Archive for February, 2010


This weekend Peter Somerville and I will continue our abbreviated twitter debate on the concept of noblesse oblige in a long form. I’ll post the results here, but those interested in social cohesion, cooperation, coercion and social obligations are welcome to submit questions, thoughts and suggestions in the comments. We’ll get to them if possible.

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Some tasty links!

D.C. enacts cigarette tax. People vote with their wallets; city actually loses revenue. Politicos, journalists shocked.

Oh and there’s a new report, suggesting D.C. could raise $6.8 million more by adding another dollar in tax to butts. It’s nice to see policy suggestions that bear little to no relation to reality.

All evidence points to Marion Berry being a despicable human. And yet a man impervious to criticism or scandal or shame is fascinating.

“[T]he single dumbest article on Cuba in recent memory” in Playboy. If I can dig up a link to the actual article I will. Bonus video of Cuban dissident and punk rocker Gorki Aguila.

For those Mac-heads, download Google books as pdfs. Awesome!

Data suggests that firm size doesn’t have any noticeable effect on job creation. Rather, instead of the big business versus mom and pop narrative, businesses are more closely tied as a community.

Free Speech watch: Unconstitutional? Yes. Impactful? No. Pointless government? Shock.

D.C. government launches transparency website. Marion Berry shrugs; tries to snort it.

Insanely cool video, with a sweet soundtrack.

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Keith Olbermann is a racist. He’s a hate-mongering bigot who lacks any sense of irony or proportionality.

I fully support freedom of opinion, and he has every legal right to espouse his un-researched ill-tempered hyperbolic bat-shit crazy rants. Just as I have every right to think he’s an self-aggrandizing, self-satisfied asshole who can’t see past his own prejudice.

I’m not a tea partier, but I sympathize to the extent they advocate limited government and personal freedom. Freedom means the opportunity to self-select, and to form associations based on commonalities. To claim the limited government movement commonality is racism is either to purposefully set up a straw-man, or to be so dumb as to grasp the most basic and emotional response and lash out violently. Either way, how can anyone take this man seriously?

To be fair, Bill O’Reilly evokes the same reaction. Let’s get them in a gladiatorial death-match as soon as possible, then shoot the winner. I’ll bring the popcorn and foam fingers.

Note: Because of all the bad language and emotion here, please note our new disclaimer.

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Ryan Sorba’s bigoted comments at CPAC have prompted some bloggers to again raise the question of whether homosexuality is a choice.  Is it something behavioral, or predetermined by genetics?

Bryan Caplan points to some evidence that sexual orientation is highly influenced by genes.  As I understand it, it’s not determined by genetic factors, but it’s not a choice, either.  Often these debates about homosexuality are framed as differences between self-aware willful behavior and genetic determinations.  With sexual orientation, it’s neither.

What does the science say?  It’s the prenatal environment.  Scientists now actually understand how hormonal mechanisms in the womb produce sexual orientation.  This pertains to sexual preference, not behavior.  There are heterosexuals who engage in sexual activity with persons of the same sex, and there are homosexuals who engage in sexual activity with persons of the opposite sex.  It’s quite tragic when homosexuals repress their sexuality because of societal pressures, because doing so is quite psychologically unhealthy.

Of course, that sexual preference is not a choice should be completely irrelevant anyway, politically.  It is completely illegitimate to attempt to use the force of the state to prohibit any kind of consensual sexual behavior between adults.

Sorba, and those who share his worldview, haven’t escaped the morality of our evolutionary ancestors.  Modern conservatives assess the morality of homosexuality on a dimension of purity, a value which is easily explained in an evolutionary context, but is foreign to us modern liberals.

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And it was fascinating. Here’s the story. Alexander McCobin, founder of Students for Liberty, spoke yesterday at CPAC about activism and liberty.

In the name of freedom, I would like to thank the American Conservative Union for welcoming GOProud [a coalition of gay republicans] as a co-sponsor of this event, not for any political reason but for the message it sends….Students today recognize that freedom does not come in pieces.  Freedom is a single thing that applies to the social as well as the economic realms and should be defended at all times.

Next, Ryan Sorba, author of The Born Gay Hoax took the podium, and blasted the crowd for so heartily endorsing Alexander’s sentiment.

What an asshole.

I’m heartened that the booing, while loud, was limited, as were the cheers to Sorba’s rant. Judging by the crowd wide-shots, the inverse is true for Alexander’s talk. For those who care, Jeff Frazee is the leader of Young Americans for Liberty, a campus group inspired by/centered around Ron Paul.

Alexander and his supporters in the crowd make me very proud.

Update: Scuttlebutt is that the loud booing you can heard during Alexander’s speech is coming from Ryan Sorba himself. What. A. Prick.

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More Polls than BadaBing

Matt Yglesias gets snarky from CPAC.

I know, I was shocked too.

Recently Matt has been consistently tweeting some variation on this theme:

You would never guess from these CPAC speeches that most Americans think Obama’s doing a good job:http://bit.ly/F3IzuA

I’ve only seen him cite Gallup polls. Putting aside the technically-right-but-overstated “most” (52% = mandate! YES WE CAN!), Gallup has regularly been the poll where the president performs best.

Rasmussen uses much more detailed and accurate methods and pegs him much lower, but we all know how evil and biased and … Republican! Rasmussen is.

How to explain the recent CNN poll that pegs him at either 44% or 49%, depending on how the question is phrased?

Personally I distrust all of the polls, there are too many variables. Revealed preferences are more instructive than stated preferences anyway. And I think the signal that powerful democrat incumbents, Chris Dodd, Evan Bayh, et al, are dropping like flies says a lot more than a random sample of a thousand people.

Moving away from Matt to progressives generally, there’s an interesting contradictory dichotomy in the progressive mind. On the one hand there’s a belief that elites can direct society/government/the economy, while on the other, that apathetic submission to mob-rule democracy is an unqualified good.

Update – 2/19: Demonstrating this contradiction, this morning Matt tweets (without citing):

Outraged by plan to ram legislation through congress through majority vote — what happened to democracy?

On the one hand he’s arguing for mostly uniformed or poorly informed, non-technocratic majoritarian rule, on the other apparently bipartisan elite consensus.

(Aside, I don’t mean to rag on Matt unfairly, his tweets are just consistently interesting and revealing, and often very funny. I especially enjoy his basketball insights. An example of a tweet that made me laugh:

People with many different ideological points of view think I suck, demonstrating my centrist wisdom.

Fair enough.)

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Peter Somerville tweeted an interesting question, and our back and forth has been entertaining. If we continue, I’ll keep updating.

Peter: Question of the day: Is noblesse oblige incompatible with meritocracy? http://ow.ly/18cO3

Aaron: I don’t think so, it’s part of the market-produced incentive to be a good citizen. It can be condescending but not always.

Aaron: to the extent condescension offsets the good-citizenry benefits.

Peter: If you’re in the “deserving” elite, what do you owe the rest of society?

Aaron: does NO have a “deserving” component? Read it more as ‘by virtue of our position’ without regard how position was achieved.

Aaron: my point: markets morally force one to work in community without coercively forcing community. My sense of NO fits that.

Peter: Traditional elites view their status as unmerited, thus NO. If in a meritocracy you “earn” your status, that link is lost.

Aaron: but doesn’t the operative part of NO still apply? Consider Daliah/Caplan’s merit/value argument:http://ow.ly/18nJC and … how that dynamic applies. Duty to fellow man in a market stems not from god (old NO) but from fellowship of market society.

Peter: Markets change behavior… but attitudes? I am forced to buy my coke from CVS clerk, but am not forced to look out for him.

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Happy Stimulus Anniversary! Hope you’re all enjoying the jobs we saved! And your solid gold toilets, and your free taxpayer-funded golf carts! This one is rather long, but I do drop an F-Bomb if you stick around long enough.

Evan Bayh is stepping down, and blaming the poisonous partisanship on the hill. From Yahoo! News (which features consistently good journalism; the ! means quality!):

Bayh blamed the current atmosphere of intense partisanship on the need for senators to constantly campaign to be reelected to another six-year term. Citing his father, a popular liberal senator in the ’60s and ’70s, he noted that “back in the day they used to have the saying: ‘You campaign for 2 years and you legislate for 4.’ Now you campaign for 6!” He noted that the need for constant fundraising made it nearly impossible to focus on passing legislation.

Frustration over the increasing amount of money being spent on political campaigns isn’t exactly a new thing, as spending by candidates in the 2008 presidential election nearly quadrupled the amount of money spent by candidates in the 2000 election. Additionally, winners of House races in 2000 spent an average of $849,158 to do so, while House winners in 2008 spent an average of $1,372,591. Enhancing the concerns of many on the left and the right has been a recent Supreme Court decision to strike down the country’s existing campaign finance laws. Put simply, the ruling opens the door for an even greater influence of money by allowing corporations spend money directly on campaigns.

There are two ways to address the influence of money in Washington

We could spend millions more on intricate regulations, inevitably leading to a greater concentration of power in a select few, who will then be plied with even greater amounts of money to curry favor.

Alternatively, we could limit the power of all of the branches of government, reducing the incentives to lobby Washington, cutting off the flow of money.

But what’s interesting about Senator Bayh stepping down is his implied belief in the power and majesty of bipartisanship. From his comments, it’s evident that the Hoosier Senator believes in the power of Congress to lead, and that synthesizing conflicting or contradictory viewpoints can and will lead to good governance.

I don’t agree. Some of the worst bills are the most bipartisan. Sarbane-Oxley, McCain-Feingold, the egregious Farm Bills, the stimulus, TARP, the 80’s S&L scandles,  and on ad nauseam and ad infinitum. Of course on some issues bipartisan support is clearly a good thing, like defense, criminal statutes, and tax policy. The benefits here are avoiding arbitrary or biased regulation on issues that should be universal. Broadly I’m in favor there.

Where I disagree is in saying that compromise on fundamentally different beliefs can result in good government. Particular ideological beliefs of both parties shouldn’t be compromised to forward mediocre bills. If liberal’s truly believe that healthcare is an affirmative right, or conservatives sincerely hold that life starts at conception, what purpose do compromising these beliefs for political gain accomplish? The answer is in the question; political gain. Influence, privilege and money are preferred by the political class over ideals. The difference here is that these issues are primarily social and therefore subjective or personal, while the former set where I support bipartisanship are broadly universal.

Universal issues have objectively universal consequences, in ways that other issues don’t. For some getting an abortion might be unquestionably the right thing to do, for others it could be abhorrent. But equally important, there is a significant middle class where it’s an open question. Similarly, health insurance may save some (see Megan McArdle for an ongoing discussion on this issue), but the exact same level of care may not save another person suffering from the same disease; the same level of care also has varying degrees of “saved”, as anyone who knows cancer patients can attest. The issues aren’t universal in the same way as defense or tax.

Those areas of policy where compromise is illogical or politically motivated are fertile grounds for bipartisanship. Politicians want to be seen ‘accomplishing’ things, and often have little sense of what their accomplishments represent. John McCain pushed for campaign finance reform and ran on that platform for two presidential election cycles, before getting obliterated financially by President Obama, who skillfully used the rules McCain advocated to choke him.

All too often bipartisanship precludes social experimentation and enshrines one fickle majority upon the whole. Some liberals like Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes realize this. He felt that the constitution was a threat to majority tyranny, and his progressive leanings elevated that elusive creature of ‘the public will’ above constitutional constraints. He famously wrote;

If my fellow citizens want to go to Hell I will help them. It’s my job.

That may be the worst perversion of the role of the judiciary ever. I’m less offended by outright bribery than by Holmes’ complete abandonment of constitutional duty. What a fucker.

Other progressives/liberals will argue that a centralized technocracy will avoid this majoritarian fickleness, but there’s very little evidence to support that theory. Even as politically insulated a technocrat as Alan Greenspan kept one finger always testing the political winds.

The genius of American federalism is that it leaves plenty of experimentation space for competing ideas of all stripes, and allows people with limited knowledge and limited rationality to demonstrably embrace one system or another, all while bearing the responsibility for their choices. Bipartisanship, and centralization in general, goes a long way towards chipping away at that dynamic. Jeffersonian “laboratories of democracy” don’t require unanimous or cross-party support, but Madisonian faction-on-faction action.

P.S. For more proof that Holmes is indeed a fucker, among his hundreds of terrible rulings,  he held that the mentally handicapped could be sterilized by the state. Perhaps the nadir of Liberal Fascism.

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From Marginal Revolution:

(From The Rational Optimist) The subtitle is How Prosperity Evolves and you can buy it here.  The book is due out in May.  Excerpt:

In this book I have tried to build on both Adam Smith and Charles Darwin: to interpret human society as the product of a long history of what the philosopher Dan Dennett calls “bubble-up” evolution through natural selection among cultural rather than genetic variations, and as an emergent order generated by an invisible hand of individual transactions, not the product of a top-down determinism.  I have tried to show that, just as sex made biological evolution cumulative, so exchange made cultural evolution cumulative and intelligence collective, and that there is therefore an inexorable tide in the affairs of men discernible beneath the chaos of their actions.  A flood tide, not an ebb tide.

This book will be adored by fans of Julian Simon.  Ridley is an optimist about the year 2100 and one of the final sections considers whether Africa and climate change will be exceptions to the generally optimistic trends.

Sounds very interesting.

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Quoting Quotes of Quotes

PPI via Kling via Unbroken Window:

from Ed Kilgore, of the Progressive Policy Institute.

Certainly, few self-conscious libertarians have much tolerance for racism, but they are encouraging a point of view about “welfare” that has long been catnip to racists. And that’s a problem for liberals. How can an alliance last in a climate where a progressive think tanker has to look down the rostrum at that nice Cato Institute colleague and wonder if he or she privately thinks the poor are “looter scum”;

People like Wilkinson, Lindsey, and myself have indeed spoken out against “welfare” of the auto bailout and the “looter scum” of the bailed-out financial industry. On the other hand, when people criticize my pro-immigration stance on the grounds that we will be adding to the welfare burden and thereby enlarging the state, my reply is that welfare is not the state enlargement that I fear. What I fear is the state’s control of education, health care, the financial industry, and so on.Ed Kilgore exemplifies what Thomas Sowell calls “using the poor as mascots.” That is, when a libertarian opposes a statist agenda, Kilgore comes back and accuses us of being racists and hurting the poor.

I am disappointed but not at all surprised to see this attitude expressed. In fact, I am glad to see this rhetoric out in the open. If the rest of the Progressive movement wants to rally to this flag, it helps clarify the situation for libertarians.

(Prof Rizzo:) I, too, am glad this is out in the open. In fact, much of what I aim to do is get this stuff out in the open. To add one small comment, I would add that a good number of  “Progressive” critics of a classical liberal position have no idea what the underlying economics are in the first place. More often than not, the criticisms are ad hominem and not of much substance. In any case, count me among the folks the PPI gives the salute to. For the record, say what you will about the likes of Wilkinson, et al, but at least they are not, themselves, “looter scum.”

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