Archive for the ‘Capitalism & Libertarian Philospohy’ Category.

What Happens When You Abandon Prices As A Supply-Demand Matching Tool? California Tries Totalitarianism

Mostly, we use prices to match supply and demand. When supplies of some item are short, rising prices provide incentives for conservation and substitution, as well as the creation of creative new sources of supply.

When we abandon prices, often out of some sort of political opportunism, chaos usually results.

California, for example, has never had the political will to allow water prices to rise when water is short. They cite all kinds of awful things that would happen to people if water prices were higher, but then proceed instead with all sorts of authoritarian rationing initiatives that strike me as far worse than any downsides of higher prices.

In this particular drought, California has taken a page from Nazi Germany block watches to try to ration water

So, faced with apparent indifference to stern warnings from state leaders and media alarms, cities across California have encouraged residents to tattle on their neighbors for wasting water — and the residents have responded in droves. Sacramento, for instance, has received more than 6,000 reports of water waste this year, up twentyfold from last year...

Some drought-conscious Californians have turned not only to tattling, but also to an age-old strategy to persuade friends and neighbors to cut back: shaming. On Twitter, radio shows and elsewhere, Californians are indulging in such sports as shower-shaming (trying to embarrass a neighbor or relative who takes a leisurely wash), car-wash-shaming and lawn-shaming.

“Is washing the sidewalk with water a good idea in a drought @sfgov?” Sahand Mirzahossein, a 32-year-old management consultant, posted on Twitter, along with a picture of a San Francisco city employee cleaning the sidewalk with a hose. (He said he hoped a city official would respond to his post, but he never heard back.)

Drought-shaming may sound like a petty, vindictive strategy, and officials at water agencies all denied wanting to shame anyone, preferring to call it “education” or “competition.” But there are signs that pitting residents against one another can pay dividends.

All this to get, in the best case, a 10% savings. How much would water prices have to rise to cut demand 10% and avoid all this creepy Orwellian crap?

One of the features of Nazi and communist block watch systems was that certain people would instrumentalize the system to use it to pay back old grudges. The same thing is apparently happening in California

In Santa Cruz, dozens of complaints have come from just a few residents, who seem to be trying to use the city’s tight water restrictions to indulge old grudges.

“You get people who hate their neighbors and chronically report them in hopes they’ll be thrown in prison for wasting water,” said Eileen Cross, Santa Cruz’s water conservation manager. People claim water-waste innocence, she said, and ask: “Was that my neighbor? She’s been after me ever since I got that dog.”

Ms. Franzi said that in her Sacramento neighborhood, people were now looking askance at one another, wondering who reported them for wasting water.

“There’s a lot of suspiciousness,” Ms. Franzi said. “It’s a little uncomfortable at this point.” She pointed out that she and her husband have proudly replaced their green lawn with drought-resistant plants, and even cut back showers to once every few days.

Update:  Seriously, for those that are unclear -- this is the alternative to capitalism.  This is the Progressive alternative to markets.  Sure, bad things happen in a free society with free markets, but how can anyone believe that this is a better alternative?

A Couple of Final Thoughts on Hobby Lobby

It should not be necessary to say this, but apparently it is:

  • The government's reluctance to ban an activity does not constitute an endorsement
  • The government's refusal to subsidize an activity does not constitute a ban

Libertarians are Hosed

I cannot find a single opposition statement to the Hobby Lobby decision that does not contain some variant of this:

Today, the Supreme Court ruled against women’s basic access to contraceptive healthcare. This decision opens up the door for for-profit companies to impose their personal beliefs on their employees and deny them basic contraceptive care.

Basic healthcare decisions shouldn't be subject to the whims of bosses and employers. ...

I will continue to fight for the right of every woman to make her own private medical decisions. #notmybossbusiness

It seems that a huge number of Americans, even nominally intelligent ones, cannot parse the difference between banning an activity and some third party simply refusing to pay for you to engage in that activity.  This really does not seem to be a complicated distinction, but yesterday I watched something like 40% of America fail to make it.  How is it possible to make any progress on liberty and individual rights if peoples' thinking is so sloppy?

By the way, the passage above is from the Facebook page of Hanna-Beth Jackson, a California state senator.  The reason I find her faux libertarianism initeresting is that Ms. Jackson is co-sponsor of the bill requiring explicit verbal or written consent for each sex act (and each step of the sex act) in California colleges.  A woman's body may not be her boss's business but it appears it is the California government's business, at least according to Ms. Jackson.  This is typical of the abortion and birth control issues, where supporters use libertarian-ish arguments narrowly to defend abortion and contraception rights, but then go all-in for authoritarianism everywhere else.  Jackson's bedroom regulation bill is co-sponsored by Kevin De Leon, who said yesterday "No boss should have the power to interfere with a worker’s personal health decisions."  Because that's his job, I guess.

Bundy Ranch the Wrong Hill for Libertarians to be Dying On

Here is something I find deeply ironic:  On the exact same day that Conservatives were flocking to the desert to protest Cliven Bundy's eviction from BLM land, San Francisco progressives were gathering in the streets to protest tenant evictions by a Google executive.   To my eye, both protests were exactly the same, but my guess is that neither group would agree with the other's protest.  I think both protests are misguided.

In the case of Cliven Bundy, I agree with John Hinderaker, right up to his big "But...."

First, it must be admitted that legally, Bundy doesn’t have a leg to stand on. The Bureau of Land Management has been charging him grazing fees since the early 1990s, which he has refused to pay. Further, BLM has issued orders limiting the area on which Bundy’s cows can graze and the number that can graze, and Bundy has ignored those directives. As a result, BLM has sued Bundy twice in federal court, and won both cases. In the second, more recent action, Bundy’s defense is that the federal government doesn’t own the land in question and therefore has no authority to regulate grazing. That simply isn’t right; the land, like most of Nevada, is federally owned. Bundy is representing himself, of necessity: no lawyer could make that argument.

It is the rest of the post after this paragraph with which I disagree.  He goes on to explain why he is sympathetic to Bundy, which if I may summarize is basically because a) the Feds own too much land and b) they manage this land in a haphazard and politically corrupt manner and c) the Feds let him use this land 100 years ago but now have changed their mind about how they want to use the land.

Fine.  But Bundy is still wrong.  He is trying to exercise property rights over land that is not his.   The owner gave him free use for years and then changed its policy and raised his rent, and eventually tried to evict him.  Conservatives and libertarians don't accept the argument that long-time tenancy on private land gives one quasi-ownership rights (though states like California and cities like New York seem to be pushing law in this direction), so they should not accept it in this case.   You can't defend property rights by trashing property rights.   Had this been a case of the government using its fiat power to override a past written contractual obligation, I would have been sympathetic perhaps, but it is not.

I would love to see a concerted effort to push for government to divest itself of much of its western land.  Ten years ago I would have said I would love to see an effort to manage it better, but I feel like that is impossible in this corporate state of ours.  So the best solution is just to divest.  But I cannot see where the Bundy Ranch is a particularly good case.  Seriously, I would love to see more oil and gas exploration permitted on Federal land, but you won't see me out patting Exxon on the back if they suddenly start drilling on Federal land without permission or without paying the proper royalties. At least the protesters in San Francisco likely don't believe in property rights at all.  Conservatives, what is your excuse?

I suppose we can argue about whether the time for civil disobedience has come, but even if this is the case, we have to be able to find a better example than the Bundy Ranch to plant our flag.

Can One Be A Principled Moderate? And What the Hell Is A Moderate, Anyway?

Sorry, this is one of those posts where I am still struggling to figure an issue out, so bear with me if we wander around a bit and the ideas are a bit unfinished.

Kevin Drum and other progressives have been bending over backwards to argue that the now three year delay in implementing PPACA standards for private insurance policies is no big deal.

Really?  The PPACA is likely, for Progressives, to be the most important piece of legislation passed during this Administration.  Hell, based on the discussion when it was passed, for many it is likely the most important piece of legislation passed in the last three or four decades.  And when Republicans suggested delaying these same rules and mandates, e.g. during the government shutdown, they freaked, arguing that people should not have to go another day with their old crappy health care policies.

But now they just roll over and say, yeah, ho hum, this thing that everyone supposedly wanted is a political liability so its fine to delay it, no big deal.

If this were a signature piece of libertarian legislation (yeah, I know its hard to imagine such a thing) that was not being implemented by somebody I voted for and supported, I would be pissed.  I would be raking the President over the coals.

This difference in outlook may be why the Republican leadership hates the Tea Party.  The Tea Party gets pissed when folks they elect punt on the ideological goals they got elected to pursue.  They have no tribal loyalty, only loyalty to a set of policy goals.  The key marker in fact of many groups now disparagingly called "extremists" is that they do not blindly support "their guy" in office when "their guy" sells out on the things they want.

I have friends I like and respect -- smart and worldly people -- who are involved in a series of activities to promote political moderation.  What I have written in this post is the core of my fear about moderation -- that in real life calls for moderation are actually calls for loyalty to maintaining our current two major parties (and keeping current incumbents in office) over ideas and principles.

Which leads me to an honest question that many of you may take as insulting -- can one be a principled moderate?  I am honestly undecided on this.  But note that by moderate I do not mean "someone who is neither Republican or Democrat," because I fit that description and most would call me pretty extreme.  So "fiscally conservative and socially liberal" is not in my mind inherently "moderate".  That is a non-moderate ideological position that is sometimes called "moderate" because it is a mix of Republican and Democrat positions.  But I would argue that anyone striving to intellectual consistency cannot be a Republican or Democrat because neither have an internally consistent ideology, and in fact their ideology tends to flip back and forth on certain issues (look at how Republican and Democrat ideology on Presidential power, for example, or drone strikes changes depending on whose guy is in the Oval Office).

Moderates in my mind are folks willing to, or even believe it is superior to, take average positions, eg. "the PPACA just went too far and we should have had a less-far-reaching compromise" or "free trade agreements go too far we need a mix of free trade and protectionism".  They value compromise and legislative action (ie passing lots of laws in a fluid and timely manner) over holding firm on particular ideological goals.  I guess the most fair way to put it by this definition is they value consensus and projecting a sense of agreement and teamwork over any individual policy goal.

Postscript:  One other potential definition of "moderate":  One could argue that in actual use by politicians and pundits, "moderate" effectively means "one who agrees with me" and "extremist" means "people who disagree with me."  The real solution here may be to accept that "moderate" is an inherently broken word and stop using it.

Update:  There are areas where I suppose I am a moderate.  For example, I think that making definitive statements about what "science" has been "settled" in the realm of complex systems is insane.  This is particularly true in economics.  Many findings in economics, if one were honest, are equivocal or boil down to "it depends."  The Left is insanely disingenuous to claim that the science is settled that minimum wage increases don't affect employment.  But it is equally wrong to say that minimum wage increases always have a large effect on unemployment.  For one thing, almost no one (percentage wise) actually makes the minimum wage so we are talking about changes in the first place that affect only a couple of percent of the workforce, and may be mitigated (or exacerbated) by other simultaneous trends in the economy.  So of course their impact may not be large (in the same way that regulations on left-handed Eskimo Fortran programmers might not have much of an impact on the larger economy).

We have gotten into this bizarre situation that the science is suddenly always settled about everything, where it would be safer to argue that given the complexity of the systems involved the science can't be settled.  I liked this bit I read the other day in the Federalist

One of the more amusing threads that runs through the conversation among the online left is the viewpoint that the science is settled in every arena, and settled in their favor. The data backs the leftward view, and if it doesn’t, there must be a flaw in the data, or in the scientist, or secret Koch-backed dollars behind the research. This bit of hubris leads to saying obviously untrue things – like “every economist from the left and right” says the stimulus has created or saved at least two million jobs. Or that there’s “no solid evidence” that boosting the minimum wage harms jobs. Of course the media knows that these aren’t true, but they largely give these politicians a pass, because dealing in data and with academic research is their turf.

Folks on the Left who want to blame the Tea Party for the destruction of civil discourse need to look at themselves as well, declaring the science settled on everything and then painting their opponents as anti-science for disagreeing.  As I have pointed out before, this sort of epistemology is not science but religion, the appeal to authority backed by charges of heresy for those who disagree.

If I were going to make a political plea, it would not be for moderation but for better more respectful practices in the public discourse.

The Root Cause of Government Corruption is the Power over the Economy We Have Given the Government

Corruption is often blamed on the corruptible.  But corruptible people will always exist (see: entire history of civilization) if the incentives for corruption are sufficient.  Here is another example, from a vote-buying scandal in south Texas:

In the deeply Democratic Rio Grande Valley, the primary is the election that matters. And in local races like county commissioner and district attorney a sliver of votes can make a difference between winning and losing the election. Many times, paid campaign workers called “politiqueras” deliver the votes that put a candidate over the top.

Politiqueras—who are paid to turn out voters, especially in low-income neighborhoods and colonias—have been part of elections in the Rio Grande Valley for decades. But the recent suicide of a school board president in the small town of Donna and the indictment of three politiqueras for allegedly buying votes in a Donna school board election with beer, drugs and cash has rattled the Valley’s political world.

Politiqueras are typically older women with deep ties in the community. They meet with seniors at nursing homes and adult daycare centers and residents in colonias to advocate for their candidates. They come bearing barbecue plates or Mexican pastries and offer voters a ride to the polls, none of which is illegal. But over the decades intense competition in an impoverished region for a limited number of jobs and the power to decide who gets a government contract or a lucrative-paying job has pushed some candidates to cross the legal line and offer cash for votes. “The competition for access to [government] contracts has become intense,” says former Edinburg state Rep. Aaron Peña. “Politiqueras have been pushed further and further to perform in a system that has been corrupted.”

Who is the Real Crony, Koch or Reid?

The Senate Majority Leader has decided to try to shame and silence a private citizen for daring to engage in political discourse.  Here is Harry Reid:

I believe in an America where economic opportunity is open to all. And based on their actions and policies they promote, the Koch brothers seem to believe in an America where the system is rigged to benefit the very wealthy.

Remember that this is coming from the man who has somehow become a multi-multi-millionaire over a lifetime of only holding government jobs.

Contrast this with Charles Koch's actual words, parts of which could have come out of the mouth of an occupy Wall Street protester:

I think one of the biggest problems we have in the country is this rampant cronyism where all these large companies are into smash-and-grab, short-term profits, saying how do I get a regulation, or we don’t want to export natural gas because it’s one of our raw materials … Well, you say you believe in free markets, but by your actions you obviously don’t. You believe in cronyism.

And that’s true even at the local level. I mean, how does somebody get started if you have to pay $100,000 or $300,000 to get a medallion to drive a taxi cab? You have to go to school for two years to be a hairdresser. You name it, in every industry we have this. The successful companies try to keep the new entrants down. Now that’s great for a company like ours. We make more money that way because we have less competition and less innovation. But for the country as a whole, it’s horrible.

And for disadvantaged people trying to get started, it’s unconscionable in my view. I think it’s in our long-term interest, in every American’s long-term interest, to fight against this cronyism. As you all have heard me say, the role of business is to create products that make people’s lives better while using fewer resources to do it, and making more resources available to satisfy other needs.

When a company is not being guided by the products they make and what the customers need, but by how they can manipulate the system — getting regulations on their competitors, or mandates on using their products, or eliminating foreign competition — it just lowers the overall standard of living and hurts the disadvantaged the most.We end up with a two-tier system. Those that have, have welfare for the rich. The poor, OK, you have welfare, but you’ve condemned them to a lifetime of dependency and hopelessness.

Yeah, we want “hope and change,” but we want people to have the hope that they can advance on their own merits, rather than the hope that somebody gives them something. That’s better than starving to death, but that, I think, is going to wreck the country. Is it in our business interest? I think it’s in all our long-term interests. It’s not in our short-term interest. And it’s about making money honorably.

People should only profit to the extent they make other people’s lives better. You should profit because you created a better restaurant and people enjoyed going to it. You didn’t force them to go, you don’t have a mandate that you have to go to my restaurant on Tuesdays and Wednesdays or you go to prison. I mean, come on. You feel good about that?

Harry Reid's entire job is built on a foundation of cronyism.  Most of his re-election money comes from outside his home state of Nevada, from companies hoping to score political favors from him and from the power he weilds in the Senate.  If laws were proposed to thwart Congressional cronyism, say through reducing the power of Congress to pick winners and losers, who would fight such a law, Reid or Koch?

Making Fun of the Supreme Court in a Supreme Court Brief

The PJ O'Rourke / Cato Supreme Court amicus brief that is making the rounds is well worth your time.  A lot of it is funny, like this footnote:

While President Obama isn’t from Kenya, he is a Keynesian—so you can see where the confusion arises.

But my favorite is footnote 15 where they make fun of the Supreme Court

Driehaus voted for Obamacare, which the Susan B. Anthony List said was the equivalent of voting for taxpayer- funded abortion. Amici are unsure how true the allegation is given that the healthcare law seems to change daily, but it certainly isn’t as truthy as calling a mandate a tax.

Yet Another Reason to Open our Relations to Cuba

The only reason people like Michael Moore or Tom Harkin can get away with singing praises of Cuban socialism is because most Americans can't go visit and see for themselves.  By keeping Cuba off-limits, we are doing the communists' work for them by allowing them to provide cherry-picked videos and stories through useful idiots that have zero bearing on the true life of the average person in Cuba.

Why Do We Manage Water Via Command and Control? And Is It Any Surprise We Are Constantly Having Shortages?

In most commodities that we consume,  market price signals serve to match supply and demand. When supplies are short, rising prices send producers looking for new supplies and consumers to considering conservation measures.  All without any top-down intervention by the state.  All without any coercion or tax money.

But for some reason water is managed differently.  Water prices never rise and fall with shortages -- we have been told in Phoenix for years that Lake Powell levels are dropping due to our water use but our water prices never change.  Further, water has become a political football, such that favored uses (farmers historically, but more recently environmental uses such as fish spawning) get deep subsidies.  You should see the water-intensive crops that are grown in the desert around Phoenix, all thanks to subsidized water to a favored constituency.   As a result, consumers use far more water than they might in any given year, and have no natural incentive to conserve when water becomes particularly dear, as it is in California.

So, when water is short, rather than relying on the market, politicians step in with command and control steps.  This is from an email I just received from state senator Fran Pavley in CA:

Senator Pavley said the state should consider measures that automatically take effect when a drought is declared to facilitate a more coordinated statewide response.

“We need a cohesive plan around the state that recognizes the problem,” Pavley said at a committee hearing. “It’s a shared responsibility no matter where you live, whether you are an urban user or an agricultural user.”

Measures could include mandatory conservation, compensation for farmers to fallow land, restrictions on the use of potable water for hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), coordinated publicity campaigns for conservation, increased groundwater management, and incentives for residents to conserve water. Senator Pavley noted that her hometown Las Virgenes Municipal Water District is offering rebates for customers who remove lawns, install rain barrels or take other actions to conserve water.

Pavley also called for the state to create more reliable, sustainable supplies through strategies such as capturing and re-using stormwater and dry weather runoff, increasing the use of recycled water and cleaning up polluted groundwater basins.

Note the command and control on both sides of the equation, using taxpayer resources for new supply projects and using government coercion to manage demand.  Also, for bonus points, notice the Senator's use of the water shortage as an excuse to single out and punish private activity (fracking) she does not like.

All of this goes to show exactly why the government does not want a free market in water and would like to kill the free market in everything else:  because it gives them so much power.  Look at Ms. Pavley, and how much power she is grabbing for herself with the water shortage as an excuse.  Yesterday she was likely a legislative nobody.  Today she is proposing massive infrastrure spending and taking onto herself the power to pick winners and losers (farmers, I will pay you not to use water; frackers, you just have to shut down).  All the winners will show their gratitude next election cycle.  And all the losers will be encouraged to pay protection money so that next time around, they won't be the chosen victims.

Libertarian: I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

From Lee Goodman on an opinion piece in the WSJ

This startling assertion of government power became public in December when the FEC released an enforcement file in the case of a Boston television station's regular Sunday-morning news program, "On the Record." The station, WCVB, had invited two congressional candidates (a Democrat and a Republican) into its studio to appear on "On the Record" in the weeks leading up to the 2012 election and formatted the joint appearance as a 30-minute debate.

Another candidate (a libertarian) who was not invited filed a complaint alleging that the value of WCVB's production costs and airtime constituted unlawful corporate contributions to the two candidates who were invited.

Wow, I am sure glad the "libertarian" is pushing for government regulation of speech and government restrictions on the decision-making of private businesses.

Arnold Kling Provides An Interesting Framework for Economic Growth

I thought this was a useful simple picture from Arnold Kling, vis a vis countries and their economies:

Low Creation High Creation
Low Destruction Corporatist Stagnation Schumpeterian Boom
High Destruction Minsky Recession Rising Dynamism

He suggests the US may currently be in the lower-left quadrant.  Europe and Japan in the upper left.   My sense is that China is in the upper right, not the lower right (too much of the economy is controlled by the politicians in power for any real destruction to occur).

Once a government gains powerful tools for economic intervention, it becomes politically almost impossible to allow destruction to occur, no matter how long-term beneficial it can be.  The US is one of the few countries in the world that has ever allowed such destruction to occur over an extended period.  The reason it is hard is that successful incumbents are able to wield political power to prevent upstart competition that might threaten their position and business model (see here for example).

It takes a lot of discipline to have government not intervene in favor of such incumbents.  Since politicians lack this discipline, the only way to prevent such intervention is by castrating the government, by eliminating its power to intervene in the first place.  Feckless politicians cannot wield power that does not exist (though don't tell Obama that because he seems to be wielding a lot of power to modify legislation that is not written into my copy of the Constitution.).

Progressives Lamenting the Effects of Progressive Policies

Kevin Drum writes

Via Harrison Jacobs, here's a recent study showing the trend in income segregation in American neighborhoods. Forty years ago, 65 percent of us lived in middle-income neighborhoods. Today, that number is only 42 percent. The rest of us live either in rich neighborhoods or in poor neighborhoods.

This is yet another sign of the collapse of the American middle class, and it's a bad omen for the American political system. We increasingly lack a shared culture or shared experiences, and that makes democracy a tough act to pull off. The well-off have less and less interaction with the poor outside of the market economy, and less and less empathy for how they live their lives. For too many of us, the "general welfare" these days is just an academic abstraction, not a lived experience.

He does not give a reason, and apparently following the links, neither does the study author.  But my guess is that they might well attribute it to 1. effects of racism, 2.  growth of the suburbs, 3. laissez faire capitalism.

I don't think racism can be the driver of this change, given that racism and fear of other cultures is demonstrably better in the last 30 years than at most times in history  (read bout 19th century New York if you are not sure).  The suburbs have been a phenomenon for 100 years or more, and capitalism has been less laissez faire over the last 30 years than at any time in our history.

I actually believe a lot of this income sorting is a direct result of two progressive policies.  I have no data, of course, so I will label these as hypotheses, but I would offer two drivers

  • Strict enforcement of the public school monopoly.  People want good schools for their kids.  Some are wealthy enough to escape to private schools.  But the only way for those who stay in the public school system to get to the best schools is to physically move into their districts.  Over time, home prices in the best districts rise, which gives those schools more money to be even better (since most are property tax funded), and makes them even more attractive.  But as home prices rise, only the most wealthy can afford them.  This is dead easy to model.  Even in a starting state where there are only tiny inhomegeneities between the quality of individual schools, one ends up with a neighborhood sorting by income over time.  Ex post facto attempts to fix this by changing the public school funding model and sending state money to the poorest schools can't reverse it, because at least half of school quality is driven not by money by by the expectations and skills of the parents and children in it.  Thus East St. Louis can have some of the highest per pupil spending in the state but have terrible schools.  A school choice system would not likely end sorting by school, but it would eliminate a huge incentive to sort by neighborhood.
  • Strict zoning.  There has always been a desire among certain people to exclude selected groups from their neighborhoods.  This desire has not changed, or if anything I would argue it has declined somewhat.  What has changed is the increased power that exists to exclude.  Zoning laws give the rich and well-connected the political vehicle to exclude the rabble from their neighborhoods in a way that never would have been possible in a free market.  I live just next to the town of Paradise Valley, which has very strict zoning that is absolutely clearly aimed at keeping everyone but the well-off out.  They will not approve construction of new rental units.  The minimum lot sizes are huge, way beyond the reach of many.

Capitalism is an Un-System

Markets and commerce are not created top-down, they are emergent behavior:

...“no one” made markets. No one put out rules for when a market should or should not exist, much like the footprints in the snow following a fresh storm, these markets emerge from the self-interested actions of millions of buyers and sellers each responding to hundreds upon hundreds of incentives every day. Indeed, no one ever sat down and said, “you know, we have this major problem here – there are simply not enough things out there for all of the people who want them, so, let’s have this thing called capitalism and see how it works.” It simply didn’t go down that way, and discussing “markets” in the anthropomorphic way that is often done, particularly in these lines of inquiry, really takes us away from appreciating that market activity is an emergent process. Yes, it does operate in a richer institutional and intellectual framework and yes the “rules” of the game do alter when ends up being for sale or not, but simply condemning “markets” as allowing “everything” to be sold quite misses the point.

This Was My Take As Well: Cut Farm Subsidies, Not Food Stamps

First, as many of you may have guessed, the "massive cuts" in food stamps over the next 10 years proposed by House Republicans are basically just a modest reduction in their rate of growth.  All attempts to slow the spending growth in any government program will always be treated by the media as Armageddon, which is why government spending seldom slows (see: Sequester).

But I have been amazed through this whole deal that Republicans want to extract a pound (actually probably just an ounce or so) of flesh out of the Food Stamp program but explicitly left the rest of the farm bill with all of its bloated subsidies alone.  Henry Olson asks the same question at NRO.

I will add one other observation about food stamps that is sure to have just about everyone disagreeing with me.  Of late, Republicans have released a number of reports on food stamp fraud, showing people converting food stamps to cash, presumably so they can buy things with the money that food stamps are allowed to be used for.

Once upon a time, maybe 30 years ago in my more Conservative days, I would get all worked up by the same things.  Look at those guys, we give them money for food and they buy booze with it!  It must be stopped.  Since that time, I suppose I never really revisited this point of view until I was watching the recent stories on food stamp fraud.

But what I began thinking about was this:  As a libertarian, I always say that the government needs to respect and keep its hands off the decision-making of individuals.  If people make bad choices, paraphrasing from the HBO show Deadwood, then let them go to hell however they choose.  And, more often than not, it turns out that when you really look, people are not necessarily making what from the outside looks like a bad choice -- they have information, incentives, pressures, and preferences we folks sitting in our tidy Washington offices, chauffeured to work every day, may not understand.

So if we are going to give people charity - money to survive on when poor and out of work - shouldn't we respect them and their choices?  Why attach a myriad of conditions and surveillance to the use of the funds?  Of course, this is an opinion that puts me way out of the mainstream.  Liberals will treat these folks as potential victims that must be guided paternally, and Conservatives will treat them as potential fraudsters who must be watched carefully.  I think either of these attitudes are insidious, and it is better to treat these folks as adults who need help.

Totally Awesome

These are totally awesome.  What we might get if we had a real major party based on liberty rather than two parties debating slightly different priorities for government coercion.  Via JD Tuccille

gay-rights-and-gun-rights-post   gay-rights-and-gun-rights-post-1

Blaming Excessive Taxation on .... Capitalism?

Megan McArdle has a lot more patience than I explaining to a writer at Crooked Timber why artists don't get special tax deductions that aren't available to anyone else.

But what I thought was amazing, was the fact that they seem to blame an overbearing and over-reaching IRS on .... markets and capitalism. I'll give one example of the general tone:

One of the days, I’ll get around to reading the copy of Sandel’s ‘What Money Can’t Buy; The Moral Limits of Markets’. It’s even made the exquisitely painful cut of being one of only two dozen books brought on our three-month sojourn on the south coast of England. When I do read Sandel, I hope to acquire a greater appreciation for exactly how market thinking has permeated and corrupted so many aspects of human life.

One surprising place a weirdly attenuated and manically zealous form of market thinking has popped up is in the Minnesota tax office. (via BoingBoing) They’re running a quite unhinged vendetta against Lynette Reini-Grandell and Venus DeMars, a married couple who make music, art, poetry and teach English. The taxman running their audit says Reini-Grandell and DeMars’ creative activities don’t make enough money, and haven’t for years, thus proving the artists are mere hobbyists who shouldn’t get a tax break. Either they should turn a consistent profit by now, or have given up already and gone back to being good little consumers.

I am exhausted with people with people equating free markets and capitalism with the crony corporate state we have today.

By the way, I am the first to acknowledge that the government does not consider non-monetary benefits in many parts of their legislation.  Just one example is minimum wage legislation. For a teenager without work experience, being able to have an internship where they can prove they are reliable and learn how to work in an organization has tremendous value.  But these huge non-monetary benefits (so large many teens and low-skilled workers might take a job for free, at least to prove themselves initially) cannot be counted in the minimum wage calculation.

Matt Yglesias is Reinventing History

Matt Yglesias and I certainly do read history differently.  He writes recently in a Salon article:

The basic economic foundations of industrial capitalism as we've known them for the past 150 years or so have an activist state at their core. Building political institutions capable of doing these things properly is really difficult, and one of the main things that separates more prosperous places from less prosperous ones is that the more prosperous places have done a better job of building said institutions. There's also the minor matter of creating effective and non-corrupt law enforcement and judicial agencies that can protect people's property rights and enforce contracts.

The point is, it takes an awful lot of politics to get an advanced capitalist economy up and running and generating wealth. A lot of active political decisions need to be made to grow that pie. So why would you want to do all that? Presumably because pie is delicious. But if you build a bunch of political institutions with the intention of creating large quantities of pie, it's obviously important that people actually get their hands on some pie. In other words, you go through the trouble of creating advanced industrial capitalism because that's a good way to create a lot of goods and services. But the creation of goods and services would be pointless unless it served the larger cause of human welfare. Collecting taxes and giving stuff to people is every bit as much a part of advancing that cause as creating the set of institutions that allows for the wealth-creation in the first place.

This is counter-historical crap.  Unfortunately, my real job is taking all my time today so I can only give a few quick responses rather than the thorough beating this deserves

  1. Capitalism is not a "system."  It is an un-system.   It is an order that emerges from individuals exchanging goods and services to their mutual self-interest.  While it requires a rule of law, those rules can be exceedingly simple -- at their core they are "don't deal with other people via force or fraud."  Sure, case law can be complex - what happens to a land deed that has one boundary on a river when the river moves.  But I don't think this is what Matt is thinking of.  
  2. Yglesias is following the typical socialist-progressive line that our modern wealth creating capitalist economy was somehow created by the government.  I am sure this line works with the low information voter, but that does not make it any more true.  Industrial capitalism arose long before the government even acknowledged its existence.  The US economy was generating wealth - for everyone, rich and poor - long before politicians stuck an oar into the economic waters.  Go back even 85 years and you will not see anything in the "political economy" that would be recognizable to a modern progressive.  In other words, the wealth creation came first, and then the politics came second.
  3. Again we see this bizarre progressive notion that wealth creation is this thing apart, like a water well in the desert.  Income distribution in this model is a matter of keeping the piggy rich people from hogging all the water.  But in a free society, the economy and its gains are not separate from people, they are integral to the people.  Gains are not somehow independent variables, but are the results of individual gains by each person in the system.  People operate by mutual self-interest.  When I work for you, I get a paycheck, you get your products made -- we both gain.  Steve Jobs grew wealthy selling iPads, but simultaneously my iPad made me vastly better off.
  4. It is wrong to say that all distributions of wealth are arbitrary.  In a free society, there emerges a natural distribution of wealth based on people's exchange with each other.  And contrary to the progressive mythology, that system was floating all boats, not just the rich ones, long before the government gained the power to redistribute wealth.  Yglesias is right in saying that income distribution in a progressive political economy is arbitrary.  In fact, income in any government-managed economy is distributed arbitrarily to whoever can gain power.  I am always amazed at progressives who somehow have this vision that there will be some group of people with absolute power who wukk make sure there will be a flat and equitable income distribution.  When has that ever happened?  Name even a single socialist country where that has happened.
  5. What political decision has ever been made the grows the pie, except perhaps to keep the government's hands off pie creation?  When "political" decisions are made to grow the pie, what you actually get is bailouts of Goldman Sachs, wealth funneled to connected billionaires like Elon Musk, and Solyndra.  Politics don't create wealth, they are a boat anchor lashed to the wealth creators.  The only thing politicians can do productively is make the boat anchor lighter.

Arrogance and Coercion

Years ago I had an argument with my mother-in-law, who is a classic Massachusetts liberal  (by the way, we get along fine -- I have no tolerance for the notion that one can't be friends with someone who has a different set of politics).  The argument was very clarifying for me and centered around the notion of coercion.

I can't entirely remember what the argument was about, but I think it was over government-mandated retirement programs.  Should the government be forcing one to save, and if so, should the government do the investment of those savings (ie as they do in Social Security) even if this means substantially lower returns on investment?

The interesting part was we both used the word "arrogant."  I said it was arrogant for a few people in government to assume they could make better decisions for individuals.  She said it was arrogant for me to assume that all those individuals out there had the same training and capability that I had to be able to make good decisions for themselves.

And at the end of the day, that is essentially the two sides of the argument over government paternalism boiled down to its core.  I thought coercion was immoral, she thought letting unprepared people make sub-optimal decisions for themselves when other people know better is immoral.  As with most of my one on one arguments I have with people, I left it at that.  When I argue face to face with real people, I have long ago given up trying to change their minds and generally settle for being clear where our premises diverge.

I am reminded of all this reading Bruce McQuain's take on Sarah Conly's most recent attempt to justify coercive paternalism (the latter is not an unfair title I have saddled her with -- it's from her last book).  Reading this I had a couple of other specific thoughts

  1. I am amazed how much Conly and folks like her can write this stuff without addressing the fundamental contradiction at its core -- if we are so bad making decisions for ourselves, why do we think the same human beings suddenly become good at it when they join government?  She would argue, I guess, that there are a subset of super-humans who are able to do what most of us can't, but how in a democracy do we thinking-impaired people know to vote for one of the supermen?  Or if you throw our democracy, what system has ever existed that selected for leaders who make good decisions for the peasants vs., say, selected for people who were good generals. 
  2. Is there any difference between Conly's coercive paternalism and Kipling's white man's burden?  Other than the fact that the supermen and the mass of sub-optimizing schlubs are not differentiated by race?  It's fascinating to see Progressives who are traditionally energized by hatred of colonialism rejuvinating one of imperialism's core philosophical justifications.

Good News of the Day

beer

Via Mark Perry

I reached drinking age (mercifully 18 in those days) in 1980 and I can tell you from experience that the early 80's were a beer wasteland.  Spent a lot of time learning foreign beers at a great little pub I discovered entirely by accident called the Gingerman in Houston (near Rice University).  The beer landscape in the US today is awesome by comparison.

Mission Drift in Charitable Trusts

Much has been written about 2nd and 3rd generation trustees leading charitable trusts in completely different directions from the intentions of their original founder / donor.  These charitable trusts seem to, over time, become reflective of the goals and philosophy of a fairly closed caste of, lacking a better word, non-profit-runners.  Their typically leftish, Eastern, urban outlook is sometimes bizarrely at odds with the trust's founding intentions and mission.

Here is one that caught my eye:  Bill McKibben is known as a global warming crusader, via his 350.org (the 350 refers to the fact that they feel the world was safe at 349 ppm CO2 but was headed for ruin at 351 ppm).  But if you hear him speak, as my son did at Amherst, he sounds more alike a crusader against fossil fuels rather than against just global warming per se.  I am left with the distinct impression that he would be a passionate opponent of fossil fuel consumption even if there were no such thing as greenhouse gas warming.

Anyway, the thing I found interesting is that most of his anti-fossil fuel work is funded by a series of Rockefeller family trusts.  I am not privy to the original founding mission of these trusts, but my suspicion is that funding a campaign to paint producers of fossil fuels as outright evil, as McKibben often does, is a pretty bizarre use of money for the Rockefeller family.

In contrast to McKibben, I have argued that John D. Rockefeller, beyond saving the whales, did as much for human well-being as any person in the last two centuries by driving down the cost and increasing the quality, safety, and availability of fuels.   Right up there with folks like Norman Borlaug and Louis Pasteur.

A Couple of Nice Observations on Technocracy and Budgets

From South Bend Seven come a couple of comments I liked today.  The first was on the Left and current budget plans:

If I was on the Left I would look at these figures and then begin to think long and hard about whether knee-jerk opposition to things like Medicare block grants or defined-contribution public pensions is such a good idea. The biggest threat to redistribution to the poor is existing redistribution to the old.

To the last sentence, I would add "and redistribution to upper middle class public sector workers."  I am constantly amazed at the Left's drop-dead defense of above-market pay and benefits for public sector workers.  This already reduces funding for things like actual classroom instruction and infrastructure improvements, and almost certainly the looming public pension crisis will reduce resources for an array of programs much loved by the Left.

The second observation relates to a favorite topic of mine, on technocracy:

Often enough I think "you know, we need more scientists in charge of things." Then I remember that the scientists we get are Steven Chu and I think "yeah, maybe not so much."

Then I think about all the abominable committee meetings and discussion sessions I've been in with scientists and I think "perhaps best not to put scientists in charge."

Then I look over at my bookshelf, notice my cope of The Machinery of Freedom, and think "why are we putting anybody in charge at all?"

If this Administration has any one theme, it is a total confidence that a few people imposing solutions and optimizations top-down  is superior to bottom-up or emergent solutions.   Even the recent memo on targeted killings reflects this same philosophy, that one man with a few smart people in the White House can make better life-or-death decisions than all that messy stuff with courts and lawyers.   Those of us who understand our Hayek know that superior top-down decision-making is impossible, given that the decision-makers can never have the information or incentives to make the best decisions for complex systems, and because they tend to impose one single objective function when in fact we are a nation of individuals with 300 million different objective functions.  But the drone war / targeted killing memo demonstrates another problem:  technocrats hate due process.   Due process for them is just time-wasting review by lesser mortals of their decisions.  Just look at how Obama views Congress, or the courts.

Public vs. Private

In a critique of Obama's inaugural address, John Cohen writes:

To suggest that anyone who'd like to see less heavy-handed government regulation thinks one person can do everything alone is a straw-man argument. It indicates a lack of understanding of how the private-sector economy works and how libertarians or conservatives actually think about economics. The private sector isn't just a bunch of people "acting alone." As Matt Welch pointed out in his critique of the speech, making and selling an object as basic as a pencil is such a complex endeavor that it takes lots of different specialists. No one person has the knowledge to accomplish that seemingly simple task; that's how decentralized knowledge is in society. And with a truly complex product, like a computer or movie, the need for people to work together is even greater still. The private sector isn't fundamentally about everyone being secluded and isolated from each other; it typically involves many people working together.

With markets and private enterprise, cooperation occurs voluntarily, for mutual gain.  With government, "cooperation" occurs at the point of a gun, via coercion, generally solely to improve the interests of some third party who has clout with the political class.

Libertarian / OWS Nexus

I continue to be fascinated by the frequent intersection of classical liberals / libertarians and Occupy Wall Street, at least in the diagnosis of what ails us.  This post by Russ Roberts I linked previously is a great example.   Both groups get energized by criticisms of the corporate state and crony government.

Where they diverge, of course, is in solution-making.  The OWS folks see the root cause in the behavior and incentives of private corporations which corrupt government actors with their money, and thus advocate solutions which increase state power over these private entities.  In contrast, libertarians like myself see the problem as too much state power to create winners and losers in the market and shift wealth from one group to another.  Given this power, the financial incentives to harness it in ones favor are overwhelming and will never go away, so the only way to tackle it is to reduce the power to play favorites.

An Analogy I have Made Many Times

I will quote from Don Boudreaux (who was in turn commenting on his own quote of the day, which happened to be from Brink Lindsey, my old college roommate).

In other words, very many people – nearly everyone on the political left, yet plenty also on the political right – remain creationists.  They continue to fail to grasp the nuances, deep meaning, and full implications of the science of spontaneous order that first flowered among scholars in 18th-century Scotland.