Posts tagged ‘technocrats’

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.

CFL Bulbs Suck. However, I Like LED's

A number of years ago, there was a push by many Leftish technocrats for the government to mandate a standardized cell phone power cord.  Beyond demonstrating that there is no personal irritation too trivial for some to demand government action, this would have been an awful idea.  Why?  Because when these demands for action came, cell phone power cords were just that, power.  If a standard cord had been mandated, then current designs that use a USB connection for both data and power would have been illegal, at least without the vendor also putting in a connection for the government standard connector as well.  There is always danger to the government setting arbitrary standards, but these dangers are an order of magnitude higher when the technology is still in flux.

So enter light bulbs.  The government has decided to ban incandescent light bulbs and while not mandating them, it has actively encouraged people to purchase expensive CFL bulbs.  The only problem is that CFL bulbs suck.  The light from them has bad color qualities, many take a long time to warm up, they are hard to dim, and they contain toxic substances.  They also have nothing like the multi-year life we are promised.  I have tried CFL bulbs of many, many brands and none have consistently achieved their promised life.

But as much as I hate CFL's, I am coming to love LED-based lights.  LED lights use even less energy than CFL's and last a really long time.  The technology allows for color tweaking better than CFL's, and already the warm white LED's I am buying (color temperatures around 2900K) are better to my eye than CFL's, and there is no fast-flicker problem that gives some people headaches.  Dimable versions are coming out, and prices are dropping but they are still expensive.   About half my house is LED now, and I am told that landscape lighting is quickly going all LED.

The main cost to LED's is that they all have to have a transformer.  LED's run at low voltages, like 5v, so house current has to be stepped down at every bulb.  LED's in theory should run cool and be cheap, but they are expensive and run hot because of the transformers.

Which leads me to wonder whether we may start wiring houses for 12v in parallel to 110v.  When I grew up, nearly everything I plugged into the wall -- lights, motors, appliances -- ran on 110V.  Now, most everything (other than appliances) that I plug in the wall actually needs 5-12v  (computers, cell phones, all my audio equipment except big amps).  I don't know enough about power lines to know if this is feasible.  I am pretty sure the resistance losses for 12V DC would be too high, so it would have to be 12V AC, but a diode bridge and some capacitors is a hell of a lot smaller and cheaper than a full blown transformer.  I know my landscape lighting has long runs of 12V, that seems to work OK.  It is also a hell of a lot safer to work with.

Welcome to the Fight, Sort Of

After years of apparently being OK with California's absurd restrictions on development and crazy environmental laws that tied most everything new up in the courts for years, Kevin Drum suddenly thinks they may be flawed now that they are slowing development he likes (wind, solar, high density housing around transit stations).  Drum is a classic technocrat, who is OK with absolute state authority as long as the state is doing what he wants it to do.  I am reminded of what I wrote technocrats 7(!) years ago:

Technocratic idealists ALWAYS lose control of the game.  It may feel good at first when the trains start running on time, but the technocrats are soon swept away by the thugs, and the patina of idealism is swept away, and only fascism is left.  Interestingly, the technocrats always cry “our only mistake was letting those other guys take control”.  No, the mistake was accepting the right to use force on another man.  Everything after that was inevitable.

I am reminded of all this because the technocrats that built our regulatory state are starting to see the danger of what they created.  A public school system was great as long as it was teaching the right things and its indoctrinational excesses were in a leftish direction.  Now, however, we can see the panic.  The left is freaked that some red state school districts may start teaching creationism or intelligent design.  And you can hear the lament – how did we let Bush and these conservative idiots take control of the beautiful machine we built?  My answer is that you shouldn’t have built the machine in the first place – it always falls into the wrong hands.  Maybe its time for me to again invite the left to reconsider school choice.

Today, via Instapundit, comes this story about the GAO audit of the decision by the FDA to not allow the plan B morning after pill to be sold over the counter.  And, knock me over with a feather, it appears that the decision was political, based on a conservative administration’s opposition to abortion.  And again the technocrats on the left are freaked.  Well, what did you expect?  You applauded the Clinton FDA’s politically motivated ban on breast implants as a sop to NOW and the trial lawyers.  In establishing the FDA, it was you on the left that established the principal, contradictory to the left’s own stand on abortion, that the government does indeed trump the individual on decision making for their own body  (other thoughts here).  Again we hear the lament that the game was great until these conservative yahoos took over.  No, it wasn’t.  It was unjust to scheme to control other people’s lives, and just plain stupid to expect that the machinery of control you created would never fall into your political enemy’s hands.

Just Fooling, We Had No Idea What We Were Doing

California voters -- unskeptical, unrealistic, and gullible -- nevertheless trusted their elected and unelected technocrats in Sacramento to be telling them the truth when they agreed to a $9.95 billion bond issue for high speed rail.  It turns out, even according the HSR's most fervent supporters, that the numbers that were used to sell the bond issue were total crap, and they knew it at the time

In September, I was one of several journalists who interviewed top officials with the California High Speed Rail Authority. Here is board member Lynn Schenk’s response to my question about accountability:

Q: In 2008, this project was sold to voters with the claim that when it was done there would be 117 million annual riders, which is more than four times what Amtrak now has, and it operates in 46 states. It was sold with claims of a $100 round-trip ticket and many other claims that no one believes anymore. If we had known then what we know now, it might not have passed. So when do we get accountability?

SCHENK: This deserves as much of a direct answer as I can maybe possibly give. And that is about the first business plan and those early studies. These gentlemen were not there at the time. I was there. We had one professional and two half-professionals, who were constantly being furloughed because of the state budget issue. That first plan, much to the regret of many of us, was pulled together with Scotch tape and hairpins because we had to get something to the Legislature, but we didn’t have the money, the resources, the people to pull together, so there were a lot of errors. You’re right. But there were also things in there that still stand true today. And we have new studies, a new business plan coming out. The ridership study that we had it is not as bad as the opponents would say. But there are tweaks. And there are things that need to be adjusted and we are looking to do that.

Because the last thing a bureaucratic is ever going to say is "we don't know."   So they told they public the rail line would have 117 million annual riders, when even an estimate of 5 million is probably high.  Jeff Skilling is in jail for a far less substantial exaggeration of his business prospects.

Of course voters were idiots to accept these numbers, when 5 minutes of research would have shown them absurd (the media did nothing to help, of course).  One relevent factoid:

The current air passenger traffic between LAX and SFO is 2.7 million a year

But we are going to have tens of millions of rail customers.  Right.

China Bubble Bursting

I don't have time today to link all the evidence, but the combination of crashing real estate markets and the Chinese government jamming liquidity into its banks tells me the China bubble is bursting as we speak.

This is an interesting test of the Austrian view of depressions vs. the Keynesian / Krugman / Thomas Friedman / MITI view of government-orchestrated prosperity.  If the latter are right, then China is doing more right to keep their economy going than any country in history and you should go invest all your money in Chinese real estate.

However, if one believes the Austrian model about government-enforced mis-allocation of capital and labor leading to bubbles and crashes; if one believes that the technocrat-beloved MITI was largely responsible for the Japanese lost decade; if one believes that the US govenrment through articially low interest rates and government-directed reductions in underwriting quality helped create the housing bubble -- then the mother of all crashes is looming in China.  Because no country has done more to reallocate resources and capital based on the whims of a few technocrats  and well-connected industrialists than has China.  After all, this is why Thomas Friedman loves China, that it does not rely on the judgement of millions of individuals to allocate capital, but instead on the finger pointing of a few at the top.

Unlearned Lesson

Kevin Drum is, by my description (I don't know what he would call himself) a leftish technocrat.  My read on him is that he sees a beneficial role for government via smart people sitting at the top and optimizing systems (e.g. the economy, energy policy, climate, etc).  This is a consistent with a century-old branch of American progressivism, that distrusts chaotic outcomes of individual action and believes top-down optimization is called for.

The problem with this approach (discussed by Hayek and many others) is such top down optimization is impossible for a variety of reasons, from information to incentives.  There is simply a myriad of examples where supposedly smart government officials attempted such technocratic tinkering and only ended up with a mess.  I always supposed folks who argue for more of the same simply mentally ignored these examples.

But here is Kevin Drum lamenting the insanity of ethanol subsidies (for which he should be praised).  Ethanol subsidies are absolutely counter-productive, but have been central to our top down US energy policy for over a decade.

So what I can't understand is how he keeps these two ideas in his head simultaneously -- of this ideal of brilliant actors managing the economy from above and the reality of ethanol policy.  I suppose he could argue, as many technocrats do, that if only his guys were in power, everything would be different.  But his guys are in power, and in fact his guys have been the main drivers and supporters of ethanol subsidies.

I have written a number of times about why even smart guys fail to do smart things when plopped down in the government.

Expect A LOT More of This With The New Federal Health Care Rules

Via the Dallas Morning News:

A last-minute change in the federal health care bill ditched a proposed 5 percent tax on cosmetic medical procedures and replaced it with a 10 percent tax on indoor tanning services.

Goodbye Botox tax. Hello tan tax.

This seems really random.  Why should either of these businesses foot a special, disproportionate share of my health care bill?  Well, things that seem random to most of us make perfect sense in Congress.

The tan tax popped up in the health care bill last weekend after powerful medical lobbies "“ including the American Academy of Dermatology Association, American Medical Association, American Society of Plastic Surgeons and Botox-maker Allergan "“ persuaded Congress to remove a tax on cosmetic medical procedures and replace it with a 10 percent surcharge on indoor tanning services.

Lobbyists are very good at punching political hot-buttons.  Since they couldn't argue that botox is "for the children," and since it is generally used by rich white people they could not place the race or class card, they played the only card they had:

"Since 90 percent of cosmetic surgery patients are women, this would have been a very discriminatory tax," said White, who opposed the cosmetic surgery tax.

Technocrats want to believe, and perhaps honestly believe themselves, that care guidelines in the new Federal health care system will be science-based.  What possible basis do they have for thinking that?  We have 50 state laboratories, where states specify must-carry rules on procedures, and not a single one of these lists are science based -- they are loaded with special interest handouts.   I even show in this post how special interests give money to academia to produce studies whose entire conclusion is that certain procedures (performed by the special interest group funding the study) need to be in the minimum coverage laws.   The very first time out, when confronted with a science-based care recommendation (that women not receive breast cancer screening until after 50), the Congress specifically overrode it in the bill under a firestorm of public outcry.

But maybe the dermatologist guys are really looking after us?  After all:

The American Academy of Dermatology warns of significant health risks caused by indoor tanning.

But, as it turns out, it only sees health risks in the use of ultra-violet light by practitioners who are not members of their trade group.  I have bolded the key passage that gives away the game.

Indoor tanning industry groups note that dermatologists use tanning equipment in their offices for cosmetic skin conditions, such as eczema and psoriasis, in phototherapy treatments that cost up to $100 per visit billed to health insurance companies. In contrast, indoor tanning salons cost as little as $6 to $20 per session.

The tan tax would exempt phototherapy services performed by a licensed medical professional.

"This is like Coke being allowed to lobby the government to tax Pepsi, but that Coke be allowed to sell the same product and not be taxed for it," International Smart Tan Network Vice President Joseph Levy said in a statement. "It's unbelievable."

Great Point, Often Overlooked

Bill Whittle makes a great point in this video which is at the heart of the problems with this administration:  While Obama and his young policy wonks may be smarter (or at least think they are smarter) than other folks individually, they cannot possibly be smarter than the sum of 300 million well educated, realtively affluent Americans making decisions for themselves.  Every technocrat founders on these rocks, when they substitute their decision as command and control planners for individual decision making (example).   Everyone talks about a revival of interest in Ayn Rand, and that is great, but it is Hayek who has never been more relevent.

More on the failures of technocrats here.

How Does He Do This With A Straight Face?

I already in a previous post deconstructed Kevin Drum and Joe Romm's critique of the carbon tax.  One reason they don't like the carbon tax is:

Well, for one, it doesn't have mandatory targets and timetables.  Thus it doesn't guarantee specific emissions results and thus doesn't guarantee specific climate benefits.  Perhaps more important, it doesn't allow us to join the other nations of the world in setting science-based targets and timetables.  Also, a tax lacks all of the key complementary measures "” many of which are in Waxman-Markey "” that are essential to any rational climate policy, but which inherently complicate any comprehensive energy and climate bill.

What they are basically arguing is that a carbon tax works by hundreds of millions of individuals making decisions in reaction to higher prices, and chosing their own way to reduce carbon production.  They don't trust this kind of bottom up chaos, despite the fact this is how our entire economy and society works, except for a few corners where beltway guys live and breath in their own reality.  They want a few "scientific" guys at the top picking winners and subsidizing technologies and particular approaches.

I described why I disagreed with this  (or you could spend some time with Hayek to really understand why it is wrong) but I found it staggering that the very next post from Kevin Drum in my feed reader was this one:

Via the LA Times, this is the best news I've heard all day:

The Obama administration on Tuesday proposed renewable fuel standards that could reduce the $3 billion a year in federal tax breaks given to producers of corn-based ethanol. The move sets the stage for a major battle between Midwest grain producers and environmentalists who say the gasoline additive actually worsens global warming.

....While biofuels as a whole "” including grasses and even algae "” are considered promising alternatives to petroleum, some researchers have begun challenging the use of corn for this purpose.

In particular, they point to the "indirect land-use" effects of pulling corn out of the world food supply, which could force farmers in developing nations to clear rain forests "” and release massive amounts of carbon dioxide in the process "” in order to plant corn.

Please dump the corn ethanol subsidies.  Please, please, please.  Dollar for dollar, it might well be the stupidest use of taxpayer cash in the entire federal budget.

Since ethanol is the largest example of Congress's past attempts to set "rational climate policy," what in the hell gives Drum confidence things are going to be any different in the future?  It is yet another example of technocratic planners arguing that the failure is not top-down planning, just the particular individuals doing the planning.  If only my guys did the planning, things would be different.  Right.

Besides, it was a Democratic Congress that passed the last round of ethanol subsidy increases and a Democratic Congress that is upping them again.  So it is Drum's guys doing the planning, and they are making a hash out of it, as all planners do.

For the record, I don't want my guys in DC doing the planning.  I want 300 million people making their own damn choices.  When did this ever stop being a liberal value?

Really Missing the Point

We libertarians and critics of large government will often criticize this or that initiative as being misguided, or dumb, or counter-productive, or too costly, or whatever.   Too often we do so in the context of the particular personalities involved -- e.g. Bush is going to far, Obama made a mistake, Pelosi is trying to do something dumb.  This tends to give the impression that these are individual mistakes, with the corollary that if we could just get better people in government, these mistakes would not occur.

I see this reaction -- that its the quality of the people, not the system itself, at fault -- all the time.  Of course, it was a common one on the left for years during the Bush administration -- if only we had our guys, smarter guys, non-fundamentalist guys, scientific guys, whatever -- in there, things would work.  Republicans, though, did the same thing for years with Congress  -- if only we'd get those liberals out of the Congressional majority, we would run things intelligently  (anyone remember the Contract with America?).

Two examples bring this most recently to mind.  The first from Radley Balko:

This is sort of amusing. Salon writer Andrew Leonard concedes the unintended consequences of excessive regulation and bad lawmaking, walks right up to the edge of embracing libertarianism, then shrugs it off with, "And that might be one of the most distressing results of decades of being told that government is the problem "” we hear a story like Hayes', and think despondently, you know, they were right, rather than squaring our shoulders and reapplying ourselves to the wheel." Yeah. Keep reapplying yourself to that wheel. If we can just get the right people in charge"¦.

The second is perhaps the clearest statement of the fallacy I have ever seen, from the Washington Post's columnist Richard Cohen via Reason:

In Ronald Reagan's famous formulation, "government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem." This statement, at the very heart of the so-called Reagan Revolution, denigrated government and the people in it. Reagan's statement withdrew John F. Kennedy's invitation to the intellectually gifted to come to Washington and see what they could do for their country. Reagan sent a different message. Government service is for the lame, the cautious. If you really want to do something for your country, shun Washington and make money. It was morning again in America -- whatever that meant.

It is to Barack Obama's immense credit that he has reversed Reagan's reversal. Washington crackles with people on a mission. Brains are once again in vogue, if only because Obama has them in abundance. Not for him the aw-shucks affectation of the previous eight years, when instinct was extolled and ideology trumped analysis. We are in a mess, and one of the reasons is that people who might have noticed or done something about it had been told to stay out of government.

In our scandal-soaked culture, it is de rigueur to denigrate public officials and to search for the inevitable conflict of interest. But here are people, such as [Lawrence] Summers, who have put aside wealth and lavish perks for government service. They have their reasons, sure, but whatever they are, we -- not they -- are the richer for it.

Seriously, gag me with a spoon.  Forgetting the fact that these guys are sacrificing nothing, and in fact get rich fast after office based on the power and contacts they have amassed, this just really misses the point.

The problem is not bad people.  In fact, I have said for years that with a very few exceptions, there are no bad people in government.  There are just 1) really bad incentives; 2) really bad information; and 3) problems that are not amenable to command and control.

People who believe as do Cohen simply will never accept #1 and #2, no matter how much evidence is brought to bear.  We ought, they say, to be able to find public service monks who are both brilliant and un-swayed by such incentives or information asymmetries.   Sure, the incentives are to deliver benefits to small, visible, powerful minorities even when those benefits dwarf the costs, as long as those costs are dispersed and less visible.  But their guy will be smarter and will avoid this trap.  Never mind how many free trade economists turn into protectionists once they enter the administration, succumbing to the pressure of the visible (e.g. GM jobs) over the logic of the invisible.

But lets look at #3, because this does not get nearly enough attention.  It seems incredible to me, particularly in current times, but how often do you hear someone make the case that the government simply cannot achieve a certain goal?  Almost never.  We argue about expense and constitutionality, as we should, but is it even possible for even the smartest people to make GM profitable this year?  Or to make toxic bank assets go away without economic pain?  Or stop a sufficiently motivated terrorist from killing people?  Could it be that we simply have to endure a recession, rather than firing off trillions of dollars to try to "do something" about it?

One of the things that I have learned as a systems-dynamics specialist in mechanical engineering is that there are systems out there so chaotic and so complex we cannot hope to even adequately describe them, much less effectively manage them.  The details of flow in a waterfall, of a smoke plume from a cigarette, of weather and climate ... and of the economy and individual action in a society are so complex as to defy human understanding.

Our interaction with the natural world is a great example.  We used to act with a certain hubris - like, "we can manage the deer population."   I think several decades of trying to "manage" animal populations have taught us a certain humility.   What if, for example, we wanted to increase the deer population in Yellowstone?   Well, we could put out feeders full of corn, but we might then find that by domesticating the deer, we have in fact doomed them long-term.  We could kill their natural predators, but we might find that these predators were also eating something else, possibly something that competed with the deer.  We could kill whatever competes with the deer for food, but again we might cause imbalances in other populations.  Or we could actually be successful, and increase the deer population, and then find it quickly devastated as they outgrow their food supply and habitat area.

We describe these problems by saying that these actions in complex systems carry "unintended consequences".  The problem is that when I use this term in a political world the reaction is "well, that's just an artifact of poor design - my guy will be smart enough to avoid them."  But here is another way to put it:  "Unintended consequences" is a simple way of saying that in a nearly infinitely multi-variate, hugely complex system (like the economy), it is impossible to narrowly target changes to a single variable without all the other variables in the system being effected, often in ways impossible for us to predict in advance.  In this context, "unintended consequences" are not avoidable design defects -- they are absolutely required.  They are unavoidable.  They are an absolute fact that politicians cannot wish away (but if they are clever, they can hide, at least until after reelection).

Sometimes, I wonder how my education had such a different impact on me than on others.  I could easily be called part of the over-educated elite -- magna cum laude at Princeton, first in my class at Harvard Business School.  Folks with similar backgrounds in this administration seemed to have walked away from similar educations with a deep confidence that they can run or fix anything -- Take over GM, run it successfully where decades of industry experts have failed, manage its turnaround better than a coterie of experienced bankruptcy guys -- No problem!  I just can't even imagine thinking this way.  If anything, I walked away from my mechanical engineering degree with a deep sense that most complex systems would always be out of my analytical reach, and I walked away from Harvard Business School with an understanding of just how hard it is, even as the top boss, to move and drive change in large organizations.

Some older thoughts on this topic, in relation to technocrats, here.

More Recognition of the Health Care Trojan Horse

I have argued for a while that one of the undiscussed problems with nationalized or universal health care is that by socializing the costs of individual lifestyle decisions (e.g. eating, drinking, smoking, wearing a bike helmet, etc) it creates a strong financial incentive for the government to micro-manage individual behavior.  I call this the health care trojan horse for fascism (other posts here).

Q&O has a good post, quoting from Paul Hsieh, on this very topic.

Here's how I understood freedom and liberty worked:

Of course healthy diet and exercise are good. But these are issues of personal "“ not government "“ responsibility. So long as they don't harm others, adults should have the right to eat and drink what they wish "“ and the corresponding responsibility to enjoy (or suffer) the consequences of their choices. Anyone who makes poor lifestyle choices should pay the price himself or rely on voluntary charity, not demand that the government pay for his choices.

Does anyone have a particular argument with that?

In fact, if you believe in freedom and liberty, there really isn't another choice, is there?

But here's what's being offered as the alternative:

Government attempts to regulate individual lifestyles are based on the claim that they must limit medical costs that would otherwise be a burden on "society." But this issue can arise only in "universal healthcare" systems where taxpayers must pay for everyone's medical expenses.

The article has a lot of good examples that follow.  Mr. Hsieh's op-ed is here.

As a side note, I was watching the movie "The Golden Compass"  the other day.  The author and the original book are quite critical of religion, at least of the organized kind, and the evil fascist entity against which the protagonists fight is a world-controlling church.  The movie actually purged most of the religion criticism (or at least made it more subtle) and made the bad buys more generically totalitarian, but hangover criticism of the book stuck to the movie as well.

It was not really a particularly good (or bad) movie, but it had one set of lines spoken by the Nicole Kidman character that I couldn't believe came out of Hollywood.  The protagonist, Lyra, asks Kidman about the contradiction between Kidman's unwillingness to let anyone tell her what to do and the rule-making and absolute obedience that her organization demands of all citizens.    I need to go back and watch the movie to get it exactly right (of course, no one on the movie sites found it memorable enough to post).  But it was something like "Only a few of us are capable of making good decisions for ourselves.  We few have to make decisions for everyone else.  It is really for their own good."  It was really a brilliant summary of the modern political mentality, and slipped through I think only because people in Hollywood took it as a criticism of the religious right, not recognizing it as an equally damning indictment of the left.  (if anyone has the exact quote or a link, please post.  It was on the dirigeable fairly early in the movie, I think).

Update: OK, the Golden Compass lines I wanted start about the 3:00 minute mark in this video [thanks to commenter for showing how to link to a specific point in a YouTube video].  Here is how I transcribed it:

Kidman (Mrs. Coulter):  The Magesterium [the world-girdling totalitarian organization] is what people need, to keep things working, by telling people what to do.

Lyra:  But you told the master that you do whatever you please

Kidman:  That's right, clever girl.  Well, some people know what's best for them, and some people don't.  Besides, they don't tell people what to do in a mean and petty way, they tell them in a kindly way, to keep them out of danger.

Its really hilarious to read through reviews, as I have trying to find this quote.  Apparently (though I missed it at the time) it became a left-right debate about the movie.  The hilarious part is all the left-leaning blogs criticising the right for not seeing how well the shoe fits, without for a second considering that this is a perfect recitation of their end game as well.

Again, about 3:00 into the below:

More on "Green Jobs"

It is interesting watching a group of folks sink into mass hypnosis.  Specifically, much of the left is working really hard to convince itself that obsoleting much of the current energy and transportation infrastructure and raising the price of electricity and fuel will result in net jobs growth.  And, that despite 100 years of failure in countries too numerous to name, the government will suddenly become able to successfully plan and manage investment to the greatest economic benefit.  Here is just one example:

My meditation comes in the wake of reading an article about green jobs. Obama and (other) progressives have been making a case for government spending to develop a green energy infrastructure. As Van Jones said in his powerful speech at GreenFest, that's how we got the highway system and the space program that, to some extent, fueled the prosperity of the 50s.

The article makes the point that when the government picks favorites, it sometimes picks wrong, terribly wrong, as is the case with ethanol. That had me scratching my head for a minute, but then I remembered some key differences:

  • Ethanol was an invention, lock stock and barrel, of the agribusiness lobby. It wasn't promoted by scientists as a good source of energy, as solar power is.
  • The government already picks winners. It gives huge subsidies and incentives to the fossil fuel industry.
  • If solar power turns out to be a boondoggle like ethanol, we should push the government to dump its incentives.

However, it seems unlikely that solar power will be such a dud, given that it's already boosting the economy as a sole sector of growth in these bleak economic times, according to the L.A. Times article.

Here was my response (with some links and additional thoughts added) from his comments section:

With your ethanol statement, aren't you contradicting your point about the government's ability to make sensible energy choices?  I agree that ethanol is a bad energy and environmental strategy, and that most scientists who were not industry shills thought it a break-even proposition at best.  But the fact is that Congresses and Administrations of both parties have backed tens of billions of subsidies for ethanol.  No matter what the rhetoric, when the rubber hits the road, politicians make political, not sensible, decisions.

The study you cited a while back about job gains is just silly - most economists laughed it off.  The study claimed 1.5 million net job gains from California electricity and energy efficiency regulations.  Based on October job numbers, this would mean 9.8% of Californians in October would not have had a job if these regulations hadn't been passed.  Really?  Does this pass any kind of smell test?  These regulations created a few visible jobs and killed some invisible jobs, which is how politicians always manipulate these numbers in their favor.

California has low per capita electricity consumptions primarily for three reasons:  1) it has the mildest climate in the country (when weighted for population location) 2) it has among the ten highest state-average electricity prices in the country and 3) its regulatory regime has driven a disproportionate number of heavy industrial electricity users out of the state (as demonstrated by manufacturing job losses higher than the national average and a low percentage of industrial electricity use vs. other states).

One may believe all of these things are a good thing from an environmental standpoint, but they certainly don't add up to net job gains.  Since you often drape yourself in the scientific mantle when responding to climate skeptics, I will do the same -- economics a science, and it is just as bad to willfully ignore this science as any other.  Claiming that being forced, by CO2 concerns, to obsolete current energy infrastructure and rebuild it in a different form is a gain to the economy is falling into Bastiat's broken window fallacy.

But here is the real argument for not letting the government pick winners -- any small body of people, no matter how smart, has too little information to do such planning on a national scale.  The better alternative is simply to raise the price (ie via a carbon tax) of the fuel or electricity that is viewed to have a high environmental cost (the tax can be made less regressive by offsetting the tax with a reduction in payroll taxes).

When prices rise due to the tax, you don't have a few hundred folks in government trying to figure out how to reduce demand, you have 300 million people trying to figure out how to reduce their consumption  (or start a business to help others reduce their consumption), all with their own knowledge of the opportunities they see around them.  Technocrats hate this kind of solution -- its too anarchic, its not "controlled" or "planned" -- but the fact is that it works.  In a large sense, since you are the environmental guy, I will say that it's more like nature.  Nature isn't planned or controlled from above - order and behaviors emerge bottom up from the responses of individual living things to stimulus.

More Auto Bailout Thoughts

I don't think I have ever gotten as much mail from as many different readers as I have received on the auto bailout.  Readers seem fairly unified in their outrage and horror at the prospect.

Via insty:

Nancy Pelosi calls the deal a barber shop, where everybody will take a haircut.

There is already an available process for operating companies that cannot meet their obligations where all the parties take a haircut:  Its called chapter 11.  We have about a zillion man-years of experience with it, in companies great and small.  And it does not take idiotic Senators flashing billions of our tax money to mediate it.

The auto industry is tremendously magnetic for wannabee technocrats in Congress, in large part because in perhaps no other industry is there a bigger gap between what the average American wants to buy and what the country's intelligentsia things they should buy.

But US automakers are failing because they have not been very responsive to customers; they have grown fat and complacent, feeling protected by their monopoly power position; they have consistently failed over decades-long periods to make tough decisions vis-a-vis labor and costs; and they have refused to make real prioritization decisions (GM brand strategy is a good example).  It is therefore hilarious that Congress thinks it can do better, because wouldn't these same traits be high on the list of failings of the Federal Government itself?

And this is funny, if you have not seen it yet.

Perversity of Government-Selected Winners

Technocrats love to pick winners.  Leftish technocrats, in particular, love to believe that the complex operations of the entire economy choose technologies that are inferior to those the technocrat would have imposed on the economy had she been in charge.  But here is what happens when they try, in a cautionary tail that is particularly relevant given the number of specific technologies Barack Obama has said he would promote (e.g. a million plug-in hybrids by 2015) (via Tom Nelson)

The federal government has invested billions of dollars over the past 16 years, building a fleet of 112,000 alternative-fuel vehicles to serve as a model for a national movement away from fossil fuels.
But the costly effort to put more workers into vehicles powered by ethanol and other fuel alternatives has been fraught with problems, many of them caused by buying vehicles before fuel stations were in
place to support them, a Washington Post analysis of federal records shows.

"I call it the 'Field of Dreams' plan. If you buy them, they will come," said Wayne Corey, vehicle operations manager with the U.S. Postal Service. "It hasn't happened."

Under a mandate from Congress, federal agencies have gradually increased their fleets of alternative-fuel vehicles, a majority of them "flex-fuel," capable of running on either gasoline or ethanol-based E85 fuel. But many of the vehicles were sent to locations hundreds of miles from any alternative fueling sites, the analysis shows.

As a result, more than 92 percent of the fuel used in the government's alternative-fuel fleet continues to be standard gasoline. A 2005 law -- meant to align the vehicles with alternative-fuel stations -- now requires agencies to seek waivers when a vehicle is more than five miles or 15 minutes from an ethanol pump.

The latest generations of alternative vehicles have compounded the problem. Often, the vehicles come only with larger engines than the ones they replaced in the fleet. Consequently, the federal program --
known as EPAct -- has sometimes increased gasoline consumption and emission rates, the opposite of what was intended....

The Postal Service illustrates the problem. It estimates that its 37,000 newer alternative-fuel delivery vans, which can run on high-grade ethanol, consumed 1.5 million additional gallons of gasoline last fiscal year because of the larger engines.

The article does not even mention that E85 ethanol made mostly from corn does absolutely nothing to reduce total CO2 production (it just shifts it around, due to the amount of energy required to grow corn and convert it to ethanol) while raising food prices.

California did something like this years ago, putting the force of subsidies and state law behind zero-emission vehicles.  This wasted a lot of money on electric and hydrogen vehicles that were not yet technologically mature enough to prosper, while missing out on low (but now zero) emissions approaches that could have had much more impact because they were technologically ready (e.g. CNG for fleet vehicles).

Y'all know where I stand on the dangers of CO2.  But if we really have to do "something", then the only efficient way to do it is with a carbon tax.  But politicians hate this idea, because they don't want to be associated with a tax.  But the fact is, that every other action they are proposing is a tax of some sort too, but just hidden and likely less efficient.  There is no magic free lunch that Barack Obama and his folks can think of and impose, no matter how smart they are.  In fact, to some extent, smarts are a hindrance, because it tempts people into the hubris of thinking that they are smart enough to pick winners.

Postscript: If you are reading this and thinking "well, if I were in charge, I would not be that stupid and I could make it work" then you don't get it.  1)  No one can make it work, for the same reasons the Soviets could not plan their economy from the top -- its just too complex.  At best, policy-makers are choosing between a handful of alternatives to back.  In contrast, every individual has a slate of opportunities to reduce his/her CO2 production at the least cost, and when you add up all these individual portfolios, that means there are hundreds of millions of individual opportunities that must get prioritized.  That is what pricing signals do, but government bureaucrats cannot.  2) The morons and knaves ALWAYS take over.  Even if you are brilliant and well-motivated, your successor likely will not be. For years, folks have generally been comfortable with the outsized role of the Federal Reserve because they thought Greenspan  (and Volker before him) ran it brilliantly.  Well, there are arguments to be made about this, but even if we accept this judgment, what happens when the next guy is in charge and is not brilliant?

Postscript #2: If you want a specific example, let's take plug-in hybrids.  How can anyone be against these?  I personally like the concept of cars being driven by electric traction motors (I like the performance profile of them) and would love a good plug-in hybrid.  But what happens when we find out that many of these cars were bought in coal-burning areas where electricity is particularly cheap, and discover coal-fired electricity pollutes more than an internal combustion engine?  Or when we use a cap and trade system to cut back on coal fired plants, and find that the huge number of plug-in hybrids are exacerbating brown-outs and electricity shortages?  Or we find that the billions of dollars of capital diverted by the government to expanding plug-in hybrids could have easily yielded far more CO2 reduciton had it been applied in another area?  That is why a carbon tax is the only way to go (if we are going to do anything) because it allows individuals to make capital expenditure decisions to reduce CO2 based on their vastly higher knowlege of the opportunities and the pricing signal of the tax.

Yet More Economic Ignorance

Don Boudreax shares this leftish view of the auto bailout from Pat Garofalo:

More importantly though - as Pelosi and Reid said - "federal aid should come with 'strong conditions,' such as requirements that car makers build more fuel-efficient vehicles." Bill Scher at OurFuture writes, "With the auto industry in dire straits, we taxpayers have maximum leverage to demand the cars necessary to help lower energy costs, cut carbon emissions and reduce our dependency on foreign oil."

So, uh, only when the government gets involved do consumers have any leverage with producers in terms of what products they produce?  Hello?  I'm sure Circuit City execs will be relieved to hear this.

In free markets, consumers have all the leverage in determining perhaps not what gets produced, but at least what gets sold in any marketplace.  Producers who are unable to match what they produce to what consumers buy eventually go bankrupt.  In fact, it is this process of consumers exercising their leverage with GM that Congress is attempting to interrupt with a bailout. Consumers are telling GM loud and clear that GM is not making the cars at the price points they want.  Unable to do so, GM will likely fail.  This failure will result either in 1) GM, under bankruptcy protection, shedding any number of constraints that are preventing it from making what the consumers want or 2) GM liquidating its production assets to other owner/management groups who can do a better job with them.

This quote is a great example of the technocratic bent many leading Democrats bring to economics.  What these guys are asking for is not leverage for consumers, but leverage for a few Democratic technocrats to makeover the auto industry the way they want it.  People like Nancy Pelosi who would never in a million years be given the keys to a manufacturing corporation by a sane ownership group can effectively grab that jobs via the leverage her seat in Congress gives her.

Postscript: Garofalo adds:

250,000 people and if you think about the ripple effects, they are the backbone of our manufacturing economy." Indeed, according to estimates, one in 12 U.S. jobs is tied to car manufacturing, and a bailout of the industry could help boost the U.S.'s ailing manufacturing sector.

A couple of points.  First, a GM bankruptcy is hugely, enormously unlikely to mean the whole company is just shut down.  If you have flown in the last 10 years, unless you have favored only Southwest Airlines, you probably have traveled on a carrier in chapter 11.  That's what chapter 11 is - a breathing space while the company continues to operate but is able to restructure its liabilities.  Personally, I would love to see the company go chapter 7 and have a new wave of innovative people take over the assets and see what they could do with them.  But it is not going to happen.  GM may shed jobs over the next year, but they are going to do so anyway in the teeth of a recession, not because they went bankrupt.

Podesta must know that the issue in a bankruptcy will not be jobs, but labor contracts  (airlines have practically patented the chapter 11 vehicle for renegotiating union contracts).  Most GM manufacturing employees would probably keep their jobs through a bankruptcy, but they may well lose their contract that says they get paid $75.86 an hour with 34.5 days a year of paid leave.  Garofalo and Podesta are shilling for the union over wage bargaining, not jobs.

The other observation I want to make is to ask why the loss of these 250,000 jobs is going to be so much worse than the loss of 500,000 jobs over the last several years.

auto_jobs

I know parts of Michigan suffered, but Podesta is claiming knock-on effects for the whole country.  So where were they?

Obama's Campaign Against Individualism

I am becoming convinced that the frequent discussion of "diversity" among the leftish elite is really a mask for the fact that true diversity is in fact what they want to avoid.  By defining diversity along the least meaningful lines - e.g. skin color and type of genitalia - they mask the fact that what leftish technocrats hate the most is variation in thought.  After all, why have we been spending all that money on government schools all these years if it wasn't to generate such conformity? 

Michael Young sees Obama's recent anti-flyover-country snobbery in the same light:

While Obama is indeed engaging in spin, there is a far more
disturbing aspect to his interpretation. He misses the essential nature
of modern culture. People don't end up focusing on issues like the
right to bear arms, gay marriage, faith-based and family-based issues,
and the like, because of bitterness against Washington or a sense that
they can't effect change there. People focus on these issues because
modern American political culture is, effectively, about subcultures,
variety, pursuing parochial aims, and shaping one's identity and
personal agendas independently of the state. 

What Obama
implicitly regards (in both his statements) as signs of disintegration,
as reflections of popular frustration, are in fact examples of a
thriving culture. Exceptions to this, of course, are anti-immigration
sentiment and bigoted protectionism, both of which Obama conveniently
dropped in his Indiana comments. Yet Obama's approach betrays a very
suffocating vision of the state as the be-all and end-all of
political-cultural behavior. Outside the confines of the state there is
no salvation, only resentment. This is nonsense, but it also partly
explains why Obama is so admired among educated liberals, who still
view the state as the main medium of American providence.

Chanelling Milton Friedman

For years I have tried to find the right words to express my frustration with the notion that the problems encountered with government planning and technocratic meddling was merely the fault of having the wrong humans in charge, rather than of the system itself.  For example. I wrote:

Today, via Instapundit, comes this story about the GAO audit of the decision by the FDA to not allow the plan B morning after pill to be sold over the counter.
And, knock me over with a feather, it appears that the decision was
political, based on a conservative administration's opposition to
abortion.  And again the technocrats on the left are freaked.  Well,
what did you expect?  You applauded the Clinton FDA's politically
motivated ban on breast implants as a sop to NOW and the trial
lawyers.  In
establishing the FDA, it was you on the left that established the
principal, contradictory to the left's own stand on abortion, that the
government does indeed trump the individual on decision making for
their own body
  (other thoughts here).
Again we hear the lament that the game was great until these
conservative yahoos took over.  No, it wasn't.  It was unjust to scheme
to control other people's lives, and just plain stupid to expect that
the machinery of control you created would never fall into your
political enemy's hands.

Well, it turns out that Milton Friedman said it better decades ago.  Megan Mcardle reminded me of this passage from Free to Choose:

The error of believing that the behavior of the social organism can be
shaped at will is widespread. It is the fundamental error of most
so-called reformers. It explains why they so often feel that the fault
lies in the man, not the "system"; that the way to solve problems is to
"turn the rascals out" and put well-meaning people in charge. It
explains why their reforms, when ostensibly achieved, so often go
astray.

More on Education and Expertise

A few days ago, I highlighted an article that argued that the problem with public education was that there was not enough expertise and, heaven forbid, enough state level bureaucrats managing the infrastructure.  I pointed out that this is often the argument of technocrats in favor of failing public institutions:  The problem is not the institution, they argue, or its incentives but it just needs the right people in charge.  I argued that, probably like GM, all the expertise in the world was not going to turn around an organization whose DNA had gone senescent.

Alex Tabarrok comes at this issue from a different angle, but with similar results.  Too many of the examples highlighted of successes in public education rely on a super-teacher or super-administrator who overcomes all the organization problems in his/her school to create a success story, one that is usually fleeting and tends to die when that individual leaves  (Jaime Escalante is a great example - most of his math program improvements died after he left).

Tabarrok argues that you can't just keep hoping for more of these unique individuals who can overcome a myriad of bureaucratic obstacles.  You have to reinvent the system so that average capability, poorly motivated workers can still get a good result for students.  I know some will be scared off by the analogy, but this is the kind of thing that franchise restaurants do very well -- plug low-skill, sometimes poorly motivated employees into a system that successfully provides consistent, predictable service for customers.

What we need to save inner-city schools, and poor schools
everywhere, is a method that works when the teachers aren't heroes.
Even better if the method works when teachers are ordinary people,
poorly paid and ill-motivated - i.e. the system we have today. 

In Super Crunchers,
Ian Ayres argues that just such a method exists.  Overall, Super
Crunchers is a light but entertaining account of how large amounts of
data and cheap computing power are improving forecasting and decision
making in social science, government and business.  I enjoyed the
book.  Chapter 7, however, was a real highlight.

Ayres argues that large experimental studies have shown that the teaching method which works best is Direct Instruction (here and here
are two non-academic discussions which summarizes much of the same
academic evidence discussed in Ayres).  In Direct Instruction the
teacher follows a script, a carefully designed and evaluated script.
As Ayres notes this is key:

DI is scalable.  Its
success isn't contingent on the personality of some uber-teacher....You
don't need to be a genius to be an effective DI teacher.  DI can be
implemented in dozens upon dozens of classrooms with just ordinary
teachers.  You just need to be able to follow the script.

Contrary
to what you might think, the data also show that DI does not impede
creativity or self-esteem.  The education establishment, however, hates
DI because it is a threat to the power and prestige of teaching, they
prefer the model of teacher as hero.  As Ayres says "The education
establishment is wedded to its pet theories regardless of what the
evidence says."  As a result they have fought it tooth and nail so that
"Direct Instruction, the oldest and most validated program, has
captured only a little more than 1 percent of the grade-school
market."

I don't know anything about DI and haven't seen the data and so can't comment on its effectiveness.  But I can say that if it works, there is no way it will be adopted in public schools.  Public school systems are run first for the administration bureaucracy, second for the teachers, and only about third for the students.  Anything that serves the latter but reduces the power of the former will never succeed, again because the incentives are not there for better performance.  Only school competition will allow such new models to be tried.

Meet the New Boss

I am reading a fabulous book called "The Rise and Fall of Society" by Frank Chodorov.  It was apparently first published in 1959 and has been republished recently by the Mises Institute.  Here is an early bit I particularly liked:

One indication of how far the integration [between state and society] has gone is the disappearance of any discussion of the State qua State -- a discussion that engaged the best minds of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  The inadequacies of a particular regime, or its personnel, are under constant attack, but there is no faultfinding with the institution itself.  The State is all right, by common agreement, and it would work perfectly well if the "right" people were at its helm.

His next line is clearly aimed at his conservative contemporaries

It does not occur to most critics of the New Deal that all its deficiencies are inherent in any State, under anybody's guidance, or that when the political establishment garners enough power a demagogue will sprout.

I offered up similar observations here, though aimed at the left, who at the time were the minority opposition party:

I am reminded of all this because the technocrats that built our
regulatory state are starting to see the danger of what they created.
A public school system was great as long as it was teaching the right
things and its indoctrinational excesses were in a leftish direction.
Now, however, we can see the panic.  The left is freaked that some red
state school districts may start teaching creationism or intelligent
design.  And you can hear the lament - how did we let Bush and these
conservative idiots take control of the beautiful machine we built?  My
answer is that you shouldn't have built the machine in the first place
- it always falls into the wrong hands.  Maybe its time for me to again invite the left to reconsider school choice.

Today, via Instapundit, comes this story about the GAO audit of the decision by the FDA to not allow the plan B morning after pill to be sold over the counter.
And, knock me over with a feather, it appears that the decision was
political, based on a conservative administration's opposition to
abortion.  And again the technocrats on the left are freaked.  Well,
what did you expect?  You applauded the Clinton FDA's politically
motivated ban on breast implants as a sop to NOW and the trial
lawyers.  In
establishing the FDA, it was you on the left that established the
principal, contradictory to the left's own stand on abortion, that the
government does indeed trump the individual on decision making for
their own body
  (other thoughts here).
Again we hear the lament that the game was great until these
conservative yahoos took over.  No, it wasn't.  It was unjust to scheme
to control other people's lives, and just plain stupid to expect that
the machinery of control you created would never fall into your
political enemy's hands.

Why Does Socialism Sometimes Seem to Sort of Work, At First?

Sometimes industries get nationalized, and they seem to do OK, at least for a while.  Sometimes when countries go socialist, and they appear to function well, at least at first (Sweden, for example, was held up as a model for a while).  I had a couple of thoughts on this topic as we seem to be at the precipice of nationalizing the health care industry in this country:

  • Among some, the work ethic dies hard.  Medicine is a great example.  Because of how difficult it is to become a doctor in this country, the medical profession attracts very few people with poor work ethics.  One can see these folks continuing to work hard, even under socialized medicine where many of the incentives to do so have been taken away.  It can take a whole generation for socialism to kill the work ethic in an industry, but when it finally does so, the effect is dramatic.  For example, doctors in the US see 60% more patients in a day than doctors in countries with socialized medicine (ie everywhere else).  Eventually, though, the highest talent, most motivated people move on to other industries or occupations where their hard work is rewarded, and are replaced by a new generation of workers who are attracted to a job where only attendance (and sometimes not even that) is required.
  • Incentives can work quickly, or they can take a while to operate.  Some incentives can work quickly -- for example, if on any given day, the government were to decide to cap gasoline prices twenty percent below the market level, we would see gasoline lines in less than a week.  On the other hand, the welfare program of the late 1960's provided incentives for out-of-wedlock births that took 20+ years to reach its peak.  Beyond the moral failures of socialism, one** of its practical failures revolves around incentives.  Customers get subsidized products or services, forgetting that that this will cause people to use more than is available.  Employees don't get rewarded for merit or hard work, but the system is constructed such that it won't work without these.
  • Assets and capital equipment act like a storage battery.  Businesses that are purely human, like a restaurant, you can screw up in a week.  I think everyone has had the experience of going to a service business under new management and being really disappointed.  Capital-intensive businesses, particularly extractive ones, can be looted for decades by kleptocratic governments.   Even so, the game can't go on forever.

What drives me most crazy is when socialism's advocates answer criticisms about socialism's consistently dismal long-term results by saying "but it will work if only we can get the right people in charge" (usually this means the speaker and his/her cronies).  If you are a Star Trek fan, you will understand why I call this the "John Gill Fallacy."  As I wrote before:

Technocratic idealists ALWAYS lose control of the game.  It may feel
good at first when the trains start running on time, but the
technocrats are soon swept away by the thugs, and the patina of
idealism is swept away, and only fascism is left.  Interestingly, the
technocrats always cry "our only mistake was letting those other guys
take control".  No, the mistake was accepting the right to use force on
another man.  Everything after that was inevitable.

** Other failures of socialism include this.  And this:

You can't make better decisions for other people, even if you are
smarter, because every person has different wants, needs, values, etc.,
and thus make trade-offs differently.  Tedy Bruschi of the Patriots is willing to take post-stroke risks by playing pro football again I would never take, but that doesn't mean its a incorrect decision for him.

Libertarian Plea to the Left

My Princeton college roommate Brink Lindsey, now of Cato, has been raising a moderate rumpus by arguing that the traditional libertarian-Right coalition is stale and that libertarians should look for allies on the left as well.  He called it liberaltarianism.  Fair enough.   I will take a shot at the same plea.

I will use this map of the teaching of evolution in schools by state as a jumping off point.  I can't validate whether it is accurate or not, so I won't reproduce it here, but let's accept it as a fair representation of the diversity of approach to teaching evolution by state, even if you don't agree with the implicit value judgments embedded in the chart.  I will use it to reflect on two points I have made in the past to try to interest the left in libertarianism.

1.  Building complex machinery of state may feel good at first, when "your guys" are in control, but your opposition, or outright knaves, will eventually co-opt the system. As I wrote here:

I am reminded of all this because the technocrats that built our
regulatory state are starting to see the danger of what they created.
A public school system was great as long as it was teaching the right
things and its indoctrinational excesses were in a leftish direction.
Now, however, we can see the panic.  The left is freaked that some red
state school districts may start teaching creationism or intelligent
design.  And you can hear the lament - how did we let Bush and these
conservative idiots take control of the beautiful machine we built?  My
answer is that you shouldn't have built the machine in the first place
- it always falls into the wrong hands.... 

Today, via Instapundit, comes this story about the GAO audit of the decision by the FDA to not allow the plan B morning after pill to be sold over the counter.
And, knock me over with a feather, it appears that the decision was
political, based on a conservative administration's opposition to
abortion.  And again the technocrats on the left are freaked.  Well,
what did you expect?  You applauded the Clinton FDA's politically
motivated ban on breast implants as a sop to NOW and the trial
lawyers.  In
establishing the FDA, it was you on the left that established the
principal, contradictory to the left's own stand on abortion, that the
government does indeed trump the individual on decision making for
their own body
  (other thoughts here).
Again we hear the lament that the game was great until these
conservative yahoos took over.  No, it wasn't.  It was unjust to scheme
to control other people's lives, and just plain stupid to expect that
the machinery of control you created would never fall into your
political enemy's hands.

2.  As public school boards come under sway of the Christian Right, the left should learn to embrace school choice, just as the Christian Right did a generation ago.  As I wrote here:

After the last election, the Left is increasingly worried that red
state religious beliefs may creep back into public school, as evidenced
in part by this Kevin Drum post on creationism.
My sense is that you can find strange things going on in schools of
every political stripe, from Bible-based creationism to inappropriate environmental advocacy.
I personally would not send my kids to a school that taught creationism
nor would I send them to a school that had 7-year-olds protesting
outside of a Manhattan bank.

At the end of the day, one-size-fits-all public schools are never
going to be able to satisfy everyone on this type thing, as it is
impossible to educate kids in a values-neutral way.  Statist parents
object to too much positive material on the founding fathers and the
Constitution.  Secular parents object to mentions of God and
overly-positive descriptions of religion in history.  Religious parents
object to secularized science and sex education.  Free market parents
object to enforced environmental activism and statist economics.   Some
parents want no grades and an emphasis on feeling good and self-esteem,
while others want tough grading and tough feedback when kids aren't
learning what they are supposed to.

I have always thought that these "softer" issues, rather than just
test scores and class sizes, were the real "killer-app" that might one
day drive acceptance of school choice in this country.  Certainly
increases in home-schooling rates have been driven as much by these
softer values-related issues (mainly to date from the Right) than by
just the three R's.

So here is my invitation to the Left: come over to the dark side.
Reconsider your historic opposition to school choice.  I'm not talking
about rolling back government spending or government commitment to
funding education for all.  I am talking about allowing parents to use
that money that government spends on their behalf at the school of
their choice.  Parents want their kids to learn creationism - fine,
they can find a school for that.  Parents want a strict, secular focus
on basic skills - fine, another school for that.  Parents want their
kids to spend time learning the three R's while also learning to love
nature and protect the environment - fine, do it.

Yes, I know, private schools to fit all these niches don't exist
today.   However, given a few years of parents running around with
$7000 vouchers in their hands, they will.  Yes, there will be
problems.  Some schools will fail, some will be bad, some with be
spectacular (though most will be better than what many urban kids,
particularly blacks, have today).   Some current public schools will
revitalize themselves in the face of competition, others will not. It
may take decades for a new system to emerge, but the Left used to be
the ones with the big, long-term visions.  The ultimate outcome,
though, could be beautiful.  And the end state will be better if the
Left, with its deep respect and support of publicly-funded education,
is a part of the process.

Of course, there is one caveat that trips up both the Left and the
Right:  To accept school choice, you have to be willing to accept that
some parents will choose to educate their kids in a way you do not
agree with, with science you do not necessarily accept, and with values
that you do not hold.  If your response is, fine, as long as my kids
can get the kind of education I want them to, then consider school
choice.  However, if your response is that this is not just about your
kids, this is about other people choosing to teach their
kids in ways you don't agree with, then you are in truth seeking a
collectivist (or fascist I guess, depending on your side of the aisle)
indoctrination system.  Often I find that phrases like "shared public
school experience" in the choice debate really are code words for
retaining such indoctrination.

In other words, are you OK if Bob Jones high school or Adam Smith
high school exist, as long as Greenpeace high school exists as well?
Or do you want to make everyone go to Greenpeace high school
exclusively?

Politically Correct Medicine

I am always floored by the number of progressives who embrace all kinds of wacky non-scientific health theories.  These are the same folks who criticize creationists as being anti-scientific.  I am not a creationist, but I might be able to embrace it faster than I could, say, the insanity that is homeopathic medicine**. 

Unfortunately, these are the same folks who will likely make up the backbone of the socialized medicine bureaucracy when and if the US finally decides to hand health care over to a consortium of the Post Office and Walther Reed.  So here is a preview of what we will get:

Tom and Donna (not their real names) are professional
shamen. They teach classes in shamanism at a "foundation", where you
can learn "soul retrieval healing", help the dead "continue their
journey into the Hereafter", and investigate "the Fairy Kingdom". These
soul retrievers and Fairy Kingdom investigators also work for the NHS "”
where, according to Tom's foundation profile, they "use complementary
therapies to help those with mental health difficulties". Shaman
therapies are not the only unorthodox treatments for which the NHS will
gladly pay.

Taxpayers are also subsidising Emotional
Freedom Technique (EFT) "therapy", in which, according to one NHS
trust, "subtle energies" are reordered via "tapping with the fingertips
to stimulate certain meridian energy points while the client is "˜tuned
in' to the problem". "¦If EFT doesn't do the job, an NHS foot massage
might help. Reflexologists believe that each part of the foot maps to a
different organ, and that massaging a particular point can treat that
organ. Medical doctors think it's absurd. "¦Most depressing of all for
the rational taxpayer is the NHS Directory for Alternative and
Complementary Medicine, which aims to promote "dowsers", "flower
therapists" and "crystal healers". We've just learnt that some
hospitals are removing every third light bulb to save money, and that
nurses are being paid half the minimum wage "” or being asked to work
for nothing "” at others. That's how bad the financial crisis has
become. Meanwhile, the National Health Service is employing shaman
fairy enthusiasts as psychological counsellors, enthusiastically
providing treatments invented by "an ordained minister and a personal
performance coach" who thinks tapping your body can cure diabetes,
promoting dowsers and crystal healers and spending vast amounts on
therapies that can't be scientifically supported.

Just as with the Walther Reed mess, the left wants to write off this stuff as just bad management, as an exception.  But unfortunately, this is the rule for government management.  It always goes bad.  Mismatched incentives + lack of individual choice + strong unionized bureaucracy most concerned with its own job security + impossibly complex information flows = mess.  Always.  I get very tired of the excuse, as I wrote here, that "if only we were in charge, everything would work great." 

Throughout these years, libertarians like myself argued that there
were at least three problems with all of this technocratic statism:

  • You can't make better decisions for other people, even if you
    are smarter, because every person has different wants, needs, values,
    etc., and thus make trade-offs differently.  Tedy Bruschi of the
    Patriots is willing to take post-stroke risks by playing pro football again I would never take, but that doesn't mean its a incorrect decision for him.
  • Technocratic idealists ALWAYS lose control of the game.  It may
    feel good at first when the trains start running on time, but the
    technocrats are soon swept away by the thugs, and the patina of
    idealism is swept away, and only fascism is left.  Interestingly, the
    technocrats always cry "our only mistake was letting those other guys
    take control".  No, the mistake was accepting the right to use force on
    another man.  Everything after that was inevitable.

Everyone has had a turn running the place (except libertarians, I might observe) and everyone has screwed things up.

** I am amazed I have not posted a rant on homeopathic medicine, but searching through my archives, I don't find anything.  If you don't know, here is the fast answer why homeopathy is silly.  Advocates of homeopathy argue that they can make certain substances more effective by diluting them, and the more they dilute them, the more effective they are.  Go to one of their web sites, and you will see dilution rations that translate into having less than one molecule of the active ingredient in a mass of water the volume of all the world's oceans.  Advocates argue that even though the molecules are gone, some sort of resonance remains.  Uhh, right.

Repeat After Me ... Its Not Just One Party

Kevin Drum opines:

What happens when you combine "fast track" procurement, minimal
oversight, pork-based contracting, and a comprehensive lack of
responsibility for results? Well, you get the Bush administration, of
course. More specifically, you get the Coast Guard's disastrous
Deepwater program. Nadezhda runs through the grim details.

This is perhaps the single greatest fallacy that props up big government.  Specifically, the notion that corruption, inefficiency, and stupidity are failures in government related to certain individuals.  The implication is that if only "our party" was in control, big government would be great.  Except that both parties have had their chances in alternating fashion for 70 years (what I would call the era of really big government) and government has been a mess regardless of who has been in control. 

People like Hayek and Friedman have written who books about it, so I want try to elucidate the whole theory, except to summarize that the nature of incentives in government, particularly the big sacrifice-one-group-for-another government we have today, will ALWAYS lead to massive failures.  Period.

I wrote over a year ago that statism always comes back to bite its creators, because no matter how beautiful the machinery of government control, you can never control for the human beings who get behind the levers.  At that time I pointed to three fallacies, of which the third is particularly relevant to this post:

  • You can't make better decisions for other people, even if you
    are smarter, because every person has different wants, needs, values,
    etc., and thus make trade-offs differently.  Tedy Bruschi of the
    Patriots is willing to take post-stroke risks by playing pro football again I would never take, but that doesn't mean its a incorrect decision for him.
  • Technocratic idealists ALWAYS lose control of the game.  It may
    feel good at first when the trains start running on time, but the
    technocrats are soon swept away by the thugs, and the patina of
    idealism is swept away, and only fascism is left.  Interestingly, the
    technocrats always cry "our only mistake was letting those other guys
    take control".  No, the mistake was accepting the right to use force on
    another man.  Everything after that was inevitable.

I hope this is True

It would be nice to think that we are this numerous:

These federal intrusions are especially scorned by
independent voters in the Western states where Republicans have been
losing ground, like Colorado, Nevada, Arizona and Montana. Western
Democrats have been siphoning off libertarian voters by moderating
their liberal views on issues like gun control, but Republicans have
been driving libertarians away with their wars on vice and their
jeremiads against gay marriage (and their attempt to regulate that from
Washington, too).

Libertarian voters tend to get ignored by political strategists
because they're not easy to categorize or organize. They don't
congregate in churches or union halls; they don't unite to push
political agendas. Many don't even call themselves libertarians,
although they qualify because of their social liberalism and economic
conservatism: they want the government out of their bedrooms as well as
their wallets.

They distrust moral busybodies of both parties, and they may well be
the most important bloc of swing voters this election, as David Boaz
and David Kirby conclude in a new study for the Cato Institute.
Analyzing a variety of voter surveys, they estimate that libertarians
make up about 15 percent of voters "” a bloc roughly comparable in size
to liberals and to conservative Christians, and far bigger than blocs
like Nascar dads or soccer moms.

I am not sure I believe it - many of the people who claim to be small government turn into statist technocrats when the right issue comes up.

I will say that the Internet and blogging in particular has really brought many libertarians to the surface.  I wrote about the phenomena of libertarians and blogging here.

The Statist Trap

David Boaz of Cato makes this comment in the context of an article on suppressing speech in modern South Africa:

In the last days of apartheid, some libertarians pointed out to South
Africa's rulers that if they left a government broadcasting operation
in place, they would one day regret the way a different government
would use it. Looks like that day has come.

This is a point I make time and time again.  When statists push their policies, it is always with the assumption that they themselves will be in control of the government machinery they create.  In contrast, the miracle of the US Constitution was that the government was constituted with the assumption that rogues and scoundrels would take control, and the founders put protections in place to limit the damage these scoundrels could do to our individual liberties.

As I said previously
:

I am reminded of all this because the technocrats that built our
regulatory state are starting to see the danger of what they created.
A public school system was great as long as it was teaching the right
things and its indoctrinational excesses were in a leftish direction.
Now, however, we can see the panic.  The left is freaked that some red
state school districts may start teaching creationism or intelligent
design.  And you can hear the lament - how did we let Bush and these
conservative idiots take control of the beautiful machine we built?  My
answer is that you shouldn't have built the machine in the first place
- it always falls into the wrong hands.  Maybe its time for me to again invite the left to reconsider school choice.

Today, via Instapundit, comes this story about the GAO audit of the decision by the FDA to not allow the plan B morning after pill to be sold over the counter.
And, knock me over with a feather, it appears that the decision was
political, based on a conservative administration's opposition to
abortion.  And again the technocrats on the left are freaked.  Well,
what did you expect?  You applauded the Clinton FDA's politically
motivated ban on breast implants as a sop to NOW and the trial
lawyers.  In
establishing the FDA, it was you on the left that established the
principal, contradictory to the left's own stand on abortion, that the
government does indeed trump the individual on decision making for
their own body
  (other thoughts here).
Again we hear the lament that the game was great until these
conservative yahoos took over.  No, it wasn't.  It was unjust to scheme
to control other people's lives, and just plain stupid to expect that
the machinery of control you created would never fall into your
political enemy's hands.

As I concluded before, even Star Trek figured out this whole technocrat losing control of the fascist state thing 40 years ago.