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Archive for November, 2009

So for a moment, think of government as just another business, as I often do.

What other business out there asks its customers how to perform its day to day operations? I can only imagine what would happen if grocery stores held periodic elections and referenda to decide what sellers to buy from and how many baggers to employ. We’d all starve.

The wonderful thing about markets is that via competition and prices, we tell the grocery store what we want, not how to give it to us. We provide businessmen with ends; the means are at the discretion of the most able. If you think you have a better handle on how to run a grocery store, go take out a loan and get rich.

What always bothers me, reading the editorials and the op-ed pages, is that it’s all backseat driving. Who’s to say who is right? It’s as crazy as if we had newspapers, television networks, and daily debates about whether or not Wal-Mart was running as well as it should, or implementing the optimal policies. It makes me think that maybe we don’t know as much as we think we do about what the government should or should not be doing. Maybe it is all a little less ideologically cut and dried. We can have an idea that some policies work and some don’t, but I think it’s all a bit hazier than we allow ourselves to believe.

This is not to even mention the sad fact that while we debate policy, the electorate usually holds multiple, conflicting opinions of what ends are desirable. “Social justice?” Prosperity? Equality? It further complicates policy problems that are by their nature unclear.

So here we have this dual problem: we can’t agree on what we want from government, and we certainly can’t agree on how it should be achieved.

However, this strange way of looking at politics actually yields a conclusion that readers of this blog will agree with. Imagine our car companies or banks were an arm of the government, and therefore run by popular vote, like my hypothetical grocery store. It doesn’t take a lot of thought to realize how inefficient that would be. It’s an intuitive reason for government to stay as far away from industry as possible. As voters, we have this unmanageable behemoth of an organization to run, collectively, for what purpose we’re unsure. We might as well keep that problem as isolated as possible, and allow markets to work where they can.

Paradoxically, this view takes the pressure off market-oriented arguments. Free marketeers don’t need to be so on edge in refuting market failure arguments. It’s a core tenet of Masonomics, actually: markets fail, but governments fail worse. (Forgive my use of “we;” I’m not using it in the moralist-collectivist fashion Kling describes.)

Well, at least the politicians haven’t gotten their hands into anything important yet, like finance, or healthcare…

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At least, that’s the initial promise.  I don’t think that’s likely at all.  A future legislature will re-up the funding, which means these “cost-cutting measures” won’t do anything of the kind.  Instead, they’ll give the President a short-term political boost, at the expense of a) constraining costs, b) caring for seniors on Medicare, or c) some terrible combination.

A plan to slash more than $500 billion from future Medicare spending — one of the biggest sources of funding for President Obama’s proposed overhaul of the nation’s health-care system — would sharply reduce benefits for some senior citizens and could jeopardize access to care for millions of others, according to a government evaluation released Saturday.

The report, requested by House Republicans, found that Medicare cuts contained in the health package approved by the House on Nov. 7 are likely to prove so costly to hospitals and nursing homes that they could stop taking Medicare altogether.

Congress could intervene to avoid such an outcome, but “so doing would likely result in significantly smaller actual savings” than is currently projected, according to the analysis by the chief actuary for the agency that administers Medicare and Medicaid. That would wipe out a big chunk of the financing for the health-care reform package, which is projected to cost $1.05 trillion over the next decade.

The full report will be available this afternoon.

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Dammit, New Hampshire

Via Hit and Run, Maine makes the news again and it’s not pleasant.

A Kensington man was found guilty of criminal threatening for holding an open pocket knife at his side while asking two people who were walking behind him at midnight, “Why are you following me?”The pair walking behind Dustin Almon, 28, of 27 Wild Rose Lane, were state Liquor Enforcement cops, both in plain clothes without any indicators that they were members of law enforcement, according to testimony during a Thursday Portsmouth District Court trial. Both were also carrying concealed handguns and Tasers, they testified.

One of them, Officer Anthony Cattabriga, said he was walking behind Almon on Chapel Street on Nov. 8, 2008, when Almon turned around three times to look at him and a new officer he was training. It was dark and Almon was twenty feet away when he displayed a knife with a two-inch blade the third time he turned around, said Cattabriga.

“He pointed it down by his side,” the liquor officer testified, while demonstrating with Almon’s seized pocket knife.

When he responded by yelling “police,” Almon folded the knife, clipped it to his belt and complied with all subsequent police orders, Cattabriga testified.

Almon was initially arrested on a charge of disorderly conduct, but the charge was later upgraded to criminal threatening with a dangerous weapon.

“I feared for my safety,” Cattabriga said from a District Court witness stand.

Possible takeaways:

1) Maine liquor officers are either liars or nancys.

2) Two people quietly following you on a dark street is no cause for concern, citizen.

3) Without looking at the specific law(s) involved a legal note.  Most ‘fear of bodily harm’ statutes have both a reasonableness component and self-defense exemption.   The person who fears harm must have a tenuously reasonable basis for that fear, which doesn’t seem to be the case here.  Additionally, Mr. Almon’s fear/suspicion seems reasonable enough to invoke a self-defense claim, especially given his reasonable and orderly actions following the officer identification.

4) Based on #3, the judge screwed up.

5) This S is Effed up.

Update: Fixed the confusion between Maine and New Hampshire in the original.

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Good Journalism

Not really.  Excellent.  Moving and insightful.  Great.  Sometimes adjectives fail.  Read this for yourselves.  British journalist Johan Hari delves into the world of former British jihadi’s, in an effort to understand how one comes to bomb their own country.

But Usama was offered a scholarship to the heart of the English elite – the City of London Boys’ School, where he could practice cricket at Lord’s. He bonded with the Jews at the school as outsiders and supporters of Tottenham Hotspur football team. He still speaks like the public schoolboy he was – in long, confident sentences.

Some berobed men are staring at us, so he takes me down to the mosque’s office. “At that time, being a Muslim meant being an Islamist. It was taken for granted,” he says. So when he was 13, he joined an Islamic fundamentalist organisation called Jimas. At big sociable conferences every weekend, they were told: you don’t feel at home in Britain, but you can’t go “home” to a country you have never visited. So we have a third identity for you – a pan-national Islamism that knows no boundaries and can envelop you entirely.

It sounds familiar. This is the identity I hear shouted by young Islamists throughout the East End: I might sound like you, but I am nothing like you. I am Other. I belong elsewhere – in a place that does not yet exist, but that I will create, with my fists and my fury.

Jimas told their members they were part of a persecuted billion, being blown up and locked down across the world. “It was a bit like a gang,” he says. “And we had a strong sense of being under siege. It was all a conspiracy against Islam, and we were the guardians of Islam. That’s how we saw ourselves … A lot of my friends would wear the army boots, and carry knives.” I realise now that for a nebbish intellectual boy, it must have felt intoxicating to be told he was part of a military movement that would inevitably conquer history.

It’s a long read, but I promise it’s worth it.

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Monday Linkfest

Would you like President Palin overseeing a national health care plan?  Excuse me, it just got terrifying in here.

Don Boudreaux takes Krugman to task on his recent sloppy unemployment column.

Robin Hanson notes that Idiocracy is becoming real.  Ugrayedd will be pleased.

Bill Clinton, ladies and gentleman.

Peter Suderman had the guts to go through what I won’t.

Trust politicians, and be disappointed.

Kentucky tries to work around the Commerce Clause.

Finally, enjoy some coffee while checking out these amazing 3D fractals.  If realism is more your style, how about these olde tyme panoramic shots?

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Reading List

The things I’ve been reading and enjoying lately, and why you might too.

The Book of BasketballBill Simmons is one of my favorite writers, although he does suffer from a little bit of Paglia-itis.  But this was a fascinating, if deeply personal, history of the NBA.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, although I had to take breaks to get out of Bill’s head from time to time.

The Bourgeois Virtues – Dierdre McCloskey.  An interesting look at the philosophical underpinnings of a commercial society.  I’ll have a full review after I finish it, but anyone interested in the comparative points I’ve raised in previous posts will find a thought-provoking history of ideas here.

Challenging Institutional Analysis and Development – Paul Dragos Aligicia and Peter Beotkke.  An overview of the Bloomington School of public choice economics, which is where current Nobel Laureate Elinore Ostrom works.

Not exactly day-at-the-beach tomes, but not exactly the weather for that, either.

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Commenting on the Berlin Wall and political institutions, Robin Hanson notes why private law doesn’t work so well in the United States:

It seems to me that the main problem is trying to invoke private law via small clauses on page 20 of 30+ page contracts – most folks feel reasonably justified in not always literally enforcing such terms. What private law needs instead is a clear deliberate solemnity like that of a new citizen moving to and then swearing allegiance to a new nation, an expensive signal showing they understand there are large consequences.

It’s interesting to note the distinction between lowering transaction costs of switching between such private providers of law, which is an essential feature of private law, yet requiring an expensive signal, which would give private law more legitimacy today. Is this a contradiction?

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