now that I'm starting to see things in politics that were tried earlier in my lifetime. I'm now saying, "Hey, I remember when they tried to sell off some national parks. Wasn't that when Reagan was President?"

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Social Security

Russell Roberts:
"Private social security failed because the average voter is remarkably unaware of what is coming down the road—either drastically lower benefits or drastically higher taxes. When this choice becomes clearer, even collusive Republicans and Democrats will find it in their self-interest to substitute private savings for government promises."

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

What Is The Real World?"

Don Boudreaux:
" Indeed, Senator, because I understand that statutes and legal rulings have effects far beyond those which are seen, I dare say that I am more aware of the real-world than are those – such as you, Senator? – who typically judge a rule to be good or bad based exclusively upon how it affects a single or a few identifiable persons.

Senator Biden, the issue isn't whether or not the real world matters. We all agree that it does. What separates you and me, Senator, is that I don’t ignore that part of the real-world that is less visible than that relatively small part that attracts the attention of politicians and the press."
The entire piece is well worth reading.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Who Wrote It

Who do you think wrote the following, and when?
"He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses on them: but that in the great chessboard of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it."
It sounds like the "he" referred to here is a typical member of the legislature, whether Congress or a state legislature, today.

Who wrote this and when? Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759.

Kennedy Satire

Todd Zywicki explains that Senator Kennedy has apparently attacked Judge Alito with guilt by association based upon an article which was satire:
"I have not seen any reports on whether the author (supposedly one H.W. Crocker III) intended the article as a farce. But given the over-the-top nature of the language quoted during the hearings and the larger context of the article, it at least raises some question about whether this was intended as a satire. In addition, the goofy pictures and the one-page 'back of the book' nature of the article (rather than a serious in-depth article) seems to add further credence to the suggestion that this was intended as a satire. The article seems to be intended as a tongue-in-cheeck defense of the Princeton eating clubs that were under attack by litigation by Sally Frank at this time."
Jake Tapper reports that Dinesh D'Souza who was editor of the magazine with the article in question also says the article was satire:
"Probing the debate over Alito's having said he was a member of the conservative Concerned Alumni of Princeton on a 1985 job application with the Reagan Justice Department, I spoke to conservative intellectual Dinesh D'Souza of the Hoover Institution yesterday.

D'Souza worked for CAP from 1983 to 1985, editing CAP's controversial Prospect magazine. He said a number of the Democratic attacks on Samuel Alito were based on falsehoods.

First off, D'Souza says, one of the two stories from Prospect that Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-MA, read this week at the confirmation hearings was intended as a satire.

The 1983 essay 'In Defense of Elitism' by Harry Crocker III included this line, read dramatically by Kennedy: 'People nowadays just don't seem to know their place. Everywhere one turns blacks and hispanics are demanding jobs simply because they're black and hispanic...'

The essay may not have been funny, D'Souza acknowledges, but Kennedy read from it as if it had been serious instead of an attempt at humor.

'I think left-wing groups have been feeding Senator Kennedy snippets and he has been mindlessly reciting them,' D'Souza said. 'It was a satire.'"
You can judge for yourself. Go to Senator Kennedy's website and check out the article.

Just another interesting commentary on politicians, eh?

Ah, Politicians

Channel 4 News Pittsburg:
"Team 4 has a voicemail recording of Democratic State Rep. Tim Solobay, of Canonsburg, saying that state lawmakers are preparing an all-out assault on the media. Solobay hints that the first volley is a bill that would start charging sales tax on all advertising in Pennsylvania.

Solobay left the voicemail message for editor Cody Knotts, who works at The Weekly Recorder, in Claysville, Washington County.

In the message, Solobay says, 'But you know, for the most part, the majority of the legislative feeling about the media right now is if there's something they can do to screw them, you can imagine it may occur.'

'That got my blood boiling because the Legislature thinks they're invulnerable,' said Knotts.

Like many newspaper editors in Pennsylvania, Knotts wrote prolifically last year about the 16 percent pay raise that lawmakers took, and then gave back under heavy media pressure.

Then, last month, he learned of a bill in Harrisburg that would hit the media hard -- lifting the sales tax exemption on advertising, along with some other services."
Things aren't exactly clear to me, but this story seems to involve action by the legislature to give itself a raise, even though the rules are that a given legislature cannot give itself a raise. Legislative raises are supposed to be passed by one legislature, and then implemented with the next legislature. Apparently the Pennsylvania legislature was trying some sneaky way of giving itself a raise and the news media made their sneaky actions public. In response, the suggestion here is that the legislature is planning to take revenge. Now, that seems like a legitimate use of legislative power, eh?

Friday, January 13, 2006

Beating Up on Wal-Mart

Washington Post editorial:
"AMERICAN BUSINESS has few whipping boys so irresistibly whippable as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., whose treatment of employees, competitors and suppliers conjures cold-eyed corporate heartlessness. . . . state lawmakers in Maryland are preparing to impose legislation on the retailer so arbitrary that it may achieve the near-impossible feat of casting Wal-Mart as the victim.

The Maryland bill would force firms with more than 10,000 in-state employees to spend at least 8 percent of their payrolls on workers' health insurance plans or make compensatory payments to the state. Only three other Maryland employers have more than 10,000 workers on their payrolls -- Johns Hopkins University, Northrop Grumman Corp. and Giant Food Inc. -- and they already meet or exceed the 8 percent threshold. Apparently, only Wal-Mart, with about 15,000 full- and part-time employees in Maryland, does not; thus the bill applies uniquely to Wal-Mart. 9emphasis added)

Maryland's legislature passed the bill last year, but Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) vetoed it. Lawmakers, urged on by big unions, appear on the verge of overriding the veto despite furious lobbying by Wal-Mart. The legislators, joined by Giant Food (Wal-Mart's unionized competitor), insist disingenuously that they are not singling out the big-box retailer but are merely setting a standard. . . . ."
Is this not the epitome of rent seeking? Can't we find a clause in our Constitution that would bar state government, as well as Congress, from engaging in rent seeking? How about:
". . .No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." [14th Amendment]
Does it make sense to say the 14th Amendment allows a state legislature to create a statute that singles out a specific business?

Madison on Government and Force

On June 16, 1788 James Madison spoke in the Virginia Ratifying Convention on the topic of control of the military. In his speech I find the following:
". . .Was there ever a constitution, in which, if authority was vested, it must not have been executed by force, if resisted? . . .That the laws of every country ought to be executed cannot be denied. That force must be used if necessary, cannot be denied. Can any government be established, that will answer any purpose whatever, unless force be provided for executing its laws? . . ."
". . .There never was a government without force."
Surprisingly, this is an observation that often seems lost in discussions of government today. Government is, by it's very nature, coercive. One of the points I think Madison's comments here emphasize is that when we think of the role of government in our lives we should be thinking about the ways in which it is legitimate for government to be using force and coercion in our everyday lives.

When you think about public policy issues, I think it might be a good idea to think specifically about the way government will be using force in our lives. Here is one illustration. In the famous Supreme Court opinion Wickard v. Filburn, the Court was considering a Congressional statute regarding agricultural quotas. The specific situation at issue involves a farmer who was growing wheat on his own land. He did not grow the wheat for commercial purposes. Rather, he grew the wheat for use on his farm and for use by his household in making bread. He was in court because our national government said that growing his wheat violated his alloted quota. The Court said our national government could constitutionally use force in this man's life in this way because Congress had the power to regulate interstate commerce. In other words, even though this man did not sell the wheat he grew on his own land, the Court found it was constitutionally acceptable for our national government to force him to stop growing wheat on his land. And, there's more. Since he used the wheat to make bread for his own family, our national government was using force to compel this man to have to purchase bread from others. Does this seem like an acceptable use of force and coercion in our lives? My own answer is NO.


Tom Bevan:
". . . it seems fair to ask: how many Democrats sitting on the Judiciary Committee could be confirmed using their own standards? How many of them could withstand the same sort of exhaustive examination and distortion of their own careers and records that's now being given to Sam Alito's?

The answer, just off the top of my head and without resorting to extensive research or digging through trash, is not very many."
The politician by politician analysis goes like this. There are obvious reasons Senator Kennedy couldn't. Senator Biden has plagiarism that would plague him. Senator Feinstein has issues with campaign expenditures. Senator Schumer could have campaign finance issues, not to mention the people within his employ that may have illegally obtained a credit report. Senator Durbin said Roe v. Wade was wrong, before he said Roe v. Wade was right. Senator Leahey has issues as "leaky Leahy," having leaked classified information to the press. Bevan couldn't think of issues for the other 2 democrat Senators on the Committee. Should we guess that the republican Senators on the Committee would generate a similar list of issues?

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Eminent Domain

Eminent domain has been suggested for this blighted neighborhood.

Sowell on Curing Poverty

Thomas Sowell:
"'China is lifting a million people a month out of poverty.'

It is just one statement in an interesting new book titled 'The Undercover Economist' by Tim Harford. But it has huge implications.

I haven't checked out the statistics but they sound reasonable. If so, this is something worth everyone's attention.

People on the political left make a lot of noise about poverty and advocate all sorts of programs and policies to reduce it but they show incredibly little interest in how poverty has actually been reduced, whether in China or anywhere else.

You can bet the rent money that the left will show little or no interest in how Chinese by the millions are rising out of poverty every year. The left showed far more interest in China back when it was run by Mao in far left fashion -- and when millions of Chinese were starving."
So, I wonder how millions are rising out of poverty every year. Here is Sowell's answer:
" First of all, what does it even mean to say that "China is lifting a million people a month out of poverty"? Where would the Chinese government get the money to do that?

The only people the Chinese government can tax are mainly the people in China. A country can't lift itself up by its own bootstraps that way. Nor has there ever been enough foreign aid to lift a million people a month out of poverty.

If the Chinese government hasn't done it, then who has? The Chinese people. They did not rise out of poverty by receiving largess from anybody.

The only thing that can cure poverty is wealth. The Chinese acquired wealth the old-fashioned way: They created it."
I think something here is worth significant attention and emphasis.

More NSA

The WJS's view of the NSA controversy:
"Eternal vigilance, it's been rightly said, is the price of liberty. But Americans are not well served by politicians in Washington who keep crying wolf over imagined violations of their civil rights.

The latest hysteria surrounds the Bush Administration's warrantless wiretapping of terror suspects. Congress is planning hearings, and even many usually sound legislators continue to question the White House. But it's become clear in the weeks since the story broke that Administrations of both parties as well as the courts have always held that warrants are not required for such intelligence gathering."

What Economics Finds About Redistribution

Russell Roberts mentions a work by Robert Lucas, a nobel economist, and writes:
"In America, at least, many people feel that the improvement in the well-being of the poor comes from government programs that protect the poor from greedy businesses. Without such protections, the dog-eat-dog world of ruthless capitalism would grind the poor to dust."
He then quotes Lucas:

"But of the vast increase in the well-being of hundreds of millions of people that has occurred in the 200-year course of the industrial revolution to date, virtually none of it can be attributed to the direct redistribution of resources from rich to poor."
This seems so very important, yet this message seems to seldom, if ever, be picked up by our political leaders.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Constitution, Congress & the President

I started reading John Yoo's The Powers of War and Peace a few days ago. He pointed out something about the Constitution that I had not sufficiently noted before. Consider Article I, Section I:
All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States . . . .
Next, consider Article II, Section I:
The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. . .
Do you notice the difference? The power of Congress is not stated as "the legislative power shall be vested in a Congress of the United States." In contrast to the executive branch of government, the power of the legislative branch is granted as specific enumerated powers. Of course, the enumerated powers are provided in Article I, Section 8. Congress is supposed to only have the legislative powers specifically written and thereby granted by the Constitution.

In contrast, the President has the executive power and there is no specific enumeration of the executive powers. It seems the President has all the executive powers we might think to enumerate. Of course, this does not mean the power of the Presidency is unchecked. After all, the power to tax and spend is not an executive power but a legislative power.

There seem to me at least 2 reasons why I should find this observation important. First, the contrast emphasizes that constitutionally the power of Congress is specifically enumerated and granted by We The People. If a legislative power has not been specifically granted in the Constitution, then Congress should be thought to not have that legislative power.

Second, in the arena of national security I think we should take note of whether or not Congress has been specifically granted enumerated legislative powers in this arena. As I read through Article I, Section 8 it seems to me Congress has specifically been granted the constitutional legislative power to create and finance the means by which the United States protects itself from external threats to the safety of We the People. These specific powers do not seem to directly include the power to choose how these means of national security will be utilized and directed. The specific applications of the means of national security are among the powers of the Presidency.

This said, while Congress does not have enumerated powers to directly constrain Presidential power in the arena of national security, Congress does have significant indirect powers relative to Presidential power. First, Congress taxes and makes appropriations, and in this way Congress can constrain the Presidential power with respect to national security by refusing to fund specific ways in which the means of national security are utilitized. Second, Congress has the power of Presidential impeachment should it find that any of the constitutional powers of the President have been abused by the President.

Perhaps all of this constitutional musing suggests one further insight. When Congressional politicians are seen and heard in public attacking Presidential actions with respect national security, one might suspect the attacks are more self-interested than reflections of a love and commitment to the Constitution. After all, if a Congressional politician thinks the President is using the means of national security inappropriately, shouldn't that politician utilize his legislative power to ask his colleagues in the Congress to tug on the purse strings in ways that the President will not like? Such action would seem to fit the structure of government found in our Constitution. If a politician chooses not to speak legislatively, but instead in the media, perhaps the politician is simply trying to get more face time. If a politician says the President should be impeached, then perhaps he or she should "put up" by formally pursuing that Congressional action.

Friday, January 06, 2006


Michael Barone discusses the historical context of the Abramoff scandal:
"And then there is Jack Abramoff. A close associate of Messrs. DeLay and Norquist and a longtime Republican activist, he seems to have been determined to make gigantic sums of money. Not content with the $1 million or so a year he could easily have made, he squeezed Indian tribes for tens of millions (Indian gambling laws have created a class of naive clients) and engaged in some very shady dealings in the gambling cruise ship business. There will always be such individuals: Abe Fortas, a lawyer of the highest intellectual caliber, was not content with a Supreme Court justice's salary and arranged for outside income from a former client, the disclosure of which led him to resign from the court. There is a fine and sometimes indistinct line between bribery, which requires a specific quid pro quo, and legal mutually beneficial conduct.

Mr. Abramoff's guilty pleas have both parties scampering to offer up lobbying reform; as fervent a Republican as he was, he made sure his clients gave money to Democrats too. His testimony could end the careers of some members of Congress and could threaten the Republicans' House majority. But there will be no end to lobbying: It is protected by the Constitution, and people will always seek to affect the decisions of a government that can have such great impact on them.

Over the last 35 years, I have watched as more and more office buildings have been going up in Washington. K Street, the prime market for my Almanac, has been spreading -- metastasizing, some would say -- and for every new 1,000 square feet some calculable number of my books will be sold. None of these buildings will be torn down, except to be replaced by new buildings with ever gaudier marble lobbies, even if Jack Abramoff resides for a time in public housing. The poor we may or may not always have with us. But we will always have K Street."
People in the media, as well as voters, seem to be extremely myopic. It seems as though every new political scandal and every new revelation of corruption is treated as though there have been no previous cases. As Michael Barone suggests with his short history lesson, we should perhaps learn to expect scandal and corruption. Instead of thinking we may get more honorable politicians, and instead of thinking the answer to political corruption is some new rule for our politics, perhaps we should simply assume that there will always be scandal, corruption, and abuse of power. Perhaps the answer to scandal, corruption , and abuse of power by our politicians is to return to the original constitutional design for our system of political economy and thereby to return to a national government that is much more limited in size and much more constrained in the enumerated powers we grant to it. Scandal, abuse of power, and corruption would still be with us, but perhaps the impact of abuse of power would far less significant. Or maybe not. Maybe we simply have to expect such abuses, and then when they are discovered, we throw the bums out and into a jail.

New Risen Book Sheds Light on NSA Surveillance

Orin Kerr comments on the book by Risen which has led to the discussion of President Bush and the NSA:
" Reading over this part of Risen's book, it seems that most of the new surveillance program was not about domestic surveillance at all; most of it was about the surveillance of entirely international calls and e-mails that just happened to be routed through U.S. networks in the course of delivery. According to Risen, the program typically monitored about 7,000 individuals overseas at any given time, as compared to about about 500 people who were located in the United States. From an operational perspective, then, the big difference between prior NSA practices and the new program was that the NSA was using a back door into domestic privider switches in the U.S. to monitor communications that were mostly foreign to foreign."
Very interesting. Here again we seem to have an illustration of why I think you can never trust the "news" you read or hear. The fevered discussion of the President and the Constitution seems to have painted a different picture from that in the very source for this public controversy. Notice that in this description even the reference to 500 people in the United States (versus 7000 others) is not a reference to 500 citizens of the United States. It also seems to me that this description of the situation at issue suggests that even if some or all of those 500 people were U.S. citizens, the reasons they were monitored by the NSA were of a coincidential nature following upon efforts by our government to discover all they could about the enemy.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Do the Poor Deserve Life Support?

Steven E. Landsburg has an interesting essay on how some think about helping those who are poor. Here is his bottom line:
"You can't do that with every government service. You can't offer people a choice between police protection and its cash value, because police patrols tend to protect entire neighborhoods at once, not just specific individuals. You might not want to offer people a choice between a flu vaccine and its cash value, because you'd really prefer to have vaccinated neighbors. But critical life support isn't like that; the benefits are targeted to specific individuals. There's no reason those individuals shouldn't be allowed to choose different benefits if they want them.

Tirhas Habtegris would probably have taken the cash. Then she'd have gotten sick and regretted her decision. And then we as a society would have been in exactly the same position we were in last week—deciding whether to foot the bill to keep Ms. Habtegris alive a little longer.

At that point, there's a powerful human instinct to come to the rescue. Well, more precisely, there's a powerful human instinct to demand that someone else come to the rescue. (I'm guessing that in the wake of the Habtegiris case, nobody at the Daily Kos has taken to funding ventilator insurance for the poor.) Be that as it may, choices have to be made. A policy of helping everyone who needs a ventilator is a policy of spending less to help the same class of people in other ways. Accounting for 'economic considerations' means—by definition—trying to give people what they'll value the most. In other words, economic considerations are the basis of true compassion."
I take special note of: ". . .there's a powerful human instict to demand that someone else come to the rescue." Now, isn't that a powerful insight?

Economic Resolutions for Politicians

In today's WSJ N. Gregory Mankiw offers 7 New Year's resolutions for Washington's politicians. Here is #7:
"This year I will be modest about what government can do. I know that economic prosperity comes not from government programs but from entrepreneurial inspiration. Adam Smith was right when he said, 'Little else is required to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice.' As a government official, I am not going to promise more than I can deliver. I am going to focus my attention on these three goals -- peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice -- and I am going to trust the creativity of the American people to do the rest."
If only a few of them would so resolve, eh?