Monday, December 26, 2011

VP Choice

I was thinking about McCain the other day, and considering his recent return to his left-leaning "maverick" persona, and I thought to myself "I would hate to be his VP."

Allow me to explain. Earlier this year there were a number of signs McCain was slowly shifting to the right, and that only made sense, as he would have to appeal to the conservative base not just for the general election, but if he hoped to win a nomination for a second term. Apparently the self-destruction of Obama has filled him with confidence, and forgetting that he will need to be nominated if he wants a second term, he decided to move back to his old "maverick" position.

Which is why I would hate to be his Vice President. Since he can't win over conservatives while playing maverick, he will probably try to attach a conservative VP to himself. Unfortunately for the soul who accepts, after four years as McCain's VP, I doubt he will ever be able to win any conservative support again.

All of which led me to try to figure out who McCain will select as his VP. I have read a number of theories, mostly from beltway insiders, but they all seem to pick people the majority of Americans do not know, and also tend to favor moderates that they dub conservatives. If McCain truly wants conservative support, he will need not only someone known to the public, but someone who actually leans right.

So, who fits the bill?

The first choice I can name is out. JC Watts would be a great choice, a she is well known, conservative, a good campaigner, his nomination will not lose a congressional seat, but he is black. And that last one makes him an impossible choice. If Obama is the Democrat nominee, nominating a black VP will be too easily painted as "tokenism", so nominating either  black candidate, or someone too young, will be seen as more gestures than meaningful choices.

So, we need someone not only conservative and well known, but also neither too young nor black. And women are probably out as well, since that will be seen as an effort to win over disgruntled Hillary voters.

The best choices are unlikely to accept the position. Fred Thompson, Tom Tancredo or Duncan Hunter would make a great counterbalance to McCain and bring credibility on issues on which he is weak. Likewise Newt Gingrich would help his conservative credentials, but I just don't see Newt accepting the position, as he will know how much potential harm being too close to McCain could inflict.

Actually, I have trouble finding anyone who would happily accept being VP to McCain. I can think of a few who would probably benefit from the position, and a few who would definitely benefit McCain, but so long as he is playing maverick, I don't see a real conservative accepting the post.

But, hypothetically, let us assume McCain remembers that whole "second term" thing, recalls which party nominated him, and begins to drift back to the right, who would be a good choice?

I have one strange choice, but if you bear with me, you will see the sense of it.

Bobby Jindal.

Jindal is pro-life, he is fiscally conservative, he supports allowing exploratory drilling in the US, and he is generally the poster boy for conservative positions. This helps offset many of McCain's weaknesses and also offers the opportunity of bringing back some conservatives.

Now there are also some negatives.

First, he is young, by presidential standards, and that will likely draw comparison to Obama. But that may be good, as Jindal actually has more experience than Obama, despite being just as young, so it does more to highlight Obama's inexperience than anything else.

Second, by nominating him the Republicans risk losing the governor's mansion in Louisiana. That is a big risk, and probably the most serious negative. But the advantages are great enough I think it is worth the loss.

Lastly, Jindal is not a traditionally "smart" nomination, as he does not bring a big state over to McCain. Then again, California is the only big state McCain probably won't carry, so I don't know how important this is. Don't believe me? Look at the biggest states. New York is Hillary country. If she is nominated, it will go to her, if not, it will go to McCain. Pennsylvania is exactly the same.  Texas is a Republican state. And, thanks to the way the Democrats treated them, so is Florida. Unless he can get a Vice President from California or Ohio, I don't see the home state of a Vice President being a decisive issue. And, if we insist on the VP bringing some electoral votes with him, Jindal will likely bring Louisiana with him. As it is one of the few southern states that is not a Republican lock, that should count for something.

Of course, this all depends on McCain making a turn back to the right. If he continues with his recent "maverick" moves, I would not blame anyone for turning down a request to be his running mate. But if McCain returns to his party, moves back to the right, and gives some assurances he will remain there, I think Jindal would be a great choice if he wants to win over those conservatives he has so far managed to alienate.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/04/28.

NOTE: As Palin was a pick intended to do much the same thing as I predicted Jindal would, I fear my plan would not have helped McCain either, though it is arguable whether Jindal or Palin would have done better at bringing out the base and winning over the center. Of course, as McCain never really decided whether he was a born-again conservative or center-left "maverick" it probably did not matter. (Comment added 2011/12/26.)

War Stimulates the Economy? Let's Nuke San Francisco!

Once again I have seen an old, silly argument, that somehow war stimulates the economy. Since I occasionally get taken to task for beating up on liberals, let me state up front that this is a bipartisan foolishness, the right falling for it as often as the left. In fact, the right has even turned it into part of the effort to discredit FDR, claiming that he did not end the depression, World War II did. (Well, it did, but not in the way most mean, more on that later.)

Today I saw this foolishness in its conservative variant, with comments about a column arguing that World Wars I and II led to the subsequent prosperity of the 1920's and 1950's.

Now, this argument is a bit hard to debunk because the wording gets vague sometimes. Some argue clearly enough, saying that wars bring prosperity. Others use weasel words, saying that war "stimulate the economy". Now, since there is no real definition of "stimulation", I can't really debate this, but, as they seem to take this "stimulation" to mean something good, I can argue that wars do not help the economy. They may make everyone appear to be busier, which may be what is meant by "stimulation", but that appearance of activity does not mean we are any better off.

The fact of the matter is that wars destroy things, requiring us to rebuild them. That is why wars appear to make everyone busy and employ a lot of people. But that is not the same as creating wealth. If destroying things created wealth, then we could become very rich by simply nuking San Francisco. In fact, if we were truly greedy, we could nuke all our major cities. That should keep us busy for at least a decade or two, as we rebuilt all our infrastructure. It would not make us richer, but it would make us busier.

Let me make a simple analogy. If your car breaks down at the same time your house catches fire, you will probably find yourself a bit short of cash. You will probably put in overtime, earn more money, just so you can pay to repair your car and rebuild your house. Your personal economy will be "stimulated", you will be doing more work, but, once you have everything back to where it was, would you call yourself richer? No, you just worked a lot harder to replace losses. Breaking your car and burning down your own house is not the path to riches.

Nor is war, which just amounts to burning down a lot of houses and breaking lots of cars.

There are some who recognize this fact, yet argue that war spurs innovation. These are often the same people who think the government sponsored space program spurred innovation.

Yes, both war and the exploration of space resulted in new technologies. So did the private sector era of wild cat oil prospecting or the early days of the automobile. So what? Any activity which employs a huge number of people will produce innovations. Some will be applicable to other fields, some will not. The problem is, these people tout the innovations they can see, and do not recognize all the innovations that never were. When war or the space program diverted money to their respective projects, they took that money and that manpower from civilian applications that could have produced other innovations. We will never know what was lost.

Unfortunately this makes it hard to argue with these people. They can point to velcro and say "look what the space program gave us", while I can't point to the life saving surgical innovation that never was. Doubtless we did lose innovation, but there is no way to tell what was lost. So, their concrete innovation looks much more impressive. Sadly, pointing out that people generally get less satisfaction form military or space technology than consumer technology, that state enterprises are much less efficient, and that government bureaucracy tends to stifle innovation rather than encourage it, does nothing to convince them that their innovations cost them much more than they were worth. They simply continue to point to what they can see and assume that is the best possible outcome.

So, since it is fruitless to argue that the supposed innovations of war are obtained at the cost of other innovations, let us move on to a topic I raised at the beginning of the essay, but put off until now. If war does not improve the economy, how did the Great Depression end then?

And, here I have to say that the conservatives who say the war ended the Depression are right, but for the wrong reasons. The war did not end the depression by stimulating the economy, or putting men to work, it ended the depression by solving the underlying economic problems.

The Depression was, at its root, a monetary crisis. Following the break with monetary gold, banks worldwide had begun an unprecedented inflation, the outcome of which were first the boom of the 1920's and then the crash and depression of the 1930's. As FDR came into office in the US and continued to meddle with the economy, he simply prolonged this monetary crisis, as did semi-socialist leaders in the rest of the civilized world. Nor did the protectionist policies of these nations help, as their push for autarchy kept them even more impoverished, cutting them off from the benefits of trade. With the value of money steadily declining, the government dabbling in confiscatory taxation and stifling regulation, and anyone with money trying to find a concrete store of value to preserve it against future inflation, there was simply no investment and the economy stagnated.

The war managed to resolve many of these issues.

First, unlike peace time, war gave the government free reign to use honest financing. Rather than hiding deficits through monetizing the debt, the government explicitly sold war bonds and raised taxes. This change more than anything else helped stabilize the dollar. By using honest financing, inflation was held in check and the value of the dollar was kept relatively consistent. Even without the war, had the government used bond issues and tax increases rather than monetary inflation the depression would have eventually come to a close.

Second, FDR died. Truman and Eisenhower had little taste for FDR's more explicitly socialist schemes. As the economy shifted from a war footing to civilian production, FDR's successors did little to restore FDR's more socialist measures. The return to a more business friendly economy did a lot to convince investors to return money to business investments.

Third, war conditions forced savings. Yes, a lot of money was taken by the government in war bonds and taxes, but what was left had little use. With rationing and little in the way of consumer production, individuals had little enough to do with their surplus income. This spurred a major increase in consumer savings.

Fourth, thanks to both the stabilized dollar and the guaranteed income from war contracts, many manufacturing firms started to look more promising to investors. Both banks, newly infused with deposits, and private investors who had hidden assets in real estate and other concrete stores of wealth, were attracted to the steady returns from industry, and began investing again.

Fifth, unemployment was largely resolved by the not-so-pleasant expedient of killing off a lot of the labor force. Thanks to the number of deaths in the war, labor was in short supply by 1950, and unemployment was a thing of the past. This could not last forever, as the reduced labor force would normally mean reduced demand, and the economy would adjust to an equilibrium state at the smaller population. However, immediately after the war, all those accumulated savings from the war years kept spending artificially  high for a time, though it could not, and did not, last forever.

So, yes, in some ways the war did end the depression, but not for the reasons usually given. It ended the war by forcing the government into a more responsible economic policy, not through any economic stimulation.

The sad part is that this myth has convinced some that there is no way out of a depression. Just as the FDR myth convinced liberals that government intervention is the only way out of a depression, this myth has convinced some conservatives that war is. Neither is true.

Almost all depressions are monetary events. Certainly all the boom-bust cycle depressions are. They are the result of inflation having gone too far, of the money supply either having been inflated too far or having been inflated too often. It is a transitory event. It may seem horrible at the time, and bad policies such as the 1920's and 1930's love for protectionist policies can extend it, but it will end on its own. Ironically, the government intervention usually proposed to fix it, only serve to make such depressions longer and more severe. Despite the political pressures, the best solution is often to do nothing.

Of course, the real solution is to end both fiat currency and central banking. Fiat currency because once currency is no longer redeemable in gold or silver there is little reason for the state to limit inflation. And central banking because no private bank would risk their investment with the sort of irresponsible inflation that the government often undertakes.

But I have drifted too far from my original topic. So, to close, let me just reiterate my original point. War may give the appearance of creating an economic boom, as it spurs so much activity, but in reality the destruction of war does nothing but impoverish. Sometimes war may be necessary, but it should be fought with the understanding that war is always a net loss to the economy, not a benefit.


POSTSCRIPT


I am sure I forgot some of the other reasons the depression ended thanks to the war. My list is probably far from comprehensive. However, my point still stands, yes the war ended the depression, but not because it of any supposed economic benefit of war.


Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/04/28.

Blogging and the Law

I was reading a post about spouses using YouTube and blogs to air marital dirty linen when I was struck with a thought. Thanks to our new found obsession with pursuing fame by publicizing every trivial aspect of our lives, I wonder if the legal concept of privilege will begin to change.

For example, if a husband knows that his wife is an obsessive blogger who had previously published marital confidences, will the law allow him to continue claiming marital privilege? I know it is a statutory privilege in many states, and so overcoming it will take quite an effort, but I wonder what will happen over time. If we continue to become a culture which compulsively memorializes every last event in our lives, will the law change to reflect that?

It will be some time before the law changes, I am sure, long enough that today's trends may vanish before they have time to alter the legal environment, but it is still an interesting question.

POSTSCRIPT

Before anyone takes me to task for mocking compulsive bloggers, I will confess that I am rather compulsive in recording my thoughts on politics, society, even religion. However, I draw a distinction between the bloggers I see on Townhall, who write essays on politics and other topics, and those bloggers who simply use their blogs to chronicle the trivialities of their lives. While I can see the value in my fellow amateur pundits, as from time to time a truly important thought emerges from our collective efforts, I have never seen the attraction of publishing what amounts to nothing but a twelve year old girl's diary.

Then again, I am probably not the target audience for facebook, myspace, and all the "day in the life" blogs, so perhaps there is a reason I do not get them.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/04/27.

Our New Paranoia

I have noticed a trend, paranoia as a valid political perspective. How else can I explain not just conspiracy theorists, but even supposedly mainstream thinkers, who can seriously believe that corporations are somehow committing evil deeds?

Why do I say this? It is very simple, corporations are not some faceless entity populated by robots, they are fictional constructs which are made up of our friends, relatives, fellow citizens, even ourselves. I have to ask anyone who denounces the evil of corporations, "If you had a job and the boss asked you to kill someone, or betray your country, would you? If you wouldn't, why do you think your fellow citizens would?"

I brought this up first when writing about the absurd idea that the Chinese had bought out defense contractors to impair our military. The imaginary dialog I used was as follows:


Jim, Supervisor: John, you work on those surveillance satellites for the military, right?
John, Engineer: Yep, that's me.
Jim: Well, the new management has a request. They want you to add this to all your new designs.
John: (Examining the black box) What is it?
Jim: (Shrugs) I don't know. They said it is called "The Evil Circuit". I think it has something to do with accounting.
John: Do you have any circuit diagrams?
Jim: No. Comrade Vice President just told me to make sure it went into every piece of military hardware.
John: OK, let me just make a call. (Into phone) Homeland security?
It is a bit exaggerated, but it gets the point across. Corporations are nothing but groups of our fellow citizens who are all employed by the same company. Does anyone really think that the majority of their fellow citizens are willing to import poisoned toys? Or bury toxic waste near children's homes? Or impair the defense of the US?

However, once we ignore the people themselves and start to call it "a corporation", or even worse "a multinational corporation", we are all willing to believe that not only are our fellow citizens bent on our destruction, but that they will all conspire to do so without anyone else knowing about it.

In the past we had a word for such beliefs, it was paranoia, and people who espoused them ended up in a nice soft room. Today they end up in syndication, congress, or maybe the White House.

UPDATED 04/30/2008

Interestingly enough, John Stossel's most recent column addresses a very similar topic, asking why people believe the airlines would intentionally fly unsafe airplane if not for FAA oversight. It fits nicely with what I wrote above. Airlines make money by safely transporting people between two points. Even if they were interested solely in profit, crashes do not make money, they lose it. So, to think the airlines would ignore safety, but for the FAA, one must postulate that the airlines are made up entirely of people bent on evil for the sake of evil. Or, as I said above, the statements Stossel quotes only make sense if we share the assumptions we once called paranoid.


Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/04/27.

Protectionism

I am finally writing the post I promised as a reply to cjb56's comments.I know I have been promising to do so for almost a week now, and I am very sorry for the delay, but it is finally here. To everyone else who is reading this, please do not let the length and the opening sentences discourage you, this is not of interest to only cjb56, I hope it will be of general interest.

I suppose since I already started with a boring disclaimer, I can add another before I begin. I am sure in the following essay I will repeat the arguments of Bastiat over and over again. Some of this will be intentional, but most will be accidental. It is almost impossible to write of protectionism without covering the same ground as Bastiat. Not because the man was a genius, though he may have been, but simply because he wrote SO MUCH. The man wrote so many essays on protectionism that it is almost impossible to find a topic he did not cover. The volume of his writing alone means that everything you say will probably have already been addressed. Not that Bastiat cannot be improved upon, many writers have done so, but even then the arguments they made, at least in their most basic form, had usually been anticipated in one of Bastiat's endless collection of essays.

And now, with my boring disclaimers out of the way, let me begin.

---------------------------------------------------------------------

Protectionism takes a number of forms, and has gone under a number of names throughout history. It is an unusual political and economic philosophy in that one rarely meets a consistent protectionist (for reasons I will discuss later), the proponents are almost always willing to allow a host of exceptions or half measures. This also leads to the usual protectionist statement, "I am not a protectionist", which is technically true, as so few consistent protectionists exist. But, for our purposes, even a half-protectionist is still a protectionist, as, once you admit the protectionist logic, the remaining steps inevitably follow, whether the original proponents advocated them or not.

But I will speak about the inexorable march of protectionism later, for now let us look at the basic tenets of protectionism. In other words, let us ask what protectionism is.

Protectionists are interesting in that there is no single underlying philosophy. The mercantilists of the late Renaissance promoted protectionism as did the union movements of the early twentieth century, but from completely opposite motives. It is not so much the underlying philosophy which defines the protectionist as the measures which they promote. Protectionism is, in its most simple form, the argument that the nation's industries need protection form foreign competition. Whether this is to protect merchant profits, secure labor's higher ages, or defend against economic warfare does not matter as much as do the measures proposed.

Now I will admit this is unusual, as my usual position is that the underlying philosophy of a movement is all important (as I argued about environmentalists and liberals, for example), while specific proposals are irrelevant. And normally that is true, but protectionism is a special case. The reason being that protectionism has a logic of its own, economic nationalism, which all proponents accept once they argue that markets must change at the border. Once they accept this economic nationalist view, their earlier beliefs cease to matter, and the nationalist philosophy begins to drive the future changes. In short, whether starting out supporting labor, merchants, or national defense, all protectionists end up economic nationalists once they accept the protectionist premises.

And now to address those beliefs.

First, and foremost, the protectionist errs in looking at only half of any economic transaction. The protectionist position looks at the nation as a whole as only producers, ignoring the fact that every individual acts not only as a producer, but as a consumer as well. The reason that we engage in trade at all is because we can produce some good in sufficient quantities that it is better for us to trade that good for what we want rather produce all of our needs ourselves. International trade is no different, we trade with other nations because they produce things more cheaply than we can, making it beneficial to us to produce another good and trade for our needs rather than produce everything at home. In other words, by asking that we refuse the benefits of foreign trade,t he protectionists are essentially asking us to give up some of our wealth to favor protected industries.

Now, some protectionists will adopt the question "What good do cheap goods do us if we have no industry? We can't buy anything if we don't have jobs." And that is true, but a bit of a red herring. The question assumes that should our present industries go overseas we will have no jobs remaining.

The truth is that labor is the one input required for absolutely every product. It is at the root of everything we produce, form the labor which removed iron and coal form the earth, to the labor which creates steel from them, to the labor which shapes it into useful products to finally the labor which boxes, ships, and sells those goods. Labor is the one component which is in chronic short supply. If an industry relocates it does not leave labor on the market, it simply frees labor for other uses. I am not saying that there will be no hardship for those who need to retrain for other jobs, there will be, but there would be if a plant closed to move to another town, the same as if it moves overseas, and yet we do not stop all economic progress because of that.  Economic changes always cause short term hardships for some, that is inevitable unless we endorse economic stagnation. Just because the pain is caused by foreign industries does not change that fact.

Of course, some will ask why there is unemployment if that is true. I don't want to spend the pages it would take to fully answer that question, so let me give a very brief synopsis and say I will answer better int he future. Some unemployment will always exist, as some will choose not to work, some will be unable, and some will be between jobs or taking a voluntary respite from work. That number will be with us always, and will usually be rather small. The remainder of our unemployment is a government creation, the result of bad policies. Between pro-union closed shop rules and minimum wage legislation, the government manages to create almost all of the unemployment we see today. The remainder, at the moment a very small number, are the result of another government phenomenon, economic dislocations caused by monetary inflation1. But that is the topic for another essay as well.

Some protectionists have accepted that foreign trade as a whole is beneficial, yet argue that there are specific instances where special conditions require state intervention. Let us now look at some of those.

Often we will hear that other nations are giving subsidies to their own industries, providing them with an unfair advantage, and thus the state must step in and protect our own industries. This is, once again, a rather peculiar way of looking at things.

Let us start by looking at this entirely from a consumer's point of view. Let us suppose Japan decides to subsidize their own cars $5000 each. In other words, where before you had a US car selling at $15,000 and a comparable Japanese car selling at $15,000, you now can buy the Japanese car at $10,000. As a consumer, the benefit is obvious, you have just obtained the same car for $5000 less, the difference being made up by the Japanese taxpayers. It may not be so beneficial to the nation of Japan, but as far as you are concerned there is no downside, you have just saved five grand.

Even when we abandon the consumer perspective, it is hard to see the downside. Where previously cars were produced by both the US and Japan, we now can buy all of our cars form Japan, with the nation paying $5000 of the cost, while our labor is free to engage in other, more profitable pursuits. It is as if the nation of Japan were providing us with a huge gift.Yes, for a time the labor would require retraining to enter new professions, but I fail to see a downside to the entire situation2.

As far as I can tell, the protectionists object to this gift from Japan on two grounds. First, they argue, somewhat vaguely, that we "wouldn't have an auto industry", which doesn't really make much sense. We don't grow bananas domestically either, yet we survive. No particular industry is vital to survival. Then again, there seems to be a mystical attachment to heavy manufacturing second only to the mystical attachment to farming3, with people arguing that the loss of manufacturing jobs somehow portends the end of America. I will deal with this a bit more later, when I speak of theories of autarchy, but let me say right now that the loss of any or all heavy manufacturing does not mean a nation will cease to prosper.

The second argument is that these subsidies are only a temporary measure, intended to drive our industries out of business, after which the rival nation will raise prices and gouge us for their good.  Which would be valid were it not for the capital markets. As soon as the prices rose the profit margins would rise as well, attracting capital to new domestic industries to replace those we lost. There would be a time when such goods would be prohibitively expensive, but it would be brief. For the same reason domestic efforts to "corner the market" on various goods have failed, these plans to use subsidies to establish monopolies will also fail. The market simply does not allow it.

Another area where protectionists express concern is outsourcing. I have seen various statements about this, but most seem to think that big companies are outsourcing to the detriment of small companies and labor. First, I would like to point out that outsourcing has been done by companies of all sizes, so "big business" is hardly the only beneficiary. In fact, as the savings is so substantial, it may have more of a beneficial impact on smaller companies than larger. I would also point out that, while the US has outsourced more jobs recently, it is still a net INSOURCER of jobs, importing far more jobs from foreign nations than it exports.Lastly, I will refer back to my earlier statement that labor is the ultimate commodity and always in demand, so even if we did have net outsourcing, that would just free labor for other needs.

Again, outsourcing may harm certain individuals, but that happens when conditions change domestically as well. Does it matter to an unemployed man if his job went to Detroit or Delhi? The only difference is that one makes for better protectionist rhetoric. Unless we are willing to embrace economic stagnation, jobs will appear, disappear and move and there will be dislocations. Even if the protectionists win and we cannot outsource, jobs will continue to move where labor is cheaper and people will find themselves unemployed. Outsourcing is no different except that it allows demagogues to play on fears of foreigners as well as patriotism. But the truth is, had the job not left, say Chicago, for Delhi, it would have moved to Little Rock. The company would be paying a little more, but the people in Chicago would be just as unemployed.

Another argument offered against outsourcing is that foreign labor has an "unfair advantage" as they are exploited and forced to work for $1/day. I have already dealt with the mistake of calling this exploitation, but the rest of this argument is just as invalid. Workers in more developed nations are paid more because of greater capital investment, in both education and equipment. This capital investment means they will have greater productivity and will earn a higher wage. Any job which can be performed at $1/day will, of necessity, be the most menial and trivial type. As this would need a wage which falls below US wages, it is not so much that they are taking jobs from US workers, as the companies are exporting jobs that US minimum wage laws make impossible to perform legally in the US.

But, even if these companies were exporting jobs that people could legally perform in the US, that does not change my basic argument. As consumers we are benefiting from the lowered costs, while as producers labor is still in demand, and those who are displaced by today's movement of jobs will, after some adjustment, find themselves in demand elsewhere. In short, the net effect is beneficial and a total increase in the wealth of all mankind as well as of those in our nation.

Hopefully these few examples will show the error of the most generic protectionist claim, that we need a "level playing field". This argument is usually the last resort. Once they have been shown how protectionism inevitably leads to a decrease in the standard of living, they will argue that free trade is obviously the ideal, but this nation or that is paying subsidies or imposing unfair taxes and so we need to protect some industries to achieve a "level playing field". But, as I showed with the example of subsidies, it just isn't so. If anything logic and history show that protectionism by other nations serves only to impoverish their citizens,. and, while we would be wealthier should they adopt free trade,t he way to do so is not to engage in protectionism of our own. A level playing field is only desirable if it is based on free trade on both sides. To match their protectionism with our own does not benefit us, it only impoverishes us as much as they were impoverishing themselves.

There is probably one area of trade  I should address before moving on to more general arguments, the recent reports of lead paint on Chinese toys and other health hazards.First, this really does not relate to protectionism.Yes, foreign nations are not subjected to the same manufacturing regulations, but their good should still be subjected to the same inspection as domestically produced goods. That these made their way into the flow of commerce is more an argument about the failure of supposed government protections than anything else. And, as a purely economic action, putting lead into toys is a bad idea, as the resultant publicity will not serve to increase the value of Chinese made goods.

Of course, there are those who argue that it was a Chinese plot to harm the US. Now if they really believe that, they should be arguing not for protectionism, but for simply an end to trade with China, as they are a hostile power. If they are serious, and believe China is trying to harm us through this act, then arguing for protectionism in general just does not follow. Why stop trade with Honduras because of a hostile China? I can see the argument for ending trade with a proven hostile power3, but that is all. It is not protectionism to refuse to deal with an enemy.

Earlier, I spoke of the inexorable logic of economic nationalism, and the way that those who adopted any protectionist policies eventually were driven the logical conclusions of protectionist policies. But at the time, I failed to specify what those conclusions were.

Once we admit that there are industries in our nation which should be protected from foreign competition, we open the gates to other such claims. If unfair competition or subsidies justify protection, then should not better natural conditions justify it as well? Or favorable government policies? Or temporary market conditions which harm our industries? Once you allow one claim, you allow them all. And there is not an industry in existence which would not prefer to be protected from competition.

All of which leads us to the eventual end point of protectionism, the endorsement of autarchy45. Once we admit that receiving the maximum return for our money is not our primary interest, and argue that protecting national industries against foreign competitors is our goal, there is nothing to stop s form moving to a position of endorsing complete autarchy. After all, if keeping a domestic auto industry alive is a valid goal, why not our native steel industry as well? Or our native semiconductor industry? And so one and so on.

It should be obvious that autarchy is not a beneficial principle. In some cases, it may not be possible at all6. But when it is possible, it still results in a net loss to our standard of living. Just as trade between individuals leaves both better off, so does trade between nations. Even when one has a huge advantage in production, it is still beneficial to farm out the tasks at which it is worst in order to concentrate on those areas in which it is best. To cut off foreign trade deprives us of that advantage.

Not only that, but autarchy, and protectionism in general, causes hostility. By cutting off trade we not only harm ourselves, but those nations which would have benefited from trade with us. In addition, the raising of trade barriers short of full autarchy tends to generate hostilities between trading partners, as both seek to overcome the artificial barriers the other erected. Von Mises and others have even argued that the protectionist policies between the world wars were part of the cause of such animosities between the nations, especially as the trade barriers erected by France made more difficult obtaining the foreign currency that reparations demanded.

There is one valid argument raised by those arguing for a limited sort of autarchy, and that is the argument that certain strategic industries must be preserved. To this end they argue for protection for industries such as steel or oil, which are essential to national defense.

Now, it is beyond dispute that no nation would want to have to rely on foreign trade during wartime for its essential materials, but that still doe snot justify a protectionist policy. While we may want to be sure we will have adequate steel for ships, planes, tanks, and so on, erecting trade barriers against Japanese and German steel is not the only answer, and it is likely the worst solution. Far better would be to either erect military foundries at public expense, thus ensuring an unlimited supply, or creating massive stockpiles during peacetime.These solutions have a number of benefits. First, they are a one time cost, and it is clear. The costs of trade barriers are endless and not readily determined. Second, they do not antagonize other nations while achieving the same goals. Lastly, they do not benefit private citizens or create special interests which will persist long after the military necessity is gone7. Spending plainly and clearly on defense industries or stockpiles is simply much more open and provides for a much easier accounting of the true costs, while trade barrier serve only to enrich random citizens while obscuring the costs.

There is one other issue which, while not explicitly protectionist, also arises when talking to protectionists, the foreign holding of securities and national debt. I have dealt with the securities issue before, and concluded that the effect is quite small while the cost is huge, and that I could scarcely imagine a less effective tool of economic warfare.As that topic has already been covered, I will look at the holding of debt.

Those who fear China's holding of debt seem to think that somehow T-bills give China the power to come and foreclose. I just do not see the fears8. The only power I can see the holding of debt giving to China is the power to buy and sell more T-bills.

Now, I will grant, should China buy a massive sum of T-bills and then sell them, this could, as in the stock scenario, cause a drop in the value of T-bills, but I think, just as in the stock scenario, this price drop will end in a quick recovery to a price close to, but perhaps slightly lower than, the original market level.

But even if it didn't, what is the worst outcome of this drop? If the price of T-bills drops very low, it will make it much harder for the government to issue new debt, but I see that as a benefit, not a harm. In fact, if that were the outcome, I am hoping that China declares economic warfare tomorrow.

The only possible negative outcome I can see is if our government is foolish enough to try to stabilize the market price by having the Fed monetize the debt that is thrown on the market. This would result in an inflation of the money supply equal to the quantity of debt the Chinese dumped on the market. Admittedly, it would be of limited harm, as the Chinese do not hold infinite debt, but the short term effects of such massive inflation could be pretty bad.  However, I would hope that the state is run by people smart enough to avoid doing anything that stupid should the Chinese dump their bonds.

But I am starting to drift outside the scope of my original essay. I intended simply to explain why I thought the idea of protectionism was the wrong approach to economic matters. Hopefully I have done so.

But in case I have not, let me just offer a quick summary. Just as trade between individual enriches everyone, so does trade between nations. Whether or not that trade is fair, or conducted on a level playing field, the simple act of assigning different tasks to different nations provides an advantage to all the parties involved. And that is what protectionism eliminates, some of the advantage we gain from letting others do some of the work. It forces us to do more for ourselves. And, just as you would have less free time if you had to grow your own food, sew your own clothes, fix your own car and build your own house, forcing our nation to do something another nation could makes us all a little bit poorer.

-----------------------------------------------------------

1. As inflation has been low but constant there are few inflationary pressures causing unemployment. However, in the late 1970's, the dearth of investment that comes with the later stages of strong inflation did cause quite substantial increases in unemployment.

2. If anyone really still believes massive state subsidies lead to economic growth, I would point them back to protectionist articles of the 1980's which predicted Japanese take over of the US. Please note which economy is doing better at the moment. The Japanese model of success through subsidy has been pretty effective debunked by history. Yet I still hear these same fears raised concerning China, or even India.

3. I am not arguing that China is a proven hostile power. I have many problems with China, but do not believe they intentionally used lead based paint. It is most likely simply part of the laziness and incompetence which tend to be characteristic of enterprises in communist nations. Lack of concern for the safety of either consumers or citizens in general is a familiar phenomenon in communist nations, and we do not really need to postulate any conspiracy to imagine that China is simply manufacturing toys using the cheapest and most readily available materials, without thought of the consequences.

4. Strangely, protectionists never seem to go beyond their initial nationalist premises, thought the logic is the same. If it is bad for the US to trade with Mexico, is it not also bad for Pennsylvania to trade with Ohio? And, if that is true, isn't it bad for my town to trade with another? Or me to trade with you? All trade inherently allows someone else to do work I could do myself, so shouldn't I adopt a policy of doing everything myself? In the end, the logic of protectionism leads to the end of all economic interaction.

5. I refuse to adopt the recent academic trend of transliterating chi (and often kappa) as K rather than C. I cannot call Achilles "Akhilleus", and I don't see the advantage to spelling Hector "Hektor". Both are just transliterations, approximations of the Greek original, and I see no reason to toss over the familiar Hector for Hektor. Likewise, the syllable "arch" will always have a "ch" in my mind, so I do not hold with the modern trend to spell autarchy as "autarky". Again, neither is "more Greek", both are approximations, and the "ch" version has a much longer pedigree and greater familiarity, so I don't see why people insist on the change.

6. I doubt it would be possible, no matter what amount we choose to spend, to domestically produce all the bananas and citrus fruit we consume year round within the United States. Even if it were, it would definitely be quite a costly undertaking.

7. Imagine if we had erected trade barriers to ensure we had enough sailing ships during the Civil War. Doubtless those barriers would still exist today, based on the argument that they still represent an essential component of national defense.

8. If anyone knows of a possible harm that the Chinese could inflict using US government debt, or even using stocks, please let me know. I really am puzzled at those who theorize the Chinese have some sort of leverage over us by holding debt. As I wrote in the stock essay, I can see some short term harm they could inflict, but they are so trivial, and the cost is so great, I can't imagine anyone realistically planning any such action.

-------------------------------

NOTE: I have to renew my objection to the language filters again. This time I am not objecting about the choice of which groups to offend, but to the blocking of ordinary words because they sometimes have an offensive meaning. Not only do the filters block the perfectly ordinary word "qu*er" (meaning peculiar) which is not even offensive to the group it sometimes is used to describe, but they also block "er*ction", as used in my statement "the er*ction of trade barriers". Come on! Even when used to describe genitalia it is not an offensive word, and it has hundreds of non-sexual uses. Blocking that word is just absurd. All because some immature teens might snicker at Townhall? The same ones who wear t-shirts picturing the Taj Mahal with the logo "Man's greatest er*ction"?

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/04/27.

The Wall of Separation

I hear so much about the "Wall of Separation" between church and state that I think the matter needs to be clarified. Not only the liberal side, but the conservative side have made some pretty outrageous statements on this matter (the liberals much more so).

First, the basic history. The first amendment says nothing more than that congress shall make no law concerning the establishment of a national church. It applies only to congressional action. Presumably, when the fourteenth amendment extended constitutional protections to state laws, this applied to the state legislatures as well. This is one of only two constitutional mentions of religion, the other being the prohibition on religious tests for office. Other than these two statements, the Constitution has nothing to say about religion.

Those are facts upon which both sides can agree. So let us look at how both sides misapply those facts.

Logically, the conservative position, being mostly a response to the liberal position, should come second. However, as their errors are more easily summarized and dismissed, I shall deal with them first.

Mostly as a response to the liberals' very expansive view of what constitutes an "establishment", the conservatives have adopted an overly narrow reading of the first amendment, arguing that the establishment clause means only that, unless congress explicitly enacts a law establishing a state religion, then any act is permissible. Now, I am as much of a strict constructionist as you will find, but even I find this an overly narrow position, for two reasons.

First, even with a strict constructionist position, the wording of the Constitution still needs to be interpreted. For example, the first amendment only explicitly protects speech. Does that mean that the written word is afforded no protection? You do not need to go as far as the courts, allowing actions to constitute "speech", but you still have to agree that sometime staying to the literal wording only does not capture even the original intent. Obviously speech was intended to include writing, and it is equally arguable that the establishment clause could have banned actions that were short of an explicit establishment of a "Church of the United States."

Second, just because a law does not explicitly violate the Constitution in its entirety, that does not make it constitutional. For example, if the law did not establish a Church of the United States, but did found a sect which was not declared the official religion, I think the founders would have opposed that as a violation of the Constitution. On the other hand, banning a religion would not have been opposed on the grounds of the establishment clause, but likely on the grounds of the right to speech and assembly.

Since even strict construction positions still require interpretation and must allow that acts can be prohibited which do not constitute a full and explicit violation of the amendment, conservatives must admit that liberals are not wrong in asking whether acts could violate the establishment clause, even if they do not explicitly establish a religion. To say that a law must say "We establish the Church of the United States" in order to be unconstitutional is just absurd. I understand it as a reaction to liberal excesses, but it is still wrong. Not one of the founders would have seen the law as being as narrowly construed as the position of many conservatives today.

Having said that, let us now turn to the liberal position.

Well, first, to be fair, I suppose I should clarify that there are a number of liberal positions. As with any political movement, there are a range of views on the matter. However, for purposes of this essay, I will pick what is as close as I can come to the middle of the road liberal position, ignoring the more extreme positions. Obviously there are liberals who adopt a more hard line position, but their errors are essentially the same as the more moderate position, being more a matter of degree than being an entirely different position.

The liberal position is basically this, that any government action which can be seen as an endorsement of a specific faith can be viewed as an establishment of religion. And, on the face of it, this is not an untenable position. For example, were the state to exempt only Lutheran Churches from taxation or pay subsidies to the Baptists, I think even many conservatives would agree that those acts skirted dangerously close to establishment of a religion. Where the liberals go wrong is not so much in their basic tenet, but in the application.

What the liberals choose to see as favoritism is usually the subject that upsets conservatives. We are not talking about giving a single sect legal favors, instead we usually see the liberals attacking any display of religion at all. From court house monuments displaying the ten commandments to nativity scenes in town squares to prohibiting bible study groups on school property, the liberals have attacked those who show any religious feeling at all, rather than taking on efforts to prevent favoritism being shown to a single faith. And, while I think even conservatives would join in opposing tax breaks for Lutherans, I don't think anyone but a die hard liberal thinks allowing a private prayer in school will lead to the birth of a theocracy.

The problem is not so much with the liberal belief, as the application of that belief. I don't think anyone is advocating that the state should grant preference to a faith, or should enact legal rules favoring a single sect. The problem is that liberals take that to mean that the state cannot allow any religious display at all, and then goes even farther to prohibit religious displays by government workers, or even by private citizens on government property. It is this unwarranted expansion that tends to upset conservatives and lead to the excessively narrow reading of the first amendment I mentioned above.

So, what is the answer?

The easiest answer is not very likely in the foreseeable future. Most of these problems arise because the state has exceeded its original scope, and intruded into areas where it should not be. The founders did not address school prayer because they never thought the federal government would have anything to do with schools. If the state would get out of education, all such questions would end. Similarly, if there were no public parks, then there would be no question whether nativities could be in one. Private parks can be used however the owners wish. If the state stuck to its original mission of providing protection against force, theft and fraud, and providing civil courts, most of these questions would go away.

Of course, this is not going to happen any time soon, and even if it did there would still remain some question about pictures of Moses in court houses and such. So, in the interest of settling such questions, let us adopt a more modest solution.

Let us all agree that the state should not create a state religion, nor show favoritism to any specific faith or sect. On the other hand, decorative touches such a monuments, murals, and so on, do not constitute an establishment of faith. Should the legislature vote the funds for such, then putting them up does not establish a religion. There is simply no cause of action in court to remove such things. It is not a violation of any atheist's rights that a cross exists on public land, and my Jewish faith is not threatened because of it either.

Of course, the left will ask "So, what if we don't want our money paying for a cross? Don't we have any rights?" And I reply, of course! Every such decoration was put up by legislative vote. If you don't like the thought of public monuments with religious content, then go out and vote. Just stop trying to legislate through the courts.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/04/27.

More Thoughts on Slavery

Thanks to Buzz's response to my earlier essay on slavery, I have decided to revisit the topics of slavery and reparations.

First, I would like to address the statement I often hear that slavery was a horrible, brutal institution. Yes, to modern eyes it may very well be so, but to say that is both anachronistic and a bit historically naive. Slavery was, in reality, a much more humane solution tot he problem of conquest than what came before it, and was in many ways a great step forward in the development of the more humanitarian nature of man.

Allow em to explain. In primitive societies, especially hunter-gatherer tribes, but even in very early agriculture, there is no purpose for captives. As an individual can barely produce enough to feed himself, there is no surplus, so keeping another captive makes no sense. However, with the coming of improved agriculture, or more developed herding*, there exists a point where captives will produce enough surplus to make them worth keeping.

However, old traditions die hard. During the early phases of civilization there was still war, but , as captives were of no value, the common practices was to simply exterminate all who did not die in war, men, women and children. In short, early combat was marked, as is combat among the most primitive today, by wholesale slaughter**. And even when society reached a point where captives could be profitably exploited, this genocidal trend continued. So, the transition from slaughter to slavery, when it eventually came, marked an improvement in human relations. Rather than certain death, a vanquished tribe could expect to survive as captives. It may not be ideal, but slavery was surely a step in the right direction.

In addition, as slaves now had economic value, they were also treated a bit better than members of rival tribes would normally be. Yes, slaves could still be abused, maltreated and so on, but for the same reason that most people do not beat their horses or light their cars on fire for no reason, most people did not abuse their slaves. A slave was an asset, with a clear value. And, once trade developed to the point where a regular slave trade evolved, the fate of slaves improved even more. In the past, when one had too many slaves, he could actually afford to overwork or abuse them. Once there existed a market for slaves, that tendency would end, as even an unnecessary slave had value as a commodity, so would likely be sold rather than worked to death.

I am not saying that slavery was a good life, nor that no slave was ever abused. All I am saying is that slaves were treated no worse than any other living asset, such as an ox or horse, and for the same reasons. Also, that slavery, while inhumane to modern eyes, was an improvement over the genocide which was the normal situation prior to slavery.

Now, on to my second point. Some have also argued that either slavery was forced by the West onto the rest of the world. Others, realizing the fallacy of that statement, argue that Western slavery, while not unique, was of a much more brutal nature than that practiced in the rest of the world.

Of course, neither statement is true.

Slavery was practiced world wide long before Europeans started to move out into the rest of the world. If anything, the nomadic situation of much of eastern Europe kept them lagging behind Asia and the Americas in adopting slavery. But, regardless of who adopted slavery first, the fact is that slavery existed in some form or another on every continent (excepting Antarctica and Australia) long before Europeans arrived. The one exception (Australia) was kept from adopting slavery only by the relatively primitive conditions of the inhabitants, as proved by neighboring New Zealand, whose more advanced Maoris were practicing slavery when the European arrived.

Nor could anyone argue that European slavery was any more brutal than the slavery practiced elsewhere. Of course, even to speak of "European slavery" is to speak of something which did not exist. Some governments offered a degree of legal protections to slaves while others allowed owners full control of a slave, even allowing a slave to be killed arbitrarily, the range of practices mean that European practices ranged form much more civilized than those of the rest of the world, to every bit as brutal*. Still, whether we look at the treatment afforded slaves in the Americas, where they often provided sacrifices, or in China where they were treated in a manner about equal to those in Europe, there is no reason to think other cultures provided any better treatment than Europe did. Slavery was not a European creation, and neither was maltreatment of slaves.

Finally, the last argument I want to address is that somehow Americans need to pay reparations to blacks whose ancestors were slaves. I have already addressed the logical fallacies of this argument, but I want to point out one more, and much larger problem.

If we accept that the descendants of slaves should be repaid by those descended of slave holders, then where does it end? As I said, slavery was a universal practice, and almost everyone can probably trace ancestry to both sides of the equation. How are we ever going to settle all these debts?

Let us just look at a hypothetical black American.

First, most black Americans are not entirely of African extraction, almost all have some admixture of white blood. As many times this represents the blood of those very same slaveholders, this means that most blacks probably start off as descendants of both slaves and slave owners, already owing themselves money.

Let us go farther, and look at the earliest markets. even before the Dutch and Portugese there were Arab slave traders working in Africa, and they continued to do so throughout most of the period the slave trade was active. For the same reasons that many American blacks have some white blood, many also have some Arabic heritage, adding yet another bit of slave holding ancestry.

Turning form these groups, we also have to ask where the slaves were originally captured. Now, yes, the whites and Arabs did do some hunting on their own, but much of the slave population they sold was not made up of Africans they caught themselves, but of slaves sold to them by other Africans. Sub-Saharan tribes had long been taking captives in war and using them as slaves, and once the Europeans and Arabs began to offer to trade gods for these slaves, the practice became even more widespread. So, even if our hypothetical black has no white or Arab blood, he may still be a slaver's descendant simply by virtue of who his black ancestors are.

Now, let us look at the white American from whom he expects payment.

Let us take me an an example. My ancestors were Irish, Scottish, British, Alsatian, Ukranian and Cherokee. Though, oddly enough, knowing my family tree as I do, the only group possibly guilty of having held black slaves are my Cherokee ancestors, the rest were simply living too far north or too poor to have slaves. In fact, as I share my surname with a number of blacks I know, it is quite possible my paternal family was not only not slaveholders, but also was a bit casual about observing miscegenation laws as well**.

Now, since I am going to be portrayed as a descendant of slaveholders, I should probably look at my ancestry as well. As I said, Cherokees did own slaves, so it is possible my Cherokee ancestors did as well. But that is all I have regarding slavery on this side of the Atlantic.

On the other side, my history gets more interesting. Well, not the Alsatians, as the area was not a particular hotbed of slavery. On the other hand, the Celtic ancestors are, as they were both slave holders and slaves historically, depending upon the period. Similarly, Ukranians were both enslavers and enslaved at various periods.

Actually, let me just cut this short, as I think my point is clear. No one, if we go back far enough, is free of either slavers or slaves. We are all descended of sinners and saints, perhaps the same ones if we go back far enough.

And that is the stupidity of the whole reparations argument, that we are going back at all. Those asking for reparations were never slaves, and those who will pay never owned them. But once we accept the idea that it is not an individual's guilt or innocence, but that of his ancestry, then where do we stop? Can I collect from their descendants for Romans enslaving my Pictish ancestors? Can someone Polish collect from me for a massacre committed by Cossacks in the 16th century? If my father gets a speeding ticket, can I be billed? The logic for all three is the same as that for reparations.

There is simply no logical end point. If we accept the logic of reparations it become an endless engine for manufacturing grievances. Every new finding in history will become a new bill to pay. There will be no end to it.

As I said before, the only solution, whether it is fair or not, is to declare that some issues are too old to be settled fairly. Just as the statute of limitations exists because some things must be settled eventually, even if that leaves justice unfulfilled, I think we should adopt a similar attitude toward historical grievances. Draw a line beyond which claims will not be pursued.

And in this case, I think the line is easy to draw. If a deed was not committed by anyone living, or suffered by anyone now alive, then the time has come to put it to rest.

Any other solution will just allow claims to multiply and will keep wrongs alive forever.

------------------------------------------------------------

* Very early herding communities had little use for slaves either, as there simply was nothing for the captives to do. Later, once herding societies developed enough wealth to have labor specialization slaves could be put to work. However, it was always difficult to use slaves as herdsmen, as supervising them could take as many men as herding would require, meaning there would be no labor savings by using slaves. A fact which could explain why the Biblical Hebrews, themselves a rather primitive herding society, would slaughter the Canaanites rather than enslave them.

** I have seen those who try to refute this argument only to fall into the opposite fallacy, arguing that Western slavery was more humane than the rest of the world. While that may be true for some nations (Britain for example), it is certainly not true for the bulk of Europe. Most European nations followed to one degree or another the Corpus Iuris Civilis in their handling of slaves, and that ancient text did not provide much in the way of rights for slaves.

--------------------------------------------------------------

POSTSCRIPT

Just to make this perfectly clear, in the first part of my essay  I am not saying slavery was a good life, but that it was better than what came before.

Think of it this way: Imagine you are Mrs. Canaanite, and Mr. Canaanite tells you and Baby Canaanite that he is going off to war. Now would you rather he were fighting the Pharaoh or Moses and his crew, who have been told by G-d to slaughter not just Mr. Canaanite, but also you, Baby Canaanite, your sheep, and maybe your house plants?

If Mr. Canaanite wins, it doesn't matter. but if he loses, Moses and company are going to be killing you, while the Pharaoh is only going to haul you and Baby Canaanite off to Egypt to toil away.

Which seems a better outcome for you? Or seems more humane?

That is why I say, rather than being an abomination, slavery is an improvement on earlier answers to how one handles those defeated in battle.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/04/27.

Funding

Whenever I point people to junkscience.com, some environmentalist will point out that the site owner has not been published in peer reviewed journals and is funded by corporations.

First, let me deal quickly with the first complaint, as it is the most foolish. Whether or not he has been published in a peer reviewed journal is irrelevant. If the facts he publishes are accurate, who cares what his publication history is? If my three year old hands me a book or a PhD, the contents of the book are the same. Likewise, whether Milloy is published or not, the facts he posts are as incontrovertible.

The other argument is more common, and leveled at critics not only of global warming, but critics of any liberal position. The left constantly points out that global warming critics are funded by "evil corporations", "big oil" and so on.

There are two objections to this argument.

The first is simple. It does not matter who funds research if the research is correct. Was Nazi research on nuclear fission invalid because Nazis funded it? No, science is science. If a study is valid, it is valid regardless of where the money comes from.

Second, if we assume funding questions ARE valid, just for the sake of argument, doesn't it mean something that many who support global warming theories are funded by the government, where grants are dependent upon holding to the party line? If we are going to cast suspicion on research because of funding, should it not work both ways?

Of course, I do not hold with that theory. Instead, I would take a much more practical approach. If you think someone is making a false argument, rather than cast aspersions by pointing to their publication record, or telling me who funded them, why not show me where their arguments are false?

Of course, when someone casts such aspersions, the reason is often quite simple, they are unable to refute the claims any other way.

UPDATE

By the way, to those who point out Milloy's lack of publications, the proper response is "And Gore's doctorate is from what university?"

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/04/26.

Fascist Bully Boys

I was reading comments on the IMDB when I ran across a post full of socialist rhetoric. It was nothing unusual, the normal complaints about the rich oppressing the poor, no one being able to get ahead, the usual. One thing that did strike me in this post, and in socialist thought in general, is the idea that the police exist solely to abuse and oppress the poor and working class.

As the son of a police officer, who also grew up surrounded by police officers, I have to ask, who do these socialists think become cops? Do they think Ivy League socialites are lining up to attend the police academy?

The poor and working class BECOME the cops. So why do these socialists, who all ascribe to some theory of "class solidarity", think the police are somehow the tools of oppression? In my experience, police are more likely to give working class and poor people a break, rather than oppress them. But I suppose I am a tool of the oppressors as well, being a conservative, so I suppose my memories are suspect.

Actually, this brings up a related point. I have often seen black activists who claim the police are inherently racist. And in one respect, I will give them credit. I have seen relatively harsh views of black criminals among one group of police officers.

Black police officers are much more judgmental than any other group I have seen when it comes to black criminals. Then again, this makes some sense. White officers may buy into the "I was oppressed, so I can't help it" argument. Black officers, on the other hand, are every bit as black as the criminals, and likely grew up in just as harsh an environment, yet they did not turn to crime. It makes sense they would be less forgiving.

But I am straying from my original point. I still need to figure out exactly who leftists think becomes a police officer. If they are such enemies of the working class, they can only come from the wealthy oppressors, so apparently there are whole lot more Harvard alumni in the ranks of law enforcement than I thought.

Correction: My original link was to the wrong post. I am trying to find the correct comment and will link it as soon as I find the correct one.

Correction #2: The link has been fixed. Scroll down to the review by user whitecarrot2001.

POSTSCRIPT

And before someone asks, yes the title is a reference to the episode of The Young Ones where Neil wrote to the bank, starting his letter "Darling Fascist Bully Boys".

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/04/26.

Doing Something

In my last article, I mentioned in a footnote that the recent stimulus checks were partly based on long debunked Keynesian theories and party on the need for government to "do something" whenever there is a problem. That is what I want to discuss here, the problems caused by public pressures on the government to "do something" whenever a crisis strikes.

The problem is that the public has heard for so long that the government should have unlimited access to all matters, public and private, and that the government's powers should be unlimited. It has been the position of our politicians that the government can cure any problem, so long as they are not restricted by silly concepts of rights or limited government.

Taking the government at their word, as soon as any problem strikes, the citizens start to clamor for the government to "do something". Of course, this often leads to truly bad decisions, as the need to appear to be acting decisively is more important than the need to do anything effective. It is far more damaging for a political career to be seen as hesitating, even if the result is superior, than it is to have done  something wrong quickly.

If we truly want a limited government, we need to break this mindset. The public needs to stop viewing every crisis as an opportunity for the state to expand its scope. We need to do a better job convincing people that the state is a tool, and like all tools, is useful only when applied to an appropriate task. We would not try to fix a brain tumor with a hammer or a cocktail napkin, why do we try to solve economic problems with checks from the state?

Then again, when even the Republicans are pushing big government "compassionate conservative" solutions, what hope do we have? There is no longer a party of limited government to tell people that the state is not a panacea. Nor do I see McCain being the right man to act as standard bearer for a revival of conservative values.

Perhaps in 2012.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/04/26.

Spend for the Fatherland, Citizen!

I have just seen the most disturbing advertisement. Over a series of mundane images of bland couples opening mail and buying various items, the narrator explains that many people will be receiving checks as part of the Economic Stimulus Act of 2008, and that my local chamber of commerce thinks the best thing to do with those check is to spend them on local businesses.

Perhaps I am overly sensitive, but being told, in effect, that it is my patriotic duty to spend troubles me.1

The entire premise of this "economic stimulus" is disturbing. It reeks of all those failed economic theories which emphasized consumption over savings. I had thought the neo-Keynesian theories emphasizing the speed with which money changes hands had been debunked, but apparently they are alive and well.

So I suppose I must, once again, debunk this whole stimulus idea.

First, the money that the state is giving comes form one of two places. Either the state took it through taxation, or it created it through monetary inflation. In the first case, had the state not confiscated the money, the original owners would either be saving, investing, or spending that money themselves. In the second, it serves to create price inflation and devalue the currency already in circulation. I will deal with both in detail a little later, my purpose here is simply to say that the purchasing power the state is "giving" was already in the hands of the consumers, the state either took it explicitly through taxation or implicitly by currency devaluation.

Second, the concept that consumption stimulates the economy, while investment (including savings2) does not is just absurd. The periods of greatest economic growth have almost always followed the periods of greatest savings and investment. Investment is the reason wages are so much higher in developed nations, investment is why our lifespans continue to rise so dramatically, and investment is why we have such superior education (despite the NEA). Consumption serves to make the government's statistics to look better, and may produce more dramatic effects, but in the long term investment does much more to benefit the economy than spending does.

And that brings us back tot he source of the money.

If the money was taken through taxation, it largely came form the wealthy, mostly from money that would otherwise be invested. If it was created through inflation, that too disproportionately hits the wealthy3, as when money is devalued, those who have the most invested or held in cash tend to be hit hardest. As those with less wealth tend to have most of their worth tied up in homes, and maybe businesses, which are not as hard hit by inflation, the wealthy, with much invested in stocks or bonds, tend to be hit harder.

Whatever the method, this removal of money from investment to place it in the hands of those who will spend it on consumption does not help the economy. It may drive up government numbers, but in the long run, it makes us all poorer.

So, the question is, why do it?

The answer is simple. The press, the opposition, and the government itself, is obsessed with the technical definition of "recession". The moment indicators show a "recession" it will be news, Bush will be subjected to ridicule, and the Democrats will crow about the failure of the market. As that definition depends on arbitrary government figures, these steps are being taken to make sure those figures do not meet the definition of "recession", regardless of whether they do any good or not4.

So we end up with advertisements reminding us of our patriotic duty to spend, while the state seizes savings to encourage spending, all supposedly to improve the economy.

---------------------------------------------------

1. To forestall an obvious comment form Bush haters, when the president told America to go shopping following 9/11, that was more a call to return to normalcy rather than the "patriotic duty to spend" that this ad implies. I still thought Bush's speech was hardly the best choice, but it was not as disturbing as the advertisement here.

2. Savings is always the same as investment (with one exception), unless you bury your money in the backyard or hide it in your matress. As long as your savings are held by a financial institution, they are lent out. Now, there is one excpetion, in this age of consumer credit, and that is the small percentage of loans granted for consumption. So, savings is no longer exactly equal to investment, the way it was when most classical theories were developed. It is now equal to investment plus consumer credit spending, but the point is that savings is not money removed from the economy, it is still active, just not active on behalf of the person doing the saving. (Even Keynes admitted this early in his theory, though his later assumptions contradicted his earlier statement. For details see Hazlitt's Failure of the New Economics.)

3. I am ignoring here the additional ill effects of inflation. They are well documented elsewhere, and perhaps I will write about it later, but for the moment it is enough to show how inflating for purposes of consumption diverts spending power form savings to spending.

4. The government is also doing this because they are always expected to "do something" when conditions are bad. Rather than tell the public that the government cannot help, their need for reelection tends to force politicians to "do soemthing" regardless of how useless, or even harmful. But that is the subject of another essay.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/04/26.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Virtue of Humility

How much better the world would be if everyone could just admit one simple thing, that they might be wrong.

Think about all the harm which is done in the world, and think of how much is because people are convinced that they are right. The government wants to control prices, or regulate industry, or manage health care, all because the politicians are convinced they know best. Busybodies in public interest groups want to control what foods you can eat or how much you can smoke or what light bulbs you can use because they are convinced they are right. Everywhere someone is convinced that they are right, that they know best, and as a result everyone should be forced to listen to them.

What would happen if, for just a short while, we all admitted that perhaps we could be wrong?

We have an answer. It is the Constitution.

The principle behind all of our documents is this sort of humility, the realization that other people may know something that the framers did now. Why did they protect speech? Because the state may try to ban an unpopular idea, which later proves right. Why enact freedom of religion? Because perhaps the framers were wrong and the one true faith is something else. Why limit the power of the government? Because those in public office are as fallible as anyone else.

Humility is why I embrace federalism.

You see, I think I know what is the ideal form of government. It is something close to the generic libertarian ideal, a minimal "night watchman" state. But I also realize that I can be wrong. Maybe legalizing drugs will do more harm than good. Perhaps the state should be more involved in preventative public health measures than I believe. Maybe even some sorts of regulation are actually beneficial. I don't think it likely, but I could be wrong.

So, what is the answer?

Simple. Let the states decide. Even better, let the localities decide. Limit the power to as small an area as possible. Let the federal government handle the military, foreign diplomacy, interstate civil disputes, and that's it. Everything else should be handled by the states, or  even by the counties and cities and towns. Set up as many possible tiny governments as possible.

What does this have to with humility? Everything. By having fifty state governments with fifty different approaches to any given problem, we can see who is right and who is wrong. Or, maybe we will see that there is no right approach and many different ideas work equally well. Or maybe some approaches work for one group and other approaches work for another. By splitting up the solution, we admit that no one will have all the answers. Instead, each state can try their own way, and, if that doesn't work, turn to their neighbors for alternate solutions. The answers that fit best will slowly spread to other regions, those that fail will slowly fade away.

In short, by admitting that no one government will get everything right, we open the door to many competing solutions, allowing each government to try whatever they think best, but also adopt the policies of neighbors when they cannot solve a problem on their own.

But, so long as we believe that a single central federal system has all the answers, and as long as politicians continue in their conceit that one, solitary legislative body will eventually develop the optimal solution, we will not see these benefits. We will continue to have a single, monolithic solution, for better or worse.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/04/25.

Pardon Me?

I saw some excerpts from Reverend Wright's recent interview, and I am puzzled.

The bulk of what I saw was made up of claims that he was misunderstood by the media. I know this is a popular defense of the Obama supporters, that the press "cherry picked" quotes or misrepresented what Reverend Wright said.

I just cannot understand how anyone can believe this. Wright spoke glowingly of black liberation theology, he presented an award to Farrakhan, his church has a web page espousing black liberation theology, and he even sold the video from which these quotes were supposedly "cherry picked". He has done everything but wear an "I'm NOT with Whitey" t-shirt to proclaim his adherence to the black liberation theology, yet somehow he is misunderstood?

No, we understand Reverend Wright quite well. He is a racial separatist who blames all of his ills, and those of his congregation, on whites. And were Obama not running for president, he would have no qualms saying just that. In fact, until his racist rants hit the news, he WAS saying just that, his church's website was saying just that. But now, he is suddenly certain that it is all just a misunderstanding.

I beg to differ. We understand quite well, and that is what both Wright and Obama fear.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/04/25.

A Reply to Scientific Atheists

I have been writing off and on about those who claim that science somehow "proves" there is no G-d. In the past I have argued that it is an absurd argument, as religious questions are formulated in such a way that they are not subject to scientific proof or disproof, and thus are not the province of science.

So, why am I treading this familiar territory once again? Because I have come up with the perfect illustration.

In the late 11th and early 12th century, there arose in the Islamic world a philosopher named al-Ghazali. I will probably be accused of misrepresenting his philosophy, and to a degree I am emphasizing one later interpretation above the other possible readings, but here is a quick summary.

According to al-Ghazali, there was no creation except through G-d, created entities could not themselves create. In addition all causation was through the will of G-d. One of the many interpretations given to this was that there is no cause and effect, that fire only ignites paper as G-d wills it do so.

The interesting thing is that there is no scientific way to prove or disprove this. If G-d causes all things to happen, buy wills that such things happen in a way indistinguishable from cause and effect, there is no way we could tell the difference. The truth or falsehood of this theory is inherently a non-scientific question.

And the same is true of the existence of G-d. Barring personal experience of communion with G-d, no evidence exists of G-d's being*. It is simply not a question fit for science. Whether G-d exists or not is not a scientific question.

And the arguments raised by "scientific" opponents of G-d show this weakness. They do not prove G-d does not exist. Instead they mock organized religion, the tales in religious texts, or wax enthusiastic about how science explains all observable phenomena. Not one of those proves a single thing about the existence of G-d. Nor does the fact that a distinguished scientist is doing the criticizing give them added meaning. Whether it is a Dawkins, Hitchens, Mark Twain, or my six year old self** who doubts creation tales from the Bible, it proves just as little about G-d's existence. Scientific experience does not make irrelevant criticisms any more valid.

Then again, claims to have scientifically proved G-d does not exist do prove one thing, that the speaker does not understand what "scientific" means***.

------------------------------------------------

* Of course many would argue that personal experience is not proof as one could be insane or delusional. I would argue on the other hand that the same objection could be raised against all physical sciences, as the sensory data upon which we base them could also be delusional. That being the case, I will grant first hand experience of G-d the same credit I grant my other sensory inputs. As I have not had such an experience it is a bit of a moot point right now.

** My one and only brush with childhood religious training ended abruptly when my very youthful understanding of astrophysics came face to face with an overly enthusiastic literal reading of Genesis. It was quite some time before age and a more open mind allowed me to even admit there was a value to religion, and to understand that religion does not stand or fall on the validity of a literal reading of Genesis.

*** I would be equally critical of claims to have scientifically proved G-d's existence. Unless based on the aforementioned first hand experience, G-d's existence is as impossible to prove as to disprove.


Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/04/25.

Strange Double Standards

I wrote earlier about the arguments for preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Oddly enough, as redhead pointed out in the comment, I managed to forget the most basic argument of all, that nonproliferation treaties prevent Iran from doing so.

Which actually raises an interesting point, that the left seems to have a strange view of treaties.

In the run up to the liberation of Iraq, one of the arguments raised was simply that Saddam had never signed a formal peace treaty ending the first Gulf War. There was a ceasefire that had been in effect since the end of that conflict, but by refusing inspectors full access, and in firing at planes in the no-fly zones, Saddam had breached that ceasefire and we were completely justified in renewing hostilities. The left simply ignored that argument.

Now have proof that Iran is (or was*) building nuclear weapons, in clear violation of established treaties. The reaction on the left? Silence.

On the other hand, when President Bush wanted to build a missile defense, the left immediately brought out the ABM Treaties signed by the US and Soviet Union. Despite the fact that the Soviet Union no longer exists, the left was insistent that these treaties banned any such program and the US was bound to obey them.

My question is this: Other than simple partisanship, is there any rational explanation for this? Is there any way someone can justify ignoring both the Gulf War ceasefire and the nonproliferation treaties yet insist that we must obey the ABM restrictions negotiated with the now-defunct Soviet Union? Because I cannot.

-------------------------------------------

* I know the most recent NIE suggests that the "military" portion is no longer taking place, but that seems a specious argument. Refining uranium is the hardest part for both civilian and military applications. So 95% of the military work will be completed by this "civilian" program. You can read my earlier thoughts on this at the locations:

Idiots or Geniuses?
I Told You So
Another Thought on Iran
Heads I Win, Tails You Lose
I Don't Get It

-----------------------------------------------

Note: As the weekend is coming I will finally get to those essays I have been promising for two days. Sorry for taking so long to finally get to them.


Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/04/25.

Slurs

I have a question. I recall in the 1980's there was talk of the "racially insensitive" language in Mark Twain. It was idiotic, as the whole point of the scenes some found offensive was to show that "N*gger Jim" was as human as anyone else, and that Huck was beginning to realize this. To think this book is racist because of a single word, when the book itself is so inherently anti-racist, is just insane. But ignoring that, during the debate in the 80's, the newscasters often used the entire name.

Today it would have to be "N-word Jim".

My question is this, when did "N*gger" become so very offensive that we can't say it (unless you are a rapper or black comedian)?

I do not ask because I don't think the term is offensive. I do. But I note that a whole host of other terms exist which are not treated so sensitively. Kike and hymie are said on the news without even an asterisk. Even Townhall shares this strange bias. Some words, such as n*gger and qu*er and f*ggot are not allowed, but kike and hymie get through filters without complaint.

So, why this strange double standard. Why is it "the n-word", but not "the k-word"?

Nor am I questioning only the acceptance of antisemitic slurs. Gook and chink have been said on television without even the asterisk fig leaf, yet they are every bit as offensive.

It just seems to me that we are somewhat selective in our outrage. For some reason we have deemed some words unacceptable, in the case of the n-word, not even allowing more than the first letter to be seen (again, unless you are a rapper or black comedian), but other slurs are allowed in their entirety "in the interest of public discourse".

I can think of only two explanations, neither one very flattering. Either the media cares more about the sensitivities of blacks and homosexuals than Jews and Asians. Or, they think that blacks are so hypersensitive that they cannot handle even the asterisk ridden version, while Asians and Jews are mature enough to handle their respective slurs.

Neither explanation reflects well on the media.

POSTSCRIPT

As I mentioned Townhall is just as guilty. Obviously some slurs (such as slope) cannot be blocked as the word has a perfectly normal meaning. On the other hand, qu*er has a perfectly normal meaning, yet Townhall will not allow me to use that word without the asterisk. Which is especially absurd, as the gay rights movement uses the term themselves. They can hardly claim offense at hearing a term they use themselves. Unless it is a gay equivalent of "rappers can use the n-word" rule.

 I have yet to fully test the filters, and I use few enough slurs that I have not had reason to do so, but look at the article above and you can see how many words that exist only as slurs make it through untouched.

I am normally quite deferential to Townhall, as I appreciate the space I have here for my blog, but in this case I think they are following the PC trends a bit too closely and applying a strange double standard in deciding what is acceptable and unacceptable.

ADDENDUM

Yes, I am aware that "chink" has a non-slur meaning as well as the racial slur meaning. On the other hand, non-racial uses of chink are no more common than non-sexual uses of the word qu*er. In fact, I fact I used to hear "qu*er the deal", before that word started to have the "homosexual" meaning more often than the "odd" meaning, much more often than I heard "chink in the armor", yet the filter will allow chink but not qu*er. So, just because a word has a non-insulting meaning it does not mean it will get through the filters, or else there would not be an asterisk in the middle of qu*er.

By the way, is it just me or does it seem odd that a word I can find in TV Guide (eg. Qu*er Eye for the Straight Guy) is filtered by Townhall? I know standards and practices censorship has weakened on TV, but it hasn't become that weak yet.

UPDATE


Let me add an additional note. Since Chris replied to this, I realized that what I said could be taken the wrong way, so allow me to be clear.

I am not arguing for eliminating filters. I know why sites attempt to maintain some standards and prevent the use of certain terms. I do not object to that. (Well, except for the banning of the perfectly good word q*eer, which I use often enough that banning it makes me annoyed.) I am simply asking why the list limits itself to certain groups and not to others. Antisemitic slurs are every bit as common as slurs against blacks or gays. Slurs against Asians may not be quite as common in this forum, true, but since there is no other meaning for "gook" I think its omission is peculiar.

But all of that is really beside the point. My intent was not to take Townhall to task, as I am quite fond of the site and have nothing but the best experiences with the Townhall staff with whom I have corresponded, but to point out that this absurd hierarchy of racism has so permeated our society that even a right leaning organization such as Townhall has institutionalized the same bias.

While everyone may accept, implicitly, that it is worse to say "n*gger" than "kike", my point is that there is no reason to think so. Society may have arbitrarily decided that "the n-word" is somehow "worse" than "hymie", but why? Why is "mick" OK, but "f*g" not? Or "dego" ok, but "qu*er" not?A racial slur is a racial slur. All of them are offensive tot he group insulted. (Just ask my wife how much she likes the word "dego".) We should either ban them all, or ban none of them. To say some are OK and some aren't is to make strange distinctions, the implications of which are actually every bit as racist as the slurs themselves.

NOTE: I know, I know, Italian and Irish (and Jew for that matter) are not really races, but cultures. So, read it as "racial or cultural slurs" if you want. That is too clumsy a wording to actually use, so I am just going to leave the article as it is.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/04/25.

NOTE: The many postscripts are obviously irrelevant in the new environment. However, as the behavior of Townhall's language filters is not that different from filters I have encountered elsewhere, it is worth retaining these sections for more than just historical purposes.