Double team

Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell are double teaming the electorate.

Heres’ the opener from Walter Williams’ column this week, Changing America.

Dr. Thomas Sowell, in “Dismantling America,” said in reference to President Obama, “That such an administration could be elected in the first place, headed by a man whose only qualifications to be president of the United States at a dangerous time in the history of the world were rhetoric, style and symbolism — and whose animus against the values and institutions of America had been demonstrated repeatedly over a period of decades beforehand — speaks volumes about the inadequacies of our educational system and the degeneration of our culture.” Obama is by no means unique; his characteristics are shared by other Americans, but what is unique is that no other time in our history would such a person been elected president. That says a lot about the degeneration of our culture, values, thinking abilities and acceptance of what’s no less than tyranny.

And the closer:

Fighting government intrusion into our lives is becoming increasingly difficult for at least two reasons. The first reason is that educators at the primary, secondary and university levels have been successful in teaching our youngsters to despise the values of our Constitution and the founders of our nation — “those dead, old, racist white men.” Their success in that arena might explain why educators have been unable to get our youngsters to read, write and compute on a level comparable with other developed nations; they are too busy proselytizing students.

I was disappointed with both tickets in the last presidential election. I didn’t think any of the candidates were yet qualified for the highest offices. When I pointed that out to folks, I got an assortment of non-sense responses.

One popular response: “He ran a great campaign.”  That’s a qualification for President?  Would you hire a head football coach for the NFL based solely on a good job interview?

Another popular response:  “I want an articulate President.” To which I’d respond, can you listen to his last speech and explain what he said?  I could rarely make out what he was saying. Everybody was in awe of his style, not his substance.

Maybe that ties back to Williams’ comment about our education system. We can no longer differentiate between style and substance. Don’t get me wrong, not many politicians actually deliver much substance. But that’s our fault. We have such low expectations of them.

More common responses:  “He seems like a good guy. I’d like to have a beer with him.”   That’s how you choose your President? In that case, most of my buddies should be President! Again, what are we learning in our education system?  The sad thing is that a lot of people would let that pass as an acceptable answer, when they should let that person know that he should not vote until he he becomes an adult.

Here’s a short list of what I would like to know when considering who to vote for President:

  1. What’s their view on role of government and how does that fit with the Constitution?  It’s amazing to me that we let people in office when we’re not entirely clear on this.
  2. What does freedom mean?  Of the two following statements, which best matches their view of freedom?  The ability for individuals to make decisions that suit their needs and preferences…
    • …free of coercion from others.
    • …free of negative consequences that might result from such.
  3. What do they think of the Constitution?  What is its purpose?
  4. What is the process for changing the Constitution from it’s original intent?
  5. What actions have they taken in the past that support or contradict their stated views?
  6. What makes for a good federal judge and Supreme Court justice?
  7. What does “uphold the Constitution” in their oath of office mean to them?
  8. Where does the candidate think government has overstepped it’s boundaries in the past?
  9. What do they like about the U.S. and dislike about it?
  10. Why do they think Rome fell?
  11. How have they led in the past against politically unpopular things?
  12. What do they think about capitalism?  Property rights?
  13. Why do they think the U.S. is the wealthiest country ever?

Those are a few of the questions I would like to know the answer to before casting my ballot.

A different kind of evolution

How did we get here?

I carry a Blackberry, use an iPod touch, live in a home with indoor plumbing, central air and heat, kitchen, refrigerator, washer and dryer.  That doesn’t even scratch the surface of modern conveniences. We have an amazing standard of living.  A common theme on this blog is recognizing that.  We too often forget it.

Years ago, while watching a Discovery channel show on how early homo sapiens lived, it occurred to me that early homo sapiens had the same basic resource and constraint as us.  They had 24 hours in the day (maybe a second longer) and needed one to two thousand calories.

Until they learned to cook, they chewed meats for hours to begin the digestion process. Cooking was a major innovation, allowing them to reduce the time spent ingesting food by hours.  This freed up time to do other things, like make better tools for hunting and the Internet.

To get from there to here, we’ve basically found ways save more time and make better tools.  Now we can accomplish much more in 24 hours and the effort we need to expend to consumer 2,000 calories is minimal.  Such innovations come from trade and specialization.

But trade and specialization are not the only mechanisms that took us on our path. Other things helped as well.

Things that are so natural and innate to us that they are invisible.  So few people see them or understand them or think much about them.  Those things are the rules that govern how we interact with each other.

Our interactions with each other have evolved to allow us to get along and be productive, so says F.A. Hayek in The Fatal Conceit (p. 20):

That rules become better adjusted to generate order happened not because men better understood their function, but because those groups prospered who happened to change them in a way that rendered them increasingly adaptive.  This evolution was not linear, but resulted from continued trial and error, constant ‘experimentation’ in arenas where different orders contended.  Of course there was no intention to experiment — yet changes in the rules thrown forth by historical accident, analogous to genetic mutations, had something of the same effect.

Amazingly enough, we really don’t know why the rules work or why we do what we do (p. 23):

Though in a sense based on human experience in that they [custom and tradition] were shaped in the course of cultural evolution, they were not formed by drawing reasoned conclusions from certain facts or from an awareness that things behaved in a particular way.  Though governed in our conduct by what we have learnt, we often do not know why we do what we do.

And it just so happens that the successful experiments displace the unsuccessful ones (also p. 23):

Learnt moral rules, customs, progressively displaced innate responses, not because men recognised by reason that they were better but because they made possible the growth of an extended order exceeding anyone’s vision, in which more effective collaboration enabled its members, however blindly, to maintain more people and to displace other groups.

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of this book.

Letting tax “cuts” expire aka BIG government bailout

We bailed out mortgage lenders who made the mistake of loaning money on the promise of rising home prices.

We bailed out homeowners who made promises they could not keep.

We bailed out auto companies who wrote checks to their workers that could not be cashed (at least, not without stiffing debt holders).

Government borrowed to “jumpstart” the economy.  Not surprisingly that didn’t happen.  Now, the folks who would like to see tax rates increase to help the deficit want to bail out BIG government by taking more from us.

I find it irksome that for some folks cutting government spending from its new and enlarged levels seems to be a distant priority, while taking more from taxpayers to fix the deficit seems so tantalizing.

Besides, are we to believe the people who told us that spending more money would pay for itself with a growing economy when they now tell us that increasing tax rates will result in more tax revenue.

“The Price of Everything” by Russell Roberts

The Price of Everything: A Parable of Possibility and Prosperity

This book is my new reading recommendation for folks who want to dip their toes into basic economics.  I will continue to recommend Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics, but I think Russell Roberts book will be a good precursor to Sowell’s book.

I’m testing it with some friends now and will see how it goes.

I enjoy Russell Roberts work on the blog Cafe Hayek, the EconTalk podcast, the rap video The Fear of the Boom and Bust and his paper on the causes of the financial crisis.

I put off reading this book because it’s economics told through a fictional story and I was little leery of the fiction aspect. I shouldn’t have been.  It’s a great read and the fiction is good.  The story is compelling and the economics discussions in the book are interesting.  I read it in three days.

Russell Roberts comes from a free market perspective, but in my experience with his other work he is fair in capturing the opposing viewpoints and addressing the real concern, he does so in this book as well.

Anybody who has had an economics discussion with friends will likely appreciate the discussions Ruth Lieber has with her students and Ramon.

At $10 for the paperback, this is a steal and makes a great gift for anyone with a mild interest in economics or politics.

Addendum: I forgot to mention that I also enjoyed the Sources and Further Reading section of the book.   It was interesting to learn the back story on the inspiration behind certain elements of the story and I plan to work my way through the further reading Roberts suggests.  I’m already well into one of his suggestions.

Addendum II: Thanks to Professor Roberts for linking to this review on his blog, Cafe Hayek.  As he points out in that post, is discounting the price of the book by 40%.  At that price it’s worth considering buying a dozen or so to have them on hand to give to folks as econ discussions come up in the daily course of events.  “Here, give this a read…let’s talk about it when you’re finished…then pass it on. “

Meet Deirdre McCloskey

Don Boudreaux of Cafe Hayek posted a link to this interview with economist and historian Deirdre McCloskey.  This is my first exposure to her.  I plan to read more of her work.

Some pluckings from the interview:

Shaffer: How do you evaluate economics today and economists’ function as modern America’s preeminent public intellectuals?

McCloskey: With alarm. But non-economist intellectuals need to understand some elementary economics: There is no such thing as a free lunch; national income equals national product equals national expenditure; free trade is nice; more money causes inflation; governments are not all-wise; spontaneous order is not chaos.

My alarm comes from the economist’s tendency to reduce humans to Maximum Utility machines. We need a humanomics, of the sort that Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill and John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek and Gunnar Myrdal and Kenneth Boulding and Albert Hirschman practiced. Some current practitioners are Nancy Folbre, Arjo Klamer, and Richard Bronk. It’s an economics for grownups.

And another:

Shaffer: Traditionally, bourgeois political life is defined in precise contrast to the ancient state, as one devoted to accommodating citizens’ desires rather than inculcating virtue in them. And yet, you suggest the virtues are the precondition for a bourgeois state.

McCloskey: Not exactly precondition, because I also argue that virtues are generated by a liberal economy and state (“liberal” in the old and still European and true sense, not the sense in which progressives have used the word in the U.S.A.). Markets make us more moral.


Unconstitutional Part II

Julian Sanchez agrees with me and explains why very nicely.  Here he is commenting on the surprising result of Federal judge on the Obamacare health insurance mandate:

It does seem like a surprising result, given the last century of Commerce Clause precedent, that anything plausibly describable as economic activity might be found beyond the power of Congress to micromanage. “Preposterous on its face,” even.

But isn’t it preposterous that it’s preposterous? Step back from that steady accretion of precedents and instead just ask how far a federal power to “regulate commerce…among the several states”—especially in the context of separate and parallel powers to regulate commerce with foreign nations and Indian tribes—can plausibly be stretched. Isn’t it the idea that “regulate commerce” could entail a power to require a private individual in a single state to buy health insurance that ought to seem kind of crazy? Shouldn’t we find it more intuitively preposterous that a provision designed for tariffs and shipping rules should be the thin end of the wedge for a national health care policy?

Years ago, my mom told me that two wrongs don’t make a right.  Turns out she was right.  Believing that two (or more) wrongs make a right is a logical fallacy. We’ll see if the Supreme Court agrees.

My guess is the Supreme Court decision will be split along ideological lines, unsurprisingly.  Here’s why.  Those on the left believe the Constitution is a living document that allows judges to interpret it however they see fit.   And often they will support a judges rulings that support this viewpoint with arguments that look very much like the ends justify the means.  We like the result of the ruling so let’s not worry about whether it is correct or not.

Those on the right also believe the Constitution is a living document.  However, the judges on the right generally do not believe the judicial branch is empowered to give the Constitution its breath.  They are not empowered to interpret the Constitution how they see fit.  They believe their job is to apply the law.

Granted, some interpretation will be involved in applying the law, especially on something like the Commerce clause.

But, those on the right tend to start with what was intended when the law was written and work their way from that when testing if something is lawful or not.

Those on the left tend to begin with the result they desire and work their way back from there to find the interpretation that enables that result.

Those on the right also believe the breath that makes the Constitution a living document does not reside with the Judicial branch.  Rather it resides in Article V of the Constitution: Amendment Process.    If you’d like to alter the scope and balance of government powers, great.  Use the amendment process to do so.

Just what we need

In this video, Michelle Obama first softens us up by telling us that it is parents’ responsibility to ensure their kids are healthy.  I agree with that.

At 38 seconds in, though, she begins to make the case that “we can’t just leave it up to the parents”,  “we, as a nation, have a responsibility as well”.

Her case for is that kids spend so much time in schools.

The caption on the screen says that this legislation will give the USDA authority to set school nutrition standards for food and vending machines.

I disagree with the first lady.  We, as a nation (which I take her to mean Federal government), have no responsibility to ensure kids are healthy.  She was correct in the first part of her video.  That’s a choice to be made by the parents and the kids and their private doctors.  Nobody else  needs to be involved in that.

For those who send kids to a local public school, the parents’ responsibility doesn’t stop when the kids leave their sight.  We certainly don’t need standards set by the USDA.  Haven’t we learned our lesson? We shouldn’t rely on such sweeping government standards.  Government can be wrong.  I had to unlearn the government’s food pyramid to lose weight.  When I learned about it in school, I assumed the government knew what it was doing.  Turns out I and the government were wrong.  I learned information from private sources that helped me  lose the weight and keep it off now for almost 10 years.

If parents have an issue with what cafeterias serve, they should choose to pack their kids lunches or take it up with the PTA and local cafeteria management.  There’s no need for the Federal government to get involved.

To use an Obama phrase, “Let’s be clear,”  this is Michelle’s pet project to leave her mark so she can add it to her resume and remind us from here on how she fought for kids health.

Most people will applaud that, not realizing that all she did was convince Congress to pick our pockets to fund a priority that we should be doing ourselves and to fund a government bureaucracy that will likely be difficult to get rid of and may cause some sort of unintended and widespread damage (again, thanks food pyramid).

If Michelle Obama would like to leave a mark that will actually help kids get healthy, I suggest considering private solutions.  Perhaps she could use her First Lady clout to establish a private, voluntarily funded charity to educate parents on how to make healthy snacks and meals on a budget or teach activities that parents can do with their children to keep them active.   Maybe the charity can also do things like help sponsor sports leagues, provide swim lessons to kids whose parents can’t afford it or provide bike riding lessons, helmets and bikes to children.

At the very least, test your program on a small level, track the results and see if it makes any difference whatsoever and doesn’t do damage.  Then, if everything seems good, roll it out.

Instead, Obama takes a page out of the Teddy Kennedy playbook.  Force us to fund what will turn into a highly ineffective  and perhaps damaging government activity and then pat yourself on the back.