Saturday, November 29, 2008

Experts and the Silence on Rights

Many commentators on 'the right' complain that so-called liberals, especially several on the Supreme Court, have been guilty of printing press rights. That is, they invent rights that never existed. But a more serious problem in contemporary times may be that Leftists simply ignore the issue entirely.

Look at the viros. They don't often these days argue that animals have rights. Nor do they argue that those rights are just as important as humans'. Instead, they just ignore the issue entirely. They simply assert: "Here's something valuable that we want to protect. Therefore, the government should protect it."

That their value assertion is totally arbitrary and subjective is one thing. That would be bad enough. But the non-sequitur that anything valuable should be protected by government intervention is downright dangerous and it's the most common argument made today.

Think of all the trouble this saves them.

No need to engage in abstruse and endless debates about the nature of rights. Just slide in the idea on the sly that the purpose of government is to protect. Who could object to that? Just make sure to stay away from answering "to protect what?"

No need to study the history of the Constitution or capitalism, nor how they have contributed to creating a country of plenty. Focus instead on how much has not been accomplished that most everyone agrees would be nice to have.

Ignorance is a great tool for such people. How many, after all, can afford the time (even if they had the inclination) to become an expert in law, science, and economics? Instead, just let the 'experts' tackle all the problems. Be sure to have those experts — since, it's argued, experts in the private sphere are 'tainted' by self-interest — be in government.

That hand off of power to a cadre of so-called experts has been tried in America before. Progressives from just after the turn of the 20th century through the end of the Roosevelt administration (with a respite during the Coolidge years 1923-1929) argued for government by the elite. Naturally, their view of 'elite' was a mixed bag of statist ideology and actual expertise.

We're seeing a similar phenomenon today as Paulson-Bernanke continue to wreck the economy and Obama selects his Cabinet and advisers. The results will be similar. All ignore the issue of rights. Observe that in all the bailout mania taking place everyone talks about whether it will work, not whether the Feds have the right to try in the first place. Like FDR to Bush's Hoover, Obama will try the same New Deal policies, this time on steroids. Those policies will fail and no one will ask whose rights were violated, only whether the experts got it right or wrong.

Down that road lies the tyranny of technocrats and unelected regulators in executive agencies with Congress aiding and abetting the crimes at every step. We're already far down that road and despite all the warning signs of an impending train wreck, there is no stop light in sight.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Getting Educated, So to See

There's a line in Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, spoken by Roark at his trial in the novel's climax: "I'm an architect. I know what is to come by the principle on which it is based." Nowhere is that idea better shown than in the field of education.

It's with that as background that it pays to think about how the current situation in public education came about, a situation in which Johnny can't think past the upcoming Friday night. The results we live with today are the direct consequence of what John Dewey advocated over 100 years ago. In 1897, he published My Pedagogic Creed with the express purpose of making radical changes in American education.

He wrote:
I believe that all education proceeds by the participation of the individual in the social consciousness of the race.
I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child's powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself. Through these demands he is stimulated to act as a member of a unity, to emerge from his original narrowness of action and feeling and to conceive of himself from the standpoint of the welfare of the group to which he belongs.
It strikes many at first as innocuous. But connect the dots. What has happened in the average public school to support for individual scholastic achievement? Largely gone, replaced by teachers and administrators who follow Dewey's preference for "the welfare of the group."

But what of all the diversity of pink and blue hair, tattoos, and clothing styles? Isn't that evidence of individualism of a sort? Not really. It is merely another form of chaos, the flip side of gray-tunic collectivism.

Hayek writes in The Road to Serfdom (PDF) of the relation between increasing government control of society in every sphere and such forms of 'individualism'. He observes that the only freedom the youth of Britain were coming to have was the freedom to rebel against everything. It was the only means they had for individual expression, most others being circumscribed by the State.

Down that road lies anarchy, the mirror image of totalitarian control and an effect of the same cause. To rebel mindlessly against society is no better than to mindlessly follow its conventions. It's already an accomplished fact in Britain. It's on the rise here.

In any case, the one type of open 'diversity' we do not typically find in contemporary classrooms is a diversity of ideas. It's a rare teacher who would advocate increasing the amount of economic freedom. Very few would be so bold, even in the unlikely case they were inclined, to throw the cool water of rational suspicion on the fashionable man-made global warming hypothesis. Their students follow suit.

How could they do otherwise? Following Dewey, their teachers have taught them:
[T]he true centre of correlation of the school subjects is not science, nor literature, nor history, nor geography, but the child's own social activities.
I believe that the study of science is educational in so far as it brings out the materials and processes which make social life what it is.
It's hard to envision a better recipe for a population ill-educated in science, literature, history, and geography. Cap it off with:
I believe that at present we lose much of the value of literature and language studies because of our elimination of the social element. Language is almost always treated in the books of pedagogy simply as the expression of thought.

It is true that language is a logical instrument, but it is fundamentally and primarily a social instrument. Language is the device for communication; it is the tool through which one individual comes to share the ideas and feelings of others. When treated simply as a way of getting individual information, or as a means of showing off what one has learned, it loses its social motive and end.
Heaven forfend, we wouldn't want to use language "simply as a way of getting individual information," worse still as a "way of showing off." To acquire information and be proud of acquiring it might, well, who knows, lead to one person being better than another in some way.

At the root of that nonsense are the twin modern evils of pragmatism and egalitarianism, fancy words for "don't connect the dots" and "anybody is as good as anybody else, no matter what." Is there a public school administrator today who would say it ain't so?

What, in Dewey's view, should we use to educate, if not primarily ideas?
[T]he image is the great instrument of instruction. What a child gets out of any subject presented to him is simply the images which he himself forms with regard to it.

I believe that if nine-tenths of the energy at present directed towards making the child learn certain things, were spent in seeing to it that the child was forming proper images, the work of instruction would be indefinitely facilitated.
No wonder that the speech of so many public school students is chiefly grunts and squeals, and that they can't form an argument. The end of that road is not hard to see. The overriding goal of Progressive education, the values it aims to achieve are...
that the teacher is engaged, not simply in the training of individuals, but in the formation of the proper social life.

I believe that every teacher should realize the dignity of his calling; that he is a social servant set apart for the maintenance of proper social order and the securing of the right social growth.
Or, as Rand put it in another brilliant line in The Fountainhead: "One neck, for one leash."

So, what's to be done?

Unlike many commentators on 'the right', I don't think reform of the public school system is feasible. So long as the government (particularly the Federal government's Department of Education or State government) sets the rules, there is slim likelihood of substantial changes. All the rigorous tests in the world are not going to change what, and more importantly how, teachers are teaching. After all, there's little point in, say, arm-twisting teachers into 'improving' history instruction if the history that's taught comes from Howard Zinn, author of A People's History of the United States.

One can, of course, dream about eliminating the Department of Education. That would save the taxpayers $50 billion per year and only result in the unemployment of a few thousand busybodies. But not even Reagan made much headway on that campaign promise and no one in government is even talking about it these days. Even that wouldn't cure the problem, though. The same local and state busybodies, not to mention the same kind of teachers, would still be in place. Above all, it leaves the same Progressive ideas in place.

Private school can compensate for some of the damage, but homeschooling is by far the best chance right now for a better future. Happily, there is still a large gulf (though narrowing by the year) between the worldview of most academic intellectuals in the humanities and the citizenry. Most parents still want their children to receive an actual education, not just an effective indoctrination.

Encouraging that option is, for the next few years, likely to be more difficult than ever. With the near-term economy in serious straits thanks to trillions in new Federal dollar commitments, most parents will find it more urgent for both to work. Still, if one's inclined to look for even tarnished silver linings, the rising unemployment will find more parents at home.

Here, as in every aspect of American society today, only an intellectual revolution that restores respect for rationality to center stage is going to make much headway against the grotesque state of American education. Where that will come from or how to build momentum for it is, like so much of what ails us, anybody's guess at this stage. It sure as hell isn't going to come from the educators.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Hope Amid Despair on Thanksgiving

Today it's easy for any thinking man to succumb to despair.

The Feds are spending stolen money like Viking sailors while promising more control over everyone. Progressive columnists left and right are urging them on, more confident than ever in their influence. That American culture, what's left of it, is decaying at an accelerating rate is a commonplace observation around the political compass. The likelihood of even so simple and once taken-for-granted an act as your neighbor just keeping his word is much lower today than in prior generations.

And yet, there are many hopeful signs for a better future; quite a few if you look carefully.

Yes, it sounds ridiculous at first blush. In fact, the case can be argued in a ridiculous way. Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch at ReasonOnline did just that recently in The Libertarian Moment. Their conclusion isn't absurd — they assert that things got better after the 70s ended. The problem is they use trivial examples like ending the Civil Aeronautics Board, having wider access to effective birth control, and increased prevalence of long hair on men, more socially acceptable clothing choices, and the like.

They quote Tom Wolfe approvingly, saying: "They’ve created the greatest age of individualism in American history! All rules are broken!" Not for nothing did Rand identify libertarians as "hippies of the right."

Now, the dissolution of the CAB, better birth control, and a diversity of individual styles aren't bad. Far from it. But if that's the best they can do, it's no wonder that "The Libertarian Party… [won] one electoral vote in 1972 and 921,299 popular votes in 1980" and has gone only downhill since. Cheering the fact that "all rules are broken" is not the way to encourage a rational culture, the prerequisite for one that supports individualism and freedom.

Fortunately, a good case for a better future is possible, and the authors recognize some elements of it. "...exponential advances in technology, broad-based increases in wealth, the ongoing networking of the world via trade and culture..."

There are others, even more important.

Thanks to the Internet in particular it's possible to get out a rational, pro-freedom message for only the price of your time. That would make it much harder to establish censorship, even amid a resurgence of support for the Fairness Doctrine. The FCC can easily terrorize TV and radio stations, who have billions on the line. It would be hard for them to chill blogs.

Climate science is advancing to the point that the global warming hypothesis is being eroded daily. To be sure, it will take a while for politics to catch up to — or, more accurately, be restrained by — the facts. There's enormous momentum for some kind of cap-and-trade legislation. But apart from being slowed down by a worsening economy, its advocates are going to find it harder to impoverish Americans when the scientific justification — always thin — is evaporating.

Citigroup may be in trouble, but they still have $2 trillion in assets. The Feds are trying very hard to spend all our damn money. But ultimately they will exhaust themselves, or people will lose patience with their meddling as it shows itself not to succeed. Then, producers will produce and the money on the sidelines will emerge for investment.

Even the financial downturn itself may not be quite as bad all around as we've been led to believe. It's early, but Thomas Sowell asserts: "Amid all the political and media hysteria, national output has declined by less than one-half of one percent." To add some anecdotal evidence, HDTV prices are down by half, along with everything else in Wal-Mart's recent flyer as are, obviously, gasoline prices. That's one way economies recover, by lowering prices.

Aside from these chiefly material circumstances, there are cultural aspects that continue to be good and could well get better over the coming few years.

The intellectual resources that created and sustained what we enjoy today still exist in many forms. Despite the destructive efforts of Progressives in media, academia, and government, millions of Americans continue to think rationally and advocate the right values.

There are dozens of popular columnists — Thomas Sowell, David Harsanyi, and Jeff Jacoby just to name three — arguing every day that capitalism is good, that freedom is an important value. Copies of Ayn Rand's novels continue to be distributed by ARI in schools around the country at the request of teachers who assign them to students. Books on the history of the Great Depression showing the disastrous effects of Hoover's and FDR's policies are now more plentiful (and successful) than ever. Goldberg's Liberal Fascism, Shlaes' The Forgotten Man, and Powell's FDR's Folly are three recent examples.

These are non-material resources that will prove valuable in the years to come. Apart from the columnists referenced above, America is still burgeoning unknown citizens with good sense. (Just read the comments on articles by those columnists sometime. Look at the hundreds of anti-Green, pro-liberty, pro-technology comments in Amazon book reviews.) Many still respect science; they still love individual freedom; they're still suspicious of those who would distort the first and undermine the second.

If their efforts can be coalesced in some effective form, the country still has a good chance of righting itself.

Goldberg writes in Liberal Fascism (page 110) of one interesting method, albeit used for evil during the Wilson administration. George Creel, head of the Committee on Public Information and a Progressive journalist, had the idea to create a vast propaganda corp. He organized nearly 100,000 "Four Minute Men." They would stand on street corners, in bars, anywhere a few people were gathered and deliver a four-minute speech touting Wilson's fascist policies. In 1917-1918 they delivered over 7.5 million of them in 5,200 communities.

Re-worked for the Internet, and provided with persuasive arguments to deliver on the value of liberty, that might just make a difference. Who knows? In a few years, we might very well have something for which to give thanks.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Immorality of Bailouts, Redux

There are numerous practical arguments that bear against the wisdom of Feds injecting capital into banks, automakers, and a list about to become too long to maintain. But let's suppose for the sake of argument — contrary to sound economic theory and a century of history — that a race of alien geniuses could find a way to make it succeed.

Such efforts would still be grossly immoral.

It would still amount to taking money from some people to give to others. But let's ignore that. It still encourages irresponsibility, rewards failure, and disadvantages the prudent. But let even that pass. The worst is: it undermines freedom.

Every dollar spent by a Federal official — no matter the purpose or effect, no matter how desirable the goal or effective the outcome — is a dollar not spent by a private person. It violates his freedom to determine where his dollar will be spent. The money has to come from somewhere and, since the Feds have none, that somewhere is ultimately the forgotten man, the person who pays: you.

The Feds are spending money that the market — which, after all, is just an abstraction standing in for billions of transactions carried about by millions of individuals — has decided not to spend in that way. The intrusion invariably keeps private money, which does exist in large quantity, on the sidelines. (Nicole Gelinas discusses one such case in a brilliant article in City Journal.) But set aside that practical consideration for the moment. Think about what happens to the freedom of investors, bank customers, and others when the Feds take the lead.

By preempting those individuals, the Feds have taken on the role of parents of wayward children who misspent their money. Ultimately, they can only get away with it because too many of the citizenry have volunteered to be treated like kids.

People have accepted that status because for a century an increasing number of educators and editorialists have told them that freedom is impractical, even harmful. Left to our own devices, the Progressives have argued, the 'greedy' will game the system and we, helpless children that we are, must look to powerful parents to restrain them and fix what they break.

Those 'experts' have said that the amount and type of freedom, shrinking along both dimensions with every passing year, is best decided by politicians, molded by those same sources. They lied. But, choosing to believe these socially-anointed opinion-shapers, many have come to passively accept it as fact.

Still, whether freedom is taken away forcibly or given up voluntarily, the net result is the same: it disappears. Sooner or later, with enough of it gone, the trend will become irreversible — if the citizenry remain inert.

The right to freedom is rarely mentioned in editorials on the economy today. Apparently, the idea is passé. Or, at least, it's left on a neglected part of the bookshelf whenever there's a crisis. It has become a dispensable value whenever someone's pocketbook is temporarily threatened by fearsome shadows.

That's dangerous, because that is when freedom is needed most. That habit inevitably leads to a society in which public officials are no longer representatives but rulers. The citizen becomes a subject. The next, short step is to make him a slave.

Feds Bailout v9.0 Costs $7.76 Trillion

The panicking sailors in D.C. are set to bailout more, faster than ever before. The Federal Reserve has announced...
a $600 billion program to buy mortgage-related debt and securities and a $200 billion facility to buy consumer debt securities, The U.S. central bank said it would buy up to $100 billion in debt issued by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the Federal Home Loan Banks, the government-sponsored mortgage finance enterprises. The Fed also said it would buy up to $500 billion in mortgage-backed securities backed by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and Ginnie Mae.
I notice that this time they didn't even bother to ask Congress to authorize the money. They're no doubt aware they would've faced a stiff battle, considering how poorly their plans have worked so far. So, conscientious interventionist that he is, Ben Bernanke just took matters into his own hands.

This on top of the recent plan to bailout Citigroup, twice.
Under the agreement, Citigroup and regulators will back up to $306 billion of largely residential and commercial real estate loans and certain other assets, which will remain on the bank’s balance sheet. Citigroup will shoulder losses on the first $29 billion of that portfolio.

Any remaining losses will be split between Citigroup and the government, with the bank absorbing 10 percent and the government absorbing 90 percent. The Treasury Department will use its bailout fund to assume up to $5 billion of losses. If necessary, the F.D.I.C. Corporation will bear the next $10 billion of losses. Beyond that, the Federal Reserve will guarantee any additional losses.
This one, however, is even more ridiculous, not to say mysterious. As far as one can make out from news reports, Citi isn't in all that much trouble.

True, they have $5 billion in loans out on which customers are not currently making payments. But they have $24 billion set aside for loan loss reserves. Wouldn't you like to have that kind of rainy day fund? Oh, but they're expenses are so much larger, one might argue. Really? According to a Time story:
For most firms, that's a lot of IOUs to go bad. But for Citi it's peanuts. In fact, $24 billion is just under 3.5% of Citi's overall loan book of $718 billion. And that's not a bad charge-off rate during a time when sub-prime mortgage loans are defaulting in double-digit rates.
I read they did invest heavily in now-not-so-great mortgage backed securities. But when did unfortunate business bets become a reason to burden the taxpayers with the losses? The answer to that, unfortunately, is all too obvious: the day the Feds accepted the nonsensical doctrine of "too big too fail."

Why nonsensical? Citi has 375,000 employees and $2 trillion dollars in assets around the world. That leaves a lot of room for labor savings and, if they should go belly up, a lot of assets to carve up among other, better managed firms. All those people and assets don't just disappear when a bank goes under and there are banks large and small that are not in big trouble, after all. At least, not yet. If the Feds keep this up, we might well see another large-scale period of bank failures of the type Hoover/FDR managed to create.

Like or not, though, expect the bailout frenzy to continue. So far the total is $7.76 trillion in credit or direct investments. Yes, that's trillion with a T. According to Bloomberg, "[t]he pledges, amounting to half the value of everything produced in the nation last year." No telling how high it will go before they give up this insanely counterproductive approach.

The Feds are so focused on the short-term that they can think only about the water streaming in through the hole in the boat. They should stop a second to look around for who might be punching new ones in the other end of the poop deck. But, then, I guess it's to be expected that mirrors on a sinking lifeboat are in short supply.

Update: The Feds have upped the ante to $8.5 trillion. Madness. Sheer, utter madness.

Kelly McPharland, author of the article linked above, makes the point well:
The free market system is being turned into a welfare economy. We’re being trained to accept institutionalized handouts as the norm. I can’t help thinking we’re not going to see the start of a serious recovery until the world’s governments say “Enough,” and turn off the spigots.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Obama Prepares Green Plans

Obama appears ready to turn the Executive Branch of the U.S. into a branch of the United Nations (namely, the IPCC).

It's always risky to make predictions based on the statements of the ever-elastic Mr. Obama. I'm not saying he's a liar. He's more the prototypical post-modern piece of rubber. Like so many of his persuasion, whatever he says is 'true' inside his head, for at least five minutes. Five minutes later, the exact opposite can be true with no facts having changed. That's because for a man like Mr. Obama, there's no such thing as an inflexible fact. There is only what A says, and B's opinion, and C's heartfelt belief, and so forth.

But psychoanalysis aside, it's still true that he will make choices, decisions that will affect all of us. The consequences are shaping up to be not so pretty. For, despite his chameleon-like nature there are some statements he tends to stick with. His views, to the extent that an opaque vessel like Obama can be said to have any, are straight out of the environmentalist's handbook:

AGW true. Catastrophic climate change on the way, thanks to human industrial production. Solar power feasible. Wind farms practical. Electric cars for everyone. Alternative energy preferable.

All these beliefs have been examined now for over 20 years, and found wanting in every case.

The evidence for the hypothesis of anthropogenic global warming was always thin. Now the evidence against it is mounting to near certainty. Even were it true, the degree of severity predicted is so minuscule as to be unworthy of the cost of swapping out an incandescent bulb. (See Appeal to Reason by Nigel Lawson for details.)

Solar power shows few signs of becoming a feasible alternative even to replace hydroelectric (about 6% of the total, and concentrated in a few states), much less coal (48%). Wind generated electricity is even less practical as a substantial source, except in special parts of the world (like portions of Spain where the wind blows all the time).

His plan for 1 million plug-in hybrid cars getting 150 miles per gallon by 2015 is pure fantasy. If there were a profitable market for such vehicles, one that didn't rely on massive tax breaks, they would already be well along in development. Even with tax breaks and direct investments — using Federal funds that obviously don't exist in the current economy — the hope is slim indeed. (That's all apart from the sheer injustice of taking from the taxpayers to fund the programs in the first place.)

His plan to "[e]nsure 10 percent of our electricity comes from renewable sources by 2012, and 25 percent by 2025" is even more fantastic, not to say disingenuous. Renewables already provide 12%, 10% in the form of hydroelectric, according to the EIA. (Yes, this differs from the 7% quoted above. Such are the vagaries of government sources. In their defense, they're hard things to measure.)

To imagine that could increase by 2 ½ times in 16 years is laughable. That's particularly true when you consider how actively environmentalists are trying to close hydroelectric dams (and how much success they've had to date, which is considerable).

No one, of course, can predict with certainty what technological breakthroughs may come in the future. But, note what is missing from Mr. Obama's wish list: nuclear power, a safe, ultra-low pollution, proven source of large-scale electricity generation that is already here. That it is missing provides a clue to the environmentalist mindset.

As Robert Tracinski and Jack Wakeland have noted many times in recent years, any time a technology does approach viability, the viros will do everything they can to shut it down. As I have noted above, no facts about any technology have anything to do with their actions — except the fact that people actually benefit from industrial civilization, which they seek to end.

Mr. Obama is their perfect representative. Having demonstrated with what casual ease he's willing to bankrupt the coal industry in pursuit of his environmentalist views, he is now preparing to put his plans into action.

Of all his plans, however, the desire to "[i]mplement an economy-wide cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050" is the most dangerous. It's bad enough to waste 150 billion of the taxpayers money on impractical schemes. But to use an ever-fading theory as justification for hobbling all CO2-producing businesses, i.e. all of them, is beyond an impractical scheme. It represents a wholesale assault on industrial civilization itself.

And since industrial civilization equals human civilization as we've come to enjoy it, this is nothing less than an effort to return all of us to the Dark Ages. Were he to be successful, there would be no more need to hector anyone to turn off their lights. Fortunately, even most of those who voted for him are likely to become disenchanted long before he can get very far.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

EPA Set to Take Over

Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1963. It's primary purpose was to limit pollution from power plants and steel mills. It's been amended (or accompanied) several times: to limit smog, curtail acid rain, decrease the ozone hole over the South Pole, and sundry other absurd purposes.

The primary list of pollutants identified, and for which acceptable levels were set, was: sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide (both major components of smog), particulates (such as coal dust), carbon monoxide, ozone, and lead. But in the sweepstakes to control industrial production, those were real pikers. The power-hungry enablers in the Federal government have now awarded environmentalists the PowerBall jackpot to end all jackpots. In April 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA has the authority under the CAA to (and must) regulate CO2 emissions. (PDF)

Among other legal technicalities, the case could only be heard if the plaintiffs had standing. As the SCOTUS decision explains:
To demonstrate standing, a litigant must show that it has suffered a concrete and particularized injury that is either actual or imminent, that the injury is fairly traceable to the defendant, and that a favorable decision will likely redress that injury.
Given the scientific evidence to date, no one could possibly satisfy these criteria. The Court held otherwise. Read the syllabus yourself if you happen to be interested in their convoluted reasoning rationalizing justifying their decision. (Page 2 of 66 of the PDF above.)

One reason they held otherwise is not at all convoluted. It's simply false, or (more accurately) not known to be true: "The harms associated with climate change are serious and well recognized." Not to put too fine a point on it, bull.

Unless they meant something like an Ice Age or the elimination of the atmosphere (as might have occurred on Mars millions of years ago), the statement is just silly. Every time the climate changes in my neck of the woods — like from summer to winter — I'm at risk for serious harm. Somehow, I don't think this is what the Fearsome Five justices had in mind.

They wrote:
The Government’s own objective assessment of the relevant science and a strong consensus among qualified experts indicate that global warming threatens, inter alia, a precipitate rise in sea levels, severe and irreversible changes to natural ecosystems, a significant reduction in winter snowpack with direct and important economic consequences, and increases in the spread of disease and the ferocity of weather events.
This is the problem with politicized science. Not only are the statements here not known to be true, there is ample evidence that they are all false.

Sea levels rise and fall, but they've been rising gradually on average ever since the ending of the last Ice Age (about 400 feet over the past 20,000 years, or a quarter inch per year). Current measurements show they're not doing so now in any significant way, and certainly not to a degree that is serious. According to the National Center for Policy Analysis during the Clinton Administration and the IPCC, not exactly hostile to environmentalism:
Coming out of the Ice Age, sea levels rose at an annual rate varying from 1/16 to 8/16 inches [see the table]. Over the last 7,500 years the rate has averaged 1/16 inch per year. The most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noted that there is no evidence of an acceleration in the rate of sea level rise over the past century.[ibid]
The bit about "natural ecosystems" doesn't even qualify as false, since it's practically meaningless. How much is severe? How could — short of a scenario as may have happened on Venus — the changes be irreversible? Even if it were true, why should we care very much unless we're dependent on those ecosystems?

The Court doesn't specify where this reducing snowpack is. I can assure them it ain't in Idaho. Last year we had double the normal snowfall, the largest amount in the past 50 years. To move away from anecdotal evidence, the ice pack near at least one of the poles is much larger. In Antarctica, it's been increasing for 30 years, by 0.11 ± 0.05 million sq. km per decade. (PDF)

There is no evidence strong enough to justify the claims that disease is increasing, nor that weather events are becoming more ferocious, nor are they linked to alleged global warming. Quite the reverse.

The Justices need to spend less time watching Al Gore documentaries and more time encouraging their assistants to look at the actual scientific literature. But then, facts aren't driving their decisions.

To the contrary, all this is to show (just as when the Feds clamped down on the use of DDT when it was known — by the judge deciding the case — that it was harmless) that science has nothing to do with the decision. The Fearsome Five on the Supreme Court simply want to hand the EPA the power to regulate CO2 emissions (even when the EPA themselves don't want it) and that's what they were determined to do.

As Scalia wrote in dissent: [The Court] "has no business substituting its own desired outcome for the reasoned judgment of the responsible agency."

Surpassing all human understanding, not even the EPA wants this power. Here's a quote from the ANPR (Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking) of the EPA itself (pg 5):
One point is clear: the potential regulation of greenhouse gases under any portion of the Clean Air Act could result in an unprecedented expansion of EPA authority that would have a profound effect on virtually every sector of the economy and touch every household in the land."
It invariably sounds like hyperbole, but the plain fact is this makes the EPA the de-facto ruler of nearly all business in America. Think that's an exaggeration? Re-read the bolded portion of the quote.

Here's another quote, this time from comments to the ANPR from the Department of Agriculture :
"[M]any of the emissions are the result of natural biological processes that are as old as agriculture itself. For instance, technology does not currently exist to prevent the methane produced by enteric fermentation [cow farts] associated with the digestive processes in cows and the cultivation of rice crops; the nitrous oxide produced from the tillage of soils used to grow crops; and the carbon dioxide produced by soil and animal agricultural respiratory processes. The only means of controlling such emissions would be through limiting production, which would result in decreased food supply and radical changes in human diets." (ANPR pp. 66-67) [emphasis added]
Stuff this hot, not even the not-normally squeamish Feds want to touch. Get set for things to heat up more when the not-at-all squeamish new Administration arrives in late January.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Henry Waxman, Viro Emperor

Unlike the chimerical global warming of viro alarmists, some real dangers present themselves in 2009.

Henry Waxman (D-CA) has successfully lobbied to replace John Dingell as the Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, one of the major Congressional groups controlling 'climate change' legislation. Look for that to bear ill-news for freedom-lovers in the upcoming year.

Dingell, a standard-issue Democrat, was bad enough. But at least he was kept in check by hailing from Detroit and having to fear losing his job if he became too aggressive. By contrast, Waxman is the Congressman representing Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, and parts west. Or, should I say, parts left.

As one of the more Progressive legislators in an already left-leaning party, he has a well-deserved reputation as a pit bull when it comes to issues dear to his Grinch-sized heart. He was responsible for the arm-twisting that led to a $246 billion whack to the nether parts of the tobacco companies. Worse, he is known as a long-time advocate of environmental laws that punish business. Worst of all, he puts his considerable mouth where your freedom is.

In March 2007 he introduced HR 1590:
The bill would establish an emissions "cap and trade" system to start in 2010, requiring a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 15 percent by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050. It would also establish passenger vehicle standards no less stringent than California's by 2014; set up a national renewable energy standard in 2009 that 20 percent of electric energy generation must be from renewable sources by 2020; create a national energy efficiency standard; and require periodic evaluations by the National Academy of Sciences to determine whether emissions targets are adequate.[emphasis added]
For some cost estimates associated with the various proposed schemes for CO2 reduction, see here, here (PDF), here (PDF), and here. Estimates are all over the map, but it's safe to say the figure is in the hundreds of billions directly, and trillions in forgone opportunity costs. It's not for nothing that developing China is refusing to play the game. (And all this for a hypothesis that is daily losing scientific steam.)

The Guardian, a left-leaning UK newspaper, suggests in a story promising "new hope to US cap and trade": "With Waxman at the helm, the climate change debate will now likely start from his more progressive platform."

That statement alone should produce enough of a chill in any freedom-lover to counteract a good deal of global warming. The author of the story goes on to say:
"Waxman, a long-time ally of the environmental community, favours stringent short-term emissions reduction targets, auctioning emissions allowances, and very limited cost-containment mechanisms, such as offsets."
Whatever happens to the air temperature over the next 12 months, you can expect the climate for freedom to be very chilly. The only hope for citizens in the upcoming year, given how many bad eggs are gathering in the D.C. basket, is to watch them all very closely, then scream to high heaven when the smell gets intolerable. What they promise to try to do to us is anything but metaphorical.

Viro-Induced Suicide in Three Parts

2009 is shaping up to be a banner year for those dedicated to the impoverishment of all Americans. Nowhere is that more true than in the area of environmentalism advocacy.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) will replace Rep. John Dingall (D-MI) on the House Energy and Commerce committee. The EPA, prompted by last year's Supreme Court decision declaring CO2 a "pollutant," has prepared documents for comment that promise to radically expand their already absurdly large and unconstitutional power over the economy. And, far from least, Obama is already making threatening noises about the subject.

Let's take a look at each of these in turn to get some clues about what's in store.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Myth of 'Hands-Off' Hoover

Nothing new under the sun, really. Case in point...

Not long ago I received an email from the author of a Financial Times editorial chastising me for my advocacy of laissez-faire. He wrote in reply to a comment of mine, sarcastically: "Yes, the free market was tried between 1928 and 1932. It did a wonderful job, too."

Though I disagree with the fundamental outlook of the author, I'm nonetheless very grateful for his reply, particularly the sarcasm. It spurred me to dig further than I had into the history of the period. What I discovered went far beyond just finding evidence to disprove my correspondent's contention. I found that everything being proposed today has been tried and failed, miserably, starting well before Hoover's term, who assumed office in March 1929.

Even so little effort as a casual reading of material on the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library site is enough to show that the 31st president was hardly idle while the country suffered through the Great Depression.

Under the heading of the question: "What did President Hoover do to fight the Depression?" they write, without apology, but apparent pride,
Many people believe that President Hoover did little or nothing in response to the Great Depression. In fact, beginning immediately after the stock market crash in October, 1929, Hoover implemented many ideas to lessen the effect of the Depression and to hasten the recovery.

He directed all Federal Departments to speed up public works and other projects, in order to create more jobs. He directed the Federal Farm Board to support commodities prices and asked Congress to decrease non-essential government spending and use the money to start new public works.

President Hoover called many conferences with industry and finance leaders to encourage voluntary cooperation among businesses to relieve the Depression. Hoover also created the President's Organization on Unemployment Relief to stimulate and coordinate employment and relief efforts.

After the collapse of the European economy in April of 1931 caused the Depression to become even worse, President Hoover called for a temporary suspension of international debt payments, which saved the international banking system from complete collapse. With foreign trade at a standstill, prices for U.S. manufactured goods and farm products fell, and American industries began laying off even more workers.

President Hoover asked Congress to appropriate more money for farm loans and to create the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which would be used to help financially endangered building and loan associations, agricultural cooperatives, banks and railways.

He proposed federally funded Home Loan Discount Banks to help protect people from losing their homes. He asked Congress to loan $300,000,000 to the states to aid their relief programs, and to transfer agricultural surpluses from the Farm Board to the Red Cross for distribution to relief agencies.[emphases mine]
Long before becoming president, Hoover was equally active in pushing the government to intervene in the economy. He supported Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressive Party in 1912. As Secretary of Commerce under Harding and Coolidge, Hoover was just as busy pushing them to intervene and using his power to intervene himself.

The same pattern of involvement in negotiations between labor and management was present during his Secretaryship. He initiated a campaign called "Own Your Own Home" similar to the later ones of Fannie Mae that contributed mightily to the recent meltdown. He convened conferences to establish standards for traffic control. He played a significant role in regulating radio.

[Also, see the current Vulcan's Hammer post.]

One could go on for pages, but you get the point. This is hardly the picture of a man like Calvin Coolidge who declared, in essence, that fixing the economy is not the government's proper function.

Tragically, neither Washington nor the country at large learned the right lessons from these failed efforts. In fact, just as is about to happen now, they were amplified by the even more ambitious-for-control FDR. There's no telling when, or if, enough people will learn those now more than ever needed lessons and thereby stop those in power from meddling.


There's much more evidence, including these 'gems' from Murray Rothbard's book America's Great Depression:
[Quoting Hoover himself] We might have done nothing. That would have been utter ruin. Instead we met the situation with proposals to private business and to Congress of the most gigantic program of economic defense and counterattack ever evolved in the history of the Republic.

... No government in Washington has hitherto considered that it held so broad a responsibility for leadership in such times... For the first time in the history of depression, dividends, profits, and the cost of living, have been reduced before wages have suffered... They were maintained until the cost of living had decreased and the profits had practically vanished. They are now the highest real wages in the world.

Creating new jobs and giving to the whole system a new breath of life; nothing has ever been devised in our history which has done more for... "the common run of men and women." Some of the reactionary economists urged that we should allow the liquidation to take its course until we had found bottom... We determined that we would not follow the advice of the bitter-end liquidationists and see the whole body of debtors of the United States brought to bankruptcy and the savings of our people brought to destruction.

... [and]

[N]ot so many years ago – the employer considered it was in his interest to use the opportunities of unemployment and immigration to lower wages irrespective of other considerations. The lowest wages and longest hours were then conceived as the means to obtain lowest production costs and largest profits

... But we are a long way on the road to new conceptions. The very essence of great production is high wages and low prices, because it depends upon a widening ... consumption, only to be obtained from the purchasing-power of high real wages and increased standards of living.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Time to Restore Liberty, by Claudia Rosett

Finally, to round out our good news day, I refer you to this wonderful editorial by Claudia Rosett, who argues that individual liberty is good. That she — or anyone — should have to actually argue that in the United States of America in the 21st century is a tragedy. But, since this is the U.S. in the 21st century, she does. And she does it magnificently.

Her title is: It's Time to Restore Liberty. I would argue that it is far past time, about 100 years past. But since this is good news day, let's not dwell on that. Read and enjoy.

Here's an excerpt:
What were those [55 million] McCain supporters voting for? Rather than reverting to the zillion polls of recent months, which centered on the platforms put forward by the candidates, I'll hazard a guess — based on what was missing from this campaign, and seems to have all but vanished from the main stage of American politics.

That would be the straightforward love and defense of individual liberty, with its attendant freedom to take risks, and responsibility for the results. And here I stress individual. Not the chant of the crowd, but that basic American passion for individual life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Joe the Plumber, icon that he became, was not ultimately all about marginal tax brackets worked out to the umpteenth decimal point. He was a symbol of the broad principle that America thrives when its citizens are free to chart their own lives under a government more focused on defending their liberty and private property than encroaching on it in the name of redistributive state-administered "justice."

I doubt most McCain supporters cast their votes based chiefly on comparative health care plans or fine points of climate policy. I think they were voting for the closest thing they could get to a politician who believes that collective efforts are best confined to the common defense of the nation, not to confiscatory wealth transfers among interest groups.
I think I'm in love with Claudia Rossett. I know she's in love with liberty. One day, when most Americans are again, this sort of article will be unnecessary, perhaps even silly for being so obvious. In the meantime, please give it your support.

[By the way, the rest is equally good, but my request to Forbes to reprint the article in its entirety garnered no response and, strange as it seems to some on the Internet, I still believe in copyright. So, go there to read the entire article.]

Claudia Rosett, Forbes, It's Time to Restore Liberty.

Viros, Whales, SCOTUS, and the Navy

As proof that the Supreme Court does not always come down on the wrong side, I offer this story of a recent decision in favor of the Navy. The case was to decide whether the Navy was required to take steps to avoid harming whales, such as shutting off their sonar when they came within a mile and a quarter.

One popular (and, gee big surprise, unproven) theory asserts that sonar and engine noise can disturb whales. Among the alleged effects are disorientation, excessively deep diving, and others. Yes, it would be easy simply to scoff at the theory. But hard-bound advocate of objectivity that I am, I have no idea whether or not it's true. I don't know, and I don't care. It's irrelevant.

Luckily, the Supreme Court didn't care much, either, and this time for apparently the right reasons. They ruled, in a 6-3 decision, that national security concerns trumped any alleged harm to the whales. (Three guesses — two don't count — as to who were the three Justices in opposition.)

Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the majority, said:
We do not discount the importance of plaintiffs' ecological, scientific, and recreational interests in marine mammals. Those interests, however, are plainly outweighed by the Navy’s need to conduct realistic training exercises to ensure that it is able to neutralize the threat posed by enemy submarines.
While I'm happy with the decision, I have a couple of (ok, they're rhetorical) questions. First, why should the majority take into account the "ecological, scientific, and recreational interests" of anybody in delivering a judgment here? More importantly, why is the Supreme Court hearing this case at all?

Thank heavens, they did, since the effect is to lift restrictions on submarines that were already put in place by lower courts. (Two cheers for the Federal system!) Nevertheless, it's only because of that vicious piece of nonsense legislation called the Endangered Species Act, and similar ones, that the viros can use the courts to cause this kind of trouble in the first place.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a huge animal lover and a lover of huge animals. I'm very fond of whales and not just as sources of practical products. There's something ultra-keen that no one has yet adequately explained about the sight of a whale. Maybe it's their sheer size and what magnificent things they can do given that bulk. Maybe it's their apparent peaceful nature. Who knows?

But one thing known for sure is that they have no rights that can be legitimately enforced in court. Anybody who believes otherwise doesn't know what a right is and how they're validated. (Yes, that would encompass most viros.) And, since the viros and their thuggish legal partners and enablers don't own the whales, they have no rights at issue either. As the legal experts put it, they have no standing.

So, the viros should sit down (and, preferably, shut up) and just enjoy the view. If the whales are not around, they can watch the submarines. That's a pretty awesome sight, too.

Good News Day

After the spate of bad news that has galloped through the world the past few... well, past few generations, actually, but never mind. Anyway, it's time to shift the focus at least briefly and look at some of the good things that are happening in the world. There are some, really. Honest. Don't take my word for it. Read.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

More on Media and the Election

"Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought." - John F. Kennedy
The video below...

shows a number of Obama-voter interviewees responding to simple questions about the recent campaign, such as "Who said he would bankrupt the coal industry?" and "Whose party spent $150,000 on clothing?" The interviewees invariably either don't know or give Obama/Biden a pass while condemning McCain/Palin.

Of course, it's possible — even likely — that the documentarian is exhibiting selective bias. He may have selected, or at least chosen to show only those people who are bona fide idiots. Such people are easy to find and they make for entertaining viewing. Allegedly they were picked for their intelligence and ability to articulate, but we have only his word for that.

But an accompanying Zogby poll of 512 Obama voters, 97.1% High School Graduate or higher, 55% College Graduates, suggests they may be somewhat representative. It states:
    57.4% could NOT correctly say which party controls congress

    81.8% could NOT correctly say Joe Biden quit a previous campaign because of plagiarism (25% chance by guessing)

    82.6% could NOT correctly say that Barack Obama won his first election by getting opponents kicked off the ballot (25% chance by guessing)

    88.4% could NOT correctly say that Obama said his policies would likely bankrupt the coal industry and make energy rates skyrocket (25% chance by guessing)

    56.1% could NOT correctly say Obama started his political career at the home of two former members of the Weather Underground (25% chance by guessing).

    13.7% failed to identify Sarah Palin as the person on which their party spent $150,000 in clothes

    6.2% failed to identify Palin as the one with a pregnant teenage daughter

    86.9 % thought that Palin said that she could see Russia from her "house," even though that was Tina Fey who said that!!

    2.4% got at least 11 correct.

    0.5% got all of them correct.
From their answers, the only rational conclusion is that the breadth of their ignorance is appalling. Still, I have to hope this survey is deeply flawed. I have to, because otherwise I'll feel compelled to move to a country not on the map and devoid of human life.

But before we conclude that media bias won Obama the election, think again. The real answer may be worse. The media almost certainly helped, but even in those instances (such as the question on "who advocated redistribution") where the interviewee didn't know the correct answer, most thought it a good idea. That suggests that, to the extent they knew Obama's views, they favored them.

Granted, the interview (and the poll) are of Obama voters and the results are about what you would expect in terms of approval. Yet, in the end, isn't that the scariest fact of all?

Ignorance can be cured in short order. Media bias can be quickly cured if a more genuinely diverse set of views — and above all a dedication to objectivity — enters the information marketplace on a larger scale. But how long does it take to cure the type of philosophical corruption evidenced by a person who thinks government redistribution of wealth is a good idea, and do we have that much time left?

That is the once metaphorical, soon-to-be literal $64 trillion question.

[Hat tip: HotAir]

Monday, November 17, 2008

Why Bailouts Are Immoral

The Big Three American automakers have their hands out. Way out. $25 billion plus. Several commentators have already pointed out the total impracticality of giving them another dime, much less many billions.

Not least of their points are such facts as that Ford alone is $160 billion in debt. If that much private credit couldn't help them reverse their fortunes, another few billion from taxpayers isn't going to magically fix their underlying problems.

Having the Feds attach strings to the money, such as limiting CEO pay or arm-twisting executives to change their corporate decisions, is a laughable idea. If Barney Frank could run a business he wouldn't be in Congress. He'd be in business getting paid much more to create havoc and do nothing useful.

But among all the the excellent reasons not to give those lining up a single taxpayer penny one stands out: the money Congress is proposing is more than enough to buy all three companies outright at their current market capitalizations. If politicians had the courage of their convictions, let them nationalize the damn companies outright and simply bark orders at their newly enslaved underlings. In other words, let them not be cowardly Fascists but openly honest Marxists.

But there's no need to look at the practical pros and cons of each bailout proposal separately. One need only establish the moral principle that all government bailouts are immoral and it will become clear that it's something that shouldn't be done at all. Shouldn't, that is, if one believes one should not do something immoral. Given that we're talking about Congress here, that can't be assumed. But let's limit the discussion to decent, rational people for now.

As it happens, proving that assertion about bailouts isn't hard and nothing I say on the subject is going to be original. Then, as Constitutional scholar Randy Barnett said (paraphrasing Chesterton, I think), sometimes it's less important to be original than to remind people of what's true that they already know.

A government bailout always requires the money to come from somewhere. That somewhere, ultimately, is a group other than the firm being bailed out: the taxpayers. As private individuals, they chose not to buy that firm's product or service at the price it was offered in sufficient quantity to keep the company profitable.

No one (yet) would argue that company executives going to their customers' doors with guns and grabbing a wad of cash out of their wallets would be ethical. Filtering it through the government's hands changes nothing, morally speaking. Those same individuals, now in their role as taxpayers, don't become any less a victim just because the actions are done under the aegis of law by guys wearing cheaper suits. It just cheapens the law.

Another obvious ethical problem with giving failing firms more money is that it deflects the consequences of their failure.

Most business failures are a combination of bad luck, bad government policy, and — last, but far from least — bad judgment. There's nothing anyone can do about bad luck (except work to overcome its effects). Bad government policies punish everyone (though not always equally). Still, throwing more government money at firms only deflects the failure of those policies, so it falls under the same principle. Bad judgment is incurable, at least by anyone but those who display it and then rarely.

A bailout only lessens the logical results of those bad judgments. If there were any better way to corrupt an executive's thinking processes — his attention (or lack thereof) to market conditions and the whole way he goes about making decisions — than by removing market signals by a bailout, it's hard to think what it might be. That corrupting process does no one any favors, least of all the business executive.

That deflection of consequences can't help but encourage irresponsibility. Even if the business failure occurred through no fault of anyone in charge — a rare circumstance, since inventing the light bulb only puts (some) candlemakers out of business once a century and then slowly — shoring up a failing business doesn't encourage anyone to change their behavior.

Rather, it entrenches the status quo. Morally, that's unhealthy. Human flourishing requires a constant struggle to create the new in order to achieve the values that increase it. The status quo is only fit for animals who live in a neverending repetitious cycle, not an upwardly moving line as do healthy humans.

Worst of all, it's simply a deflection of justice. You fail, you fail. That result is morally more valuable to all concerned than any billions used to keep producing unwanted cars or insurance products, or artificially propping up high home prices. The reason is simple. Any deflection of justice away from one man always shifts it to another who had no part in the affair.

Creating situations of this sort is known in some economic circles as "moral hazard," a silly term, though a sound idea. Responsible parents help their children see early on that shielding them from the consequences of their choices only encourages irrationally risky behavior. The value of that policy doesn't vanish when people mature.

Time for the beggars to grow up.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Why Bailouts Are Impractical

There are unanswerable moral objections to the Feds bailing out everyone under the sun. I'll cover them in detail in a subsequent post. For the moment, consider some of the practical effects that are contrary even to the goals proposed by the advocates.

Offering Federal money to failing businesses in order to keep them from failing just encourages more corporate welfare.

Regrettably, evidence of that isn't hard to find. The Hartford, an insurance company with 2007 revenues of nearly $26 billion and net income of $2.9 billion, is now standing at the Federal door, hat in hand. Yet, by their own admission, the company is financially sound.
"We are taking these actions as a strong and well-capitalized financial institution looking for maximum flexibility and stability," said Ramani Ayer, The Hartford's chairman and chief executive officer. "Securing capital at the terms available through the Capital Purchase Program could be a prudent course in this market environment and would allow us to further supplement our existing capital resources." [emphasis added]
Clearly, among many other ill-effects, the current rules — if you can label the whims of dictators which change almost daily "rules" — encourage even healthy companies to line up at the trough, lest they be put at a competitive disadvantage.

The various programs, which are the result of HR 1424 giving Paulson essentially unlimited power to do whatever he thinks best to resolve the crisis, shift behavior in other impractical ways, too.

Under the present circumstances, what CEO wouldn't be wiser to wait for a government bailout, rather than liquidate underperforming assets? After all, if Countrywide can expect the Feds to pay more for a defaulted mortgage than they would get by foreclosing, they'd be foolish to suffer the larger loss, no? Foreclosing doesn't just result in a lower return, it consumes valuable staff time, which can be even more expensive in the long run.

That's one of the major reasons that many credit markets remain 'frozen' or sluggish. Investors and executives are waiting for the other shoe to drop. That a new pair full of holes is dragged out of the closet every week doesn't help.

That last phenomenon, in the end, is overwhelmingly the biggest practical problem with the Feds getting involved in the situation in the first place. Financial markets entail huge uncertainty under the best of circumstances. Entire departments exist in most finance-related companies to attempt to measure and mollify it, as best they may. I've actually worked in some and I can tell you, it is rocket science, with often the added complexity of not knowing what the space ship is made of or how volatile is the fuel.

Add as pilot the unsteady hand of a panicked bureaucrat — with the impossible task of trying to analyze markets while lacking information he can't possibly obtain or adequately understand, yet given the power and pressured to "fix it, somehow!" — and you have a recipe for disaster.

We are all now beginning to choke on the toxic fumes.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Govt Stimuli Explained

Brian Riedl writing in the Wall Street Journal explains all you need to know about how government stimulus packages work. His central point is:
Government stimulus bills are based on the idea that feeding new money into the economy will increase demand, and thus production. But where does government get this money? Congress doesn't have its own stash. Every dollar it injects into the economy must first be taxed or borrowed out of the economy. No new spending power is created. It's merely redistributed from one group of people to another.
I strongly urge everyone to read the entire article, which uses "infrastructure spending" as an example.

In fact, the article makes so much sense — without requiring any specialized knowledge of economics — I can't understand how anyone could think otherwise. But, then, given that we're talking about the Federal government and its fan clubs who want to use it as a club, I think I just answered my own puzzlement...

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Progressives, By What Right?

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

C.S. Lewis

While the term "robber baron" has never been applicable to Capitalism, the rest of the quote makes a very useful point. And, today, there are no busier busybodies than the Progressives, who believe that a capitalist system is necessarily composed of nothing but robber barons and their victims. On that basis they assert that governments must lean hard on the predators, to curtail their predation.

That's one answer to a question they spend a good deal of time not answering: by what right? By what right do you propose interfering in voluntary trade? By what right does even a Democratically elected representative insert himself in the middle of a transaction in which no one's rights are violated?

Thus, we have Jacob Weisberg, chairman and editor-in-chief of the Slate Group, declaiming libertarianism1, as if he understood what the word meant. He starts his Slate article:
A source of mild entertainment amid the financial carnage has been watching libertarians scurrying to explain how the global financial crisis is the result of too much government intervention rather than too little.
As Progressives like Weisberg rarely do, he gives no argument nor cites any facts in order to validate his position. He merely offers mockery. For example, he goes on to say:
But to summarize, the libertarian apologetics fall wildly short of providing any convincing explanation for what went wrong. The argument as a whole is reminiscent of wearying dorm-room debates that took place circa 1989 about whether the fall of the Soviet bloc demonstrated the failure of communism.
He says nothing about why referencing the CRA, Fannie/Freddie actions, etc. isn't relevant to explaining the financial crisis. He never offers an alternative explanation. In short, he merely asserts. As evidence, I offer:
Like all true ideologues, they find a way to interpret mounting evidence of error as proof that they were right all along.
He never says what is that mounting evidence allegedly proving the error of libertarianism. I.e. he never explains how a system of free markets leads to system-wide financial failures. That isn't surprising, since he can't because it doesn't.

He offers no hint, as Progressives in general don't, of acknowledging the existence and actions of the Federal Reserve (a government institution, I note, that wouldn't exist in a 'libertarian' free market society) and how its manipulation of interest rates and the money supply over several years might have played a role.

He shows no inkling of knowing how ACORN and others, wielding the CRA as a stick (given them by President Clinton, a government official, I note) might have caused lenders to ease traditional lending rules.

Nor, does he provide any evidence of awareness of how Fannie Mae (a Government Sponsored Enterprise) was run by a series of executives with Progressive views, each of whom explicitly worked to massively increase loans for low and moderate income borrowers, who are generally greater risks. Weisberg doesn't talk about how those borrowers' loans were securitized in ever-increasing numbers in the 1990s through today in a bond market brimming with government controls.

I suspect he doesn't know.

He goes on to complain:
To which the rest of us can only respond, Haven't you people done enough harm already? We have narrowly avoided a global depression and are mercifully pointed toward merely the worst recession in a long while. This is thanks to a global economic meltdown made possible by libertarian ideas.
George Reisman does a very thorough job of addressing his question in The Myth that Laissez Faire Is Responsible for Our Present Crisis

Instead of arguing the case further, I want to take Weisberg at his word for a moment. Suppose that it were true, contrary to overwhelming evidence, that 'libertarianism' did lead to the financial crisis. Would it follow that abandoning free markets (if they existed), curtailing individual rights to voluntary trade (if they weren't curbed already), and all the other aspects of freedom Progressives abhor be the rightful course to follow?

In other words, I want to ask Weisberg: by what right? By what right do you ask government to interfere in the actions of free men, even when those actions lead to economic harm? The answer is: there is no such right. Not, that is, if it's true that men have a right to voluntary exchange at all.

Suppose, for example, that Warren Buffett buys stock on behalf of Berkshire Hathaway in General Re, an insurance company that insures other insurance companies. (In fact, BH did that in 1998 and now owns it outright.) Now suppose that General Re suffers a severe financial setback (as it did after 9/11). BH stockholders are going to lose money as a result, almost certainly a lot of money.

The fact of General Re/BH's woes will get reported in the financial press. Since Buffett is a well-known public figure, that news will quickly spread to the general media. Others will get nervous. Suppose they sell their shares in other insurance companies for less than they bought them, trying to limit their losses. The contagion spreads.

Now tons of people are losing money right and left. There's a general loss of confidence in insurance companies and the whole industry sees a severe contraction. People get laid off, lots of people who had nothing to say about how Buffett invested or managed General Re. (Ignore, for the purpose of this argument, that for every seller of shares there has to be a buyer, otherwise there's no sale.)

At any point in this scenario is there any proper point for the government to step in and start bailing out insurance companies, second guessing the decisions of market participants, or restricting their actions? Provided no force or fraud is involved, I claim the answer is a big, fat NO.

True, many innocent people will suffer economic harm. (In practice, it will be limited provided the government follows a 'hands off policy' — as I'll explain in detail in an upcoming post showing how Paulson's actions are actually making our current situation worse. But let's suppose the problem expands to huge proportions.) None of them had any control over how Buffett invested, how his managers measured or controlled risk, or how stock market participants chose to trade. They suffered through no fault of their own.

Still, no one has an inherent right to a particular job, a particular income level, or a particular degree of risk. Such a right, if it existed, would imply a corresponding obligation on the part of those who provide jobs, decide salaries, and judge risk. To implement those rights, the latter would require omniscience, the second is (in the end) determined by the supply of and demand for labor, and the first is purely a matter of individual choice on the part of the managers.

So, if those who hire and fire have the right to run their own lives (and by extension, the businesses they've been authorized to run) as they see fit, there can't be any right to dictate how they do so. That Progressives feel an overwhelming urge (whether healthy or neurotic, I leave aside here) to help those helpless victims of Buffett's mistakes changes nothing. Their feelings don't create rights.

The only relevant right that does exist is the right to voluntary trade in a market as free as possible of force and fraud. That right is a corollary of the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The pursuit. Not a guarantee of the results.

The economic consequences may be a small dip in the stock price. Or, they might entail the elimination of an entire sector of economic activity. (Let's fantasize grotesquely that no company is any longer willing to offer insurance at all.) The degree of severity of the economic downturn — which certainly will cause suffering to people through no fault of their own — does not magically create new rights.

But the concept "rights," as understood in classical liberal thought, takes on a wholly different meaning in the mushy minds of Progressives. To such men, there is a right to a job, economic security, and a particular degree of risk.

Well, the first proper response to that claim is: Oh, yeah? Prove it. That, they will never do. If they're like Weisberg, they will never even try.

1Note: I'm not a fan of the word "libertarianism," since it's vague, encompasses too much, and is actually otiose. There's nothing wrong with the phrase "classical liberalism" and it's about the same number of syllables. It also actually has a fairly clear meaning. That said, libertarianism generally means, today, "a doctrine favoring free markets, advocating individual rights and limited government." So, I use it here.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Krugman Recommends

NY Times editorialist and recent Noble Prize winner Paul Krugman has decided that the incoming administration should party like it's 1934. The outcome will almost certainly be a party like Orwell's 1984.

In his recent column, Krugman contends,
Suddenly, everything old is New Deal again. Reagan is out; F.D.R. is in. Still, how much guidance does the Roosevelt era really offer for today’s world?

The answer is, a lot.
What, you may ask — given that FDR managed to extend a business downturn into a 10-year Depression with 17-25% unemployment by violating his campaign promises and putting Hoover's policies on steroids, adding a few of his own — would that be? Krugman's answer is:
The reason for F.D.R.’s limited short-run success, which almost undid his whole program, was the fact that his economic policies were too cautious.
Huh? Can he be referring to the FDR whose "bold experimentation" created the enormous, and enormously costly, WPA and the Civil Construction Corps? The creator of the biggest welfare system in history, Social Security?

This is the man who raised taxes and expanded government spending like no one before him. Corporate taxes were raised 15%. In 1935, at the depth of the Depression, FDR raised the top marginal income tax rate to 79%. (Hoover had already raised it from 24% to 63% in 1932. During WWII it increased to 91%.) This was the president who expanded Hoover's disastrous Reconstruction Finance Corporation that turned the government into America's piggy bank.

He also created the Undistributed Profits Tax as part of the Second New Deal.
Business profits were taxed on a sliding scale; if a company kept 1 percent of their net income, 10 percent of that amount would be taxed under the UP Tax. If a company kept 70 percent of their net income, the company would be taxed at a rate of 73.91 percent on that amount.
How's that for confiscatory behavior? But that's not enough to suit Krugman. He has far grander goals in mind.
Progressives hope that the Obama administration, like the New Deal, will respond to the current economic and financial crisis by creating institutions, especially a universal health care system, that will change the shape of American society for generations to come. [emphasis added]
Of that last, I have no doubt whatever. Progressives (i.e. American Fascists [see Jonah Goldberg's book Liberal Fascism]) like Krugman have had that overriding goal since the turn of the 20th century.

That, after all, is admitted even by this mother of all liars and those of his ilk. Dissatisfied with America's culture, economic system, and — beyond all else — individual freedom, they seek to destroy the last by undercutting the second, in order to permanently modify the first.

It remains to be seen whether they will succeed.

Paulson's Pragmatism Strikes Again

Naked emperor Henry Paulson has chosen once again to display a part of his mental anatomy we would prefer not to see. On excusing his shift to bailout credit card users instead of mortgage payers, he said: "I will never apologize for changing a strategy or an approach if the facts change."

There are so many things wrong with this statement it's hard to know where to begin.

Some facts change every instant. The Earth moves. Market rates rise and fall. (Mostly the latter, recently.) Credit card debt goes up and down, per individual and in the aggregate. Some facts are more long lived. Some people behave irresponsibly or short-sightedly with respect to debt. Governments leap in and lessen the impact by shifting the burden to others.

Just which facts does Paulson think have changed to justify changing a bad plan to a worse one?

It's idiotic to use government largesse to keep people in their homes. But a natural sympathy among men like Paulson and Bush at least makes it understandable. It's also understandable that, given how weak each man's understanding of economics is, they will advocate a Keynesian solution to the financial crisis. But is there any fact that, even to such a confused pragmatist, makes it appear sensible to bail out credit card users and issuers, so they can issue and take on still more credit card debt?

Much as I regret the outcome of the recent election, I can't wait for at least this clown to be gone. Even communists have a five year plan. This buffoon can't hold to anything more than five days.

First the plan was to unfreeze credit markets in mortgage lending. (Remember that far back? I know it's been all of a month and a half.) Then it switched a few days after the bailout bill passed to buying mortgage assets directly. That was abandoned almost before it was reported. Then, he decided to strong-arm healthy banks into taking money they didn't want or need, in order to get the weaker ones to go along. Now, according to Forbes,
The [Wall Street Journal] report also said that the Treasury is unlikely to conduct any auctions to purchase bad loans and other troubled assets, which was the original intention of the $700.0 billion rescue plan.
Paulson's decided that what we most need, and desperately enough to spend untold billions of fiat money for it, is more auto loans and credit card debt relief. It's enough to make even a non-cynic wonder who are Paulson's golfing buddies this week, and — god forbid — who will they be next week?

We'll set aside for now the total immorality of bailing out people who chose to incur credit card debt they can't service since — in all but rare cases — they're used only for non-essential purchases. Let's just examine a few practical matters.

Total revolving consumer credit in 2003 was $770 billion. Today, it's over $971 billion. You know, far be it from me (unlike the Feds) to dictate to others how they should budget. But, I'm thinkin' maybe people could hold off on that new couch or TV until they can pay for it without the government's assistance. That might help the economic situation, starting with their own.

And, though I'm sure some banks are hurting, the CEO of Wells Fargo assures me they are "strong." So, probably they can float credit card debt if they choose to without Paulson's aid package.

Most importantly is a fact Paulson seems not to have noticed has not changed: credit contraction can be a very good thing. But then, that sort of fact is in the form of a general economic principle. As such, I'm sure the myopic Mr. Paulson could never see whether it has changed or not. That would require that his focus be on some facts that don't change every minute.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Rep. Moran, Redistribution, and Hell

I know nothing more about Congressman Jim Moran (D-VA) than this clip. I don't plan to learn any more, since his statement tells me all I need to know about him.
We have been guided by a Republican administration who believes in the simplistic notion that people who have wealth are entitled to keep it and they have an antipathy towards redistributing wealth and they may be able to sustain it for a while but it doesn’t work in the long run.

I sometimes envy Christians because it must be very comforting believing there is a special circle of Hell for men like this. I also admit to being a bit green-gilled over some of the moral words their tradition has developed.

Still, even an atheist can assert: anyone who could so much as say out loud contemptuously that the sanctity of private property is a "simplistic notion" and that coercively redistributing wealth is good is beyond redemption. My angst is lessened by knowing that if this bozo thinks redistribution is practical, he must suffer the fires of the inferno in his own soul. At some level, that depth of ignorance has to hurt.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Media Slant, and Why It Matters

Barring any major events I'll be moving away from writing about Obama for a while. I want to give my blood pressure a rest and also focus more in upcoming posts on how to turn the tide to capture the future. But, to launch that effort, there is one remaining topic to cover about the recently completed campaign: media coverage.

Notice that the title does not say "media bias." Bias is a lack of objectivity. Major outlets say this is less extensive or serious than their critics assert. That's a debate for another day. What's beyond dispute is that, at least on the op-ed pages and TV editorial segments, the media has a definite slant. Even they would admit this much. That slant, however they term it, is most often to the left, i.e. toward more government control for the purpose of social engineering and economic 'management'.

If you think that situation is bad now, wait another 20 years. College newspapers backed Obama 63-1. Sure, you could argue, they're just a bunch of college kids. The old saying is "if you're not a liberal at 20 you have no heart; if you're not a conservative at 40 you have no brain." The issue is a little more serious than that. It's also possible, even desirable, to have a brain at 20 and a heart at 40 and, most importantly, never ignore either.

Yes, kids will be kids. And, it's certainly true that a great many college graduates get a rude shock when they get out into 'the real world'. They learn they can no longer say do anything they like with no consequences. They have to make hard choices between their 'ideals' (assuming they had any to start with) and making a living. As a result, many move 'to the middle'. But if the center shifts, that middle goes with it and the center has been shifting for some time.

The media pundits of the left have been gleefully exclaiming the "end of a failed ideology." But their cheers come a bit late. Presidents get elected at the end of a shift in culture, not at the beginning. It's something of a myth that for the past 25 years or more America has been a "center right" country. The only way to make that view plausible is to not know what's been happening to the center over the past 100 years. Consider what America was like 25 years prior to today, and another 25, then another 25, then one last 25.

Compared to 1910, the U.S. of 1935 was already highly socialist. The Federal Reserve was established in 1913, the income tax the same year, then 20-30 years later Hoover and FDR made the country an explicit collectivized economy. Compared to 1935, 1950 was already moving rapidly toward Fascism. Some economic controls had been lifted, WWII rationing for example. But, culturally, there were the beginnings of the anti-hero alongside the beatniks (precursors to the hippies of the New Left). Truman tried to nationalize the steel industry and almost got away with it. (The Supreme Court reversed his order by 6-3.)

By 1970 the revolution was pretty much over and the New Left had won, intellectually. The mainstream defense of capitalism had become not an advocacy of individual freedom and inviolate property rights, but an argument over which system led to cheaper oil. There was a mini-revival by conservatives, but (at least as far as the media and academia are concerned) it has been largely a defensive action against the Leviathan.

It's no accident, either, that the country has been moving leftward (with some slight variations) over the past 40 years. William Ayers, ex-Weathermen founder, is now a professor of education at the University of Chicago. He has a considerable influence on the teaching of future teachers at, ironically, one of the more right-leaning universities in the country. Angela Davis, once on the FBI's Most Wanted list and the VP candidate on the Communist Party ticket in 1980 and 1984, is employed at UC Santa Cruz.

These may be two of the more extreme well-known cases, but there are thousands of others who emerged from the late 60s/early 70s New Left revolt and moved into academia and the media later in life. Many of those college radicals, editors, and reporters went on to work on newspapers and at TV stations or at colleges around the country. They took their college views with them.

Consider what may happen 20 years from now as today's college students take the reins at whatever are the dominant media outlets then. The effect is gradual, but over time, they will try to move the culture in a direction still further away from individual freedom and property rights, along with erasing all the other distinctively American values: love of reason and science, a confident entrepreneurial spirit, a commitment to self-reliance, and that "Don't tread on me" attitude that protected the country against foreign enemies inside and out for 250 years.

It's no accident that we've now arrived at a time when their perfect representative has been elected President of the United States. When a man with Sean Penn's views can proudly say that for the first time in his life he can put the word "my" before the word "president," you know something has gone terribly askew.

The fundamental reasons for Obama's election success have little to do with superior campaign organization, a cheerful grin and eloquent speaking skills, or even the horrendous financial debacle and the Bush administration's reactions. The first one is true, but not decisive. The second reason has too many counter-examples to bear the full weight (Nixon, Carter, etc.). On the final element, consider that Obama was comfortably ahead for months, McCain barely so for only a couple of weeks before the meltdown.

Media bias or slant over the past two years can't explain his success, either. The American people knew what they were getting. Ayers wasn't discussed much but he was talked about enough to tell editors that people didn't care. The Wright videos were widely seen. Despite considerable media bias, it's still true that their overriding interest is in attracting an audience. If either story had gotten traction, it would have been everywhere. The majority of American readers and viewers didn't think those alliances were important and no amount of campaign money, personal charm, or superior spin can alter that fact.

No, the American people knew what they were getting and it's what more than half of them wanted. They were ok with it because thousands of teachers and op-ed writers over a 40 year period had moved half the country enough to regard Obama's views as mainstream, as indeed they are.

Forty years ago, he would have been considered a radical. At the turn of the 20th century, he would have been deported. Today, he's just slightly more liberal than the average corporate executive. When every Wikipedia article that touches on environmentalism sides against industry and daily newspapers ran 287-159 in favor of Obama (circulation even wider, 23 million to 9 million), it's ludicrous to assert that his views are not mainstream. What was far left in the 60s has become mainstream, at least in terms of the popular culture that everyone is bathed in daily.

As things stand, the situation is poised to get worse, not better. A few of the major media outlets have admitted to open bias, or suppressing information about Obama. That's actually small potatoes. Enough information came out during the campaign that, in a rational world, an all-but admitted "non-ideological" communist would not have won. But he did. Handily. Media bias can't explain that. Media (and academic) slant — over the past 40 years — can.

So, here's where we are. The question on the minds of many who are unhappy with the outcome is what to do about it. They're focusing on who to put forth in four years, what type of candidate can shift the numbers back, what kind of Republican Party has the better odds over the coming years.

Myself, I couldn't care less about that. The Republican Party has never been very interesting and it has shown few signs of improving much over the past 20 years. Even if it did, winning elections is a secondary issue. Obama got elected because of the type of country America has more than half-become. After all, ask yourself why was the race between a far left Democrat and a moderate Democrat who happens to be in the Republican Party?

No, the way to get a non-wannabe dictator elected and, far more importantly, to have the right kind of country, is not to worry too much about party platforms and candidates. It's to reverse and then some the harmful changes in the culture of the past 100 years, particularly the past 40.

A big agenda, to be sure. More on how to do that in upcoming posts.