Thursday, December 20, 2007

Earmarks Or Not?

There is an interesting commentary in the Wall Street Journal about Congressional budget earmarks. Congress has just passed a spending bill that is supposed to contain almost 9,000 earmarks. However, most of those earmarks aren't actually written into the bill that passed. Instead, the earmarks are found in the 500 page committee report. The interesting part of this is that:
A December 18 legal analysis by attorney Todd Tatelman for the Congressional Research Service concludes that "because the language of committee reports do not meet the procedural requirements of Article I of the Constitution -- specifically, bicameralism and presentment -- they are not laws and, therefore, are not legally binding on executive agencies." In plainer English, this means committee reports have not been formally passed by both houses and "presented" to the President for signing.
So, the President can sign the spending bill, but since the earmarks aren't actually in the bill he is not constitutionally required to spend on the earmark projects.

In a way, this exposes just how corrupt Congress is these days. Congressional leadership allows individual members of Congress to pick projects that spend dollars taxed from us for the benefit of friends, family, and contributors, and the means of doing this is to hide the projects from public view and probably even the view of other members of Congress. But in doing things this way Congress seems to be acting outside the Constitution. If the President chooses to actually spend on the earmarked projects, then it appears to me that the President will become a participant in the corrupt acts of Congress, and that the President will also be acting outside the bounds of our Constitution. If both the Legislative and Executive branches of government seek to exercise power outside Constitutional bounds, then doesn't this suggest that our government may be unjust as well as corrupt?

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Budget Earmark Totals

In the Wall Street Journal today:
Even worse is the President's abdication on earmarks, or Member-requested pork. Mr. Bush had publicly insisted that Congress should cut the number of earmarks by 50% this year, from 13,492 in fiscal 2007. Ah, not quite. The "omnibus" includes 8,983 earmarks, and counting, which brings the total so far to 11,144 including those passed as part of the Defense bill. As a percentage decline that is only 17%.

The pork barrel includes $700 million for a Minnesota bike trail, $113,000 for rodent control in Alaska, and $1 million for an energy project in the district of Lousiana Democrat William Jefferson, who faces trial for bribery next year. Dozens of these earmarks were "air-dropped" into the bill at the last minute, meaning that fiscal conservative Members lacked the time to find and fight them on the House or Senate floor.
Well, 17%, eh? I guess that's something.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Pluralism

Peter Boettke has a very interesting post on pluralism:
One of our loyal and precocious readers has repeatedly asked for debate and contending theoretical perspectives. I agree that an intellectual openness to alternative methods and theoretical perspectives would be healthy for the economics profession. But I have always found the demand for pluralism to be completely inappropriate at the level of the individual.

At the level of the individual scientist, in their work as scientists, they have to commit themselves to an approach and pursue it doggedly even in the face of great doubt and resistence by one's peers. Think of scholars in economics such as Jim Buchanan with public choice and rational choice political philosophy, or Hayek on the epistemic turn required in economics and political economy, or Vernon Smith and experimental economics. One could also think of Paul Samuelson and mathematical economics. All paradigmatic shifts in science are a result of the dogged commitment of individual scholars to a particular perspective methodologically and theoretically. As Michael Polanyi points out in Personal Knowledge, science progresses through commitment by individual scholars and the contentious play between differently committed scholars in the 'republic of science'.

So pluralism is a by-product, not a cause of scientific progress.

Read the whole thing.

The True Liberal Is Cosmopolitan

Peter Boettke:
So when asked what alternative vision of the political future I hold than that offered by the contemporary landscape it is this --- Misesian liberalism. That we don't seem to be on a path to achieving that is a source of frustration for me. I am not whining as one of our readers suggested, I am stating a fact.

Liberalism in the hands of Mises was the "progressive" form of libertarianism that Horwitz talked about. Read Mises's Liberalism, it is a doctrine of freedom and toleration; of free trade and free thought; of free mobility of capital and labor internationally as well as domestically. A world of private property and freedom of association and contract, is a world of toleration of 'experiments in living' and entrepreneurship. The terminology of "left" and "right" is not appropriate for this, but the terms cosmopolitan and parochial may be.

Mises argued that the true liberal is a cosmopolitan. And, it is that sort of vision of the liberal argument that one can find in contemporary works in political economy and political philosophy such as Rothbard's For a New Liberty, Lavoie's National Economic Planning: What is Left?, Lomasky's Persons, Rights and Community, and Kukathus's The Liberal Archipelago.

$3 Gasoline



Mark Perry:
In 1949, the retail price of gas was only 27 cents, but it took 4.2% of per-capita new worth to purchase 1,000 gallons of gas, making gasoline almost three times as expensive then compared to today, when it only takes 1.44% of per-capita net worth to buy 1,000 gallons of gas at $3.

To be as expensive as gas in 1981, measured as the cost per 1,000 gallons as a share of per-capita net worth, gasoline today would have to sell for about $6.50 per gallon.

Bottom Line: Gas today, even at $3, is relatively affordable and is actually cheaper than the decades of the 1940s, 1950s, 1960, 1970s and 1980s, when the price of gas is measured relative to our increasing household wealth.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Land Of The Free

Glenn Fleishman reports
The House overwhelmingly passed a bill that puts a huge onus on individuals and ISPs to report a broad range of images or face $150,000 or $300,000 fines: The bill, if passed, would require anyone offering network access (under a broad definition) to report any images they come across that covers a broad range of potential depictions of abuse of minors or their exploitation. Declan McCullagh notes in his post at Cnet that it’s so broad as to include photographs, drawings, and cartoons that require interpretation as to whether they would meet the test. Sounds like viewing an Abercrombie and Fitch catalog could qualify.

From McCullagh’s report, it’s clear that if you operate, for instance, an open Wi-Fi network from your home, you’re not obliged to monitor other people’s uses of it. However, if you were in any fashion to become aware of behavior circumscribed in this law, you could be fined $150,000 on a first offense and $300,000 on a subsequent one—unless you preemptively report, in which case you’re immune to lawsuits and prosecution. Which means people are going to report a lot more or shut down otherwise free hotspots.

Reporting requires that you provide the images that you saw, which obviously opens people up to charges themselves unless everything is handled extremely carefully as possession of child pornography is a de facto crime that allows for no explanation in much of the U.S.
What incentives will people see if this bill becomes statute? People who provide free wi-fi could see a very strong incentive to turn it off. Even people who provide wi-fi at a price may see strong incentives to shut it down in order to avoid a potential nighmare from big-brother.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Power & Prosperity: Iraq In Perspective

Don Surber:

The change in demands from the left shows that we won militarily. Democracy is more difficult to deliver. It takes time and patience. Let us review:

In 1999, Nato troops and U.S. bombers led a 78-day war in Kosovo to rid the region of a brutal dictator, Slobodan Milosevic. 8 years later, talks continue on a final resolution of its status. Russia has threatened to use it UN veto to nix any deal that does not suit Vladimir Putin, who wants to resurrect the Soviet empire.

In Korea, the 3-year war between North and South ended in a cease-fire in 1953. The corrupt government of Syngman Rhee ended in student riots in 1960. A year later, General Park Chung-hee led a military coup and held power until 1979. This gave way to Choi Gyu Ha’s government, followed by a military coup a year later. Direct elections came about in 1989.

In Italy, a black market flourished but the 1st Republic was installed in 1948, roughly 3 years after its liberation. Its first election was marked by violence and U.S. efforts to keep communists from winning — and by Stalin’s efforts to buy the election. Southern West Virginians and Cook County Democrats run clean elections by comparison.

In France, the 4th Republic was installed after the war. It went through 21 changes in prime ministers in 11 years. The 5th Republic came about in 1958.

In Japan, Gen. MacArthur ruled the nation for 7 years. In 1952, its democracy was established.

Now then, 60 years after the war, troops remain in Italy, Japan and Germany, which took 45 years to re-unite.

54 years later, U.S. troops remain in South Korea.

109 years after the Spanish-American War, U.S. troops are in the Philippines. They left momentarily in World War II, ousted by the Japanese. [Oops. A critic points out our bases closed in the Philippines a decade ago. OK, 100 years instead of 109.]

In none of these nations would anyone suggest that there has been a war. That’s because with the exception of an occasional Baader-Meinhof gang, no one is taking potshots at our soldiers.

Those wars have ended. This one will end soon, when U.S. Army casualties reach zero.

That does not mean there will not be political violence and acts of terrorism.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Irony of Government Hereos

Tom Sowell:
It is remarkable how many political "solutions" today are dealing with problems created by previous political "solutions." Three examples that come to mind immediately are the housing market crisis, the wildfires in southern California, and the water shortages in the west.

[. . . .]

Why were lenders lending to people whose prospects of repaying the loans were below average -- that is, "subprime"?

Government laws and policies, especially the Community Reinvestment Act, pressured lenders to invest in people and places where they would not invest otherwise. Government also created the temporarily very low interest rates that made the mortgages seem affordable for the moment.

Now that politicians have created this mess, they are ready to play heroes riding to the rescue.
Food for thought.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Family Externality

Ed Glaeser:
I am also unenthusiastic about eliminating tax preferences for larger families. Most people seem to think that giving tax relief to bigger families is a matter of simple fairness. As an economist, I lack standing to make proclamations about fairness, but there is another reason to subsidize larger families. When parents decide to have kids, they are creating a massive benefit for their children. As much as parents may love their children, they are unlikely to reap all the benefits those children will offer during their lives. Economists often think that it makes sense to subsidize behavior that generates big "external" benefits for others: parenting seems like a particularly natural example of such behavior.
Externality abuse.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Health Care Policy 101

Don Boudreaux:
Who cares what modern health care-delivery methods are called? The elemental problem is that more and more people feel entitled to vast quantities of high-quality health care paid for by someone else.

And politicians, ever lusting for office, are only too happy to conjure the ridiculous illusion that A will get top-flight service from B when C is forced by G to pay the bills.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Government & Forced Riders

Tim Haab takes a look at survey results that speak to this question: Would you be willing to support climate change policy if it cost someone else money? And, the survery said. . . .? It said that about 70% of respondents would answer yes.

This reminds of a recent visit by a government official to my class on economics of the public sector. The discussion was about funding public universities and the difficulties of this task these days in Colorado. One of my students asked if we shouldn't just provide higher education privately and without public subsidy or public provision. The answer sounded a lot like: "No, because there are positive externalities." Now, this government official was also unaware that we had discussed this idea in class just the period before he spoke, and he was unaware of my explanation to my students that I thought the idea of positive externalities associated with higher education was likely an illustration of what I call "externality abuse." But, I guess this point is sort of an aside.

What was really interesting was the government official's suggestion about the reason for public funding or public subsidy. His story went something like this: "I realize that I'm better off or that I get some benefits myself because you are here taking classes at the university. That's why I'm willing to tax myself to pay for part of your education." It seems the idea was that we should all recognize the external benefit to us and therefore we should all be willing to tax ourselves.

Now, I'm thinking this is not really what supporting the public policy of subsidizing higher education is really about, because I'm thinking that if this official realizes he is personally better off because my student is at the university, then he can simply give my student some money to pay for tuition or books. Or, this government official can choose to give his money to university scholarship funds.

Professor Haab's question and answer suggests the same sort of things I talked with my students about after the public official's visit to my classroom. The argument offered for subsidizing higher education sounded like it was personal (I'm willing to tax myself), but it seems to me this was really about taxing others to pay for something he personally valued. I'm thinking that we are considering an aspect of politics and public policy that is pretty much the opposite of the free rider we economists talk about with respect to public goods. That is, it is an effort to use government's power to tax to force others (many of whom probably don't believe they are benefitted by my students being my students) to pay for things a person values for themselves. It seems very much an effort to make use of forced riders.

Changing The Constitution

Megan McArdle:
Turley is not the only liberal legal scholar who has turned on this interpretation, and it seems to bode a welcome retreat from the notion that the constitution means--whatever we think it ought to have meant. Having realized that a plastic constitution could also, horrors, be manipulated by people they disagreed with, the "living constitution" proponents seem to be retreating to the notion that constitutional interpretations ought to have a least a tenuous relationship to the underlying text. I'm not a constitution-worshipper, but I think society functions better if you change the rules by changing them, not by declaring that they mean whatever those in power say they do. Yes, I'm aware that this happens to some degree in every society, but the less of it the better, thank you very much. We needn't make the perfect the enemy of the reasonable.
I like reading that the idea of the "living constitution" might be in a bit of retreat. I'm not sure I believe this yet. I also like the part about changing the rules by changing them.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

UN Sanctions -- Not

Claudia Rosett has been a bulldog staying on the UN Oil for Food story of corruption. I think the story was supposed to be that sanctions against Iraq and Saddam Hussein were creating great hardships for the people of Iraq, and the Oil for Food program was supposed to be the means of providing humanitarian aid to the people of Iraq. It seems the reality was something quite a bit less than humanitarian. The following is from Rosett's commentary in the WSJ ($$) yesterday:
Messrs. Khudair and Yacoub described a system corrupt to the core. Their duties inside Saddam Hussein's bureaucracy consisted largely, and officially, of handling and keeping track of kickbacks. That included who had paid and how much, and via which front companies. When Saddam's regime systematized its Oil for Food kickback demands across the board in 2000, keeping track of the graft flowing into Saddam's secret coffers became a job so extensive that the marketing arm of Iraq's Ministry of Oil, known as SOMO (State Oil Marketing Organization) developed an electronic database to track the flow of the "surcharges," as they were called.

To show how this worked, prosecutors last week produced a silver laptop onto which Saddam's entire oil kickback database had been downloaded by Mr. Yacoub, from backup copies he made just before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. With the laptop display projected onto a big screen before the jury, Mr. Yacoub booted up the system and into a query box typed "Coastal," the name of Wyatt's former oil company. Up came itemized lists of millions of dollars worth of surcharges he testified that Wyatt's company, or affiliated fronts, had paid to the Iraqi regime. These were broken down not only chronologically, but according to which front companies Mr. Yacoub said had channeled the money.

The other Iraqi witness, Mr. Khudair, corroborated parts of this scene. He explained to the jury a series of detailed notes taken at secret Baghdad meetings, which he had recorded by hand in desk calendars provided as gifts by oil contractors in Iraq.

In the end, Wyatt's guilty plea of conspiracy rested on a payment of about $200,000, made in 2001 through front companies into an Iraqi-controlled secret bank account in Jordan. But as witnesses during the trial sketched out the context, what came into view was a gigantic hidden world of dealings with Saddam's Iraq. From a cooperating government witness, Samir Vincent (who in 2005 pleaded guilty to a number of federal charges related to Oil for Food), the jury heard that Wyatt had paid Vincent's fees and expenses to make more than half a dozen trips per year during the early 1990s between the U.S. and Iraq to try to help Saddam out from under U.N. sanctions.

[. . . .]

Should we expect to see that silver laptop in heavy demand by scores of other U.N. member states trying to bring Oil for Food fraudsters to justice?

Nope. As it is, the U.S. stands almost alone in prosecuting the culprits and sending the guilty to prison. In Russia, China, Syria, Cyprus, Yemen, Egypt, Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Jordan -- to name a few significant players -- there has been no such summons to justice. In Switzerland, home to a cosmopolitan nest of Oil for Food fronts, a number of companies have paid fines to federal and local authorities, but their names and the details have been kept confidential.
Now, in the future when our political discussions turn to suggestions of seeking UN support or approval about this or that, I want to remember the UN's Oil and Corruption program. Of course, this is not the first expose of UN efforts which seem to have been excellent illustrations of corruption. I think I should also make note of Rosett's list of significant players. It might help me understand what is real and what is not with respect to international politics.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Competition

Peter Boettke:
In one of the papers that I read for the conference there is a discussion about how level is the playing field for different types of start-up enterprises, and how competitive the industries are that they enter into.

A lot of business literature often throws terms around from technical economics, but confuses the colloquial use of a term and the scientific meaning of the term. When text-book economics refers to competitive conditions, they do not mean activity of competing, but instead a set of conditions. When we discuss the idea of a level playing field we mean a fair race, not that the race isn't difficult.

When Austrian school economists speak of competition, they mean the activity of competing. It is analogous to sports competition --- there is rivalry, active seeking of competitive advantage, etc.
In my classrooms these days, some of the differences between neoclassical economics (the economics students mostly study in their textbooks) and austrian economics seem to be coming up more frequently. While Professor Boettke's post is mostly about the value of sports, this excerpt above points out one of the fundamental differences between neoclassical economics and austrian economics. Both approaches to economics use the word "competition," but very different ideas are meant when this word is used.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

13th Amendment

Richard Miniter writes about stories told over dinner by Justice Thomas:
At a gathering of black lawyers, Thomas, from the podium, could see a man in the front row, with his arms crossed and his face cross. Naturally, he shot his hand up as soon as the question session began. A long speech in lieu of a question followed, essentially asking how he can interpret the law by relying so heavily on the Founding Fathers when they did not recognize the rights of blacks?

“The 13th amendment,” Thomas said, citing the constitutional amendment that freed the slaves and provided for their equal rights under law.

Thomas went on to take other questions.

At the end of session, the man again raised his hand. In the course of an hour, his view on Thomas had changed. “They lied about you. What are we going to do?”

Saturday, September 29, 2007

State Government & Global Warming

Brendan Miniter in the WSJ ($$$):

North Carolina's global-warming activists are in hog heaven. Late last month, Gov. Mike Easley, a Democrat in his second term, signed legislation mandating that more electric power in his state come from "green" sources such as wind, solar energy, and hog and chicken waste.

Today, North Carolina gets about 2% of its electricity from "renewable resources." By 2021, under the new mandates, Progress Energy and Duke Energy will have to find 12.5% of the power that they sell to Tar Heel residents from renewables. Hog-waste-generated power -- as required by the new law -- will nearly triple to 0.2% of the electricity used in the state over the next decade as farmers capture and sell the methane gas given off from tons of decomposing manure.

It's gone largely uncovered outside the state, but there is an energy revolution underway in the Tar Heel State that will cost residents more for the energy they use in the name of cutting greenhouse gases. Even while they make little headway in Congress, advocates of heavy-handed regulations to head off global warming are working to enact laws on the state level. They're succeeding in North Carolina.

The immediate cost to consumers will be higher electric bills. For residential customers, an annual fee will eventually reach $34, and for industry the annual fee will grow to as much as $1,000.

The new hog mandate is only the beginning. The state has set up a special commission -- the Climate Action Plan Advisory Group -- to study ways to cut CO2 emissions. It's already adopted a list of 53 recommended new mandates and is drafting a report for the state legislature.

A few ideas the commission will recommend in its report next month include mandates for "higher-density" housing developments, something thought to reduce suburban "sprawl," and, of course, new subsidies for farmers to produce biodiesel.

It will also recommend imposing new costs on the driving public. One thought is to force drivers who put more miles on their odometer to pay higher car-insurance premiums than those who drive less. And it will recommend a CO2 tax or a cap-and-trade system, assuming such a system could be worked out on a state level.

I'm wondering if global warming policies by state governments make any sense in general? It seems to me that concern about global warming involves a problem that is global in geographic scope, not statewide in geographic scope. As such, I suspect state government mandates such as these noted by Mr. Miniter are unlikely to yield much in the way of their stated goal, which is presumably a reduction in global warming. Isn't it likely, therefore, that the economic benefits from mandates such as these are quite small? If so, then it would seem that state government policies such as these will be quite effective at increasing costs to the residents of the state, but in return for the increased costs the residents can probably expect to enjoy virtually no benefits from less global warming.

And, then, there are the actual policies that are being mandated. What's up with policies like forcing higher insurance premiums? Why does anyone think auto insurance has anything to do with carbon emissions and global warming?

Friday, September 28, 2007

Clinton, Global Warming & The Broken Window

James Pethokoukis :

"This issue of energy and global warming has the promise of creating millions of new jobs in America. It can be a win-win, if we do it right."—Sen. Hillary Clinton, at last night's Democratic debate in South Carolina

And with that, Clinton seemingly stumbled into the classic economic trap known as the Broken Window Fallacy. As described by the French economist Fredric Bastiat, the fallacy imagines some punk kid chucking a rock through a store window. A bad thing, right? Yet a contrarian onlooker offers that the troublemaker may have actually helped the economy because now the storeowner will have to hire a glazier, who will make money replacing the window. Then the glazier will use that money to buy bread from a baker, who then might buy shoes from a cobbler. And the "multiplier effect" goes on and on, creating a more prosperous economy.

But Bastiat points out that such reasoning ignores the hidden costs to the shopkeeper, who was forced to spend money on windows instead of something else that may have had higher value to him or society, like a new suit or investing in a start-up tech firm. As the great economics writer Henry Hazlitt once put it:

The glazier's gain of business, in short, is merely the tailor's loss of business. No new "employment" has been added. The people in the crowd were thinking only of two parties to the transaction, the baker and the glazier. They had forgotten the potential third party involved, the tailor. They forgot him precisely because he will not now enter the scene. They will see the new window in the next day or two. They will never see the extra suit, precisely because it will never be made. They see only what is immediately visible to the eye.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Ramadi Freedom?

Michael Totten reports from Ramadi in Anbar province:
I was greeted by friendly Iraqis in the streets of Baghdad every day, but the atmosphere in Ramadi was different. I am not exaggerating in the least when I describe their attitude toward Americans as euphoric.

Grown Iraqi men hugged American Soldiers and Marines.

Young men wanted me to take their pictures with their arms around American Soldiers and Marines. The Americans seemed slightly bored with the idea, but the Iraqis were enthusiastic.

Children hugged State Department civilian reconstruction team leader Donna Carter.

Ramadi has changed so drastically from the terrorist-infested pit that it was as recently as April 2007 that I could hardly believe what I saw was real. The sheer joy on the faces of these Iraqis was unmistakable. They weren’t sullen in the least, and it was pretty obvious that they were not just pretending to be friendly or going through the hospitality motions.

“It was nothing we did,” said Marine Lieutenant Colonel Drew Crane who was visiting for the day from Fallujah. “The people here just couldn’t take it anymore.”

What he said next surprised me even more than what I was seeing.

“You know what I like most about this place?” he said.

“What’s that?” I said.

“We don’t need to wear body armor or helmets,” he said.

I was poleaxed. Without even realizing it, I had taken off my body armor and helmet. I took my gear off as casually as I do when I take it off after returning to the safety of the base after patrolling. We were not in the safety of the base and the wire. We were safe because we were in Ramadi.

[. . . .]

The Iraqis of Anbar Province turned against Al Qaeda and sided with the Americans in large part because Al Qaeda proved to be far more vicious than advertised. But it’s also because sustained contact with the American military – even in an explosively violent combat zone –convinced these Iraqis that Americans are very different people from what they had been led to believe. They finally figured out that the Americans truly want to help and are not there to oppress them or steal from them. And the Americans slowly learned how Iraqi culture works and how to blend in rather than barge in.

“We hand out care packages from the U.S. to Iraqis now that the area has been cleared of terrorists,” one Marine told me. “When we tell them that some of these packages aren’t from the military or the government, that they were donated by average American citizens in places like Kansas, people choke up and sometimes even cry. They just can’t comprehend it. It is so different from the lies they were told about us and how we’re supposed to be evil.”

[. . . .]

I photographed a freshly painted cell phone store that looked new.

“That’s when you know life is coming back to normal,” Sergeant Hicks said, “when they open a cell phone shop.”

“It’s amazing for us to see people out on that street buying and selling things,” Captain Phil Messer said to me later. “That never happened for the first months we were out here. Literally zero businesses were open. People were scared shitless of Al Qaeda. If you pissed them off they would show up at your house in the middle of the night, rape your women in front of you, kill your sons, and say you will not help the Americans. Huge numbers of these people just fled to Syria.”

Reminds me of Mancur Olson's Power and Prosperity.

Even if you don't read Totten's entire report, you really should take a look at his photos of the people of Ramadi.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Health Zoning

The LA Times reports:
As America gets fatter, policymakers are seeking creative approaches to legislating health. They may have entered the school cafeteria -- and now they're eyeing your neighborhood.

Amid worries of an obesity epidemic and its related illnesses, including high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease, Los Angeles officials, among others around the country, are proposing to limit new fast-food restaurants -- a tactic that could be called health zoning.

The City Council will be asked this fall to consider an up to two-year moratorium on new fast-food restaurants in South L.A., a part of the city where fast food is at least as much a practicality as a preference.
After reading this I'm reminded of Patrick Henry:
"Give Me Liberty. . . ."


While this sort of government policy seems nonsense to me, it does seem to make sense to some people:
"While limiting fast-food restaurants isn't a solution in itself, it's an important piece of the puzzle," said Mark Vallianatos, director of the Center for Food and Justice at Occidental College.

This is "bringing health policy and environmental policy together with land-use planning," he said. "I think that's smart, and it's the wave of the future."
Please, no, not the future. My hat-tip to Peter Gordon who writes:
In the goofiness sweepstakes, the professors and the politcians continue to battle it out.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Liberal Brains & Conservative Brains

The Denver Post reports on a study on the brain and politics:
Exploring the neurobiology of politics, scientists have found that liberals tolerate ambiguity and conflict better than conservatives because of how their brains work.

I'm wondering what value judgment underlies the "better than" conclusion.

I do find the following kind of interesting:
Participants' politics ranged from "very liberal" to "very conservative." Scientists instructed them to tap a keyboard when an M appeared on a computer monitor and to refrain from tapping when they saw a W. M appeared four times as frequently as W.

Each participant was wired to an electroencephalograph that recorded activity in the part of the brain that detects conflicts between a habitual tendency (pressing a key) and a more appropriate response (not pressing the key). Liberals had more brain activity and made fewer mistakes than conservatives when they saw a W.
Maybe the participants thought they would be voting for W if they pushed the W key, eh?

Taxes & Recession

Wall Street Journal commentary ($$$) on Congress and the economy:
. . . . New York's Chuck Schumer wasted no time Friday calling the jobs report "a punch to the gut of our economy," but his own party is preparing to deliver more blows. Any hint of a growth agenda has vanished since Democrats took Congress. Trade-expanding deals with Latin America and South Korea are stalled, and every week brings a new proposal to restrict trade with China.

On fiscal policy, Democrats have proposed or discussed raising taxes on cigarettes, oil and gas companies, hedge funds, private equity, capital gains, dividends, the U.S. subsidiaries of foreign companies, and individuals earning more than $500,000 a year (which includes millions of small businesses filing under Subchapter S). Add the promise of every Democratic Presidential candidate to repeal the Bush tax cuts if he or she wins in 2008, and no wonder investors are growing more cautious.

Oh, my, more and more taxes.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Trade Balanced

Don Boudreaux:

Here's advice for your readers: ignore anyone who complains that trade is "imbalanced." I have never encountered any such complaint that makes even a whiff of economic sense.

Exhibit A is today's letter from United Auto Workers' President Ron Gettelfinger. Mr. Gettelfinger grumbles that "the U.S. and South Korea have a huge imbalance in auto trade." Well, duh - that's an inevitable consequence of specialization. Although we cook in our household, my family still has a huge "imbalance" in the prepared-food trade with McDonald's. But we would make ourselves only poorer if my family and I refused to buy from restaurants that do not buy equal amounts of prepared meals from us. In this case, what is true for each household is true for the collection of households that we call the United States.

If trade (exchange) is voluntary (freely engaged in) each party to the exchange is better off. How can trade ever be "imbalanced" if each and every exchange means each party to the exchange is better off?

Monday, August 13, 2007

Protectionism is . . . .

Don Boudreaux:
"Protectionism" ultimately rests upon the threat to use violence against innocent persons engaged in peaceful commerce. Most of the time the coercive nature of protectionism is concealed -- out of view -- because consumers and producers harmed by it are deterred by the threat of violence from freely trading: the coercive nature of protectionism remains largely hidden. The thieves persuade the state to perform the threats; it all looks so clean and antiseptic and 'policy-ish.'

Congressional Corruption

One of my students writes in response to my recent post about Congress and corruption:

I share your sentiments Prof. Eubanks, the Actions of Congress can be quite discouraging. However, I do not quite agree that the assumption of rational ignorance is such a final word in the matter. While people’s tastes and preferences are quite consistent, they do have the habit of changing. Take for example people’s taste in sporting events.

In the first half of the twentieth century baseball was the sporting event of choice in the United States. In the years after though, football began to gain prominence until it has become the dominant sport in America. So what does this have to do with the Federal government (beyond monopoly rulings)? I suggest that this is a good example that peoples’ interests can shift and change in intensity. Could it be that Congress takes so much of American’s income because citizens no longer have the same intensity of interest in knowing what Congress spends it on?

Of course this could simply be a consequence of the increasing population; that people have less at stake that they use to. While I don’t deny this probably has an effect, I think that at the margin, the increase in population has little effect. For example if your vote one of five million instead of being one vote in one million would a person’s decision change all that much. I suggest that by the time one’s share in matters reaches the minute size of one millionth other incentives than their control of matters is at issue.

Or let us look at this in another way. We have allocated some of our scarce time in debating the actions of Congress. Have we done this because we believe that Congress will change their ways because they have read what we have to say? As much as I would like to think that our representatives listen to what a few of their constituents have to say, I doubt they do, and am very skeptical that and change would result. I think I can safely say our interest in politics extends beyond swaying political policy. It is this interest that gives me hope that we may one day have a Congress reigned in by the people.

When I hear about the latest spending by Congress I am discouraged, and when I hear others complain about Congress I share their feeling, but when I hear people speak that they will not forget the actions of Congress I am encouraged. We here are debating the actions of Congress, bringing to light those actions that they would rather us not think of come Election Day. We are taking more interest in the actions of the government simply, in my humble opinion, for the satisfaction knowing that Congress is listening to, and following, the will of the people. In this we are not alone, and that gives me courage the Lincoln’s remarks, “of the people, for the people, and by the people” may one day hold true again.

Best Wishes,
DeEon Warner

Friday, August 10, 2007

Congressional Earmark Corruption Continued

Congressional election politics last time around included "promises" to reform the practice of budget earmarking by members of Congress. While the issue and the "promises" seemed prominent in news and commentary then, one wonders what Congress has been up to in delivering on the "promises" to reform. There have actually been efforts to deliver on the promises, and the Club for Growth has been watching and keeping a scorecard. In the House there have apparently been 50 amendments offered that would strip earmark pork from appropriations bills. Unfortunately, 49 of those amendments FAILED. The Club for Growth's scorecard, along with notes of interest, can be found here. Two of the interesting notes are:
Sixteen congressmen scored a perfect 100%, voting for all 50 anti-pork amendments. They are all Republicans.

105 congressmen scored an embarrassing 0%, voting against every single amendment. The Pork Hall of Shame includes 81 Democrats and 24 Republicans.

Only 16 members of Congress voted in favor of all 50 anti-pork amendments, while 105 members of Congress voted against all the amendments aimed at removing the pork.

Let's consider some of the pork projects:
$300,000 for the On Location Entertainment Industry Craft and Technician Training project

$150,000 for the South Carolina Aquarium

$200,000 for the Corporation for Jefferson's Popular Forest

$2,000,000 for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service (Hmmm, guess we know who requested this one)

$628,843 for grape genetics research

$400,000 for the alternative uses of a tobacco grant

$489,000 for Ruminant Nutrition Consortium

$6,371,000 for the wood utilization grant
I think a list like this is troubling enough (just try to figure out which enumerated power in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution these spending projects fit under). But, a list may not help you understand why all this seems like corruption to me. So, consider this note by the Club for Growth:
$1 million to the Center for Instrumented Critical Infrastructure in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, requested by Rep. John Murtha (D-PA). No congressional member could confirm the existence of the alleged Center. Amendment failed, 98-326.
What is a voter to think when 326 members of Congress vote to spend $1 million on something they don't know exists?

Oh, let's not forget, one of the 50 amendments to remove the pork did actually pass:
$129,000 for the "perfect Christmas tree" project.
I guess we can't look forward to a future with perfect Christmas trees. Well, good, this is probably as it should be.

The corruption in all of this is not that Congress spends money on such projects. It is inherent in the characteristics of legislatures to supply the rent seekers with such projects. The corruption in all this is that these projects become part of appropriations bills because individual members of Congress are allowed to put them there, and often the individual requests for such spending projects are made secretly because the members making the requests are not identified. It has even been the case in the past that such earmarks do not appear in the written language of the appropriations bills being passed by Congress.

I would certainly like to see our corrupt Congress reformed, but alas, I do not think this is very likely. I would certainly like to see Congress and the federal government in general significantly constrained in the powers it is allowed to exercise. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court doesn't seem to have the heart for this either (although there was a time back in history when it did).

Maybe, though, people can come to see government as it is, and to see it's nature as James Madison (and his compatriots) told us long ago. But, given that I suggest to my students that they assume voters are rationally ignorant, there is not much hope for this idea either.

I'm kind of bummed now. Maybe I should think about joining the rationally ignorant.

[via Instapundit]

Surf and Tax

Don Surber:

Come next January when the top is up on my Mustang and I am shoveling my driveway, I will be warm in the knowledge that at least some of my federal tax dollars will be used to allow members of anti-alcohol groups to sun themselves at the Bahia Resort hotel in Mission Bay, Calif.

Anger always makes me warm.

Using a federal grant, the California Council on Alcohol Policy will hold a nice seminar for officials from tax-exempt groups that lobby the California legislature.

Ah, government, isn't it wonderful? Guess I feeling kind of warm myself.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Democratic Debate Spawns Weird Economics

James Pethokoukis notes several illustrations of weird economics. Here is one illustration:
"For every $1 billion we spend [on infrastructure], 40,000 jobs can be created in the United States of America." -- Sen. Christopher Dodd. I have no doubt that jobs can be created through government spending. But those billions must be taken from the private sector. Will those billions be used more wisely and efficiently and productively by federal bureaucrats than by private managers? If so, maybe the feds should guarantee a job for everyone who wants one. Using the Dodd formula, it would cost a mere $175 billion a year to employ all 7 million unemployed Americans.
Isn't this classic? It happens all the time with politicians and others in government. Apparently when a person enters, or is thinking of entering, government, it is normal to begin thinking that money grows on trees (and even that those trees don't have to be fed or watered). Just pluck the bills off the trees and spend that money and jobs will result. Of course, the trees with those bills are productive people who earn incomes. When those productive people spend their earned incomes, well, jobs are part of that equation as well. Of course, there is an opportunity cost in "lost jobs" that would be associated with those earned incomes being spent by the people who earned those incomes. This is just classic folk economics and nothing good results from believing it.

It is worth the time to look at the other illustrations as well.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Health Care Emerges?

Web Golinkin writes about the emergence of convenient care ($$$) health clinics:
"Convenient care clinics are small health-care facilities with new brand names like RediClinic, MinuteClinic, and Take Care Health Clinics. Most are located in high-traffic retail outlets with pharmacies, such as Wal-Mart, CVS and Walgreen stores. Regional health-care systems have also opened retail-based clinics in their service areas, either directly or in partnerships with independent operators. These clinics generally are staffed by certified nurse practitioners who diagnose, treat and prescribe medications for a limited set of common ailments, such as strep throat and ear infections. They also administer health screenings, medical tests, immunizations, basic physical exams and other preventive care.

Convenient care clinics have been embraced by consumers, who give them consistently high marks for patient satisfaction: 97% of the more than 4,000 RediClinic patients surveyed this year said they would recommend RediClinic to their relatives and friends. This is because the clinics are delivering something that is all too rare in our system -- convenient and affordable health care.

The quality of care at convenient care clinics stems from their use of nationally certified nurse practitioners, who are registered nurses with master's degrees or comparable advanced training. Research over the past 30 years has consistently shown that the primary care provided by nurse practitioners is comparable in quality to that provided by physicians, though nurse practitioners are still required to collaborate with local physicians in most states."

This is very interesting because it seems that it may be an illustration of how people who are free to bear risk discover entrepreneurial opportunities to make a profit by supplying services others need. I suppose some might say this is "the market at work." Certainly it suggests to me that those who want to try to fix the problems many associate with our health care system today by turning to the government and its coercion may be looking in the wrong direction.

Are these convenient care clinics a good idea? One way to judge this question is simply to wait and see if they are sufficiently profitable to continue to be viable businesses.

But, is there a way to get some idea about the answer to this question without having to wait and see? Consider:
"There are about 400 such clinics today and could be several thousand more in the next few years, but their growth is being threatened by burdensome regulations in some states and opposition from some corners of organized medicine."
And, also:
"Some physician organizations, however, including ones in Illinois and Massachusetts, are pushing for new regulations that would impede the growth of convenient care clinics through expensive permitting requirements (which physician practices do not have to face), further limitations on the number of nurse practitioners that an individual physician can supervise, and prohibitions against advertising that compares the fees of convenient care clinics with those of physicians. This is exactly the kind of price transparency our health-care system needs. In addition, the American Medical Association passed resolutions at its recent annual meeting that push for government intervention, legislation and other measures that could curtail the expansion of convenient care clinics.

Opposition to convenient care from some parts of the medical community is made under the pretext of wanting to ensure quality and continuity of care, which is a legitimate but thus far unfounded concern. But the opposition is also about wanting to maintain the status quo even in the face of rapidly escalating costs and a growing shortage of primary-care physicians."
Ah, yes, this is familiar to me. Some people in the health care industry perceive these convenient care clinics as threats, and they are choosing to turn to government in order to use it's coercion and power maintain the status quo to their advantage. Instead of competing to supply a service to customers, they turn to the use of force which is found in government policy. This looks like yet another classic illustration of rent seeking, and it suggests to me that these emerging new clinics are likely to be a good idea.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

More Earmark Corruption

Remember that not long ago one political party made heavy use of budget earmarks. If you haven't heard of this term yet an earmark means that one Senator or Congressman is allowed to decide specifically how to spend millions of taxpayer dollars. Often, in the past at least, such spending decisions of specific members of Congress were made secretly because the specific member of Congress making the earmark was not identified, and it was even quite frequently the case that the earmark was not even written into the language of the spending bill that the public could read and that all members of Congress voted on. Such a practice seems to me to clearly indicate there is signficant corruption in our Congress.

Remember also that not long ago the opposite political party made heavy use of being against earmarks in the rhetoric of a political campaign. This political party promised to significantly reform the practice of earmarks. While I personally don't see much to support in a campaign promise to reform Congressional corruption from being a lot of corruption to being less corruption, it is my sense that it was this promise that was a significant reason for this party being elected to control Congress at this time.

I have chosen not to use the names of the two political parties because it seems both parties act the same with respect to earmarks. It is not the case that one party or the other party is corrupt, but rather that Congress itself has become a government agency that is infected by the corruption we call budget earmarks. A WSJ commentary today (subscription required) makes this clear.
"As for Members restraining themselves, they once promised more transparency and limits for the pork-barrel projects known as "earmarks." These secret spending handouts have proliferated in recent years and in 2005 alone cost taxpayers some $27 billion. Worse, they are a kind of gateway drug used to buy votes for even greater spending. As the last unlamented Republican Congress showed all too well, earmarks are also major opportunities for corruption. The current investigation into Mr. Stevens, the long-time head of the Senate Appropriations Committee, centers on whether he may have directed millions in earmarks to benefit family, friends and business partners. (He says he has nothing to hide.)

Voters loathe this way of doing business, and Democrats did well last year campaigning to end the earmark status quo. The public embarrassment also allowed Republican Senators Jim DeMint and Tom Coburn to shame Majority Leader Harry Reid into agreeing to meaningful reform in January. Yet when the final reform emerged from Congressional backrooms last week, any serious reform had vanished. Mr. Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi proceeded to bring the bill to the floor in a fast-track procedure that has avoided most public scrutiny and limited the ability of reformers to offer amendments to restore the cuts."

Perhaps there are several things to emphasize in these paragraphs, but let me just point out two. First, note that the party leaders in each house "proceeded to bring the bill to the floor in a fast-track procedure that has avoided most public scrutiny and limited the ability of reformers to offer amendments to restore the cuts." Should we suggest that not only does Congress seem characterized by corruption these days, but in addition, at least the leadership (if not the Congressional membership in general) seems to have contempt for the public and perhaps for the basic principles that many people would say are the foundation of our republican form of government. Second, consider the figure for total earmarks in 2005, i.e., $27 billion. Since there are 535 members of Congress, this figure suggests that on average each member of Congress was allowed in 2005 to secretly spend about $50.5 million on projects and on people of their own personal choosing. Of course, that is an average and that means while many members of Congress were not participating in the practice of earmarks, perhaps by choice or perhaps because the Congressional leadership did not allow participation by each Congressional member, there are members of Congress who secretly spent much more than $50 million on their own personal pet projects. Of course, to me, all this seems quite corrupt, and that is just in terms of thinking members of Congress buy support for reelection by paying back people who give dollars to their Congressional reelection campaigns. It is often the case that the corruption is worse than this because often the earmarked monies are spent in ways that provide income for members of the family of the Congressman secretly spending the taxpayer's money.

What else can we learn from this WSJ commentary? Well things like:
"What remains is a sham of a reform. A prohibition on allowing Members to trade earmarks for votes? Gone. A restriction on allowing Members and their staff from promoting earmarks from which they or their families would receive a direct financial benefit? All but gone. The original reform required earmarks to be listed on the Internet and searchable 48 hours before consideration of legislation; the new bill says this is only required if it is "technically feasible." Here's betting Congress finds other urgent uses for its tech staff during Appropriations season.

Our favorite switcheroo: Under the previous Senate reform, the Senate parliamentarian would have determined whether a bill complied with earmark disclosure rules. Under Mr. Reid's new version, the current Majority Leader, that is Mr. Reid himself, will decide if a bill is in compliance. When was the last time a Majority Party Leader declared one of his own bills out of order?"

So, regardless of party, our Congress seems simply to be a corrupt political institution these days. But, perhaps there is another way of looking at all of this. Perhaps this "corruption" is just inherent in the very nature of any legislative body. Perhaps we can't expect members of Congress to behave differently in general because this is just the way legislatures act. If so, then perhaps this reality can't be changed; can't be "reformed."

Perhaps the best answer then to actions such as these that seem to clearly abuse political power is simply to make greater efforts to constrain Congress to a much smaller realm of power. Our Constitution was framed on the concept of enumerated powers which made explicit just those things Congress was supposed to have the power to do. Over the decades the Supreme Court has allowed this idea of enumerated powers to be so significantly eroded that, for the most part, Congress is now allowed the power to intervene in nearly every aspect of our system of political economy, and this means there are few significant meaningful constraints on Congressional action. It seems to me difficult to constrain members of Congress from abusing the legislative power when there are few real constaints on Congressional actions at all. Perhaps the only possible way to reduce government's abuse of power is to have a judicial branch of government that recognizes it's role is to constrain and limit government; not to facilitate and enable government to extend it's powers beyond those specifically enumerated in the Constitution.

Monday, July 23, 2007

21st Century Safety Net?

The Washington Post reports on a Congressional bill to expand something called the Trade Adjustment Assistance program:
As part of their campaign to soothe an anxious middle class, congressional Democrats are preparing legislation that would significantly expand federal aid to the most obvious victims of the global economy: workers whose jobs move offshore or are lost to foreign imports.

Under a Senate bill to be introduced today, computer programmers, call-center staffers and other service-sector workers who make up the vast majority of the nation's workforce would for the first time be eligible for a generous package of income, health and retraining benefits currently reserved for manufacturing workers who lose their jobs to international trade.

Democrats say the expansion of the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program would begin to reweave the social safety net for the 21st century, as advances permit more industries to take advantage of cheap foreign labor -- even for skilled, white-collar work. By providing special compensation to more of globalization's losers and retraining them for stable jobs at home, they say, an expanded program could begin to ease the resentment and insecurity arising from the new economy.

Greg Mankiw asks 2 questions that seem to me must be considered crucial in evaluating whether the proposal should be law or not:
1. Can you really tell whether worker is losing his job due to trade or due to other forces, such as technological change?

2. Is a worker who loses a job due to trade deserving of a more generous safety net than a worker who loses his job due to other forces, such as technological change?
I suggest the answer to both questions is NO.

So, I wonder which rent-seeking group supports this legislation? I suspect it is not the "anxious middle class."

Monday, July 09, 2007

Silence of the West

Victor Davis Hanson:
"What is striking about all this savagery—whether with the filmed beheadings of Westerners in Iraq to the recent flaming Johnny Storm human torch at Glasgow, screaming epithets as he sought to engulf bystanders and ignite his canisters — is the absolute silence of the West, either distracted by Paris and i-Phones or suffering from Bush Derangement Syndrome and obsessed with Guantanamo.

It is hard to recall an enemy so savage and yet one so largely ignored by rich affluent and distracted elites as the radical jihadists, as we have to evoke everything from mythology to comic books to find analogies to their extra-human viciousness.

For a self-congratulatory culture issuing moral lectures on everything from global warming to the dangers of smoking, the silence of the West toward the primordial horror from Gaza to Anbar is, well, horrific in its own way as well..."
If you want to understand just a bit of what VDH is writing about, you should follow the link in his comment to Michael Yon's report. And, if you do that, be sure to follow Yon's link to his entire report.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Budget Politics: Pot & Kettle

From a news story in the Washington Post:
"Democrats have pork spending on the menu for their grilling of Jim Nussle, President Bush's pick as White House budget director. Nussle's confirmation hearings will focus on the former congressman's pursuit of earmarks for Iowa, as well as ballooning deficits during his tenure as chairman of the House Budget Committee.

The plan, Democratic strategists say, is to use the hearings to detail the collapse of fiscal discipline during the Bush administration and to grab the offensive from Republicans who are trying to turn the debate over Democratic spending bills into a morality play on thrift.

'We're not going to let these guys act like the protectors of fiscal prudence here when they've left a sea of red ink," said Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.)."
It seems to me that most of what Congress does these days fits the term "rent-seeking." As such, perhaps the very nature of the way Congress works involves "pork," and it really makes no difference whether the Democrat party or the Republican party controls Congress. Congress is Congress and "pork" pays for the vote trading that gets bills passed. (Of course, "earmarks" are an extreme version of what is called "pork," and it seems to me earmarks are a manifestation of Congressional corruption rather than part of the very nature of a legislature.) So, when I read the comment of the Democratic Caucus Chairman that "we're not going to let these guys . . . . .," it really seems to me that the Democrat strategy here is "the pot calling the kettle black." Can the pot calling the kettle black be an successful strategy? Given the rational ignorance of voters, the answer may be yes.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Health Care

DAVID GRATZER has an article at Opinion Journal discussing health care systems. Dr. Gratzer points out that being "born and raised in Canada, I used to believe in government-run health care. Then I was mugged by reality." Here are some of the features of reality as he sees it:
  • "Her client, Lindsay McCreith, would have had to wait for four months just to get an MRI, and then months more to see a neurologist for his malignant brain tumor. Instead, frustrated and ill, the retired auto-body shop owner traveled to Buffalo, N.Y., for a lifesaving surgery. Now he's suing for the right to opt out of Canada's government-run health care, which he considers dangerous."
  • "A Canadian government study recently found that only about half of patients are treated in a timely manner, as defined by local medical and hospital associations. "The research merely confirms anecdotal reports of interminable waits," reported a national newspaper. While people in rural areas seem to fare better, Toronto patients receive care in four hours on average; one in 10 patients waits more than a dozen hours."
  • ". . . . A relative, living in Winnipeg, nearly died of a strangulated bowel while lying on a stretcher for five hours, writhing in pain. To get the needed ultrasound, he was sent by ambulance to another hospital."
  • ". . . . a hospital in Sutton Coldfield announced its new money-saving linen policy: Housekeeping will no longer change the bed sheets between patients, just turn them over."
  • ". . . . France's system failed so spectacularly in the summer heat of 2003 that 13,000 people died, largely of dehydration. Hospitals stopped answering the phones and ambulance attendants told people to fend for themselves."
  • ". . . . Dr. Day is a leading critic of Canadian medicare; he opened a private surgery hospital and then challenged the government to shut it down. 'This is a country,' Dr. Day said by way of explanation, 'in which dogs can get a hip replacement in under a week and in which humans can wait two to three years.'

These days there seems to be growing policy talk in Washington about nationalized health care. I'm afraid Dr. Gratzer's view of reality may become increasingly scarce in Washington.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Justice Thomas

Stephen Presser writes an interesting article on Justice Thomas. Here is one passage that suggests why Justice Thomas is one of my heroes:
"When Thomas took his seat on the Court, Justice Byron White gave him some advice about how to respond to the views of his new colleagues: “Don’t change your mind unless you’re truly persuaded.”

Thomas paid attention, showing his fierce independent streak in one of his first cases, Hudson v. McMillan (1992). The suit involved a black Louisiana prisoner named Keith Hudson. Guards had beaten him as a supervisor looked on, telling them not “to have too much fun,” leaving the inmate with “a cracked lip, a broken dental plate, loosened teeth, and cuts and bruises,” according to Hudson’s testimony. Hudson brought a civil rights claim, arguing that he had suffered “cruel and unusual punishment,” which the Eighth Amendment prohibits. In conference, eight of the Court’s nine justices agreed.

Thomas dissented, urging that Hudson’s injuries were actually “minor” and that the Constitution’s “cruel and unusual” language, correctly understood as the framers did, ought to be limited, at a minimum, to significant injury. “In my view,” he explained, “a use of force that causes only insignificant harm to a prisoner may be immoral, it may be tortious, it may be criminal, and it may even be remediable under other provisions of the Federal Constitution, but it is not ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’ ” Further, Thomas pointed out, the Eighth Amendment originally referred to the sentence meted out at trial, not to the incarceration conditions that followed. Any decision to abandon these historical understandings should be up to the people, acting through legislation or constitutional amendment, not to the unelected members of the Court."
What do I like about this story? I like that Justice Thomas pointed out that the 8th Amendment originally was about the sentence imposed, and even more importantly, that if this was going to be changed it should be done by "the people" through proper constitutional processes, not by the Court which is not supposed to have the constitutional power to amend the constitution.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

China, the Internet, and Liberty

'Breitbart.com reports:
"Recognising the threat of China's growing online community, Chinese President Hu Jintao called in January for the Internet to be 'purified', and the government has since launched a number of online crackdowns.

'The department of propaganda has sent out regulations to try and control the opinions being spread on the Internet, but every citizen has the right to criticise or to take part in public affairs on the Internet,' said Zhu Dake, a professor at Shanghai Tongji University.

'The government has to accept the criticisms of the people, it can no longer react crudely like in the past.'"
This is a very interesting news story, and it's probably worth your time to read the entire piece. One thing the story suggests is that the internet is a fantastic technology for liberty, even in a system of political economy as politically repressive as China.

Can we imagine what the Chinese government might do in order to "purify" the internet?

Here at home, I'm hearing that many of our leaders in Washington are talking about a "fairness doctrine" because of their concerns about talk radio. It seems that the bottom line for such concerns is something like this: "We don't like what talk radio says about us." Maybe such talk by political leaders could also be described as efforts to "purify"? But, thank goodness, we have a First Amendment here at home that will allow us to continue to enjoy the liberty to speak our political minds, even through the means of talk radio. Or, am I too naive or optimistic with respect to our Constitution and the Supreme Court?

[HT Instapundit]

Thursday, June 21, 2007

National Parks, Monopoly, & Unofficial Tax

TOM SOWELL:
"When you check into monopoly-controlled lodgings at Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, you are told that one dollar of what you are being charged goes to support some private group that pushes its own agenda for the national parks -- unless you specifically object.

Who are these anonymous groups being funded by this back door method? They have high-sounding names expressing concern about national parks, but that is about all you know about them.

Why can't they get their money from their own members or by making a direct appeal to the public, stating their case, instead of by an unofficial tax on park visitors for a private lobby?"
Sowell's commentary offers good illustrations of problems that arise from monopoly, and in these illustrations he doesn't really emphasize the unofficial tax. Government granting a monopoly is troubling enough, but I am that much more concerned when government seems to be giving it's power to tax to unnamed special interest groups.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Iraq

This is from an email sent by Michael Yon to Glenn Reynolds:
"Another day has passed without my having seen a shred of combat. The area around the city of Hit, in Anbar Province, has mostly fallen silent. A dust storm swept in late yesterday, and as normal, the enemy used the storm for cover to seed a few small IEDs on roads. The bombs were small and were discovered without incident.

I am becoming very interested by the city of Hit and surrounds; the fighting turned-off abruptly in February after Task Force 2-7 Infantry arrived. Why did the fighting end so suddenly?"
Also:
"Iraqis have told me many times that the larger part of this war is not about religion. Fanatical groups such as al Qaeda surely have wreaked havoc, but a huge part of the war is about business, influence and resources. The American Commanding General, David Petraeus, has said repeatedly that money is ammunition in this war. The meetings I attend with local leaders around Iraq are never about religion. Religion is seldom if ever brought up. The meetings are about security, electricity, jobs, water projects. The meetings often are about influence, and politics fit for a novel."
Very interesting.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Wise Government?

Russell Roberts:
"There are two themes in this short excerpt that are often linked together: government can help people so let's ask government to do so. Missing from the logic is whether it is reasonable to assume that asking government to do X is likely to lead to X happening. I understand the theory. But is there evidence for the theory? And putting evidence to the side—it's often ambiguous—is it reasonable to assume that government will act in the way you expect? Does government have the information that would enable a wise decision? And most importantly, does government have the incentive to act wisely?"
Professor Roberts is writing an explanation of his views with respect to a recent Newsweek article. His entire piece is well worth reading. It does seem to me that many people assume government is something it is not, and, by the way, something government cannot be.

The following views seem to me to be an accurate view of government:
In my view, it's best not to assume any motives on the part of "government." There's really no such thing as "government" other than an abstraction we use to describe the sausage factory of legislation. Politicians do have motives. They are the same as mine and yours—a mixture of self-interest and altruism. In the case of the poor, I think it is too easy for a politician to convince himself or herself that interest rate limitations are good for the poor. They are actually good for the wealthier constituents.

It is tempting to assume that government is our friend. My friend might see me about to make a bad financial decision and ask me whether I'm sure it's a good idea. The friend does that out of love or affection. But government does not love. Even the love of a politician is unlikely to extend beyond that of any other stranger. So why do we expect the politician to be our friend and do what is right for us? Given power, I assume the politician will often be tempted to do what is best for the politician. So I think it is best not to ask government to help us make better decisions. Politicians do not have the incentive or the information to help poor people make better financial decisions. And as for the evidence, I see none that suggests that past policies passed in the name of helping the poor have actually done so.

Friday, May 18, 2007

How Things Work: Congress 2007

POLITICO:
"According to the draft resolution, Murtha shouted at Rogers on the House floor Thursday for offering a motion last week to expose $23 million Murtha requested in an intelligence bill.

Murtha had requested the money to prevent the administration from shuttering the National Drug Intelligence Center in Johnstown, Pa.. in Murtha’s district.

“I hope you don’t have any earmarks in the defense appropriations bills because they are gone, and you will not get any earmarks now and forever,” Murtha told Rogers on the House floor, according to the draft transcript given Politico.

“This is not the way we do things here -- and is that supposed to make me afraid of you?” Rogers replied.

“That’s the way I do it,” Murtha said.

Members are not allowed to threaten earmarks or tax provisions.

The showdown occurred on the Republican side of the aisle, in the so-called Ohio Corner, in front of numerous GOP lawmakers who witnessed the episode, one member present said.

Murtha could not immediately be reached for comment."

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Climate Change Models

Brandon Keim:
"Global climate models are missing a good chunk of plant information that could significantly alter long-term climate change predictions. A new technique for modeling phytoplankton -- microscopic plants in the upper layers of the Earth's waters -- could reveal a much more accurate picture."
Now this seems interesting, especially in view of the alleged scientific concensus with respect to global warming. (Perhaps this concensus should not be referred to as a scientific concensus, but instead it might be referred to as a political concensus of many scientists.)

I wonder why someone might think that microscopic plants should be part of climate change models?
"Phytoplankton perform two-thirds of all the Earth's photosynthesis -- the process by which plants turn light, nutrients and carbon dioxide into food. The amount of CO2 processed by phytoplankton during photosynthesis affects concentrations of CO2 in the water, which determines how much of the greenhouse gas the oceans can absorb."
Wow! The little microscopic plants perform 2/3 of all the earth's photosynthesis. Maybe it would be important to have a good model of phytoplankton when worrying about climate change. Apparently the model written about is "a major breakthrough." Why? It seems these little microscopic plants evolve and the new model offers a way of modeling that evolution.
Follows and his colleagues created a model ocean seeded with dozens of randomly generated types of phytoplankton. Like the real ocean, the model accounted for variations in light, temperature and food.

Having set the parameters, Follows' team turned the model on. Over 10 simulated years, the digital creatures competed to survive. Some died out, others flourished, and they gradually settled into their respective niches.

Current marine-modeling systems don't factor in the phytoplankton's ever-evolving nature.

"We know that if climate changes a lot, the oceanic ecosystem will change," says Raleigh Hood, a University of Maryland oceanographer. "This model has the power to change itself under changing conditions."

It sounds like the new model has great value because ocean biology will evolve and this should apparently have an impact on the earth's carbon cycle. The new model may offer a way of guessing about how significant aspects of the earth's climate may evolve in response to carbon emissions. It sounds like models upon which the alleged scientific concensus are grounded may not have enough of the "ever-evolving nature" of nature embodied in them.

In view of news like this, I wonder how much comfort we should find in the scientific concensus on global warming? And, I wonder, in view of news like this if the scientific concensus might also be due for some evolving?

[HT: Instapundit]

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Iraq Politics: Here & There

Max Boot:
"An article in USA Today reported on a Pentagon-funded study which confirms what military historians already know--an average insurgency can run for a decade, but most fail in the end. Translation: If we're going to be successful in Iraq, we're going to have to make a long-term commitment. That doesn't mean 170,000 U.S. combat troops stationed there for 10 years, but it does mean a substantial force--tens of thousands of soldiers--will be needed for many years to come. If we're planning to start withdrawing in September 2007--or even September 2008--we might as well run up the white flag now and let the great Iraqi civil war unfold in all its horror."
Also:
Slow progress toward an acceptable modus vivendi may still be possible as long as the U.S. doesn't insist on artificial timetables to resolve complex and emotional issues. What incentive do Iraqi politicians have to make compromises if they think that American troops are heading out the door? If that's the case, Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds would be well advised to avoid making any concessions that would strengthen their mortal enemies. Thus all the talk in Washington about troop withdrawals has the opposite effect from what is intended. Instead of spurring Iraqi politicians to compromise, it leads them to be more obdurate.
I'm not so sure all the talk in Washington is intended to spur on Iraqi politicians and influence Iraqi politics. Instead I think the talk in Washington is primarily intended to influence our own election politics. But, I do agree with Boot's suggestion that the politics in Washington creates incentives for people in Iraq to hedge their bets with respect to which force will ultimately emerge as the long-term government of Iraq.

What do those in Washington who are pulling for withdrawal of our forces predict is likely to happen with that withdrawal? What is the future they see for Iraq if our forces are withdrawn prior to our next Presidential election? Max Boot writes a bit about what he thinks might happen, and you should read the rest of his commentary to get that picture. I don't think the proponents of withdrawal talk much about the future they picture for Iraq with our near-term withdrawal. I wonder if that is because the picture Boot paints is something like the picture they see as well?

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Medicare Meltdown -- Wake Up

Thomas Saving (WSJ $$):
"What's going to happen when the money runs out for Medicare? A recently released report by the program's trustees found that within seven years Medicare taxes will fall short of Medicare expenses by more than 45%. What's more, Medicare and Social Security combined are on track to eat up the entire federal budget.

While the bulk of Medicare dollars comes from payroll taxes and beneficiary premiums, a large and growing share of Medicare expenses is borne by general taxpayers. And although the same law that created the new Medicare drug benefit also requires the president to propose remedial legislation, Congress is not required to actually do anything.

The trustees' wake-up call comes none too soon. But what is needed are not minor adjustments. A major overhaul is in order.

The projected cash flow deficits in these two programs are staggering. For Social Security, the trustees estimate the 75-year burden on general revenues at $6.7 trillion. For Medicare the comparable burden on general revenues is $24.2 trillion, even after allowing the current transfers to grow with the economy. Thus the total burden these programs will impose on federal finances over the next 75 years is $31.9 trillion, more than six times the current outstanding federal debt. Looking beyond 75 years into the indefinite future, the combined long-run funding gap for Social Security and Medicare is $74.8 trillion in today's dollars.

Members of Congress will not have to wait long to experience the practical effects of all of this. Until a few years ago, Social Security and Medicare were taking in more than they spent, on the whole. Thus they provided revenue for other federal programs. That situation is now reversed, and last year the combined deficits in the two programs claimed 5.3% of federal income tax revenues. In 15 years these two programs will require more than a fourth of income tax revenues: In other words, in just 15 years the federal government will have to stop spending one out of every four non-entitlement dollars in order to balance the budget and keep its promises to the elderly."

In conclusion:
"If nothing is done, Social Security and Medicare deficits will engulf the entire federal budget. If our policy makers wait to address the growing deficits until they are out of control, the solutions will be drastic and painful. Let us hope that the current wake-up call is not ignored."
So, what are the chances that our policy makers will ignore these problems? Who on our national political stage is making these problems their issue?

You should read the entire piece, both to understand the nature of our future if nothing is done soon, and also to understand the sorts of things that should be done now.

If this issue is not part of the presidential election season we are already in, aren't the odds that these issues will continue to be ignored pretty high?

Cartoon

As a perfect complement to my last post, check out this cartoon.

[HT: Don Boudreaux]

Monday, May 07, 2007

The Earth's Human Virus

Paul Watson:
"Curing a body of cancer requires radical and invasive therapy, and therefore, curing the biosphere of the human virus will also require a radical and invasive approach

It won’t be easy but then it’s better than the alternative."
What does Mr. Watson think should be done?
There is only one cure, only one way of stopping this rising epidemic of extinctions. The solution requires an extraordinarily immense effort by all of human society but it is achievable.

We need to re-wild the planet. We need to “get ourselves back to the garden” as Joni Mitchell once so poetically framed it.

This is a process that will require a complete overhaul of all of humanities economic, cultural, and life style systems. Within the context of our present anthropocentric mind-set the solution is impossible. It will require a complete transformation of all human realities.

But the alternative is unimaginable. Unless we address the problem, we will be faced with the complete transformation of the planet from one of diversity to ecosystems shattered, weakened, and destroyed by mass extinction and the collapse of bio-diversity.

One hundred and fifty years ago, Henry David Thoreau wrote that “in wildness is the preservation of the world.”

We should not be living in human communities that enclose tiny preserved ecosystems within them. Human communities should be maintained in small population enclaves within linked wilderness ecosystems. No human community should be larger than 20,000 people and separated from other communities by wilderness areas. Communication systems can link the communities.

In other words, people should be placed in parks within ecosystems instead of parks placed in human communities. We need vast areas of the planet where humans do not live at all and where other species are free to evolve without human interference.

We need to radically and intelligently reduce human populations to fewer than one billion. We need to eliminate nationalism and tribalism and become Earthlings. And as Earthlings, we need to recognize that all the other species that live on this planet are also fellow citizens and also Earthlings. This is a planet of incredible diversity of life-forms; it is not a planet of one species as many of us believe.

We need to stop burning fossil fuels and utilize only wind, water, and solar power with all generation of power coming from individual or small community units like windmills, waterwheels, and solar panels.

Sea transportation should be by sail. The big clippers were the finest ships ever built and sufficient to our needs. Air transportation should be by solar powered blimps when air transportation is necessary.

All consumption should be local. No food products need to be transported over hundreds of miles to market. All commercial fishing should be abolished. If local communities need to fish the fish should be caught individually by hand.

Preferably vegan and vegetarian diets can be adopted. We need to eliminate herds of ungulates like cows and sheep and replace them with wild ungulates like bison and caribou and allow those species to fulfill the proper roles in nature. We need to restore the prey predator relationship and bring back the wolf and the bear. We need the large predators and ungulates, not as food, but as custodians of the land that absorbs the carbon dioxide and produces the oxygen. We need to live with them in mutual respect.

We need to remove and destroy all fences and barriers that bar wildlife from moving freely across the land. We need to lower populations of domestic housecats and dogs. Already the world’s housecats consume more fish than all the world’s seals and we have made the cow into the largest aquatic predator on the planet because more than one half of all fish taken from the sea is converted into meal for animal feed.

We need to stop flying, stop driving cars, and jetting around on marine recreational vehicles. The Mennonites survive without cars and so can the rest of us.

We can retain technology but within the context of Henry David Thoreau’s simple message to “simplify, simplify, simplify.”

We need an economic system that provides all people with educational, medical, security, and support systems without mass production and vast utilization of resources. This will only work within the context of a much smaller global population.

Who should have children? Those who are responsible and completely dedicated to the responsibility which is actually a very small percentage of humans. Being a parent should be a career. Whereas some people are engineers, musicians, or lawyers, others with the desire and the skills can be fathers and mothers. Schools can be eliminated if the professional parent is also the educator of the child.

This approach to parenting is radical but it is preferable to a system where everyone is expected to have children in order to keep the population of consumers up to keep the wheels of production moving. An economic and political system dependent on continuous growth cannot survive the ecological law of finite resources.

There is, of course, a complexity of problems in adjusting to a new design that will simply allow us to survive the consequences of our past ecological folly.
Wow. Pretty inspiring future, eh? There is much more in Mr. Watson's commentary. You may want to read the rest of it, just so you might understand why he sees us as a virus.

I wonder how many people who are environmental activists agree with Mr. Watson?

I wonder what Mr. Watson thinks of liberty?

[via Instapundit and Dan Gainor]

Patent Predators

Wall Street Journal commentary ($$):
"Patents are only worth the paper they're printed on unless governments protect them. So when Thailand browbeat Abbott Laboratories into dropping its prices for an HIV/AIDS drug last month by threatening to break its patent -- with nearly no international repercussions -- we were alarmed.

Now there's reason to be downright worried. On Friday Brazil declared it would seize the patent for Merck's HIV/AIDS drug, efavirenz. It's the first time Brazil has seized a patent, and it's a slap in the face of the World Trade Organization and the market system for drug innovation.

WTO rules allow countries to seize drug patents in times of 'national emergency' or for 'public non-commercial use.' But President Lula da Silva announced the patent expropriation on Friday after price negotiations broke down. Did Brazil's HIV/AIDS problem suddenly turn into an epidemic overnight, or did Lula just not like Merck's terms -- a 30% discount off the market price? Perhaps he was thinking, instead, of Brazil's huge generic drug industry, which could commercially benefit from a free invention and a big domestic market for selling it."
This can't be good.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Farm Subsidies: The Dirty Truth

Bryan Caplan offers some important observations that follow from a survey about agricultural subsidies:
"Bottom line: In the sector closest to perfect competition, where economists truly have to think hard even to imagine a case against laissez-faire, Americans favor heavy intervention nevertheless."
What is an economist to do? It seems more and more people attend college, and more and more of these people take a microeconomics principles course, and yet, such survey results suggest many do not understand the way economies work.

Money Politics

How can we get money out of politics? Don Boudreaux answers this question in a letter to the editor:

To the Editor:

Drummond Drew writes that "We need to find a way to get money out of politics" (Letters, April 26). He mistakenly supposes that carts push horses. Money is in politics only because politicians confiscate and control so much of our money.

The only way to free politics from the influence of money is to free our money from the influence of politics.

Sincerely,
Donald J. Boudreaux

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The War

Richard Miniter:
What does this traitor’s tale tell us about the larger insurgency? One thing that is reveals is Iran’s large role in supporting the insurgency in Iraq.

Serkawt Hassan’s charm is his policeman’s bluntness. He doesn’t have a politician’s worries; he is paid to tell it like it is. As the Director of Security for the Sullimani governorate, he supervises a staff of more than 3,000.

Hassan knows something about insurgencies; he joined the Kurdish peshmerga in October 1981and became a guerilla fighter after the 1988 chemical attacks by Saddam Hussein killed almost 200,000 Kurds. He joined the uprisings against Saddam in 1991 and has worked in the security service ever since. Fighting terrorists, he says, is his top priority.

He is a busy man. Often the interview is interrupted by calls on one of his three landlines or two mobile phones. Sometimes, he is ignoring the chirping cell phone while he presses the landline firmly to his ear. Once in a while, he talks like a 1930s Hollywood mogul with a phone in each ear.

He has survived three suicide attacks aimed at him.

Most insurgents either come from Iran or are somehow tied to that Islamic Republic, he says. “Iran knows about these groups and their movements,” he says matter-of-factly. He cites a number of towns just over the border with Iran, which his investigators believe that safe houses for terrorists are maintained: Mariwan,
Pejwan, Bokan, Sina, and Serdai.

“Iran is the top in terror in all the world,” he says. “If you want peace in all of the world, you change the authority in Iran.”

Is Iran actually in control of these groups, as Osman Ali Mustafa would lead us to believe? He scoffs. “If they want to close the border, no one can cross.”
This is a very interesting, and perhaps telling piece. Worth reading. (via Instapundit)

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Great Light Bulb Prohibition

There is an excellent commentary at OpinionJournal.com on political efforts underway to force the use of compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFL).
So the environmentalists have decided that light bulbs are the latest indicator of civilizational decline. Compared to "sustainable" sources, conventional incandescent lighting uses too much electricity, and hence is responsible for emitting greenhouse gases and global warming. The only solution is for government to ban incorrect bulbs. The greens may believe themselves more enlightened than the rest of us, but honestly.

The great light bulb prohibition movement is achieving traction world-wide. In February, Australia enacted an outright ban on incandescents, to take effect in 2010. In March, the European Union handed down a directive on "eco-design for energy using products" whose regulations phase out incandescents within three years. This expansion of the Eurocracy will affect 490 million people and all homes, offices and even streetlamps.

In the U.S., Al Gore and other global warmists demand federal prohibition. Democrat Jane Harman has introduced a bill in the House that would outlaw "non-conforming" bulbs; legislatures in California, Connecticut and New Jersey are considering similar measures.
What are the benefits of CFLs? They are estimated to use about 1/3 of the energy of conventional light bulbs, and it is also said that if every home in the United States installed just 1 CFL there would be an annual "savings" of some 15 million tons of coal annually. I guess that sounds good.

On the other hand, why should government force the use of this new technology?

According to the DOE, compact fluorescents constituted 0.4% of the U.S. residential lighting market in 2000. By 2006, out of the approximate two billion bulbs sold, CFL share jumped to about 5%. This is a larger displacement than it sounds, because CFLs last roughly eight times longer than normal bulbs, or seven years.

General Electric, which controls some 60% of the U.S. residential lighting market, has been aggressively selling CFLs. In 2005, GE tripled its manufacturing capacity, and tripled it again in 2006. Wal-Mart recently launched a major campaign to sell 100 million CFLs by 2008, which would double the CFL market share by itself.

Hmmm. Sounds to me like the new CFL light bulb has been doing rather well with consumers, even without government efforts to force the use of this new technology by prohibiting the continued choice of the old lighting technology.

CFLs are only now experiencing growth because of technological advances. In the 1990s, when they were introduced, they cost $15 to $20 each. They also tended to flicker and give off a harsh light. Now the per-bulb price is down to between $1.50 and $3, and improved "soft white" CFLs can mimic incandescent illumination.

Other drawbacks remain, though consumers are surely capable of evaluating for themselves the tradeoffs between energy savings and price, as well as other considerations. From the looks of it, they are gradually transforming a market that has been more or less static since the 1880s, when Thomas Edison invented the filament bulb.

The commentary ends with:
What's equally illuminating is that the environmentalists can't make their case through argument and persuasion. Instead, they immediately resort to state coercion--even when it is, as here, superfluous.
I think this is an interesting observation. The new technology is competing with the old technology for the choices of consumers, and with the recent advances and lower prices CFLs are gaining with consumers. I've replaced many of the old technology bulbs with the new technology myself.

For liberty and for efficiency, government should use force in other ways than prohibiting the continued choice of an old and familiar technology. The days of the old technology already seem numbered because of voluntary consumer and producer choices.