Friday, April 4, 2008

Some Weekend Reading

I'm going to be away for the weekend. But I wanted to leave a link to today's best post, which I believe was one of my most useful ever. If you haven't read it yet, I highly recommend it.

Bob Barr for President?

Via Below the Beltway, Dave Weigel is reporting that it seems like Bob Barr is almost certainly going to announce a run for President under the Libertarian Party banner this weekend.

For reasons I'd rather not get into, I have a better understanding of Bob Barr than probably the vast majority of libertarian bloggers out there (though not as much as some), so I think I should probably comment on his prospective run, which is creating a lot of division within the post-Ron Paul libertarian community.

The first thing I would say is that the LP could do a lot worse than Congressman Barr. Although he most certainly had a less-than-libertarian track record in Congress on things ranging from the Drug War to gay rights, he has clearly experienced a change of heart on many or most of those issues. Many libertarians are rightly suspicious of this conversion.

I can say with a pretty strong degree of certainty that those suspicions are incorrect. Although I have no idea what the former Congressman personally thinks of gay rights on a local level these days, he has quite clearly come out against the Federal Marriage Amendment, and did so almost immediately upon its introduction- and before he joined the LP.

As others have noted, he has also been fairly open about the fact that he has changed his position completely on the War on Drugs. In addition, he is now an extremely vocal opponent of the Patriot Act.

Many libertarians have noted that although Barr, as a Congressman, took several significant steps to weaken the Act, those steps were horribly insufficient. While this is true, it's worth noting that the Patriot Act was passed just weeks after 9/11, at a time when rational thinking was (understandably) almost impossible to come by; the emotions of that day were just too fresh in our memories. It was clear to most people that there had been horrible failures of government, and that those failures led to the attacks; thus, steps needed to be taken to prevent future attacks. For the average non-libertarian at the time (a group in which I include myself), and I believe, even for many scared libertarians, the Patriot Act seemed to be a strong step in that direction, regardless of its flaws. That Barr - at a time when he wasn't even a libertarian (small "l" or otherwise) - was one of the few people rational enough to see that it went too far and needed to be pulled back is to me an extremely strong argument in his favor.

Moreover, Barr has done an extraordinary amount of work to try and weaken or end the Patriot Act since he left Congress. His dedication to civil liberties in recent years has been far more than just a token effort done to bolster his libertarian credentials; frankly, his record on that front in recent years is something that ought to be the envy of just about every single libertarian and Progressive.

Based on my somewhat limited knowledge of the Congressman, many of Barr's positions evolved into something resembling libertarianism before he joined the LP, at a time when he was still nominally a member of the Republican Party. For this reason, I am quite willing to take Barr at his word that his current positions on issues are in fact his sincerely held beliefs rather than positions taken as a way to earn the LP nomination.

On balance, I believe Barr will be a more credible proponent of liberty than Ron Paul was, although he will lack the glamor and media attention that come with a run in a highly competitive, high-profile Republican primary campaign.

Regarding the Iraq War, Barr will be able to speak in a knowledgeable way that Ron Paul could not, which will give him far more credibility on the issue than Paul was able to get outside of anti-war activist circles. As such, he will be much less susceptible to charges of just being "anti-troop" or of simply "blaming America first."

In addition, he will not have the obsession with the Federal Reserve that Paul had, which hurt his ability to appeal to mainstream voters.

On gun rights, there are few people in the country who can speak with greater credibility than Congressman Barr.

This is not to say that Barr is an ideal libertarian candidate, however. He continues to be a vocal supporter of greater restrictions on immigration, a position which I find deeply antithetical to liberty in this country.

Moreover, he will be subject to some of the same charges of racism that Ron Paul was subject to in the days after the newsletter story broke. In 1998, he caused a not-insignificant stir when he gave the keynote address to the Council of Conservative Citizens, a group that is often derided - correctly, I think - as a white supremacist organization (the group is the successor to the "White Citizens' Councils). Barr attempted to distance himself from the organization, but it was a story that will be well-remembered by a number of opinion-makers, as the story broke at a time when Barr was one of the impeachment managers in the Bill Clinton impeachment trial.

I should note, however, that Barr was only one of several then-high-profile politicians to be tied to the group, and that Mark Pitcovich of the Anti-Defamation League largely exonerated him from the charges due to his vociferous denunciations of the group as well as some other mitigating circumstances. In addition, Barr will be able to credibly argue that he was a much different person at the time, and that he should not be judged based solely on his actions as Congressman. This is a defense which Ron Paul did not use, and could not have used very credibly given his continued ties to Lew Rockwell.

According to an old Dave Neiwert post, Barr also has connections to the JBS. This is something that troubles me - if it is true, and if those connections continue. Of course, this was a problem that Ron Paul had as well, to a much larger extent. If Barr has ended those connections with the JBS, then I believe he will credibly be able to mitigate any charges of racism that may be thrown his way.

Finally, although Barr's positions on many social issues have changed, it is impossible to completely overlook his staunchly theocratic voting record in Congress. To the extent he disavows that record, I am willing to believe him; however, he has not yet faced questions on a number of issues related to that record, so it is unclear whether he still holds some of those positions. I understand that he continues to be staunchly pro-life; however, abortion is an issue on which I believe there is much room for disagreement amongst libertarians, and I even tend to vascillate regularly as to where I stand on that issue.

On the whole, however, I think Barr would be a credible spokesman for liberty in this country, and may be able to get just enough support to get included in the Presidential debates.

There will be those in the LP who are upset that Barr could come in and take the nomination after the party has already had its primaries. On that, I will not comment, as it is a bit too much "inside baseball" for someone like me who is fairly agnostic about the existence of the LP and understands little about LP rules and procedures.

More reactions at Memeorandum.

Sad News of the Day

I just saw that Ed Morrissey shut down Captain's Quarters during my hiatus and is now blogging at Hot Air. While as far as I can tell Captain Ed's style and tone is the same as it's always been, I'm a bit saddened by this bit of news. As much as I frequently disagree with the Captain, he has always done an outstanding job of giving his opinion and news with a good dose of calm and reason, with remarkably little of the vitriol and venom that often exemplifies the A-list blogosphere of both the left (see: Talkleft) and right (see: Michelle Malkin). In joining Hot Air the Captain is now forcing me to fight through the hyperbole and rank hatred that is often typical of Hot Air's tone. Sigh.

Although, I must admit that the usually cantankerous Allahpundit seems to have taken a more even tone in the handful of his posts that I have read in my short visit over there this afternoon.

I'll continue to read Captain Ed regularly, but I do lament the disappearance of his outstanding site.

Amusing Post of the Day

Reflections from a Rotting Nation has an amusing and poignant post describing why he wants to bring back indentured servitude. It pretty much sums up the libertarian view of the world about as well as possible.

"They Took Ur Jerbs!"

Perhaps the most common argument against immigration and especially "illegal" immigration is that the immigrants take jobs away from hard-working, honest Americans. I've always found this to be more than a little strange.

While standing in Home Depot the other morning, the silliness behind this line of argument was abundantly clear to me - in this still relatively prosperous area of New Jersey, just about the only other people in the store were Latino immigrants. Most of them appeared to be contractors preparing for renovations on a home of some sort. I only saw one non-Latino in the store who appeared to be a contractor (and I was there for a solid half an hour).
Thinking about this, I recalled that in my time in the DC suburbs of Northern Virginia (another prosperous area of the country), the Home Depot was also usually filled with Latino contractors. And I remembered all too well the lines of mostly illegal immigrants I used to pass regularly waiting for work at the local 7-11.

The point is this: immigrants tend to go where the jobs are, and where the labor markets are tightest. In other words: they're rational human beings. They don't go where there is a high unemployment rate, but instead they go where the unemployment rate is lowest and jobs are most plentiful. And indeed, the states with the highest per capita immigration populations (2005 data) are states that we generally associate with a strong, stable economies, and a fairly high quality of life: California, New York (although the upstate economy is awful, most of the immigrants tend to be in the prosperous downstate area), New Jersey, Florida, and Arizona. Other states with immigrant populations greater than 10% (2005 data) include states like Massachusetts, Nevada (which was a boom state at the time), Illinois (presumably mostly in the Chicago area), and Connecticut. States with the lowest immigrant populations included the Southeast (except for Georgia, where Atlanta was a boom town at the time), Michigan, Missouri, and Ohio- all areas generally associated with comparatively weak economies.

This would seem to blow the job-stealing argument against immigration out of the water. But there's more. I crunched some numbers and found that the strongest anti-immigrant attitudes are in places with the fewest immigrants. Meanwhile, I found that the weakest anti-immigrant attitudes are found in places with the highest number of immigrants. In other words, the people most likely to be anti-immigrant (and therefore to think that immigrants hurt economies) are the people least likely to actually be affected by immigration. The only logical explanation for this is therefore rank nativism and scapegoating....they are blaming immigration for their problems even though they are almost entirely unaffected by immigration compared to the rest of the country.

To do this, I compared the 2005 immigrant percentages (this was the most recent data I could find) against exit poll data from this year's Republican primaries on the question "What should be done with illegal immigrants?" (This question was not usually asked in the Democratic primaries; in addition, immigrants tend to be heavily Democratic, which means their presence was unlikely to skew data much in a Republican primary). This question was asked in a total of 24 Republican primaries this year. What I found was a very clear trend in which the higher a state's immigrant population, the less likely GOP voters in that state were to answer "Deport them" (the most extreme anti-immigrant answer included) on this question.

I'm too lazy to calculate r-squared and p values for this data, but from the looks of it, it appears quite statistically significant by political science standards. The scatter plot is above. Should anyone be willing to calculate those numbers, I would be eternally grateful, and will provide you with the raw data.
Lest anyone think that this data is skewed by the level of conservatism in the relevant GOP primary or by the region in which the state is located, I want to point out some data that disprove that. First, New Hampshire (a relatively moderate state by GOP standards) has one of the lowest immigrant populations, and one of the most virulently anti-immigrant voter bases (50% answered "Deport them"). Second, Texas, with a high immigrant population but a very conservative GOP base has one of the lowest "Deport them" percentages (37%). In addition, Utah, with a very conservative GOP base but a moderate immigration population was tied for the lowest "Deport them" percentage (35%).
In my mind, this graph I've put together shows an extremely strong likelihood that strong anti-illegal immigrant attitudes are heavily colored by rank nativism and irrational scapegoating and stereotypes.
NOTE: For the record, the states included in my study were: VA, OK, MI, SC, AZ, NY, AL, NJ, CT, CA, NH, FL, MO, UT, WI, GA, TN, IL, LA, TX, MD, MA, MS, and OH.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

From the Department of Awful Statistics

This graph has been making the rounds of the left-of-center blogosphere the last few days. It purports to show that all elements of American society do better under Democratic Presidents than under Republican Presidents. The clear implication is that the economic intervention of Democrats is a more successful policy than the free market orientation of Republicans.

While I don't care one iota about whether Republicans or Democrats are generally better, I do care about free markets. So I want to comment on some major problems with drawing conclusions from this graph.

1. There is a significant small sample problem. The statistics relied upon are only from 1948-2005. Since it is attempting to compare Republican Presidents vs. Democrat Presidents, there are in effect only 6 data points covering 32 years for the Republicans, and only 5 data points covering 24 years for the Democrats.
2. Eight years (25%) of the Republican data points were covered by Nixon/Ford. Nixon's (and Ford's) economic and domestic policies were largely anathema to anything resembling a free market. Indeed, Nixon committed the single most unspeakable economic act possible from a free market perspective: he instituted wage and price freezes. For three years. As anyone with an understanding of free market economics could predict, this action completely devastated an already ailing economy. As a result, the Nixon/Ford years are the worst economic years included in this graph.
3. Eight years (33.3%) of the Democratic data points were covered by the Clinton Administration. Despite Bill Clinton's many flaws, his Presidency is generally regarded as being historically favorable to free markets. Certainly we should remember that NAFTA was ratified under his watch, that it was he who declared the era of Big Government over (only to be ushered back in, ironically, by GWB), and that he had a particularly ornery Congress to deal with, which meant that neither Clinton nor Congress could get much done, economically speaking (this is usually a good thing for free markets). As a result of all this, the Clinton years were by far the best economic years included in the graph.
4. Another four years (16.7%) of the Democratic data points were covered by the Carter Administration. Whatever Carter's flaws on economic policy - and there were many - he was still better for the free market than the Nixon/Ford era. Certainly, he didn't institute wage and price controls, and importantly, he also deserves credit for beginning the process of deregulation.

The point is this: the data behind the graph wind up providing us with no information from which we can make generalizations about Republicans vs. Democrats or free markets vs. interventionism. There are too few data sets to compare, and the data sets that do exist are massively skewed due to two or three major anomalies where the President governed in a manner diametrically opposed to his Party's stereotypical economic position.

***UPDATE***I should have included a fifth point: Short of idiotic things like price controls, a President generally has pretty minimal power over the economy. Even to the extent he does have economic power there is a certain, undefined lag time between the policy making and the effects of the policy being felt. The data used appear to grant a one-year lag time, but the reality is that in some cases lag time could take several years. The fact is that the economy is generally too complex to be able to tie broad-based indicators like real income gain to a specific government policy or set of policies. (This being the reason why economic theory remains a relevant analytical tool).

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The Secret Is Out

For the last year I've been quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) plotting a move to Switzerland, which I believe is the closest thing to Libertopia that exists on this planet in the post-Bush Doctrine world. This move may or may not happen even if Obama wins the Presidency this year (and it will DEFINITELY happen if Hillary somehow steals the election), but I noticed awhile back that the small Alpine nation had passed the US in just about every libertarian category: economic, social, foreign policy, etc. Fortunately for me, when most people think about Switzerland and freedom, it is only to use them as an example of how a well-armed society need not have much violent crime.

Switzerland's high libertarian/classical liberal grades are not just an uninformed perception of mine, either- I've seen a number of annual studies of different freedom indicators that have ranked the Swiss equal to or above the US in just about every conceivable category in recent years. (For the record, the US held the top spot or one of the top spots in all of those indicators in the pre-GWB/Cheney years).

...And all these indicators say nothing about Switzerland's libertarian-like foreign policy of neutrality and relative non-intervention. While this policy decidedly put them on the wrong side of WWII, it's worth noting that it has also done a pretty good job of keeping them safe but well-regarded over the years.

Well, in the current issue of The American, John Fund lets the cat out of the bag, providing a fairly in depth look at Swiss tax and economic policy, as well as at their style of democracy. Fund also points out a dirty little secret- Switzerland is one of the world's most prosperous countries despite the fact that it was an economic backwater only a century ago.

Alas, he does not mention Switzerland's relatively liberal perspective on gay rights, drugs (they're not legal but they are a far cry from our militaristic War on Drugs), and all sorts of other personal freedom issues that have little to do with economic policy. But tolerance of other lifestyles is something that the GOP would do well to learn from the Swiss.

This is not to say that Switzerland is in fact Libertopia - it has its fair share of areas where it falls short, too. But it is the closest thing to it currently in existence. Not surprisingly to libertarians, it has a quality of life to match. Surprisingly to Progressives and socialists, it has one of the world's finest health care systems, structured in a way that is more market-friendly than the American system.

In response, my socialist and Progressive friends will likely point to the case of Denmark to show how socialism can work. But that would ignore an important distinction between the two countries - Switzerland is a surprisingly diverse country (note to the anti-immigrant crowd: the Swiss have FOUR official languages), while Denmark and the other Scandinavian countries are extremely homogenous. No less an authority than Hayek recognized that socialism can conceivably work in a small, homogenous society where everyone shares a common purpose. That does not make it feasible in a massive nation like the US which has one of the world's most diverse populations (second note to the anti-immigrant crowd: restricting immigration more is a good way to screw up that diversity and therefore make socialism more likely).

Now if only I could find a job in Switzerland....