Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Outlaw Outsourcing

Whether or not the U.N. always produces good reports, and whether or not they added substantial new information with the recent report about "ousourced" tourture, it is a healthy reminder of what this administration believes, and their consequential actions. So no one has a smoking gun linking Rumsfeld or the White House to the torture at Abu Ghraib… so what? The administration likes to play semantic games whereby “waterboarding” and the like don’t qualify as torture. But apparently that’s not good enough. The President refuses to actually admit that is he bound by laws that prevent him from ordering torture. Still not good enough. The fallback position: we can always export someone for torture by a cooperative government that’s not even nominally restrained by our pesky little laws. I’d mostly come to believe that anti-trade activists were wrong about globalization leading to a “race to the bottom.” Now, apparently, they have a point.

It is really shocking that people continue to defend this. The defense amounts to little more than: “Hey, if they want to spy on terrorists, or torture them, or string them up… what do I care? I wanna be safe!” The fact is, at this point many people have been locked up for years as alleged terrorists, then released for lack of any real case to be made against them. If no innocent people have been tortured, that would be an amazing stroke of luck, given this track record. What, exactly, does it take to qualify as a runaway, outlaw presidency? If only he’d have an adulterous affair with a young woman… oh boy, then we’d have him!

Look, this is really a simple choice: are we going to be the kind of people who torture or aren’t we? For a little further explication, try Michael Kinsley’s typically excellent essay about “salami slicing.” If we’re the kind of people who believe in torture, then let’s just say so, and be prepared to accept the moral implications. If we’re not the kind of people who believe in torture, someone needs to tell the President. Use simple terms and speak slowly and clearly. He’s not stupid, he’s just a little verbally challenged.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Framer Fetishism

People often invoke the Framers when arguing about poltical philosophy, the proper role of government, etc. This tendency is understandable, but it can go to extremes. In particular, the Framers intent, or their alleged intent, is often used as an attempt to end the argument. The only response is to "out-Framer" them with a contrasting reference.

I certainly believe that the Framers were a bright bunch of guys. (The "Framers" are what we used to call the "Founding Fathers" lately the more gender-neutral term seems popular.) And they did indeed leave us with an excellent document. But unless you subscribe to a "divine intervention" or at least "divine inspiration" theory, our Constitution, and those who wrote it, cannot be assumed to be either flawless or uniquely grand, indeed the story of its drafting and adoption suggests otherwise. One of the wonderful features of that august document is that a mechanism for amending it is built in, this carries with it the obvious implication that the Framers understood that they hadn't created perfection. If the original document was perfect, no amending would ever be required.

Let me be absolutely clear, we should not ignore the Constitution or amend it casually. I believe that one of the great strengths of our republic has been not just the Constitution in itself, but our respect and allegiance thereto. While there have been more than a few crises along the way, it seems to me that we have by and large followed and respected it as the supreme law of the land. It is this allegiance and respect that helps ensure that we maintain a rule of law and not of men. The behavior of some of our leaders (including the current administration) notwithstanding, we tend to believe that no one is above the law and that no one man makes the law unto himself--and that tradition is as important as the actual document.

I have not done a comparative study of modern constitutions, but I suspect ours would hold up reasonably well. Furthermore, I bet that if we did find other constitutions that are as good or better, they will by and large postdate our own, and their authors had the benefit of cribbing heavily from the Framers' work. But it should go without saying that the original document had some serious shortcomings. It almost seems trite to point out failings such as allowing slavery and counting slaves as 3/5 of a person, but those flaws are no less real for having been observed many times before! There was even a little civil unrest related to various flaws of the constitution, sometime in the second half of the 19th century, I believe.

And if the document has had some acknoweledged flaws, it stands to reason that it may have more that are yet to be remedied. So, it may be true that the Framers, and the document they left us, did not have a vision of liberty as expansive as some modern thinkers, such as libertarians. That doesn't make us wrong. We are talking about ideas now, and we need not be slaves to tradition, or the facts of the document and history we are left with. I repeat, by no means should we abandon the Constitution or amend it willy-nilly, quite the contrary, that is why I discussed above the importance of honoring the constiution and abiding by it. But when discussing what is possible and what should be done, in the best of all possible governments, we cannot treat ours as somehow sacrosanct. We must be willing to embrace the idea that change might be not only possible, but good.

In the most extreme conception, "conservatism" and "traditionalism" say that you can't change anything, because change is bad. At the opposite extreme, pure "liberalism" (in the modern sense) or "progressivism" argues that we can constantly remake society, law, etc. to make things better. Isn't it obvious that neither extreme is tolerable? We cannot function if everything is in flux, and indeed we could fall victim to fatal flaws like moral relativism or the tyranny of (often temporary) majorities. But we cannot function with an ossified and inflexible notion of the law either. The Framers were pretty smart, but not omniscient, and that's part of what they were smart enough to know.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Lincoln's religiosity

Fascinating article over at Slate. One thing that is particularly striking is how openly non-traditional was Lincoln's approach to the spiritual or sacred! No, Lincoln was not a secular person, in spite of the wishes of modern secularists who would hope to claim him. Nevertheless, his approach to God and spiritual matters seems almost radical by today's standards, for a president. His wife Mary apparently stated after his death that he was not "a technical Christian." It is almost unthinkable that a serious contender for the presidency nowadays would be so openly skeptical of traditional religion.

There are almost certainly many politicians who are closet skeptics/agnostics/atheists, but hardly any openly so. I wonder how this came to be so. Certainly, many Americans are uncomfortable with how closely the GOP aligns itself with the religious right. It is one of those factors that continues to nudge some of us in the Democratic direction, even when we're not Democrats. But it seems that overall, the American electorate expects the president to be strongly religious, but not a zealot.

Somewhere between Lincoln's time and ours, it almost seems we've become less tolerant, in some fashion. Lincoln himself had to publicly reassure detractors that he respected Christian belief, but he still didn't belong to a church. Can you imagine someone winning the presidency today with that sort of belief (non-belief?) on the public record?

In spite of all the public wailing and gnashing by conservative Christian types, I think public discourse and the political landscape clearly favors believers over non-believers, by a wide margin. Christians are hardly an oppressed minority, however much they complain. Quite the opposite.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Risk, Reward, and Paternalism

My friend Daniel Charlies (D.C.) writes in defense of the government's right (society's right by proxy) to prohibit drug use in the broad sense (i.e. even traditionally legal drugs, tobacco, alcohol, etc.) for humanitarian reasons, otherwise known as paternalism. True paternalism means that this is OK even after establishing that a particular behavior is otherwise "victimless," meaning others are not harmed. There are certainly arguments that drug use, driving without seatbelts, etc. are not truly victimless, but we leave those for another time.

Paternalism vs. personal liberty boils down to, "should people be allowed to make their own bad decisions?" D.C. writes:

For any given thing that has no demonstrably irreplaceable good value and which does have demonstrable negative effects to a significant portion of a population of people, there can be no moral justification for permitting it.

I think this is as good a case, stately concisely, for legal paternalism as I have heard. Now there is the sticky question of "demonstrably irreplaceable good." I leave a thorough discussion for another time, but I would say, in passing, that when large numbers of people engage in some activity (here we refer to the use of various recreational drugs, legal or not) indicates that they derive some pleasure or satisfaction therein, which should count as a good. I assume D.C. doesn't deny this, but considers this "replaceable" or a least not "demonstrably irreplaceable," which is debatable, at least.

The main problem I see with this argument is that it proves too much. No one, essentially, ever uses any sort of drug with the intent of suffering great harm, dying early, etc. And of course, not everyone does experience a bad outcome. There is certainly risk associated with drug use, indeed nicotine and alcohol, our two main legal recreational drugs, are some of the riskiest, and have some of the worst outcomes, if you look at the numbers. But demanding that any permissible behavior not harm any significant number of people is a damn restrictive standard. My cholesterol is elevated (only slightly by the old standards, a bit more by the new, tougher ones) and I am trying to get it down, but I still had a mushroom cheeseburger the other day. In fact, you don't really even need to know anything about a person's cholesterol level--as a statistical fact, eating highly fatty foods elevates the risk of arteriosclerosis and heart attacks, which means some people die from eating cheeseburgers. There are plenty of healthier ways for just about anyone to get protein, calories, and nutrition, so cheeseburgers don't supply an "demonstrably irreplaceable good." Of course, I would say that cheeseburgers are irreplaceable, in that I know of no healthy cheesebuger replacement that tastes quite so good! But if I'm allowed this, certainly smokers can say the same for their tobacco--or weed. So this argument allows the government to ban cheeseburgers for our own good. Or is that just what someone else thinks is our own good?

And of course, the list goes on from there. Even with a helmet, riding a motorcycle is risky, relative to a sedan. Or driving most sports cars instead of a Volvo, irrespective of seatbelt use. Sex is risky--even when monogamous and legally sanctioned, you can have a heart attack, or stroke. I suppose sex might escape as a "demonstrably irreplaceable good," but you might not get universal agreement on that! "Not tonight dear, you might have a heart attack."

A life spent minimizing risk probably wouldn't look like much of a life to most of us. I believe it is the very essence of personal freedom to assume your own risks and reap your own rewards. After Vioxx was pulled from the shelves by Merck, many of its customers clamored to get it again, even after knowing about the elevated risk of heart attacks. Why was this? Because they suffered from chronic pain, and other medications hadn't been effective. Eventually, the FDA agreed that this Vioxx use was OK, as long as users were informed about the risks.

From what I know, Merck behaved badly, and pharmaceutical companies have behaved badly in general, by suppressing inconvenient or embarrassing data. Informed consent by consumers depends on open access to any and all relevant data. But if that standard is met, people should have wide latitude to take whatever they want. Who are we (society) to tell someone they can't trade a risk of heart attack for relief of chronic pain? And once we are there, the case against marijuana looks a lot weaker.

The "gateway effect" is probably the greatest cited risk of marijuana. But a survey of the evidence, including twin studies, suggests it is a) not so large and b) there is no real evidence of a neurochemical basis for the gateway effect. In other words whatever modest gateway effect marijuana has, it is likely to be social and environmental factors. My personal bet is that the "barrier of illegality" is the biggest source. Once you cross the line to try marijuana, the illegality of harder stuff is less daunting. The answer: move the line of illegality! I know of no evidence that marijuana is any worse than alchohol, indeed quite the opposite. Bil Bennett, among others, likes to dismiss this sort of talk as "dorm room bull session" stuff. Nonsense! The drug war and prohibition have enormous social and economic costs. The cost of incarceration, interdiction, and the loss of economic productivity from imprisoning simple drug users is huge, not to mention the pure human suffering of destroyed lives.

Again, I by no means endorse or promote smoking. If, heaven forbid, my kids ever try it, there will be hell to pay. But I'm just putting the "pater" into "paternalism!"

Thursday, January 12, 2006

More Wealth Being Redistributed in the Wrong Direction

Another highly illuminating article over at Reason about tax increment financing (TIF) districts. Yet another fine example of how the politically well-connected line their pockets at the expense of those who are less connected. More supporting data for the First Law of Politics. I don’t have anything against the big box retailers as a general principle. (Note my qualified defense of Wal-Mart in an earlier post.) I think Wal-Mart/Sam’s Club, Target, and Costco are perfectly entitled to try and get some of our money by earning our business as shoppers, but these TIF’s (and other forms of tax bribery/extortion) let them pick our pockets as taxpayers, and that ain't right!

Friday, January 06, 2006

Big Government Busybodies: It's All About Smoking

I've been using this example with most people with whom I've discussed politics in the past year, so forgive me if you've heard it, but I felt like putting it out there for general consumption.

I don't smoke anything at all. It's bad for you health. But my general slide into libertarianism has a lot to do with the Big Government Busybodies of the right and left. And here is one way it can be illustrated very concisely:

The meddlers won't rest until nobody is ever allowed to smoke.

The busybodies of the left are bound and determined to keep anyone from ever smoking any tobacco. The busybodies of the right are determined that no one should ever smoke anything else.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

The First Law of Politics, and Redistribution

Many libertarian types appear to have an almost religious fervor. You know, as in "sacred" property rights and "evil" government. I have acquired a pragmatic form of libertarianism with regard to wealth, and the redistribution thereof. I use the “law” word very sparingly when it comes to the realms of human behavior, I think it’s generally dangerous to believe you can really understand and predict these things reliably, but occasionally a general principle emerges. My abandonment of redistributive economics comes not from a conviction about its immorality, but from an observation that seems reliably true:

Gainey’s First law of politics: The rich will always get theirs.

As much as my bleeding heart might like to take from the rich and give to the poor, it’s pretty much never happened yet (so far as I know). And I’ve come to believe that this is endemic to the whole redistributive enterprise. That is, in spite of (possibly) good intentions on the part of those who design a redistribution scheme, the implementation inevitably co-opts or corrupts the goal. The result is a lengthy litany of fat cat largesse: agricultural subsidies that accrue to rich folks while punishing consumers and poor farmers in the developing world, flood insurance for million dollar resort homes underwritten by taxpayers (including, say, working class families wiped out by Katrina), and a personal favorite, colossal stadium giveaways to billionaire sports franchisees which never break even on their promised economic benefits. And that’s before we even get to that fabled progressive whipping-boy, corporate welfare. Those who tend call themselves “progressive” or “liberal” seem to always believe that if we just tinker with the implementation enough, we’ll finally get it right. Fiddle and tweak the knobs on the Contrabulous Fabtraption just so, and economic justice will emerge! I’ve come to believe that this is a fundamental, fatal delusion. Part of the problem is indeed classic corruption and greed, but the law of unintended consequences also applies. Each of the abominations I’ve cited above was grounded in a program designed to benefit the common good or some “deserving” group, and yet these monstrosities emerged. Even if the lawmakers somehow worked in pristine isolation from interest group influence, the system will always be gamed by some clever accountant or attorney. (And of course, we’ll never, ever stamp out the greed and corruption either.) Sure, as much as anyone, I’d love to strip Paris Hilton of her inheritance and build thousands of Habitat for Humanity houses with it. But, in general practice, the problem turns out to be intractable to this sort of solution.

Once you start moving the money around, the rich and the well-connected (the two sets are not identical, but they sure do have a large intersection!) will always find a way to get a nice, fat cut. (Gainey’s First Law, restated.) In the end, the net result of government moving money around is NOT a transfer from the rich to the poor, but, generally speaking, a transfer from the politically powerless to the politically connected. The poor will be better off if we keep the government out of it.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Frontline, Wal-Mart, and Trade

I've been a huge fan of Frontline over the years, it’s one of the best shows on TV. The “Is Wal-Mart Good for America?” report, which I just saw last night, doesn’t seem to live up to its typically high journalistic standards. While maintaining a superficial level of even-handedness, it definitely seemed like it had an anti-Wal-Mart axe to grind. Another way of putting it is that it appeared to be a largely anti-trade piece, with Wal-Mart as our “evils of globalization” poster child.

Possible ideological biases aside, part of why so many of these pieces skew anti-trade is laziness. It’s extremely easy to show sympathetic images of factory workers being laid-off, their livelihoods, and lives, upended and uncertain. But the upside is really there, it’s just harder to show, partly because it’s more diffuse. Sure, as one of the anti-trade economists observes, working class Americans are BOTH consumers and workers. Consumers pay lower prices, and nobody really thinks that is bad in itself, but then closing factories does hurt a smaller number of people badly. He proceeds to state that he “believes” the net effect on the American economy is bad. This is in response to a Cato Institute fellow (probably “fellow” in both senses) who pointed out the standard upside: the greater well-being of all the cost-conscious consumers, who then have more money to spend on other things, which in turn stimulates the economy and creates jobs somewhere else.

Well, I don’t know that it’s clear whether “Cato-guy” or “Protectionist-guy” is right, in the balance. It depends, crucially, on the where the savings go. Say Jane consumer buys a Chinese-made blouse for $15 instead of an American-made one for $20. It’s all about what Jane does with the $5 she saved. Does she just sink it into more cheap Chinese goods? If so, Mr. Protectionist is probably right. Or does she put it toward some domestically produced good or service, or God forbid, save it? If so, Mr. Cato is probably right.

This is a complicated issue, and one I find very interesting. The answer(s) is (are) not so straightforward. Economists don’t all agree, but there is actual data out there. For instance unemployment has remained low and I believe that in general, real wages have held steady or risen, and the share of national income going to labor has remained stable. Seems like a point for pro-trade, but there are still subtleties to be explored. For example, how does the job and wage picture break down across income groups, skill levels, etc.? Why not show some of the data, and let some economists duke it out? I expect the cable news networks, with their tiny attention spans and competitive ratings pressures, to take the shallow route (I can hear Lou Dobbs beating his one big drum now), but this is public television, for crying out loud! Do some work guys! If PBS doesn’t do it, who will?

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Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Mmm, Raw, Unchecked, Executive Power... drool, drool

Great news! The Bush administration, never one to slouch, continues to strive for ever greater efficiency in government. Ignoring those pesky notes from Congress should really help! As we all well know, the law can be a definite impediment to getting things done.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Can the Chinese Watch "All the President's Men"?

Much ink and many pixels/bits have been spilt on whether capitalism and information and communication technology are ultimately destined to undermine authoritarian regimes and promote democracy. Just a few years ago, at least, there seemed to be a consensus that both IT and economic openness were bound to promote open government and democracy. Thomas Friedman may have been the poster child, as evinced in his blockbuster The Lexus and the Olive Tree. Friedman maintained that the globalized economy forced a choice to repressive governments: keep your people repressed and impoverished, or allow both economic development and political and social liberalization. I.e., you can't have one without the other.

Lately, it seems like the tide of opinion may have shifted somewhat. This is not a wholesale reversal, it just strikes me as a more negative trend in opinion. China seems to be the poster child for this pessimistic streak. To wit: China has seen strong economic growth, and a corresponding growth in IT and telecom, yet it is still has an autocratic, oppressive regime that continues to stifle political dissent and democratic reform. It may even be that the Chinese government is successfully implementing a form of "market autocracy" where the economy is successfully grown through economic liberalization, but this liberalization does not bleed over into the political sphere. Certainly, Chinese authorities have aggressively censored the internet, banning many topics on domestic sites and blocking foreign sites that have prohibited topics.

I tend to side with the optimists. In the first place, it hasn't been all that long since the revolutionary leap (dare I say "great leap forward?") in communications technology represented by the internet and affordable cellular phones. You mean these things have been aroung for a whole decade, and we don't have democracy everywhere yet? What's the freakin' holdup? In reality, some things take time. Cultures and other ancient human institutions don't necessarily evolve at the same blinding rate as pure technology, but they do evolve. A number of observers marked the SARS outbreak as an important bellwether. Although the government did attempt to suppress text messages during the panic, both rumors and legitimate information spread rapidly, ultimately forcing the leaders to be more forthcoming about the real extent of the epidemic.

It is also fascinating to note how popular culture can infect repressive societies with subversive, non-sanctioned messages. For instance, the TV show Dallas helped undermine Romania's dictatorship. Of course, apparently the wealth and depravity of the Ewings tempted the Romanians more than political freedom per se, so this example doesn't necessarily undermine the "market autocracy" hypothesis. But I would suggest the effect is even broader and deeper, and that it will be impossible to squash all liberalizing ideas. I offer this as a simple test: can Chinese citizens watch All the President's Men?

On the surface, the movie has nothing to do with China (other than the indirect, spurious "Nixon opened China" coincidence). The government (especially the Maoists of old) may even think of this movie as showing the corruption of the West (that was Ceausescu's thinking about Dallas). But think about the deeper message: the most powerful man in the world, corrupt and willing to abuse his power, is nonetheless brought down by a (relatively) free press and a (relatively) representative form of government. Can the deeper message truly be lost on the average Chinese citizen?

Even if this particular film is banned for the very reasons I submit it here, I think foreign culture will insinuate "dangerous" ideas about freedom into Chinese society, merely by showing the possibilities of different social and political systems. And they'll never censor all of that.