Questions and Observations

Free Markets, Free People

Short-sighted Partisan Politics Makes For Bad Decisions

And nothing could make that point better than this:

Defense Secretary Robert Gates isn’t ruling out spending more on missile defense than what he’s asked for in next year’s budget if North Korea or other nations increase threats against the United States.

Gates said the missile tests by North Korea over the past week appear to have attracted more support on Capitol Hill for missile interceptors.

Candidate Obama was pretty darn sure that these interceptors just weren’t needed because, you know, they just weren’t! Russia isn’t our enemy anymore and we get along fine with China – where’s the threat?!

Well during the entire lead up to the 2008 presidential campaign, North Korea and Iran were flinging missiles around right and left each, seemingly, with longer ranges and larger carrying capacity.

Ignored. In fact, as I recall, Obama dismissed Iran as not much of a threat at all. Something about Iran being a ‘tiny’ country that ‘doesn’t pose a serious threat.’ Certainly not one that required a missile defense.

Politics. All politics. Nothing based in reality, but instead dismissive rhetorical hand-waves designed to please the base. And those who controlled Congress picked up on the tune and danced to it.

Now, suddenly, by doing almost exactly the same thing they’ve done for some years, North Korea has managed to resurrect the need for a missile defense?

Why now?

Well that’s easy. Now they’re governing, suddenly not having an armed missile land on friendly territory during their watch is a priority.

Politics. The only real reason they opposed it previously is because the other side wanted it.

Of course, if questioned about why this is different than when NoKo and Iran did this sort of thing the last few times, I’m sure they’d find a way to spin it that they think wouldn’t make them seem so short-sighted, petty and partisan (read the article, there’s plenty of spin included).

That won’t change the fact one bit that they were indeed short-sighted, petty and partisan.

~McQ

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Obama’s Cairo Speech

Yes, I’ve read it. As with most of Obama’s speeches, it is a good speech and as with most of his speeches, hits all the right notes and says all the right things. What it all means, however, remains to be seen. One of the things I’ve learned so far with Barack Obama is not to take what he says too seriously as he is prone to ignore his own words or change his mind.

I also wonder if it will be considered a goodwill speech or a lecture by many. I know Israel isn’t going to be particularly happy about portions of it.

I compliment him for addressing some rather controversial issues (and this is where my thoughts about “lecturing” come from) such as women’s rights, religious freedom and democracy. None of the problems he addresses will change because of his speech nor is what he said new or original. He also spoke about Jews and quoted the Torah in Egypt which I found rather interesting.

Terrorism? The word was never mentioned. The closest he gets is talking about “extremists”. While he addressed some controversial issues, he avoided this one altogether.

And, unfortunately, he validated an Al Qaeda talking point about torture by claiming “I have unequivocally prohibited the use of torture”. While he may feel that his point is important and the truth, it is a rookie mistake to hand enemies validation like this. He also tried to have it both ways with Iraq, claiming we’re better off without Saddam but essentially condemning the action that made that possible. Again, he probably thought that was an important point, but all it does is validate the other side’s talking (and recruiting) points.

Obama claims this speech establishes a framework for a new era of cooperation with the Islamic world. And, of course, that mostly has the US doing the giving and the “Islamic world” doing the taking. What that means, in real terms, about establishing a new era of cooperation with the nations of Islam, remains to be seen. But given what was outlined, it seems to pretty much be business as usual wrapped up in an eloquent rhetorical wrapper marked “new and improved”.

Anyway, just a few thoughts. You should take the time to read the speech. But, as I implied earlier, Obama is outstanding at talking the talk. Walking the walk, on the other hand, hasn’t yet proven to be his strong suit.

~McQ

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“Health Care Reform” Update (Updated)

A few new developments, none of them good.

One – Obama has indicated his willingness to entertain legislation that would tax your private health care benefits. What that means is you’ll be taxed on the money your employer spends on your health care insurance. Of course the obvious immediate effect would be to raise revenue to pay for the public portion of his health care plan.

Two – Obama has decided that making insurance mandatory may not be such a bad idea. This is 180 degree change from candidate Obama who attempted to hide his statist tendencies by pretending that he wouldn’t require mandatory insurance for Americans.

Threein a letter to Democratic senators:

He told Democratic Sens. Edward Kennedy (Mass.) and Max Baucus (Mont.) that their legislation must include a government-run insurance option that would compete against the private sector. He also reaffirmed his support for a Massachusetts-style insurance exchange.

What do you suppose will happen if government-run insurance is an option for all? Depending on how it is structured (if, for instance, if it is a universal pool), we could see massive dumping of private insurance by businesses pointing their employees to the government option.

Four:

[I]mbuing a federal panel with the power to make Medicare payment recommendations that Congress must either accept or reject in their entirety.

Obama likens this proposal, based on the current Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, to the way military base closure decisions are made. To Republicans, however, the notion smacks of the kind of “rationing” dictated by government-run healthcare programs in Europe and Canada.

Ezra Klein explains the “federal panel’s” proposed role:

The health system changes too quickly for Congress to address through massive, infrequent, efforts at total reform. New technologies and new care structures create new problems. A health care reform package signed in 2009 might miss some real deficiencies, or real opportunities, that present themselves in 2012. A health reform process that recognizes that fact is a health reform process that is continual, rather than episodic.

But the reason health reform is so infrequent is that it’s structurally difficult. Small tweaks are too technically complex for Congress to easily conduct and so are dominated by lobbyists. Large reforms attract broad interest but are impeded by polarization and the threat of the filibuster. The MedPAC changes under discussion are, in other words, nothing less than a new process for health care cost reforms. They empower experts who won’t be intimidated by the intricacy of the issues and sidestep the filibuster’s ability to halt change in its tracks.

In other words health care decisions that will directly effect you will be in the hands of an unelected and unaccountable panel of bureaucrats just as all the critics of this sort have program have been claiming since the beginning of the debate.

The effect?

MedPAC, of course, is restricted to Medicare. But there’s little doubt that where Medicare leads, the health care industry follows. Private insurers frequently set their prices in relation to Medicare’s payment rates. Hospitals are sufficiently dependent on Medicare that a reform instituted by the entitlement program becomes a de facto change for the whole institution, and thus all patients. A process that empowers Medicare to aggressively and fluidly reform itself would end up dramatically changing the face of American health care in general.

Klein is exactly right, but most likely not for the reasons he thinks he is. The level of care, innovation and incentive will follow the decline in prices driven by MedPAC. What the nation needs is insurance reform, not “health care reform”. And while that is how the proponents of this try to spin the issue as just that, MedPAC’s existence and proposed expanded role argues persuasively against that spin.

Watch carefully – the Democrats are going to try to move this quickly and with little debate.

UPDATE: Apparently the letter from Obama I spoke about above also had another effect:

President Obama’s letter to Senate lawmakers yesterday saying a healthcare package must include a public option may have stalled progress on a bipartisan deal, Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said Thursday.

Gregg said that the president’s letter, which said a public option should be included in the legislation, stalled “significant progress” in negotiations.

“We were making great progress up until yesterday, in my opinion,” Gregg said during an interview on CNBC. “There’s a working group under Sen. Baucus that involves senior Republican and Senate senior members who are involved in the healthcare debate, and we were, I thought, making some fairly significant progress.”

The most discouraging thing about this update is the fact that Republicans, who are claiming government is too big and we’re spending too much are knee deep in negotiating more government and more spending (i.e. selling out – again) having apparently swallowed the Democratic premise that this is necessary whole.

~McQ

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Tiananmen Square 20 Years After

China, despite its economic progress, remains a rigidly totalitarian state that certainly doesn’t wish to be reminded of the pro-democracy rallies 20 years ago, or the bloody government crackdown that ended them:

China blanketed Tiananmen Square with police officers Thursday, determined to prevent any commemoration of the 20th anniversary of a military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters that left hundreds dead.

The government reacted angrily to a mention of the anniversary by Sec. State Hillary Clinton:

“The U.S. action makes groundless accusations against the Chinese government. We express strong dissatisfaction,” a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, told reporters at a regular briefing.

“The party and government have already come to a conclusion on the relevant issue,” he said. “History has shown that the party and government have put China on the proper socialist path that serves the fundamental interests of the Chinese people.”

And to ensure that the people of China have few venues in which to discuss this anniversary, the “fundmental interests of the Chinese people” are being “served” by blocking various internet sites:

Access was blocked to popular Internet services like Twitter, as well as to many university message boards. The home pages of a mini-blogging site and a video-sharing site warned users they would be closed through Saturday for “technical maintenance.

Known activists and dissidents are under close supervision:

One government notice about the need to seek out potential troublemakers apparently slipped onto the Internet by mistake, remaining just long enough to be reported by Agence France-Presse. “Village cadres must visit main persons of interest and place them under thought supervision and control,” read the order to Guishan township, about 870 miles from Beijing.

In a report released Thursday, the rights group Chinese Human Rights Defenders said 65 activists in nine provinces have been subjected to official harassment to keep them from commemorating the anniversary.

Ten have been taken into police custody since late May, the group said. Dozens of others, mostly from Beijing, are either under police guard or have been forced to leave their homes, according to the report.

The mass media has, as expected, cooperated with the state as well:

There was no mention of the day’s significance in Thursday’s Beijing newspapers. The state-run mass-circulation China Daily led with a story about job growth signaling China’s economic recovery.

An interesting counterpoint to the claims that China has become more democratic over the years, and is actually doing a much better job with human rights than it has in the past. The fear of a simple remembrance of government brutality 20 years ago says that’s not at all true. And the government’s concerted effort to wipe that memory away prove it.

~McQ

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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