26 June 2011

On Not Knowing What You're Talking About

Mr. Richard Stengel wrote a 5,000 word piece for Time magazine on the Constitution. I might be going out on a limb here, but this could well be the finest demonstration of what happens when a person writes so much about a topic that he knows absolutely nothing about.

Just for fun I will annotate the first four paragraphs of this specious exegesis. The original text is as is with my notes in bold:

Here are a few things the framers did not know about: World War II. DNA. Sexting. Airplanes. The atom. Television. Medicare. Collateralized debt obligations. The germ theory of disease. Miniskirts. The internal combustion engine. Computers. Antibiotics. Lady Gaga. This is the hook. Effective so far as it goes, but rife with foreboding about the juvenile line of reasoning that the author will employ. While doing research on a paper about obscenity in high school I remember reading a great line that went "asking what the founders would think about Deep Throat is like asking what they would think about helicopters." It would be an interesting conversation, to be sure, but utterly meaningless. None of the examples the author leads with give rise to any sort of constitutional question. But the founders were aware of the concepts of both technological innovation and, I'm sure, bad music.

People on the right and left constantly ask what the framers would say about some event that is happening today. What would the framers say about whether the drones over Libya constitute a violation of Article I, Section 8, which gives Congress the power to declare war? (I may be splitting hairs here, but using military means for policy ends is something the founders might have been able to wrap their heads around. The question becomes does the president have the authority to use the military without congressional approval. The answer is that the congress has the power of the purse strings and if the president were to misappropriate funds to carry out a military exercise that the congress has forbidden, the president has then committed an impeachable offense. Whether congress carries out the act of impeaching and removing the president is entirely up to the discretion of the congress.) Well, since George Washington didn't even dream that man could fly (The myth of Icarus predates Washington by about 17 centuries. Washington admired Seneca, but even Stoics can dream, no?), much less use a global-positioning satellite to aim a missile, it's hard to say what he would think (Nor does it matter, but a tiptoe through the Pacificus-Helvidius debates could give anyone with the time and desire to know what one is talking about an idea). What would the framers say about whether a tax on people who did not buy health insurance is an abuse of Congress's authority under the commerce clause? (The Commerce Clause was intended to allow the free flow of commerce between the states. Our modern understanding of our federated republic is ignorant of the parochialism that plagued the young nation. But why let the plain meaning of the words used (and a lack of anything added to the constitution to the contrary) get in the way. It is, very simply put, beyond the constitutional authority of congress to require a citizen to buy anything, even if it is for his own good.) Well, since James Madison did not know what health insurance was and doctors back then still used leeches (Still do, dumbass. This falls under the fallacious reasoning of the Whig Theory of History (& here) something done a long time ago must be foolish, and we are necessarily smarter today than we were in the past. It is also a false analogy, just because there have been advancements in our understanding of medicine doesn't mean that we haven't lost an appreciation for what our constitution says and does.), it's difficult to know what he would say. And what would Thomas Jefferson, a man who owned slaves and is believed to have fathered children with at least one of them (prurient and irrelevant), think about a half-white, half-black American President born in Hawaii (a state that did not exist)? Again, hard to say (Er, no it isn't. If we were to reanimate old TJ, give him a quick primer on the events from his death through the Civil War and to today and then show him the election returns from the 2008 election, he would probably say "congratulations." But again, it doesn't matter because history happened and Mr. Obama won the election. There is no constitutional controversy here.).

The framers were not gods and were not infallible (Textbook sophistry, no one has ever argued thus. Ever. To belabor this further would lend credence that this level of asininity does not deserve). Yes, they gave us, and the world, a blueprint for the protection of democratic freedoms — freedom of speech, assembly, religion (no, they didn't)— but they also gave us the idea that a black person was three-fifths of a human being (no, they didn't. The 3/5s compromise did not mean a black person was "3/5s" of a human being and this argument is as lazy as it is wrong. Here the actual words that were written will be helpful, "Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons." So saying that this clause makes slaves (n.b., not "blacks") 3/5s of a person is akin to saying that the constitution made the Indians unpersons. This was a hedge against Southern hegemony specifically on the notion of slavery and was done to hasten the day that slavery would be abolished, not to forestall it), that women were not allowed to vote (neither the founders (in convention) nor the constitution said any such thing) and that South Dakota should have the same number of Senators as California, which is kind of crazy (Why? Does the author not understand bicameral republicanism? Or simply not like the fact that those rubes in South Dakota are entitled to the same representation as those enlightened superhumans who live in California? And I should point out that neither South Dakota nor California existed at the time; both joined the union knowing full well what the rules of the game were, and the Connecticut Compromise is one of the finest examples of political compromise on the history of mankind. Crazy indeed.). And I'm not even going to mention the Electoral College (Why not? I'm going to go out on a limb and posit that it might be because the author doesn't understand how it works or why the founders thought it important (though hardly essential).). They did not give us income taxes (Thankfully). Or Prohibition (See, they were smart after all). Those came later (Perhaps, in the case of the former, they realized that the fruits of one's labor were rightly that person's property and in the latter that attempts to regulate individual behavior were a fool's errand. Regardless, at least it was realized at some point that increases in the authority of the government did require amending the constitution according to the established protocols.).

Americans have debated the Constitution since the day it was signed, but seldom have so many disagreed so fiercely about so much (First clause is indubitably correct, the latter is ahistorical stupidity). Would it be unconstitutional to default on our debt? (No.) Should we have a balanced-budget amendment? (Academic and moot, if enough people want to do it, the mechanism is there to do it. The founders did not find it necessary, for whatever reason, to include such a requirement. Though it is doubtful that they would be comfortable with deficits quite like we have today.) Is it constitutional to ask illegal immigrants to carry documents? (Maybe, maybe not, but it certainly is constitutional to control migration, so far as it is practicable, into sovereign borders.) The past decade, beginning with the disputed election of 2000, has been a long national civics class about what the Constitution means — and how much it still matters. For eight years under George W. Bush, the nation wrestled with the balance between privacy and security (an issue the framers contended with) while the left portrayed the country as moving toward tyranny (an argument conspicuously dropped even though the Obama administration has carried on virtually all of Bush's policies and even gone far beyond anything Bush or his henchmen ever considered.). For the past three years under President Obama, we have weighed issues of individual freedom vs. government control while the right has portrayed the country as moving toward a socialist welfare state (Here the author provides a link to tea-party protesters carrying signs; no reasoned examination of the incontrovertible argument that the government has increased the public provision of non-public goods (what socialism is), just an assertion supported by a link to eight pictures taken during a protest march. Smell that? That's modern American journalism).

I could go on, but really, what's the point? I encourage you to read the whole thing. The only thing any honest reading of the article will present you with is the knowledge that the author doesn't know what he's talking about.

22 June 2011

The Wonderfulness of Always Being Right

I'm always interested in books that other people like. I don't think it gives any significant insight into someone's soul or anything like that. Perhaps it does a little. But I just like to see what other people are reading, and a little blurb as to why or what they got out of it is always interesting. To me anyway.
And I don't limit this interest only to those with whom I agree. Which brings us to the crux of the post...
Our good friend
Krugman had an interview where he was to name his five favorite books. I already knew about his affinity for Asimov's Foundation books. But it still creeps me out, his rationale. He admires the psychohistorians in the story, which is fine so far as it goes. But then he admits "I was probably 16 when I read it and I thought, 'I want to be one of those guys!' Unfortunately we don’t have anything like that and economics is the closest I could get."
The study and application of economics can save civilization. Especially if you're Paul Krugman.
But other parts of the interview stood out to me also.

"The purpose is actually to make a better world. So yes, I do feel that I am trying to do something that goes beyond just the analysis." Sorry, bud, but I can't think of anything you have done that has made the world a better place. Your work on international trade was great good stuff. But it hasn't changed the world in any significant way. And considering your articles trade mostly in half-truths, sanctimonious pablum and argumentum ad hominem, how exactly would this make the world a better place?

"Then I read Hume’s Enquiry, this wonderful, humane book saying that nobody has all the answers. What we know is what we have evidence for. We do the best we can, but anybody who claims to be able to deduce or have revelation about The Truth – with both Ts capitalised – is wrong. It doesn’t work that way. The only reasonable way to approach life is with an attitude of humane skepticism." Unless, of course, you are skeptical about Keynesian economics, progressive taxation, government intervention in the market or of the concept that the government is just a big insurance company with an army. Because if you don't agree with any of those things, then you're an idiot or you hate other people or both.

But the best is:

Wouldn’t some people accuse you of having an extremely strong belief system? Isn’t there a sense among liberals that, “We’re in the right so we don’t have to pay too much attention to conservative or Republican arguments”?

In my experience with these things – which I find both within economics and more broadly – is that if you ask a liberal or a saltwater economist, “What would somebody on the other side of this divide say here? What would their version of it be?” A liberal can do that. A liberal can talk coherently about what the conservative view is because people like me actually do listen. We don’t think it’s right, but we pay enough attention to see what the other person is trying to get at. The reverse is not true. You try to get someone who is fiercely anti-Keynesian to even explain what a Keynesian economic argument is, they can’t do it. They can’t get it remotely right. Or if you ask a conservative, “What do liberals want?” You get this bizarre stuff – for example, that liberals want everybody to ride trains, because it makes people more susceptible to collectivism. You just have to look at the realities of the way each side talks and what they know. One side of the picture is open-minded and skeptical. We have views that are different, but they’re arrived at through paying attention. The other side has dogmatic views.

So the people, those presumptuous fools, who don't agree with Krugman and the like, those are the ones who are closed-minded. Progressives, Keynesians, et al. are the reasonable ones. They have perused all of the evidence and know the arguments coming and going, weighing everything carefully and judiciously and come to their convictions honestly. The people that don't agree with us? It is obvious that they haven't done all of the same things that we have because they don't agree with us. You see, we're right. We know we're right because we know what we think and what the others think (or at least have been told to think...dogmatically). We came to our conclusions after thinking.

I can't believe that I can still be surprised by the man's obnoxiousness, but there you have it.

20 June 2011

Same as He Ever Was

In case you thought being relieved of his congressional duties would have restored Arlen Specter to sanity...well, it hasn't.

18 June 2011

Class Act

I saw this link on reason.

Those union guys are a class act.

17 June 2011

What the Media Cares About

Jason Linkins at the Huffington Post wants to give "the media" a hard time about not giving Nancy Pelosi due respect and taking her seriously. She wanted to talk about "jobs" and the media wanted to talk about a congressman from her caucus that took pictures of his penis and sent them to young women to whom he wasn't married. Oh, and then he lied about it to everyone, including the president, for a week and is now getting therapy. Weiner of course resigned later in the day, but that is after Pelosi's press conference.
Based on her performance as Speaker of the House, I would think that we were all on the same page and for that reason alone no one would pay any respect to Ms. Pelosi or take her seriously from here on out, but I guess I was wrong.
Regardless, during her speech Pelosi says, "It is day 163, 163 days since the Republicans have taken over the majority of the House of Representatives--almost 6 months, and still no jobs bill on the floor."
Who knew that reducing unemployment was as simple as passing a bill that says "we make new jobs" and voila!
I know who didn't know that, Speaker of the House Pelosi. You see, she was in charge of the House of Representatives from January 2007 to January 2011 and in that time the unemployment rate went from 4.6% to 9.6%. Four years is 1460 days. She must have shepherded though a whole bunch of "jobless" bills in that time, no?
But she did help pass a $750 billion "stimulus" package that failed to stimulate the economy (worsened the situation, actually) and drove unemployment higher.
Mr. Linkins doesn't want any of this brought up, mind you. He wants to upbraid the media for being voyeuristic and targeting the lowest common denominator.
So he is surprised people don't take Pelosi seriously and at the baseness of the media.
This says more to the foolishness of Mr. Linkins than it does about the sorry state of society.

Klavan on Ryan v Obama

I thought this was pretty good, especially his descriptions of Keynesian thoughts. I'm not necessarily 100% sold on Ryan's plan (it's growth estimations are complete fiction, but then, so are all estimations in politics), but it is certainly preferable to anything the Democrats have come up with.

06 June 2011

How Big is Big Enough?

The great thing about Keynesian economics is that it purports to treat the thoroughly social science of economics as if it were a "hard" science like physics. Every problem can be expressed as an equation. The individual actions of millions of people can be expressed with self-fulfilling identities and oh-so-elegant graphs.
The funny part is that the economists come up with equations after the fact in order to explained what just happened, none of which is, ceteris paribus, repeatable. This is like scientists getting thrilled about predicting a solar eclipse after it happened. And then showing, in no uncertain terms, when it will happen again.
And being completely wrong.
Except, just like their brethren who pretend to predict the weather, economists never seem to be held accountable for all of the times that they are not just wrong, but fabulously wrong.

For illustration, we will take as a case in point the Smartest Man in the Universe, Professor Paul Krugman, Nobel laureate and professor of Economics and International Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.

Dr. Krugman has said time and again that the reason that the stimulus passed by President Obama and the Democratic congress in 2009 didn't work was because it was too darn small. To refresh your memories, the administration advocated for and received a "stimulus" package that totaled $787 billion. This was less than 12 months after the Bush administration asked for and received a stimulus package of $152 billion. For those of you at home, that is $939 billion in spending and tax "stimulus" and does not include the two rounds of quantitative easing and other monetary tricks and levers that have been pulled by the Fed, nor does it include the bailouts of the auto industry or the TARP bailouts. Remember also that we were told (by very smart people) that absent this second stimulus package, the unemployment rate would climb up to 9% through the first three quarters of 2010 before edging down slightly and moving toward the "natural" unemployment rate of about 5%. If the stimulus were passed, though, unemployment would top out at about 7.9% in the 3rd quarter of 2009 and then drop slowly towards the natural rate.

I don't think I'm being too out of line to note that we are tip-toeing toward the end of the 2nd quarter of 2011 and unemployment is at 9.1%. So that would mean, not to put too fine a point on it, that they were astoundingly wrong in their projections.

Sherman, set the WABAC machine for November 2008. Our friend Krugman said the stimulus needed to be...how big, Dr. Krugman? "My own back-of-the-envelope calculations say that the package should be huge, on the order of $600 billion." This was right after President Hope & Change was elected. And, as noted, the stimulus was significantly larger than what the Nobel laureate said it would need to be. Which was already "huge."

But 55 days later, it was too small. And this time, after the basic amount of the stimulus was hashed out, he had some math to show that it just wasn't going to cut it. Where was the math in November? Who knows?

But I do know this...Keynesian economics has been proven wrong. Again. For what would appear to be the thousandth time. Government spending does not "boost" demand. It takes it from elsewhere. What does Dr. Krugman say we should do now? Cut government interference in the market and let prices settle and clear?

Nope. Spend more money. Because even though deficit spending has all sorts of negative consequences, "the United States is able to borrow as of today at 3% interest rates for ten years." He wants to have another round of stimulus, equal to the first round. A total of $1.5 trillion of spending. What should the money that must taken from future generations be spent on? WPA style programs. "Hire a lot of people to people fill potholes." Please see here from about 16:00 to 17:30. The whole thing is a train wreck, and if these gentlemen are really influencing policy (they are), we are doomed. It should be noted that the US economy did rather poorly between Summer 1935 and early winter 1941.

The notion that the "stimulus wasn't big enough" is non-falsifiable. It is, in my opinion, wrong and no government intervention can mitigate or cure an economic bust. But I will readily admit that this is an opinion. So is Krugman's logic. But he doesn't see it that way. None of the Keynesians (and a lot of the monetarists, too) see it that way. Something that is non-falsifiable is not testable. If something can't be tested under controlled circumstances, it can't be proven true or false. That means it isn't science. And I don't care how many equations you come up with after the fact.

Sean Penn is Still an Idiot

I saw this by would-be diplomat Sean Penn. Some highlights:

  • There has been a systemic barrage of misreporting and context-shifting within the U.S. media and espoused by many U.S. Representatives relative to Venezuela and its democratically elected President Hugo Chavez.
  • The American people have grown accustomed to hearing the Venezuelan president referred to as a dictator, not only by media representatives but by members of the leadership in both parties. This is a defamation, not only to President Chavez, but also to the majority of Venezuelan people, poor people who have elected him president time and time again.
  • a president elected by the impoverished and at the service of the Venezuelan constitution, a document not unlike our own.
  • He is a flamboyant, passionate leader. And while our own cultural and constitutional conditioning would lead us to serious concerns in the powers of his office, there must be an informed adjustment to give our analyses a context that may extend beyond our borders.
(All emphasis added by me)

I am fortunate to know some people that live in Venezuela. People that are subject to the dictator, Hugo Chavez. There is no other title that he is worthy of. He is not democratically elected, and he is certainly not returned to office out of the love of his imprisoned subjects. He is, second to the Brothers Castro, the embodiment of what happens to a vibrant, diverse and hard-working people, economy and nation when subject to socialism and Marxian ideals (apparently the kind that Thomas Friedman finds so appealing).
The contest between who is more repulsive is a tight one. Obviously Chavez himself is a despicable person who maintains an iron grip on control of his country while its people suffer at the hand of his idiotic policies borne of his megalomania. Critical members of the media and any nascent political opposition frequently disappear. He is re-elected because there is no choice. It's pretty easy to win a race when you're the only one running, you write the rules and officiate the match all in one. A nuance perhaps lost on Mr. Penn.
Is Mr. Penn more repulsive than Mr. Chavez? Which is worse, the bloodthirsty dictator or his allegedly educated and enlightened actor apologist?
Chavez has the actual blood on his hands, so he is obviously worse. But Penn fights the good fight. And if he keeps writing as poorly as in this piece and this other golden oldie, he might start to nudge his good buddy Hugo off the pedestal.

04 June 2011

Eh, Canada?

Not to pile on, but our friend Professor Krugman also says that Medicare in the United States is "sustainable" because Medicare in Canada is sustainable. Let's get one thing out of the way quickly and agree with the premise that if you increase taxes and restrict consumer choices ("less open-ended and more serious about cost control" is how the Super Genius euphemistically presents it in his piece), then the program can be shown to be sustainable. On paper. I will glide by the fact that Canada has no need for any significant defense spending because she happens to enjoy the rather extraordinary free rider benefit of being attached to America.
I will instead focus on this line: "Now, Canadian health care isn’t perfect — but it’s not bad, and Canadians are happier with their system than we are with ours."
There are a few problems with this position. First, how exactly can we measure this? I'm sure there are polls out there, but seriously think about how this can be compared in any meaningful sense. To be able to have a preference, one needs to be rather familiar with both options. Just showing data that says x% of Americans are "somewhat dissatisfied" with healthcare compared to y% of Canadians is useless as far as comparison goes. I may not like my broadband provider. But that doesn't mean I necessarily prefer another broadband provider with which I have absolutely no familiarity, right?
Also, there also this:

No, It isn't

I've noticed a little meme on the liberal/progressive/socialist end of the spectrum that is being used as a cudgel in the debate about the proper size and scope of government. I first noticed this with Professor Krugman (see here and here) and saw it somewhere along the line repeated by the captain of the JV squad, Ezra Klein. That the federal government "is an insurance company with an army."
No it isn't. At least the United States of America isn't. It is extremely important to remember that I am not a professional historian, political scientist, lawyer or genius polemicist writing for the New York Times. But I can read. And I have read this, the constitution of the United States. I've read a couple books about the constitution. I've even sloughed through a couple Supreme Court decisions. I've given more than a passing glance at Hobbes, Locke and even Rousseau, along with some other works on political science and political economy. I've read some of the Federalist Papers and even a few of the Anti-Federalist Papers. I even have a copy of Madison's notes on the Convention. I'm not listing this stuff to make it look like I'm smart. Because you don't have to be smart to have read these things (and truth be told, I've forgotten most of what I've read, but I think I still have the gist of most of it and I also still have most of the texts). Thanks to Google Books I can state categorically that the word "insurance" does not appear in The Social Contract, Leviathan or Two Treatises on Government. The word "insurance" does not appear in the constitution and the matter was not broached during the convention. It is not mentioned in any of the amendments passed since ratification.
The point being that the government is not an insurance company. It isn't supposed to be one, anyway. And if it were to try and be one, it would carry out that function rather poorly and it has). But none of that matters to the epic minds that embrace the notion of state control of just about everything. Not when the government can inflate the currency, increase taxes, bastardize the interest rates and deny that long-run expectations of catastrophic outcomes are not rational considerations in economic decisions today*.
But merely stating as if it is a given fact that the government is a huge insurance company with an army, then anyone who disagrees with the basic premise is immediately marginalized.
"What do you mean the government isn't an insurance company? What would you do with Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security? Who would provide health insurance for the indigent, infirm and elderly? Who would provide retirement funds for retirees?"
Are we that far gone as a society that we don't realize that a human being's first responsibility is to himself? That this isn't some Randian/Objectivist homage to selfishness but simple common sense? Is it that much of an anathema to speculate that people would be able to make arrangements on their own, voluntarily, to take care of themselves?
Because they can't afford it? Ummm, guess what? Neither can the government. Because when you give someone something for nothing, they tend to want more of it. That is not greed, that is normal. When people don't have to apply marginal utility preferences, when scarcity is removed from the equation by the deus ex machina of government, costs will explode.
Here's another meme that has the added benefit of being true: the government doesn't produce anything, it merely moves resources from one area of the market to another. Anything "given" to one must first be taken from another. When this is done under penalty of law, this is not compassion or charity, it is bullying and theft.
When legislators and bureaucrats (or New York Times columnists) presume to know how to direct resources to more efficient (or humanitarian) outcomes, it can be difficult to prove to them that they are wrong.
But they are wrong. And closing your eyes and repeating silly, and untrue, mantras over and over again won't change that.

*Banks, firms and individuals are not hoarding (i.e. "not not spending") money due to uncertainty and concerns over long-run considerations, both of which are usually (but not always) created by government interference in the market. It's a "liquidity trap" that can only be countered by, yep, more government spending. If this seems like an idiotic concept, then congratulations are in order. You fully understand Keynesian economics and why it doesn't work.