January 2009

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Saturday, January 31, 2009

HodgePodge 

Here are a few items I've thought about posting about, but never got around to:

First, I'd like to congratulate the Cato Institute for submitting this ad to major newspapers debunking the claim that there's near-unanimous consensus among respected economists that a package like the one the House recently passed is necessary and productive for economic recovery. It's a lie, and Cato making that widely known is a great service to the debate.

Speaking of the stimulus, one of the best commentaries on it that I've seen recently is this one by Steve Horwitz. Among other things, Horwitz points out that this bill is, for economic libertarians, similar to what the Patriot Act was for civil libertarians...

Just as the Patriot Act was a bunch of laws waiting for a political "crisis," so is much of the stimulus package a bunch of programs waiting for an economic "crisis." The current crisis is just a convenient excuse.

Best of all his his "Bottom Line":

The more that those of us who are skeptical continue to even refer to this as a "stimulus" plan, the more we play into the other side's hands. This isn't a stimulus package, it's a whole bunch of programs designed to extend the state's role in the economy and in our personal lives, and to do so at enormous cost to us, and to our children and grandchildren. Let's challenge the rhetoric of fear and crisis and name this for what it is: the current majority's attempt to do exactly what the Bush Administration did post-9/11, which is to use fear and crisis to pass programs that will impoverish us and curtail our freedoms, and to do so with the minimum of serious debate possible.

So, I'm with Will Wilkinson and now think of this as the Economic Patriot Act.

Speaking of Wilkinson, I'd like to second his recognition for our need of "cynics".

"Trash the cynic" is a stock tactic of popular politicians, used to weaken remaining resistance to their agenda. The admiring public gets a warm sense of cohesive uplift while the loyal opposition is cast in an unflattering light: outmoded, small-spirited, irrelevant. Those who would argue are made to look petty—whether or not they have a good point. Obama is a master of this game. And George W. Bush was no slouch when he, too, had a gale of popular opinion at his back and a mandate to "do something" in a season of crisis.
...
Obama's convictions clash with Bush's. They disagree. And many Americans disagree with Obama and stand in the way of his big plans. There is no cynicism in pressing the argument. Lively public debate annoys the partisan fixed on the main chance. But in a crisis like this, the last thing we need is another blank check. We need balance. We need those who will push back. Call them cynics, if you must.

Finally, I'd like to wish the Pittsburgh Steelers good luck in tomorrow's Super Bowl game.


Friday, January 23, 2009

The Mendacity of Trope, Part II 

Beyond my previously expressed peeves with Obama's Inaugural Address is a more philosophical disagreement. Here are some quotes:

On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.
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But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions -- that time has surely passed.
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What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.
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We remain a young nation. But in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.

I know that many people find these words inspiring, but I find them terrifying.

I read him as trying to denigrate the traditional American values of limited government, and economic liberty. There have been many others who have urged their people to forget about childish, petty, narrow, stale, worn-out dogmas of individual liberty that were strangling their politics and constraining the abilities of the rulers to lead them to collective greatness. This has never turned out very well.

For someone who wants to "Restore science to its rightful place," he strikes me as a social creationist. He seems to find it implausible that free people can organize themselves more effectively with their distributed knowledge and individual goals than a top-down society built by Intelligent Design.

There's a world of difference between his collectivist appeals to central power and purpose, and individual liberty.

I'm sure he believes that his road is a good one, and I believe he's well intentioned.

But, we all know where such roads can lead.


Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Mendacity of Trope 

Obama lied.

Within seconds of taking his (botched) oath of office, he declared that "Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath." It's really forty-three (he counted Grover Cleveland twice).

But, that's not the main deception. The theme of his inaugural address is captured by "What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility."

Responsibility?

He's advocating a massively irresponsible spending program. One that conveniently includes massive allocations to projects of the type he had already advocated for their own sake, under the guise of a stimulus to help with economic recovery. This spending will deepen and lengthen the recession, and will place a huge burden on us to repay the increased debt (one way or another).

Check out Kevin Murphy's discussion (starting at 17:20 in the video, also see this for the slides) of the wild assumptions necessary to think that the stimulus spending will be helpful (HT Will Wilkinson).

Also, Obama has repeatedly promised to go over the budget to eliminate programs that aren't working. If he were honest about that, he'd reverse his support of the 2008 farm bill and scrap the bulk of agricultural subsidies.

And, if he were really honest he'd reconsider the entire War on Drugs and scrap that too.

I don't think he's responsible, or honest about wanting to eliminate all ineffective programs. I think he's a typical leftist politician who has seldom seen a problem that he didn't think could be solved by more government spending or regulation.

I would love to be wrong about this.

If I am, we'll all know it as soon as he reverses course on these issues.


Sunday, January 11, 2009

Defending Israel 

I don't have much fondness for any government. I took a lot of heat, growing up, when I would criticize Israel for its socialistic and religious domestic policies and excessive military policies in Lebanon (in the early 80s).

But, I recognize that if a government has any legitimate responsibilities, it's to defend its citizens against attacks.

So, I strongly support Israel's right to defend itself.

As far as I can tell, Israel has pursued this goal as morally and effectively as could be expected of any government. It has many unusual handicaps (greatly outnumbered, international bias against it, terrorist enemies who endanger their own civilians, etc.), but it has still been restrained in its use of force, and heroic in its attempts to minimize innocent deaths.

Nevertheless, whenever Israel resorts to force to stop attacks on its citizens (e.g. in Lebanon in 2006 or in Gaza currently), it is almost universally condemned for using excessive or disproportional force.

Nobody is ever able to spell out exactly what the boundaries of a justified proportional response would be, but they are certain that Israel has exceeded it.

I understand the impulse to keep uses of force within reasonable limits, and the natural idea that the "punishment should fit the crime", etc. But, this idea of proportionality doesn't really make sense to me when it comes to violent defense against murderous aggression. Israel isn't responding in-kind to attacks against civilians. It's not trying to kill innocents in Gaza. It's trying to do something else. It's trying to protect its citizens from being murdered. The amount of force this requires has nothing to do with how inept Hamas has been in its attempts to murder Israelis. It would like to kill zero innocents, but the tactics of Hamas, and human fallibility make this impossible. It goes to extreme efforts to warn people before impending attacks, and Hamas usually responds by sending more civilians to those places. The distinction of "civilian" is getting harder and harder to define.

Even Tom G. Palmer (a great libertarian scholar and hero), once again (he did this after the 2006 invasion of Lebanon) responds to the horrible images and stories of civilian deaths in Gaza with accusations that Israel is acting wrongly and has gone beyond a justified ratio of civilian deaths. Check out the comments to this post. In it, I try to engage with the notion of such a ratio. One point I made, that seems powerful to me, is this one:

And, consider the hypothetical case where you could define such a ratio.
If it’s not justified, given the current Israeli body count, to risk the death of more than p innocent Palestinians, then Hamas could keep Israel from ever justifiably defending itself merely by plausibly threatening to “martyr” p+1 civilians as soon as Israel launches a defensive strike.
This is not very different, in my opinion, from how the vast majority of Palestinian innocent deaths have occurred in this action (only in multiple, separate events).
Being sufficiently evil would assure victory.
I think there’s a bug in that theory.

Tom promises a reply soon.


Friday, January 09, 2009

The Stimulus Knowledge Problem 

Barack Obama seems determined to borrow and spend us to death, in an effort to appear to be doing something useful about the economic recession. And, he's continuing the Bush administration tactic of using fear of catastrophe if we don't immediately adopt his plan. We're already $11 trillion in debt and he wants to add another trillion (and more each year), taking and borrowing money from people who've earned it in order to spend it on gigantic politically-driven projects. Much of this spending is on things he's promised to do anyway, so he's using our emergency as an excuse to make it easier to get a lot of his wish list at once.

The man is dangerously irresponsible.

I'm sure we'll eventually recover despite the damage he's going to do, but I'm still really saddened that we'll have to endure it.

For those who may doubt that the emergency spending orgy will be bad for the country, consider these thoughts from Arnold Kling:

How many people will have meaningful input in determining the overall allocation of the billion stimulus? 10? 20? It won't be more than 1000. These people--let's say that in the end 500 technocrats will play a meaningful role in writing the bill--will have unimaginable power. Remember that what they are doing is taking our money and deciding for us how to spend it. Presumably, that is because they are wiser at spending our money than we are at spending it ourselves.
The arithmetic is mind-boggling. If 500 people have meaningful input, and the stimulus is almost $800 billion, then on average each person is responsible for taking more than $1.5 billion of our money and trying to spend it more wisely than we would spend it ourselves. I can imagine a wise technocrat taking $100,000 or perhaps even $1 million from American households and spending it more wisely than they would. But $1.5 billion? I do not believe that any human being knows so much that he or she can quickly and wisely allocate $1.5 billion.[GM: emphasis mine]

The government is already spending trillions each year in ways that make us worse off. He will add to that while we're in decline.

This will surely hurt us even more.


Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Institutions Matter 

Ronald Bailey at Reason, wrote an interesting article provocatively titled: Would You Have Been A Nazi? about the famous Milgram experiment (in which most subjects were easily manipulated to torture others, and which was recently replicated) that makes an important point that many people don't fully appreciate.

Americans have not escaped the natural human tendency to defer to authority. Instead, we have had the good fortune to find ourselves in the situation where our social institutions have traditionally limited what authorities can get away with. The institutions of liberty are what enable people to act on what Lincoln called, "the better angels of our nature."
We should really cherish and protect the institutions of liberty and limited government that we have. They have saved us, thusfar, from many horrors that have visited most of the world.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

The Social Security Ponzi Scheme 

Since Bernard Madoff has brought Ponzi schemes into the news recently, it seems like a good opportunity to remind people that the U.S. Social Security system is structured very similarly to this type of fraudulent scheme.

Here's a short page from Cato's SocialSecurity.org site describing the similarity:

Just like Ponzi's plan, Social Security does not make any real investments -- it just takes money from later "investors," or taxpayers, to pay benefits to earlier, now retired, taxpayers. Like Ponzi, Social Security will not be able to recruit new "investors" fast enough to continue paying promised benefits to previous investors. Because each year there are fewer young workers relative to the number of retirees, Social Security will eventually collapse, just like Ponzi's scheme.

And, here's a page that used to be on the Social Security Administration's site trying to explain away the similarities.

The longer we wait to reform this system the more painful it will be; both to those who will have grown dependent on it and those others who will have to pay to mitigate the damage.

If our new president really believes in honest change, he'll move quickly to end this horrible fraud.

We'll see.