Random Thoughts by Thomas Sowell and Seth

I enjoy Thomas Sowell‘s Random Thoughts columns.  A few this week, coincidentally, line up with recent posts of mine.

Here are a few gems from Sowell’s latest column.

Like so many people, in so many countries, who started out to “spread the wealth,” Barack Obama has ended up spreading poverty.


Most of us may lament the fact that so many more people are today dependent on food stamps and other government subsidies. But dependency usually translates into votes for whoever is handing out the benefits, so an economic disaster can be a political bonanza, as it was for Franklin D. Roosevelt. Don’t count Obama out in 2012.

These are related to my “invisible hand” post.

Whether the particular issue is housing, medical care or anything in between, the agenda of the left is to take the decision out of the hands of those directly involved and transfer that decision to third parties, who pay no price for making decisions that turn out to be counterproductive.

Politicians can solve almost any problem — usually by creating a bigger problem. But, so long as the voters are aware of the problem that the politicians have solved, and unaware of the bigger problems they have created, political “solutions” are a political success.

And this one goes nicely with my debate format post.

Regardless of how the current Republican presidential nomination process ends, I hope that they will never again have these televised “debates” among a crowd of candidates, which just turn into a circular firing squad — damaging whoever ends up with the nomination, and leaving the voters knowing only who is quickest with glib answers.

His column usually inspires some random thoughts practice of my own.

It seems a big problem in this country can be traced to the strong encouragement we give people to get their voice heard and vote, without first encouraging them to research their opinions, build well-reasoned arguments, listen to and fairly consider opposing viewpoints — and be able to address them without fallacy.

As Gov. Christie points out in the video below, it’s usually the folks screaming the loudest that those who disagree with them are dividing the country who are actually dividing the country.

For that matter, too few people know what fallacies are, but use them a great deal.  Straw men and red herrings litter the discussion landscape on all sides.

Occupy Wall Street demonstrators should give a good listen to Jack Black/Tenacious D’s song, City Hall.  I think libertarians might like their first decree.  OWS’ers will like decrees 2 & 3.  Though, as Black says about 3, “I don’t know, I gotta think about that one.”  Bottom line, OWS’ers will eventually become the people they are protesting (whoever that is).  And their children and grandchildren will protest against them.


My son played tee ball this past Spring.  I was pleased that none of the kids sustained injuries because at practice the kids would pick up bats and start swinging wantonly, never thinking to look around to see if others were close by.

I’d tell them to stop, be careful and look around to make sure they didn’t hit anyone with the bat.  They’d give me a look of bewilderment.  They were clueless as to how they could hurt anybody.

The looks on their faces remind me of the looks on the faces of our political leaders.  They are clueless as to how their bat swinging could cause damage.

Here’s a great example from The Wall Street Journal commentaryThe Banker Baiters:

After Congress created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as part of Dodd-Frank, President Obama said the government would prevent “hidden penalties and fees” and ensure “clear and concise information.” He promised banks that “unless your business model depends on cutting corners or bilking your customers, you’ve got nothing to fear from reform.”

Flash forward to today, and the full weight of Mr. Obama’s Washington is coming down on a bank for making perhaps the most transparent pricing change in the history of American finance. Is there any consumer who hasn’t heard that Bank of America will start charging a $5 monthly fee on debit cards? Could there be a simpler communication to allow consumers to consider other debit cards or other payment options?

For doing exactly what President Obama claimed that he wanted, the bank was rewarded by the President with an assault on national television. Mr. Obama told ABC television that the proposed fee “is exactly why we need this consumer finance protection bureau that we set up that is ready to go.”

When ABC host George Stephanopoulos asked if the fee could be stopped, Mr. Obama replied, “Well, you can stop it because it—if you—if you say to the banks, ‘You don’t have some inherent right just to, you know, get a certain amount of profit if your customers are being mistreated.'”

Yes.  Clueless.

Some folks can’t seem to believe that an overreaching, meddling government is contributing to the bad economy by causing businesses to be less likely to invest, which in turn hurts new business and job creation.

Yes.  Clueless.

Debt ceiling shenanigans

Russ Roberts of Cafe Hayek deserves credit for pointing me to this David Harsanyi blog post.

I’m partial to these two paragraphs:

Obama, as usual, claims that “economists” — by which he means Austan Goolsbee — contend that disaster looms if we play games with this arbitrary number we always ignore. (This administration is just jampacked with soothsayers and futurists, always relying on the unknown and the unverifiable as the core of its argument. The recession, for instance, would have been far worse if we hadn’t spent as many billions on green infrastructure that “saved” jobs and may one day create energy.)

Today President Nostradamus contends that not raising the debt limit would have a catastrophic economic impact. This, many argue with the help of history, is simply untrue. The United States has hit the debt limit four times in recent history, and it survived without any damage to the capital markets as they waited for a deal to be struck. The debt could still be paid with tax revenue. But that would mean cutting spending.

A good way to start a productive discussion

Well respected Harvard econ professor and sometimes political economic adviser, Greg Mankiw, was surprised with the attention his latest New York column attracted.  On his blog he wrote:

I did not expect such as reaction, as the point of the column–an explanation of Republican economic philosophy–did not strike me as particularly novel or controversial.

I’m not surprised.  But I am glad that Professor Mankiw wrote his column.  We need more plain language explanations of what all sides fundamentally believe.  We need to dispel with the straw men (e.g. “tax cuts for the rich”) and ad hominems (e.g. “they’re soulless creeps, so of course they’re wrong) and get to why we think our way is better so more people can make reasoned judgments rather than be confused by sound bites designed to tug on emotion.

I urge anyone who scratches their head about conservative or Republican economic philosophy to read Mankiw’s column.  And here’s some great advice from Mankiw’s column (second emphasis added):

DON’T MAKE THE OPPOSITION YOUR ENEMY Last month, when you struck your tax deal with Republican leaders, you said you were negotiating with “hostage takers.” In the future, please choose your metaphors more carefully.

Republicans are not terrorists. They are not the enemy. Like you, they love their country, and they want what is best for the American people. They just have a different judgment about what that is.

One of the great disappointments of my adult life has been our nation’s childlike inability to have productive discussions.  It reminds me of my brother and I when we were kids.  “Yes you did!”  “No I didn’t!”

Both sides are guilty.  We’re busy and have little time to think about everything deeply.  But, Mankiw’s advice is a good place to start.  Don’t assume your opposition has bad intentions.  Assume they have good intentions.

Better yet, assume that you both have nearly the same end goal in mind.  Then ask your opposition to explain why they think their way is better to achieve that goal.

Don’t expect they’ll be able to articulate why very well.  It’s likely nobody has asked them to explain it before, so they haven’t had much practice.  They may even be surprised, just like Professor Mankiw about the interest his column generated. They are use to be called names.  When they stumble, resist going in for the kill.  Instead, ask questions and give feedback about whether you understand or not.

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.

The Problem With Intelligent Folks

Writing in this morning’s Wall Street Journal, Karl Rove correctly identifies the feedback problem that often prevents intelligent people from becoming wise people.  He identifies that problem in the title of his op-ed, Obama Has a Listening Problem.

I’ve seen this problem in action all too often.

Folks who earned good grades in school, tested well, achieved high academic status, were donned with academic honors and awards and everyone goes out of their way to proclaim ‘how smart’ this person is, often share this problem with Obama.

They believe their own hype.  They become full of their intelligence and believe their gift is knowing when others don’t.  When they are wrong, it’s more plausible to them that everyone else is wrong and they have a unique insight that others are not capable of understanding.

Us more feeble-minded folks have an advantage over the elite intelligenstsia.  We do consider the possibility that we’re wrong and when faced with clear evidence of such, we learn.  We alter our world views and mental models to what we’ve learned.

If you cycle through this for a couple decades what you find is that the feeble minded folks have a tendency to become wise and the intelligent folks have a tendency to go crazy.

I’m reminded of this Forbes column by Paul Johnson, The Five Marks of a Good Leader, especially in the section on judgment:

What makes a person judge wisely? It is not intelligence, as such. Clever people with enormously high IQs often show scarifyingly bad judgment. Nor is it education. When I need advice, I rarely turn to someone with first-class honors from a top university. I turn to someone who has knocked about the world and cheerfully survived “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” One man to whom I turned for his judgment was Ronald Reagan. Though not a scholar by any gauge, he almost invariably judged correctly on the few big issues that really matter.

Being able to judge well is often linked to an ability to mix with and learn from other people–not so much from experts but from common people, those who lack the arrogance of power or the desire to show off their intelligence but who nevertheless think deeply about life’s trials. A person of judgment develops the habit of asking questions of such wise people and listening to their replies.

A Failure to Communicate?

According to this, President Obama told 60 Minutes’ Steve Kroft that poor communications and bad persuasion is what led to the Republican/tea party election results last Tuesday.

So, we can safely conclude that THE election message was not received.

In case Obama is considering other explanations for the results, John Boehner does an excellent job of summing up the message in this morning’s Wall Street Journal.  Key messages:

They [voters] look at Washington and see an arrogance of power. They see a Congress that doesn’t listen, that is ruled by leaders who seem out of touch and dismissive, even disdainful, of the anger that Americans feel toward their government and the challenges they face in an economy struggling to create jobs.

The political landscape has been permanently reshaped over the past two years. Overreaching by elected officials—in the form of pork-laden “stimulus” spending, permanent bailouts, and policies that force responsible taxpayers to subsidize irresponsible behavior—has awakened something deep in our national character. This has led to a surge of activism by citizens demanding smaller, more accountable government and a repudiation of Washington in Tuesday’s elections.

Tired of politicians who refuse to listen, Americans who previously were not involved or minimally involved in the political process are now helping to drive it. While their backgrounds are as diverse as the country itself, their message to Washington is the same: Government leaders are servants of the people; the people are not servants of their government.

I do agree with Obama in one respect.  Part of the problem is a communication problem.  But, the problem doesn’t appear to be in getting the message out to the people.  The problem appears to be getting the message from the people to the politicians.

Fortunately, elections allow the voters to solve that problem.   Republicans started losing power in the ’06 elections because they were in a very similar place as Democrats were before Tuesday.  And it took two election cycles for the Republicans to understand the message.