Posts tagged ‘Rome’

Teaching Company Sale

I have bought numerous audio and video Teaching Company courses and have never been disappointed.  Until tomorrow they are having a 70% off sale on many of their courses.

A few I have heard and would recommend:

History of the US

History of London

Big History

American Civil War

Chinese History

Modern Western Civ (I am doing this one now)

Early Middle Ages (one of three by same professor on the Middle Ages.  All three are awesome)  here is late Middle Ages

History of Ancient Rome (not rated as well on this site but this is probably my favorite)

World War I

World War II

I am kind of amazed how long the list is, but I have actually listened to several others I would not recommend or that are not on sale.

Update: Use coupon code VFRC to get an additional $20 if you spend over $50.  By the way, I don't get any commissions.  I just believe in the product.

Government Rebates for Superbowl Tickets

Vermont Tiger raises a great point about the Volt:  (ht Maggies Farm)

The Volt comes with a manufacturer's suggested retail price of $40,280 and a rebate from Uncle Sam of $7500. GM only plans to make 10,000 Volts this year; and there aren't enough of them to go around. So, naturally, dealers are marking them up – some by much more than the retail amount. One Florida dealer is asking $65,590 (see Motor Trend for details). You might be able to get one on eBay for around $48,000 – after rebate that gets you right back to list price. Hmmm….

No car dealer or manufacturer would offer a rebate on a product that is in backorder status for the foreseeable future. But that's exactly what your government is doing. Even if you believe that there is a compelling reason for the government to want us all to shift to partially electric cars, it's clear that no incentive is required to sell all 10,000 cars available this year since people are buying them at markups which counteract the incentive. In this case the rebate dollars go to dealer margin. Note deficit cutting opportunity.

$75,000,000 down the drain to subsidize upper-middle-class people who want to make a statement about themselves.  Yet another public investment in the self-esteem of the wealthy and our rulers.  In ancient Rome they built coliseums.  In the middle ages they built cathedrals.   In communist countries they built giant statues of their leaders and tractor plants.  Today we subsidize quasi-electric cars and windmills.  None of it makes much sense as way to spend the average person's money, but it makes the elite feel really, really good about themselves.  One wonders what the cumulative historic bill has been for ego maintenance of our rulers.

I Just Paid $25 (a person!) to See A Movie

We tried out the new IPic theater yesterday.  They are shooting at a super-premium niche, and we went for the top package.  For our money we got free valet parking, free popcorn, and an unbelievable luxury recliner seat as nice and roomy and comfortable as anything in your house.  Waiters brought food and drinks (including cocktails) to our seats, and my wife got a nice pillow and blanket.   Not sure I am taking the kids to the smurf movie (yes, there is one coming) at this place, but it was a great date night with the wife, and in the current economy had a sort of Fiddling While Rome Burned kind of vibe to it.

The New Pharaohs: Confusing Triumphalism and State Coercion With Progress

My new Forbes column is up, and it discusses an article by Michael Malone that said in part:

The recent quick fade of the Deficit Commission was the latest reminder that America no longer seems to have the stomach for big challenges.  There was a time "“ was it just a generation ago? "“ when Americans were legendary for doing vast, seemingly superhuman, projects:  the Interstate Highway System, the Apollo Missions, Hoover Dam, the Manhattan Project, the Normandy invasion, the Empire State Building, Social Security.

What happened?  Today we look at these achievements, much as Dark Age peasants looked on the mighty works of the Roman Era, feeling like some golden age has passed when giants walked the Earth.

My response includes the following:

The list he offers is a telling one "” all except the Empire State Building were government programs, just as were the "mighty works" of the ancient Romans.  And just like the Romans, these and other government projects have more to do with triumphalism than they do with adding real value.

It is interesting he should mention the Romans.  There were few grand buildings during the centuries when Rome was a republic.  Only in the later Imperial period, when Rome became an autarky, did rulers begin to build the monumental structures that Malone admires.  Emperors taxed their subjects and marshaled millions of slaves to build temples and great columns and triumphal arches and colosseums to celebrate"¦ themselves.  Twentieth Century politicians have done the same, putting their names on dams and bridges and airports and highways and buildings.  They still build coleseums too, though today they cost over a billion dollars and have retractable roofs.  Are these, as Malone suggests, monuments to the audacity of the greatest generation, or just to the ego of politicians?...

This is the same concern that drives Thomas Friedman to extol the virtues of the Chinese government, where a few men there can point their fingers and make billions of dollars flow from their citizens to the projects of their choice.  This is a nostalgia for coercion and government power, for Lincoln imposing martial law, for FDR threatening to pack the Supreme Court, for the Pharaohs getting those pyramids built.  It is a call for dis-empowerment of the masses, for re-concentrating power in a few smart visionary folks, presumably including Mr.  Malone.

Sideways Protectionism

Apparently, legislators in California can't get away with just passing a law that says something like "no damn foreigners can build trains for us."  So they repackage their protectionism by finding a way to disguise it, in this case with a truly screwball piece of fiddling-while-Rome-burns legislation:

A bill authored by Assemblymember Bob Blumenfield (D "“ San Fernando Valley) requiring companies seeking contracts to build California's High Speed Rail system to disclose their involvement in deportations to concentration camps during World War II gained final approval from the state legislature today. AB 619, the Holocaust Survivor Responsibility Act, passed the Assembly on a vote of 50 "“ 7 and was sent to the governor, who will have until September 30 to act on it.AB 619 would require companies seeking to be awarded high speed rail contracts to publicly disclose whether they had a direct role in transporting persons to concentration camps, and provide a description of any remedial action or restitution they have made to survivors, or families of victims. The bill requires the High Speed Rail Authority to include a company's disclosure as part of the contract award process.

Apparently they have in mind specifically the SNCF, the French national railroad.  Its loony enough to blame current corporate management and ownership for something the entity did three generations ago, but the supposed crimes of the SNCF occurred when France was occupied by the Nazis.   Its like criticizing the actions of a hostage.  And even if there were some willing collaborationists, they almost certainly were punished by the French after liberation, and besides the US Army Air Force did its level best to bomb the SNCF's infrastructure back into the stone age, so I am certainly willing to call it quits.

This Argument Works for a Libertarian...

I think this kind of argument might work for a libertarian, but I am not sure it is a very strong argument for a liberal Democrat that wants to do more rather than less of what Congress and the GWB administration did over the last 8 years to worsen the recession.

Personally, though, I'd say Obama has been remarkably restrained about the whole thing, especially when it comes to our disastrous fiscal situation.  In a mere eight years, George Bush and the Republican Party managed to take a thriving economy and a federal surplus and turn it into a hair's breadth escape from Great Depression II and an endless fiscal sinkhole.  Rome may not have been built in a day, but it didn't take much longer than that for the modern Republican Party to bankrupt America.

Particularly hilarious is that Drum blames the cost of the useless but expensive stimulus bill on GWB.  Huh?  And blaming Republicans for Fannie and Freddie is a real joke.

As you might imagine, the deficit in his world is all from tax cuts and not above-inflation increases in spending.  The basic picture he shows is absurd - money is fungible, so any trillion dollars of the government spending could be blamed for the deficit - it just depends on what spending you consider incremental.  Stupid analysis.  Though it is interesting that at least two of the major drivers even by their slanted analysis - Bush tax cuts and Afghanistan - are policy issues Obama was presented with opportunities to reverse and chose not to.

Hard To Believe For Anyone Who Trusted The Media in the 1970s

The media in the 1970's was filled with Club-of-Rome, the world is over-populated and running out of everything, Paul Ehrlich Population Bomb, end of the world stuff.  We know they were wrong on resources and pollution, but it turns out they were wrong on population too.  Again, the power of growth and wealth:

"When people got richer, families got smaller; and as families got smaller, people got richer. Now, something similar is happening in developing countries. Fertility is falling and families are shrinking in places"” such as Brazil, Indonesia, and even parts of India"”that people think of as teeming with children. As our briefing shows, the fertility rate of half the world is now 2.1 or less"”the magic number that is consistent with a stable population and is usually called "˜the replacement rate of fertility'. Sometime between 2020 and 2050 the world's fertility rate will fall below the global replacement rate."

So Rich People Don't Count?

I generally like the work that Factcheck.org does, and am perfectly willing to believe that McCain's claim that Obama has voted "for higher taxes" 94 times is exaggerated.  However, some of their rationale leaves me flat:

Twenty-three [votes] were for measures that would have produced no tax increase at all; they were against proposed tax cuts.

Uh, OK.  It strikes me that voting against 23 tax cuts is voting for higher taxes 23 times.  I know that politicians work very hard to establish a sort of taxation Stare Decisis, wherein once a tax is in place it can never be questioned, but many of us think that tax cuts are fair game.  But then Newsweek, in reporting this story, goes on to repeat this claim over and over, as if that makes it correct:

By our count, about a quarter of these votes for "higher taxes" "“ 23 to
be exact "“ are votes Obama cast against changing tax rates from what
they were at the time. Taxes would not have gone up. They would have
been "higher" only compared to the cuts being proposed.

Sorry, but this does not sound like independent fact-checking.  This sounds like political spin and hackery by folks in Obama's camp.  Voting against a tax cut is a vote for higher taxes.

Eleven votes the GOP
is counting would have increased taxes on those making more than $1
million a year "“ in order to fund programs such as Head Start and
school nutrition programs, or veterans' health care.

The implication here, I guess, is that the rich people don't count as people, and that raising taxes only on the rich does not count as a tax increase?  We see this same bias that rich people don't count in their summary:

It's true that most of the votes the GOP counts would either have
increased taxes for some, or set budget targets calling for such
increases. But by repeating their inflated 94-vote figure, McCain and
the GOP falsely imply that Obama has pushed indiscriminately to raise
taxes for nearly everybody. A closer look reveals that he's voted
consistently to restore higher tax rates on upper-income taxpayers but
not on middle- or low-income workers.

The other interesting pice of the previous quote is that tax increases don't count if they fund programs such as Head Start that the author of the study, presumably, supports.  The article goes on to say:

And in many cases, the legislation in question called for increasing
taxes in order to fund popular programs, a fact not mentioned by the
Republican opposition researchers. One such amendment
by Sen. Christopher Dodd to a 2006 bill, for example, proposed the
creation of a "veterans hospital improvement fund," financed by
increasing the capital gains and dividend tax rates on those earning $1
million a year or more.

You get it?  Its not a tax if it is on the rich or funds a liberal program.  By the way, I find this increasing reliance on taxes on people making $1 million or more an enormous threat to the very basis of our demacracy.  It is always a danger in democracy to have 51% of the people vote themselves benefits at the expense of the other 49%.  But this becomes increasingly seductive as the numbers skew, until every politician is crafting programs that take from the top 1% and give to politically influential portions of the other 99%.  Here is a great example of that in California, with a program the majority of voters were not willing to pay for, but accepted when it was funded by a millionaire's surcharge:

Already, we see many states funding new programs with surcharges on the rich.  Here is but one example:

California voters agreed to tax the rich to support public mental health
services. 

More than half of them (53.3 percent) voted last month in favor of
Proposition 63, which will impose a tax surcharge of 1 percent on the taxable
personal income above $1 million to pay for services offered through the
state's existing mental health system. The initiative will generate an
estimated $700 million a year....

Richard A. Shadoan, M.D., a past president of the CPA, wrote in Viewpoints
in the September 3 issue of Psychiatric News, "The scope of the
program and its tax-the-rich source will provoke a debate. But it's an
argument worth having to make California face the neglect of not providing
treatment to more than 1 million people with mental illness."

So
what happened?  I don't know how many people make a million dollars in
California, but it is certainly less than 5% of the population.  So the
headline should read "53.3% of people voted to have less than 5% of the
people pay for an expensive new program."  If the 53.3% thought it was
so valuable, why didn't they pay for it?  Well, it is clear from the
article that the populace in general has been asked to do so in the
past and refused.  So only when offered the chance to approve the
program if a small minority paid for it did they finally agree.  This is the real reason for progressive taxation.  (by the way, these 53.3% will now feel really good about themselves,
despite the fact they will contribute nothing, and will likely piss on
millionaires next chance they get, despite the fact that they are the
ones who will pay for the program).

That example reminded me in turn of this story from history, one of what I call "great moments in progressive taxation,"  and the ultimate logical end of this desire to have fewer and fewer rich people fund services for everyone:

My story today comes from the Roman Empire just after the death of
Julius Caesar.   At the time, three groups vied for power:  Octavian
(Augustus) Caesar, Mark Antony, and republican senators under Brutus
and Cassius.   Long story short, Octavian and Antony join forces, and
try to raise an army to fight the republicans, who have fled Italy.
They needed money, but worried that a general tax would turn shaky
public opinion in Rome against them.  So they settled on the ultimate
progressive tax:  They named about 2500 rich men and ordered them
killed, with their estates confiscated by the state. 

This approach of "proscriptions" had been used before (e.g. Sulla)
but never quite as obviously just for the money.  In the case of
Octavian and Antony, though nominally sold to the public as a way to
eliminate enemies of Rome, the purpose was very clearly to raise
money.  All of their really dangerous foes had left Rome with the
Republicans.  The proscriptions targeted men of wealth, some of whom
had been irritants to Octavian or Antony in the past (e.g. Cicero) but
many of whom had nothing to do with anything.  Proscribed men were
quoted as saying "I have been killed by my estates."

I wonder how many of today's progressives would be secretly pleased by this approach?

Postscript:  I can't tell if this Newsweek article represents some sort of strategic alliance or deal with Newsweek, or just a one-off.  If it is some kind of alliance, I think we can write off any notion that Factcheck.org is still non-partisan.  I predict if this is the case we will see more pro-Obama spin out of Factcheck, or as a minimum, a cherry-picking by Newsweek of which checked facts it wants to publish and which it does not.

Historical Revisionism

I think regular readers know that I am not one to see Islamic terrorists hiding under every rock.  In fact, I am not sure I have written a single post on the current state of Islam or ties to terrorism.  I don't see the world primarily in terms of some great culture war with Islam.  Certainly a number of fundamentalist Islamic states suck in terms of human rights, and some of that is probably due to ties with Islam, but many other states suck nearly as much without any Muslim help.

That being said, I must say as someone interested in history that this argument from Dr. Mahmoud Mustafa Ayoub of Berkeley, as reported from the Canadian human rights tribunal by Andrew Coyne, strains credulity:

What is jihad? Article equates it with Al Qaeda: fighting,
suicide bombing etc. But word actually means, originally, "to strive,
to do one's best." Koranic sense is that religious struggle we must all
engage in within our souls against evil tendencies. There is also
"social jihad," the obligation to change things that are wrong. This does not mean violence. The Koran is not a book of violence.

The notion of armed struggle, or violent jihad, is
mentioned in the Koran. "Permission has been given to those who have
been wronged only because they say God is our lord that they fight in
self-defence." (Sura 22.) So jihad is not limited to fighting "” it's just one type of jihad,
and should only be done in self-defence. The extremist, violent types
are an anomaly. "They are more a problem for us than for the west."

I have no problem with modern folks interpreting the Koran in this way for themselves.  But this is absurd from a historical context.  This portrayal of jihad as a sort of peaceful civil rights movement may be how moderate Muslims want to make the Koran relevant to their modern life, but it is outrageous in the historic context of if the 7th century.  People of all faiths in this era didn't have sit-ins to correct social wrongs -- they gathered up their friends and some swords and went out to try to chop up the folks who did them wrong.  Muhammad was a brilliant military leader, uniting disparate Arab tribes out of nowhere to carve out a huge part of the western world as their empire.  His (and his successors') achievement is roughly equivalent to an unknown set of tribes suddenly bursting out of the Amazon and taking over modern North America.

The concept of jihad as originally applied in the 7th and 8th centuries was bloody and militaristic -- and effective.  So much so that the Catholics copied many of the key parts for their crusades.  The 7th century was a totally different world in its outlook and assumptions.  Here is one example:  We have heard many times of the slave revolts in Rome, and most of us have seen Spartacus.  But not a single person in the 1000 years of the Roman empire, slave or not, is recorded to have ever advocated the elimination of slavery.  They may have wanted to be free themselves, or treated better, but everyone accepted the institution of slavery even while trying not to be a slave themselves.  We, with our 19th century anti-slavery movement, see the slave revolts of Rome as something they simply were not.  I believe a similar revisionism is at work here on jihad.

All that being said, I have no opinion on whether or not the militaristic concept of jihad animates any substantial number of modern Muslims or not.  I simply am not well enough informed, and currently find it hard to find any text discussing this issue that is trustworthy on either side.

Postscript:  It is true that the Muslims showed special respect in their lands to Jews and Christians  - in part for religious reasons and in part for practical reasons related to special taxes.  The Spain of three religions under Muslim rule was certainly more dynamic and tolerant than the counter-reformation Catholic Spain.  But this fact does not obviate the militaristic origins of jihad.  Islam respected Christians and Jews .... in the lands where the Muslims had taken over and ruled. Where Muslims did not yet rule but wanted to, all bets were off.

Great Moments in Progressive Taxation

Many government programs have both a stated justification as well as a second, unstated justification which is the real reason that politicians support the program.  For example, many regulations are portrayed as pro-consumer when in fact their real utility is in protecting a favored company or political donor from new competition.

The same is true for progressive taxation.  The public logic is usually about the rich paying a "fair share" or reducing income inequality (by cutting down the oaks to give the maples more sunshine).  However, progressive taxation pays rich dividends to politicians looking to increase the size of government and their own personal power.  Some time in the last 10 years, we crossed an invisible line where less than half of American families pay for effectively all government programs (leaving aside Social Security). 

This means that when any politician stands up and proposes a new program, a majority of Americans know that they are not going to pay for it.  In fact, the situation is even more obvious when you consider new programs at the margin.  If you listen to the Democratic debates, nearly every candidate is proposing to pay for his or her expensive programs via new taxes aimed solely at the top 10 or 20% of earners.  Every time they propose a program, there is an unstated but increasing clear clause "and 80% of you won't have to pay anything for this."  Already, we see many states funding new programs with surcharges on the rich.  Here is but one example:

California voters agreed to tax the rich to support public mental health
services. 

More than half of them (53.3 percent) voted last month in favor of
Proposition 63, which will impose a tax surcharge of 1 percent on the taxable
personal income above $1 million to pay for services offered through the
state's existing mental health system. The initiative will generate an
estimated $700 million a year....

Richard A. Shadoan, M.D., a past president of the CPA, wrote in Viewpoints
in the September 3 issue of Psychiatric News, "The scope of the
program and its tax-the-rich source will provoke a debate. But it's an
argument worth having to make California face the neglect of not providing
treatment to more than 1 million people with mental illness."

So what happened?  I don't know how many people make a million dollars in California, but it is certainly less than 5% of the population.  So the headline should read "53.3% of people voted to have less than 5% of the people pay for an expensive new program."  If the 53.3% thought it was so valuable, why didn't they pay for it?  Well, it is clear from the article that the populace in general has been asked to do so in the past and refused.  So only when offered the chance to approve the program if a small minority paid for it did they finally agree.  This is the real reason for progressive taxation.  (by the way, these 53.3% will now feel really good about themselves, despite the fact they will contribute nothing, and will likely piss on millionaires next chance they get, despite the fact that they are the ones who will pay for the program).

Ultimate Example of Progressive Taxation

My story today comes from the Roman Empire just after the death of Julius Caesar.   At the time, three groups vied for power:  Octavian (Augustus) Caesar, Mark Antony, and republican senators under Brutus and Cassius.   Long story short, Octavian and Antony join forces, and try to raise an army to fight the republicans, who have fled Italy.  They needed money, but worried that a general tax would turn shaky public opinion in Rome against them.  So they settled on the ultimate progressive tax:  They named about 2500 rich men and ordered them killed, with their estates confiscated by the state. 

This approach of "proscriptions" had been used before (e.g. Sulla) but never quite as obviously just for the money.  In the case of Octavian and Antony, though nominally sold to the public as a way to eliminate enemies of Rome, the purpose was very clearly to raise money.  All of their really dangerous foes had left Rome with the Republicans.  The proscriptions targeted men of wealth, some of whom had been irritants to Octavian or Antony in the past (e.g. Cicero) but many of whom had nothing to do with anything.  Proscribed men were quoted as saying "I have been killed by my estates."

I wonder how many of today's progressives would be secretly pleased by this approach?

Great Moments in Progressive Taxation

Many government programs have both a stated justification as well as a second, unstated justification which is the real reason that politicians support the program.  For example, many regulations are portrayed as pro-consumer when in fact their real utility is in protecting a favored company or political donor from new competition.

The same is true for progressive taxation.  The public logic is usually about the rich paying a "fair share" or reducing income inequality (by cutting down the oaks to give the maples more sunshine).  However, progressive taxation pays rich dividends to politicians looking to increase the size of government and their own personal power.  Some time in the last 10 years, we crossed an invisible line where less than half of American families pay for effectively all government programs (leaving aside Social Security). 

This means that when any politician stands up and proposes a new program, a majority of Americans know that they are not going to pay for it.  In fact, the situation is even more obvious when you consider new programs at the margin.  If you listen to the Democratic debates, nearly every candidate is proposing to pay for his or her expensive programs via new taxes aimed solely at the top 10 or 20% of earners.  Every time they propose a program, there is an unstated but increasing clear clause "and 80% of you won't have to pay anything for this."  Already, we see many states funding new programs with surcharges on the rich.  Here is but one example:

California voters agreed to tax the rich to support public mental health
services. 

More than half of them (53.3 percent) voted last month in favor of
Proposition 63, which will impose a tax surcharge of 1 percent on the taxable
personal income above $1 million to pay for services offered through the
state's existing mental health system. The initiative will generate an
estimated $700 million a year....

Richard A. Shadoan, M.D., a past president of the CPA, wrote in Viewpoints
in the September 3 issue of Psychiatric News, "The scope of the
program and its tax-the-rich source will provoke a debate. But it's an
argument worth having to make California face the neglect of not providing
treatment to more than 1 million people with mental illness."

So what happened?  I don't know how many people make a million dollars in California, but it is certainly less than 5% of the population.  So the headline should read "53.3% of people voted to have less than 5% of the people pay for an expensive new program."  If the 53.3% thought it was so valuable, why didn't they pay for it?  Well, it is clear from the article that the populace in general has been asked to do so in the past and refused.  So only when offered the chance to approve the program if a small minority paid for it did they finally agree.  This is the real reason for progressive taxation.  (by the way, these 53.3% will now feel really good about themselves, despite the fact they will contribute nothing, and will likely piss on millionaires next chance they get, despite the fact that they are the ones who will pay for the program).

Ultimate Example of Progressive Taxation

My story today comes from the Roman Empire just after the death of Julius Caesar.   At the time, three groups vied for power:  Octavian (Augustus) Caesar, Mark Antony, and republican senators under Brutus and Cassius.   Long story short, Octavian and Antony join forces, and try to raise an army to fight the republicans, who have fled Italy.  They needed money, but worried that a general tax would turn shaky public opinion in Rome against them.  So they settled on the ultimate progressive tax:  They named about 2500 rich men and ordered them killed, with their estates confiscated by the state. 

This approach of "proscriptions" had been used before (e.g. Sulla) but never quite as obviously just for the money.  In the case of Octavian and Antony, though nominally sold to the public as a way to eliminate enemies of Rome, the purpose was very clearly to raise money.  All of their really dangerous foes had left Rome with the Republicans.  The proscriptions targeted men of wealth, some of whom had been irritants to Octavian or Antony in the past (e.g. Cicero) but many of whom had nothing to do with anything.  Proscribed men were quoted as saying "I have been killed by my estates."

I wonder how many of today's progressives would be secretly pleased by this approach?

Great Moments in Egalitarianism

Somewhere around 20BC in the Roman Empire, the emperor Augustus Caesar wanted to to promote a bit of egalitarianism in Rome, and hoped to curb some of the conspicuous consumption of the rich.  It turned out that the most conspicuous display of wealth was the freeing of slaves, usually in one's will.  Slaves were quite valuable, and freeing a large lot of them on one's death was considered a great way to flaunt how rich one had been in life.

So, in the name of egalitarianism, Augustus set strict limits on the number of slaves that could be freed at any one time.  Thus slavery was maintained in the name of egalitarianism.

Academic Arguments for the Imperial Presidency

Well, this, from Opinio Juris, certainly got my blood moving this morning:

The first part of Posner and Vermeule's book offers a forceful
theoretical defense of executive authority during times of emergency.
The book offers a thoughtful and well-reasoned perspective on the
cost-benefit analysis at play when government seeks the optimal balance
between the competing goods of security and liberty. Posner and
Vermeule argue that there is a Pareto security-liberty frontier at
which no win-win improvements are possible. That is, at this frontier
any increase in security will require a decrease in liberty, and
vice-versa. From my perspective, the existence of this security-liberty
frontier appears unassailable.

Given this frontier, Posner and Vermeule then offer their central
argument of institutional competence. They argue that there are few or
no domains in which it is true both that government choices about
emergency policies are not accurate (on average) and
that judicial review can make things better. They further argue that
civil libertarians who subscribe to vigorous judicial review in times
of emergency fail to identify a large and important set of cases in
which government blunders or acts opportunistically during emergencies and in which judges can improve matters

I haven't read the book, and am only just getting through the symposium they are holding.  My first, primal reaction is YUK!  Here are a couple of random thoughts:

  • I don't know if the last statement in the second paragraph is true -- I suspect it is not, or at least is subject to "improve matters" being interpreted differently by each individual.  However, it strikes me that even if the statement is true, checks and reviews by other branches of government still circumscribe executive excesses by their threat.  And the act and/or the threat of review leads to open political debate that can redirect executive actions.  Even GWB, who has pushed the theory of executive powers to new levels, can arguably be said to have modified his management of the Iraq war in response to Congressional scrutiny, even without explicit legislation being passed. 
  • The incentive system in government is for the government and its employees to grab new powers over the populace.  Anything that slows down that process, even in a "Crisis" is a good thing
  • If they want to argue that the Congress is useless as a check because in times of crisis they just become the president's bitch, I can't argue with you.  Just look at how the Democratic majority actions on Patriot Act rollbacks (none) or FISA enforcement (they actually retroactively gave Bush the power he wanted).  But this does not mean we should give up hoping they will try.
  • Government officials love it when they can act with enhanced power and decreased accountability.  If we institutionalize an imperial presidency in times of "crisis" and then give the President the power to declare a "crisis", then you can bet we will always be in a crisis.   Even if checks and balances don't tend to improve civil liberties decision-making in times of crisis, they at least help us get out of the crisis and declare normality again.  Otherwise we would never go back.

The real problem is that a government full of lifetime government employees is never, ever going to make the right choice on the security-freedom curve.  Really, by security, we mean government intrusion, so you can think of this as the government power vs. individual power curve.  And lifetime government employees are always going to choose for more power for themselves.  The problem is not who in government should fix our point on this curve, the problem is that anyone in the government is allowed to fix this point. 

That was what the Constitution was supposed to be for -- an act of the people fixing this point for the government.  The founding fathers were well aware of republics that had processes for slipping into dictatorship in times of war.  Rome was a good example, and eventually demonstrated what happened in this system -- the crisis never went away and you got a dictator all the time with no republic.  The founders explicitly did not write such a capacity for the president into the Constitution.  And it should stay that way.

Hopefully I will have more coherent thoughts after having read more of their work.

Update:  This comes to mind, for example

A recent interview with
Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, suggests that
the administration also feels duty-bound to withhold information when
it might be useful to critics who oppose President Bush's
anti-terrorism policies, since those policies are necessary to protect
national security. But the very same information can"”indeed, should"”be
released at a more opportune time, when it will help the president
pursue his policies....

And then further, to the issue of eavesdropping international calls:

It's
pretty clear McConnell's real concern is that debating this issue
endangers national security because it threatens to prevent the
president from doing whatever he thinks is necessary to fight
terrorism. Hence Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on
Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, is not at
all exaggerating when he observes, "He's basically saying that
democracy is going to kill Americans." And not just democracy, but
constitutional government of any kind, since anything that interferes
with the president's unilateral decisions with respect to national
security (which is whatever he says it is) is going to kill Americans
too.

Avoiding Bad Precedents

I just finished a course on the history of Rome.  The most fascinating era was the Roman revolution, where over about 100 years Rome slid from a Republic to an autocracy.  The final phases of the era, with the Caesars, gets a lot of play in movies and such, but it is actually the early period I found the most interesting.  In effect, Caesar or someone like him was effectively inevitable by that point in time.  The chance to avoid such an outcome actually came a hundred years earlier.

I won't get into the whole history, but suffice it to say that there was a major difference in the Republic between the theoretical power of certain offices and the actual power.  In effect, certain offices could theoretically take some pretty radical actions, but they were circumscribed by tradition and precedent.  However, when these precedents were broken (interestingly by a man who felt he was doing it for a good cause) restraints were removed and politics tended to devolve.

A while back, I wrote a post saying that I would love to see impeachment hearings in the Senate, because it would prevent the Senate from getting anything else done and it would be enormously entertaining. 

I take it back.  Having thought some more about it, I now think that it would be a really bad idea.   Impeachment has always been a power that could be used any time, but was not because the Congress generally recognized that restraint was in order.  The impeachment of Clinton broke with this tradition.  Yes, I know, he lied under oath.  Fine, yank his law license after he leaves office.  Yes, it probably was technically an impeachable offense.  But it falls way, way short of the line that historic precedent has set for when impeachment is appropriate.  And by greatly lowering this line, the Republican Congress took the huge risk of opening the floodgates to impeachment hearings virtually every time the President and Congressional majorities were from opposite parties.

I really would like to see the Democrats exercise restraint here.  I know many libertarians disagree with me, and would love nothing more than to see more frequent impeachments and recalls;  unfortunately, I just don't think that solves the libertarian problem of reducing the power and scope of government.

I don't want to misinterpret Kevin Drum, but he seems to be making a similar plea.  To M.J. Rosenburg, who argues:

The Constitutional remedy of impeachment is no longer
what it once was. For better or worse, the Republicans changed it, for
all time, when they impeached Clinton over, essentially, nothing.

And Clinton changed it as well. Impeachment not only did not end his
Presidency; it did not hurt his standing with the public. His numbers
stayed high, even improved some, and he left office on schedule, a very
popular President.

In other words, impeachment is no longer the political nuclear bomb
it once was, especially if one knows in advance that conviction and
removal from office is unlikely to occur.

Accordingly, impeachment proceedings are essentially the best means
of getting information to the public which is otherwise unavailable.

To this Drum says:

Impeachment should become a routine tool for getting public attention
whenever we disagree with a president of the opposite party? This might
be the worst argument in favor of impeachment of all time.

I agree.  I think Rosenburg is right that the Clinton impeachment changed the precedents around impeachment, but I would like to see the cork put back in the bottle now, before it is too late.

Are Republican Immigration Hawks Socialist?

From Fred Thompson, via Insty:

But he received his biggest applause for blasting the bipartisan plan
for immigration reform, which he called unworkable. "We are a nation of
compassion, a nation of immigrants," he said. "But this is our home . .
. and we get to decide who comes into our home."

Isn't this an essentially socialist view of property, that the whole country is essentially owned by all of us collectively and it is our government's responsibility to administer access to this community property?

I am just completing a course on the history of Rome from the Teaching Company (whose products have been universally excellent in my experience).  One of the interesting things that contributed substantially to Rome's strength, at least through the BC years, was their flexibility and success in absorbing many different peoples into the state.  They actually had various grades of citizenship, including such things as Latin Rights where certain peoples could get access to some aspects of citizenship (e.g. ability to conduct commerce and access to the judicial system) while being denied others (e.g. voting). 

Can't we figure out something similar?  Shouldn't it be possible to allow fairly open access to being present and conducting commerce in this country, while still having much tougher and tighter standards for voting and getting government handouts?  The taxes immigrants pay easily cover things like emergency services and extra load on the courts, but fall short of covering extra welfare and education. 

Unfortunately, the debate seems to be dominated either by Lou Dobbs racists who see Mexicans as spreading leprosy or by Marxists who see poor immigrants as a wedge to push socialism.  The problem is again traceable to a President who tries to lead on divisive issues without trying to clearly communicate a moral high ground.  For example, I would have first tried to establish one simple principle that has the virtue of being consistent with most of America's history:   

"The US should allow easy access to our country for immigrants, but immigrants should expect that immigration involves financial risks which they, not current Americans, will need to bear.  Over time, they will have access to full citizenship but the bar for such rights will be set high."

OK, it needs to be shorter and pithier, but you get the idea.  Reagan was fabulous at this, and Clinton was pretty good in his own way.  Bush sucks at it.

I need 24 Help

I have no tolerance for watching TV series on the network's schedule.  If a series gets good reviews, I will watch it on DVD (e.g. Serenity, Deadwood, Rome, Sopranos, Alias, Wonderfalls, etc).  In this same vain, I watched the first season of 24 straight through and really enjoyed it.  The second season was OK but weaker and less believable (even a hard-core libertarian paranoiac like myself had trouble buying the cabinet coup).  Plus I got about the same feeling when the Kim Bauer character was on-screen as I did when there was Anakin-Padme dialog in the last Star Wars movie.

So I am a third of the way through season 3 and I am having trouble really getting into it -- maybe the threat is not immediate enough at the mid-point.  Should I stick it out?  Is there anything out there left worth seeing?  Is there anything interesting in seasons 4 or 5 that bring back what made the first season great?

Update: Children in European Restaurants

Not really forewarned about this social trend in advance, my family was surprised to find that many restaurants in smaller English towns would not let us in with our children.  I wrote about the strange Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang-esque reactions we got to our children here.

Reader Tom Van Horn sends in this update from Newsweek:

a recent British study showed a house's value drops by 5 percent if
neighbors move in with teenage kids. Hotels are catering to the
childless, too; Italy's La Veduta country resort promises, "Your Tuscan
holiday will not be shattered by the clamor of children." In Rome, many
restaurants make it clear that children are not welcome"”in some cases
by establishing themselves as "clubs," where members must be older than
18 to join.

*shrug*  There are times when my wife and I like to get away from kids too, and we have a couple of them.  I know a few couples who have chosen to remain childless and I can assure you they are sick and tired of being asked about their childlessness like it was some kind of disease.  I am sure they will welcome a sense of normalcy for their chosen way to live.  Combining this trend with my observation that Parisians will take their dog anywhere, it is probably not long before there are public places in Paris where dogs are welcome but kids are not.

That doesn't mean that everyone shares my willingness to let folks live in peace like they choose.  Certain politicians around Europe seem to want to intervene (and isn't that why people become politicians in the first place -- to force other people into making choices that they would not have made for themselves?)

Politicians and religious leaders warn darkly of an "epidemic" of
childlessness that saps the moral fiber of nations; they blame the
child-free for impending population decline, the collapse of pension
systems and even the rise in immigration. In Japan, commentators have
identified the "parasite single" who lives off society instead of doing
his duty to start a family

In Germany, where the childless rate is the
highest in the world, at 25 percent, the best-seller lists have been
full of tomes forecasting demographic doomsday. In "Minimum," the
conservative commentator Frank Schirrmacher describes a "spiral of
childlessness," where a declining population becomes ever more
reluctant to have kids. Media reports have stigmatized the "cold career
woman""”one such recent article came with mug shots of childless female
celebs"”accusing them of placing their jobs before kids. Never mind that
Germany trails its neighbors in the availability of child care, or the
amount of time men spend helping around the house.

From
Germany to Russia, there is increasing talk of sanctions against the
childless. In Slovakia, a leading adviser on the government's Strategic
Council on Economic Development proposed in March to replace an
unpopular payroll tax with a levy on all childless Slovaks between the
ages of 25 and 50. In Russia, where the birthrate has dropped from 2.3
in the 1980s to 1.3 today, a powerful business lobby has called for an
income-tax surcharge on childless couples. In Germany, economists and
politicians have demanded that public pensions for the childless be
slashed by up to 50 percent"”never mind that such pensions were invented
as an alternative to senior citizens' having to depend on their
offspring.

On Google and Losing My Blog Focus

In the beginning,  I tried to write a blog about my day to day experiences as a small business person.  That lasted about a day, mainly because I have the attention span of a 7-year-old boy mainlining Hershey Bars.  I still blog a lot about running a small business, but I also comment on political trends, mainly from a libertarian point of view, and anything else that happens to strike my fancy that day.

However, with Google out there, I have lost even more focus and control of my blog's positioning.  A lot of my traffic is Google hits, and it turns out there are two particular searches that drive a non-trivial portion of my traffic.  That means for many readers, my blog is defined by these two topics:

  • Pocket Doors
  • Spanking

Yes, call me the Pocket Door and Spanking Blog now.  LOL.  Anyway, if only to reinforce my strong Google rankings on these meaningful topics, here is how I became the Pocket Door and Spanking Blog:

Pocket Doors and My Manhood  (December, 2005)

Our bathroom has a pocket door to save space - that's one of those doors that slide on a hidden rail in and out of the wall.
From time to time, usually because my kids go slamming into it, the
door comes off its rails and gets jammed, which is a problem as it can
bottleneck some very critical facilities.

The first time this happened, I tried to get it back on its track,
but I just could not.  The track is up in the wall and it is almost
impossible due to the lack of clearance to do anything with it.  I
checked in the Yellow Pages and saw there was actually a company that
specialized in pocket door repairs, so I called them out.  Well, Joe
(or whoever) shows up with his little tool kit, looks at the door for a
second, grabbed it in a certain way, and then gave it a quick jerk -
kabam - and it was back in its tracks.  It took him like 5 seconds. 

Well, there I stood, completely unmanned, right in front of my
laughing wife and family, by Joe the visible butt-crack guy.  Bummer.

Since that time, I have had the door come untracked two or three
times.  Thinking to save me further embarrassment, my wife tends to ask
any passing stranger to come in and fix it.  I can sit there for hours
fighting the thing, and then my wife brings in the guy painting the
house - kabam - fixed.  Next time she brought in the 60+ year old sales
guy who happened to be there - kabam - fixed.  I swear, if Paris Hilton
was dropping by for a visit she could probably fix that damn door.  It
is humiliating.

Well, this time I would not allow my wife get someone else to fix
it.  Every night, for about 10 minutes, I would take my innings with
the door, struggling to do what everyone else seemed to have learned at
birth.  I actually suggested to my wife that we should call out a
contractor and tear the thing out and install a real door.  She
suggested instead that she could have our 13-year-old baby sitter come
in from the other room to fix it.  Finally, tonight, when I was about
to give up, I tried holding it in a slightly different way and - Kabam
- fixed.  God I feel great.  My manhood is restored and I am at the top
of the world.

Spanking Employees  (November, 2005)

Well, just when you think you have seen every way to screw up in a small business, there comes this story.

The owner of a shaved ice business was arrested after two employees claimed he spanked them for making mistakes at work.

And more...

One
of the women told police that on her first day at the Tasty Flavors Sno
Biz, Levengood made her sign a statement that said: "I give Gene
permission to bust my behind any way he sees fit."

Hat tip to Jim Rome, as I first heard this on his radio show, and to the Mises Institute,
of all places, where I found the link.  This story has been out and
about for a while, but I wanted to give it a few days to make sure it
was not a hoax.

To make this more bizarre, I did a Google search to see if
anyone had called this out as a hoax, and found that there have been
many similar stories in other places, including here and here.

Sigh.  Oh well, I guess a weird identity is better than no identity at all.

Spanking Employees

Well, just when you think you have seen every way to screw up in a small business, there comes this story.

The owner of a shaved ice business was arrested after two employees claimed he spanked them for making mistakes at work.

And more...

One of the women told police that on her first day at the Tasty Flavors Sno Biz, Levengood made her sign a statement that said: "I give Gene permission to bust my behind any way he sees fit."

Hat tip to Jim Rome, as I first heard this on his radio show, and to the Mises Institute, of all places, where I found the link.  This story has been out and about for a while, but I wanted to give it a few days to make sure it was not a hoax.

To make this more bizarre, I did a Google search to see if anyone had called this out as a hoax, and found that there have been many similar stories in other places, including here and here.