Friday, February 27, 2009

The Need For More Efficient Government

This caught my eye today:

City of New Haven announces major layoffs- 27 city workers, 127 board of ed employees to lose jobs.

I've blogged before about the layers and layers of unnecessary bureaucracy that exist at every level of government, but I'm still reeling in shock from that number of 127 Board of Education employees. If that's how many jobs they're cutting, how many did they have in the first place? And yes, New Haven is a city, but at 100,000 people it's not that a big city. At a $40,000 a year salary, 127 employees would cost the city over 5 million dollars a year. And to do what? Certainly local boards of education fill a need, but clearly there were plenty of positions here that could be cut without the school system falling apart.

It amazes me how little transparency there is in the budget process at all levels of government. It's the sort of thing that, in the internet age, we as voters and taxpayers should have instant access too. Yet it took me over 10 minutes of fiddling around on the City of New Haven website and looking through their old budget (see here) to find that for the '07-'08 fiscal year, the city budgeted slightly over 114 million dollars for personnel costs. And still, I can't find how much of that $114 million is devoted to real live teachers and what's devoted to administration. We tend to look to Washington in disgust, but how can we expect anything from the federal government when there's no transparency and no understanding of budgeting on the most local of levels.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

An Honest Look At The Response To Economic Crisis

Will Wilkinson on Redistribution, Fairness, and Stability:

When Obama said in the campaign he meant to “spread the wealth around,” I’m sure most people took that to mean downward redistribution meant to rectify either the unfairness of rising inequality, the unfairness of the fact that some people are struggling for no fault of their own, or both. But bailouts of all sorts–to banks, to car companies, to underwater homeowners–spreads the wealth around in an entirely different way. “Investment” in the “green economy” spreads the wealth around. Increasing the size of the military spreads the wealth around. And so on. None of this accords with any coherent notion of fairness. And the scale of Obama’s initiatives do badly unsettle the structure around which people build expectations, and that’s an independent source of unfairness. We desperately need better framework rules for both private and public finance. It would be silly to oppose serious structural reform. But what we’re getting is the kind of half-panicked, half-opportunistic myopic intervention that breeds future half-panicked, half-opportunistic intervention. That is the opposite of what we need.

Maybe a Better Comparison Would Have Been The Imploding House

Blogging at the Atlantic, Matt Yglesias compares consumers injured by exploding iPhones with recent home buyers who've seen the prices of their homes radically decline.

There really is plenty of blame to go around here. But I just don’t see how more than a tiny fraction of it could possible adhere to our electrician or teacher or secretary who’s decided, basically, that the financial services professionals and government regulators know what they’re doing.


And I just don’t think it’s the responsibility of individuals to know that all the experts, and all the conventional wisdom, are secretly wrong. All kinds of people have been buying iPhones because everyone says they’re great. And if this November, the iPhones all suddenly explode injuring tons of people, I think there’ll be a lot of blame to go around. But really just about none of that blame will land on iPhone owners—it would land on Apple and AT&T and regulators and gadget reviewers and everyone else. If not, if the people who run the country and its media don’t actually expect their pronouncements to be taken seriously, then really they ought to all quit and make way for people who take their responsibilities seriously.

Yglesias is generally a decent liberal blogger, but to compare a temporary declining investment with a defective product is just asinine. Beyond the obvious legal distinctions, there's still a major difference between any expectations involving the value of a purchase you make and the expectation that a something you buy won't explode and injure you. But maybe this is just typical of where we are today and what people's expectations actually are.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Solution To Any Problem

I always take a lot of heat when I blog about these sorts of issues, but I was too intrigued this story to not open my big mouth. I caught this on the evening news last night, but apparently, a group of teenagers was at the state capital in Hartford yesterday to support a bill requiring that Connecticut public school students as young as 11 be taught about health relationships as part of their health curriculum in an effort to combat dating and relationship violence and abuse.

Now let me be clear before I go any further. I don't think that this sort of education is a bad idea. But I do question 1) Why we need a state law mandating this or any sort of education and 2) Why children are so brainwashed into thinking that the passage of legislation is the ultimate accomplishment?

I've been through this first part before, but I always get so much resistance I figure I'd hit on this again. There's no reason for the state or federal government to set mandates when it comes to education so long as our public schools are financed through local property taxes and run by local boards of education. Who has a greater incentive to decide what to teach children than parents in their own communities. This doesn't mean the state pushes bad ideas on local school systems, nor does it mean that there can't be a role for the state in some sort of advisory capacity. But whether we're talking about school lunch rules, vending machines, or any aspect of the curriculum, what's the problem with leaving the ultimate decisions up to the parents and their local representatives?

We have a serious problem when adults believe and children are taught that the solution to any problem is to go to the capital and get a law passed. There's a whole lot of irony in teenagers going to legislatures to inform them about the realities of relationship violence in an effort to get the legislature to pass a law mandating that the very information conveyed to them be taught to the very teenagers who came to the capital in the first place. It's just such a helpless state of mind that this encourages, where the answer is always to be found in government. Whoever pushed these kids to go and grandstand about this bill at the capital should have been pushing them to organize and educate their fellow teens.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Social Security Madness

Is it just me, or since President Obama took office has there been an increase in the bits and pieces of insanity out there? Case-in-point this column in the UK Guardian urging President Obama to declare social security solvent today, tomorrow, and forever in an effort to boost spending by baby boomers who may be cautious with their money because of concerns over social security.

In some ways this is an interesting point, playing into the view that economics is about mass psychology and that people's perceptions of larger economic issues help to shape economic conditions. But if you want the government to lie to people about social security, why not just have them lie about the economy in general? If lying about social security's financial status could give the economy a temporary stimulus, why not go on tv and tell everyone that the recession is over and the economy is improving?

I use the term "lying" about social security because it most certainly would be a lie to say social security is just fine. At some point in the next 10-15 years, there will be a point where social security will need to pay out more benefits than it collects in payroll taxes and something will need to be done to maintain the system. To say the system is fine ignores all facts and all objective reality. Now there are certainly potential fixes to the upcoming crisis, but not one of them would be very popular. Those possible solutions include:

# Raising the eligibility age. Would not be popular among boomers looking to retire (especially when these are the folks who's retirement savings have taken such a hit as the market has fallen.)

# Decreasing payouts to beneficiaries. Not popular for obvious reasons.

# Increase payroll taxes on everyone. This would be a drain on businesses in a bad economy and would hit the poor hardest of all.

# Eliminate the individual payroll tax cap, which is a popular solution amongst the left. Right now, social security is taxed on only your first 90,000 some odd dollars of income, but eliminating the cap would bring in significantly more revenue. This would be a huge tax hike, but more importantly, it would end the illusion that social security is a government sponsored retirement program. Social security has proved popular because it's supposed to be a government sponsored retirement program, where the benefits retirees receive is based on the money they paid into the system while they were employed. People who don't work and don't pay social security taxes won't receive any benefits. If the social security cap is lifted without a corresponding increase in benefits for those paying the increase in taxes, than social security becomes not a retirement program, but a welfare program. Not that there's anything wrong with a welfare program, but there would be no real reason to maintain the fiction that social security was somehow a separate system.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Just A Few Moments On Steroids

As baseball braces for yet another steroids crisis, I seem to be hearing more of an argument that comes primarily from 40 somethings who grew up before the steroid era. These folks don't feel as betrayed as older generations and are more open about the question of the Hall of Fame, but worry most about the integrity of baseball's scared numbers. "What do we do about all the numbers from this era when everyone seems to be tainted by steroids and how can we put this generation in historical context?"

It's an argument that I think is complete BS. Have steroids had an impact on baseball's numbers? Certainly, although I wonder what the impact of a 'roided up Roger Clemends facing any number of 'roided hitters actually was. But it seems to me as though everyone is overlooking the fact that baseball's steroid era directly coincides with the start of baseball's strength and conditioning era. (And it shouldn't be all that surprising that athletes started to look to performance enhancing drugs the same time they started weight and strength training regimens, meticulously constructed diets and numerous nutritional supplements.) And if steroids makes a difference in statistics, than you would think that these intense training regimens makes quite a difference as well. In other words, baseball's big numbers have other causes than steroids. It just doesn't make much sense to me that we can't compare A-Rod's numbers to Hank Aaron's because of steroids, but there'd be no problem with the massive discrepancies in their training regimens.

Markets Working?

Via Reason, Matthew Paris writes in the UK Spectator that far from being evidence of capitalism's failure, the economic crisis is evidence that the market system is in fact working.

The bubble that has just burst was based, worldwide, on financial services. Financial services are a product. It is true they are a product critical to the efficient functioning of the market (so is electricity, so is oil) but that just makes them an unusually important product. From time to time products fail in any market. They may fail through force majeure - droughts, floods, pestilence. They may fail due to inherent flaws - airships, Thalidomide, blue asbestos. Or they may fail through ignorance, trickery or the credulity of human beings - Madoff, the property bubble, the repackaging of sub-prime debt.

The present financial crash has been precipitated by product failure of the third kind. Trade in financial instruments too opaque for even those who traded in them to assess them properly, and bonus incentive schemes that acted against the interests of the companies offering them, fuelled a banking bubble that has now burst.

But ask: what pricked it? Did politicians rumble the trade? Did governments, or international forums or symposiums, provide the sharp instrument? Did academic research and expertise expose the dodgy product? Did statutory regulators apply the pin? No, the free market wised up and pricked this bubble. Politicians and finance ministers (if they had had the power) would have tried to keep it inflated. The market puffed itself up, and then, without intervention - despite intervention - the market let itself down. The speed with which this has happened has been awful, but however inconvenient for many or catastrophic for a few, correction is not a failure of the market, but a success.

Some of the commenters at Reason make the point that you can't just point to the markets ups and downs as evidence of capitalism's superiority. It's a worthwhile point, but I don't think that's quite what Paris was getting at. His point wasn't about the relative superiority or inferiority of any system as a whole, rather, it was about the relative abilities of institutions to recognize and correct economic problems. It wasn't government and it wasn't intellectuals that recognized this bubble, but market forces. And market forces doing what market forces do, the market reaction was to pop the bubble. What did government do? Help create that bubble, prop that bubble up, and after the market attempted to self-correct, continue to try and prop the bubble up.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Podcast Nation

[This will be a link-free post, only because I'm avoiding having to link to everything I might mention here. Anyone interested in any of the podcasts I mention should feel free to drop me a line and I'd be happy to give you the link.]

This past month, my love with podcasts has grown into a full blown romance. For the uninitiated or the apathetic, podcasts are essentially downloadable radio-type programs, generally made available as mp3s. Some radio programs actually turn their broadcasts into podcasts to allow listeners to enjoy the program on their own time, but the podcasts I'm more interested in are original creations. I started listening to more and more original podcasts this past fall because I had just grown so sick of the traditional radio. Even when it wasn't being interrupted by countless commercials, most of the stuff on the terrestrial radio just plain sucks. I've done Howard Stern, I've done Rush, and I've done countless sports talk shows, but the real problem with radio is, like the traditional television market of old, there's a limited amount of programming available and those programs needs to sell themselves to as large an audience as possible in order to remain on the air (unless of course, you're NPR).

As with just about everything in our culture, the internet changes everything by turning anyone into a potential broadcaster. Free of the limitations of traditional radio, anyone can put together their own talk show on any subjects. And I just love it. Rather than listen to sports radio I get the sort of sports talk I want to hear, with Bill Simmons on the BS Report and with Matthew Berry on ESPN's fantasy focus. Rather than having to listen to the traditional partisan political divide, I can enjoy the numerous podcasts, audio content, and original programs made available through the Reason family. And rather than have to wait for a sliver of news about Lost, I can listen to episode-by-episode analysis on podcasts with fans or even the show's actual writers.

What's fascinating is how remarkably similar they all sound, from the smallest fan podcast, from the biggest original content coming from a media behemoth like ESPN. Obviously, there are palpable differences in production quality, but even those aren't that great, nor that important when you're just talking about a discussion type program. What I mean by "sound" is how the listening experience is the same no matter how you dress it up. Either you're listening to a solo host carry on a free flowing dialogue with himself or you're listening to a discussion amongst two or more people and in the end it's the same whether you're in your car listening to more traditional radio or whether you're listening to a Lost podcast you burned on a CD. And with the wonderful world of podcasting, you actually may be listening to a dialogue or a discussion you're all the more interested in. Ain't technology wonderful?

Further Signs of the Apocalypse

So, after 20 years, the Simpsons has a new theme. I'm shocked and horrified, but perhaps it's appropriate, given that mediocre visual gags are all the show has left.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Wall-E Revisited

This is another post I've had kicking around for awhile, mainly because of the Pixar animated film's place on numerous "best of 2008" lists and the number of conservative and libertarian critiques of the film and it's politics. For those of you who may not remember, Wall-E is the tale of an adorable little robot, who's left alone on an abandoned earth to clean up the garbage of a long gone humankind. Wall-E falls in love with Eve, another robot who has returned to earth to determine whether or not the planet is suitable for humanity's return. In the years since humanity had left earth, they'd grown immobile, fat, and happy, living on luxury liners while robots catered to their every need.

Critics of the film's heavy environmental and anti-business messages miss many of the films larger and perhaps more subtle points. Yes, the film's primary protagonist is Fred Willard playing the role of Buy N Large CEO Shelby Forthright, but there's none of the evil intent typical of movie CEO's. Forthright, who's Buy N Large corporation seems to also serve the role of government, seems to be motivated only to give humanity a luxurious style of living where they literally needn't lift a finger. Leaving earth was supposed to only be temporary, but as most temporary plans go, the temporary turned into the permanent as the job of cleaning up earth was too large for the robot force assigned to clean it up. In fact, Wall-E appears to be the only remnant of that cleaning force, having prolonged his existence through his own ingenuity and spark of individualism.

The film is certainly critical of the excesses of consumer culture and the throwaway existence that goes along with those excesses, but the theme of environmental degradation is meant to be a backdrop, not an urgent message. What Wall-E is really about is people and the unique bits and pieces of individuality that defines our humanity. Ironically enough, Wall-E's individuality is discovered through his scavenging of humanity's garbage, a sure sign that some of this garbage is actually key to our identity as individuals. The film portrays Wall-E to be every bit as human as you or I, even more so than the various human characters he initially meets on his adventure. It's because of Wall-E that the human characters rediscover that spark that makes them human, highlighted by Jeff Garlin's character of the ship's captain. Wall-E helps the captain discover that Mr. Forthright, frightened by an earth that can not be rehabilitated, had issued a secret program directive to Auto, the ship's command robot and autopilot, in order to prevent humanity from ever returning to earth. And it's because of Wall-E that the captain literally leaves his chair and walks around to help save the day.

Even those who enjoyed the film have commented on it's rather dark subject matter, but even that's a characterization I take issue with. Wall-E is notable both for it's lack of real malevolent intent on the part of it's villains and for it's portrayal of an over-fed and overly cared for humanity that's just plain gosh darn nice and pleasant. We discover this early on, as Wall-E reaches the luxury liner and accidentally runs in to a number of humans who treat Wall-E not as a robot inferior, but a being worthy of respect. When I first watched the film, my thoughts drifted to the robot tales of Issac Asimov and the elitist spacers who left the masses behind and treated their robots and the rest of humanity with outright disdain. Unlike in Asimov's universe, the luxury made available because of the robots in Wall-E hasn't chilled humanity's heart, only made them lazy and forgetful as to what makes humanity so special.

In the end, Wall-E helps to save the day and win the metallic heart of Eve, but he also helps humanity rediscover it's spark and provide the motivation to return to earth to start anew. And this is the film's overriding message, not dark, not about the destruction of our environment, and not about big bad corporations. Ultimately this is a movie about how a little robot, humanity's creation, helps humanity rediscover it's soul, which is just such a unique take, such a U-turn from traditional science fiction. Having just been hashing through the mess that is Battlestar Galactica, getting a chance to reflect on Wall-E is more than a welcome change of pace.

There Are Only 12 Cylon Models (Except When There Are 13)

A bit more Battlestar blogging ...

Way back in the beginning of Battlestar Galactica, at the very end of the mini-series, then-Commander Adama finds a cryptic note in his cabin indicating that "there are only twelve Cylon models." Since that point, the show has embraced that number, both internally through it's characters and externally through the show's marketing. Only problem is, as we discovered last Friday night, there are actually thirteen Cylon models: The previous seven, the newly revealed five, and one other, a "number seven" named Daniel that was seemingly destroyed by a jealous Cavil. It sort of makes sense, especially given that Sharon was a eight, but thirteen Cylons wasn't what the setup was. Using "12 Cylons" as a selling point and the turning around in the show's waning episodes and adding a thirteenth is simply bad writing and makes for a cheap gimmick.

But as I was getting to last time, this has been Battlestar's problem all along. In the mini-series, four Cylon models were introduced: The Sharons, the Sixs, the Leobens, and the Dorals. The set up was that there were more Cylons in the fleet, yet to be revealed as sleeper agents and by the end of the second season, three more models are revealed: the Simons, the Cavils, and the D'Annas. That brought us up to seven and early in season three, it was revealed that the identity of the other five models were hidden, so hidden in fact, that the D'Anna's were boxed as a result of their curiosity about the final five.

At this point, we're left with any number of questions about the Cylons, questions that aren't the result of a slowly plotted mystery, but of the information dump we've suddenly been given. The Cylon's leadership structure and decision making apparatus wasn't all that important before, but given the latest reveals, it's now of the utmost importance. The underlying plot thread here seems to be that Cavil was the first of the newer models created by the original five, and that he manipulated events to eliminate mankind because of his own frustrations with the limitation of human form. He got rid of Daniel and hid his existence from the others, hid the original five and erased their memories, hiding their identities from the others and convinced the rest of the models to go along with his plan for eliminating mankind. It doesn't make for a bad story, but as I've been saying there was no setup so the payoff is weak.

To go back to this twelve versus thirteen models question, I suppose one could make the argument that because the Daniel's are gone, there are only twelve actual models in existence. But this is weak storytelling, as it all evolves around one particular Cylon's machinations at keeping secrets from the others, a Cylon who wasn't even introduced until halfway through the series. Now, it's certainly possible to introduce critical characters at later junctions of a story. I'm thinking about Lost and in particular, the introductions of Benjamin Linus and Charles Widmore in the show's second season. The difference between Lost and Battlestar is the importance of Ben and Widmore was revealed as the show progressed, whereas the importance of Cavil is only now revealed as the show comes to a close. Cavil as the chief villain of Battlestar Galactica works just fine in the grand scheme of things, but it's poor storytelling for that fact to be drawn out only now.

The good and bad of Battlestar Galactica

No less than a week after I had declared that Battlestar had jumped the shark did it respond with three consecutive weeks of entertaining fare that finally appears to be pushing the show to a conclusion that may not be completely satisfying, but should tie up all the loose ends. The mutiny arc was excellent, but like most of the show, it was too hastily dealt with. Like the New Caprica storyline, the interesting stories which see our characters put in different circumstances and which they're given a real purpose are rushed, while the plot lines like Starbuck's odyssey about the freighter Demetrius seem to stretch on far beyond their need.

As far as television goes, Battlestar is still a great program. The show looks great, it's probably the best acted show on television, and so many of the individual scenes are just amazing. But even dating back to the show's first season, I've always felt that something was lacking, that there was something keeping the show from reaching it's full potential and looking back on it, that something was ultimately the show's storytelling ability. There were flashes of greatness, such as the first season finale which led quite naturally into the story that unfolded in the first half of the second season which integrated the politics, characters, and mythology of the show so seamlessly. But as I mentioned above, there were far to many fits and starts, far too many moments when the show either seemed aimless or alternatively, hurried.

The sad part is that the show's conclusions seem remotely plausible and the whole idea of further interweaving the humans and Cylons makes cynical, but perfect sense. But as I mentioned in my last Battlestar post, the real problem is the execution. I can actually buy Ellen and Sal Tigh, Tyrol, and Sam as Cylons, but throwing Tori into the mix was gratuitous and just plain nonsensical. And of course, there's now the issue just raised in the last episode, that the genocide of the human race was actually brought about by the Cylon Cavil's disgust at being made so human-like. It's an intriguing motivation, but know we're left to wonder why the other Cylons went along with it. There are plenty of possible explanations, but once again, it feels as though plenty of good storytelling was left in the dust by an after-the-fact explanation. Ultimately, Battlestar will be judged on it's failures in storytelling as it will be on it's high points and it's just a shame to think about how close the series was to being truly great television.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The future of "liberaltarianism"

The brilliant Will Wilkinson blogs an excellent response to the libertarian-leaning conservatives who question the concept of "liberaltarianism" and wonder how the theory can be squared with Democratic action in regards to the stimulus. Will's response is below.

... but I’m not that interested in short-term partisan politics. I’m interested in a much longer-term project. I want to help create the possibility of a popular political identity that takes the value of human liberty, in all its aspects, really seriously. As I see it, this project involves an attempt to reunify the separate strands of the American liberal tradition.

I've been critical of the idea of "liberaltarianism" in the past, but mostly because the liberals promoting the ideas (such as Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas) seemed more intent on the politically expediency of getting libertarians to vote Democrat than they were concerned with crafting, as Wilkinson says, a more long term philosophical movement.

As I was working on this post, Reason posted a link to former editor Virginia Postrell's thoughts of the subject:

When you get political theorists together, they assume the big divide is over the relative weights given to equality and liberty--the old Rawls vs. Nosick split. But given the right flavor of liberals and libertarians, that's bridgeable. The real division, I believe, is over regulation. Contemporary liberals will say, as someone did at dinner in DC, that they are against stupid regulations like the controls on trucking abolished in the late 1970s. And I'm glad for that.

But finding liberals who oppose any new regulation is almost impossible--no matter what the perverse consequences.

She's right, but I'm not convinced the liberal lust for regulation is an impossible to overcome obstacle. As I've blogged about several times over the past month, when liberals get all starry-eyed about the New Deal, it's not over FDR's massively unsuccessful regulatory efforts. Liberals get starry-eyed about social security, public works projects, and the whole idea that government was trying to do something to help the people. The truth about regulation is that no one involved in it likes it and that no one can at times even include the regulators. As I mentioned in my blog a year ago, even a staunch a Democrat as former Presidential candidate George McGovern can see the light when it comes to regulation.

Who actually likes regulation? Arrogant intellectuals who think that they or those like them have the knowledge and foresight to manage everyone else's affairs. It's an image that may be shared by some of the rank and file on the left, but only by those who haven't had the misfortune of dealing with a complex regulatory bureaucracy. (It's one thing to have to deal with the DMV every few years and another when a DMV-like agency creates more regular havoc or actually threatens their livelihood.) The truth is, most folks on the left don't spend all that much time thinking about regulation, meaning they think even less about it's consequences. A true "liberaltarian" project would have to ideologically convert those liberals to whom regulation is not a holy mandate. Part of that project would also involve libertarian acceptance of certain basic functions of the state, that basic social welfare is every bit important as national defense and public roads.

As I've been saying for awhile now, the key is to move beyond welfare as an intellectual battleground, focusing instead on the pernicious forms that aid can take. Helping the poor and helping those who have lost their jobs is one thing if it comes in the form of cash helping people to help themselves. But policies designed to have certain results (think home ownership), have had disastrous results and we're seeing more of those same policies again and again. A "liberaltarian" project can succeed if in the long term it can get enough people thinking about these sorts of issues.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The War On Beer Pong

Radley Balko has the latest on the slippery slope toward fascism: The town of Arlington Virginia may ban outdoor drinking games.

A few years ago, Virginia’s power-tripping alcohol control board cracked down on state bars and pubs that sponsored drinking games like beer pong. Naturally, young bargoers in Northern Virginia started playing the games in their backyards. So naturally, the city of Arlington may now ban them on private property, too.

Bluemont resident James Thorne said that, since the Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) board banned drinking games (such as “beer pong”) from bars and eateries, they have gravitated toward outdoor areas, such as outside local homes.

“It affects our quality of life,” Thorne said of the resulting noise.

Thorne asked board members to consider an ordinance change that would give county police the ability to request that such drinking games be moved indoors.

Board members said the matter should be investigated.

“What people do in the privacy of their own homes is their business,” board member Walter Tejada said. “When it spills out and affects the quality of the neighborhood . . . we have to take a look.”

County Manager Ron Carlee said his staff would look into the matter, coordinate with police and come back with a report to board members.

Reader Patrick Semmens sent the story, and adds via email:

As far as I can tell, this is being pushed by just one person, my next door neighbor, who is the sole proponent quoted in the Sun Gazette’s article.

For the past two years he has called the cops on my well-attended annual St.Patrick’s Day party (and last year also the Virginia Alcohol Bureau), but much to his dismay drinking beer outside during the middle of the day (and playing drinking games) is not against the law. So he is trying to change that by imposing a law on the 200,000 citizens of Arlington County.

Now an elected member of the Arlington County Board says they are looking into it, and the county manager is wasting time and money having his staff “investigate.” A police captain was even dispatched to my house to talk about the proposed law.

The city already has noise ordinances to deal with any disturbance Semmens’ parties may have caused Thorne. Banning drinking games on private property seems a bit ridiculous. Then again, so does the idea of banning them in bars.

Semmens has set up a website to prevent the idea from gaining momentum.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Just a bit more

President Obama continues to push this mistaken idea that nearly all economists agree with the need for an economic stimulus and that disagreements with it are small minded.

On a related note, a commenter on Megan McArdle's blog from earlier today makes the Obama argument in more colorful language.

No - let's let the ill informed run things, that's an even better idea. I mean what's the worst that could happen?

Oh yeah right, we already tried that. I was raised to be ashamed of my ignorance and to constantly strive to do something about it. Clearly others were not.

If anybody has a rational argument to make as to why this stimulus is a bad idea, they should made it. Whining because a nobel prize winner in economics doesn't support your zombie like chant of "tax cuts" in the face of any and all problems doesn't cut it. At some point you're going to have to come to grips with the facts that

1. We tried your ideas and they've been disproven. REPEATEDLY

2. We had an election where we quite loudly proclaimed we wanted to try SOMETHING ELSE.

So yeah if you have a viable alternative to a spending bill that doesn't involve shoving tax cuts for the rich down our throats let us have it. Otherwise, STFU and let the grownups try and clean up your mess.

Insert obligatory libertarian line about the last eight years not being our ideas here.

Obama Press Conference, semi-live

I was watching the Presidential press conference, but I sort of lost President Obama when he once again started discussing the supposed unanimity among economists about the need for an economic stimulus from government. Either he doesn't realize that strong intellectual opposition exists or he's lying in an effort to portray a unanimity that isn't actually there. Bush was derided for calling himself "the decider," but at least he understood the President's role was to make decisions and not to create a false sense of political and intellectual harmony.

Just a few other thoughts-

# If we really have this problem of frozen credit markets, where individuals and businesses with perfectly good credit are having trouble getting loans, why doesn't the government just step in to act as banker and provide these loans as part of the stimulus package?

# I actually don't have too much more to say, other than how clear it is that Obama's economic crisis is Bush's war on terror. Right down to the language used and the need for haste, we're being sold a bill of goods and honest debate has been thrown out the window.

The one where I blatantly plagiarize Reason's Nick Gillespie

Reason's Nick Gillespie posts more reasons to avoid the stimulus.

1. Any spending bill this Mama Cass-sized should first be read by the people voting for it in Congress and by the people who will spend the rest of their lives paying for it. Supporters of the stimulus bill call it a "seismic shift in the role of government in our society." Isn't it worth taking more than what, two weeks to plow through the details? The only people who tell you to hurry up and buy now are scam artists. We're not on the Titanic, for god's sakes. Any more than we were last fall when Hank Paulson was crapping his pants on an almost hourly basis.

2. Because it's all about giving aid to other levels of government, the stimulus will create a ton more jobs in state and local level, which means that state and local governments will be even more on the federal teat than they are now. Taking proponents at the word, "the stimulus package could create or save as many as 4 million jobs by the end of next year....Many of those jobs will be created in state and local government." Which means that in a couple of years, when the idiots running things at the state and local levels have run through their bailout cash, we'll be back to the same situation: A bloated public sector that needs yet another bailout.

3. The stimulus, assuming it's an equal mix of spending and tax cuts, will really help people out sometime after the recession has already ended. If (and it's a big if) the government spending is mainlined into the economy and the tax cuts are actual in-your-pocket-right-now sorts of things (as opposed to infrastructure projects and tax rebates), "a year or two from now, they'll [consumers will] be in better shape to spend more." No shit? Since World War II, there have been 11 recessions (not counting this one). The average length was 10.2 months; only two lasted more than 15 months. If you go back to 1900, the average length is 14.4 months. The current downturn started in December 2007, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, which is tasked with deciding these things. Do the math and figure you can bet on the future and never be wrong.

All quotes above come from Allen Sinai, chief global economist for Decision Economics, who appeared in this godawful story in yesterday's Washington Post, stumping for quick government action.

Correct me if I'm wrong

From today's Hartford Courant, the story of a weekend protest by those who's homes face foreclosure. This line caught my attention:

Others at Saturday's forum had already fallen behind on subprime mortgages as their rates and payments changed, their jobs disappeared or their home values plunged.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but plunging home values shouldn't have anything to do with your ability to meet your mortgage, at least not directly. And as for the rest of this gathering, "fix our loans, save our homes" seems to be the exact sort of sentiment that got us into this mess in the first place. That's not to say we shouldn't help those in need, but why is it these various semi-related and unconnected economic problems require the same solution?

Sunday, February 08, 2009

The intellectual limitations of anti-consumerism

Writing in the Nation, Benjamin R. Barber argues that Obama's election and the global economic crisis should usher in a Revolution in Spirit, where Americans shed the crass consumerism of the past in pursuit of more nobles goals. Or something like that. It's a well-written piece, but the anti-consumer tone comes across as almost no different than the culture warriors on the right who can't just ignore Hollywood, but insist on fighting it. It's not enough that avoiding the pratfalls of consumerism be a personal choice, it's the very foundations of our republic that rely on people choosing to live their life the "correct" way.

I've included substantial parts of the piece here, as it is worth the read.

But it is hard to discern any movement toward a wholesale rethinking of the dominant role of the market in our society. No one is questioning the impulse to rehabilitate the consumer market as the driver of American commerce. Or to keep commerce as the foundation of American public and private life, even at the cost of rendering other cherished American values--like pluralism, the life of the spirit and the pursuit of (nonmaterial) happiness--subordinate to it.

Economists and politicians across the spectrum continue to insist that the challenge lies in revving up inert demand. For in an economy that has become dependent on consumerism to the tune of 70 percent of GDP, shoppers who won't shop and consumers who don't consume spell disaster. Yet it is precisely in confronting the paradox of consumerism that the struggle for capitalism's soul needs to be waged.

The crisis in global capitalism demands a revolution in spirit--fundamental change in attitudes and behavior. Reform cannot merely rush parents and kids back into the mall; it must encourage them to shop less, to save rather than spend. If there's to be a federal lottery, the Obama administration should use it as an incentive for saving, a free ticket, say, for every ten bucks banked. Penalize carbon use by taxing gas so that it's $4 a gallon regardless of market price, curbing gas guzzlers and promoting efficient public transportation. And how about policies that give producers incentives to target real needs, even where the needy are short of cash, rather than to manufacture faux needs for the wealthy just because they've got the cash?


Of course, much of what is required cannot be leveraged by government policy alone, or by a stimulus package and new regulations over the securities and banking markets. A cultural ethos is at stake. For far too long our primary institutions--from education and advertising to politics and entertainment--have prized consumerism above everything else, even at the price of infantilizing society. If spirit is to have a chance, they must join the revolution.

The costs of such a transformation will undoubtedly be steep, since they are likely to prolong the recession. Capitalists may be required to take risks they prefer to socialize (i.e., make taxpayers shoulder them). They will be asked to create new markets rather than exploit and abuse old ones; to simultaneously jump-start investments and inventions that create jobs and help generate those new consumers who will buy the useful and necessary things capitalists make once they start addressing real needs (try purifying tainted water in the Third World rather than bottling tap water in the First!).

The good news is, people are already spending less, earning before buying (using those old-fashioned layaway plans) and feeling relieved at the shopping quasi-moratorium. Suddenly debit cards are the preferred plastic. Parental "gatekeepers" are rebelling against marketers who treat their 4-year-olds as consumers-to-be. Adults are questioning brand identities and the infantilization of their tastes. They are out in front of the politicians, who still seem addicted to credit as a cure-all for the economic crisis.


The convergence of Obama's election and the collapse of the global credit economy marks a moment when radical change is possible. But we will need the new president's leadership to turn the economic disaster into a cultural and democratic opportunity: to make service as important as selfishness (what about a national service program, universal and mandatory, linked to education?); to render community no less valid than individualism (lost social capital can be re-created through support for civil society); to make the needs of the spirit as worthy of respect as those of the body (assist the arts and don't chase religion out of the public square just because we want it out of City Hall); to make equality as important as individual opportunity ("equal opportunity" talk has become a way to avoid confronting deep structural inequality); to make prudence and modesty values no less commendable than speculation and hubris (saving is not just good economic policy; it's a beneficent frame of mind). Such values are neither conservative nor liberal but are at once cosmopolitan and deeply American. Their restoration could inaugurate a quiet revolution.

The struggle for the soul of capitalism is, then, a struggle between the nation's economic body and its civic soul: a struggle to put capitalism in its proper place, where it serves our nature and needs rather than manipulating and fabricating whims and wants. Saving capitalism means bringing it into harmony with spirit--with prudence, pluralism and those "things of the public" (res publica) that define our civic souls. A revolution of the spirit.

As I indicated above, this is more than advice on how we should live our lives, this is call for the government to take a more active role in shaping our values. To go back to the beginig of Barber's piece, the real problem here is his assumptions about the role of the market in modern American society. "The market as God" theory makes for an interesting straw man, but does it reflect reality? Certainly, we are a society of consumers, but most Americans would argue that there are more important things in our lives- religion, family, and friends for one. Some individuals may value the pursuit of material happiness over the pursuit of the nonmaterial, but it doesn't seem to me that those individuals represent an ideological majority. And more importantly, from a liberty-oriented perspective, why should it matter just how other individuals elect to pursue happiness?

Barber goes on to list a number of institutions that have prized consumerism above all us, listing off education, advertising, politics and entertainment. Of course, I don't remember my public education being particularly consumer driven, but regardless, the possibility that any single agenda could be pushed on us through education is only possible because of the government monopoly. As to advertising, I'd be worried if advertisers didn't value consumerism. Politics, I suppose one could argue, is driven by a consumer-based model in which campaigns attempt to sell us on candidates, although similar to entertainment, the argument could be made that the public gets what the public wants. Ultimately, it's a rather disparate list that makes less sense the more you think about it.

What I find particularly odd is that in the midst of a recession, Barber takes joy in people buying less. I imagine anyone in the retail industry would be to differ. Hundreds of thousands have lost jobs and many more are fearful they will lose their jobs, all because people are buying less. It's the dirty little secret of the market that crass American spending habits help to keep the wheels of the economy turning. It's easy to pontificate about all the things we don't need, but the truth is that the "things we don't need" industry employs a substantial number of Americans. Not only that, but the "things we don't need" industry helps to propel economic development around the globe, raising standards of living and improving quality of life.

Regardless of one's opinion of American consumer culture, it's difficult to make the argument that this culture has been significantly shaped by government policy, making Barber's policy arguments all the more troubling. Mentioned in the piece are mandatory national service, increased funding for the arts, and the vague idea of increasing our concern about equality. Perhaps my most important reason for writing this post is to point out the unrealistic vision Barber has for society. And I don't mean unrealistic in a dressing down idealism sort of manner, I mean unrealistic in the sense that Barber is arguing that a certain segment of our economy should be torn down without actually bothering to let us know what should replace it. If we all stopped buying half the shit we buy that we don't need, than what about all those people whose livelihood depends on Americans buying all that shit? I suppose those of us who remain employed could give that money we're no longer spending to help the poor folks who lose their jobs, but if the choice is between give money to feed X who used to work in retail, or get a new toy you like and have X keep his job and feed himself, I'll take that option two.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Steve Forbes

Just caught Steve Forbes on Larry King, making the argument that the government's plan to deal with the economy should have included an immediate freeze on all payroll taxes, a freeze that could remain in effect for a year or two. Admittedly not having thought about it all that much, I like the idea- As Forbes was saying, it has the effect of putting cash in the hands of a substantial majority of Americans, poor and rich alike and putting cash in the hands of employers and their businesses.

The brief back and forth between Forbes and his stimulus-favoring opponent was telling. When Larry King asked Forbes's opponent (who's name escapes me) about the payroll tax freeze, the opponent's response was that we need to take action that would have an immediate effect. Forbes chimed in, "But a payroll tax freeze could take effect for everyone's next paycheck!" to which his opponent responded that a payroll tax freeze wouldn't help build the schools and hospitals we desperately need.

Just keep in mind, this is the debate we've had on this stimulus. We're told we need this particular package and we need it right now, no matter what the concerns about the particulars, pushing aside any real intellectual debate.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Clueless Liberals

I kid you not, an article on the liberal website Alternet starts thusly:

Try explaining to an African that there is hunger in America. I’ve tried, and it’s not easy.

It doesn't get much better, as author Joel Berg attempts to relate to a poor African just how hard it is for an American to live on 11,000 dollars a year. Later in the piece he takes the time to appreciate the difference between hunger in America and hunger in Africa, so it's a bit baffling to see no recognition of the other obvious differences in standards of living between the American and African poor.

And as to hunger in America, that 35 million number has always baffled me, as it represents over 10% of the population. With food stamps, soup kitchens, and all sorts of other social and charitable services, I just have trouble finding that number at all meaningful. Berg also notes that large numbers of American work for the minimum wage, but according to government statistics, less than 2 million workers (under 1% of the population) actually work for minimum wage, with some percentage of those minimum wage workers being teenagers, the elderly, and people working second jobs.

Even now, with unemployment reaching 7 and 8 percent, I'm still having trouble seeing where these massive numbers of hungry Americans are coming from. (Particularly when you consider that those unemployment figures contain any number of middle class and higher salaried workers who would be receiving unemployment benefits.)

I'm not trying to cast doubt on hard times or the fact that many Americans are struggling, only to point out that there's something wrong with that number of 35 million hungry Americans. And I'm still just shocked that anyone would have the audacity to compare the struggle to meet the highest standard of living in the world and the struggle of people in troubled parts of the world to literally avoid starvation. Only in the mind of a clueless liberal are those struggles on the same planet.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The problem with limiting executive compensation

As has been oft discussed over the past few months, President Obama now wants to limit executive compensation as part of the new economic stimulus package. I actually do agree with the sentiment- why should taxpayer dollars go to pay millions of dollars to an executive of a struggling company- but I have two major worries about the implications of such a policy.

First, there's no real logical reason to limit the government's reach solely to executive compensation. If the government can step in and set limits as to executive compensation, than why shouldn't they be able to dictate any and all compensation within a firm? In fact, why not any and all expenses?

Second, what about other companies not part of the economic stimulus, but still receiving some form of government benefits through prior or future laws. American is well known for it's agricultural subsidies for example, so why shouldn't companies benefiting from those subsidies face similar scrutiny?

My point is the all-so-obvious slippery slope that justifies any and all government intervention into the economy. With taxpayer money involved, the conduct of business literally becomes everyone's business. The truth is that limiting executive compensation isn't about doing anything for the economy, it's about the government wanting to look like it's doing something. It's a feel-good measure, designed to placate our outrage, but not any sort of a real solution aimed at a real problem.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Smartest Shows on TV?

Why are lists of "smart" tv shows always so stupid? Earlier this week, TV Guide gave us it's list of the smartest shows on TV. For those who don't want to be bothered scrolling through all the pictures, here's the list:

30 Rock
Battlestar Galactica
Big Love
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
How I Met Your Mother
Late Night With Conan O'Brien
Law and Order
Mad Men

I'd say, "yay" to Big Love, House, Lost, and Mad Men (at least, from everything I've heard about Mad Men). My thoughts on Battlestar should be well known to regular readers, suffice it say that the show's reputation at this point is overrated and undeserving. I do love 30 Rock, and given that it has managed to turn itself into a fascinating study on class, I'd say I buy it being on the list.

But as the other six? Damages I don't know at all, so I won't bother weighing in on, but How I Met Your Mother? Come on now. I've seen the show before and it's standard sitcom fare. Thank you TV Guide, but one little premise twist doesn't make the show brilliant. Then there's Conan, who I enjoy the most out of all the late night hosts, but would have trouble saying belongs in a list of smartest things on tv. There's CSI, which I know is supposed to have a lot of science, but I'm not sure what else actually makes the show so smart. There's Law and Order, which I can enjoy (although I prefer Law and Order: SVU), but I'd have trouble calling a show smart when it gets routine legal matters wrong on a routine basis. And finally, there's the Daily Show, my dislike of which I've voiced on and off of this blog for the past 8 years or so. Jon Stewart is always portrayed as some sort of a non-partisan, equal opportunity offender, which is just absolute baloney. Yes, the Daily Show makes fun of Democratic incompetence and scandals as much as it does Republican ones, but conservatives and Republicans ideas are routinely the butt of jokes, while liberal and Democratic ideas never are. For smart and funny discussions about news and politics, I'd take Red Eye over the Daily Show any day. It's more off the cuff, political views are laid out for all to see, and every sort of opinion and viewpoint is welcome.

To get back to our list, how is it possible that there's so much drivel on the list while South Park is noticeably absent? The Imaginationland trilogy is just as brilliant if not more so than anything done on any sitcom, ever. There's just no way in hell that How I Met Your Mother is a smarter show than South Park.

Burden Of Proof

Megan McArdle makes the point that I've been making for awhile now- That the burden of proof in the stimulus debate ought to be on those who advocate for a stimulus. Amazingly, many of her commenters argue the opposite- that those of us who oppose the stimulus should bare the burden of proving that it won't work. This is just asinine. Even if you're the biggest big government liberal there is, you've got to admit that asking the government to spend tax dollars of any amount should require some justification. Now we could bicker about what that burden of proof actually is, with a libertarian like myself requiring a far greater burden be met before the government took any action, but that's a question of degree, not a question of who the burden is placed on.

The problem for both left and right is that this burden of proof talk, in practice, tends to take a backseat to desired goals. So many on the right are now questioning the economic stimulus with much more vigor than they ever questioned any aspect of the war on terror and many on the left aren't willing to scrutinize 1 trillion dollars in the same way the war on terror was scrutinized.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Social Welfare, Not Economic Regulation

Very good Wall Street Journal editorial by economists Harold Cole and Lee Ohanian on How the government prolonged the Depression.

So what stopped a blockbuster recovery from ever starting [In the 1930's]? The New Deal. Some New Deal policies certainly benefited the economy by establishing a basic social safety net through Social Security and unemployment benefits, and by stabilizing the financial system through deposit insurance and the Securities Exchange Commission. But others violated the most basic economic principles by suppressing competition, and setting prices and wages in many sectors well above their normal levels. All told, these antimarket policies choked off powerful recovery forces that would have plausibly returned the economy back to trend by the mid-1930s.

The most damaging policies were those at the heart of the recovery plan, including The National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), which tossed aside the nation's antitrust acts and permitted industries to collusively raise prices provided that they shared their newfound monopoly rents with workers by substantially raising wages well above underlying productivity growth. The NIRA covered over 500 industries, ranging from autos and steel, to ladies hosiery and poultry production. Each industry created a code of "fair competition" which spelled out what producers could and could not do, and which were designed to eliminate "excessive competition" that FDR believed to be the source of the Depression.

These codes distorted the economy by artificially raising wages and prices, restricting output, and reducing productive capacity by placing quotas on industry investment in new plants and equipment. Following government approval of each industry code, industry prices and wages increased substantially, while prices and wages in sectors that weren't covered by the NIRA, such as agriculture, did not. We have calculated that manufacturing wages were as much as 25% above the level that would have prevailed without the New Deal. And while the artificially high wages created by the NIRA benefited the few that were fortunate to have a job in those industries, they significantly depressed production and employment, as the growth in wage costs far exceeded productivity growth.

That first paragraph there is key to understanding public perception of the New Deal and the precarious position we find ourselves in today. When liberals look fondly back on the New Deal, they, for the most part, are looking at the creation of social security and other social safety nets. They're not looking to the NIRA or the Agricultrual Adjustment Act (AAA) or other complicated economic regulations, they're looking to the creation of the modern welfare state. And for libertarians, it's important to note that whatever other problems social security and other safety net programs may have, such programs are not economy killers he way direct economic regulations can be.

My point here is that the historical view of the New Deal is much more about social security and the welfare state than it is the regulatory state. The truth about the regulatory state, both yesterday and today, is that few people care and ever fewer people understand it. What we need to do, what I've been arguing for even before this recession started, is to clearly delineate the difference between social welfare and economic regulation- That you don't need one to have the other and that economic regulation specifically is a dangerous game, one that we saw with the New Deal and one that's rearing it's ugly head today. It's one thing to support the government helping those affected by the recession and quite another to support the government attempting to guide the economy.

Sorry Battlestar, Maybe I was a bit too harsh

Last week I declared Battlestar Galactica had jumped the shark, further more indicating that my deceleration was a long time in coming. Then I watched last Friday's episode, "The Oath", and once again had my interest piqued. I'll maintain that the setup was horrible, but what we've been left with should make for a very fulfilling ending. After a whole season where characters stopped and stuttered back and forth, the writers finally gave our characters a chance to have some real purpose. I'm still troubled by Gaeta's decision to mutiny, but it's an interesting turn for his character. More importantly, we have the chance for virtually all of our main characters, humans, new Cylons, and old Cylons to finally work together for a common goal. There was an energy in that last episode, an energy to the characters of the sort I hadn't seen since the New Caprica arc, which at this point was a season and a half ago. I'd be very impressed if the show could finish off on a high note.

Anti-Intellectual, Anti-Elitist Conservatism, the case of Paul Blart : Mall Cop

Two telling "conservative " pieces on the latest Kevin James travesty, Paul Blart: Mall Cop, one from Town Hall's Douglas MacKinnon, the other from Big Hollywood's Mike Long. What do both MacKinnon and Long have to say? Mostly that liberal movie critics have it in for lighthearted, family-friendly fare and are just too elitist and too out of touch with mainstream America.

MacKinnon probably gets it right when he mentions how the New York Times's Nathan Lee reads too much politics into the crowded malls featured in "Mall Cop", but then goes on to overstate his case. "Mall Cop" has been blasted by critics because it sucks- You don't have to be a professional critic or even have seen the movie to know that. According to MacKinnon and Long, the fact that "Mall Cop" has been successful in the box office is supposed to make these dastardly critics recant their reviews. Of course, the bad reviews aren't really because "Mall Cop" is family friendly. Year in and year out there are poorly reviewed movies of every genre that perform well at the box office despite poor reviews- Just think of the Saw franchise or just about every movie made by Michael Bay. Sure, there are moments when gay cowboys tug at the heart strings of the usually cold-hearted critics and three star films ended up treated as four star classics, but this moments are few and far between. I have laundry lists of problems with movie critics, but political biases just aren't on that list.

What's truly interesting here is the context. It's as if Paul Blart: Mall Cop is being embraced just because it's a simple story that those liberal critics don't like. As I've noted over the past several months, this is the troubling strain of conservatism that Sarah Palin seemed emblematic of, defining itself not by strong ideas but by opposition to liberals and elitists and it's rather unbecoming of a political philosophy with such distinguished intellectual roots.

There's a big difference between the conservative embrace of a genuinely good film like Juno for it's main character's choice to keep her baby and give it up for adoption and the embrace of filler like Paul Blart: Mall Cop, but neither MacKinnon or Long quite seem to get that. That's not to say no one should go see "Mall Cop" or no one to enjoy it, but lame films are lame films and there's no need to politicize them, especially when doing so makes your side look stupid.