Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Westboro Baptist Church, the Common Law, and the Limits of Free Speech

So, one of the relatively few truly despicable groups of people in the world now has to pay millions- far beyond its assets- as restitution for one of its "God Hates Fags" protests of a military funeral. I hope this doesn't destroy my libertarian street cred too much, but I'm not exactly getting ready to burn the courthouse down over this one.

Actually, I don't think this case implicated freedom of speech all that much to begin with. The primary claims in the case were for invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED). For the privacy claim, the issue is highly factual, and I don't think the media provides enough facts to make a truly worthwhile evaluation of the claim; in other words, I think you have to trust the jury's fact-finding that this was an invasion of privacy implicating no free speech rights.

But the IIED claim clearly implicates no free speech rights in my view. IIED is an intentional tort that primarily evolved through the common law- it is not a result, by and large, of legislative action and findings, especially in Maryland if I remember correctly. The common law will rarely implicate free speech because it develops on a case by case basis; moreover, common law rules are usually highly fact-dependent, involving consideration of the entire circumstances surrounding the case. In other words, common law rules are usually trustworthy because they avoid one-size-fits-all prior restraints.

Just as important is the fact that the golden rule of libertarianism is that a person should be allowed to do just about anything, as long as they are doing no harm to others. Well, the central point of IIED is that the conduct in question actually causes harm to others. For those without a legal background, to be found liable for IIED, a person must meet several factors- (1) Intentional or reckless conduct, that is (2) extreme or outrageous, (3) resulting in (4) severe emotional distress. Usually, the emotional distress must be so severe as to be medically diagnosable. However, the more extreme and intentional the conduct the smaller the amount of distress required for liability. Either way the central point of the claim is that the defendant intended to cause real harm to the plaintiff. Actions of any stripe that are intended to cause actual harm to another person are actions that libertarians usually find appropriate for punishment.

In this case, I don't think there's any question that protesting the funeral of a private (as opposed to a public) person while also attacking the deceased's character is "extreme or outrageous." There is also little doubt that only a complete moron would think such conduct would be unlikely to cause severe harm to the family of the deceased. In other words- the Phelpses knew or should have known that their conduct was extremely likely to cause very real injury to the soldier's family, and yet engaged in the conduct anyways. Intentional infliction of physical harm implicates no free speech concerns in my view.

This isn't to say that the Westboro Baptist Church is forbidden from running around claiming that soldiers are getting killed because "God hates fags." Instead, it is to say that they are going beyond the realm of speech when they do so within the context of a funeral where grieving friends and family members are present. It's not quite yelling "fire" in a crowded theater- but it's close.

Why Telecom Immunity Is a Bad Idea

Today's Wall Street Journal features a column by several former Attorneys General arguing for immunity for the telecoms for their role in the Administration's warrantless wiretapping program. The Attorneys General argue that immunity is necessary because of a need to encourage private cooperation with the government on national security matters- even if the program in question was unconstitutional. Their argument hinges on this paragraph:

Whether the government has acted properly is a different question from whether a private person has acted properly in responding to the government's call for help. From its earliest days, the common law recognized that when a public official calls on a citizen to help protect the community in an emergency, the person has a duty to help and should be immune from being hauled into court unless it was clear beyond doubt that the public official was acting illegally. Because a private person cannot have all the information necessary to assess the propriety of the government's actions, he must be able to rely on official assurances about need and legality. Immunity is designed to avoid the burden of protracted litigation, because the prospect of such litigation itself is enough to deter citizens from providing critically needed assistance.

There are, however, several major flaws in this argument.

1. They seem to make a misstatement (or at least I hope it's a misstatement) in saying that "when a public official calls on a citizen to help protect the community in an emergency, the person has a duty to help." The use of the word "duty" is troubling to me- it implies not only a moral, but also a legal obligation to do whatever the government asks if there is an emergency, unless the person knows to an absolute certainty that an official is lying or just wrong. This is a recipe for totalitarianism; I can only hope and assume that the use of the word "duty" was just a poor word choice.

2. They argue that immunity was granted at common law in situations like this, and therefore the legislature is correct in creating additional statutory immunity. Problem is, Congress has already passed a statute (18 USC 2511) dealing with telecom immunity in this specific situation, ie, national security wiretapping. Immunity is allowed under this statute- but only if the administration issues appropriate certification or a warrant. The telecoms are massive companies with armies of lawyers- to argue that they were somehow unaware of the requirement for certification is, to say the least, disingenuous. Moreover, if the government failed to provide appropriate certification, that would suggest a pretty strong inference of bad faith action by the government (and thus by the telecoms). (For the record, it's worth noting that there is a good possibility that appropriate certification was issued- but this would obviate any need for additional immunity). By passing additional immunity for this specific instance, Congress is doing something perilously close to a bill of attainder; moreover, it is essentially making the relevant provisions of FISA totally worthless.

3. If the lawsuits were to be successful, but Congress still felt that the telecoms acted in good faith, then Congress could simply vote to indemnify the telecoms for their actions. In essence, the federal government would be admitting primary liability for the telecoms' actions. On the other hand, if there would be a finding of bad faith action by the telecoms, any prior grant of immunity would in effect rob victims of those bad faith actions of just restitution.

4. If the concern is that allowing the suits to move forward will have a chilling effect on future cooperation with government national security investigations, there is a simple fix: amend the existing statute for future actions. But, this should not be retroactive- as I pointed out above, the telecoms were well aware of the requirements for immunity; if they chose to disregard those requirements, then they knew the risk involved. Moreover, there is increasing evidence, as I argued here, that the program began at a time when no emergency existed. If true, this would negate any claim that the telecoms' actions were justified regardless of the statutory immunity requirements due to the existence of an imminent threat.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Which of our Global Wars Is More Important?

The War on Drugs or the (legitimate part of the) War on Terror? This recent post at Back Talk suggests that the Administration has placed the War on Drugs ahead of the War on Terror in Afghanistan. That sounds about right.

Of course, they'll tell you that in this case the two are intrinsically linked- by fighting the War on Drugs, they'll say, we're depriving the Taliban of their funding and thus fighting the War on Terror. But, as usual with the War on Drugs, this argument fails Econ 101. For the millionth time: drugs (especially opiates) have inelastic demand; this means that the more you restrict supply, the higher prices go- but with almost no effect on demand. When you have higher prices combined with high demand, you have what might be called a lucrative business opportunity. By fighting the War on Drugs in Afghanistan, all you are doing is increasing the profitability of the opium trade; since the Taliban appears to be getting more and more into that trade, you can pretty much rest assured that the reason they are doing so is because of the high profitability brought about by the War on Drugs. Moreover, the Taliban are already fighting a war to begin with, so fear of drug enforcement officers isn't exactly going to affect their willingness to engage in the opium trade (meaning that, over time, the Taliban will gain an increasing market share of the opium trade- not a good thing).

I know, I know, unintended consequences are a bitch.

(Hat Tip: To The People)

Zakaria Gets His Talking Points From PE

...Ok, maybe not. But in this debate with NPod, Fareed Zakaria sounds an awful lot like I did in my posts here, and here. The transcript of the debate is worth reading, but the thrust of Zakaria's argument is that Iran has, for the last 25 years, shown no signs of acting counter to their rational interest, and is in no way, shape, or form crazier than Kim Jong Il or Mao Tse-Tung. Zakaria's best line? " When the Iranians elected a moderate, a man called Khatami, as the president, conservatives kept telling us the president has no powers....Now they elect Ahmadinejad, and they say he's got his finger on the button."

NPod responds with the tired old Neville Chamberlain/Hitler comparison, and the newer, but still tired, argument that Iran is more irrational than Jong Il and Mao because it is motivated by religious fervor (of course, our own President's religious zeal is irrelevant). NPod so understands the degree to which Zakaria is winning the debate that he tries to cut Zakaria and Woodruff off on at least 6 occasions. Realizing he can't win on an appeal to logos, NPod makes repeated appeals to fear and pathos, including the closing line of "God help us if we follow that counsel." And the Iranians are the ones who are irrational?

Anyhow, George Ajjan had an excellent post earlier this month on this issue that provides far better information than even the Zakaria discussion (based on information from someone who, I don't know, actually lives in Iran) here.

The key information from Ajjan's source:

The President in Iran does not have the authority to declare war nor does he control the regular Army or the Revolutionary Guards. There may be individuals or groups in both that support him but that does not mean that he commands a major allegiance which would allow him to use the military for his own purposes. Also, the Supreme Leader has used reshuffles in the IRGC and the Army to ensure that people do not remain long enough to establish power bases or to establish alliances with other political actors.One interesting thing that most people don't know is that the President in Iran doesn't even control the police forces, since the national chief of police is appointed by the Supreme Leader and the law enforcement forces broadly answer to him. This was one of the things that [former President Mohamed] Khatami was trying to change, i.e. to get the police to be accountable to the Interior Ministry rather than to the General Staff of the Armed Forces.To Question 1:There has been no indication whatsoever that Supreme Leader Khamenei wants to go to war with Israel. In fact, just a few days after Ahmadinejad first made his remarks about Israel in 2005, Khamenei gathered the main actors of the regime and made a very public speech in which he stated that:
1. Iran's policy vis-à-vis Israel has not changed (i.e. Iran continues to oppose the "oppression of the Palestinian people" and support their demands for their own rights)

2. Iran would "never carry out aggressive acts against any country". Unsurprisingly, the Supreme Leader's comments, which carry much more weight in policy matters in Iran, where not widely reported by the international media.

Why the neocons insist on ignoring Khamenei and instead choose to demonstrate fear of Ahmadinejad is beyond me. It's as if they don't realize that doing this just makes Ahmadinejad relevant on an international scale even though he is on the verge of irrelevance within his own country.

Ron Silver's Incoherent Rant

This has got to be one of the most incoherent rants I've ever read in my life. I honestly have no idea who holds the positions he is attacking here- for example, he includes financial aid and international programs for Palestinians as "isolationist." Apparently, "isolationist" now just means "anyone who is not a neo-con." If he's attacking the Ron Paul/Old Right position of non-interventionism, then he's making no sense (since Ron Paul would not support international aid to anyone and since non-interventionism is anything but cultural relativism). If he's attacking the "Hollywood liberal" position, then who in Hollywood is advocating non-intervention in Darfur and Africa? Who in Hollywood is opposed to "nation-building," which was the brainchild of their beloved Bill Clinton? I mean, I'm all in favor of getting into debates that you can't lose- but it's not very worthwhile if you're not actually debating a real person.

I'm left totally confused by this one- I would love to know who he is attacking. Moreover, I love how he assumes that there's only one possible result of each of the straw-men positions he is attacking. You have to love it when people just refuse to ask the questions "Why?" and "How?"

Most importantly of all, though- Ron Silver is a member of the Council of Foreign Relations? Really? When did this happen? Does being a porn king in a short-lived TV knockoff of Romeo & Juliet now qualify one for joining the CFR? What about being a real-life porn king- can Larry Flynt become a member of the CFR?

Yes, there is a crisis

Atrios claims that not only is there no Social Security crisis (something I'm inclined to agree with, if only on linguistic grounds), but that:

"[H]aving [Obama] suggest that Social Security is a problem which needs to be dealt with by any serious candidate is like the bat signal for people like me. There is no problem with Social Security. None at all. Whatever broader fiscal time bombs exist have absolutely nothing to do with Social Security."

This "ostrich-neck syndrome" when it comes to New Deal and Great Society programs on the left is the equivalent of the Right's "ostrich-neck syndrome" when it comes to the War on Drugs. It shows a fundamentally gawdawful understanding of simple economics. The argument that Social Security faces no fundamental problems amounts to an argument that you can take a system designed for people living for x years after they retire (and which is theoretically funded by the salaries those people made), and maintain it when those people are, on average, living x+y years after they retire. Simple common sense, logic, etc., will tell you that this is impossible.

Moreover, we already have a pretty good example of a similar system collapsing under its own weight. At this point, it's pretty well understood that one of the biggest reasons Detroit is becoming increasingly less competitive in the global auto industry is its pension plan system, which creates an additional $1500 (I've actually seen this number a bit higher from other sources) in overhead for every car produced. I've seen the Left complain increasingly about "disappearing pensions" in the private sector more generally; unfortunately, the belief is usually that these plans are disappearing because of theft and greed. Unfortunately, it's emotionally easier to blame theft and greed rather than deal with the simpler, Ocham's razor explanation: just as you can't consume more than you produce, you can't take out more than you put in.

Of course, the retort is simply going to be "well, raise taxes to pay for the increased costs," as if you can raise taxes ad infinitum without ever having a negative effect on the economy as a whole. We can disagree about the point at which that negative effect will begin, but the fact is that simply raising taxes does nothing to solve the underlying problem, which means that you will have to continue to raise taxes every so often as people continue to live longer and longer. Eventually- whether 10, 25, 50, 100, or 200 years from now- you will get to a point where you can't increase taxes any more.

Religious Political Correctness

Things like this always amuse me:

"[True conservatives] unashamedly love their country and have reached the point of no return with regard to political correctness and pandering politicians..."

Followed by- in the very next sentence:

"[True conservatives] have a deep and abiding belief in God. A belief that is under a daily, escalating and obscene assault from those on the left who only use the word “Christian” as an insult, a punch line, or as an identifier to be added to a blacklist to deny employment at most schools, colleges, newspapers, and television networks. [The Republican nominee] needs to understand that this is a belief that must be acknowledged, respected, and defended."

So, I guess this means some forms of political correctness are more equal than others, right?

On unintended consequences

Thomas Sowell's column today does a great job of illustrating the law of unintended consequences. His argument is definitely an oversimplification (you can't blame the wildfires entirely or even mostly on open space laws, for instance) but it still does a pretty good job of showing the inability of government to know everything or foresee all the consequences of its actions. A better understanding in government that you can never know all the consequences of a policy and that every policy has tradeoffs would at the very least, create a bit more humility in the government (and a little less hubris).

Monday, October 29, 2007

Is Ron Paul's Spending Record As Good As Advertised?

The Club for Growth says no. They still give him overall high marks, but there are some definite red flags in this report, and some that aren't. I identified 9 areas of criticism in the Club for Growth's report:
1. Line-item veto. Given the current expansion in Executive Power under the Bush Administration, I think Paul's opposition to any line-item veto legislation is more than justified, constitutional or not; frankly, my position on the line-item veto has changed over the years, and I now firmly believe that the separation of powers concerns far outweigh any improvement in fiscal restraint.
2. Federally-mandated election reform; the vote was to increase funding for the Help America Vote Act, specifically for updated election equipment. Given that federal elections are conducted locally, their importance, and the need for reliable results, this is probably as constitutionally appropriate an area of funding as you're going to get.
3. Paul's sudden drop from 100% in 2006 on designated pork barrel votes to 29% in 2007. This number, in and of itself is quite disturbing. (More on this point below).
4. Newfound sponsorship of earmarks, along with a statement of essentially, "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em." This is frankly inexcusable, since that is the logic of virtually every pro-pork congressman, and any Paul supporter needs to question their candidate's commitment to his stated ideals if he is willing to start backing earmarks as soon as he starts running for President.
5. Opposition to trade agreements. This is something that Paul is pretty open about, and I understand his position. I just disagree with it- the goal of free trade is global free trade, and it's tough to get other countries to eliminate their restrictions on free trade without working with them through agreements. Frankly, this is clearly an area where even I think government has an important role to play.
6. Paul's impractical opposition to "reforms" of broken systems. Sometimes, "reforms" are worse than the broken system they're trying to fix. Admittedly, Paul's absolutism about just immediately eliminating programs is impractical, but at least it's intellectually honest. Club for Growth's mild rebuke on this issue is still, I think, legitimate.
7. I disagree with the mild rebuke on Paul's approval for negotiation of pricing on Medicare drugs. This won't lead to "de facto" price controls, as the article suggests, since the drug companies would still be free to charge whatever they wish to non-government entities (who, I might add, would be able to negotiate their own pricing structure). If government should be run like a business (and it should), then permitting it to negotiate pricing is part of the deal.
8. School vouchers. Paul's support of credits as opposed to vouchers (which he correctly points out will increase government's role in private schools) is perfectly consistent with small government principles. Indeed, as Cato Fellow (and old acquaintance of mine) Adam Schaeffer has argued, credits are the more practical approach to school choice both legally and politically, and are likely to be just as effective. Club for Growth's characterization that Paul's support of credits over vouchers places him with the Dems and NEA in opposing reform is seriously misplaced and out of line.
9. Tort reform. While I generally agree with the principles behind Paul's opposition to most tort reform (and thus disagree with Club for Growth's position on most tort reform), Club for Growth's very muted criticism is fair and appropriate.

As I suggested above, Paul's sudden embrace of earmarks and sudden approval of pork projects in the last few months is troubling indeed for anyone who views him as an icon of consistency and intellectual honesty. I took a look at each earmark that was the subject of the Club for Growth's study, and there is little doubt that, in each case, the earmark is the very definition of "pork." It does appear that for several of the votes, Paul was simply not present in Congress, and was likely on the campaign trail so you can't read that as support of the pork (though some would make a legitimate argument that being on the campaign trail during a vote raises other question marks). Still, the votes that Club for Growth selected for inclusion in its rankings seem to be a fair choice- the pork at issue in each selection is very, very clearly pork. Ron Paul's sudden votes against the anti-pork amendments (especially beginning in July) are extraordinarily puzzling.

What is most puzzling about these votes is that they serve no apparent political purpose, so you can't say that he's just trying to curry votes for the primaries (although that is the only legitimate inference given the sudden shift from absolute opposition to general acceptance). Essentially, I just don't see how voting for a few small pork barrel projects in other people's districts is going to noticeably increase your support (especially in the primaries) in those areas. Did Paul cut some sort of a deal with some of the Democrats?

In all, these questions aren't enough to get me to stop backing Paul, but it sure as hell makes McCain and Thompson look more and more palatable- and Obama even more so (since he has the best shot of stopping Hillary without managing to be as scary as Hillary).

When Krugman Starts Making Sense To a Libertarian

.....You know the world is completely upside down. In today's Times, the bane of lovers of free markets questions why, exactly, we should fear Iran. Money quote:

Yes, the Iranian regime is a nasty piece of work in many ways, and it would
be a bad thing if that regime acquired nuclear weapons. But let’s have some
perspective, please: we’re talking about a country with roughly the G.D.P. of
Connecticut, and a government whose military budget is roughly the same as

This line of questioning is closely related to the fifth of my recent questions for neo-cons and theo-cons, to wit:

Why would it ever be rational for Iran to try to nuke us (or provide a terrorist
with a nuke) if it is a virtual guarantee that we will always have way more
nukes? In other words, if a nuclear attack on Israel or the US would result in
the complete obliteration of Iran, why would Iran ever attempt such an attack?
If, in fact, they are developing nukes, isn't it more logical that they are
developing those nukes purely as an attempt to get leverage against us (and
prevent us from attacking them)? If you agree that it is irrational for Iran to
attack us, but believe that Ahmadinejad is irrational (because he wants to bring
about the Apocalypse), do you realize that Ahmadinejad has very limited power in
Iran's theocracy?

Of course, the fear is frequently cited as being more one of Iran giving terrorists a "suitcase nuke" that would then be exploded in the middle of Manhattan. Presumably, in this scenario, Iran would do so with the irrational expectation that we wouldn't find out it was they who supplied the suitcase nuke. The other problem with this scenario, though, is that the concept of a "suitcase nuke" being used by terrorists is far-fetched, at best (at least at current technology levels). Moreover, for Iran to develop an effective "suitcase" nuke would require a level of investment far beyond Iran's capability (you know, the whole GDP of Connecticut thing), and even farther beyond the capability of an independent terrorist organization. As for the so-called "dirty bomb" scenario, well, you don't need a nuclear program to achieve that end- you just need access to a modern hospital.

The other line of argument is often that Iran would have no qualms about taking out Israel. This line of argument also fails, though. First, while I tend to support much of our support of Israel, the fact is that we aren't Israel, and if any other country knows how to take care of itself militarily, it's the Israelis. Second, at this point nuking Israel would probably be about as rational as nuking the US itself- to think at this point that the US wouldn't respond to a nuclear attack against Israel with a nuclear attack of its own would be silliness beyond even the capability of Ahmadinejad (who, again, isn't as powerful within Iran as the neo-cons would have us believe anyways).

In actuality, we know that Ahmadinejad is quite unpopular in Iran, primarily because he has caused an economic disaster and has undone much of the social progress Iran had been making before he was elected . The thing is, the more we rattle our saber at him, the more opportunities he has to say that he is standing up against imperial aggression, and the more Iranians are able to get distracted from the domestic mess he has created. Moreover, our saber-rattling doesn't exactly help the image of America as bully, meaning the developing world is driven more and more into the Chavez/Ahmadinejad camp.

Alas, the fear-mongering will continue because, as Orwell wrote:

"Every war when it comes, or before it comes, is represented not as a war but as an act of self-defense against a homicidal maniac. "

I hope this destroys any illusions about single-payer

This morning, the blogosphere is abuzz about a report that tens of thousands of Brits who are fleeing the UK's socialized health system because of wait times, quality, etc.

Now, I have said before, here and here, amongst other places, the US healthcare system has deep flaws of its own, resulting in costs that are way out of whack. Additionally, there are relatively few advocates of a true single-payer system in the US- with even Hillary backing away from single-payer, the debate is now centered primarily on different ways of implementing universal coverage more generally (thankfully, most of the approaches at least pay lip service to being "market based"). Nonetheless, I would hope this report is a death knell to the arguments advanced by Michael Moore and others (and believed by those deceived by "Sicko") that socialized medicine works.

Still, a proponent of single payer can legitimately make the argument that the report only tells one side of the story, that it represents a relatively small portion of the Brit system, etc. However, even more telling to me than the report itself is this online discussion of the report. I find the discussion more telling because it reflects the actual opinion of a fairly good cross-section (it seems) of Brits (and expat Brits) about the overall state of the British system. You will notice a near-universal dissatisfaction with the system- these are not the "happy patients" you will see in "Sicko." One other thing you will notice is that there is not a single person suggesting that the system is underfunded (unless you include those complaining about the failure of poor immigrants to pay into the system).

One of the more illustrative quotes about the downside of socialized medicines (and really, socialized anything) comes from someone trying to defend the British system:

People who go abroad are playing into the hands of those who want to see
private health care. It's like people who accept the same pay rise as those who
have given up pay to go on strike for it. They are not doing anyone any favours.

So, people are supposed to let their health deteriorate, waiting exceedingly long for inferior treatment, just so they don't "play into the hands of those who want to see private health care." I don't think James Taggart could have said it better. To put this quote another way, people should accept suffering in order to prove that the government can do things better than the private sector.

An equally poignant refutation of government programs comes from a former NHS employee:
After having worked in NHS, I tend to agree with the article and most of
the comments by readers. Most of the NHS trust CEOs are mediocres and lack
innovative ideas. Degradation is in almost every segment. I came across cases
where even written contracts are not honoured. Its not the funding, but
management which needs to be blamed for all the ills.

The problem of course is that you will have extreme difficulty ever getting a government program in which management is anything but "mediocre" and "lack[ing] innovative ideas." There is, after all, little or no incentive for them to excel and be creative when doing so will not result in a better life for them. In fact, there is a giant disincentive to do so, since questioning one's superiors (who themselves lack any profit motive) means taking a risk of destroying your relationship with your superior and thereby potentially risking your job.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Trading One Form of Autocracy for Another

I was watching Real Time this morning, and found this segment to be particularly disturbing. What was amazing was how Wesley Clark views any criticism of Clinton in much the same way as Republicans view any criticism of the GWOT, which is to say that all such criticism is unpatriotic, traitorous, or in this case, just a Republican smear campaign.

I don't know that Clark could have done a better job proving Sully's point that Clinton is "Cheney in a pantsuit" if he had tried.

(For the record, I had already made the decision to make this post before I saw Sully's post about the exchange).

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Economics and Happiness

A commenter at Tyler Cowen's indispensable Marginal Revolution asks whether thinking like an economist results increases happiness, and then answers, well, yes, of course:

1. I cherish my consumer surplus. I value most of the stuff I buy way more than
what I have to pay for them; vanilla ice cream makes me happy beyond belief, and
the same is true for the music of Dream Theater and the (soon to be purchased)
Apple iphone. And what am I asked to pay for them? Peanuts.
2. I cherish my producer surplus. I am getting paid way, way more than the salary that would make me indifferent between supplying labour and staying at home.
3. I never have regrets: I did the best I could given the information available to me at the time. Judging I could have done better using information I acquired at a
later date makes as much sense as regretting the existence of gravity. On a
related topic, I understand the irrelevance of sunk costs.
4. While I do care for my welfare in relative terms, my welfare in absolute terms looms large in my utility function - and, boy, look how its value has been growing.
5. The selfishness of my fellow human beings does not make me anxious or depressed. Adam Smith (or was it Mandeville?) taught me that humans, selfish as they are, can make happy societies. And perhaps more to the point, they can make me happy.
I, for one couldn't agree more, even if I'm not an economist (though I do have at least some background in economics, so I'm not completely talking out of my ass). At the very least, attempting to evaluate the comparative value in every action or transaction makes you appreciate things a hell of a lot more, and take a hell of a lot less for granted.

On the other hand, as some of the commenters to Cowen's post point out, the fact that there are people who don't act and think like economists can be extraordinarily frustrating- but it's more the fact that you see people acting irrationally counter to their rational interests, and then watching as those irrational actions hurt not only the actor, but also other people (possibly including yourself).

Still, on the balance, basing your own decision-making and worldview on economics is pretty likely to increase your happiness. As Cowen himself notes:

Most generally, (good) economics insulates people from expecting the impossible, and that does make for greater happiness and contentment.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Fred on Executive Power

Andrew Sullivan is pleasantly surprised that Fred Thompson has a restrained view of Executive Power that seems to break with Cheney. Sully also makes note of Thompson's real (not faux) humility.

I want to say this much about Fred: despite my making fun of him here and here, I've had occasion to follow the former Senator's career a little more closely than other politicians. I once attended a guest lecture he gave where he made a last minute change of topics (from discussing the Clinton Justice Dept. to discussing campaign finance reform). Even though I completely disagreed with him on the issue, I came away very impressed with his candor and, yes, humility about the topic. He was one of the rare politicians who was willing to acknowledge a little bit of doubt that his position was correct, and to acknowledge the legitimacy of the other side- no railing against corporate lobbyists and special interests or anything of that sort. Just a rational discussion of what he thought was good and bad about McCain-Feingold, and why he may have been wrong.

When I saw that the die-hard conservatives were trying to draft him to run, I was more than a little surprised, given what I knew about his humility in general. In some ways, he is this year's Republican answer to Obama- just without the charisma. Generally speaking, Fred is a good man with a fairly well-rounded commitment to principle. I don't know that he would be a good President, but he'd be far better than Hillary or Giuliani, if only because of his more humble view of Executive Power.

Also- no matter what, it's about time we ended the string of electing people whose primary political experience has been in the Executive branch (whether it be federal, state, or local). If you ever wanted to know why federal power has grown so much in the last 40 years or so, you need look no further than the fact that Gerald Ford (who wasn't even elected) is the only President during that time period whose primary political experience was in the legislature (or, for that matter, the judiciary).

This isn't to say that a former Congressman won't expand Executive Power (see, e.g., LBJ), just that a former Congressman or judge is much more likely to have an actual concern for the Constitutional separation of powers and respect for the will of at least one other branch.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Lucky Dube, RIP

If you have never heard of South African reggae star Lucky Dube, then I am sincerely sorry- in my opinion, he was the greatest advocate of the freedom philosophy in music since at least Bob Marley. In some ways, I (a devout fan of Marley) think Lucky's music had more of an effect on my thought than Marley's.

Sadly, Lucky Dube was shot and killed last week in a carjacking attempt in Johannesburg, South Africa- by the very types of people he dedicated his life to fighting through his music. If you have never listened to him, you can listen to some short samples here, or check out his song lyrics here. What made him particularly powerful was that his advocacy of freedom did not change one bit after apartheid fell- he was every bit as opposed to racism against white people post-Apartheid as he was opposed to racism by white people during apartheid. There is also a strong undercurrent in his songs- both pre-and post-apartheid - that government is more often the cause of problems than the solution. This isn't to say Lucky Dube was a libertarian (I'm not sure he ever even heard of libertarianism), or even would agree with libertarians on a lot of important things (though "Taxman" is as libertarian a song as they come). But the underlying message of his music was one that was profoundly at the heart of a true libertarian philosophy: self-reliance, personal responsibility, a deep respect for others, a love of life, and a rejection of force. He also had some extremely personal songs about children, family, and love that are as beautiful and emotional as you will ever come across. Put another way, Lucky Dube's music is

as human and unselfish a portrayal of the freedom philosophy as you will ever find. The world is a little less bright without him.

Just a few of his most libertarian-ish songs included:

"Taxman", a song that talks about the government as legalized theft, and, in a sad coincidence, contains the lines "I pay for the police/To err..I don' t know why/'Cause if my dollar was good enough/There wouldn' t be so much crime/In the streets".

"Affirmative Action", about the tendency of people to look for government to save them rather than educate themselves and actually work for a living.

"Feel Irie", (NOTE: the "bother?" in the link should read "part of") about the fact that life is tough, but we shouldn't feel as if somehow others are immune to troubles; instead, people have it within themselves to make their own happiness. This includes two of my favorite lines of all time: "People had troubles since the Pope was an altar boy/People had worries from when the Dead Sea was only critical".

"Is This Freedom?" and "Mickey Mouse Freedom", about the false perception of freedom that results from replacing one form of particularly nefarious oligarchy with another.

"House of Exile", a particularly beautiful song the exact meaning of which I find difficult to express.

"Life in the Movies"- a post-apartheid song that includes the phrase: "Don't steal, the police hate competition."

"Sleeping Dogs Lie"- a song about the importance of individual happiness, and the need to let other people be happy. Includes a tale of tolerance and acceptance towards gays- a rarity in the reggae world, not to mention subsaharan Africa.

A few random questions for neocons and theocons

1. Can people really be forced to be free? If yes, isn't this a paradox? If no, how do you justify military action for the purpose of spreading democracy?

2. Isn't the core of a moral act the fact that you actively chose the moral act of your own free will? If so, then how does prohibiting immoral action (as you define it) increase morality?

3. Why do free market principles apply in the field of business and economics, but not in the field of moral action?

4. If God is omnipotent, why must he be protected? If God is infinite, how can you know for certain what his will is? Similarly, if God has a "plan" that we do not and cannot know, how can we know for certain how he wants us to implement his plan?

5. Why would it ever be rational for Iran to try to nuke us (or provide a terrorist with a nuke) if it is a virtual guarantee that we will always have way more nukes? In other words, if a nuclear attack on Israel or the US would result in the complete obliteration of Iran, why would Iran ever attempt such an attack? If, in fact, they are developing nukes, isn't it more logical that they are developing those nukes purely as an attempt to get leverage against us (and prevent us from attacking them)? If you agree that it is irrational for Iran to attack us, but believe that Ahmadinejad is irrational (because he wants to bring about the Apocalypse), do you realize that Ahmadinejad has very limited power in Iran's theocracy?

A few random questions for Progressives

These questions aren't meant to be snarky- I really am curious about the answers.

1. Why should the arbitrary fact that someone was born in the United States mean that they should be forced to pay for top-quality healthcare that is unheard of outside the West for someone in Hawaii, and in the process be prevented from spending that money to make sure that a family in Malawi is able to live on $5 a day instead of $1, or has access to a minimal level of healthcare? In follow-up, which of these two examples does more to make the world a better place?

2. Why do micro-loan programs work so much better than entitlement programs in bringing people out of abject poverty?

3. Which is more selfish- only helping those you care about, or forcing other people to help those you care about?

4. If, as I often hear Progressives claim, you believe in the (fundamentally libertarian) maxim that you can't legislate morality, how is forced charity (aka entitlement programs) not the legislation of morality?

5. Can someone who chooses to work be forced to work more and harder in order to provide food, shelter, and healthcare for someone who actively chooses not to work?

Something forgotten by the "Ticking Time Bomb" argument

I've argued before that torture, or "harsh interrogation techniques" (per the Bush-euphemism du jour) doesn't generally work particularly well. But, that isn't to say that it never works- just that on average it is less likely to get reliable intelligence than other methods, or is likely to produce so much bad intelligence as to overtax precious resources that could be used on pursuing more reliable intelligence.

Anyways, the argument of the pro-torture (or "harsh interrogation techniques") crowd often centers on the ticking time-bomb scenario. And, frankly, they're probably wise to do so- in an event where you are talking about an imminent threat of millions of people dying and where you know (or have ample reason to believe) that torture is the only thing that will get you the intelligence you need quickly enough, why wouldn't you torture? Therefore, the argument goes, the President (or appropriate officials down the line) should have discretion to make the call on when torture (or "harsh interrogation techniques") is permitted- without fear of prosecution.

Here's the problem with this argument, though- necessity, self-defense, and defense of others is an affirmative defense already recognized by every single common law court in the US, Britain, and- to my knowledge- the world. Having such an affirmative defense means that, yes, the authorizing official and (maybe) the interrogator, rather than the prosecutor, will bear the burden of proof if they are ever brought up on charges...but isn't that the way it's supposed to work? If you're going to cross the legal line, shouldn't you be required to have sufficient justification for doing so? Think of the affirmative defense as a post-sentence trial (for purposes of this analogy, the torture is the "sentence") of the alleged terrorist, but with a lower standard of proof (either "clear and convincing" or a "preponderance of evidence," rather than "beyond a reasonable doubt").

Why is this already existent way of handling torture issues insufficient to protect national security?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


I hate to continue with this string of comments about columns, but they've been particularly bad these last few days.

Today's Chuck Colson column has one of the most preposterous premises of any column I've ever read, and may be the penultimate example of the cringe-worthiness of mixing sports and religion. The premise of his column? People should root for the Rockies in the World Series, not because they are underdogs who put on one of the most amazing runs in baseball history, but because "The Rockies are the first major league sports franchise organized on specifically Christian principles."

First of all, the premise itself is deeply flawed- the Rockies are hardly the first team to screen players for "moral values"- this has actually been the operating premise behind a huge number of teams, some successful, some not so much. Additionally, while it is truly a kind thing that the Rockies have voted the widow of their minor league coach (who was killed during a game in a freak accident) a full playoff share, does Colson really think that just about any other team wouldn't have done the same? Finally, does Colson really think that the Rockies are "the first major league sports franchise" to post Bible quotes in their training facilities and have regular prayer and fellowship meetings?

Second of all-the Rockies are hardly the only successful sports franchise in recent years to have an emphasis on good character (usually referred to in sports as "chemistry"). For instance, would anyone say that the reigning Super Bowl champion Colts- led by hard-core Christians Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy, and all-around nice guy Marvin Harrison (who are run by the same guy who put together the 1990's Bills Super Bowl teams) have a lack of emphasis on character (though I'll admit, Peyton Manning's face makes me nauseous)?

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Worst. Column. Ever.

It is amazing to me that, in this day and age, we still have columnists on widely-read sites like Townhall who continue to insist that the War in Iraq is justified as an attack against the terrorists of 9/11 or against closely aligned terrorists. I always love when columnists make the argument that the "Constitution is not a suicide pact", as if pre-emptive attacks (without a declaration of war) on nations that aren't an imminent (or even near-imminent) threat to the US are somehow necessary to prevent the destruction of the US.

Listen- if you don't like the way the Constitution is written, then it gives you a pretty good idea of what you should do: AMEND IT! This used to be the conservative position; now, though, conservatives have decided that the Constitution can just be ignored on the grounds that "it's not a suicide pact," so the plain meaning of the words can be altered to create enough ambiguity to allow the President to do whatever he wants to fight a couple of stateless terrorists.

I also love the common claim that "they" despise us (to the point of wanting to kill us) just because we exist and do not practice sharia law. Of course, this ignores the fact that there isn't just one "they", and that most of the "theys" have various different reasons for hating us. Some of "them" hate us because of the mess we made in Iraq; some because we're killing a lot of people in "their" region; some hate us because we have a military presence in their holy land; some hate us because of our pervasive culture; some hate us for our support for Israel; and finally, yes, some hate us because we're not them. Of course, the idea that a different response is required for each group of "them" requires an appreciation of nuance and a desire to ask the question: "Why?" And the idea that maybe we should try to take approaches that eliminate existing "theys" without creating new "theys" is, apparently, the equivalent of a "clearly written prescription for disaster." Or maybe Harris just believes that every single Arab is a terrorist just dying to attack the US, so no new "theys" can be created, and we only need to destroy the existing "theys"- if that is the case, though, then why isn't he advocating just blowing the whole region up with a couple of nukes?

The most staggeringly bad line of this staggeringly idiotic column is: "the fact remains that we were indeed attacked by a people, on our shores.(emphasis mine)" So, because we were attacked by "a people, on our shores," we can now attack just any people we wish?

In any event, not even Ron Paul wants to just stand idly by and allow us to be attacked by "them." While I am not 100% supportive of Paul's foreign policy (it is more isolationist than I am willing to go), the fact is that he did support fighting back in Afghanistan (if not the subsequent nation-building, which Republicans used to find abhorrent), and he continues to support a variety of non-military or quasi-military measures to get people who actually represent a threat to our national security- whether they be massive bounties, letters of marque (I always have to throw that one in- who doesn't love pirates?), or more appropriate law enforcement efforts. But it's not about curling up in the fetal position and letting "them" come after us- it's about asking why "they" want to come after us in the first place. Going over there and destroying a country in the heart of the Arab world might kill some of "them", but if it creates more of "them" than it kills, is it really a good idea?

To quote a once-widely respected (until he fought against the neo-con party line) Republican ex-General and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of State:
"What is the greatest threat facing us now? People will say it's terrorism. But are there any terrorists in the world who can change the American way of life or our political system? No. Can they knock down a building? Yes. Can they kill somebody? Yes. But can they change us? No. Only we can change ourselves. So what is the great threat we are facing?"

Of course, Phil Harris' career as a software engineer in frickin' Nebraska (yeah, that center of terrorist targets Nebraska) makes him far more knowledgeable about military matters than a guy who waged perhaps the most successful war in American history.

Dennis Prager on Killing Internet Freedom

I've obviously been a pretty emphatic advocate of the need for civility on internet blogs, message boards, and e-mails to commentators. But Dennis Prager's column today strikes me as one of the best ways to attack the free speech triumph that is the internet. Money quote:

"There is not one good reason for any website, left or right, or non-political, to allow people to avoid identifying themselves. Anyone interested in serious political discourse, or in merely lowering the hate levels in our country, should welcome the banning of anonymous postings."

To sum up, Prager believes that the anonymity provided by the internet is responsible for all sorts of ad hominems and vitriol, making the comparison with a relative lack of ad hominems and vitriol in the letters to the editor section of the newspaper, where people must identify themselves with name and hometown. As a result, Prager advocates requirements that individual commenters and bloggers give their name and hometown for any comments they wish to post.

There are a number of huge flaws with this idea, though:
1. Incivility on the internet is a nuisance, but not a threat; if you are seriously offended and hurt by something said by an anonymous commenter or blogger, then you need to grow a thicker skin. Not to say you can't be seriously annoyed by this sort of thing- just that we're not usually talking about serious threats to someone's reputation or physical well-being. An ad hominem by an anonymous poster is hardly going to hurt someone's reputation, and it really shouldn't hurt their feelings. The primary effect of the ad hominem nuisance is often that it prevents the anonymous poster's legitimate arguments from ever getting a fair hearing from the "victim."

2. The anonymity provided by the internet, whether on comments or in the actual blogosphere, is one of the most essential elements of the internet. If you are able to maintain some degree of anonymity, you are much more free to advocate unpopular positions, or even just popular positions on divisive issues. This is a particularly important element point now that google gives employers and prospective employers virtually unlimited access to everything that exists on the internet- access that employers increasingly use to research job candidates. For instance, think of the effect of non-anonymity on an outright communist's willingness to engage in internet discussion if the communist is aware that his current or future employer will be able to tie him to his statements.

3. How would one enforce this anonymity policy? Would one be able to just put down any old name and town- in which case anonymity is essentially unaffected? Or would a poster's hometown have to be closely correlated to his IP address? Or would we have to have software that is tied to the name of the account owner (creating massive privacy concerns)?

4. Who says that tying one's name to a comment actually has an effect on civility? I've seen plenty of letter to the editor over the years that could be characterized as "ad hominems" or invective-filled. Moreover, how many letters to the editor containing ad hominems and invective don't get published at all because they simply contain nothing worth publishing (which is usually the case with any ad hominem)?

5. Regardless of anonymity, most sites already have editorial control over comments posted on their websites. When a comment shows up that is particularly lacking in substance and filled with ad hominems or invective, the site's owner has the ability to delete the comment- and frequently does.

Now, I have no problem with individual sites choosing whatever commenting policy they wish. Indeed, there are perfectly legitimate reasons why a site would wish to prevent anonymous comments. But there are also plenty of legitimate reasons why permitting anonymous comments is worthwhile. To ignore these reasons is just silly. An even scarier type of anonymity ban, though, would be on an abolition of anonymous blogging in general (rather than just commenting). Currently, the blogosphere is as close to a pure meritocracy as has ever existed- good blogs get the most traffic; bad blogs wither and die. What makes many blogs good blogs, though, is their willingness to express unique ideas; an anonymity ban would have a chilling effect on any blogger expressing unique ideas where the blogger's ideas aren't well-known to begin with (and where the blogger isn't already pursuing a career path surrounded by like-minded people).

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Internet, Nanotech, and the Obsolescence of Government


Perhaps one of the most important- and legitimate- functions of government is as a sort of clearing-house for information sharing. For instance, government can claim a proper role in regulating lead content in paint not so much because one or two extra parts per million will automatically mean a catastrophic risk to children, but because citizens lack the ability to be all-knowing about the safety of everything that comes into their lives. Unfortunately, with many things, a customer can only find out the hard way that a product is unsafe. Similarly, government can claim a proper role in prohibiting or regulating drug use on the grounds that, by banning a product and enforcing that ban, it is preventing people from using unsafe products that may seem safe at first and are highly addictive (of course, the drugs chosen for this prohibition and regulation are completely arbitrary, but that's besides the point). In other words, the status that government gives to a product, person or action is intended to let the public know that the product, person or action is good or bad.

Libertarians are fond of pointing out that these functions can be performed just as well- indeed, even better - by private industry, like Consumer Reports. Unfortunately, this argument has been impractical- the costs of obtaining this type of information have historically been extremely high, particularly in terms of time required to research a product, person, or action.

So government regulation of some things that present legitimate hazards is perhaps legitimate. The problem, of course, is that few products, persons, or actions are bad for everyone, just as few are actually good for everyone. So, while the government policy may have a good intent (for instance, preventing people from becoming drug-addled criminals), it often has very arbitrary results as applied (locking up people whose casual use of "illegal" drugs causes no external harms). Indeed, government's decision to regulate something is almost never the result of a finding that something is 100% evil or good for 100% of the people, but is instead based on a finding of what does the most good for the group that is most politically powerful on an issue at a given time.

The internet, however, has the power to combine the best of the personal choice/well-informed consumer ideal of the Consumer Reports-type industry with the relatively lower opportunity costs (to the individual consumer/taxpayer) of government regulation. With the continued development of portable nanotechnology that can be brought anywhere, and the unlimited potential of the internet in terms of making information available, the need for government one-size-fits-all rules is decreasing. In other words, portable nanotechnology with access to the internet presents an opportunity for individuals to have almost zero cost (both opportunity and actual) in obtaining information about a purchase or action. Near-immediate access to this information will allow them to better decide for themselves whether their intended purchase or action makes sense for them specifically.

Under this scenario- which will certainly take many years to reach its full potential- the immediate access to information will obviate the need for government to impose an absolute barrier for or against the subject products or actions. To put it all another way: government action is unnecessary where all individuals have a zero or near zero-cost opportunity to learn for themselves whether something is right or wrong for them. Nanny-statism, to a large degree, loses much of its rationale.

What might happen if Giuliani wins

There have obviously been plenty of stories the last few weeks about the possibility that the theocons will run a 3rd Party candidate if Giuliani wins the Republican nomination. There has also been plenty of speculation (denied by the Ron Paul campaign) that Ron Paul could mount a third party candidacy after he uses the primaries to boost his name recognition. Even if Ron Paul does not mount a third party candidacy, his nomination campaign will likely have succeeded in creating a potentially permanent and irreconcilable divide between the libertarian wing of the party and the neocons.

Should there be two third party campaigns from the traditional Republican coalition (and assuming Hillary gets the Democratic nomination), we could be faced with the most historic election in many decades. Let us say, for the sake of argument, that the theocon candidate captures 10% of the overall vote, just about all of which would come from traditional Republican voters. In addition, let us say that Ron Paul captures 15% of the overall vote, with 2/3 of that coming from libertarian Republicans. These assumptions, I think, are pretty realistic given anti-war sentiment, the typical voting cohesiveness of the theocons, and the fact that Giuliani and Hillary are the libertarian anti-Christs.

This would mean that Giuliani would get- at best, I think- 25-30% of the vote in the general election. A performance of that nature would almost certainly have serious and long-lasting effects on the Republican Party. What kinds of effects? I think the possibilities are:
1. Complete disintegration, a la the Whigs post-1852. This is certainly a possibility, especially if the Republican Party does nothing in response to this (hypothetical) historically bad performance. This is most likely to happen if the Party just blames the election on the ever-popular BDS (Bush Derangement Syndrome), resulting in the formation of at least one somewhat viable third party that would ultimately drain the Republican Party.
2. The Republican Party is forced to completely re-invent itself as essentially a reincarnation of the Old Right in an attempt to entice the theo-cons and libertarians back into the fold. This would most closely parallel the response to the 1976 election, which of course led to the nomination of Reagan in 1980. Depending on Hillary's governing philosophy (which I suspect will not be much different from the neo-cons), this scenario could center on the Republicans turning themselves into very much a pure anti-war party, dumping the neo-cons in the process while bringing on board a bunch of angry Progressives.
3. The Republicans concede to additional "Campaign Finance Reform" in the name of "preventing corruption." As with previous Campaign Finance Reform, this would result in making life even more difficult for independent candidates, and would safeguard the Republicans from needing to do very much at all to keep their status in American politics.
4. Ron Paul makes a significant enough impact in the primaries that, when Giuliani goes down in flames, Paul becomes a major voice within the Party. By "significant," I mean 15-20% of the vote, which seems quite unlikely right now. This results in a scenario where the Republican Party is essentially pushed back to its positions of 1992-1994.

I'm sure there are plenty of other possibilities. All I know, though, is that a showing of 25-30% by a major party in this day and age would be catastrophic for that party. This is particularly true where almost all of the third party voting would be coming from that party's traditional base (contrary to popular belief, Perot voters in 1992 were almost as likely to be taken out of Clinton's support as Bush's).

Friday, October 19, 2007

Michael Kinsley Gets It

Michael Kinsely, as usual, gets libertarians more or less right- this time in Time. It's a rarity to see an article about libertarians that says something like the following- especially from someone on the left side of the political spectrum (and yes, I know that Kinsley is a bit different from other liberals):

Libertarians and communitarians (to continue this unjustified generalizing) are different character types. Communitarians tend to be bossy, boring and self-important, if they're not being oversweetened and touchy-feely. Libertarians, by contrast, are not the selfish monsters you might expect. They are earnest and impractical--eager to corner you with their plan for using old refrigerators to reverse global warming or solving the traffic mess by privatizing stoplights. And if you disagree, they're fine with that. It's a free country. [My emphasis]
Of course, Kinsley is slightly wrong in calling libertarians "isolationists," even if he is using the word in a non-judgmental way. Isolationism has two different definitions, depending on who you talk to or the dictionary you consult. It either means abstinence from international relations of any type or a policy of simply staying out of the affairs of other nations. Only the latter definition applies to most libertarians, who are obviously extremely firm believers in strong international trade without barriers.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Crack for Political Bloggers

Have fun.(It even has a fun animation that allows you to see the change in donations by region over time).

One thing that you may notice is that Obama beats the hell out of Hillary in most of the red states. Some other things: Mormons really, really like Mitt Romney. I didn't even think that many people lived in Utah! Also, Ron Paul is the only candidate below McCain who seems to have any national appeal whasoever.

(HT: Volokh Conspiracy).

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Way to go, Dems!

So, you really had to pursue that entirely symbolic resolution these last few weeks, didn't you? Wasn't Bush doing a good enough job screwing up one of our most important alliances on his own? I guess not. Just when you think no one can be as bad at international relations than the Bush Administration, in swoop the congressional Dems....

Well, I hope you guys are happy with the results. And yes, the Turks' new best friend referenced in the article is the same Syrian President Bashar Assad that tried to prevent democracy in Lebanon and that we have (justifiably) labeled a supporter of terrorism. It's also the same Syria that Turkey almost went to war with less than 10 years ago. We can only hope that what Turkey is about to do doesn't completely screw up the one region of Iraq that actually understands what freedom and democracy are supposed to look like.

(Disclaimer: for the record, I'm not saying that the Turks are just going to enter Iraqi villages because of the Dems' resolution- frankly, the Turks have an independent right to do exactly what they're doing for their own protection, assuming of course their claims of cross-border attacks are accurate. However, they've been held at bay because of their historic relationship with the US and because of some weak assurances by the US and Iraq that they would pursue the PKK themselves. The timing of this news against the backdrop of the genocide resolution is in my mind a curious coincidence at best. I'm guessing that the resolution may have been a last straw).

**UPDATE, 9:47 AM: Ilya Somin at Volokh Conspiracy has an interesting thread on the use of the word "genocide."

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Rudy Promises to Save the World

In a recent town hall meeting (aka, campaign speech where politician pretends to be one of "the People"), Rudy Giuliani assured a questioner that, under a Giuliani administration, the US will be prepared for responding to an invasion of space aliens.

Brian Doherty, one of those whacky libertarians at Reason Hit & Run, had this to say in response:

"Romney, worried that the invaders might be from Kolob, will be hesitant to strike quickly; of the GOP front-runners, it has to be Rudy if "will protect us from alien invaders" is your main political concern."


I think we should demand to know where all the candidates stand on this critical issue. I'm guessing Ron Paul would handle any such threat by hiring mercenary space pirates under his letters of marque rationale. Heck, I'm sure he already has Bill Pullman (aka "Lone Star") on speed dial for just this purpose.

What about the other candidates?

Some more on health care

Tyler Cowen this morning asked if there is any further government intervention that libertarians would support as being necessary to help someone. Since I am not an absolute anarcho-capitalist, and since I like to think I have a heart, I got to thinking about this question.

As I said in my McCain post, the McCain proposal strikes me as a step in the right direction; but this doesn't really answer Cowen's question, since what is good about the McCain proposal is a recognition of where government intervention has screwed up our health care system. In other words, what is good about it is primarily that it eliminates or reduces the role of government in certain areas of the system.

So, turning to Cowen's actual question, I think there is some justifiable government intervention to help the neediest of the needy. One thing that maybe would be workable would be a government program under which government agrees to reimburse insurance costs over a certain percentage of household income- this is of course effectively a tax credit, but one that is more situation dependent than an outright flat credit of x dollars. To make things fairer, we could also make it a graduated system- so, the reimbusability threshold would be, say, 10% of a household's first $25,000, 20% of the next $25,000, 30% of the next $50,000, and so on. This would be fair because it would essentially be a self-limiting program- over a certain level of income, reimbursable coverage would be effectively impossible. Moreover, the lower your income, the more your insurance is reimbursable, and vice versa. So, a household making $100,000 would have to have $22,500 in necessary insurance costs to be eligible (almost $2000 a month). On the other hand, a household making $20,000 would only need $2000 of insurance premiums before reimbursability would kick in (about $170 a month).

I acknowledge some inherent initial problems with this scenario, not least of which is the question of how long it will take for government to reimburse beneficiaries of the program. Maybe we could create the equivalent of a reverse W-4 for insurance companies, which would allow the insurance companies to deduct your excess insurance costs from your monthly bill; if it turns out that you have more gross income at the end of the year than you report to the insurance company, then you owe the government for the unreimbursed amount when you file your tax return.

Another inherent problem with my hypothetical program is the question of preventing people from gaming the system by getting more expensive insurance than they actually need (which would then create an incentive for insurance companies to charge far more for insurance than the real value of the insurance). Perhaps you could get around this by requiring particular insurance plans to be certified as reimbursable, which admittedly has its own set of problems.

I'm sure there are plenty of other inherent problems, but conceptually, I think it is a proposal that is fair and is not overly offensive to libertarian or conservative principles (although administrability may be a fatal flaw). I'm sure there will be dissent, though, which I would be happy to hear.

Monday, October 15, 2007

McCain on Health Care

Every once in awhile, John McCain reminds you that he remembers what being a Republican used to mean. His plan isn't perfect by any stretch, but it's important because it actually is based on the question of "why are so many without insurance?" The answer of course is that: A. insurance (and healthcare more generally) is exceedingly expensive in this country; and
B. Some percentage of people just don't want insurance almost regardless of the cost.

As Michael Moore's precious World Health Organization study found, the US is tops in the world in quality of care; the reason our overall ranking in terms of quality of system is that: 1. the ranking is biased (by presupposing socialized medicine is better), and, more importantly, 2. the US has ridiculously high overall costs. McCain's plan focuses on those overly high costs; most other plans, including Hillary's and Romney's, focus solely on getting the uninsured insured- in other words, they treat one symptom as if it were the entire disease. Importantly, McCain seems to recognize that much of the cause of high costs in our system isn't too little regulation- it's too much.

In any event, here is what I like about the McCain proposal:
1. Shifting responsibility for some care to nurses (and away from doctors)- if you've ever talked to an experienced nurse at length, you will come to quickly realize that their experience makes them extremely knowledgeable about many medical procedures and diagnoses (often more so than even a doctor who's been around for a few years). Of course, we already have a nursing shortage, but increased workplace freedom for nurses would alleviate this a little bit; additionally, it would increase the amount hospitals are willing to pay their nurses (since they are saving more money on paying slightly fewer MDs).
2. Elimination/reduction of cross-state licensure requirements- this is just common sense (why should medicine be practiced differently in different states); it would only have a minimal effect on costs, probably, but cross-state licensure requirements are just silly to begin with. (I acknowledge there is a federalism concern here, though).
3. Permission for re-importation of drugs from Canada. I acknowledge that this creates problems of intellectual property protections; however, the effect of this will be to ultimately even out drug prices between the US and Canada to reflect a more accurate market value for both (right now, the US insurance market is effectively subsidizing Canadian prescription drugs, as well as prescription drugs in other countries with price controls and universal medicine).
4. Patent reform- I'd like to hear more specifics on this, but our current patent regime is way too restrictive
5. Shifting of tax credits from employers to individuals- I've long said that the employer-based tax credit system creates a perverse set of incentives that results in high overall costs and often inadequate coverage, which effectively pushes overall costs even higher.
6. Elimination of prohibitions against purchase of out of state insurance. Again, there are federalism concerns here, but the wide variations in state insurance coverage requirements are foolish and arbitrary and result in a significant reduction in competition; additionally, this is a legitimate interstate commerce issue.
7. A recognition that a properly functioning market would have competititon for people with pre-existing illnesses, rather than a generalized reluctance to cover such people.

Here is what I don't like:
1. Tort reform- I may just need more details on this, but usually "tort reform" isn't really reform in the proper sense- it usually means creating statutory or bureacratic protections against common law liability. On the other hand, if he means elimination of existing laws and regulations that artificially encourage lawsuits by creating false definitions of standards of care, then I can get on board with this proposal.
2. The one-size-fits all tax credit. I don't know how you can make this more flexible without creating a bureaucratic nightmare, but the size of the credit is massive. While I'm never opposed to significantly reducing the amount the government can take from people, a one size fits all tax credit may amount to a several hundred billion dollar entitlement program unless it is properly implemented.
Areas where I would like to see more details:
1. Encouragement of walk-in clinics at places like Wal-Mart- this is a promising area, but I am generally suspicious whenever the government talks of "encouragement."
2. His Health Savings Account plan- what is the interplay with his tax credit scheme? I am suspicious of his use of the phrase "tax-preferred."
3. Medicare reform- in principle, he is certainly correct about what Medicare should and should not be paying for; however, making this distinction in the real world may mean a choice between arbitrary lines and an even bigger bureacratic mess.

On the whole, McCain's proposal is a logical step forward, and mostly makes sense because it actually begins with a question (to wit: what is wrong with our healthcare system) rather than an assumption (ie, we have too many uninsured people).

I continue to have a difficult time understanding why so many conservatives (especially neo-cons and theo-cons) continue to view McCain as a "RINO." Except for McCain-Feingold (which, by the way, conservative darlings Pres. Bush and Fred Thompson supported) and a couple other notable exceptions, McCain has been a reliable voice for historically conservative positions- maybe even the most reliable such voice in the campaign. For some reason, he is still viewed as being pro-choice (despite a profoundly pro-life record) because of one statement he made in the 2000 campaign that was taken completely out of context and then used by Karl Rove to destroy him in South Carolina.

***UPDATE, 11:59PM*** I foolishly and stupidly forgot to mention McCain's strong support of gun control. However, I don't see how Rudy is any more conservative in this regard. I'm sure there's other issues where he isn't particularly conservative. The immigration issue is one where conservatism has backed further and further away from old-fashioned conservatism, and therefore McCain. But compared to Giuliani or Romney, he's Ronald Reagan reincarnated.

On Hollywood Republicans

Kyle's comment the other day about Fred Thompson being representative of a number of Hollywood Republicans in elected office (Thompson, Eastwood, Schwarzenegger, Reagan, Sonny Bono) or running for elected office got me thinking a little bit. It is certainly fairly anomolous that there are so many (comparatively) Republican politicians with deep Hollywood backgrounds, and so few Democrat politicians with similar backgrounds (only Al Franken comes to mind).

One possible explanation for this, I think, is that Democrats are able to take most of Hollywood's substantial financial support for granted. Republicans, on the other hand, cannot. Since Hollywood has a huge amount of potential campaign money, as well as a lot of ability to create more subtle influences on politics (through movies, tv shows, high-profile endorsements, etc.), Hollywood is a valuable resource that cannot be ignored by either party. Since Republicans have a rather small overall presence in this community, it makes sense for them to put forward candidates with Hollywood backgrounds in order to get at least a little bit of the Hollywood pie. Otherwise, you could argue that Republicans would be almost entirely shut out of that pie.

It occurs to me that the Democrats may face a similar dilemma (historically) with the wealthier business interests (and the obviously massive pie they represent). As a result, do they tend to run more corporate businesspeople? I don't know if there's a good way of putting together reliable data on this, but an extremely quick and cursory perusal of prior careers of Members of Congress seems to argue in favor of my completely speculative theory. At the very least, there are far more Dems with big business backgrounds than you would expect if you looked solely at voting and contribution habits.

On Jurisprudence and the New Deal

A question I've had on mind lately that I would love a response to:

Why is it that most New Deal-era jurisprudence (1937 and later) was ever regarded as Constitutionally sound precedent. Moreover, why is it that this jurisprudence, particularly regarding the powers of the federal government, continues to be viewed as binding precedent?

The basis for my question is that this jurisprudence primarily resulted as a direct or indirect result of Roosevelt's various court-packing schemes. Wasn't this an interference with the independence of the federal judiciary that should be a cause for considerable skepticism of any post-1937 decision pertaining to the powers of the federal government?

I know that there is a certain general need for certainty in the law-hence the generalized respect for precedent. However, these decisions (and their progeny) in my mind create uncertainty by almost completely ignoring or rewriting the text of the Constitution. Is the problem just one of being unable to put the toothpaste back in the tube? Or do judges now view this decisions as having a perfectly legitimate basis despite FDR's illegitimate influence on them? Or is the problem really just one of lack of courage on the part of the judiciary branch, Con Law professors, and members of the SCOTUS Bar?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Did the Domestic Wiretapping Program Start Before 9/11?

A commenter at Obsidian Wings brought my attention to this article. In case you want to skip the link, some background: the former CEO of Qwest was recently convicted of insider trading after a trial in which he was blocked from presenting a defense that his prosecution was really just the result of retaliation for Qwest's refusal to comply with the government's wiretapping program. He is currently appealing the verdict (in part, it seems, on grounds that he was prevented from raising this defense). Some of the documents in the trial have now been released in a partially redacted form.

Money quote:

Nacchio planned to demonstrate at trial that he had a meeting on Feb. 27, 2001, at NSA headquarters at Fort Meade, Md., to discuss a $100 million project. According to the documents, another topic also was discussed at that meeting, one with which Nacchio refused to comply.
The topic itself is redacted each time it appears in the hundreds of pages of documents, but there is mention of Nacchio believing the request was both inappropriate and illegal, and repeatedly refusing to go along with it.
The NSA contract was awarded in July 2001 to companies other than Qwest.
USA Today reported in May 2006 that Qwest, unlike AT&T and Verizon, balked at helping the NSA track phone calling patterns that may have indicated terrorist organizational activities. Nacchio's attorney, Herbert Stern, confirmed that Nacchio refused to turn over customer telephone records because he didn't think the NSA program had legal standing.

I don't know how reliable all this is, since Nacchio certainly has incentive to lie, and since the article doesn't specify what type of documents these are. But if it's true, it holds a ton of meaning, not least of which is that the Bush/Cheney view of the Constitution didn't exactly change because of 9/11.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Fred Thompson=Wesley Clark 2008?

After the debates last night, I can't help thinking Fred Thompson is this year's Wesley Clark. Think about it:
1. A "Draft Fred" movement, just like the Draft Wes Clark movement.
2. A wll-known career in a sector usually pre-disposed against the relevant party (ie, Hollywood vs. Republicans, the military at the time vs. Democrats)
3. A late, mid-September entry after months of speculation
4. A complete lack of presence at debates and on camera
5. A completely unfounded belief amongst supporters that getting the candidate into the race is the party's only hope to win in the general
6. A position in the top two in polling shortly after entering the race.

....Of course, we all know how Clark's campaign turned out, and there's really no reason to think Thompson will do any better.

Getting to the Bottom of the "Phony Soldiers" mess

I decided to cut through the crap that is the spin of both sides on this issue (I just do NOT trust Media Matters after the Imus garbage), and I actually read the transcript from Rush's own site with an eye to giving Rush the benefit of the doubt. (Rush famously edited this transcript to remove a minute and a half- so it's even more biased in his favor). I figured I would find that it was much ado about nothing, and certainly no worse than the silliness over the General Betray-Us incident.

What I found was that the entire segment was far worse than anything I could have imagined- talk about poisoning the well of free speech and civil dialogue! He was not, as some of his defenders claim, talking about one soldier who "washed out" of the military- if he was, then he misspoke in a glaring fashion. The comment he was responding to was saying that NONE, ZERO, NADA, of the soldiers whose anti-war comments have appeared in the media are "real soldiers." He proceeded to talk about the case of Cpl. MacBeth, to suggest that MacBeth was an example of what he was talking about- but in no way could you interpret what he was saying as being limited to Cpl. MacBeth.
Also, a few other notes from the segment:
1. Before the phone call that gave rise to this whole mess, Rush took a call from an anti-war Republican (actually, a pro-pullout Republican, which is slightly different). He repeatedly refused to accept that this guy was a Republican. He repeatedly accuses the guy of lying, saying that no Republican could POSSIBLY support a withdrawal. So, in essence, there is a conspiracy of people who want to call his show and lie about being a Republican so they can talk against the war
2. I haven't seen this reported anywhere, but apparently Limbaugh is still convinced that on the WMD issue, "We all know they (the WMD's) were there..." He actually agrees with his caller that the WMD's not only WERE there, but that they still ARE there, and are being used against our troops! The apparent source for the claim is this Fox News article from 2004 which talks about two incidents where old WMD containers were apparently used in the IED- this was the only article I could find on the subject, and it does not appear that anyone ever actually verified that there were live gases in the explosives.

So, to sum up- Rush thinks any soldier opposing the war is a "phony soldier", any Republican opposing the war is lying for political purposes about their party affiliation, and there not only were, but continue to be, WMDs in Iraq....But Ron Paul is the delusional one?

The fundamentally positive view of libertarians

Watching the debate tonight, it struck me (as it has many other libertarians over the years) how fundamentally pessimistic a view both Progressives and Conservatives take of human nature. Libertarians, on the other hand, seem to have a fundementally optimistic view of human nature.

Put simply, the reason why libertarians have such faith in markets (both in the sense of traditionally defined markets, and the analogous markets that arise with liberal personal freedoms) is that they trust individual people to do the right thing more often than not.

Progressives and Conservatives on the other hand often claim to have trust in people to do the right thing. In practice, however, they don't trust people to do what is right, since they fundamentally believe people should be required to act in a way that the leading Progressive or Conservative of the moment thinks is right.

The knock on libertarians, of course, is usually that libertarianism amounts to nothing more than selfish arrogance. To an extent, of course, it is true that libertarianism justifies selfishness;however, the libertarian definition of selfishness is very different from the more popular understanding of the word, since libertarianism rests on the premise of doing no harm to others. There is of course, nothing arrogant about permitting other people to live their lives as they wish. Moreover, libertarianism fundamentally trusts that individuals will frequently act in a selfless manner on their own; the areas in which they act selflessly will, according to market principles, be the areas in which the greatest demand for selfless action exists.

If you ask me, then, it is far more arrogant and selfish to attempt to impose one set of priorities for selfless action on the rest of the population, believing that your one set of priorities should take precedence over any other possible set of priorities a taxpayer may have.

The hypothetical I like to use is that of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In this hypothetical, Bill and Melinda earn $10 billion one year, pre-tax. They then give $9.99 billion to the Foundation, which promptly disburses the money to various worthwhile causes and individuals throughout the world, and particularly in the Third World. As a result of this donation, the Gates' owe far more money in taxes than they actually kept after their donations. My question to both Progressives and Conservatives then becomes: is the government in this situation justified in throwing them into prison for tax evasion? Why or why not?

I know the above hypothetical is rather unrealistic; however, it is theoretically possible, and it is intended to be extreme so as to drive my point home more clearly.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Candidate Thought Bubbles

A brief summary of what each candidate was thinking during the debate:

Giuliani: Ron Paul annoys me, but at least I hate the Constitution less than Ken-Doll over there...There are good unions and bad unions... the UAW is a good union- even if McCain says their demands for pensions and retiree health care add $1700 to every car they make. I understand economics and free markets but dammit I don't like them. If only I could make economics consistent with what I want....wait, a second, I've got it! Doublethink, doublethink, doublethink! 2+2=5!

McCain: How the hell am I losing to these bozos? I'm a decent and good person, I understand markets, I understand foreign relations, I understand military strategy, I understand torture from first-hand experience, and dammit I ACTUALLY KNEW BARRY GOLDWATER! Am I just paying the price for my ill-advised campaign finance reform crusade? That's not fair- I meant well, really I did! Or is my problem just that I'm trying to get the votes of a bunch of people who still believe the crap Karl Rove slung at me 8 years ago?

Romney: I'm a businessman, but not like James Taggart and Orrin Boyle, ok, maybe a little like James Taggart and Orrin Boyle...oh fine, a lot like James Taggart and Orrin Boyle. I hate subsidies....except all the good ones, like agriculture and energy. I hate unions....except all the good ones, like, well, all of them. I like the Constitution even less than Rudy Giuliani. But, hey, my health plan is kinda sorta market-based...that has to count for something, right?

Thompson: What's the big, I say what's the big idea? Man, I'm sleepy. I like free trade- I just wish I understood all those fancy words like "subsidy". Well Huck's a friendly fellow- he must know what he's talking about, so if he says subsidies are good, well, then who am I to argue? Wait, my buddy John says they're bad? Aww, shucks! Well, he still owes me for that campaign finance bill I helped him with a few years back. Hey, why isn't anyone hearing my jokes?

Paul: Lightning round? I get 30 seconds to answer a question? Sweet- that's more than I've had all day...oh, crap, they just want to know if I'll support Lord Combover over there- are they serious? At least I got to talk about the gold standard today, though. I like gold- it's shiny and stable....Am I the only one who wants to talk about monetary policy up here? Is Lord Combover suggesting that the Taliban had an advanced nuclear program that led to 9/11- ok, maybe not, but it sure as hell sounds that way!

Huckabee: I don't get all this talk about markets. Hey, can we talk about the FAIR tax some more? No? Ok, then. I like ethanol- if we subsidize it, it will magically become more efficient very quickly; it's obviously better than any other possible source of alternative energy like fuel cells, solar power, or nuclear power. So what if it costs more energy to produce than it can actually produce itself!

Tancredo: I don't like immigrants. I like free trade, but I don't like what Dubya does to it; he duped me into supporting fast track- I feel violated. But at least I'm an honest person, and I won't support just any asshole for President. That counts for something right?

Brownback: Can we talk about family values? I know this is about the economy, and I know I kinda sorta understand economics, but those subjects are icky to me. Still, I somehow know that having a third of the world's military spending is a good thing! Talking about this economics stuff makes me feel the same way I feel when I see Larry Craig in the Dirksen Building Men's Room. Iraq had something to do with 9/11 didn't it?

Hunter: "Deutscheland, Deutscheland, uber alles!" Screw Congress, screw economics. If I am President, my motto will be "L'Etat, c'est moi!"

Quick hits on the debate...

1. Analysis: This was the most boring piece of crap yet. For a good chunk of the candidates, their positions could be explained as: Free trade is the cornerstone of our trade means subsidies and tariffs, right?

Romney gave his least automoton-ish performance yet (a low bar, admittedly), and actually scored some points with me on health care- but otherwise, he continued to show that he is willing to support whatever is most politically convenient; he also had one of the only amusing lines of the debate (the "Law and Order" bit).

Of the "top-tier" candidates, only McCain showed both economic literacy and a willingness to respect his economic literacy- too bad most Republicans have an irrational hatred of him second only to their irrational hatred of a certain congressman from Texas.

Ron Paul had his weakest performance to date, though he was still obviously the most economically literate man on the stage; he also seemed rattled by the decision of the moderators to give him less time than just about anyone; the question about support for the ultimate nominee was outright demeaning, especially after the Q3 fundraising.

Thompson...ugh.....Well, he's an honest enough guy, and he has a modicum of economic literacy, but he just looks like a deer in the headlights half the time (he may have been the only person Nixon was ever right about). His "me too" on Huck's defense of ethanol subsidies was mind-numbingly stupid.

Tancredo actually sounded coherent about issues other than immigration for once, and even though I think he's dead wrong on immigration, you have to give the guy points for intellectual honesty.

Duncan Hunter....this guy passes for a conservative these, exactly? Every word that came out of his mouth was the antithesis of limited government.

Giuliani probably came off as the most likable candidate today. Unfortunately, this may have obscured the complete lack of consistency in any of his positions.

Huckabee showed even more economic illiteracy than Hunter, although his talk about the FAIR tax always gives me a fleeting hope that maybe he has a clue.

Brownback put me to sleep as usual, though he clearly has a clue when it comes to economic issues- too bad he's running on a "family values" platform. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that he's been working with Biden on the Three State Solution, which means that somewhere in that orthodoxy-filled head of his there is some capacity for intellectual rigor.