Thursday, April 30, 2009

Obama's Latest

Reason's Matt Welch makes a good point in regards to Obama's propensity as a centralized economic planner:

I think Barack Obama is on to something when he says, as he did last night, that

You know, I don't want to run auto companies. I don't want to run banks. I've got two wars I've got to run already. I've got more than enough to do. So the sooner we can get out of that business, the better off we're going to be.

We are in unique circumstances. [...]

I'm always amused when I hear these, you know, criticisms of, oh, you know, Obama wants to grow government. No. I would love a nice, lean portfolio to deal with, but that's not the hand that's been dealt us.

When it comes to meddling in the affairs of private companies (at least, private companies outside of the health care and energy spheres), I basically take Obama at his word, and agree with his implicit criticism of those who picture the commander in chief rubbing his hands at the opportunity to seize a widget manufacturer or whatever. It does not make the (substantial) case against Obama's economic policies remotely more persuasive to portray him as some kind of gleeful nationalizing commie. He's not.

No, the operative pathology–which on some levels is much more insidious, because after all, it's in you and me–is the direct correlation between "unique circumstances" and massive government intervention. Put another way, every modern U.S. president becomes a reluctant central planner, some sooner than others. The best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep that the lip-service paid to reluctance reflects, at the very least, an acknowledgement that something about a huge federal response just ain't natural.

But there is an another way in which Obama's statement is B.S.–he does want to grow government, in health care, industrial alt-energy planning, education, infrastructure, and regulation, to name a few of many areas. He may mouth a simultaneous concern about growing government deficits, but it just isn't believable.

This is basically the point I've been making, that we've reached the point where this isn't just about politicians, this is about what the public considers to be an acceptable response. Crises- any crises- means that we expect government action. Painting Obama as a socialist boogeyman obscures reality and is far less scary then the truth: that the real threats to freedom come not from dyed in the wool socialists, but from, as Matt Welch calls them, "reluctant central planners."

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Dumbest Idea Ever

Via Reason's Hit and Run come two stories with very different points. John Stossel writes on how President Obama's idea of a "credit card bill of rights" is a terrible idea that hurts poor people, while Slate's Christopher Beam makes the case for government backed credit cards. Stossel's piece is worth a read, but the real reason I'm posting is to point out this bit of inanity from Beam:

Creating a government-sponsored lending agency—a Fannie Mae for credit cards—would rein the whole system in. For one thing, it would offer lower rates than the usual 18 percent. The government could charge, say, 8 percent interest and still turn a profit. It would include none of the usual hidden fees or surprise charges. (In 2007, penalty fees were $7.5 billion, cash advance fees were $5.6 billion, annual fees were $4.6 billion, and interchange fees were $23.6 billion.) And while the credit card industry spent $34 billion on marketing in 2007, the government would avoid that expense entirely. The card would theoretically be accepted everywhere, because merchants would know Obama is good for it.

The caveat: You'd have to be supercreditworthy to get a card. The government doesn't want to have borrowers behind on payments; if they defaulted, taxpayers would have to pick up the tab.

So the supercreditworthy, the ones with no problem obtaining credit in the first place, the ones who have reached this status by being so financially responsible in the first place, are the only ones who would qualify for a government credit card in the first place? Excuse my language, but what the fuck? How can you yammer on about the unfair fees, unfair interest rates, and unfair policies of the credit card companies and then propose a plan that does absolutely nothing for the vast majority of people affected by those policies?

I can't help but think that the left has become insistent in reinventing the term "stupid." The government can't fix everything and they most certainly can't fix problems when their solutions are explicitly not designed to address the problems that were identified in the first place.

The Political Climate

I hate Barack Obama.

Not because he's a Democrat, not because of any particular policy, but because it seems like he's always out there doing stuff. Or perhaps more correctly, he's always out there letting the world know that he's doing stuff. Case-in-point, tonight he addresses the nation with yet another prime time news conference. I don't know how many that will make this so far, but I know that it's at least a couple too many. I don't hate Obama because of all this political garbage, I hate him because he's been insistent in messing with our prime time television viewing. I hate him because I don't know if Lost will be starting at it's normal time tonight or whether it could be pushed back if this stupid press conference goes wrong.

I mean, what's so important that it demands television be interrupted? Forget swine flu, I'm more interested in the events leading up to "the Incident."

In all seriousness (or perhaps I should say, "in regards to more serious subjects" seeing as my enjoyment of Lost is very important to me), plenty of folks on the right want to blame the problem of ever-encroaching government on the Democrats and on Obama, but the biggest failure of the recent news-making tea parties were the events utter failure to recognize the social and cultural shifts that led us from so-called Republican revolution of the 90's to the two-party big government we have today. Some on the left have poked fun at these "grassroots" tea party protests for emerging only now, after the election and rightfully so. After all, where were all these protesters as the seeds for bigger government were first planted and grown throughout the Bush administration?

As much as I've found the tea partyers aims of lower taxes to be positive, I can't help but wondering whether these protesters were the right's version of the left's anti-war protesters and if "Just say no to socialism" was sort of like "No war for oil." Arguing that the upper income tax bracket should remain at 35% rather than be increased back to 39% or more may be a good policy argument, but it hardly seems "take-it-to-the-streets" worthy. And in a similar vein, I don't understand why the time to take to the streets is when the government threatens to help keep people in their foreclosed upon homes and not during any of the many Bush administration eviscerations of the free market.

This may sound like one unconnected, illogical rant, but I have a point and it's the reason I haven't been blogging of late. I just can't remember a time where politics and current events have bored me so much and have been so downright disheartening. It's not just the political climate, but the general trend of political attitudes, which seem to be drifting as far away from libertarian ideals as ever. (Case-in-point, the Republican plan on health care which is based on the Massachusetts program mandating private health insurance coverage. It doesn't help that such government intrusions into people's private lives are labeled "market-friendly.") It's been tough to blog because everyday I see a different big story that's all about big government.

The truth is that high taxes won't ruin this country, nor will any of the massive expenditures we've been seeing and discussing. What will ruin this country is the continued government monkeying in the financial sector and any massive and mandatory comprehensive government health care plan. And that's why I'm scared and that's why I'd rather be watching Lost.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

You Can't Have It Both Ways

I usually don't watch the network news, but I caught some of last night's NBC broadcast with Brian Williams. They did a brief story on Bank of America's much improved profit numbers, with a CNBC financial reporter advising that we shouldn't get too excited. Williams asked about the credit market and whether loans were increasing and more money was being made available. And it just sort of struck me that after months and months of anger directed at the financial sector, people are still looking at that very sector to help solve the economic crisis.

And maybe this is just my simple mind, but it seems to me that you can't have it both ways. If bad loans were what precipitated this crisis, then it makes sense that the market response would be to tighten the credit market. Yet the tone in the media and in Washington, since the first TARP back in October, has been to try and loosen up the credit market. Isn't this contradictory? Again, maybe I'm just stupid, but as this economic crisis continues, I feel like I'm seeing nothing but contradictory solutions and explanations.

Monday, April 20, 2009

A Dictator By Any Other Name

So now the right is upset that Obama met with Hugo Chavez and shook his hand (or some such thing). And the left has responded- quite rightly so- that a meeting is just a meeting. If only the left could take it's own advice when it come's to free market economist Milton Friedman's infamous trip to Pinochet's Chile in the 1970's. You can't have things both ways. The left needs to stop being hypocritical (or point out the hypocrisy in their ranks) and the right needs to get over this nonsense about world leaders. Years of ignoring Castro in Cuba did us no good and I seem to remember FDR meeting with Stalin. Get over it.

The Importance of Federalism

From today's New York Times: Ill From Food? Investigations May Vary By State. The article details the how Minnesota's public health officials are far more efficient at pinpointing food related illnesses than their colleagues in other states and at the federal level.

Congress and the Obama administration have said that more inspections and new food production rules are needed to prevent food-related diseases, but far less attention has been paid to fixing the fractured system by which officials detect and stop ongoing outbreaks. Right now, uncovering which foods have been contaminated is left to a patchwork of more than 3,000 federal, state and local health departments that are, for the most part, poorly financed, poorly trained and disconnected, officials said.

The importance of a few epidemiologists in Minnesota demonstrates the problem. If not for the Minnesota Department of Health, the Peanut Corporation of America might still be selling salmonella-laced peanuts, Dole might still be selling contaminated lettuce, and Congress might still be selling dangerous Banquet brand pot pies — sickening hundreds or thousands more people.

The optimist and libertarian in me sees this not as a problem, but as a triumph of multi-layered government and a triumph of the "states as laboratories" theories of federalism. What that theory says (in brief) is that political power in the hands of the states as opposed to the national government allows for more policy experimentation and ultimately, better policies throughout the various states. Or in other words, when states are allowed to function as laboratories of democracy, the likelihood of the emergence of better policies increases.

This isn't really about the theme of local government I've stressed so often in this blog, but it's related. The only way you get government policy through trial and error is if you actually have various levels of government that are allowed to create different policies in the first place. The Times piece takes the tone that we need a unified, national system for food safety, but what's to say that the creation of one such monolithic system would be as ideal as what's described in Minnesota?

Good government liberals always assume that there's one ideal way to regulate and legislate and by golly if we just work hard enough we can come up with the perfect system to regulate anything, but that sort of thought process misses the point that people are imperfect and government is imperfect. The best we can do in the public policy realm (along with everywhere else) is allow for innovation and experimentation. Take that away, put something like food safety solely in the hands of one giant federal agency, and maybe you lost exactly the sort of thinking that led Minnesota to improving their system in the first place.

Friday, April 17, 2009

To Boldly Go, Part 1 : Introduction

In just three weeks, JJ Abrams re-imagining of Star Trek hits the big screen, marking the 11th time sci-fi phenomenon has graced the big screen. It's also the first time in four years a new installment of the Star Trek franchise has reached the public, relevant because from the premier of Star Trek: The Next Generation in September 1987 to the end of Star Trek: Enterprise in May 2005 the world has been blessed (or cursed) with one incarnation or another of Trek on the small screen (not to mention the two original Trek and four Next Generation films that were released in the same period).

As someone who grew up with all things Star Trek, left it behind in adolescence, and rediscovered it in adulthood, I figure this blog would be a very appropriate forum to discuss Star Trek, past, present, and future (although mostly past I suppose). Since my discovery of the wonderful technology of DVR, I've spent the last few years making my way through the more than 250 hours that make up Voyager and Enterprise. I've had posts about these two shows kicking around for quite a while now and this seemed a good as time as any to incorporate them into something readable. I finished Voyager late last summer and am currently near the end of Enterprise's third season. As to the other Treks, I've seen plenty of the original show, I grew up with the Next Generation, and my rediscovery of Deep Space Nine in law school led to my proclamation (which I still maintain today) that it was the best and boldest of all the incarnations of Star Trek.

What I'd like to do here is take a deeper look into all of Star Trek in more detail, examining how Trek has changed over time, why it has apparently declined in popularity, and what the future holds. There seems to be enough buzz to generate some solid numbers for the new Abrams venture, but will this new film be Star Trek in any more but name? And for that matter, what is it that makes Star Trek unique? Over the next three weeks I hope to get up a number of posts on the topic, but in the mean time, to any friends and foes of Star Trek, feel free to leave any comments or questions as to what should be covered.

Live long and prosper.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Maureen Dowd on the newspaper crisis

From today's New York Times:

The therapist tone works with me because my profession is in a meltdown. Firms, like Google here and Craigslist in San Francisco, have hijacked journalism, making us feel about as modern as the Tyrannosaurus rex model that sits on the Google campus.

Google is in a battle royal over whether it has the right to profit so profligately from newspaper content at a time when journalism is in such jeopardy.

It can't possibly be the fault of the journalism business, can it? No, it's got to be that Google and Craigslist have "hijacked journalism."

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Brett Bozell Hates South Park (Not A Big Surprise)

Just caught this from a few weeks ago, Brett Bozell's column on the South Park premier, South Park vs. Purity.

But for Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the perennial ninth graders behind "South Park," everything is a sick joke, especially abstinence until marriage. To them, no one could seriously advocate that position and live by it. In their typical crayon-scribble plot, the Jonas Brothers wore purity rings only as a corporate scam run by Disney, so they could "sell sex" to pre-pubescent grade-school girls. The dictatorial CEO of Disney was of course, Mickey Mouse, who screamed profanities and beat up one of the Jonas boys until his nose bled for threatening not to make the purity-ring pitch.

Our "heroes" from South Park eventually exposed Mickey Mouse and his plot, turning up the microphone at the concert hall as Mickey sneered backstage that he makes money when little girls are sexually aroused, and "little girls are f---ing stupid. The purity rings make it OK for me to do whatever I want! Even the Christians are too f---ing stupid to figure out I'm selling sex to their daughters. I've made billions off Christian ignorance for decades now. And do you know why? Because Christians are retarded. They believe in a talking dead guy."

Since Mickey was defeated, "South Park" producers might try to argue the uptight Christians somehow won in this defeat of cynical, purity-exploiting Disney. But once again, it's quite clear that the people who think that the little girls and the Jonas Brothers and the purity-ring promoters and the Christians are idiots are the "South Park" crowd and their backers at Comedy Central. No matter how much they try to shift the blame, they are the profanity-spewing corporate rats who profit every time children are corrupted.

Discuss amongst yourselves.

More On Health Care

From the New York Times Editorial page this past weekend:

Other than dealing with the economic crisis, health care reform is the most essential item on the Congressional agenda. It is imperative to lower the cost of health care, improve its quality, and cover tens of millions of uninsured Americans.

And a somewhat related anecdote from Arnold Kling (via Megan McArdle):

My oldest daughter is in her mid-twenties. She has a friend the same age who was stricken with cancer last year. She was treated with chemotherapy, Initially, the doctors thought this had worked, but now the cancer is back. My guess is that her prospects at this point are rather frightening.

That ends the anecdote. What follows is my imagination.

Imagine it were my daughter. What would be my attitude? I imagine that I would be walking into the oncologist saying, "Look. There has to be something you can try. I don't know whether it's bone marrow transplants or stem cells or some clinical trial somewhere. But we can't just sit here and watch her die. Either you give us something that has a chance of working, or we'll find another oncologist who will."

Next, imagine that the best hope is a treatment that costs $100,000 and offers a chance of success of 1 in 200. Would I want her to get that treatment? Absolutely.

But look at the issue from a rational, bureaucratic perspective. You have to treat 200 patients at a cost of $100,000 each in order to save one life, for a cost per life saved of $20 million. Is that what a rational bureaucracy would do?

A rational bureaucracy would not even tell the family about this treatment option. But I think that in the American culture regarding medicine, I would find out about it.

This semi-anecdote says nothing about free-market medicine vs. government health care. In my mind, free-market medicine is more likely to result in the treatment being attempted, but that is not necessarily an argument for or against free-market medicine.

While there are certainly inefficiencies in our current health care system, you'd have to live in a fantasy land to think there's an easy way to provide better coverage to more people at a lesser cost. The fact is that health care is expensive, quality health care costs more, and modern, high-tech, experimental treatments are even more so. Any bureaucracy, be it a big insurance company or a federal agency charged with health care spending faces the task of managing costs and no bureaucrat or third party is ever going to put the same value on the life of your family members as you do. Kling says this isn't an argument in favor of free market medicine, but isn't it? Or at the very least, isn't it an argument in favor of more choice for individuals, not less?

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Real Problem With The Health Care Debate

I just had to get to this piece in the Nation-A System From Hell- before it disappears from the website. The piece chronicles the tragic story of a woman facing a colossal wave of medical bills on two fronts; Her daughter, who was in a severe accident and her husband who suffers from Parkinson's disease. It's a terrible tragedy, but it's really not a story about health care. What it's about is human tragedy and what response society and government should have to the tragedies of others. The poor woman can't afford to pay all her family's medical bills, but there should be a difference in looking to resolve her tragic circumstances and the shape of health care for everyone.

I've said it before and I'll say it again. You can't allow expensive outliers to dictate the functioning of a complex system. If and how the government should help this woman is a discussion for another day- For now, all I'm asking is that everyone keep a level head and not screw everyone in the name of helping one person.

It's quite ridiculous, but this is the direction the health care debate has taken. Massive and unanticipated health care expenses should be treated just as other massive and unanticipated expenses are treated. When houses are burned down or flooded away, those incidents are treated in isolation, yet somehow, a tragedy related to health means our system is in crisis.

Regulate Me!

My father sent me this story earlier today: OSHA fines newspaper for reporter's fall down stadium stairs.

The long and short of it: A Buffalo reporter covering a high school football game hit his head and fell down a steep metal staircase while attempting to the enter the stadium's press box. Tragically, the reporter was paralyzed and later died from his injuries.

But hold on, here comes OSHA (The Occupational Safety and Health Administration), with fines totaling over $31,000 not for the stadium or the public schools, but for the newspaper where the reported had worked. Yes, apparently the government agency charged with worker safety believe that it is the responsibility of newspapers to ensure that their reporters only report from locations that meet the appropriate OSHA building requirements. As the editor of the Buffalo news pondered in the piece, what does this say for reporters who cover war zones? The piece ponders what this means for the future of all the various sorts of employees who work at off-site locations, but what about newspapers in general? Regulations are traditionally difficult to challenge when they are passed under a broad grant of rule making power, such as that granted to OSHA, but I wonder if fines like this raise a legitimate free speech issue? After all, how is a newspaper supposed to report the news if OSHA fines are threatened every time a reporter leaves the news room?

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

More On Unintended Consequences

Blogging at Salon, Andrew Leonard responds to the very same
Nation piece I linked to last week about the unintended consequences of too much government. (I found Leonard's response via Radley Balko's Agitator blog). Here's what Leonard had to say:

Granted, this is the kind of stuff that makes libertarianism look attractive. And it is doubly distressing that Congress doesn't appear eager to close the loophole in short order. Unintended consequences of legislation are inevitable -- the measure of good government is how politicians respond to them. Without the will to impose real oversight, acknowledge mistakes and fix them when they are discovered, and constantly strive to improve governance, we will be stuck with bad government. And that might be one of the most distressing results of decades of being told that government is the problem -- we hear a story like Hayes', and think despondently, you know, they were right, rather than squaring our shoulders and reapplying ourselves to the wheel.

It's a big step that Leonard recognizes that unintended consequences are inevitable, but almost funny that his solution is simply finding the political will to fix those unintended consequences after it becomes apparent they exist ... as if the lack of political will was somehow the problem in generating these unintended consequences in the first place. I mean isn't this just an argument for an unending cycle of bad government, with the legislative response to previous unintended consequences generating more unintended consequences of their own? The problem isn't political will, but complicated legislation and rule making combined with the ingenuity of the American people to take advantage of or ignore those rules.

Friday, April 03, 2009

State Government Money Grabs

I wanted to hit on this story earlier in the week, but never got around to it: Lawyers File Suit To Protect Client Security Fund.

As a barred attorney just getting started who as of yet hasn't made an actual dime practicing law, I've nonetheless paid into this client security fund. All attorney's do in Connecticut, as the fund is not a legislative mandate, but a creation of the state bar designed to compensate victims who have money wrongfully taken by a crooked attorney. This is not a tax, but a fund that serves a self-policing purpose for attorneys in the state and what the governor has proposed is dipping in to some of that fund to help offset the state budget deficit.

It's not just of questionable legality, it's patently immoral. This money is a victim's fund, not a tax available for whatever purposes the government deems fit. Just a hint to the rest of you- This is how government operates, at at all levels, not just the taking of money that doesn't belong to it, but the complete inability to keep separate funds separate and manage money in any sort of appropriate manner.

Unintended Consequences

The Nation tags it as a story about white collar crime, but this piece by Christopher Hayes is really about the unintended consequences of regulation.

Thanks to an obscure tax provision, the United States government stands to pay out as much as $8 billion this year to the ten largest paper companies. And get this: even though the money comes from a transportation bill whose manifest intent was to reduce dependence on fossil fuel, paper mills are adding diesel fuel to a process that requires none in order to qualify for the tax credit. In other words, we are paying the industry--handsomely--to use more fossil fuel. "Which is," as a Goldman Sachs report archly noted, the "opposite of what lawmakers likely had in mind when the tax credit was established."

Hayes ends by noting what libertarians have known all along:

Whether or not Congress gets around to turning off the spigot, the episode is a useful reminder of the persistently ingenious ways the private sector can exploit even well-intentioned legislation.

And perhaps this is the best way of putting it so the left really gets it. The best and brightest rule makers in Washington are no match for the ingenuity of the millions and millions of Americans out there looking to make money. The more complex our laws and regulations become, the more loopholes there are for people to exploit. What's important isn't the intention of legislation, but the real world results.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Sorry For The Slow Posting

Despite the large amounts of free time I can sometimes find in between adjudicating parking tickets, it's still tough to find the time to focus on two big hobbies. So, I haven't blogged in a week, mostly because I've been very, very busy focusing on my first ever fantasy baseball auction, which might I add, was a blast.

And what's the use, really? The worst news isn't coming from the economy, but from Washington, where the new administration seems determined to fix every problem and hardship associated with the economy. The intensification of partisan politics hasn't helped things either. It's troubling that the Obama administration has taken the Bush approach to the war on terror and applied it to the economy and on the opposite side of the aisle it's unproductive to play out the debate in partisan or even ideological terms. When Republican's in Washington oppose the administration's actions in regards to the economy, their standing on the shaky ground of eight years of big government Republicanism. That doesn't mean they're not doing some good, but they've got a lot of history to overcome to sell their arguments to the American public. Forget about partisan politics for a second and the truth is that great moderate middle of American politics has tilted greatly in favor of a large and active government which is exactly why the socialist name-calling is unproductive.

People are upset with Wall Street and people are upset with government, but very few on the left or in the middle have come to the realization that the very same people who've made bad decisions in the past are proposing to now fix even larger and more complicated problems. I mentioned this weeks ago, but limited government needs a news salesman- Hell, it needs a whole new sales staff. Until people can abandon the ridiculous notion that government of any sort has the special power to fix the economy, we're in trouble.