Saturday, November 17, 2007

Forced Pro Bono Service for Lawyers

Kip from A Stitch in Haste has a discussion about what he sees as the ultimate result of socialized medicine: forced provision of medical services by doctors- also known as forced labor, or in his view, slavery. To prove that this is not pure hyperbole, he points to a recent decision out of Arizona in which the 9th Circuit upheld a program in which lawyers with at least 5 years service are required- if asked- to act as arbitrators. The compensation for the selected attorneys is a whopping $75 a day- or about 10-30 minutes worth of billable time for most attorneys.

This is similar to a program that exists here in NJ, in which we attorneys are required to provide pro bono services whenever the state so asks. Except in NJ, the program is even worse than the Arizona program: to my knowledge, attorneys selected for the program don't get reimbursed at all, except for, if you're lucky, out of pocket expenses made as a result of the program. Worse yet, all attorneys are required to pay a fee- over and above regular bar dues- to cover the "administrative expenses" of the program. So, quite literally, attorneys here in NJ are forced to pay for the right to be forced labor!

Friday, November 16, 2007

Obama's Crimethink

Seriously, the Left needs to get over this whole idea that deviation from the Democratic Party line is equivalent to trying to help the Republicans. The idea that Social Security, as currently configured, is unsustainable in the long run is intuitively and logically true.

But because that idea deviates from party orthodoxy that government run programs are always fiscally sound, Krugman essentially accuses Obama of crimethink. This just proves that in today's America if you don't toe the orthodox party line, you must of necessity be aiding and abetting the enemy. It's pretty much the same concept as equating criticism of Bush's foreign policy with treason.

Krugman pretty much says that Social Security's soundness is beyond question. Therefore, no one who questions Social Security's soundness can be taken seriously, and anyone who does so is just being dishonest. According to Krugman, Obama's "dishonesty" on the issue is borne out of a desire to appear "bipartisan." Of course, Obama's proposed solution to the Social Security problem is one that no conservative or libertarian would ever find palatable- but Krugman ignores that. Instead, all that matters is that Obama dares to question Party orthodoxy; Obama's answer to that question is, apparently, irrelevant.

(via memeorandum)

***UPDATE, 2:15 PM*** Greg Mankiw lays the smackdown on Krugman here.

Sell the Jersey Turnpike?

One of the hottest topics here in NJ Politics these days is a proposal to sell the NJ Turnpike to private companies. Under the proposal, funds from the sale would be used to pay off the state's massive debt (which is itself a hidden tax on residents). But for the fact that the funds will be used to pay off debt rather than for reinvestment in infrastructure, this is exactly the sort of policy that libertarians have been suggesting for years. (Also see this clip from the Drew Carey Project). Moreover, this is the type of "privatization" that avoids crony capitalism and actually leaves things to the market.

As you might expect, one political party is up in arms about this privatization, complaining that privatization will mean higher costs to consumers, and will damage the people of NJ. But here's the strange thing: the party proposing the privatization is the Democrats, led by finance wiz Gov. Corzine; the party raising the standard arguments against privatization is the Republicans. WTF?

If indeed the privatization results in higher tolls, then frankly I'm willing to pay them- that just means that I'm currently paying below market value for the right to drive on the Turnpike, and that the Turnpike is currently costing the state more revenue than it generates. If it costs more than it generates, then that money is coming out of my pocketbook anyways in the form of higher taxes.

This whole debate really just shows how political partisanship has become more important than actual ideology/governing philosophy. A Democrat is proposing the plan, so the normally market-friendly Republicans have decided it is the most evil idea in history. Meanwhile, the normally market-averse, anti-privatization Democrats have decided to jump on board with it. This sounds an awful lot like my argument that political parties have more of an effect on interest groups than interest groups have on the political parties, doesn't it?

A Libertarian Take On Barry Bonds

I'm with TTP's Nate.

But I want to add that I think the steroids ban in sports in general is pretty silly, for reasons I don't feel like getting into now.

Charen's Irrational Assault on Ron Paul

Mona Charen has a column this morning that makes the usual "Ron Paul is kooky" attacks. For the most part, the column just recites the same old crap that others have said.

Some of her claims are downright silly, including the usual "Ron Paul is an isolationist" falsehood. For this claim she uses Nixon's detente policy as evidence that Nixon's foreign policy was different...trouble is, detente is exactly the sort of foreign policy Ron Paul and libertarians more generally would support- peace through trade and dialogue. She calls the idea of getting rid of various agencies "unserious", ignoring that he has never said that he would do it overnight as she claims. Finally, she makes the point about Ron Paul's connection with Alex Jones- which is a legitimate point, but one that hardly covers new ground.

But her silliest, most bizarre point is her first: Ron Paul is inconsistent on civil liberties because he is opposed to a pardon for Scooter Libby. Really? This is the biggest inconsistency you could find? I'm trying to wrap my mind around the concept that he's inconsistent on civil liberties because he opposes pardoning someone whose crime was closely related to the violation of civil liberties. Can someone please explain this one? She claims Paul's reasoning for opposing a Libby pardon is just because Paul disagrees with Libby's involvement in the runup to the Iraq war. But this isn't a mere policy disagreement, as she claims- the act that led to his imprisonment actually WAS his involvement in the runup to the Iraq war. So Paul's comments can, should, and must be interpreted merely as saying that Libby's crime was far, far too severe to warrant a pardon.

Don't get me wrong, there are some areas where I find Paul to be inconsistent, as I have said here and here. But I really don't see how the Scooter Libby issue fits the bill.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

No Telecom Immunity?!?

Per Talking Points Memo:
"...the version of the FISA bill that was just reported out of the Judiciary Committee does not -- repeat, does not -- contain retroactive immunity for the telecom companies."

This comes shortly after newly minted AG Mukasey indicated that the Bushies will veto anything that comes out without telecom immunity. Between this and yesterday's approval of a bill linking war funds to withdrawal from Iraq, the Dems have suddenly shown some real spine the last two days.

Both bills will be vetoed of course. But the thing is that the Dems finally seem to be realizing that they hold the institutional leverage in these pissing matches. If they want us out of Iraq, they can just sit on the ball and do nothing, leaving Bush with no choice but to pull out. But if Bush wants to stay, then he has to play by their rules.

Similarly, if Bush wants to renew and expand FISA, then fine. But he can't do it without the Dems' say so, which means that he again must play by their rules. If he doesn't play by their rules, then they can just sit on the ball and do nothing, and get something pretty close to what they'd prefer anyways.

Since these little pissing matches require that the Dems do nothing in order to win, the Dems in some ways get to play the role of Burkean conservative to Bush's FDR activist. Strange times, indeed!

In Hillary's Defense

I can't believe I'm going to say this, but I don't see why everyone's panties are in a bunch over the fact that people Bill Clinton pardoned are donating to Hillary's campaign. Of course, the right wing blogosphere is engaging in plenty of sarcastic schadenfreude over the incidents. Even the normally sane (but, according to theocrats, "shrill" and "excitable") Andrew Sullivan can't resist. This despite his appropriate defense of Ron Paul's receipt of donations from questionable sources.

Shaminac at Newshoggers has a pretty rational take on the whole thing that manages to explain why there is no problem with this without descending into ad hominems against right-wingers for being hypocrites for one reason or another.

Anyways, this really is a non-issue. Whether or not the circumstances were shady, these people were pardoned. They have a right to political participation just like anyone else. That they would want to participate by assisting the campaign of the wife of the dude who pardoned them isn't exactly surprising. We're also talking an extremely small amount of money in the scheme of things. Forcing Hillary to give it all back will accomplish, what, exactly?

Still, I actually don't like how the campaign responded to the controversy. Essentially they said, "We've raised a ton of money, how are we supposed to care about a couple thousand bucks?" This is just equivocating and pandering in my view- the usual Hillary tack of saying whatever will please people most. It's also probably a lie- with the way campaigns are run nowadays, there's simply no way in hell that her campaign failed to notice these rather prominent names on the donor list.

I'm afraid the best response she could have given- and the response I would have actually respected her for- would have been if she just told the truth. There would have been something almost admirable about coming out and saying: "Yeah, they donated to me. So what? They're free to do whatever they please just like any other American- including unpardoned criminals. I have no right whatsoever to tell them who they can and cannot donate to, and how they can or cannot spend their money."

(via memorandum)

More on the co-opting of libertarianism

After I went after the right-wing neo-libertarians yesterday, Freedom and Whisky goes after the "left libertarians" for co-opting the term libertarian. He's fed up with all of this co-opting of terminology for classical liberals. So he suggests libertarians adopt a name that no one will try to co-opt, ever: Real Fascist Bastards.

I'm amused, but I don't think things are that desperate. As I said yesterday, the left-wing statists have been forced to abandon the word "liberal" because it became a dirty word, and so now are using the less-deceptive "Progressive." This leaves the word "liberal" free for the taking here in the US.

Soccer, Football, and Limited Government

A commenter at Megan McCardle asks:
What's a football game without rules and referees?"

I assume he meant this as a rhetorical question...trouble is, I'm going to answer it anyways.
If by football you mean "soccer," the answer to the question is "American football." In other words, the more you eliminate rules, the more innovation you allow, and the more you can improve the product. People can still choose to play by the eliminated rules (hence the reason soccer is still insanely popular all over the world), but they can also choose to play by the reduced set of rules (hence the reason American football and rugby are increasing in global popularity).

If you don't believe me, then study the history of the evolution of Rugby, American, and Aussie Rules football- the most useful developments have rarely been about adding rules, but far more often about taking them away (until this ridiculous obsession with protecting the quarterbacks and eliminating end zone celebrations, which many think has made the game less enjoyable).

The best things in the evolution of American football from soccer (IMHO) have been:
1. The Rugby School's decision to eliminate the prohibition on touching the ball with one's hands
2. The Rugby School's elimination of the requirement that you can only score by kicking the ball over the end line, through the goal posts, replacing it with a rule that you can score by crossing the end line anywhere, as long as you control the ball OR by kicking the ball over and through the goal posts.
3. Elimination of the prohibition on the forward pass
4. Elimination of the prohibition on holding by offensive linemen.

As for the need for referees...libertarianism has no problem with having lots of referees; in actuality we have a bigger problem with limiting the number of people who can be referees in the first place.

The Permanent Costs of the Iraq War

Coyote Blog raises some important points for the pro-war Right to consider about the long-term political fallout of the war:

1. In 2009 we will have a Democratic Congress and President for the first time since 1994.
2. The next President will use the deficits from the $1.3 billion [sic- should be trillion] in Iraq war spending to justify a lot of new taxes
3. These new taxes, once the war spending is over, will not be used for deficit reduction but for new programs that, once established, will be nearly impossible to eliminate
4. No matter what the next president promises to the electorate, they are not going to reverse precedents for presidential power and secrecy that GWB has established. Politicians never give up power voluntarily. [if the next president is Hillary, she is likely to push the envelope even further]. Republicans are not going to like these things as much when someone of the other party is using them.

Coyote Blog suggests these four things are inevitable, presumably unless there is a dramatic shift in Republican policy between now and the election (ie, a Ron Paul victory or a reversal in positions by the eventual nominee). I agree. GOP popularity is as low as I've ever seen it and some Dems are thinking of nominating Hillary not because she's particularly electable but because they know they're going to win no matter what (and just want to piss off Republicans even more). So it's tough to see how a GOP candidate will win next year without a stunning reversal of some sort. Any Dem President will inevitably- and with some justification- pursue a tax hike to pay for the war deficit. But since Washington is what it is, if and when a surplus comes around, the response will inevitably be to create some new set of programs/entitlements. As Coyote Blog points out- once an entitlement is in place, it's just about impossible to get rid of it.

So, the question for Republicans is this: is the continued prosecution of the Iraq war effort so vital to our nation's security that it is worth the creation of a permanent state of neo-socialism? If the answer is yes, then I would ask that you turn in your Free Market Fan Club cards at the door.

Where is the MSM on this one?

In 2000, one of the key events in the Palestinian 2nd Intifada was footage showing the apparent killing of a young child (Muhammed al-Durrah) by Israeli Defense Forces. For much of the world, including the usually somewhat pro-Israel American media, this event encapsulated the Palestinians' struggle against Israel. As a result, news outlets around the world uncritically picked up the edited footage for broadcast.The event sparked mass outrage and severely hurt Israel's image. It also led directly to the murder of two Israeli soldiers at the hands of Palestinian security forces. You may remember the resulting footage of that event in which the murderers proudly displayed the fresh blood of the victims on their hands.

Anyhow, for the last several years, questions have been raised as to whether the al-Durrah killing was staged or, if real, could have been perpetrated by Israeli forces. The claim that the event was staged has led to a defamation suit by the producers of the footage (who are French). The entire story is far too long to explain myself, but suffice it to say that the questions raised about the footage are very serious and very legitimate. This isn't to say that the footage is necessarily fake or that the IDF is necessarily innocent, as there are plenty of questions to go around about the case.

We will have to wait for the results of the case to find out how much truth there is to the allegations. But, the media's complete silence on this issue is what staggers me. I did a quick search of both CNN and the BBC for stories about al Durrah: not a single hit came up discussing the allegations of fraud or at least of Israeli innocence in the matter. This is how things so often go with the MSM: whenever a story comes out suggesting inaccuracy in their reporting, they duck their heads in the sand and refuse to reopen the issue until and unless it becomes impossible to continue to stand by the story. Even then, the best you will get is a mild retraction. Rarely, if ever, will you get an acknowledgement by the media that they rushed to judgment on the issue (see, e.g., the Duke lacrosse scandal).

If it turns out in February that the French court rules against the producer of the al-Durrah footage, I worry that the best the MSM will do is to make a quick footnote indicating that this story was a hoax. I do not expect that they will make even remotely the big deal about such a verdict as they made about the original footage- and that to me is the big problem with the MSM, which is of course largely a government granted monopoly/semi-monopoly in most places these days. Compare this with the blogosphere, where retractions and self-criticism are readily and publicly made.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Markets Really Do Provide Everything

Via Tyler Cowen.

Cracked has its list of the 25 most baffling toys in the world. Presumably, these toys exist primarily because someone, somewhere, felt there was a demand for them. Cowen is most amazed by numbers 8 and 11.

I disagree. I'm more astonished by the electronic bondage doll (#21) and the penis putter (#13), and the numerous Japanese poop toys (19,18,12,11, and 7- which is actually Swedish).

You'll notice that most of this stuff comes out of Japan. Folks, this is what happens when you combine a free market economy with severe sexual repression: Poop toys.

The Derb at His Cranky Best

I've never met the dude, but is it possible to not have fun talking to a sarcastic old curmudgeon who knows he's a sarcastic old curmudgeon? My favorite quote from this short gem:

"For all I know, may have quoted me with approval on some topic or other. What does that make me—Derbyshitler?"

On the co-opting of the word "libertarian"

A commenter at Obsidian Wings asks:

"A libertarian can say that they honestly think that we should not have any regulation, but when [Republican politicians] are appealed to, and it turns out that 'not any regulation' means regulation dealing with Enron and not with marijuana, I'm not sure if the libertarian gets a complete pass and should be able to say 'how the heck could I have known those guys were going to do that?'"

I think this is the very reason libertarians have been fleeing the GOP and/or mounting an anti-establishment insurgency for the last couple years. After 25 or so years of being co-opted by the GOP, the Bushies finally pushed us over the line. Unfortunately, elements of the GOP like Glenn Beck have now taken to calling themselves "libertarians at heart" while advancing very un-libertarian arguments. I think this is because it allows them to feel good about themselves, and seem much less manipulative. Consider it the GOP's version of "I have black friends." Of course, it involves a dramatic level of doublethink to make such an argument, but in the process of doing so, they've completely misrepresented the real libertarians.

The way in which the neo-cons have co-opted the term "libertarian" has pretty much left that word with relatively little real meaning. Indeed, we now have self-styled "libertarians" who are ok with water-boarding, imperialism (aka forced democratization), and all sorts of other things that are as un-libertarian as it gets. I'm starting to wonder the extent to which the long-standing alliance with the GOP has had more of an effect on libertarians than on the Republican Party itself. This would be in line with my still-ongoing series on corruption, and the idea of politicians having more of an effect on interest groups than vice versa.

Now that the real libertarians have either left the GOP or are mounting a truly last ditch insurgency with the Ron Paul campaign, we may be faced with an opportunity to finally coalesce under one independent banner. This is something anticipated (at least with respect to left-libertarians) by mattbastard at CFLF.

The Weaknesses of the Gold Standard

Jerry Bowyer has an outstanding column today on the meaning behind the rising price of gold, combined with still-low inflation. He argues against over-reliance on gold prices as an economic prediction model. For those who don't understand the basis for the gold standard and the arguments for and against it (hint, hint, Mr. Neiwert), this article is a terrific place to start, even though it is not specifically about the gold standard.

Bowyer's argument is excellent because it points out the truly great flaw in the gold standard- the gold standard is terrific, but only insofar as gains in overall human production move at roughly the same pace as gains in the production of gold. When human production significantly outpaces the production of gold, as has been the case for the last 25 years or so, an absolute gold standard will result in massive deflation, which is not much better for smoothing the economic cycle than inflation.

I suspect that eventually humans will be able to discover a form of currency that automatically self-adjusts with increases and decreases in production. But until that time, we will have to rely on human best-guesses to manage inflation and deflation, which, unfortunately, makes the Fed a necessary evil. As long as the Fed maintains a goal of staying within a very narrow band of inflation/deflation, it is probably the best currently-known way of smoothing the economic cycle. Unfortunately, the Fed can do little about government deficit spending. As for the things the Fed actually can control, it unfortunately must overcome immense political pressure at times to pursue inflationary policies. This political pressure, as I understand it, is a major concern Greenspan addresses in his new book, which I really need to read.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Why Dick Armey Is Predicting a Hillary Win

This column by former Republican Majority Leader and eventual ACLU consultant Dick Armey argues that not only is Hillary inevitably going to be the Dem nominee, but without something drastic, she will be the next President of the United States.

Kyle at Comments From Left Field wonders why an establishment type Republican like Armey would be writing something like this about Hillary so early in the game.

One thing I think Kyle misses- the Republicans are going after Hillary this early because the Republican Party is in deep shit at the moment, and the specter of Hillary is the one thing that can rally people to the party. On the other hand, Obama is tough to go after for Republicans seeking to rally the troops because so many Republicans in exile have flocked to him.

More importantly than that, though, is the fact that Hillary is the single greatest fundraising tool the Republican Party has, and especially that Giuliani has. It has less to do with her substantive positions than it does with the fact that her substantive positions are slightly to the left of Bush, but they are combined with a Bush-level addiction to secrecy and executive power. I've said before and I'll say it again: Hillary is Bush with a brain and a pantsuit, with slightly more left-leaning politics.

Something else worth pointing out- Armey is himself something of a Republican-in-exile, having joined forces with the ACLU. If you read the whole article closely, you will notice he is engaging in a desperate plea for Republicans to abandon the Hillary-esque style of governing the Bushies have pursued and return to what used to be their bread and butter before Bill Clinton beautifully co-opted it. In that sense, he is demonstrating how he hopes the specter of Hillary will wake the Republicans up and adopt principles that they have long since forgotten.

(HT: memeorandum)

So, I Ask Again- How Are the Terrorists a Threat to Our Way of Life?

When we have people who can put together stuff like this:

Hat Tip: Andrew Sullivan

The FCC Wants to "Save" Newspapers

The chairman of the FCC argues that changes in restrictions on media ownership are necessary to "save" the newspaper industry.

But whenever government thinks it needs to "save" an industry, we should all get suspicious. Why is the newspaper industry so inherently worth saving? If the industry is failing, isn't that just because there isn't demand for that industry? If there is insufficient demand to justify producing it, then taking steps to encourage production of that thing amounts to no more and no less than a complete waste of resources that could be used on something more highly valued by a society.

I suppose you could argue- and many have- that newspapers provide a "public good" by giving people the news. But why must this "public good" be provided in a specific, offline, print format? If the demand is for online and television news, then why not allow the market to run its course and meet that demand?

Now, I'm not sure that loosening rules about media ownership in given markets amounts to "corporate welfare" in the traditional sense, as Marty Kaplan argues at HuffPo. After all, eliminating restrictions on free markets is a far cry from subsidizing industries or giving them massive tax credits.

That said, Kaplan hints at an important issue- the FCC gives broadcast licenses away for free- they are not auctioned off as far as I know- and there are a limited number of these licenses. As a result, the primary criteria for granting or maintaining a broadcast license can only be how much "pull" the broadcaster has. As a result, you essentially wind up with something not horribly different from a government-sponsored monopoly, in which only a handful of companies control almost all of the media outlets- this isn't capitalism in any recognizable form.

By removing restrictions on media ownership of newspapers and television stations, the FCC isn't so much allowing for a freer market as it is obtaining greater power for the FCC to give licenses to companies with a lot of political "pull." So while Kaplan may be wrong that the proposal amounts to "corporate welfare", he is at least correct to be concerned with the rule insofar as it allows for more "crony capitalism" in general.

But there is a way to put a stop to issues of "crony capitalism" on the airwaves: stop thinking of them as "public airwaves." If we just auctioned off all the frequencies in all the markets, we would actually have a real free market in the media. I know, I know, it's crazy....but then again, so are all of us "radicals for capitalism"!

(via memeorandum)

The GOP Has an Innovative Idea to Fight Pork

(via memeorandum)
Two of the few Republicans who remain committed to fighting against pork have hit on a concept that maybe shouldn't be unique, except that it is: they are actively recruiting bloggers and the netroots to track down and expose pork. This has to be one of the first times politicians have sought to harness the power of the internet to actual improve the quality of government rather than just organize support or opposition to a particular policy or candidate.

This is a susprisingly (at this point) unique idea that maybe gives people a real opportunity to participate in the political process in a direct and substantive way, rather than just talking about politics.

....This Is Why People Don't Take Ron Paul Seriously Enough

Who needs enemies accusing you of associating with neo-Nazis when you have friends at Lew Rockwell that make statements like this, referring to coverage of Ron Paul by that oh-so-respected commentator Glen Beck:

It is amusing to see Beck having to resort to the likes of David Horowitz - whose political views have been more a reflection of fashion than intellectual
conviction - and the great-grandson of the war-mongering Winston Churchill....

(my emphasis)

So, apparently Neville Chamberlain was a hero, and Churchill- who orchestrated one of the greatest truly defensive campaigns in history and was largely responsible for stopping the spread of the Nazi menace- was a war-monger? I sincerely hope this doesn't mean thinks that Hitler was a peacenik who was just responding to "aggression" by the rest of the European continent. This isn't to say Churchill was a non-interventionist libertarian, and his initial support of Mussolini is a bit disturbing- but a war-monger?

Whether or not you can interpret Churchill's post-WWII actions as war-mongering, the context of this accusation would lead the average observer to believe that the writer is arguing in Hitler's favor. With Ron Paul's supporters under increasingly close scrutiny, statements like this are nothing short of careless and it is pretty easy to see why they would give off the impression (rightly or wrongly) that Ron Paul is closely linked with neo-Nazis.

Maybe I'm just misinterpreting the statement, but the way in which the ad hominem against Churchill is made makes my interpretation very easy to reach. How many people predisposed against Ron Paul would make the same interpretation?

Destroying Myths

GMU's Liberty & Power Blog has one hell of a post about the myth that the poor are getting poorer (which is usually used to prove that capitalism is evil and exploitative). I don't see how anyone can read this post and come away holding on to the notion that the statement "the poor are getting poorer" is actually true in any meaningful sense.

UPDATE: WSJ's Opinion Journal has much more on this here. (via memeorandum)

I honestly don't understand why this myth that only the rich are better off under capitalism and free markets continues to persist. Time and again, this myth is exploded, but the focus continues to be on comparing the mean earnings of the bottom x percent of wage-earners with the top x percent of wage earners. Rarely does anyone bother to ask if there is more to the numbers than meets the eye, or if it really means what people say it means.

When people do go beyond this one statistic, they usually find mostly legitimate reasons for it, as in (unabashedly left-of-center) Gregg Easterbrook's Progress Paradox, which pointed out that much of the basis for rising "income inequality" in the US was just simply an increase in immigration from countries with far lower wages. In other words, much of the income inequality in the US was just a result of people deciding they'd rather be in the bottom rung of the wealth ladder in the US than in the middle rung of the wealth ladder in their home country. He also cites to some very similar statistics as this new report when it comes to quality of life issues like TVs, home appliances, etc. Yet, the myth persists.

Part of the reason for this persistence- though by no means all- is that the myth is terrific when it comes to advancing the cause of a certain politically power interest group that has seen its membership dwindle steadily over the years. Advancing the notion that so-called "working families" are getting worse off at the same time as membership in this interest group has been declining is a valuable asset if you want to argue that membership in said interest group is a critical means of improving the lifestyle of "working families."

Jonathan Cohn's Flawed Argument for Universal Coverage

TNR's Jonathan Cohn argues today that the only serious opposition to universal health coverage is that it would inhibit medical innovation. He goes on to argue that while this is a possibility, an appropriately structured system would solve this problem. Such a system would maintain a relatively high level of health care spending, and would create a more centralized system in Cohn's view.

While Cohn's argument is more respectful than most, it contains several major flaws:
1. It acknowledges problems with Canada and Great Britain's systems, but then argues that those problems don't exist in places like France, Germany, and Switzerland. Thing is- each of the positively cited examples rely heavily on the free market, private sector and are quite decentralized. In France, for instance, 85% of the population owns supplemental private insurance; similarly, Germany's system is "highly decentralized," and leans heavily on the free market and individual choice amongst state-offered insurance plans (there are about 400 options)(also worth noting is that state control of the health care industry has resulted in a wage freeze on health care workers, not a good thing); Switzerland, on the other hand, has a system that is in some ways more market-based than the current US system.
2. It argues for maintaining high spending on healthcare. But high costs are the primary problem with the US system, as I have argued here. So Cohn's solution is to make the biggest problem the solution!
3. It ignores the fact that the current US system has in many ways little to do with market forces since it relies so heavily on employers to provide health insurance rather than private individuals. Indeed, one could argue that the biggest problem with the current US system is that it has become increasingly over-regulated.

As for his underlying argument that you can have both innovation and universal access to health care- he is, of course, right. The problem is that he fails to understand that market-based solutions are the only way to accomplish that, something that the nations he uses as examples actually do understand.

Some Rare Common-Sense In the Drug Wars

The Sentencing Commission, which is one of the few truly independent bodies around, is recommending a retroactive decrease in sentencing guidelines for crack-cocaine to make them more consistent with regular cocaine.

Of course, the Bushies are opposing it. Actually, the whole issue of crack-cocaine sentencing does a pretty good job of demonstrating Walt Williams' argument that government rather than private business is the real purveyor of racial discrimination.

Where Do Gambling Laws Rank on the Dumb Laws Scale?

I'd say they have to be near the top. To The People and Radley Balko each have posts today talking about state responses to gambling. To sum up: TTP lampoons the newfound support of Maryland Democrats for slot machines now that they hold the governor's mansion; meanwhile, Balko is stunned by Massachussetts Gov. Deval Patrick's support for a bill that gives authority for licensure of more casinos in the state while- at the same time- imposing a 2 year prison sentence on online gamblers.

These two situations demonstrate pretty clearly how arbitrary the gambling laws can be in this country. Which brings me to one of my all time greatest pet peeves about government regulation.

If anything is more arbitrary than the definition of illegal drug, it's the definition of illegal gambling. Indeed, unlike drugs, the relative damages of a particular type of gambling are quite quantifiable- it's quite easy to find out the odds on any given game, and there's no disputing what those odds are.

What is interesting about the gambling laws is that the types of gambling most likely to be legal in a given state are often the games with the worst odds of all gambling games: slot machines and lotteries. Slot machines usually have a house edge of around 6% (higher stakes machines have substantially better odds); lotteries of course have a house edge of, well, a lot. Of course, these two games are usually either state run or give a nice percentage payout to the states. But that's not the point of most anti-gambling legislation, which is usually justified on the grounds of protecting people from becoming gambling addicts or general morality.

Meanwhile, states are far more likely to have absolute prohibitions on table games, where the house edge ranges from 5.6% (roulette) to less than 1% (Blackjack and Craps), with most games well below 4%. Moreover, in poker you are really just paying the house for providing you with a dealer, a table, and an opportunity to play against a group of strangers (in other words, there is no house edge other than what is effectively your "rent" to sit at the table- the house itself theoretically has no interest in the outcome of the game). One of the main differences between most table games and slots/lotteries is also that in most (not all) table games, there is an element of rational decision making involved ("hit or stay" in blackjack being the most obvious example); this is not the case in lotteries/slot games (though it is somewhat the case in video poker), where one can only decide how much to bet- and even that decision is limited.

I suppose an argument in support of slots and lotteries, but against table games, would be that despite the low odds in slot machines and lotteries, they are somehow less likely to cause addictive behavior than table games. The argument presumably goes that since they are also such low stakes games, the effects of addiction are also much less with slots and lotteries.

But such an argument is deeply flawed and, in my opinion, dishonest. One need only walk through the slot machines in Atlantic City and compare them to the craps table to find out which game is more likely to create misery and addiction. Moreover, in slots it's pretty easy to lose track of how you're doing- the repetitive process of "bet max, pull the lever; bet max, pull the lever" is pretty much enough to make you oblivious to just about everything. In the time it takes to play even one blackjack hand, you can easily play probably 5 or 6 spins of the slots, maybe more. At a table game by comparison, you have to wait for everyone to place their bets, for the dealer to deal the cards or spin the wheel, etc. You also have an opportunity to, I don't know, interact with other people, which allows you to be more aware of your surroundings. The nature of table games, with your stacks of chips, also means you are pretty much constantly aware of how you're doing; if you run out of chips, you have to rebuy for a lot, which means you are more likely to feel the burn than in slots, where you only need to rebuy for a couple bucks every time.

The idea that the low stakes of lotteries and slots makes them less problematic is also a fallacy. First, as I suggested above, slot machines can be played at a rate far in excess of any table game; this alone probably makes up for the difference in stakes. Meanwhile, the lottery's house advantage is so far in excess of any other form of gambling that you can pretty much forget about any mitigating factor caused by smaller stakes.

Also worth pointing out: state-sponsored slot games and lottery games are highly regressive as a taxation tool. Someone with a lot of money to begin with is quite unlikely to play the lottery (especially since that person is probably educated enough to realize the long odds of winning), so lotto revenue is going to come primarily from the working poor and lower middle class. Meanwhile slot machines, as I indicated above, have much better odds at higher betting levels. Someone playing the nickel slots because they're poor may be betting the same percentage of their income on the slots as someone playing the $5 slots who is relatively wealthy. But the house edge in the nickel slots is about 4 or 5 times as much as the edge in the $5 slots, meaning that state revenue from slot machines is going to come almost exclusively from people playing the nickel slots. These people, of course, are far more likely to be poor than someone playing the $5 slots.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Update on the Response to Neiwert's Latest

The always intellectually stimulating Glenn Greenwald has an impassioned response to Neiwert's latest attack on Ron Paul here. My less-impassioned response is here.

I still take issue with the way in which Paul handled the flag-burning issue for the reasons described in the comments section to my earlier post, but Greenwald's passionate defense of anyone who places principle above politics is well worth a read. Frankly, it's just nice for once to hear someone point out that a principled conservative does not need to, and for that matter should not, have the same positions as a liberal/Progressive.

Transparency International's Corruption Rankings

(Via Captain Capitalism)

In a note closely related to my ongoing series on the size of government as compared to levels of corruption, I came across this, which shows Transparency International's current corruption index. For the record, TI is pretty much the be all and end all of the global fight against political corruption. I don't know of anyone who disputes their independence, so you can pretty much take their analysis to the bank.

Anyways, if you look at the map, you will notice -with some exceptions- a definite, inverse, correlation between the amount of free market economics in a state and the amount of corruption in the state. More importantly, you will see a close relation between being free of corruption and having strong respect for private property rights. A great comparison exists between the basically economically libertarian Hong Kong (ranked 14th) and its mother state China (ranked 72nd). The case of South America really brings things into perspective as well, with the deep red of socialist Venezuela a far contrast from the 22nd best ranked Chile (the continent's most capitalism-oriented government).

How Is This Rational?

The War On Drugs continues to stagger the imagination, particularly the war against anything resembling the cannabis plant. I know the anti-hemp policy has long been part of the War on Drugs and the war on pot in particular. But you would think that the effect of the war on pot on the hemp industry and through it the agriculture industry would be enough to get us to look at the cannabis plant rationally. As has been pointed out time and again, using hemp as a drug would be the equivalent of trying to get drunk from those little candy liqueur bottles, except even less effective. So the rationale for banning this commercially valuable crop is that it makes enforcement of anti-marijuana laws more difficult and therefore should be just as illegal? Did I miss the part of law school where the ability to earn a living selling a completely harmless crop was less important than the relative ease with which the federal government can enforce the drug laws?

Unfortunately, I guess that's just wishful thinking. But what exactly will it take for us to evaluate the arbitrariness of completely banning a substance that creates a relatively benign high with relatively (I emphasize relatively) few side effects while almost completely legalizing a substance (alcohol) that can cause massive impairment with myriad severe side effects and which can, if taken to excess, cause death? What about the comparison between cannabis and tobacco, which is far more addictive and, despite being a drug, can even be legally ingested while driving (in other words, it's actually less restricted in some ways than talking on a cell phone)? Finally, what about the comparison with psycho-tropic drugs, which have massive documented side effects, and exist for the sole purpose of making people "feel good" (just like a recreational drug would do), but are available with a prescription even though marijuana isn't even available if a doctor thinks it is the best remedy?

Libby at the Newshoggers has more.

A Better Approach to the War on Drugs/GWOT in Afghanistan?

Libby at the Impolitic argues for a new approach to the narco-state problem in Afghanistan: subsidies for poppy farmers to encourage them to produce other crops. This would certainly represent a major departure from the current approach of literally fighting two wars at once in Afghanistan (and losing both in the process), essentially saying "If you can't beat them...."

Now, there are all sorts of problems with subsidies in general. For instance, it will hurt competition in the suddenly subsidized crops on an international level, does nothing to change the inelastic demand for heroin/opium, and to the extent it is successful will mostly just move poppy production to areas where subsidies are not existent (thanks to the inelastic demand problem where the decreased supply of poppy will primarily just increase poppy prices, making it even more lucrative).

Still, if opium production must remain illegal, a subsidy for producing other crops- especially in Afghanistan- strikes me as a sensible approach. At the very least, it would be a more effective use of resources than the current allocation. The money saved on enforcement alone would probably be sufficient to pay for most of the subsidy, so I don't think higher overall spending is as much a concern as it usually is with subsidies.

As for the usual concerns about subsidies, I think there would be a lot of mitigating factors here. Since Afghanistan is already dirt poor, is a tiny country population-wise, and is quite inefficient at production thanks to being dirt poor, a subsidy is unlikely to have much of a negative effect on global markets for the foreseeable future. Even though the subsidy will have little or no effect on global demand, this is no better or worse than the current approach. As for just shifting poppy production to another place, well, this is definitely an important consequence. But, given Afghanistan's importance in the GWOT, which I think most would agree is more important than the War on Drugs, shifting poppy production to an area less important to the GWOT is I think an acceptable outcome in the short run. We just need to keep in mind that we are eventually going to have to deal with the long run consequence of pushing poppy production to another country.

Neiwert Attacks Ron Paul's Record

Dave Neiwert currently has a post up attacking Ron Paul's record and pointing out areas of concern for Progressives on issues other than the war. Now, I have found some of Neiwert's previous attempts to attack Paul to have been far off base, as I argued in the comments to this post by my friends at Comments from Left Field.

Moreover, much of Neiwert's current post on Paul's record is filled with the usual Progressive misunderstanding of small "l" libertarian positions on things ranging from abortion (where there is substantial disagreement amongst many libertarians) to employment discrimination to the electoral college. However, Neiwert's post contains several items that should be of concern to small "l" libertarians when it comes to Paul's record. The more I learn about things like this, the more lukewarm my support of Paul becomes. Frankly, I'm surprised at the extent to which typically reasonable people like Andrew Sullivan have ducked their heads in the sand when it comes to these types of issues.

Anyhow, the more troubling (for libertarians) findings of Neiwert's post:
1. Support of Flag-Burning Amendment to the Constitution
2. Support of a bill to make all Iranian students in the US ineligible for any form of federal aid. While libertarians should be opposed to most forms of federal aid, a libertarian position does not give the government license to discriminate in its provision of the federal aid.
3. Support for Constitutional amendments that would deny citizenship to people born in the US unless their parents were citizens or lawful permanent residents.

As I said above, Neiwert's objections are primarily from a Progressive point of view, and in most cases show a tremendous lack of understanding of the basis for Paul's more libertarian points of view. Still, the above items are cause for concern amongst true libertarians and classical liberals.

Also, something especially worth pointing out again: Neiwert has repeatedly insinuated that the gold standard position is inherently rooted in anti-Semitism, ignoring the fact that there are a number of different types of "goldbugs," only one of which has the roots he associates with the gold standard. Now I myself am not a devotee of the gold standard. However, Neiwert fails to realize that the abandonment of the gold standard is a relatively recent event in history, that the most prominent line of support for the gold standard runs through an ethnic Russian Jew (Ayn Rand) and a refugee of Nazism (Ludwig von Mises). It also ignores the fact that the original President of the NAACP, Moorfield Storey (who later successfully argued the landmark case Buchanan v. Warley), was a critical advocate of the gold standard. Given that Paul named his son after Rand and famously has a portrait of Mises in his Congressional office, I would suggest that it is this strain that most influences his thought on the gold standard.

Also worth pointing out: the most famous early advocate of overthrowing the gold standard in the US was the legendary white supremacist (and creationist) William Jennings Bryan.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Why Free Markets Work Best (aka Reason 429 Small Government is Better)

I know that I'm hardly the first person to ever have this thought, but some of the comments in this thread at Megan McCardle compelled me to point it out again. Specifically, lovers of government planning like to see a problem, cry "market failure", accuse libertarians of wanting to "do nothing" and of "fetishizing markets."

So, for the one hundred millionth time: libertarians don't wish to "do nothing," but instead insist that the market will provide the best solution with the fewest (or at least most limited) unintended consequences. We recognize that short-sighted solutions can and often do create more problems than they solve.

On the other hand, free market solutions combine the wisdom of every interested person in the world and, rather than seeking compromise amongst that wisdom, encourage competition and adaptation . In other words, free market solutions provide a vehicle for making sure that the best ideas out of the entire world will rise to the top and succeed, while bad ideas will fail or be forced to change. Government-based solutions, on the other hand, ensure only that the thinking of a select group of policy-makers is enacted, usually based on political compromise amongst those policy-makers. In some cases, especially in a democracy, those "policy-makers" are really a majority of the voting public, but as we have learned time and again, what is most popular is not necessarily what will work best in practice.

To sum up: the free market ensures that everyone living everywhere within the market has an opportunity to have input on the solution; government-based problem-solving on the other hand ensures that only a portion of people living within the market have an opportunity for input on the solution. So, I ask: which is more democratic?

Oh, one other thing: if a particular government-based solution doesn't work, the people charged with correcting the failure will be the very people who came up with the failed idea in the first place- and good luck getting them to admit they were ever wrong! On the other hand, if a particular market-based solution turns out to be a failure, the people charged with correcting the failure will be the competitors with the superior solutions (who people will start preferring over the failed market competitor).