Archive for September, 2009

I Almost Want to Read This


So Ralph Nader wrote a book.  A book about Warren Buffett and Yoko Ono and Phil Donahue and George Soros and a Parrot.  And it’s a novel.  Color me fascinated.

From the Journal’s review of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us:

In Mr. Nader’s tale, billionaire investor Warren Buffett is so dismayed by the ineffectual and chaotic government reaction to Hurricane Katrina that he hatches a plan to “redirect” American society. He summons a brace of moguls—Ted Turner, Barry Diller, Ross Perot and George Soros, among others—to a secret Maui location, along with such celebrities as Bill Cosby, Yoko Ono and Warren Beatty. As they confer together, they find that they all—surprise! —agree that Something Must Be Done.

The news media soon dub this cabal, in one of Mr. Nader’s typically tin-eared phrases, “the Meliorists.” The “something” that they all agree must be done involves, naturally, increasing regulation, raising taxes and punishing heartless multinational corporations. It’s easy, apparently, once you’ve made a billion dollars in international business and finance, to denounce international business and finance.

But the Meliorists realize that before any real reform can take place they must first win over America. They have to wake up the country. And that process fills the first 200 pages—out of a total of 700 (I mentioned that, right?)—of this very long, very odd, very Nader book.

Here, for instance, is an actual passage from “Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!”: “As promised, Ted Turner and Phil Donahue had put their heads together to brainstorm about a mascot for the group’s efforts. Ted’s thoughts naturally ran along avian lines, and it wasn’t long before they hit on the idea of a parrot. . . . Patriotic Polly hit the airwaves in fifteen-second spots shown on thousands of stations, and it was an immediate smash.”

Remember the plot device in movies where someone proposes a hare-brained scheme and someone else says “that’s just crazy enough to work”?  Well this is like that… except crazier, and not workable.

My main issue is with the idea that American society can be “directed”. Recently, a Venezuelan government official argued that America was morally bankrupt because Family Guy aired an episode about Brian and Stewie smoking pot.

“We can observe how [the U.S. government] promotes and incites the population to consume that drug there,” said Tarek El Aissaimi, Venezuela’s Interior Minister. “There’s no subliminal message. It’s an animated cartoon where you can observe perfectly how they promote consumption and moreover they foster the legalization of marijuana.”

We all know that’s ridiculous.  “Directing” America is almost impossible.  You couldn’t even argue that Seth MacFarlane and the rest of the Family Guy staff are leaders on pot reform; they’re responding to a vigorous social movement to legalize the drug that is bigger than one person, or one tv show.

Our society, such as it is, is an incredibly diverse mixture of aims and ambitions, and its wonderful complexity and innovative nature is due to the fact that we don’t have ‘directors’ like Nader wants, and certainly wants to be.

So in summary, if I were on a desert island, I might have the time to plow through this screed, but in this life I won’t read it.  I have too much on my plate, directing my own life down another path.

(Side note: GIS for “scary clown” is pretty redundant.)

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There’s good news in the Journal this morning, as Senator Durbin expressed he might be willing to grant the D.C. voucher program a second life.

This is great news.  Durbin was the one who originally scheduled the program for cuts, despite it’s massive popularity and success.

Earlier this year, Mr. Durbin inserted language into a spending bill that phases out the program after 2010 unless Congress renews it and the D.C. Council approves. A Department of Education evaluation has since revealed that the mostly minority students are making measurable academic gains and narrowing the black-white learning gap. D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and a majority of the D.C. Council have expressed support for continuing the program.

That’s significantly underselling the support the program has in this town.   The program almost exclusively benefits lower-class urban students, rescuing them from schools that are among the worst in the country.  This program should be a shining light of education reform, and instead congress, with Arne Duncan and President Obama’s tacit approval, have been planning to cut it for a long time.

It’s frustrating to watch the administration, the congress, and D.C.’s own Mayor talk tough about education reform and turn around to kill the one good thing to happen to education in this city in ages.  Especially when the Obama’s and Mayor Fenty either send their children to private schools, or pull rank but won’t extend the same opportunity to those less privileged.  The political class motto as always, kiddies: do as I say, not as I do.

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Crushing New Jersey

Now I’m a fan of the Garden State, except for driving the entire turnpike North-South.   But that state has gone crazy, raising property taxes to the highest levels in the country, on average 77% between 2000 and 2008.  This is leading to an outflow of business and residents, shrinking the tax base, which leads legislators to raise taxes further to make up for the losses.

Eileen Norcross* at the excellent Neighborhood Effects blog breaks down the Gannett NJ Newspapers Group fine reporting on the state’s overwhelming tax burdens, as well as details of what you get for your money.

Yesterday’s analysis (Day 2) featured a series on one of the major drivers of property taxes: salaries for public sector workers.

Binding arbitration rules mean that unions negotiate their benefits and salaries through a seven-member commission in Trenton with the costs passed on to localities. (For background on the evolution of public sector negotiations in New Jersey from 1968 to today, read, “PERC After 40 Years.”)

Now,  thanks to what must have been a massive amount of data work for Gannett’s reporters, you can easily discover how much police officers, municipal workers, teachers, firemen, and judges are being paid in your town.

I’m looking forward to following this series for the next several days.  Who says investigative journalism is dead?

Eileen is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Institute at George Mason University, and recently published, along with Frederic Sautet, a new paper detailing the institutional drivers of New Jersey’s perpetual fiscal mess.  Highly recommended read.

*Full disclosure, I recently began working at Mercatus as a research associate for Eileen, focusing mainly on these issues in New Jersey, so it’s exciting to see the broader media get interested.

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The Time Paradox

Saw this over at the always excellent Marginal Revolution.  Ben Casnocha briefly outlines The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life by Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd.

I find this kind of framing psychology interesting, although hardly convincing.  If you read more deeply on the types, I think I fall clearly in either the present- or present-hedonistic oriented types.  If I were being charitable to myself, I’d say present but I could say hedonistic.

Not to be all narcissistic but thinking about the way we think is fascinating, if a bit meta.  Do you think about consequences?  Do they effect your actions?  Or are you more motivated by rewards?  Is one way better than the other?  What kind of coping mechanisms can you devise, and more interestingly, do those mechanisms re-frame the way we see the world, or in this context, time?

Until we get some hard science on whether such concepts are hardwired in our brains, or if they’re like updated software, it’s interesting to think about.

For more about time, including the most condensed insanity I’ve seen on the web, check out the Time Cube.  Also whoever writes the Time Cube wiki is funnier than anyone writing for Leno.

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The Journal has an interesting article on a new study that adds fuel to the education reform fire.   The study, which the journal calls the most comprehensive to date, found that:

New York charter applicants are more likely than the average New York family to be black, poor and living in homes with adults who possess fewer education credentials. But positive results already begin to emerge by the third grade: The average charter student is scoring 5.8 points higher than his lotteried-out peers in math and 5.3 points higher in English. In grades four through eight, the charter student jumps ahead by 5 more points each year in math and 3.6 points each year in English.

Charter students are also shrinking the learning gap between low-income minorities and more affluent whites. “On average,” the report concludes, “a student who attended a charter school for all of the grades kindergarten through eight would close about 86% of the ‘Scarsdale-Harlem achievement gap’ in math and 66% of the achievement gap in English.”

This shoots holes in the ridiculous argument that charter schools, and freedom in general, benefits only the rich.  I’ve heard that theory vehemently advanced by people whose intellect I otherwise respect, but it doesn’t make any sense at all.

The rich, the privileged, already have access to all kinds of opportunity.  That’s why they’re called “privileged”.  The poor, or the “disadvantaged” do not, almost by definition. Increasing the amount of choice or liberty in education doesn’t further disadvantage the disadvantaged.

True, this scheme probably does benefit the rich students as well, but the marginal impact on those already free to choose is significantly  less important than the drastic increases that accrue to the poor students.  Arguments to the contrary strike me as just petty vindictiveness directed at the upper crusts.  “You already have some choice, why should you get more?”

The real question is “why should we continue to prevent those without options from improving their lot?”

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Her animal identification skills are weak.

I suspect there had been private grumbling all along, but the media warhorses failed to speak out when they should have — from week one after the inauguration, when Obama went flat as a rug in letting Congress pass that obscenely bloated stimulus package. Had more Democrats protested, the administration would have felt less arrogantly emboldened to jam through a cap-and-trade bill whose costs have made it virtually impossible for an alarmed public to accept the gargantuan expenses of national healthcare reform. (Who is naive enough to believe that Obama’s plan would be deficit-neutral? Or that major cuts could be achieved without drastic rationing?)

Warhorses?  Sheep aren’t warhorses, no matter how loudly they bleat.  I wouldn’t be as partisan as she is however, there are plenty of animal-related slurs you could throw at Glenn Beck.  H/T Nick Stanbury.

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Public Choice in Action

Interesting story from the L.A. Times that details how much government intervention distorts not just the markets, but distorts lower-government budgets.   The tiny town of St. Helena in Napa Valley, home to Nancy Pelosi, spends more on lobbying for stimulus money than Philadelphia.

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Last night over drinks with a friend, we talked a little about the way people think, and the way thoughts and actions betray deeper truths about a person’s worldview.

We often talk about the liberal/conservative divide, or the republican/democrat divide, but those distinctions are only shorthand for much deeper intellectual gulfs.  What’s actually important are a persons view on concepts like trust, service, fellowship, achievement or egalitarianism.  How you view these concepts, and others like them, (coupled with a healthy dose of naked opportunism) will mostly control your political posture.

For example, think of the most extreme anti-Bush/anti-war protesters during the last administration.  The 9-11 Truthers (I refuse to provide links, and drive any traffic their way.  Instead, enjoy this video from The Onion).  Oooooh the Truthers.  Nuttier than squirrel droppings.  Their closest equivalent are the Birthers.  Oh the Birthers.

What both groups have in common, at the most fundamental level, is that for them, it is totally within the realm of possibility for people to act in the most evil, insane, depraved ways possible.  It’s more than plausible, it’s a certainty.  That unwavering conviction in the power and solicitude of evil terrifies me.  In their minds such actions have justifications.  That means in the future, they could justify similar actions to themselves.  The intellectual framework is in place, the actions can easily follow.  There’s that phrase “be the change you want to see in the world”; well both of these groups can see a world that I want no part of, filled with people affirmatively choosing the most damaging, evil choice conceivable.  We should all think that is reprehensible.

It depresses me when liberals claim to be both the party of the people, and make statements about how people generally ‘can’t be trusted’, or ‘will just chase money’ or other hogwash.

You can only make money two ways, earning and stealing.  We try our best to make theft, fraud and their related activities illegal, and we continue to always police for new ingenious ways of taking yours, and making it mine.

The other way to make money is by giving someone some good, product, or service that they want, that they use to enhance their life in some way.  Such voluntary activity is not only beneficial to overall social utility or efficiency, but it has an amazing moral benefit.  Such service creates and nurtures social bonds, encourages creativity and accountability, and encourages people to cooperate in thousands of little ways every day.

I defend markets and voluntary exchange because I think these are the values our society should be encouraging, not with words, but with actions.  The western liberal tradition isn’t about economics, it’s about the moral rights of the individual.  Economics merely provides a broadly empirical way to analyze the march of progress.

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I was recently talking with someone who claimed that we should not use vouchers for private schools because such schools have no accountability and teach children things that are very bad for society.

I found myself at a loss for words, and that is quite a rare occurrence!  Is it possible to argue with someone who has somehow completely missed all evidence, both raw data and anecdotes, which show the superior quality and outcomes of private schools?  Is it possible to argue with someone who does not understand or ignores the most basic conception of market discipline?  Is it possible to argue with someone who thinks that governments, insulated from profit and loss signals, somehow have better aligned incentives than private institutions?  Is it possible to argue with someone who thinks that governments have more or better knowledge to produce better outcomes than the knowledge contained in the market?  Is it possible to challenge the horrible intuition that parents are somehow not capable of being responsible for a choice in what institution their children should attend and what the curriculum should be?  Is it possible to argue with such a totalitarian sentiment?

Is it is possible to correct all these profoundly ignorant ideas, or at least keep the people who believe them from meaningfully influencing policymakers?

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Two links worth passing on today.  The first is the September 11th Television Archive, a collection of tv coverage of this morning eight years ago.  I haven’t looked into it too deeply, it’s painful to watch.  But I find it reassuring that this kind of factual record exists.  It’s important to be able to remember what happened, not what people think happened, to remember without the hyperbole and weight that eight years have attached to that day.  It’s a small window into a world that was, and what began to change it into the world we live in now.

And second is this tribute to the men and women who died, and to the country that created something so great that it was worth attacking.  Whatever anyone can say about John Stewart now, this has always struck me as coming right from his heart.

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