Free Markets, Free People

Monthly Archives: June 2009


Quote of the Day

Guess who is outdoing the avowed Socialists? And they’re jealous:

“Hey, Obama has just nationalized nothing more and nothing less than General Motors. Comrade Obama!” [Hugo] Chavez cheered on Venezuelan TV Tuesday. He gushingly added that he and Cuba’s Fidel Castro would now have to work harder just to keep up.

A real point of pride, huh?

~McQ


Policy Maker or Neutral Legal Umpire?

Which of those descriptions in the title would best describe your understanding of a Supreme Court Justice?

If you wonder what President Obama wants in a Supreme Court Justice, take a look at this excerpt from his speech explaining why he couldn’t vote for Justice Roberts.

He’s describing that 95% of the cases before the court will find all justices coming to the same conclusions. However, it is the 5% that concerned Obama and determined his inability to vote for Roberts. Here’s what he said:

In those cases, adherence to precedent and rules of construction and interpretation will only get you through the 25th mile of the marathon. That last mile can only be determined on the basis of one’s deepest values, one’s core concerns, one’s broader perspectives on how the world works, and the depth and breadth of one’s empathy.

In those 5% of hard cases, the constitutional text will not be directly on point. The language of the statute will not be perfectly clear. Legal process alone will not lead you to a rule of decision. In those circumstances, your decisions about whether affirmative action is an appropriate response to the history of discrimination in this country, or whether a general right of privacy encompasses a more specific right of women to control their reproductive decisions, or whether the Commerce Clause empowers Congress to speak on those issues of broad national concern that may be only tangentially related to what is easily defined as interstate commerce, whether a person who is disabled has the right to be accommodated so they can work alongside those who are nondisabled — in those difficult cases, the critical ingredient is supplied by what is in the judge’s heart.

“Empathy” and “heart” do not equal “rule of law”.

Thomas Sowell distills the essence of the argument against Obama’s assertion:

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said that he “loathed” many of the people in whose favor he voted on the Supreme Court. Obviously, he had feelings. But he also had the good sense and integrity to rule on the basis of the law, not his feelings.

Laws are made for the benefit of the citizens, not for the self-indulgences of judges. Making excuses for such self-indulgences and calling them “inevitable” is part of the cleverness that has eroded the rule of law and undermined respect for the law.

[...]

It would be considered a disgrace if an umpire in a baseball game let his “empathy” determine whether a pitch was called a ball or strike. Surely we should accept nothing less from a judge.

And that is reason enough why all of his nominees should be subjected to rigorous examination that requires them to explain their judicial philosophies in light of the president’s stated desires.

~McQ


Quote of the Day

Trying way too hard to be something we’re not:

In an interview with Laura Haim on Canal Plus, a French television station, Mr. Obama noted that the United States also could be considered as “one of the largest Muslim countries in the world.”

Uh, no.

4.5 million US muslims equal about 1.5% (the CIA Factbook lists muslims at 0.6% or about 1.8 million).

And if you thought he was talking about land mass, think again:

“And one of the points I want to make is, is that if you actually took the number of Muslim Americans, we’d be one of the largest Muslim countries in the world,” Mr. Obama said.

Not even close – Iraq, 26 million. Afghanistan – 23 million. Yemen – 23 million. Indonesia – over 200 million. Even the UAE has a few more muslims than we do (4.7 million).

What is this seeming compulsion to make things up like this when it comes to things “muslim”?

~McQ


There Is A Solution

Although many people don’t want to hear it.

Arnold Schwarzenegger on the situation in California:

“People come up to me all the time, pleading ‘governor, please don’t cut my program,’” he said. “They tell me how the cuts will affect them and their loved ones. I see the pain in their eyes and hear the fear in their voice. It’s an awful feeling. But we have no choice.

“Our wallet is empty. Our bank is closed. Our credit is dried up.”

Then. Cut. Spending.

For real this time.

~McQ


Japanese “Lost Decade” Redux

It certainly seems like it. Reason magazine finds the current way the US is addressing the economic crises to be pretty familiar:

The scenario was eerily familiar. A long real estate bubble that had expanded extra rapidly for the previous five years suddenly burst, and asset prices came crashing back down to earth. Banks and financial institutions were left holding piles of worthless paper, and the economy soon headed south. The national government responded to the crisis by encouraging more lending and spending previously unfathomable amounts of money on public works projects in an effort to stimulate consumer spending and restart growth.

Of course that’s where we are now and what that led too in Japan has come to be known as the “lost decade” (now three decades old).

One of the things we’ve pointed out is there is an element within this model that both Japan and now the US has used that is focused on “pain avoidance” (GM and Chrysler are prefect examples of that). Part of that is driven by the belief by those in power that the government can address problems within markets and lessen the impact. The second part of that, of course, is by convincing the public that’s the case, they then have to try to do what they claim they can do. But the law of unintended consequences has a bad habit of pushing its way into such situations and turning them sour:

The Japanese experience shows that when the government is an active participant in the market, many firms would rather accept state support than initiate the inevitable financial reckoning. Such a status quo does not provide a sustainable foundation for the economy. Instead, it restricts economic growth and creates a cycle of stagnation.

A friend, talking about the recession and eventual recovery, said that we’ll come out of it “okay” because “Americans are neurotically productive”. True. But so are the Japanese. While we have a fantastic workforce which is among the most productive in the world, even they won’t be able to overcome restricted economic growth caused by the government’s deep intrusion into various markets.

Comparing Japan’s reaction to the US reaction in similar circumstances is instructive:

When a recession began to set in after the 1990 stock market crash, Japan responded by reversing its tight money policy, cutting rates to 4.5 percent in 1991, 3.25 percent in 1992, 1.75 percent from 1993 to 1994, 0.5 percent from 1995 to 2000, and as low as 0.1 percent in September 2001.

A similar pattern took place in the United States. From 2000 to 2002, the Federal Reserve slashed the target discount rate from 6 percent to 0.75 percent. Fearing irrational exuberance, to borrow Alan Greenspan’s famous phrase, the Fed then raised the rate as high as 6.25 percent in June 2006. But now that the bubble has burst and the economy contracted, the Fed has cut the discount rate 12 times, lowering it to the current 0.5 percent. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has repeatedly stated that he sees interest rate cuts as a way to “support growth and to provide adequate insurance against downside risks.”

In both the Japanese and the American cases, post-bubble policy makers believed that lowering interest rates would make credit easier to obtain, thus recreating the environment that had spurred economic growth to begin with. But this meant that the supposed cure for a bubble created by easy credit was to extend even more easy credit.

These rate cuts only perpetuated the distortion of economic decisions and prevented savings, investment, and consumption from realigning with true preferences, as opposed to the illusory ones created by easy credit and artificially low interest rates. The lesson is that when monetary policy is used to “smooth” or “tweak” the market, it inevitably causes unintended consequences that in some cases can be very damaging to long-term economic growth.

Of course it is hard to say what future growth might be had the US government not done what it has done. But again, using Japan of that era vs. the US of that era, the difference is between 1.3% growth on average vs. 3.5% growth here. In economic terms that is a huge difference.

Reason also does a nice job of dismantling the “failure of regulation” argument. As they point out, what must be examined is how the regulatory environment then in place spawned the crisis vs. the claim that not enough regulation was in place.

For instance, government housing policy of the era:

The push to expand homeownership had two big effects. First, it greatly increased the number of buyers, driving up housing prices. Second, it provided mortgages to a large number of people who had a high risk of default.

That policy was further enabled by the capital reserve requirements which, in effect, encouraged heavy lending and an insensitivity to risk. Instead of admitting that and understanding that such policies are dangerous, the reaction has mostly been to ignore that and shift the blame to the private sector with calls for “more regulation”.

And then, going back to the “pain avoidance” point (justified as “too big to fail” by the government), what has happened is, as in the case of GM and Chrysler before the bankruptcies, government propping up failed businesses:

The Bank of Japan tried to ease economic pain by loaning large amounts to businesses. But the attempts to recapitalize the market ignored underlying management problems in the dying firms. It was a costly mistake. Intense lobbying from special-interest groups representing various sectors of the Japanese economy perpetuated the ill-fated loans and funneled government money to zombie businesses.

The United States has already begun to copy this policy, lending billions of dollars to financial institutions and auto companies and buying up billions more in bank equity in an effort to recapitalize the marketplace. The effect has been to keep poorly managed firms alive with taxpayer money.

Had they been allowed to fail and go through the reorganization process, those problems would have at least been addressed. They haven’t, at this point, in most of the financial sector and in the auto sector, it remains to be seen.

Of course the government’s deep involvement in these sectors and businesses sets up a natural conflict of interests. While a business is market oriented, and takes signals from consumers, governments are agenda driven and politically oriented. And it then comes down to a matter of incentives. In the first case the incentive of a business is to serve its consumer base. But that’s not the case with politicians necessarily, is it?

Lawmakers’ incentives are to serve their constituencies or their own political careers. This can put them at odds with the businesses they are suddenly attempting to manage. The more the government is involved in directing business activity, the less likely those firms will succeed in maintaining long-term growth, and the more likely they will turn into Japanese-style zombies.

While we’d like to believe that lawmaker’s constituencies consist of the people in their state or district, in reality they consist of special interests who help keep them in office. The ability to deliver to those special interests and keep their support and dollars flowing is just to much to resist for most.

Additionally:

Studies from Okimoto’s center and the Bank of Japan concluded that data revealing the scope of the economic malaise were suppressed and that regulations were developed with governmental interests in mind.

Given how the discussion has been driven here by the likes of Barney Frank and Chris Dodd, there’s little doubt that regulations will be “developed with governmental interests in mind”.

In reality it all comes down to power, or the illusion of power, and politics. Short-term politics with no real eye on the future impact of actions taken today. And these actions are based in a false premise that the market is not self-correcting and that it must be both controlled and tweaked by government.

Japan bought into that premise, and so has the US:

The principle of creative destruction—the economic mutation that continuously breaks down old forms and creates newer, more productive and efficient ones—was ignored in the hope that legacy corporations could somehow save Japan. From Wall Street to Detroit, under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the American government has been equally unwilling to let once-formidable companies fail.

And that, in my opinion, will see us repeat the Japanese experience, despite the small glimmers of hope we’ve been seeing in the reports in recent days. This isn’t about short term increases in home sales and construction spending. This is about the long term economic health of our economy.

Unsurprisingly, I’m not seeing moves by the government that work toward the most positive outcome in that regard.

~McQ


Domestic Terrorism?

Picking up on Bryan’s excellent post yesterday, we now have two examples of what could be classified as “domestic terrorism”.

We have the Tiller case in Kansas where a doctor that offered late term abortions was murdered at his church while acting as an usher.

And we have the murder of a soldier and the wounding of another by a “muslim convert” who “was opposed to the US military” in Arkansas.

Each perpetrator appears to have been “a lone wolf”, i.e. someone who may have acted out of some sort of belief, but was otherwise unaffiliated with any group or movement which could be identified as a terror or pressure group.

If that’s the case, would you see each of these cases as “domestic terror” cases – i.e. do they fulfill the definition Bryan used, “the pursuit of political goals through the use of violence against noncombatants in order to dissuade them from doing what they have a lawful right to do”?

If so, what do you think the “political goals” of each given they were, or appear to be “lone wolves” (or was this simply a “crime of conscience” most likely rationalized by a rather sick mind) and do you think their acts were actually intended to dissuade others from doing what they have a lawful right to do?

And, given the new tendency toward attempting to classify crimes in this manner – were each of them “hate crimes”?

~McQ


I Don’t Think That Means What He Thinks It Means

Dan Neil, an LA Times entertainment writer, takes this lesson from the GM bankruptcy:

The final chapter of that merger plays out this week as GM weathers a reorganization that will leave the federal government owning 70% of the company. In the midst of the deepest recession since the 1930s, it’s hard not to see GM’s bankruptcy as a signal moment in a larger history. If mighty GM can fail, cannot also the United States? And the answer is, absolutely.

This is the lesson of GM’s bankruptcy, and it has little to do with market share and miles per gallon. It’s a rebuff of the notion of exceptionalism. Any organization that fails to sufficiently safeguard its means of self-correction and reform, that forsakes long-term investment for short-term gain, that piles up debt year after year, will eventually fail, no matter how grand its history or noble its purpose. If you don’t feel the tingle of national mortality in all this, you’re not paying attention.

While I essentially agree with the thrust of his point, I don’t think the term “exceptionalism” as it is used when speaking of America, has anything to do with flouting the laws of economics. They are called “laws” for a reason, and no one has yet to find an “exception” to them. We have, however, discovered over and over again that attempts to make exceptions to them fail miserably.

The exceptionalism most speak of when they use the term in conjunction with America has to do with law, ethics and philosophy of life – the foundations of the country that make it exceptional. But economics? Of course we can “fail” if we do the stupid things we’re doing. And, unfortunately, we seem bound and determined right now to prove that point. But that has nothing to do with our “exceptionalism”.

~McQ


Feldstein: Cap-and-Trade A “Bad Idea”

Martin Feldstein, a professor of economics at Harvard University, president emeritus of the nonprofit National Bureau of Economic Research, and former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers from 1982 to 1984 has concluded that the Waxman/Markey cap-and-trade legislation is a bad idea. He comes to that conclusion for a number of reasons.

First, his understanding of the legislation and its economic impact:

The leading legislative proposal, the Waxman-Markey bill that was recently passed out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, would reduce allowable CO2 emissions to 83 percent of the 2005 level by 2020, then gradually decrease the amount further. Under the cap-and-trade system, the federal government would limit the total volume of CO2 that U.S. companies can emit each year and would issue permits that companies would be required to have for each ton of CO2 emitted. Once issued, these permits would be tradable and could be bought and sold, establishing a market price reflecting the targeted CO2 reduction, with a tougher CO2 standard and fewer available permits leading to higher prices.

Companies would buy permits from each other as long as it is cheaper to do that than to make the technological changes needed to eliminate an equivalent amount of CO2 emissions. Companies would also pass along the cost of the permits in their prices, pushing up the relative price of CO2-intensive goods and services such as gasoline, electricity and a range of industrial products. Consumers would respond by cutting back on consumption of CO2-intensive products in favor of other goods and services. This pass-through of the permit cost in higher consumer prices is the primary way the cap-and-trade system would reduce the production of CO2 in the United States.

Note that he doesn’t play any games when talking about where the cost of such permits will end up – passed through to consumers. He prefers the CBO’s lower estimate of the impact per family of about $1,600 per “typical” family to some of the higher estimates in the $3,000 t0 $4,000. But they’re all estimates and they all say, even at the low end, that the impact is going to be significant.

Feldstein then looks at the possible payoff and challenges Americans to ask a very pertinent question. He also calls the plan exactly what it is – a tax:

Americans should ask themselves whether this annual tax of $1,600-plus per family is justified by the very small resulting decline in global CO2. Since the U.S. share of global CO2 production is now less than 25 percent (and is projected to decline as China and other developing nations grow), a 15 percent fall in U.S. CO2 output would lower global CO2 output by less than 4 percent. Its impact on global warming would be virtually unnoticeable.

But its impact on the American economy? Well, you don’t have to be a Harvard economist to figure that out. And a quick glance at Europe and how quickly most of the countries there figured out a way to ignore Kyoto should tell you the rest of the story.

Feldstein may or may not believe the theory that says CO2 is a pollutant and the cause of “global climate change”. But what is clear is he certainly doesn’t believe our seeming desire to strap ourselves economically without the big emitters (China and India) doing the same is a) worth it economically and b) make a bit of difference in real terms.  Doing it without those two and all others included is about as smart as committing to unilateral nuclear disarmarment.

Feldstein goes on to attack the pending cap-and-trade legislation for other reasons as well – mostly on a revenue and impact basis (and how revenue can soften the impact – yeah, subsidy – at the “payee” end – i.e. consumers.  Of course, only a certain class of consumers would most likely be eligable and it will be up to the more well-to-do to pay their “fair share”).  But the two big points of his criticism are the most important in my thinking.

1. It will, regardless of how it is structured, have a negative economic impact on every American household and thus our economy.

2. It won’t make a bit of real difference unless everyone is involved in such reductions.  Exclusion of the big emitters makes our “economic sacrifice” literally worthless in terms of the supposed overall goal of cutting CO2 worldwide.

Because of those two points alone, we should demand that such legislation be voted down.  I think the focus on CO2 is a load of unscientific nonsense, but politically that has no legs at this time.  But what does have legs is the argument summed up in those two points and opponents of cap-and-trade should use them (and Feldstein’s name) to make the argument against the pending legislation.

~McQ


The Threshold for Political Violence

Here’s a question for readers of all political stripes:

How big would a moral outrage have to be before you turned to violence?

Imagine that you live in a place in which what you perceive as a grave moral injustice–specifically violence against innocents–is enshrined in law.  You may perceive your opponents as anywhere from mean-spirited to perfectly well-meaning, but either way they are determined to continue, and your prospects for overturning this outrage through the normal legal process any time soon are scarce or nil.  In the meantime, you believe something horrific is happening on a massive scale.

For our purposes, try to think of different governments — direct democracy, representative democracy, oligarchy, monarchy, whatever.

At what point do you decide to act against law, by an alternative code?  And specifically, I mean turning to violence: threats, destruction of property, assault, assassination, even terrorism* and revolution.

What prevents you from acting violently up to that point?

  • The high personal cost?
  • The low probability of success?
  • The fear that things will turn out worse than simply allowing the grave injustice to continue?
  • Simple aversion to personally engaging in violence, despite your belief that the status quo is violence under color of law?

I’m trying to get at what flips a switch in someone to get them to turn to political violence.  Can you imagine a situation in which you would turn to such violence?

I suppose this turned into more of a thought experiment than a question.  But your input is welcome.

___________________

* I prefer Philip Bobbitt’s definition of terrorism in Terror and Consent as “the pursuit of political goals through the use of violence against noncombatants in order to dissuade them from doing what they have a lawful right to do,” so remember, you oppose these noncombatants for supporting laws.

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