Posts tagged ‘war’

On Displaying the Confederate Battle Flag

The Supremes are going to discuss whether displaying a confederate battle flag on your custom license plate is protected by free speech.

In 1980 when I went up north to school I had a Confederate battle flag on my wall.  I keep calling it the battle flag because in fact the flag you are thinking about (the one on the Dukes of Hazard's car) is not actually the flag of the Confederate nation.  Most folks could not describe the original Confederate flag under torture (here it is).

So the flag you are thinking about, and the Supremes are considering, was actually based on the battle flags of certain state militias, like that of Virginia and Tennessee.  It was also used by the Confederate Navy, and was incorporated into a redesign of the official Confederate flag late in the war.

Anyway, there were a couple of reasons a young Texan might put up this flag in his northern dorm room.  First, it is awesome looking.  There are a lot of bad flags in the world, but this is a great-looking flag.  Second, at the time it represented the southern pride of a lot of us who found ourselves displaced and living in that odd northeastern college culture.  It never represented (at least at the time) anything racist for me.  For southerners (many of us raised, without knowing it, on the Lost Cause school of Civil War historiography) it represented pride and pluck and scrappy determination.

Anyway, I don't remember getting any pushback on the flag at the time.  Over the years, though, I came to recognize that the flag was seen by many as a symbol of racism.  Part of that was my increasing awareness but a large part was shifts in society and its perceptions -- remember the Dukes of Hazard was a real, popular network show that could likely never get made today.   I suppose I could have retained the flag as a symbol of what I thought it was a symbol for, and just ignored other peoples' opinion.  But at some point, I realized that other peoples' good opinion of me had value and that I needed to acknowledge how they saw the flag and put it away in a box.

Which brings me back to license plates.  If a state is going to create a license plate program where people can make statements with their license plates, then people should be able to make the statement they want to make.  I know there are folks in the south who honestly still cling to the symbolism I used to attach to the Confederate battle flag.  But let's leave those folks aside.  Let's assume for a moment that everyone who wants to display this symbol on their car is a racist.  Shouldn't we be thrilled if they want to do so?  Here would be a program where racists would voluntarily self-identify to all as a racist (they would even pay extra to do so!)  What would be a greater public service?

I make this same argument when people want to ban speakers from campus.  If people are willing to come forward with evil thoughts and intentions and announce them publicly, why wouldn't we let them?  Its is fine to want to eliminate evil from the Earth, but shilling hateful speech doesn't do this -- it only drives evil underground.

Postscript:  I actually started thinking about this driving down I-40 from Knoxville to Nashville yesterday.  In a bend in the road, on a hill, there is a large home.  Their land goes right out to the bend in the highway, and on that bend they have put up a huge flag pole with a big Confederate battle flag.  You can see it from miles in each direction.  I didn't get a picture but there are plenty on the web. From searching for it, there are apparently similar installations on private land in other states.  As I drove, having nothing else to do, I thought a lot about what message they were trying to send.  Was it just southern pride?  Were they really racists?  If they weren't racists, did they know that many would think them as such?  And if so, did they even care -- was this in fact just a giant FU?


The Dangers of Bipartisanship

The media loves to talk about the joys of bipartisanship, but libertarians run for the hills whenever we hear that word.  Because it means that true legislative suckage is probably on the way.   The horrendous war on drugs is just one example.

Here is another -- freedom to buy alcohol where it is most convenient.  Living in AZ, I have come to expect that I can buy some tequila at my grocery store, but apparently this is a very limited freedom in the US:


There are two reasons.  First, this is where you get one of those left-right coalitions, with Republican social conservatives wanting to limit liquor availability and Democratic big government types wanting to keep sales to a small group that can be tightly regulated (and strip-mined for campaign donations), or even better, to state-run liquor stores.  The second reason is that once any regulation is in place that restricts sales, the beneficiaries of those restrictions (e.g. liquor stores or unionized employees at state-run stores) fight any liberalization tooth and nail to protect their crony rents.

The Un-discussed Foreign Policy Alternative

I was going to write a longer post on foreign policy vis a vis terrorism and ISIS, but I lack both the time as well as confidence in my foreign policy knowledge.

I will offer this, though:  There seem to be but two policy positions being discussed

  1. The largely Conservative position that there is a dangerous and violent authoritarian streak running through the world of Islam and that we need to saddle up the troops and go break some heads and impose order
  2. The Progressive position embodied by the Obama Administration that there is nothing abnormal going on in Islam and that what we see is random violence spurred by poverty and thus we should not intervene militarily (I consider the current AUMF proposed by Obama to be political posturing to satisfy polls rather than anything driven by true belief).

Why is there not a third alternative to be at least considered -- that there is something really broken in a lot of Islam as practiced today (just as there was a lot of sh*t broken with Christianity in, say, the 14th-16th centuries) and that Islam as practiced in many Middle Eastern countries is wildly illiberal (way more illiberal than any failings of Israel, though you wouldn't know that if you were living on a college campus).  But, that we don't need to saddle up the troops and try to change things by force.

Conservatives who can look at things like serial failures in Federal education policy and reach the conclusion that we should be skeptical about Federal initiatives on education seem unable to draw similar conclusions from serial failures in US interventions in the Islamic world.  And for its part, the Obama administration seems to be living in some weird alternate universe trying desperately to ignore the reality of the situation.

Yes, I know the first response to all folks like me who advocate for non-intervention is "Munich" and "Czechoslovakia".  So be it.  But if we sent in the military every time someone yelled "appeasement" our aircraft would be worn out from moving troops around.  And we seem to be totally able to ignore atrocities and awful rulers in Sub-Saharan Africa.

As a minimum, I would like to see a coalition of Arab states coming to us and publicly asking us for help -- not this usual Middle East BS we hear that Saudi Ariabi (or whoever) really in private wants us there but publicly they will still lambaste us.  Without this support we can win the war but we have no moral authority (as we did after WWII) in the peace.  Which is one reason so many of our interventions in the Middle East and North Africa fail.

Competition via Influencing Government

I have mentioned a number of times my chicken or the egg arguments with Progressives on the solution to cronyism.  Is the problem that government power exists to influence markets, and as long as it exists people will bid to control it?  Or is it possible to wield massive make-or-break government power over industry rationally, and only the rank immorality and corrupt speech of corporations stands in the way.  The former argues for a reduction in government power, the latter for more regulation of corporations and their ability to participate in the political process.

I believe this is an example in favor of the "power is inherently corrupting" argument.  No corporation lobbied for NOx rules on diesel engines.  They all fought it tooth and nail.  But once these regulations existed, engine makers are all trying to use the laws to gut their competition:

In 1991, the EPA ignored complaints from several makers of non-road engines that rivals were cheating, in order to save fuel, on emissions rules for oxides of nitrous (NOx). Then environmental groups took up the same complaint, whereupon the agency demanded face-saving consent decrees with numerous engine makers, including two Volvo affiliates.

In essence, the engine makers apologized by agreeing in 1999 to accelerate by a single year compliance with a new emissions standard scheduled to take effect in 2006.

Meanwhile, with another NOx standard looming in 2010, Navistar sued the EPA claiming rival engine-makers were seeking to meet the rule with a defective technology. In turn, Navistar’s competitors sued claiming the EPA was unfairly favoring a defective technology pursued by Navistar (these are only the barest highlights of what became a truck-makers’ legal holy war).

While all this was going on, a Navistar joint-venture partner, Caterpillar, complained that 7,262 Volvo stationary engines made in Sweden before 2006 had violated the 1999 consent decree. Now let’s credit Caterpillar with a certain paperwork ingenuity: The Volvo engines were not imported to the U.S. and were made by a Volvo affiliate that wasn’t a party to the consent decree. EPA itself happily certified the engines under its then-current NOx standard, only changing its mind four years later, prodded by a competitor with a clear interest in damaging Volvo’s business.

To complete the parody, a federal district court would later agree that the 1999 consent terms “do not clearly apply” to the engines in question, but upheld an EPA penalty anyway because Volvo otherwise might enjoy a “competitive advantage” against engines to which the consent decree applied.

As a side note, this is from the "oops, nevermind" Emily Litella School of Regulation:

Let it be said that the EPA’s NOx regulation must have done some good for the American people, though how much good is hard to know. The EPA relies on dubious extrapolations to estimate the benefits to public health. What’s more, the agency appears to have stopped publishing estimates of NOx pollution after 2005. Maybe that’s because the EPA’s focus has shifted to climate change, and its NOx regulations actually increase greenhouse emissions by increasing fuel burn.

Christians vs. Muslims

I think this author, like many others, gets it wrong by comparing Jesus and Mohammad to try to get at the roots of modern Islamic violence.  I don't think you can explain the (relative) non-violence of Christians today vs. the prevalence of violence among certain portions of the Islamic religion by looking at their scriptures.

The reason is that for hundreds of years ago, Christians were the world's crazed terrorists.  They would burn you to death for being a heretic, or being gay, or being suspected of witchcraft.  When the first Crusade was called by the Pope, hordes of Christians in the Rhine Valley headed north (rather than south and east) to forcibly convert or kill Jews in numerous German communities.   The Christian on Christian sectarian violence of the 30 years war was perhaps the worst cataclysm Europe ever endured until the 20th Century.

I am sure Christians would say that such violence is inconsistent with true Christianity, etc. but never-the-less history shows that Christians have no less inherent propensity to religious violence than Muslims.  Christians have moved on -- matured, maybe?  I am not sure what the word is.  Unfortunately, parts of Islam have not, which makes it dangerous today in a way that Christianity is not.

Economic Drivers I Had Not Considered Before

Geographic mobility costs are a drag on the economy, because they slow and/or truncate relocation of labor to shifting areas of demand (a good example is the fact that North Dakota currently can't get enough workers because people can't/won't move there to take advantage of the opportunities.

Apparently, there are economists who make the argument that one reason for the post-WWII boom is that the war increased mobility for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the forced extrication of young men from their homes via the draft.  Apparently Hurricane Katrina may have had the same effect, blasting people out of the moribund New Orleans economy and forcing them to move to more dynamic areas.

This is probably true, but also one of those areas where economic analysis falls short of total well-being analysis (for lack of a better term).  I know folks from New Orleans and they often seem to be deeply tied to the New Orleans culture and miss it when they have moved away.   Many move back.  So just because someone is better off economically with a job in Houston does not necessarily mean they consider themselves better off.

Drone War Legacy

In campaigning for the Presidency, Obama made it clear that he thought that much of the violence and hatred directed at Americans was self-inflicted -- ie our often ham-fisted, aggressive interventionism in the affairs of other countries, frequently backed by military force, was aggravating the world against us.  If we stopped, the violence against us would stop.

I rate this as partially correct and partially naive.  As the richest state in the world, one whose culture pours into other countries to the dismay of many of the local elites, we will always earn the ire of many.  But we certainly have made it worse with our actions.

But this just makes it all the more frustrating to me to see Obama's continued support, even acceleration, of the drone war.  I am not sure there is any other practice that emphasizes our arrogant authoritarian militarism than the drone war.  Americans are not used to a feeling of helplessness, so it is perhaps hard to fully empathize.  But imagine the sense of helplessness to watch American drones circling above your city, drones you can't get rid of or shoot down, drones that lazily circle and then bring death from above almost at random.   I can't think of any similar experience in recent western experience, except perhaps the V2 rocket attacks on London in WWII.

The Obama Administration claims that these are clean, surgical tools without any collateral damage.  They do this by a rhetorical slight of hand, essentially defining anyone who is killed in the attacks ex post facto as being guilty.

As is often the case with government activities, it is worse than we thought:

Via the British group Reprieve comes a report asserting that U.S. drones in Yemen and Pakistan kill 28 "unknowns" for every intended target. What's more, "41 names of men who seemed to have achieved the impossible: to have ‘died,’ in public reporting, not just once, not just twice, but again and again. Reports indicate that each assassination target ‘died’ on average more than three times before their actual death."

So much for the precision of drone strikes, which promise a future of war in which civilians and other forms of collateral damage are spared ruin and destruction. As President Obama said in 2013, by "narrowly targeting our action against those who want to kill us, and not the people they hide among, we are choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life.”

Well, sort of. From the Reprieve report:

As many as 1,147 people may have been killed during attempts to kill 41 men, accounting for a quarter of all possible drone strike casualties in Pakistan and Yemen. In Yemen, strikes against just 17 targets accounted for almost half of all confirmed civilian casualties. Yet evidence suggests that at least four of these 17 men are still alive. Similarly, in Pakistan, 221 people, including 103 children, have been killed in attempt sto kill four men, three of whom are still alive and a fourth of whom died from natural causes. One individual, Fahd al Quso, was reported killed in both Yemen and Pakistan. In four attempts to kill al Quso, 48 people potentially lost their lives.

Private Justice and the New Vigilantism of the Left

In the 1970's, Hollywood produced a number of movies that drew from a frustration that the criminal justice system was broken.   Specifically, a surprisingly large number of people felt that due process protections of accused criminals had gone too far, and were causing police and prosecutors to lose the war on crime.  In the Dirty Harry movies, Clint Eastwood is constantly fighting against what are portrayed as soft-hearted Liberal protections of criminals.  In the Death Wish movies, Charles Bronson's character goes further, acting as a private vigilante meeting out well-deserved justice on criminals the system can't seem to catch.

There are always folks who do not understand and accept the design of our criminal justice system.  Every system that makes judgments has type I and type II errors.  In the justice system, type I errors are those that decide an innocent person is guilty and type II errors are those that decide a guilty person is not guilty.  While there are reforms that reduce both types of errors, at the margin improvements that reduce type I errors tend to increase type II errors and vice versa.

Given this tradeoff, a system designer has to choose which type of error he or she is willing to live with.  And in criminal justice the rule has always been to reduce type I errors (conviction of the innocent) even if this increases type II errors (letting the guilty go free).

And this leads to the historic friction -- people see the type II errors, the guilty going free, and want to do something about it.  But they forget, or perhaps don't care, that for each change that puts more of the guilty in jail, more innocent people will go to jail too.  Movies cheat on this, by showing you the criminal committing the crimes, so you know without a doubt they are guilty.  But in the real world, no one has this certainty.  Even with supposed witnesses.  A lot of men, most of them black, in the south have been put to death with witness testimony and then later exonerated when it was too late.

This 1970's style desire for private justice to substitute for a justice system that was seen as too soft on crime was mainly a feature of the Right.  Today, however, calls for private justice seem to most often come from the Left.

It is amazing how much women's groups and the Left today remind me of the Dirty Harry Right of the 1970's.  They fear an epidemic of crime against women, egged on by a few prominent folks who exaggerate crime statistics to instill fear for political purposes.  In this environment of fear, they see the criminal justice system as failing women, doing little to bring rapist men to justice or change their behavior  (though today the supposed reason for this injustice is Right-wing patriarchy rather than Left-wing bleeding heartism).

Observe the controversies around prosecution of campus sexual assaults and the bruhaha around the video of Ray Rice hitting a woman in an elevator.  In both cases, these crimes are typically the purview of the criminal justice system.  However, it is clear that the Left has given up on the criminal justice system with all its "protections" of the accused.  Look at the Ray Rice case -- when outrage flared for not having a strong enough punishment, it was all aimed at the NFL.  There was a New Jersey state prosecutor that had allowed Rice into a pre-trial diversion program based on his lack of a criminal record, but no one on the Left even bothered with him.  They knew the prosecutor had to follow the law.   When it comes to campus sexual assault, no one on the Left seems to be calling for more police action.  They are demanding that college administrators with no background in criminal investigation or law create shadow judiciary systems instead.

The goal is to get out of the legally constrained criminal justice system and into a more lawless private environment. This allows:

  • A complete rewrite in the rules of evidence and of guilt and innocence.  At the behest of Women's groups, the Department of Justice and the state of California have re-written criminal procedure and required preponderance of the evidence (rather than beyond a reasonable doubt) conviction standards for sexual assault on campus.   Defendants in sexual assault cases on campus are stripped of their traditional legal rights to a lawyer, to see all evidence in advance, to face their accuser, to cross-examine witnesses, etc. etc.  It is the exact same kind of rules of criminal procedure that Dirty Harry and Paul Kersey would have applauded.  Unacknowledged is the inevitable growth of Type I errors (punishing the innocent) that are sure to result.  Do the proponents not understand this tradeoff?  Or, just like the archetypal southern sheriff believed vis a vis blacks, do women's groups assume that the convicted male "must be guilty of something".
  • Much harsher punishments.   As a first offender, even without pre-trial diversion, Ray Rice was unlikely to get much more than some probation and perhaps a few months of jail time.  But the NFL, as his employer (and a monopoly to boot) has a far higher ability to punish him.  By banning Ray Rice from the league, effectively for life, they have put a harsh life sentence on the man (and ironically on the victim, his wife).  They have imposed a fine on him of tens of millions of dollars.

Postscript:  For those who are younger and may not have experienced these movies, here is the IMDB summary of Death Wish

Open-minded architect Paul Kersey returns to New York City from vacationing with his wife, feeling on top of the world. At the office, his cynical coworker gives him the welcome-back with a warning on the rising crime rate. But Paul, a bleeding-heart liberal, thinks of crime as being caused by poverty. However his coworker's ranting proves to be more than true when Paul's wife is killed and his daughter is raped in his own apartment. The police have no reliable leads and his overly sensitive son-in-law only exacerbates Paul's feeling of hopelessness. He is now facing the reality that the police can't be everywhere at once. Out of sympathy his boss gives him an assignment in sunny Arizona where Paul gets a taste of the Old West ideals. He returns to New York with a compromised view on muggers...

I guess I was premature in portraying these movies as mainly a product of the 1970s, since this movie just came out.

Inevitably necessary note on private property rights:  The NFL and private colleges have every right to hire and fire and eject students for any reasons they want as long as those rules and conditions were clear when players and students joined those organizations.  Of course, they are subject to mockery if we think the rules or their execution deserve it.  Public colleges are a different matter, and mandates by Federal and State governments even more so.  Government institutions are supposed to follow the Constitution and the law, offering equal protection and due process.

Fake but Accurate: How I Know Nobody Believes that 1 in 5 Women Are Raped on Campus

How do I know that average people do not believe the one in five women raped on campus meme?  Because parents still are sending their daughters to college, that's why.  In increasing numbers that threaten to overwhelm males on campus.   What is more, I sat recently through new parent orientations at a famous college and parents asked zillions of stupid, trivial questions and not one of them inquired into the safety of their daughters on campus or the protections afforded them.  Everyone knows that some women are raped and badly taken advantage of on campus, but everyone also knows the one in five number is overblown BS.

Imagine that there is a country with a one in 20 chance of an American woman visiting getting raped.  How many parents would yank their daughters from any school trip headed for that country -- a lot of them, I would imagine.  If there were a one in five chance?  No one would allow their little girls to go.  I promise.   I am a dad, I know.

Even if the average person can't articulate their source of skepticism, most people understand in their gut that we live in a post-modern world when it comes to media "data".  Political discourse, and much of the media, is ruled by the "fake but accurate" fact.  That is, the number everyone knows has no valid source or basis in fact or that everyone knows fails every smell test, but they use anyway because it is in a good cause.  They will say, "well one in five is probably high but it's an important issue anyway".

The first time I ever encountered this effect was on an NPR radio show years ago.  The hosts were discussing a well-accepted media statistic at the time that there were a million homeless people (these homeless people only seem to exist, at least in the media, during Republican presidencies so I suppose this dates all the way back to the Reagan or Bush years).  Someone actually tracked down this million person stat and traced it back to a leading homeless advocate, who admitted he just made it up for an interview, and was kind of amazed everyone just accepted it.  But the interesting part was a discussion with several people in the media who still used the statistic even after they knew it to be outsourced BS, made up out of thin air.  Their logic:  homelessness was a critical issue and the stat may be wrong, but it was OK to essentially lie (they did not use the word "lie") about the facts in a good cause.  The statistic was fake, but accurately reflected a real problem.  Later, the actual phrase "fake but accurate" would be coined in association with the George W. Bush faked air force national guard papers.  Opponents of Bush argued after the forgery became clear to everyone but Dan Rather that the letters may have been fake but they accurately reflected character flaws in the President.

And for those on the Left who want to get bent out of shape that this is just aimed at them, militarists love these post-modern non-facts to stir up fear in the war on terror, the war on crime, the war on drugs, and the war on just about everyone in the middle east.

PS-  Neil deGrasse Tyson has been criticized of late for the same failing, the use of fake quotes that supposedly accurately reflect the mind of the quoted person.  It is one thing for politicians to play this game.  It is worse for scientists.  It is the absolute worst for a scientist to play this anti-science game in the name of defending science.  


Thoughts On Campus Speech 2: Why Libertarian Kids Get the Most for their College Money

I hear Conservatives lamenting all the time that their kids can't get a good college education because academia is dominated by Liberals and liberal assumptions.  I think just the opposite is true.  Leftist parents should be asking for their money back.

I have spoken on campus a few times about topics such as climate and regulation.  One thing I have found is that students have often not heard the libertarian point of view from a libertarian.   I have done any number of campus radio station interviews as a climate skeptic, and I have similarly found is that the students I talk to have a very muddled understanding of what skeptics believe.  In most cases, I was the first skeptic they had ever talked to or read - everything they knew previously about skeptics had come from our opposition (e.g. what Bill McKibbon says skeptics believe).  This is roughly equivalent to someone only "knowing" why liberals believe what they do from Rush Limbaugh.   My son encountered a college woman last week who despised the Koch brothers, but actually knew almost nothing about them and had never actually seen their work or read their views.  Harry Reid and others she considered authorities said the Kochs sucked so suck they do.

This is just incredibly unhealthy.  Living in an echo chamber and only encountering opposing or uncomfortable positions as straw men versions propped up to be knocked down.  What a crappy education, but that is what most liberal kids get.

Not so my son the libertarian.  He is forced to encounter and argue against authoritarian ideas with which he disagrees in every class and in every social interaction.   Not just in economics and domestic policy -- there is still a lot of interventionism and authoritarianism taught in foreign policy and even in history.  Name one US president from academic lists of great presidents who did not get us in a war?

Michael Munger: The "State" As A Unicorn

Michael Munger has one of the most useful articles I have read in a very long time.  As illustrated by the Venn diagram I posted a while back showing the heavy overlap between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, we have much more concurrence in the diagnosis of problems than in the prescriptions for solutions.   Munger gets at the heart of why many people go wrong in these prescriptions

When I am discussing the state with my colleagues at Duke, it's not long before I realize that, for them, almost without exception, the State is a unicorn. I come from the Public Choice tradition, which tends to emphasize consequentialist arguments more than natural rights, and so the distinction is particularly important for me. My friends generally dislike politicians, find democracy messy and distasteful, and object to the brutality and coercive excesses of foreign wars, the war on drugs, and the spying of the NSA. 

But their solution is, without exception, to expand the power of "the State." That seems literally insane to me—a non sequitur of such monstrous proportions that I had trouble taking it seriously.

Then I realized that they want a kind of unicorn, a State that has the properties, motivations, knowledge, and abilities that they can imagine for it. When I finally realized that we were talking past each other, I felt kind of dumb. Because essentially this very realization—that people who favor expansion of government imagine a State different from the one possible in the physical world—has been a core part of the argument made by classical liberals for at least three hundred years....

He follows with this useful test

But they may not immediately see why "the State" that they can imagine is a unicorn. So, to help them, I propose what I (immodestly) call "the Munger test."  

  1. Go ahead, make your argument for what you want the State to do, and what you want the State to be in charge of.
  2. Then, go back and look at your statement. Everywhere you said "the State" delete that phrase and replace it with "politicians I actually know, running in electoral systems with voters and interest groups that actually exist."
  3. If you still believe your statement, then we have something to talk about.

This leads to loads of fun, believe me. When someone says, "The State should be in charge of hundreds of thousands of heavily armed troops, with the authority to use that coercive power," ask them to take out the unicorn ("The State") and replace it with George W. Bush. How do you like it now?

If someone says, "The State should be able to choose subsidies and taxes to change the incentives people face in deciding what energy sources to use," ask them to remove "The State" and replace it with "senators from states that rely on coal, oil, or corn ethanol for income." Still sound like a good idea?

How about, "The State should make rules for regulating sales of high performance electric cars." Now, the switch: "Representatives from Michigan and other states that produce parts for internal combustion engines should be in charge of regulating Tesla Motors."  Gosh, maybe not …

Hat tip:  Don Boudreaux

I spent most of the Bush years asking Conservatives a similar question -- you may be fine when "your guy" has this power, but would you be happy if Al Gore or Nancy Pelosi had it.  And of course I have spent most of the Obama years asking Liberals whether they would be comfortable if George Bush or Rick Perry had similar powers to what Obama has claimed for himself.  Because they will.

I said something similar here, though less elegantly.  I concluded in part:

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.

D-Day More Important in Containing the Soviets than Defeating the Nazis

Over time, my understanding of the importance of the D-Day invasions has shifted.  Growing up, I considered these events to be the single key event in defeating the Nazis.  Listening to the radio this morning, this still seems to be the common understanding.

Over time, I have had to face the fact that the US (or at least the US Army) was not primarily responsible for defeating Germany -- the Russians defeated Germany, and what's more, would have defeated them whether the Allies had landed in France or not.  Check out the casualties by front, from Wikipedia:

click to enlarge

The Russians defeated Germany.  Period.   And I don't think the western allies would ever have had the stomach to inflict the kind of casualties on Germany that were ultimately necessary to defeat her without Russian help.  To me, this is the great irony of WWII, that it was not ultimately a victory for democracy.  Only totalitarian Russia could defeat totalitarian Germany.  This thought often bothers me a lot.  It doesn't fit with how we want to view the war.

However, D-Day did have an important effect -- it kept Western Europe out of Soviet hands.  We did not know it at the time, but I would argue in retrospect that from mid-1944 on we were competing with Russia to see how Europe would get divided up after the war.  D-Day allowed the western allies to overrun most of Western Europe and keep it out of Soviet hands, perhaps an even more important outcome than just speeding the defeat of the Germans.  Sure, FDR gets grief for giving the farm away to Russia at Yalta, but what could he do?  The Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe at that point was a fait accompli.  What would have been FDR & Churchill's negotiation position at Yalta if their armies were not even on the continent (excepting Italy, where we might still be fighting in 2014 and getting nowhere)?

George R. R. Martin: Why Good Intentions Don't Necessarily Make For Good Rulers

Via Alex Tabarrok

A major concern in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones is power. Almost everybody – except maybe Daenerys, across the waters with her dragons – wields power badly.
Ruling is hard. This was maybe my answer to Tolkien, whom, as much as I admire him, I do quibble with. Lord of the Rings had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper. We look at real history and it’s not that simple. Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn’t ask the question: What was Aragorn’s tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine? And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?

In real life, real-life kings had real-life problems to deal with. Just being a good guy was not the answer. You had to make hard, hard decisions. Sometimes what seemed to be a good decision turned around and bit you in the ass; it was the law of unintended consequences. I’ve tried to get at some of these in my books. My people who are trying to rule don’t have an easy time of it. Just having good intentions doesn’t make you a wise king.

The Effect of the Black Death on Labor and Grain Prices

Long time readers will know that if I were asked to relive my life doing something entirely different, I would like to try studying economic history.  Today, in a bit of a coincidence, my son called me with a question about the effect of the Black Death in Europe on labor and grain prices ... just days after I had been learning about the exact same part of history in Professor Daileader's awesome Teaching Company course on the Middle Ages (actually he has three courses - early, high, late - which are all excellent).

From the beginning of the 14th century, Europe suffered a series of demographic disasters.  Climate change in the form of the end of the Medieval warm period led to failed crops and several years of famine early in the century.  Then, later in the century, the Black Death came... over and over, perhaps made worse by the fact that Europeans were weakened already from famine.  As a result, the population of Europe dropped by something like half.

It is not entirely obvious to me what such a demographic disaster would do to prices.  Panic and uncertainty usually drive them up in the near term, but what about after that?  Both the supply and demand curves for most everything will be dropping in tandem.  So what happens to prices?

In the case of the 14th century, we know the answer:  the price of labor rose dramatically, while the price of grain dropped.  The combination tended to bankrupt the landholding aristocracy, who went so far as to try to reimpose serfdom to get their finances back in balance (some things never change).  The nobility pretty much failed at this in the West (England, France) and were met with a series of peasant revolts.  They generally succeeded in the East (Germany, Poland, Russia) which is why a quasi-feudal agricultural system persisted so long in those countries.

But why?  Why did grain price go down rather than up?  Why did labor go in the opposite direction?  I could look it up, but that is no fun.

A first answer, which does not satisfy

People who think of all of the middle ages as "the dark ages" miss the boom that occurred between 1000-1300.  Population increased, and technology advanced (just because this technology seems pedestrian to us, like the plow harness for horses or the stirrup, does not make it any less so).  It was the only time between about 300 and 1500 when the population was growing (a fact we climate skeptics will note coincided with the Medieval warm period).

But even without the setbacks of the 1300's, historians probably would argue that Europe was headed for a Malthusian collapse no matter what in the 14th century.   An enormous amount of forest had been cleared and new farmland created, such that by 1300 some pretty marginal land was being farmed just so Europe could barely keep up with demand.  At the margin, really low productivity land was being farmed.

So if there is a sudden 50% population cut, then that means that all that marginal farm land will be abandoned first.  While the number of farmers would be cut in half, production would be reduced by less than half because presumably the least productive farms would be abandoned first.  With demand cut by half and production cut by less than half, prices would fall for grain.

But this doesn't work for labor.  The same argument should apply.  To get everyone fed, we would actually need less than half the prior labor force because they would concentrate on the best land.  Labor prices should fall in this model as well, but in fact they went up.  A lot.  In fact, they went up not by a few percent but by multiples, enough to cause enormous social problems across Europe.

A second answer, that makes more sense

After thinking about this for a while, I came to realize that I had the wrong model for the economy in my head.  I was thinking about our modern economy.   If suddenly, say, online retailing reduces demand for physical stores dramatically, people close stores and redeploy capital and labor and assets to other investments in other industries.  That is how I was thinking about the Middle Ages.

But it may be more correct to see the Middle Ages as a one product economy.  There was agriculture, period.  Everything else was a rounding error.

So now let's think about the "farmers" in the Middle Ages.  They are primarily all the 1%, the titled nobility, who either farm big estates with peasant labor or lease large parts of their estates to peasants for farming.

OK, half the population is suddenly gone.  The Noble's family has lots of death but someone is still around to inherit.  They have a big estate where growing grain supports their lifestyle as well as any military obligations they may have to their lord (though this style of fighting with knights on horseback supported by grants of land is having its last hurrah in the 100 years war).

Then grain prices collapse.  That is a clear pricing signal.  In the modern economy, that would tell us to get out and find a new place for our capital.  So, as Lord Coyote of the Castle Aaaaargh, I am going to do what, exactly?  How can I redeploy my capital, when it is essentially illiquid?  I can't sell the family land.  And if I did, land prices, along with grain prices and the demographic collapse, are falling through the floor.  And even if I could sell for cash, what would I do for a living?  What would I reinvest the money in?  Running an estate is all I know.  It's all anyone knows.  I have to support myself and my 3 mistresses and my squires and my string of warhorses.

All I can do is try to farm the land I have always farmed.  And everyone else does the same.  The result is far more grain than anyone needs with the reduced population, so prices fall.   But I still need the same number of people to grow the food, irregardless of the price it fetches, but there are now half as many workers available so the price of labor goes through the roof.  When grain demand collapsed, there was no way to clear the excess capacity.  It turns out everyone had a nearly vertical supply curve, because irregardless of price, they had nothing else they could do with their time and money.  You can see now why they tried to solve their problem by reimposing serfdom (combined with price controls, a bad idea for Diocletian and for Nixon and everyone in between).

Of course, nothing is stuck forever.   One way capacity cleared was through the growth of the bureaucratic state over the next 2 centuries.  Nobles eventually had to find some new way to support themselves, and did so by taking jobs in growing state bureaucracies.  They became salaried ministers rather than feudal knights supported by agriculture.  At the same time, rising wealth among the 99% non-nobility allowed kings to support themselves through taxes rather than the granting of fiefs, which in turn paid for the nobility to take jobs in the bureaucracy and paid for peasant armies with guns and bows that replaced the lords fighting on horseback.  So in the long term, the price signal was inordinately powerful -- so powerful it helped reshape much of European government and society.

By the way, if you are reading this expecting some point about modern politics, sorry.  Just something I was thinking about and it helped to write it down.  Comments are appreciated.  I still have not cribbed the answer from the history texts yet.

Inequality Metrics Exclude Effects of Government Actions to Reduce Inequality

I have seen this fact a number of times and am always amazed when I read it, since poverty figures are never, ever presented with this bit of context

LBJ promised that the war on poverty would be an "investment" that would "return its cost manifold to the entire economy." But the country has invested $20.7 trillion in 2011 dollars over the past 50 years. What does America have to show for its investment? Apparently, almost nothing: The official poverty rate persists with little improvement.

That is in part because the government's poverty figures are misleading. Census defines a family as poor based on income level but doesn't count welfare benefits as a form of income. Thus, government means-tested spending can grow infinitely while the poverty rate remains stagnant.

Rector argues that poor today is very different than poor in  Johnson's day, and that perhaps we might celebrate a bit

Not even government, though, can spend $9,000 per recipient a year and have no impact on living standards. And it shows: Current poverty has little resemblance to poverty 50 years ago. According to a variety of government sources, including census data and surveys by federal agencies, the typical American living below the poverty level in 2013 lives in a house or apartment that is in good repair, equipped with air conditioning and cable TV. His home is larger than the home of the average nonpoor French, German or English man. He has a car, multiple color TVs and a DVD player. More than half the poor have computers and a third have wide, flat-screen TVs. The overwhelming majority of poor Americans are not undernourished and did not suffer from hunger for even one day of the previous year.

Remember what I presented a while back.  This is what the Left thinks, or wants us to think, American income inequality looks like -- our rich are richer than comparable European welfare states because our poor are poorer.

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And this is what income inequality in the US actually looks like -- our rich and middle class are richer, but our poor are not poorer.  A less redistributionist approach floats all boats.  I compared the US to many European welfare states, using the Left's own data source.  Here is an example, but hit the link to see it all.

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Historical Revisionism

Revisionism on the causes of WWI seems to ebb and flow like a 20-year clock.  It was Germany's fault, no it wasn't, yes it was.  Etc.  Here is the latest iteration.

I have read quite a bit on the topic of late.  It was horribly complex, but here are a few thoughts.

  • At some level, it was everyone's fault, at least as measured by the enthusiasm that greeted the war in nearly every country.  It was the last war begun by folks who thought it would be incredibly romantic and glorious.
  • Austria simply has to bear a lot of the blame.  No doubt a crisis in the Balkans could have been started by Russia or Serbia, and in an alternative universe where the Archduke was not assassinated, they might well have.  But the fact is that Austria made this one happen.  They crafted a set of demands on Serbia that were supposed to be unreasonable.  They were meant to be a Casus Belli.  Austria had determined it was going to war with Serbia.
  • Much is made of the German blank check to Austria, but the key fact for me were the actions of Germany several weeks later.  In response to a building crisis in the Balkans to their southeast, the Germans entered the war attacking to the northwest, into Belgium and France.  With conflict inevitable in the Balkans, the Germans (with a helping hand from the Russians) helped turn a limited conflict into a World War.

The Germans were also responsible through bad decisions in bringing the US into the war, via a u-boat campaign that failed to achieve its goals (starve the Brits) but managed to bring US troops to Europe at almost the exact moment when British and French troops might have collapsed.  Incredibly, the Germans made the exact same mistake in WWII, declaring war on the US so they could initiate a u-boat campaign against US shipping, when Congress might well have been happy to keep America's war limited to Japan.


What I Hate Most About Political Discourse... when people attribute differences of opinion on policy issues to the other side "not caring."

I could cite a million examples a day but the one I will grab today is from Daniel Drezner and Kevin Drum.  They argue that people with establishment jobs just don't care about jobs for the little people.  Specifically Drum writes:

Dan Drezner points out today that in the latest poll from the Council on Foreign Relations, the opinions of foreign policy elites have converged quite a bit with the opinions of the general public. But among the top five items in the poll, there's still one big difference that sticks out like a fire alarm: ordinary people care about American jobs and elites don't. Funny how that works, isn't it?

Here are the specific poll results he sites.  Not that this is a foreign policy survey



The first thing to note is that respondents are being asked about top priorities, not what issues are important.  So it is possible, even likely, the people surveyed thought that domestic employment issues were important but not a priority for our foreign policy efforts.  Respondents would likely also have said that (say) protecting domestic free speech rights was not a foreign policy priority, but I bet they would still think that free speech was an important thing they care about.  The best analogy I can think of is if someone criticized a Phoenix mayoral candidate for not making Supreme Court Justice selection one of her top priorities.  Certainly the candidate might consider the identity of SCOTUS judges to be important, but she could reasonably argue that the Phoenix mayor doesn't have much leverage on that process and so it should not be a job-focus priority.

But the second thing to note is that there is an implied policy bias involved here.  The Left tends to take as a bedrock principle that activist and restrictive trade policy is sometimes (even often) necessary to protect American jobs.   On the other hand many folks, including me and perhaps a plurality of economists, believe that protectionist trade policy actually reduces total American employment and wealth, benefiting a few politically connected and visible industries at the expense of consumers and consumer industries (Bastiat's "unseen").  Because of the word "protecting", which pretty clearly seems to imply protectionist trade policy, many folks answering this survey who might consider employment and economic growth to be valid foreign policy priorities might still have ranked this one low because they don't agree with the protectionist / restrictionist trade theory.  Had the question said instead, say, "Improving American Economic Well-Being" my guess would be the survey results would have been higher.

Whichever the case, there is absolutely no basis for using this study to try to create yet another ad hominem attack out there in the political space.  People who disagree with you generally do not have evil motives, they likely have different assumptions about the nature of the problem and relevant policy solutions.  Treating them as bad-intentioned is the #1 tendency that drags down political discourse today.

Postscript:  This is not an isolated problem of the Left, I just happened to see this one when I was thinking about the issue.  There likely is a Conservative site out there taking the drug policy number at the bottom and blogging something like "Obama state department doesn't care about kids dying of drug overdoses."  This of course would share all the same problems as Drum's statement, attributing the survey results to bad motives rather than a sincere policy difference (e.g. those of us who understand that drugs can be destructive but see the war on drugs and drug trafficking to be even more destructive).


It Turns Out That Democrats Were Responsible for the Watergate Coverup

The Washington Post has a very good article on failures of Obamacare exchange implementation.  The Left is finding the article to be convincing evidence that the failures were all ... wait for it .. the Republican's fault.

Every single failure, save one, in the article (we'll come back to that one in a minute) was due to the Administration's fear of Republican criticism.  So results were hidden, bad decisions were made, and key steps were delayed until after the last election.  All because the Obama Administration appears to incredibly thin-skinned about criticism.

But blaming these decisions on Republicans and other Obamacare opponents is absurd.  One could easily say that the bad decisions made by the Nixon administration to cover up Watergate and other campaign shenanigans were driven by a fear of political reprisals by Democrats, but no one would be crazy enough to blame the Democrats for them.  It reminds me of the folks who wanted to blame failures in the Vietnam war on the anti-war movement.  But that is exactly what is going on here, and the amazing thing is just how many people seem willing to enable and support this incredible evasion.

The one other example that Republicans are supposedly to blame is latched onto by Kevin Drum, among others, quite eagerly.  Apparently, the PPACA legislation, which was written entirely by Democrats and passed without a single Republican vote, failed to actually provide financing for an enormous new organization to build and run the exchanges.  And, amazingly enough, Republicans refused to fix the Democrat's problem with the Democrat-written legislation in a law they hated and wanted repealed.  So the Obama Administration had to build the exchanges within the existing CMS organization, which botched the implementation.  And for THAT, apparently Republicans are to blame for it all.

Of course, beyond the just bizarre "buck stops anywhere but here" mentality, there are other problems with this logic.  First, it is hard to believe that a brand new greenfield organization run entirely by Obama's policy folks and completely without any systems experience would have done better than an organization that at least has some health care systems experience.  Further, would the schedule really have been aided by having to start an entirely new organization from scratch?  Finally, it is clear from the article that a large part of the reason for moving the work to CMS was not just money but a desire to avoid transparency, to bury and hide the work.  Even had the financing mistake** not been made, one gets the sense that Obama might have buried the effort inside CMS anyway.

In fact, this is the overriding theme from the entire article.  Every decision made for the Obamacare implementation seemed to be driven by political expediency first, avoiding transparency and accountability second, and actual results last.  It is well worth reading yourself to see what conclusions you draw.


** I am not entirely convinced it was a mistake.  Remember, the Democrats were scrambling to make the PPACA seem budget neutral.  They might easily have left out key bits of financing they know they needed, thinking they could hide the appropriation later.   A plan that died when Scott Brown was unexpectedly elected.


Politicians Lie By Default. They Lie Even When The Truth Is Easy To Check. Haven't We Figured That Out Yet?

Via Reason's Hit and Run

In the opening days of Obamacare’s October 1 launch, federal officials touted high web-traffic numbers, but repeatedly refused to provide enrollment data for the federally facilitated exchanges.

On October 3, White House spokesperson Jay Carney, pressed for enrollment numbers, said, “No, we don’t have that data.” On October 7, in an appearance on the Daily Show, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius repeated the claim when questioned about enrollment: “I can’t tell you,” she said, “because I don’t know.”

But that simply wasn’t true—at least not during the first few days.

Leaked meeting notes from high-level war room briefings inside the federal health bureaucracy on October 2 and October 3 report that federal officials were aware of the exact number of federal enrollees on the first and second days in which the exchanges were running.

And, as seemed likely at the time, it turns out that the numbers were very, very low.

According to the notes, which were released by the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform and taken from daily briefings in the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight, the federal office directly in charge of the exchanges, there were just six successful enrollments across the 36 federal exchanges on launch day.

A friend by the way sent me this stat:  Of the 5 million first day exchange visitors, more will be hit by lightening this year than successfully enrolled that day

Anti-Deficiency Act

You may be wondering under what authority the government is taking actions during the government shutdown.  We had a meeting with the Chief of the US Forest Service on Friday.  This is the specific text the Administration is using to justify all of its shutdown actions

(a)(1) An officer or employee of the United States Government or of the District of Columbia government may not—

(A) make or authorize an expenditure or obligation exceeding an amount available in an appropriation or fund for the expenditure or obligation;

(B) involve either government in a contract or obligation for the payment of money before an appropriation is made unless authorized by law;

(C) make or authorize an expenditure or obligation of funds required to be sequestered under section 252 of the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985; or

(D) involve either government in a contract or obligation for the payment of money required to be sequestered under section 252 of the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985.

I will leave it as an extra credit exercise for the reader to explain how this text justifies either a) spending extra money to barricade war memorials on the Washington Mall or b) closing privately-funded parks that take not a single dime of government money.    All these tests have everything to do with limiting government expenditures, not limiting citizen access to public lands.

We had some delays (in part because the government is taking a holiday from the shutdown today, so everything is REALLY closed) but we file our lawsuit seeking a temporary restraining order on the US Forest Service in the morning.

The Map Every Intelligence Analyst Should Have on His Wall, For Humility

I have been playing around with this DVD, which is a collection of high resolution situation maps from the European theater of war after D-Day in WWII.  The maps are really interesting, though the interface is awful.  Like something from the AOL era.  I would play with this much more but it is just too kludgy.

This is probably my favorite map (click to enlarge)

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Of course, on the very next day, the last great German attack on the Western Front came right out of that empty red circle.

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In the software, one can zoom very deep into these maps, deeper than these images allow.  So it's a shame that the interface is so bad.

PS - The Bulge is deservedly a part of American military mythology but we should remember that in many ways it was a small battle compared to any number in the East.  This is one of those facts that always perplexes this libertarian, because there is no way the Western Democracies could have ever defeated Germany IMO.  Only Stalin's willingness to soak up astounding losses really defeated Germany.  German army casualties on the Eastern Front were nearly three times their combined casualties in Africa, Italy, France, and Benelux.

The flip side of this is that no one else other than the US could have defeated the Japanese, though again the Soviets would have given them real troubles in Manchuria.  That war was more about projecting power across great distances than pure numbers.  We did bravely soak up absurd casualties in short bursts.  But again, the Russians were soaking up Bettio-level casualties every few hours, and sustained it day in and day out for years.

Republican Incompetence

I am just floored at the political incompetence of the Republicans in Congress.  Conservatives are arguing that it is all about how the media unfairly  makes Republicans the bad guys in all budget fights, and I think there is some truth in that.  But this was something that was known in advance, and which could be planned for.  I am not a political expert, but if the press really creates a messaging headwind for Republicans, then that means that they need to begin early and push often on a consistent message.

I thought the attempt to roll back Obamacare altogether was an absurd overreach that was merely attempted to help Congressmen head off primary challenges from the Right.  But even so, the GOP only settled on this approach to the budget battle at the absolute last minute.  What they really needed to do was pick a realistic item they were going to fight for, all agree to it 3-4 weeks ago, and then press like hell at every opportunity on the message for that one thing.

Now even political insiders can't name what is in the mish mash bill the House sent yesterday to the Senate.  I know it has a one year individual mandate delay (just in time to bail the Administration out of dire implementation issues) and a few other random things.  Of COURSE Republicans are going to lose the messaging war when they have not even bothered to message at all, even to those of us who could be convinced to start cutting government almost anywhere.

OK, This Is The Most Absurd Defense I Have Seen of Obama, At Least This Week

Via Kevin Drum

Dave Weigel notes a conundrum today: according to a new poll, 54 percent of the public disapproves of Barack Obama's handling of the deficit. And yet, as the chart on the right shows, the deficit is shrinking dramatically. Last year it dropped by $200 billion, and this year, thanks to a recovering economy, lower spending from the sequester, and the increased taxes in the fiscal cliff deal, it's projected to fall another $450 billion.

Weigel notes that this has deprived conservative yakkers of one of their favorite applause lines: "You don't hear Republicans lulz-ing at Obama for failing to 'cut the deficit in half in my first four years,' because he basically did this, albeit in four and a half." That's true. It's also true that contrary to Republican orthodoxy, it turns out that raising taxes on the rich does bring in higher revenues and therefore reduces the deficit.

The logic here is that Obama has been diligent about cutting the deficit, so therefore Republicans are wrong to try to use the debt ceiling and continuing resolution as a vehicle for forcing more cuts.

It is just possible that a person from another planet landing today might buy this story, but how can anyone who has lived through the last 5 years read this without laughing their butts off?  Every one of Obama's budgets have been dead on arrival, even within his own party, because they have raised spending to such stupid levels.  There has not been even a hint of fiscal responsibility in them.  And the Democratic Senate has passed one budget in something like five years**.

The only fiscal discipline at all has come from the Republican House, and they have only had success in keeping these deficit down by ... using continuing resolutions and debt ceilings as bargaining chips.  This is the President that treated the almost insignificant sequester as if it were the end of the world, and now these sycophants from team Donkey are giving Obama the credit for the deficit reduction?

PS-  This is not an advocacy for Republicans as much as for divided government.  The Republicans when they had years of controlling the Presidency and both houses of Congress under Bush II did zero to get our fiscal house in order and in fact with the Iraq war and Medicare part D, among other things, showed a profligacy that belies their current pious words.

PPS- Kevin Drum needs to have the balls not to play both sides of the street.  He has made it clear in other articles that he thinks it is an economic disaster that the government is spending so little right now.  When he shows a deficit reduction chart, if he were consistent, he should be saying that Republicans suck for forcing this kind of deficit reduction against Obama's better judgement and we need the deficit to go back up.  Have the courage of your convictions.  Instead, he plays team loyalty rather than intellectual consistency, crediting Obama for deficit reduction while at the same time hammering Republicans for austerity.  Dude, its one or the other.

PPPS-  For the first time during this Presidency, both the President and both house of Congress offered a budget:

[The] House passed a budget calling for spending $3.5 trillion in 2014, the Senate passed one calling for $3.7 trillion, and Obama submitted one calling for $3.77 trillion

So the actor that submitted the highest budget gets the credit for deficit reduction?

IRS Argues Your Tax Return is Just Like a Dead Horse

Normally this would be a good Friday story, but you can't always control when Washington is going to bring the crazy.

The Obama administration on Tuesday defended its effort to regulate the tax return preparation business for the first time in U.S. history, basing its case largely on a 19th century law dealing with horses lost or killed in the Civil War....

[the Obama Administration attorney] explained that the administration sees the "Horse Act of 1884" as providing ample authority for the U.S. Internal Revenue Service to regulate the tens of thousands of preparers who fill out millions of Americans' federal tax returns.

Here is the logic, such that it is

A post-war industry emerged of agents who would press war loss claims for a fee, usually a percentage of the claim collected. Soon, claim values were being fraudulently inflated.

In response, the government started regulating these intermediaries, barring unscrupulous ones and certifying honest ones as "enrolled agents," a title that is still used today by people who represent clients in matters before the IRS.

The IRS is arguing that tax return preparers represent their customers in much the same way that enrolled agents do, so the agency should be able to expand regulation to include preparers.

Note that tax preparers are not actually IRS enrolled agents, they just argue they are kind of sort of like them (in that they both deal with tax returns, I suppose).  But enrolled agents explicitly act as an intermediary between citizens and the government in disputes and claims.  This is not the role of tax preparers.  They merely charge a fee to fill out time-consuming and confusion paperwork.  My tax accountant has never once had any conversations with the IRS on my behalf, nor should he.  I would engage an attorney for that.

Differing Perspectives

I have been taking a course in World War I, something I know little about relative to the rest of the 20th century.

We often think of WWI as a horrible, wasteful, pointless war that solved nothing and WWII as an expensive yet "good" war that achieved positive aims.  But as we approach the 75th anniversary of the Munich conference, it is interesting to note that if you ask someone in Eastern Europe, you are likely to get the opposite answer.  Most Eastern European countries can date their modern statehood from the end of WWI, while WWII led to 50+ years of Soviet subjugation.  WWI was their good war.