Archive for the ‘Capitalism & Libertarian Philospohy’ Category.

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.

Can the Majority Vote to Have A Minority Send Them Money?

Barack Obama argues that the last election gave him a mandate to raise taxes on the rich.  Put another way, he is arguing that 52% of the people voted to raise taxes on 2%.  Did they?

Well, they certainly did something like this in California.  Let's take a look at two propositions:

  • Prop 30, which propose to raise taxes on on the rich to help close the deficit (there was a token 0.25% sales tax increase for cover, but everyone knew it to be a tax on the rich).
  • Prop 39, which was a broad-based income tax increase which raised taxes on most everyone (or at least on the 50% or so who pay income taxes).

So, let's look at the results:

  • Raise taxes on only the very rich:  PASS
  • Raise taxes on everyone (including me):  FAIL

The California election was a crystal clear mandate:  People want more taxes as long as they are on somebody else.  By targeting the richest few percent, we can get a lot of money but make sure the people taxed don't have any hope of fighting the increase, even if they vote as a block.

So I think Obama clearly has a mandate to raise taxes on not-me.  The question is, do we think we have, or do we want, a government where this is possible?  Where majority votes can do anything they wish to minorities?

I should hope not.  I will remind you of a famous quote, from a different context, but entirely relevant:

First they came for the communists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.

Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.

Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.*

 

* there seem to be many variations on this out there, you may have heard other similar versions.

The Wasted Vote Fallacy

Republicans before the election worked to convince Libertarians that a vote for Gary Johnson (or any other third party) was a wasted vote -- that Libertarians needed to be voting against Obama and therefore for Republicans.  Some libertarians have argued that the only way to change the Republican Party is from within.  Libertarians need to join the party and then work to make the party less statist.

I thought this was a crock at the time and think so even more now.  Here is the key thought:  Republicans are not going to change their platform and their candidates and their positions to woo voters they are already getting.  After the election, no one in the Republican leadership was talking about what a mistake it was to run a big government Republican like Romney -- the ex-governor of Massachusetts for God sakes -- who authored the predecessor to Obamacare.  No one was wondering about Gary Johnson as a 2016 candidate.

What the GOP did do is panic at the shellacking they got among Hispanic voters.  The ink was not even dry on the ballots before Republican leadership was considering abandoning their anti-immigrant stance in order to win more Hispanic voters.  I am not sure that will get them Hispanic voters, but whether they are right or not, that is the conversation they were having.  They were asking, "How do we attract voters WE DID NOT GET" -- not, "how do we attract voters we are already getting".

The turn of the century Progressive Party (William Jennings Bryant, free silver, etc) never won a Presidential election but both the Republicans and Democrats co-opted many of their platform positions because they sought to attract voters they were losing to the Progressives.

I don't see how Libertarians can look at a party that has fielded John McCain (author of speech restrictions) and Mitt Romeny (author of the proto-Obamacare) as any sort of long-term home.  Heck, the Republicans more seriously considered Rick Santorum and Donald Trump than Gary Johnson or Ron Paul.  I respect what Mr. Paul has done in bringing libertarian issues to the debate, but as long as he keeps reliably delivering his voters to whatever lame statist candidate the party fields, the GOP is never going to seriously address libertarian concerns.

False Assumption of Statists

Mike Rizzo raises a point that is a common theme here at Coyote Blog.  People often propose a statist solution because they distrust some private actor (e.g. large corporations) and want someone with power over the top of them.  However, to create such a regulatory structure, one has to give even more power to the state's regulator than the corporation has.  At least one has the choice of whether or not to deal with a private entity (unless of course it is a government-enforced monopoly, but that just takes us back to statism).  We give private actors power only to the extent that we choose to transact with them.   When we give government power, there is no longer this sort of opt-out.  Rizzo observes:

Just ask the person a question. “I can respect why you think this. But can you do me a favor? Can you imagine getting your ideal world in place, and then rather than “your guys” being in charge, how would you feel if the person/people running it were people you completely mistrusted, despised and disagreed with? Would you feel good about your system? Why or why not?”

I tell folks all the time - I don't trust private actors any more than the people in government.  What I trust more are their incentives and the tools I have for enforcing accountability on them.

Schizophrenic Trust in the Government

Matt Curran has spot-on comments about the death penalty in a letter to the Tampa Bay Times

Robyn Blumner's column highlighting the wrongful executions of Carlos DeLuna and Cameron Todd Willingham was a very compelling argument against the death penalty. I am a Republican who rarely agrees with Blumner, but in this case she was spot on. While I believe that there are individuals who certainly deserve to lose their lives for the crimes they commit (John Couey comes to mind), I simply do not trust the government to administer such a process fairly or accurately. This is because the government is run by human beings, who like the rest of us are motivated by narrow self-interest and restrained by limited knowledge. Because those in government rarely face the consequences of their decisions, they often make the wrong ones, even if their intent is pure.

What I find puzzling is how Blumner can so effectively articulate these failings of government when it comes to civil liberties in one column, and in the next champion its abilities and competence in economic matters. A criminal trial is a grueling and exacting process that seeks to administer justice in a very narrow, specific instance. If government doesn't deserve our faith in doing that correctly, how can we trust it to control and coordinate the countless decisions that hundreds of millions of Americans make each day in our economic lives?

For more from Matt, his blog is here.

Corporations and People

Those who argue that corporations should not have the same rights as individuals (e.g due process, speech, search and seizure) are essentially arguing that individuals should lose all their rights the moment they start cooperating.  This is a seemingly odd position for the Left to take, given their commitment to group and community action.  The only way to reconcile it is to assume that the Left wants all cooperation to occur only via the state.

Thanks to the U. of Rochester Hamilton [sic] Society

I want to thank Professor Mike Rizzo and members of the University of Rochester Alexander Hamilton [sic] Society for having me up to speak last week.  I had an awesome time touring campus, some quality pub time with some of the students, some really good donuts, and then a speaking engagement followed by literally hours of questions and discussions.  Here are some of us out the next day hiking the waterfront (Professor Rizzo is fourth from the right).  This is at a "lighthouse" which I had expected to be some sexy Maine-type thing but turned out to be a 3-foot wide steel column with a blinking red light on top.  We are on one of the breakwaters at the mouth of the Genessee River as it pours into Lake Ontario.

Professor Rizzo teaches four economics courses, including a couple of the introductory survey courses, and many students go out of their way to take all four, even if they are not even in the department.  The group had an incredible vibe, the kind of student-professor learning group we all thought would be typical of college but most of us seldom actually encountered.  It reminded me of Dead Poet's Society, except with economics rather than poetry and without the suicides.

In addition to being a popular professor, Rizzo also is a vastly outnumbered campus defender of individual liberty and economic sanity.  I can't tell me how many kids told me they had been converted to the cause of free market economics by Professor Rizzo.

Professor Rizzo is also a constant campus gadfly on cost-benefit sensibility.  Featured in an upcoming post will be a U of R solar charging station that was one of Rizzo's favorite targets.  Which brings us to the issue of the group's name and why I keep writing [sic].  Apparently creating a new campus organization and 501c3 was way too costly, so they just piggy-backed on an existing group, despite the incongruity of the "Alexander Hamilton" name on a group generally dedicated to exploring small government.

I seem to be having some odd problem subscribing to his feed in Google Reader (all I get is Viagra Spam) but his blog is here:  The Unbroken Window.  Update:  I could never get his feed to work for me so I burned a new one on my feedburner account.  http://feeds.feedburner.com/UnbrokenWindow

Danger of the Mono-Culture

The problem with the media is not outright bias, but an intellectual mono-culture that fails to exercise the most basic skepticism when stories fit their narrative.

By the way, I find it likely that there are factories in China making products with household names for western markets that have practices from wildly unsafe to outright slavery that deserve shaming and boycotts, as a minimum, when discovered.

But I often find the discourse around "sweatshops" to be colored by weterners' middle class notions of what our own personal alternatives are.  "I would never work for a $1 a day..."  Sure, but your alternative is not 15 hours a day in a rice paddy with the constant threat of outright death and starvation for your entire family if one years' crops fail.

Regulation By Market

Best Buy is apparently increasing its customer return window from 14 days to 30 days.

Why?  This certainly costs them money, not just from lost revenue but from the cost of restocking and returning to the manufacture (not to mention fraud).

Are they doing this because they are good guys?  Hah.  Do you really expect goodwill out of an electronic retailer?

They did it because they felt they had to.  As the top dog in dedicated electronics stores, they are constantly under competitive assault.  They are the reference point competitors start from.  Wal-mart attacks them on price.  Amazon.com attacks them on price and convenience.  Smaller retailers attack them on knowledge and integration services.  Everyone attacks them on the niche details like return policies.

Best Buy did this not because they wanted to, but because they felt they had to under competitive pressure.  The accountability enforced by the market works faster, on more relevant variables, and far more powerfully than government regulation.

When the government does regulate variables such as this, such regulation often actually blunts the full accountability of the market.  Retail laws in many European countries set maximum hours and discount levels, protecting large retailers like Best Buy from upstarts trying to provide a better of different service.

Money Does Not Corrupt Politics, State Power Corrupts Politics

Kevin Drum asks whether money corrupts politics, and comes to the conclusion that it does.  I disagree.

Money does not corrupt politics, the expansion of state power corrupts politics.  Every time the state gains a new power to take money from person A and give it to person B, or to throttle company A's business in favor of company B, private individuals start to scheme how they might access that power to their own benefit.

Think back to the much smaller US government of the 19th century.  Don't you long for the day when political corruption mainly meant packing the Post Office with one's kin?  It is absolutely no coincidence that the largest political scandal of that century (the Crédit Mobilier) accompanied the largest expansion of Federal power in that century (the Federally-funded construction of the Transcontinental Railroad).

Political corruption follows the power.  Sure, this power is often bought in dollars, but if we were to entirely ban money from the political process, the corruptions would remain.  And it would shift payment from money to other goods, like quid pro quo's, barter, and access to grass roots labor supplies.  Anyone remember machine politics?

Here is an example from an Administration schooled from an early age in Chicago machine politics

The Heritage Foundation has issued a new report that charges the Obama administration sent presidential earmarks, taxpayer dollars, to Democratic lawmakers to help convince them to vote for controversial proposals such as cap and trade and the health care bill.

“When you examine the recipients of those grants, there were at least 32 vulnerable house Democrats who received significant federal grant money during the run-up or directly after the votes on those pieces of legislation,” says Lachlan Markay, one of the authors of the report.

The amount of earmarks spiked around the time of difficult votes such as cap and trade, then dropped, only to spike again around controversial financial regulations known as Dodd/Frank, and spiked the most just before the vote on the health care bill....

On their websites, lawmakers didn’t advertise their votes, but did tout at length the money they’d gotten for various local projects.

“As a way to counteract the negative voter sentiment that would come from voting for unpopular legislation,” says Markay. “These were attempts to make sure that constituents knew they were bringing money home to their district.”...

Numbers from the non-partisan Congressional Research Service show that the value of administration earmarks under President Obama increased by a 126 percent in his first two years in office and the actual number of administrative earmarks increased by 54 percent.

Those are dramatic increases that are 11 times more than Congress itself increased earmarks, which the White House did not explain today.

By the way, of all the ways that access to political power can be bought, political spending under our current rules is by far the most transparent.   Just as in narcotics or prostitution, a ban wouldn't eliminate it, it would simply drive it further underground and into other forms of currency.

Keep Your Law Off My Body, err, or Maybe Not

Massachusetts liberals up the penalties for women (and men) using their bodies in ways the government does not like.   Proving once again that the women's groups' motto, "keep your laws off my body," was in fact a fake libertarianism, aimed at exactly one thing -- abortion -- and nothing else.  Those on the Left who mouthed this slogan seem to be A-OK with regulating consensual sex, salt and soda pop consumption, access to medical procedures, health care choices, etc.

Also, this seems to be yet another law that purports to promote women's rights by treating them like they are ignorant rubes unable to make the smallest decisions for themselves.  The implicit assumption in the law is that all prostitutes are in the profession solely due to male compulsion.  This is consistent with a certain philosophy among feminists that all behaviors of women with which they don't agree are not due to a normal excercise of free will by people who simply have different preferences, but are due to some sort of enslavement by the patrimony.

But one high-priced online hooker said she’s no victim — and she doesn’t know any women who are.

“If you are an escort, you go into it of your own free will,” she said. “Absolutely no one is forced into doing this. You don’t have to be affiliated with any agency. I’m not forced to do anything I don’t want.”

What’s more, the new law’s focus on johns, she said, will hurt her lucrative-though-lawless trade.

“If that’s the law that’s been written, then yes, it’s going to impact business,” she said when read the new penalties.

There is no doubt that some women get into situations where they are abused or forced into work or have a large portion of their earnings taken.  But this tends to be a result of the profession being underground, giving women no legal recourse when they are abused and defrauded.  If one really is worried about women's working conditions, the best thing to do is legalize prostitution, instantly giving them access to the legal system to redress wrongs.

Chinese Declaration of Independence

This is a story I don't know enough about

Farmers from 18 households in Xiaogang signed a secret life-and-death agreement ending collective farming with their thumbprints. (From Cowen and Tabarrok, Modern Principles: Macroeconomics)

The Great Leap Forward was a great leap backward – agricultural land was less productive in 1978 than it had been in 1949 when the communists took over.  In 1978, however, farmers in the village of Xiaogang held a secret meeting.  The farmers agreed to divide the communal land and assign it to individuals – each farmer had to produce a quota for the government but anything he or she produced in excess of the quota they would keep.  The agreement violated government policy and as a result the farmers also pledged that if any of them were to be killed or jailed the others would raise his or her children until the age of 18. [The actual agreement is shown at right.]

The change from collective property rights to something closer to private property rights had an immediate effect, investment, work effort and productivity increased.  “You can’t be lazy when you work for your family and yourself,” said one of the farmers.

Word of the secret agreement leaked out and local bureaucrats cut off Xiaogang from fertilizer, seeds and pesticides.  But amazingly, before Xiaogang could be stopped, farmers in other villages also began to abandon collective property. In Beijing, Mao Zedong was dead and a new set of rulers, seeing the productivity improvements, decided to let the experiment proceed.

I Wonder

We would all like to think we would bravely stand up for what we believe in against any tyranny, but I wonder.  It takes a lot of guts not to just go along, especially when your life is on the line.  This man, refusing to give the Nazi salute, apparently died in captivity or was killed in 1944.