Free Markets, Free People

Nanny State

Socialism? Why Not Call A Spade A Spade?

One of the things we talked about on the podcast this week is how, in the broadest sense, socialism is a growing phenomenon in our country. As I mentioned, while government may not actually own the means of production, if its regulations are such that they dictate how a company must operate, then government exercises de facto ownership.

What is happening in the financial sector right now serves as a perfect example.

The Obama administration plans to require banks and corporations that have received two rounds of federal bailouts to submit any major executive pay changes for approval by a new federal official who will monitor pay, according to two government officials.

[...]

Others, which are being described as broad principles, would set standards that the government would like the entire financial industry to observe as they compensate their highest-paid executives, though it is not clear how regulators will enforce them.

So regulators will have the final say on compensation. That, of course, is an ownership function. The de facto owner then is who?

Moving on:

In a sign of how eager corporations are to escape government diktats on pay, nine of the nation’s biggest banks are likely to repay bailout money as quickly as by the end of this month. The administration is expected to grant its approval this week.

Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and a handful of others have worked to rid themselves of their ties to government in order to shed restrictions on pay that they say put them at a competitive disadvantage.

But under the administration’s new plans, even companies that repay the taxpayer money will not escape some form of oversight on their compensation structure.

The set of broad pay principles being drafted by the Treasury Department would authorize regulators to tell a bank to alter its compensation arrangements if they are found to encourage too much risk-taking. It is not clear how the government will define too much risk.

Part two – no matter whether you pay the money back in full with whatever interest is owed, the government retains the right to dictate your compensation structure based in some arbitrary metric of “too much risk”, to be determined only by them.

They will apply to a broad swath of financial companies, even the United States operations of foreign banks, as well as private companies like hedge funds and private equity firms.

“This is the government trying to tell the TARP banks not to worry, because everyone else’s compensation will be monitored too,” said Gustavo Dolfino, president of the WhiteRock Group, a financial recruiter, of the industrywide principles. “We’re in a world of TARP and non-TARP.”

Clear enough? For those that like to quibble about the meaning of socialism and parse words, I’m eager to hear your spin on this. But, in light of the plan above you’d better be damned good at deploying the rhetorical smoke and mirrors if you plan to call this anything but a manifestation of the “s” word.

~McQ

“More Czars Than The Romanovs”

That’s what John McCain has said about the Obama tendency to appoint “czars” to oversee various issues. As McCain points out, these czars operate outside of any real oversight.

And apparently there’s going to be another new “czar” in town. A – are you ready for this? – “pay czar”.

The Obama administration plans to appoint a “Special Master for Compensation” to ensure that companies receiving federal bailout funds are abiding by executive-pay guidelines, according to people familiar with the matter.

The administration is expected to name Kenneth Feinberg, who oversaw the federal government’s compensation fund for victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, to act as a pay czar for the Treasury Department, these people said.

A tendency toward fascism?

I’d have to say yes. There’s no question that this is a very deep intrusion into the management of a company which will have negative consequences on down the road (the companies still compete for talent in the same pool as companies not under these restrictions). But apparently their competitive health is less important than enforcing some arbitrary and political level of “fair” compensation.

~McQ

Socialism In America

Perhaps the time has come to be perfectly frank. We Americans live in a socialist country. In point of fact, we have for quite some time, even though private property has a long, continuing and still revered position in our society. To be sure, we aren’t an entirely socialist country, but instead a mixed one that teeters between the two extremes of collectivism and freedom (i.e. socialism and capitalism). In the past century or so, however, the scale tipped noticeably toward the socialism side, and we are now at the point where capitalism is not the dominant force. Of course, there are many who will disagree with my assessment.

Conor Clarke, for example, offers the following to dispel notions that we have become a socialist country:

Government vs. Private Ownership

Government vs. Private Ownership

Conor explains:

Have you heard that the United States is headed toward socialism? Jonah Goldberg says it is. Alabama Senator Richard Shelby says it is. Phyllis Schlafly says it is. Richard Viguerie says it is. The Republican National Committee says it is. We must be getting pretty close.

[...]

The hot-pink portion of this pie chart is the percentage of listed American business assets that have recently been nationalized by the American government (ie, General Motors). Obama’s version of socialism is so sneaky you can hardly see it!

(And there is some reason to think this actually overstates the portion of the corporate landscape that’s been nationalized, but more on that at the end of the post.*)

While the chart above would appear at first glance to be pretty dispositive of the issue (if the federal government owns so little, can we really be socialist?), it actually begs a huge question. If the segment of the economy effectively nationalized in the past several months is so vanishingly small, why is it necessary for taxpayers to fund trillions of dollars to save it? We’ll come back to that.

Next, Jon Henke observes:

NOTE: The fact is, American has always had a mixed economy, as do all modern, developed economies. The question is not one of category – capitalism or socialism? – but of degree.

[...]

Obama is not socialist. But he is more comfortable with centralizing economic power. As that centralization proceeds, the focus of public interest will shift from “how do we fix the immediate economic problems?” to “how do we fix the problems we created when we tried to fix that temporary problem?” That is when the pendulum can swing back towards decentralization and individual empowerment.

Jon takes a more organic view of the subject. That is, he posits the governing structure of the US as subject to the tolerance of the polity for centralized control of the economy. In his view, just because Obama “is more comfortable with centralizing economic power” that does not mean that we have become a socialist nation. Instead, we are merely experiencing a swing of the political pendulum towards socialism that will inevitably swing back towards the capitalism node. Left unsaid is how often that pendulum has swung away from socialism in the past 100+ years. More importantly, Jon’s assertions beg their own question — i.e. how “comfortable” must a politician and/or the populace be with centralized power before we can safely label it socialism?

In addition to the above, another line of argument is sure to be made (if it hasn’t been already) that we cannot possibly be a socialist country because private property has not been outlawed and the people as a whole do not own and control the means of production. Truly, this is the argument that Conor attempts to support with his graph (not that Conor necessarily agrees with that argument, just that he is holding up evidence that would tend to suggest socialism is not at hand). Essentially, although socialism comes in many forms, a primary ingredient is that the state (on behalf of the people) have dominance over the means of production instead of private concerns. The most extreme form, of course, is where all private property is abolished and the state decides what will be produced, by who, when and how much. Much milder versions such as social democracy exist today that, while they allow private property and much more freedom than, say, Stalinist North Korea, maintain a firm grip over the economy as a whole. Is there any doubt that Germany is a socialist country for example? The question then is, where does America fit when it this spectrum of socialist possibilities, if it fits at all?

At bottom, the problem with these sorts of arguments is almost always definitional. If I start arguing that communism never works and use the Soviet Union as an example, someone is sure to pipe up “that wasn’t real communism” followed by a neat explanation how Lenin and Stalin perverted what the true communists wanted in order to seize power for their own means. In order to avoid that annoyance, let’s at least agree on the dictionary definition of socialism:

An economic system in which the production and distribution of goods are [owned and] controlled substantially by the government rather than by private enterprise, and in which cooperation rather than competition guides economic activity. There are many varieties of socialism. Some socialists tolerate capitalism, as long as the government maintains the dominant influence over the economy; others insist on an abolition of private enterprise. All communists are socialists, but not all socialists are communists.

The definition above comes from the The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition, and I think sums up the idea nicely. The one thing missing is the word “ownership” which, I expect, someone will insist upon, so I’ve inserted the words “owned and” into the definition. As luck would have it, this is the very concept that I think is missed by almost everyone who discusses whether or not we are a socialist country.

Specifically, what is the difference between ownership and control? Looking again to the dictionary, here is a good legal definition of “ownership”:

“one’s exclusive right of possessing, enjoying, and disposing of a thing.” 72 So. 891. The term has been given a wide range of meanings, but is often said to comprehend both the concept of possession and, further, that of title and thus to be broader than either. See 139 N.W. 101. See fee simple.

The primary concept behind ownership is that of exclusivity, such that if I own real property, for example, I can by right exclude all others. Without the ability to exclude, my “ownership” is something less than complete and the use, enjoyment and alienation (a fancy word for selling, trading or giving away) of property is limited.

To illustrate the idea, consider that you own a piece of real property (Blackacre) which is rich with gold and silver mines, oil, and an abundance of flora and fauna. In short, it is a little slice of heaven and it is all yours. Or at least it would be if were not for the fact that the flora are mostly designated as protected, the fauna are all listed as endangered, and the mineral deposits are tightly regulated, all to the extent that you cannot make any real use of your land except to look at it from a neighbor’s yard in humble admiration for its splendor. Not only are you prevented from drilling or mining on your property, you cannot even build a house or structure of any kind because that might disturb the protected species. The rules and regulations governing Blackacre are so ominous, that you can’t even sell it without first offering it to the government for a price it will set in its own arbitrary discretion. Furthermore, just on the other side of Blackacre is the Pacific Ocean fronted by a lovely beach, to which the law declares access must be allowed for the public, and there is nothing you can do to prevent them from traipsing across your wonderland. In short, you may own Blackacre in title, but you have very little, if any, control.

Of course, at least here in America, the laws and regulations aren’t quite that strict. And the vast majority of people would agree to at least some controls over private property to prevent the owners from harming other property or people (e.g. pollution, building setbacks to prevent fire, etc.)[ed. - let's ignore Coasean bargaining for now, shall we?]. At some point, however, those restrictions on the owner’s use become so burdensome as to effectively deprive the owner of any real control. The same can be said for the ownership of capital, which can be anything from money to a large factory for building tractors. When the government sets up enough rules and regulations affecting the use and enjoyment of that capital, the fact that ownership is nominally in private hands does not somehow render that government as something other than socialist.

Now, getting back to our definition of socialism, which is more important, “ownership” or “control”? To my mind, this isn’t even a close call. Without control, ownership is next to meaningless. Therefore, if the state has the ability to control the means of production (a.k.a. capital), whether directly through ownership, or indirectly through law and regulation, I contend that such state should be deemed socialist.

Think of a scale that measures the owner’s rights in her own property and how, with each new government missive, that ownership indication drops a little more. Where the state’s intervention becomes intolerable will be different for each person, but from a definitional standpoint, that intervention represents socialism. When the scale registers a significant enough intervention into the owner’s rights, socialism becomes the prevalent factor in the control of property, and private, capitalist “ownership” is either dulled or altogether neutered. Again, without the ability to control that capital, ownership is a meaningless concept that should be left out of the conversation.

Accordingly, when Conor suggests that we are not a socialist nation because the government only owns an almost immeasurable portion of the corporate assets of this country, I suggest that he use a new measurement. Specifically, one that measures the amount of control that “owners” have over their property/capital/etc. That graph would look significantly different in my estimation.

Furthermore, when Jon states that Obama is not a socialist, he’s just comfortable with centralizing economic power, I ask that he consider what ways centralizing power (i.e. control over the means of production) is not socialist, and that he provide a few examples for clarification. Also, if the pendulum is going to swing back towards more decentralization (i.e. less control over capital), how far back would it have to go before most people could be reasonably certain that we are not, in fact, a socialist nation? How far back does he think it would have to go, or is his contention that the pendulum simply hasn’t swung into socialist territory? In considering those questions, I’d ask that the concept of control, rather than titular ownership, be the dominant factor in deciding where the state stands vis-à-vis socialism.

As I see it, we’ve been living with socialism in this country for a very long time. The only difference has been one of degree and magnitude. Its pervasiveness has ebbed and flowed over the decades, but American’s tolerance for it has grown substantially, even if many of us don’t like to call the governance we desire “socialism.” Unfortunately, that’s exactly what it is, and it’s only going to become more prevalent and intrusive. After all, why would anyone who is comfortable with centralizing economic power stop it? They’ll just call it something else and move on with asserting they’re control until one day you’ll be gazing longingly at Blackacre from the public beach, because that’s the only place where you can legally see it.

Quote of the Day

Although Herbert Hoover is rarely cited when one thinks of “immortal words”, these few paragraphs from Hoover (from James T. Flynn’s “The Roosevelt Myth”, HT: the Heritage Foundation) should certainly give you pause:

In every single case before the rise of totalitarian governments there had been a period dominated by economic planners. Each of these nations had an era under starry-eyed men who believed that they could plan and force the economic life of the people. They believed that was the way to correct abuse or to meet emergencies in systems of free enterprise. They exalted the state as the solver of all economic problems.

These men thought they were liberals. But they also thought they could have economic dictatorship by bureaucracy and at the same time preserve free speech, orderly justice, and free government.

These men are not Communists or Fascists. But they mixed these ideas into free systems. It is true that Communists and Fascists were round about. They formed popular fronts and gave the applause. These men shifted the relation of government to free enterprise from that of umpire to controller.

Consider the “car czar”. Look at the Chrysler board. Imagine government run health care. Cap-and-trade. Etc.

After that bit of reality from today, read Hoover’s further observations:

Directly or indirectly they politically controlled credit, prices, production or industry, farmer and laborer. They devalued, pump-primed and deflated. They controlled private business by government competition, by regulation and by taxes. They met every failure with demands for more and more power and control … When it was too late they discovered that every time they stretched the arm of government into private enterprise, except to correct abuse, then somehow, somewhere, men’s minds became confused. At once men became fearful and hesitant. Initiative slackened, industry slowed down production.

Look around you and tell me what you see. The future? It’s to be found in Hoover’s words from 1940.

~McQ

Coming Soon …

Dictated by the 5 of 9 Chrysler board members (appointed by the US and Canadian governments) and the UAW board member, Chrysler is pleased to present the 2010 Obamamobile:

Coming to a politically correct dealership near you soon!

Coming to a politically correct dealership near you soon!

Note the standard dual teleprompters. Since this model is run by hot air and not much else, all you have to do to boost power is read the prepared statements on the ‘prompter and zoom, you’re off to the races!

[HT: Brown]

~McQ

Nanny Wants New Credit Card Rules

Why not just wrap us all up in bubble wrap and bottle feed us?

“We like credit cards — they are valuable vehicles for many people,” said Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, the chairman of the Senate banking committee and author of the measure now being considered by the Senate. “It’s when these vehicles are being abused by the card issuers at the expense of the consumers that we must step in and change the rules.”

Doug Bandow provides the proper pithy reply to Sen. Dodd:

“Abused by the card issuers.” Of course. The very same card issuers who kidnapped people, forced consumers to apply for cards at gunpoint, and convinced merchants to refuse to accept checks or cash in order to force everyone to pull out “plastic.” The poor helpless consumers who had nothing to do with the fact that they wandered amidst America’s cathedrals of consumption buying wiz-bang electronic goods, furniture, CDs, clothes, and more. The stuff just magically showed up in their homes, with a charge being entered against them against their will. It’s all the card issuers’ fault!

Certainly card issuers are raising their rates arbitrarily to very high rates. And, as I did recently, card holders are calling them up and very politely saying “stuff it – and while you’re at it do it with my canceled card”.

Credit cards aren’t a ‘right’, and the fact that someone gets themselves into trouble with them doesn’t make them a ‘victim’ deserving of special legislation to “right a wrong”.

What in the world ever happened to individual responsibility and accepting the consequences for your actions?

~McQ

Drug Czar Wants To Banish Idea US Fighting “War On Drugs”

I don’t know if this is a bit of clever semantics or a real shift in policy, it’s just too early to tell, but if true, it may signal the beginning of a move toward sanity as it concerns drugs:

The Obama administration’s new drug czar says he wants to banish the idea that the U.S. is fighting “a war on drugs,” a move that would underscore a shift favoring treatment over incarceration in trying to reduce illicit drug use.

In his first interview since being confirmed to head the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, Gil Kerlikowske said Wednesday the bellicose analogy was a barrier to dealing with the nation’s drug issues.

“Regardless of how you try to explain to people it’s a ‘war on drugs’ or a ‘war on a product,’ people see a war as a war on them,” he said. “We’re not at war with people in this country.”

But, of course, that’s precisely what a “war on drugs” has to be – a war on users, suppliers, growers, processors and the supporting network of people who get it from A to B. That’s precisely what we’ve been fighting from its inception and it is a war that’s being lost. It is time to consider the problem again and approach it with a different strategy. After all if input (I) + process(P) = output(O) and you never vary I or P, how can you expect O to ever be any different?

The Obama administration is likely to deal with drugs as a matter of public health rather than criminal justice alone, with treatment’s role growing relative to incarceration, Mr. Kerlikowske said.

Drugs are only a “criminal justice” problem because government chose prohibition – a policy that had been tried and failed miserably decades before – over a more rational and sane approach to drug use. There is no reason that a program that is much less of a threat to all of our freedoms and liberty shouldn’t be tried in the face of the miserable failure of the “war on drugs”. Perhaps then we’d see the violence inherent in the market created by government prohibition, as well as world record incarceration rates, subside dramatically. We can do this much, much better than we’re doing now.

~McQ

Someone Has To Pay For Health Care “Reform”

Today’s “Health Care Reform” day.

One of the myths Democrats are going to try to continue to promote is that 95% of Americans are getting a tax cut. Of course that means they’re politically prohibited from raising income taxes. But that certainly doesn’t mean that they must refrain from other taxes and fees which will impact 100% of Americans and, by the way, if they’re like the following, will be highly regressive:

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based watchdog group that pressures food companies to make healthier products, plans to propose a federal excise tax on soda, certain fruit drinks, energy drinks, sports drinks and ready-to-drink teas. It would not include most diet beverages. Excise taxes are levied on goods and manufacturers typically pass them on to consumers.

The proposal is also being touted as something which will help pay for “health care reform”:

The Congressional Budget Office, which is providing lawmakers with cost estimates for each potential change in the health overhaul, included the option in a broad report on health-system financing in December. The office estimated that adding a tax of three cents per 12-ounce serving to these types of sweetened drinks would generate $24 billion over the next four years.

Of course the article goes on to state that lawmakers aren’t considering the tax at present, but then the vast majority of our legislators don’t write or read the legislation they pass so saying they’re not considering it doesn’t mean it isn’t being considered by those who will write it (like the CSPI) or won’t be in legislation.

This sort of tax is also seen as a means of modifying behavior because a certain group considers the product it wants taxed as “unhealthy”.

Proponents of the tax cite research showing that consuming sugar-sweetened drinks can lead to obesity, diabetes and other ailments. They say the tax would lower consumption, reduce health problems and save medical costs. At least a dozen states already have some type of taxes on sugary beverages, said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

“Soda is clearly one of the most harmful products in the food supply, and it’s something government should discourage the consumption of,” Mr. Jacobson said.

Given that government is now seeking entry into the health care arena in a much bigger way than at present, and its stated goal is to make health care less costly, this fits supports the goal and gives the argument credibility that it wouldn’t otherwise enjoy. Note the phrase I’ve put in bold – it should send shivers down your spine. What sort of precedent would that set? And, what would be next?

Well, here you go:

Health advocates are floating other so-called sin tax proposals and food regulations as part of the government’s health-care overhaul. Mr. Jacobson also plans to propose Tuesday that the government sharply raise taxes on alcohol, move to largely eliminate artificial trans fat from food and move to reduce the sodium content in packaged and restaurant food.

And that’s the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The premise that it is the job of government to modify behavior through taxation (especially if it saves money) has obviously been swallowed whole.

Back to the original point about the myth of the tax cuts for 95% of Americans:

The beverage tax is just one of hundreds of ideas that lawmakers are weighing to finance the health-care plans. They’re expected to narrow the list in coming weeks.

But you can bet that the list won’t be too narrow – someone has got to pay for this. And, with mommy government deciding what you can and can’t eat, you might actually lose some weight. Not because you are necessarily eating healthy food, but because you can’t afford as much anymore. That’s because the one thing you can count on is your wallet will definitely lose weight as this “health care reform” abomination moves forward.

~McQ

This Is “Rich”

I‘m still amazed that many people who put their support behind Obama in the presidential election, are suddenly discovering things about him they don’t like.

Really? Now they discover Obama is a class warrior? It comes as no surprise for those of us who took the time to assess where he came from and what (little) he’d done.

Suddenly, the rich are concerned that the guy they backed may not be what they hoped he was (notice that’s the correct context in which “hope” should be used when “hope and change” is spoken):

Some of Barack Obama’s richest supporters fear they have elected a “class warrior” to the White House, who will turn America’s freewheeling capitalism into a more regulated European system

Ya think? What was your first clue – his remarks about “spreading the wealth” to Joe the Plumber or the thousands of other things he said which might imply such a tendency?

And as an aside, America’s capitalism is about as “freewheeling” as a modern waterslide is “death defying”.

Chris Edwards of the Cato Institute, a free enterprise think tank, said Democrats in Congress were unnerved by the president’s latest plan to raise $210 billion over 10 years from multinational corporations.

The money is needed to pay for a national debt that will double over the next five years; and triple over the next 10 years to $17.3 trillion. But the crackdown already faces fierce Democratic resistance.

“These big companies are based in New York Boston, Seattle and Silicon Valley, where Democrats dominate,” Mr Edwards said. “Obama’s tax plan is already cleaving him from his big corporate supporters,” he said.

The good news in this, of course, is that Congress has to pass the legislation that enables this, and per Edwards, they’re getting cold feet. The reason is also obvious – any “cleaving” of Obama from “big corporate sponsors” also means the rest of the Democrats suffer the same fate.

The level of taxation necessary to pay for the profligate spending now taking place will have to be massive as anyone with a 5th grade education understands. But the Dems also understand that any taxation that takes place must be other than income taxes because it is important to maintain the mirage that “95% of all Americans” are getting tax cuts. That leaves “the rich”, corporations and smoke and mirrors.

The rich have been identified ($250k or more), corporations are on the block with much higher taxation in the offing. So the investor class and the engine of the economy are under assault. The smoke and mirrors show? Wait until health care and cap and tax trade hit. 100% of Americans will be paying large sums for both.

But back to the point – the deeper we get into the Obama administration, the more we come to understand how gullible a good portion of the American public appears to be. There is a certain level of satisfaction with the buyer’s remorse being seen among many of his supporters as they see what their vote has actually bought. I sure hope they don’t shop for other important items as badly as they apparently shop for presidents.

~McQ

About Your Illegal Yard Sale

One of the things I try to consistently feature here at QandO is the depth of intrusion of the federal government into our daily lives. Talk about “mission creep”. There’s little that we do any more that doesn’t seem to involve the government looking over our shoulder and I, frankly, don’t welcome that sort of monitoring or intrusion.

The latest? The Consumer Product Safety Commission has issued a 28 page pamphlet which outlines the result of a recent law (Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act) and its impact.

So if you’re planning on selling your kids old books (or anything else that a kid under 12 might use) and they haven’t been “tested” first, you’re liable to a $100,000 fine. Now I know you’re reading this and saying, “no way. Our government would be that intrusive”.

I guess the best way to counter that is with the CPSC’s own words:

This handbook will help sellers of used products identify types of potentially hazardous products that could harm children or others. CPSC’s laws and regulations apply to anyone who sells or distributes consumer products. This includes thrift stores, consignment stores, charities, and individuals holding yard sales and flea markets.

The next line of defense for those who support this level of intrusion, once that level of intrusion has been exposed in the government’s own words, is “well, how would they enforce it”?

It’s not a bad argument (the answer is selectively), but it misses the real point.

Obviously, it’s unlikely the CPSA goons are going to bust up your yard sale. But putting out a detailed booklet that reserves the right to do so is hardly encouraging about where the implementation of this legislation is heading.

It is about precedent. And, it’s about acceptance. When both are established, it doesn’t require much in the way of the imagination to realize that like any entity which seeks to increase its power, government will soon attempt to stretch the envelope just a little further (further precedent/acceptance).

Wash, rinse, repeat.

~McQ