Free Markets, Free People

Libertarian

Hacking Away At The Last Pillar

The siege against capitalism continues unabated. Yesterday, leaders of the 20 largest national economies reached a consensus that they needed to reel in unfettered free markets, which they all agreed was the cause of the world’s economic crisis. The medicine consists of further funding of the IMF (to the tune of an addition $1 Trillion) and an increased regulatory state.
crumbling-column

Setting aside differences in philosophy and national character, at least for now, the leaders agreed to make available more than $1 trillion in new lending to spur international growth. While leaving it to individual nations to enact, they promised tough new regulations aimed at banks and other financial institutions whose freewheeling activities sparked the crisis. And they vowed renewed support for trade and more help for the globe’s poorest countries.

“The world’s leaders have responded today with an unprecedented set of comprehensive and coordinated actions,” Obama said, in the spotlight on his first overseas trip as president. “Faced with similar global economic challenges in the past, the world was slow to act, and people paid an enormous price. . . . Today, we have learned the lessons of history.”

For some reason, the bulk of the reporting on the G-20 conference outcome is limited to describing how wonderful everyone feels about the loose agreements, and how industrious they all were to come to terms with one another. Very little press has been devoted to the actual agreements. The media seem to be under the collective impression that the most important aspect of these meetings is the conduct of the diplomacy. They could not be more wrong:

FINANCIAL market “cowboys” who wreaked havoc on the world economy will be brought undone by the G20 agreement, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd says.

Mr Rudd says the $US1 trillion ($A1.4 trillion) deal agreed on at the G20 summit in London, will benefit “tradies”, young people and small business with real commitments against real timelines.

“Today’s agreement begins to crack down on the sort of cowboys in global financial markets that have brought global markets undone with real impacts for jobs everywhere,” Mr Rudd told reporters at the conclusion of the summit overnight.

The summit has agreed to a restructure of the financial regulatory system, reform of and a trebling of funding for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to $US750 billion ($A1.08 trillion), an extension until the end of next year of a ban on nations introducing trade protection measures, a curb of excessive executive payouts and agreement to co-ordinate further economic stimulus.

Make no mistake. What the G-20 leaders (as stated by PM Rudd above) are saying to world is that none of this would have happened if they had been in charge. “Financial market cowboys” (meaning US and UK bankers), the faces of capitalism, are entirely to blame for the woes of the world. If only there had been more government involvement, according to this theory, then the financial crisis would have been averted or severely curtailed. Accordingly, the G-20 have decided that the way to fix this mass is to assert greater control over the world economy. The immediate targets of this new world order? Tax havens of course:

Switzerland, Singapore, the Cayman Islands, Monaco, Luxembourg and Hong Kong are among 45 territories blacklisted on Thursday by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and now threatened with punitive financial retaliation for their banking secrecy.

Among the sanctions being considered by the G20 are the scrapping of tax treaty arrangements, imposing additional taxes on companies that operate in non-compliant countries, and tougher disclosure requirements for individuals and businesses that use shelters.

[…]

Illegal tax evasion through offshore shelters has been a long-standing irritation for Gordon Brown, President Barack Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. An estimated $7 trillion of assets are held offshore and, according to pressure group Tax Justice Network, developed countries lose $180bn a year in evaded taxes.

Under the OECD definition, countries will be considered non-compliant if they have less than 12 bi-lateral agreements to exchange tax information with foreign governments on request. “Authorities should have access to the information to effectively crack down on tax evasion,” Andrew Watt, director at law firm Alvarez & Marsal Taxand, said.

Jeffrey Owens, director of the OECD’s centre for tax policy said: “This is the major breakthrough we have been trying to get for 13 years. If you intend to evade tax through offshore bases, you will think hard about it now you know tax authorities can trace you.”

[…]

Mr Sarkozy added: “Sixty percent of hedge funds are registered in tax havens. Putting hedge funds under supervision isn’t going to generate jobs in the textile industry. But we have to put behind us the madness of this time of total deregulation.”

The reactions of Owens and Sarkozy are like being annoyingly puzzled at why the whipping boy continues to move, seeking to avoid the lash.

Clearly the aim here is not at fixing anything other than the ability of wealthy nations to collect taxes. Small countries typically designated as “tax havens” tend to have one thing in common: they have no other means of competing in the world market place other than in the area of business taxation. If the economies of these countries were all dependent upon growing and selling corn, then the G-20 actions would be met with a much different response. Instead, companies that wish to minimize their tax burden, so that they may instead fund R&D, expand (create jobs), or re-invest, are treated as outlaws, unworthy of little more than scorn. And the small countries that have been willing to host these companies as a means of boosting their own economies, are labeled pariahs to be sanctioned by the wealthiest nations in the world. The message: “Don’t muscle in on our territory. That’s our tax money and we’re here to collect.”

In addition to punishing tax havens, the G-20 decided that the favorite whipping boys of statists needed to be better restrained so as to prevent their squirming:

Leaders agreed to craft tighter controls over hedge funds and establish more rigorous regulations to prevent the buildup of toxic assets that poisoned the U.S. financial system in and spread overseas.

[…]

The leaders agreed to set benchmarks for executive pay and make accounting standards more uniform across borders. Most would be drafted by a new Financial Stability Board, where central bankers, regulators and finance ministers from the more than 20 nations represented at the summit will eventually hash out the details.

Credit agencies — whose top-notch ratings of instruments linked to bad U.S. subprime mortgages gave false indications of their relatively safety — would be subjected to new oversight and regulations. But there was no call for a global regulator that could overrule decisions made by individual countries.

While I’m glad to see the ratings agencies (whom have inexplicably been absent from public criticism and ire) taking their turn at the post, everyone should be dismayed at what these sorts of agreements portend. The collective effort to rein in “cowboy capitalism” is little more than a barely disguised effort to place the European bit in the mouth of American (and, to a lesser extent, British) mouth. Business decisions are no longer to be made in the interests of the shareholders, but in favor of “public good.” What constitutes the “public good” will be determined by the special interests who exact the most influence upon, and best line the pockets of, the political forces in charge. In short, consumers no longer rule the market place; bureaucrats do.

Fallen pillar

Fallen pillar


As with all movements based on collective will, such as that which the G-20 has furthered, an unfettered free market is featured as the main culprit. America is widely considered to be an economic jungle where the capitalist beast roams freely, devouring the innocent and maiming cautious outsiders. Ironically, Leviathan himself has identified capitalism as an unrestrained beast in need of controlling. Yet, we have nothing like an uncontrolled free market here. It only appears that way because the remainder of the world has cloaked their industries in thick blankets of protectionism and shackled their businesses with an alarming array of bureaucratic chains. Comparatively, America does look like a free market jungle.

But therein lies the problem. As the Washington Post stated it:

Along with declarations of optimism came the recognition of at least a temporary shift in attitude away from two decades of intense reliance on free trade, deregulation and market-knows-best policies that fueled stunning growth across the planet.

Brown — the leader of a country closely associated with that philosophy — declared “the Washington Consensus” over, using a term that recognizes the American roots of an economic system seen by many in the world as unfair and unhealthy.

As far from a pure free market as we are, it is our relative distance from the nanny-statism of Europe and beyond that props up the economies of the world. That stunning growth was made possible precisely because of what the rest of the world refers to as “cowboy capitalism” and they were all happy to join in the ride. But now that woe times betide us, thanks primarily to government meddling (e.g. CRA, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Fed policy, etc.), the world is ready to chop down the last pillar of capitalism, and assert government control over everything. With that final support gone, the capitalist beast will be brought to heel, confined to the zoo where it will live its remaining days as little more than a novelty. Unfortunately, it will take its wealth producing powers with it.

“For anyone who questions why the President has offered this plan, these pledges will be the answer.”

Obama’s army of cultists is very hard at work.

Like (I assume) most other news junkies who closely followed the election, I am still receiving emails from Obama’s political action people. Much of it is aimed at getting the recipients to participate in the “Organizing for America” politicking. It has always seemed a little creepy to me because the election is over. I mean, why the endless campaign unless the real purpose is to propagandize the voters? But I also figured that my biases made it seem worse than it really is. That is, until viewing this video:

Neo-neocon provides an excellent analysis of why this sort of White House driven organizing just seems wrong. For example, she notes the rather troublesome fact that the Obama administration intends for people to simply pledge blind support to his agenda:

Some of the most disturbing things about this video are its vagueness, its focus on Obama himself in what I can only call his cult of personality, and its use of the word “pledge” (at minute :56, note the words, under “The Pledge” and next to a check box, “I support President Obama’s bold plan….”)

The vagueness comes from the fact that whatever people are pledging to support is never described in any detail whatsoever. The petition, or pledge sheet, or loyalty oath, or whatever you want to call it, is very short. It appears that each policy area—energy, health care, education—has but a single sentence describing it.

Think about this for a moment: people are blindly pledging loyalty to policies about which they know virtually nothing except the fact that Obama is behind them, and he says it’s for our own good.

Moreover, reasonable dissent from Obama’s agenda is not possible according to the training video:

The trainer gives only one reason that “the establishment in Washington” would oppose this: opposition to change. Never mind principled opposition; there is no such thing where Obama is concerned. Never mind the cost of these policies in a recession.

Never mind; just sign on the dotted line. And is anyone else as perturbed as I am by this statement: For anyone who questions why the President has offered this plan, these pledges will be the answer.

I think that definitely qualifies as creepy, biases or not.

[HT: Bird Dog]

Two New Examiners

Jason Pye and I have –  unbeknownst to the other, which we each found hilarious – applied for and become “Examiners” for the Atlanta Examiner.  What that essentially means is we write for an online publication (Examiner.com) and actually get paid to do so.

However, and this is the part I actually love – it really brings the libertarian out in me – we get paid for the number of page views we generate.  So our pay is based on how many eyes we bring to the articles we write.

As you might imagine, they’re more locally focused and pertain to topics we may or may not cover here at QandO.  However, being the “Atlanta Libertarian Examiner” and Jason being the “Georgia Libertarian Examiner” we pretty much have the freedom to write about what we want to.  What I’m trying to do, as is Jason, is keep it pertinent to the location but still spread the libertarian message.

Your support is requested.  If you will take a short moment and click in.  Check out the articles.  Jason and I will be embedding links in various posts as we put new articles up on Examiner.com.  Your feedback and comments are solicited and welcome.  But remember, clicking in helps pay the writer and I can promise you both writers would very much appreciate those clicks.

My links are here and here.

Jason, the prolific one, has links here, here, here, here and here.

Thanks for your indulgence and support.  Both are appreciated.  Thus ends the commercial.

~McQ

Barely Legal

surf-beaver

Talk about the government getting all up in someone’s business:

Things could get hairy in New Jersey this summer for women who sport revealing bikinis or a little bit less.

The painful Brazilian wax and its intimate derivatives are in danger of being stripped from salon and spa menus if a recent proposal to ban genital waxing is passed by the state’s Board of Cosmetology and Hairstyling.

[…]

New Jersey statutes allow waxing of the face, neck, arms, legs and abdomen, but officials say that genital waxing has always been illegal, although not spelled out.

Regardless, almost every salon in South Jersey, from Atlantic City casinos to suburban strip malls, has been breaking the law for years by ridding women, and some men, of their pubic hair for $50 to $60 a session.

Jeff Lamm, a spokesman for New Jersey’s Division of Consumer Affairs, said that the proposal would specifically ban genital waxing, and was prompted by complaints to the board from two women who were injured and hospitalized. One of them sued. Lamm said that the state only investigates infractions if consumers complain.

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What happened to “keep your hands off my body”? If the government can dictate the size and shape of the drapes, what’s to stop it from taking over the whole womb room? It’s not as if the rights of the unshorn are at risk here. In addition, there is a legitimate concern for where women will turn if they lose the right to freely control their bare necessities:

Cherry Hill salon owner Linda Orsuto said that women would “go ballistic” if the proposal passed. She said that some women would resort to waxing themselves, visiting unlicensed salons or traveling to other states, including Pennsylvania, in a quest to remain bare down there.

“The clients are going to freak,” said Orsuto, who owns 800 West Salon & Spa, on Route 70. “It’s a hot issue, and we’re going to have to do something.”

Scary. If the government camel insists on sticking its nose under Jersey girls’ skirts, can back-alley bush removal with rusty razors be far behind? beach-beaver

Now, I understand that some aficionados of adult entertainment from the 70’s might be excited about the return of a tufted tarts and piliferous punani. But that sort of hirsute protectionism treads dangerously upon our most cherished freedoms, and will potentially lead to messy entanglements from which we will find it hard to extricate ourselves (think “velcro”).

Accordingly, I stand firmly behind the women of New Jersey and fully support their rights to depilate as they see fit, with the advice and counsel of their salon professional. So say it loud, ladies, in all your glabrous glory: “We’re bare! Down there! And we’re proud!”

Brooks On Capitalism

David Brooks had started down the road to Damascus when he was called back into the fold by Dear Leader. His Op-Ed in today’s NYT is the result.

Most of Brooks’ offering is a rather transparent attempt to shame congressional Republicans into supporting Pres. Obama’s agenda:

The Democratic response to the economic crisis has its problems, but let’s face it, the current Republican response is totally misguided. The House minority leader, John Boehner, has called for a federal spending freeze for the rest of the year. In other words, after a decade of profligacy, the Republicans have decided to demand a rigid fiscal straitjacket at the one moment in the past 70 years when it is completely inappropriate.

The G.O.P. leaders have adopted a posture that allows the Democrats to make all the proposals while all the Republicans can say is “no.” They’ve apparently decided that it’s easier to repeat the familiar talking points than actually think through a response to the extraordinary crisis at hand.

There are myriad problems with Brooks’ line of reasoning, including many in just to two foregoing paragraphs (e.g. How much input did Republicans have into the recent legislation? By “adopted a posture” is he referring to “not having control of either the House or the Senate”?), but I wanted to focus in on a couple of points in particular.

After some platitudinous admonitions, Brooks launches into his prescription for Republicans to save capitalism:

Third, Republicans could offer the public a realistic appraisal of the health of capitalism. Global capitalism is an innovative force, they could argue, but we have been reminded of its shortcomings. When exogenous forces like the rise of China and a flood of easy money hit the global marketplace, they can throw the entire system of out of whack, leading to a cascade of imbalances: higher debt, a grossly enlarged financial sector and unsustainable bubbles.

I really don’t know what point Brooks thought he was making, but he failed miserably on any score. First of all, “exogenous forces” cannot be “weaknesses” and/or “shortcomings” with capitalism since, by definition, they come from outside that system. At best, examining such forces can be used to understand better ways of protecting capitalism from them. In the context of the entire Op-Ed piece, however, it appears that Brooks is pitching the tired line that capitalism must be reigned in so that people don’t get hurt. That’s like diagnosing the problem with house, finding termites, and then thinking of ways to protect the termites from the house.

Furthermore, Brooks cites a “flood of easy money” (which, of course, is caused by government) as an example of an exogenous force, and then lists the following “shortcomings” of capitalism: “higher debt, a grossly enlarged financial sector and unsustainable bubbles.” What do any of those things have to do with capitalism? If anything, these are once again a failure of government skewing incentives.

In fact, when the government does its darnedest to make the cost of borrowing money historically low, people would be really stupid not to take advantage of that. We all know that rates fluctuate, and that the cost of money will be more expensive when they go back up. Logically therefore, it only makes sense to borrow when the Fed turns the money spigot on and then to find some sort of an asset to grow that money in. That, of course, is what leads to bubbles as everyone has barrels of money but not as many clear ideas of what makes a good investment. Instead of taking the time to really investigate what opportunities are available, and which ones fit a particular person’s portfolio, the herd mentality takes over and we all tend to keep up with the Jones and Smiths whether that means buying tulip bulbs or a run-down house we intend to flip.

The bottom line, however, is that these sorts of scenarios start with government intervention into the market place. In addition to turning on the money spigot, the federal government was also encouraging lenders to make high-risk loans, and for the Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae to buy them up, securitize them and sell them into the derivatives market. Again, that’s all fine and dandy (until it it all goes to hell), but it has nothing to do with “weaknesses” and “shortcomings” of capitalism, and everything to do with government sticking its big fat honker where it doesn’t belong.

More Brooks:

If the free market party doesn’t offer the public an honest appraisal of capitalism’s weaknesses, the public will never trust it to address them.

The “free market party”? Who does he think he’s kidding here? The Republicans haven’t acted like a free market party since … well … it’s been so long I can’t remember.

Moreover, I simply can’t fathom how Brooks thinks a “free market party” would ever be able to reconcile itself to joining hands with Obama on his completely anti-capitalist agenda.

Power will inevitably slide over to those who believe this crisis is a repudiation of global capitalism as a whole.

Earth to Brooks: that’s already happened. Look who the president is for crying out loud, or take the time to read your own newspaper. Each and every day we hear about how the excesses of capitalism caused this crisis, and how the “libertarian” policies of Bush (HA!) have landed us in this awful spot. Capitalism didn’t get a trial, Mr. Brooks, it was rounded up, convicted and summarily shot as soon as the latest grand experiment in government do-goodism failed (again).

On Deck: Universal Health Care (Updated)

According to Ezra Klein, the Obama administration intends to finagle universal health care coverage out of its budget proposal, including an individual mandate:

I’ve now been able to confirm with multiple senior administration sources that the health care proposal in Obama’s budget will have a mandate. Sort of.

Here’s how it will work, according to the officials I’ve spoken to. The budget’s health care section is not a detailed plan. Rather, it offers financing — though not all — and principles meant to guide the plan that Congress will author. The details will be decided by Congress in consultation with the administration.

One of those details is “universal” health care coverage.

Some of you may recall that Obama, while in campaign mode, consistently denied that he wanted to introduce mandates as part of his health care package. Paul Krugman cited that opposition as the major difference between Obama and Hillary Clinton:

Let’s talk about how the plans compare.

Both plans require that private insurers offer policies to everyone, regardless of medical history. Both also allow people to buy into government-offered insurance instead.

And both plans seek to make insurance affordable to lower-income Americans. The Clinton plan is, however, more explicit about affordability, promising to limit insurance costs as a percentage of family income. And it also seems to include more funds for subsidies.

But the big difference is mandates: the Clinton plan requires that everyone have insurance; the Obama plan doesn’t.

Mr. Obama claims that people will buy insurance if it becomes affordable. Unfortunately, the evidence says otherwise.

Now that he’s been elected it’s presto hope’n change-o, and voila! Mandates!

Ezra Klein notes that the difference between the pre- and post-election plans is based on one word in the budget — “universal”:

That word is important: The Obama campaign’s health care plan was not a universal health care plan. It was close to it. It subsidized coverage for millions of Americans and strengthened the employer-based system. The goal, as Obama described it, was to make coverage “affordable” and “available” to all Americans.

But it did not make coverage universal. Affordability can be achieved through subsidies. But without a mandate for individuals to purchase coverage or for the government to give it to them, there was no mechanism for universal coverage. It could get close, but estimates were that around 15 million Americans would remain uninsured. As Jon Cohn wrote at the time, “without a mandate, a substantial portion of Americans [will] remain uninsured.”

In essence, unless everyone is forced to buy insurance, there is no “universality,” and the benefits of large participation in the insurance pool cannot be realized. An even shorter version is, if healthier people opt out, then sicker people can’t sponge off them.

The budget — and I was cautioned that the wording “is changing hourly” — will direct Congress to “aim for universality.” That is a bolder goal than simple affordability, which can be achieved, at least in theory, through subsidies. Universality means everyone has coverage, not just the ability to access it. And that requires a mechanism to ensure that they seek it.

Administration officials have been very clear on what the inclusion of “universality” is meant to communicate to Congress. As one senior member of the health team said to me, “[The plan] will cover everybody. And I don’t see how you cover everybody without an individual mandate.” That language almost precisely echoes what Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus said in an interview last summer. “I don’t see how you can get meaningful universal coverage without a mandate,” he told me. Last fall, he included an individual mandate in the first draft of his health care plan.

The administration’s strategy brings them into alignment with senators like Max Baucus. Though they’re not proposing an individual mandate in the budget, they are asking Congress to fulfill an objective that they expect will result in Congress proposing an individual mandate. And despite the controversy over the individual mandate in the campaign, they will support it. That, after all, is how you cover everybody.

So it looks like you better start scarfing down those cheeseburgers, eating transfats, smoking cigarettes, or whatever it is you do that’s not considered healthy, because once the federal government pays for health care (which is what individual mandates essentially works out to), then it also has the power to determine what “healthy” means. After all, since everyone will be pulling from the same health care pot, and since each claim on that pot diminishes what someone else can get, then each claim must be a legitimate one as weighed against all the competing interests. Because the viability of the system depends on healthy people making much fewer claims than sick people against the collective health care resources, the government now has a vested interest in making people healthier, whether they like it or not.

Another way to put it is that we will have entered a Pareto optimal world where no one can change their position for the better (i.e. receive more of the pooled benefits) without hurting someone else. Whereas in a competitive market system, each person can get at least as much health care as he or she wants to buy and can afford, in a Pareto optimal world, we are competing for the same scarce resources (health care dollars), and our claims are granted based on a a third party’s (the government’) determination of worthiness. No longer can we get what we can afford, we get a predetermined portion of what the government decides to pay for. That, of course, is why there are 6+ month waiting lists for routine health care in places like Canada and the UK.

Possibly the most depressing result of yoking America with universal health care, is that we can pretty much kiss medical and pharmaceutical innovation good bye.

Government run health centralizes the risks of exploring new technologies, medicines, techniques, etc. Centralized risk translates into (i) observing a very cautious approach to advances, and (ii) the politicization of research … From a purely capitalist point of view, opportunites that might have been pursued otherwise, are foregone since those who accept the risks of pursuing them do not get to maximize their reward, so instead those advances must come from the government. With government as the sole innovator, there are now two types of risk (1) the risk of failure (i.e. spending gobs of money on something that does not deliver as promised, or that costs significantly more than the benefit), and (2) the political risks (i.e. what politicians face for advocating spending on projects that either fail or that don’t disproportionately benefit favored voters). The result is that risk is increased overall, and fewer innovations are realized.

America is pretty much the last industrialized nation to still have a (semi) private health care system, which should be understood to include the pharmaceutical industry (as a supplier of that health care system). What would happen to the growth and advances we’ve realized over the past few decades if (when?) we adopt universal health care? Where will the innovation come from? Who will take the risks? Without the proper incentives, and indeed with some of the worst possible incentives as the only driving force to creation, I fear that the scientific and medical Atlas will shrug.

I don’t mean to say that there will be no breakthroughs ever again, but the pace will be slowed dramatically. That’s because, one the government is in charge of paying for health care, it will also be in charge of paying for medicines. As we’ve already seen around the world, drug companies will be forced to sell their wares for much less than the (legal) monopoly prices they charge now. The result, therefore, will be much less risky and expensive research into new drugs that may never come to market, and much more emphasis on improving old drugs so as to continue to pay for further research.

Surely the federal government will pony up money for research into some diseases. But then the government will be in charge of picking winners and losers when it comes to whose diseases will get cures and whose won’t. To imagine what this would look like, just think back to how AIDS and breast cancer research dollars were successfully lobbied for, despite neither affecting anywhere near as many people as other deadly diseases.

In the end we will be left with less individual freedom, worse health care, and fewer prospects for any improvement in either. That is not the change I was hoping for.

UPDATE: Tom Maguire helpfully reminds us of how the health care debate progressed during the Democratic primary season:

For folks whose memories have blessedly erased any recollection of the endless Democratic candidates debates, let me toss in a brief reminder. Obama claimed that he would offer health insurance subsidies so generous that most folks would volunteer to sign up. Hillary mocked that, insisting that the young and healthy would decline to subsidize the rest of us, especially since they could not subsequently be denied coverage on the basis of pre-existing conditions; her plan included a mandate obliging everyone to buy health insurance, like it or not (as in Massachusetts). Hillary then diligently ducked the “or else” question of what penalties she would inflict on the young, helathy and recalcitrant who would prefer to hold off on buying insurance until they were sick. As a nostalgia piece here is a link to a lefty wondering why his party was so committed to forcing young, healthy members of the working class to subsidize the rest of us on health care; that seems like a good question but I am long resigned to not being smart enough to be a lefty.

Aww, Tom. You’re plenty smart enough. Just not angry, bitter or jealous enough.

As for the “or else” question, Obama and the Congress won’t be able to duck that one. I can only imagine what sort of sword they intend to dangle of recalcitrant ,comrades citizens who refuse to sign up for the program.